The director of a Very Important Shoot looks out over the location of her latest scene. She’s just completed what seems to be the best take so far-and yet, something’s still not right.
Should she shoot it again? The sun’s setting, the clock’s ticking, the budget’s rising. She makes the fateful decision.
“That’s good enough,” she announces. “If there’s something wrong with it, we’ll fix it in post.”
Post, or post-production, is the realm of the editor, the person with the thankless job of creating miracles when the shooting stops and it’s time to put it all together. The editor must understand continuity, tempo, pacing, and drama, as well as the mechanics of assemble and insert editing.
Like the editor of a magazine or book, the video editor must know what to cut and what to keep-and why.
The why is always the same: to tell a better story.
Way Back When
When film was an infant there was no editor. The audience saw the film from a static wide shot with all action taking place inside the frame. Movies were nothing more than stage plays on film.
D.W. Griffith changed all that. He broke scenes into shots-long, medium, and closeup-forcing the viewer to see the part of the scene he chose to emphasize.
The technique was considered wildly revolutionary. Some people were afraid film audiences would fail to follow the action, become confused. That didn’t happen, of course, and today Griffith’s technique is so widely used and accepted it’s no longer even noticed.
Most moviegoers never even think about the fact that a film is edited. We don’t notice edits because the good edit moves the story forward without drawing attention to itself.
Nuts and Bolts
Unlike film, video editing is an electronic process where information is passed from one machine to another. No tiny strips of film, no razor blades.
In a shell’s nut, the video editor:
- Makes sure the equipment is functioning properly and adjusts machine playback to assure the quality of the video.
- Possesses a complete under-standing of editing principles, such as assemble and insert edits, tape blacking, and control tracking.
- Works closely with the director to understand the mood, tone, and feel of the show.
- Watches for problems in continuity and finds ways to fix them.
- Knows how to use avideo switcher and when to use transitions like dissolves, wipes, and fades.
- Is persuasive and diplomatic enough to convince a director to abandon a meaningless shot.
- Can work in dark rooms for long periods of time on mind-numbing repetitive tasks…and enjoy it.
You’re the video editor. Your time is worth hundreds of dollars an hour. Directors rely on your knowledge, opinion, and expertise. You know your equipment better than you know your own children.
So what do you do first thing every morning?
That’s right, you get a cup of coffee. A hot, steaming cup of joe, dark and strong as sin.
Then you’re ready to meet the director. Her video involves political corruption. The main character is a city alderman on the take. The feature shows three scenes only.
Scene #1: Alderman Smith meets with Mob Boss Jones.
Scene #2: A speech by Smith at a political rally.
Scene #3: A crowd scene outside the rally where a lone gunman waits to assassinate Smith.
The director wants the first scene to be very straight-forward. The editing should imply the meet is an everyday occurrence for both men. They’re as nonchalant as if discussing the weather.
The second scene was shot at a real political rally for a live feel and a savings of thousands of dollars that would have otherwise been paid to hundreds of extras. Her crowd shots must be matched with shots of the actor taped earlier, when no one was in the hail.
The third scene is the most interesting. As Smith leaves the hail, we see a sinister figure moving towards him. The director wants loads of Hitchcockian suspense here.
Before reluctantly abandoning you to your work, the director provides you with extensive notes on the takes she favors. She’s identified the “good takes” with on-screen slates and timecode numbers. You like this woman. She’s efficient.
Slates can be anything from a piece of paper with the take number noted to a clapboard with detailed scene information written in chalk. The familiar slap of the clapboard is for audio-synching. In film, the audio is recorded on a separate device and then mated to the visuals in postproduction. By locating the strip of film where the top of the clapboard whacks the body, the editor can match the visuals with the sound.
Of course, since you’re working with video, you needn’t bother with such claptrap.
Time-code’s your worry. Video is broken into frames, each frame lasting one-thirtieth of a second. When time-code is applied to a tape each frame receives a unique number, read by the editor with a computer.
The readout is similar to a digital clock: 00:00:00:00 (HH: MM: SS: FF for hours, minutes, seconds, frames). Using time-code the director can tell the editor exactly where the edits should occur.
You’ve met with the director and possess a marked-up copy of the script with both the good take number and time-code indicated. So what’s your next step?
That’s right, more joe. Burnt black this time.
You put your master into the record machine and black it. By recording black from a switcher or signal generator, you attain continuous time-code and control track on the tape where your final cut will be.
Each tape to be played back must be set up to color bars and audio tone, to insure that picture and audio are played back in post the same way they were recorded in the field.
At the beginning of every tape 30 to 60 seconds of color bars should be recorded just before the video. By running the color bars through a time base corrector and looking at the signal on a waveform monitor, you can optimize the signal for best color and brightness.
Audio tone is recorded in the field at 0 dB on the VU (volume unit) meter. When you play the tone back through your mixer make sure the needle is pointing to 0 dB.
Cut and Paste
You’re ready to cut.
