Simple video editing is now so easy that there’s almost no excuse for not shaping your raw footage into snappy programs that keep your viewers cheering, or at least awake. To achieve this, you need to start editing in your head while you’re shooting, in order to produce raw footage pre-designed for smooth cutting.
Shooting to edit can be a sophisticated craft, but the basics are so simple that you can remember them with just three words: "coverage," "continuity" and "cutability." So let’s add these Three C’s of Shooting to Edit to Videomaker‘s famous Seven Deadly Camera Sins (Camera Sinners, Repent! – September 2002 issue) and Seven Golden Rules for Composition (The Seven Golden Composition Rules – November 2001).
Coverage means providing the editor with enough footage to show viewers all the essentials of the place and events you’re taping. (For clarity, we’ll refer to the editor in the third person, even though you probably edit programs yourself.) Good coverage means:
Let’s run through them.
Remember that your viewers can’t see anything outside the frame. So, be sure to include an establishing shot, a wide-angle view that takes in the whole scene. (If the locale’s a big one, you may need to pan across it.) Once viewers see that the birthday girl is here and the gift pile is there and the guests are over there, they’ll have a mental picture of the whole party. When you show them details of the action, they’ll instinctively place them in your orientating wide shot.
Incidentally, the editor doesn’t have to start every scene with an establishing shot – that’s become a cliche – but a wide view to orient viewers should be somewhere near the beginning of each new sequence.
With the orienting (establishing) shot on tape, the next part of coverage involves shooting essential shots. These are shots that viewers must, or at least should, see in order to be satisfied. If you tape someone blowing out the candles, the essential shot shows the candles going out. Typically, shots are essential because they show some kind of payoff that satisfies your viewers.
Essential shots are usually one type of close shot. After a good establishing shot, move in close. Screens are small and video is a low-res medium, so viewers get more involved in a scene if you bring them up close and personal. As a rough rule, try to capture lots of medium (waist-up) shots and closeups. Tight two-shots (two subjects) also work well, and you can move back occasionally to remind viewers of the bigger picture. Fortunately, telephoto lens settings and image stabilization let you frame tightly without obviously intruding on the action.
After you’ve got your essentials, start thinking about the details. Another kind of close shot is the insert: a really close detail inserted for the information of viewers. When the wrapping comes off that special present, viewers want to see what it is. So, get a tight closeup of that model rocket box-cover picture to use as an insert.
The second Big C of shooting to edit is continuity: the apparently continuous flow of action created by cutting separate shots together invisibly. To help the editor create continuity, you need to set up your shots to match action and maintain screen direction.
Matching action means starting shot B with a repeat of the ending of shot A. By finding the same point in each shot and cutting at that point, the editor can make the action seem to flow smoothly across the edit. Since home video shooters work pretty casually, restaging action may be too much trouble, but getting the necessary footage is often extremely easy. After getting the essential shot of candles blowing out, punch in for a tight closeup on Ms. Birthday and ask her to blow them out again. Since you’ve framed off the cake and its already dead candles, the action won’t look phony.
Jumping forward to the editing stage, suppose it took her two breaths to blow out the candles. By starting with the closeup and then cutting directly to the second, more effective breath, the editor can make the action tighter and more dramatic, and viewers will never know that the first breath is missing.
When you can’t repeat the action, lose it by letting the subject leave the frame. (When the subject’s not moving, you can pan away instead.) If the end of shot A is just a quarter-second of empty frame, the opening action in shot B doesn’t have to match. This technique works just as well in reverse. By letting the subject move into the opening frame of shot B, the editor can cut the end of shot A whenever convenient. (To cover a huge mismatch or imply the passage of time, use empty frames at both the end of A and the start of B.)
Continuity also involves screen direction: keeping subjects looking and/or moving in the same direction (left or right) from shot to shot. Screen direction is a big topic; here’s just the gist of it.
Within the several shots that make up a continuous sequence, each subject should face and move (more or less) toward one side of the screen. With two subjects, X and Y often face opposite sides. To keep subjects facing or moving the same way from shot to shot, the trick is to imagine an invisible "action line" dividing the camera from the subjects. As long as the camera stays on its own side of the line, the screen directions will be consistent.
So if you start with Ms. Birthday screen right and looking left at the birthday cake, imagine an action line between the two. As long as you stay on your side of that line, your subjects won’t suddenly swap positions on the screen.
Why is screen direction important? Mainly, it enhances invisible edits. Reversing direction between shots calls attention to the cut between them – usually a big no-no.
Matching action and screen direction enhance the cutability of two shots: the ability to butt them together so that the transition is invisible to the audience. The most important contributors to cutability may be angle change and, perhaps surprisingly, audio.
Selecting successive camera angles is another big topic so here again is the short version. Every camera angle has three major characteristics:
If angles A and B are too similar in these three ways, the result is a jump cut, an edit in which the subject seems to instantly teleport a few inches.
To avoid this obvious break, you need to change at least one and preferably two characteristics from shot to shot. So, if shot A is a medium profile shot of Ms. Birthday, shot B might be a three-quarter closeup. By changing both image size (MS to CU) and horizontal angle (profile to 3/4) while matching action, the editor can completely hide the edit and turn two separate shots into a continuous flow.
So far, we’ve ignored half the information in every shot: the sound. Aside from overall poor quality, the editor’s biggest problem with audio is inconsistency: the sound changes obviously from shot A to shot B. The best way to reduce audio inconsistency is by placing a separate microphone in the same spot for both shots A and B.
Casual shooters usually rely on built-in mikes, so the first way to get consistent sound is to change camera position as little as possible. For example, to adjust subject size from closeup to medium shot, zoom out instead of pulling the camera (and its mike) farther away.
Another way (if you can get a second camcorder) is to record the entire sequence from a master shot setup that’s optimal for both audio and video, while moving the second camcorder around to capture visuals from additional setups. In post, lay down your master shot with both video and audio; then substitute video-only portions of the other shots as needed.
A simpler method is to separately record a background track. Just set up your camcorder where it can pick up birds, traffic, restaurant chatter, or whatever and record about five minutes of sound. By laying this background track under the production audio from different camera angles, the editor can smooth out cuts and differences between them.
So there’s your three C’s of shooting to edit: coverage, continuity, and cutability. Now, go forth and use them!
[Sidebar: The Three C’s of Shooting to Edit]