Family Time: Cutting the Album

When I was exploring photography as a youth, I never forgot one of the early lessons I learned. I was reading an interview between a professional photographer and his student – and the student, on looking through the pro's portfolio commented, "Man — don't you ever shoot a bad picture?" And the pro responded: "Sure. But when I do… I throw them away."

It was a forehead slapping moment for me.

Editing Yourself

Like many people, I had the practice of keeping all the pictures I shot — good and bad. As a result, I had between 10 and 50 lousy shots in my photo drawer for every one that was halfway decent! I now understand that the essence of all editing is really just "keeping the best and throwing away the rest!"

The best photo albums are built of only the "best of the best" shots. So why isn't it easier to decide what to keep and what to leave out in our productions? One problem is that when it comes to family videos — like family photo albums — our editorial discipline is often clouded by the fact that the person editing them is often emotionally connected to the content.

Emotionally Charged

Mom is editing the video and decides to use a shot of little Johnny learning to walk. It's fair to expect that the time she spends watching this footage will be accompanied by a personal internal dialog. She's watching but she's also experiencing a flood of reminiscences — keyed to all sorts of other events, feelings and emotions that accompanied that time in her life. This ability to evoke memory and emotion is one of the most powerful and wonderful parts of creating videos. But it's a double edge sword. The same footage shown to someone without that emotional connection won't have anywhere near the same emotional punch. Because they won't have that same "inner dialog" to keep the experience interesting. They will just see a toddler walking. And they have to be forgiven for thinking "OK, the kid can walk — what's next?"

If you're exclusively creating the video for yourself and your family – then lingering on characters or scenes that have family meaning — rather than universal meaning — is fine. But the less lingering you do will make your video much more interesting to a wider audience.

Oh No! The Birthday Cake Scene!

Let's take the typical birthday party video for example. As a reader of Videomaker, you know that it's not enough just to roll the camera and "firehose" around the party. Chances are you've gotten separate coverage of all the party's highlights. You have the decorations, the kids arriving, the pile of presents, cutting the birthday cake, and lots of shots of the birthday boy or girl. You also most likely made sure to get at least quick shots of all the other kids and/or parents and relatives attending the celebration. So when you sit down to edit, how do you decide how much time to devote to your various shots?

One useful tool I've developed over the years is to translate the scene I'm going to cut into words – the fewer the better. A written executive summary of a typical CUTTING THE BIRTHDAY CAKE sequence might look like this:


    In that simple description, you have everything you need to communicate the essential nature of this scene. If I was cutting this, and needed an answer to the question, "how long should my establishing shot of the cake be?" the answer would be easy… just long enough for the audience to establish that it is a birthday cake… a few seconds at most. Let's suppose the cake has fancy writing on it and you have a high angle so those words can be read – followed by a tilt down to examine the fancy icing. That might extend the shot by a few more seconds. But that longer shot covers the first two lines in our description. Progress!

    If you hold shots that have a simple message for your audience too long, you risk making a boring video. Because your audience will quickly say to themselves, "Fine, it's a cake. I get it. What's next?" How long should it take you to establish that a cake is being cut? Won't a half second shot of the knife — followed by an immediate cut to Johnny's smiling face tell the audience everything they need to cover the next scene? Another second or so?

    The "cake in the face" bit is potentially funny. Funny is engaging for any audience — so it deserves a bit of time. Let's give a few seconds to the sequence — a few quick cuts as Johnny gets the cake in the face, and a slightly longer scene — a few more seconds – as we see his cake smeared face and everyone laughs. If it's really funny, I'd linger a few more seconds for the audience to enjoy the fun — then BYE, BYE Scene Over. Probably the "cutting the cake" scene deserves 5-15 seconds. That's it.

    Want to know how many five minutes cutting the birthday cake scenes I've seen in birthday videos?

    You too, huh?

    Now you know why so many people hate watching family videos. They're typically boring — because the person building them assumed that the person watching them cares so much about Johnny that they're willing to spend five minutes of their lives re-living the moment he cut his birthday cake when he was 5.

    Don't Be Afraid

    I know it's scary to cut out so much material that makes you so happy to watch. And, again, if the ONLY people you expect to ever watch your work is close family — then fine. Leave your scenes as long as you like.

    But let me tell you a secret about editing. No matter how good it is, footage you leave out will never matter. Because the audience will never know it existed. Remember, the best family videos aren't comprehensive chronicles — they're windows into the past. A window on one interesting moment is more powerful than sitting at a window all day long watching little or nothing interesting take place. And so it is with family videos. Our job as editors is to fill the window of our viewer's screens with interesting and compelling content.

    The more universally interesting we can make those scenes, the more people will not only watch our work — but also actually enjoy it.

    Bill Davis writes, shoots, edits, and does voiceover work for a variety of corporate and industrial clients.

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