The director shot the first scene in several ways. You have a master, which is a wide shot of the entire scene, as well as medium shots and closeups.
Through the switcher, you fade up from black onto the wide shot to establish the scene. Smith and Jones are already talking. You cut to a tight two-shot of the men; we see the city over their shoulders, through the window.
As mobster Jones talks of the importance of controlling the populus, you cut to a tight shot of him brutally crushing his cigarette into an ashtray. Then cut to a medium shot of Alderman Smith as he moves towards the window and stares out.
The pictures add information to the scene, but they can’t draw attention to themselves. The shots must flow smoothly, as if the action happened once, all at once, with several cameras there to catch each shot from a different angle.
The edits must occur in precisely the right spot. Edit too soon and the tape will seem choppy and abrupt, edit too long and the audience will snore nasally.
How do you know when to edit? That’s why they’re paying you the big money. It’s something you’ve learned through trial and error; something you feel; something you know.
To end Scene #1, you let Smith stare out the window for quite a spell. Then you cut to Scene #2: pandemonium at the political rally.
The hail is filled with Smith’s fervent screaming supporters. Cut to a closeup of Smith enjoying the spectacle. Cut back to the crowd. Cut to Smith as he walks to the podium and gestures for quiet.
As Smith delivers his speech, you cut away to shots of the crowd listening intently. As the speech continues, however, you notice the show is losing momentum. The scene’s just too long.
You decide to chop up the middle. You’ll tell the director later.
Still the scene doesn’t work. You decide to crosscutwith shots intended for Scene #3-the assassin leaving her car and preparing her weapon.
Now the scene works like this:
-Smith at podium
-Smith at podium
-Shot of parking lot, car drives up
-Shot inside car, gloved hand loads pistol
-Assassin getting out of car
-End of Smith’s speech
-The crowd goes wild
Now the scene has suspense; we wonder what the assassin is going to do.
Bringing It All Back Home
Scene #3 begins as Smith makes his way to the door, shaking hands and speaking briefly with ecstatic, weeping supporters.
As he gets to the door we cut to a handheld point of view (POV) shot from Smith’s viewpoint of the happy, jostling crowd. Cut to the assassin’s hand as she pulls the gun from her pocket. Cut to a closeup of Smith, his face triumphant. Cut to a medium shot as the assassin moves in. And shoots.
Quick cuts of the crowd scattering, screaming, Smith’s face contorting in pain and puzzlement, the assassin’s feet fleeing the scene. A young policeman pulls his gun and prepares to shoot; he’s restrained by another policeman. The camera pans to two high-ranking police officers standing silently next to Mob Boss Jones.
Smith is left lying in a spreading pool of blood, the camera moving slowly in and over him.
Sound Sweet Sound
Smith may be finished, but you’re not. You go for more coffee, but your hands are shaking so badly you slosh the boiling muck all over your pants.
Returning to the editing cavern you consider sound sweetening.
In the first scene, where Smith and Jones look out upon the city, you add some muffled traffic sounds. This noise helps cover any minor audio differences between shots. It also helps to establish location.
At the end of Scene #1, where Smith gazes out the window, you bring in the crowd sound from Scene #2. You add echo to give the sound a dreamlike quality; then when the video cuts to Scene #2, you adjust the sound to normal.
Creative little cuss, aren’t you?
During shots of the assassin in the parking lot, you allow Smith’s speech to continue, but use equalization so it sounds as if it’s traveling through the wall of the building. You also add low, sinister music after the assassin appears.
As Smith heads for the door, add happy crowd sounds and a brass band playing political tunes. When Smith is assassinated, add gunshots, people screaming, and the sound of running feet.
As Smith lays dying, repeat a piece of Smith’s speech, again with echo, this time for ironic effect.
Fade to black. Call the director.
You watch the director as you run the show for her approval, but you can’t tell how she feels about it. When it’s over she sits for awhile, thinking.
There are some usable parts, she finally says. But, for the most part, it stinks.
Time for another meeting-and more coffee.
Who You Be
What are some of the qualities of a good editor?
The patience of a saint, the endurance of a long distance runner, and an iron stomach for all that coffee. An editor must have technical aptitude and artistic flair.
British director David Lean, auteur of Bridge On The River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, is known for his fondness of editing. After two or nine years of shooting in the jungle or desert he repairs to the editing room, where he lives nonstop for some months.
Of course Lean began as an editor, of newsreels, then feature films. Ditto Robert Wise and Roger Spottiswoode. All know the importance of editing to the creation of a superior product.
Editing’s an art and a science. The person pushing the buttons must be able to see the world undergoing creation from both artistic and analytical points of view.
It’s the curse of the editor that a job well done is so invisible no one knows it’s there. So the next time you see a classic show, think about the editor-the person who put it all together. Maybe even raise a toast that way…with a nice hot cup of coffee.
William Ronat has been a professional video director and editor for more than 15 years.