After months of film-to-video transfers, junior high school play recording and dog show documentation,
you finally have a chance to do your own thing. Monsters Among Us–that’s the title of your
planned epic, and you’re confident that your knowledge of scriptwriting, camerawork, directing and editing
will get you that Hollywood contract you’ve long dreamed about.
When you’ve finished your masterpiece, you shop it around to all the various buyers of
unsolicited material, but nobody wants it. This is a mystery to you, because your technical knowledge of
videomaking is without parallel–you know how to use every TBC, DVE, CG and DTV PC out there.
What’s more, your onscreen talent is without compare, all the camerawork is technically perfect and the
audio is crystal clear. Yet still nobody wants it. What could be missing?
You knew shots weren’t fitting together like some precise, oversized jigsaw puzzle. Transitions were a
little jumpy. Shot order didn’t always flow. But hey, it’s your first original effort. The finished product may
be flawed, but at least it’s finished, right? You stayed within budget, paid the cast and crew, and even
managed to stay married throughout the whole thing. So who has time for "art," anyhow?
It’s easy to forget about the artistic side of a production, especially in the editing stage, when it comes
time to put the whole thing together. Most video production literature concentrates on getting things done,
while ignoring the art, or aesthetics, of cutting a video.
This is perhaps because editing aesthetics are hard to describe. In textbook terms, you can define
aesthetics as the manipulation of various shots to affect the audience’s response to the program. Some
people like to say that aesthetics are what makes a show easier to watch. But even that is misleading
because many artists use aesthetics to shock or disorient the audience. My own humble definition goes like
this: aesthetics are what gives your video a cohesive feel, and the way you cut your production will often
influence the audience’s sense of visual and aural "correctness."
Though people often talk about aesthetics in airy, ambiguous terms, there are several hard-and-fast
techniques you can use during the editing process to increase the aesthetic appeal of your productions. Let’s
examine some of them.
In Monsters, some nasty aliens are in hot pursuit of our hero. It’s a somewhat involved sequence,
with the chase carrying the action through several different settings. As the hero runs out of his house, he
heads screen left. In the next cut, our hero must appear to be traveling in the same direction–screen right to
screen left. If he’s not, it’ll look like he’s running in circles.
The same goes for the monsters. If you cross cut from a shot of the actor running right to left to a shot of
the pursuing uglies, they too must be following in the same direction. If the next shot contains your
villainous monster running left to right, it appears as if the monster and actor are running away from each
A major faux pas of novice videomakers is to cross screen direction in editing. This practice
will steal the viewer’s attention from the story to the editing, which causes them to lose
Let’s take a worst-case scenario. While checking out your chase footage back in the editing room, you
come to the horrible realization that every time you shot the hero and the villain, you mistakenly recorded
them moving in opposite screen directions. What do you do? Give up and use the footage tapes to record
some daytime soap operas as you lay on the couch in misery?
Nope. There is a way out of this diabolical editing dilemma. But don’t think it’s gonna be easy!
Searching through your footage, look for a close-up, front shot, rear shot, still shot or atmosphere cutaway.
You’re going to insert this footage between the mismatched runners to try and keep some visual coherence
within your production.
These "found" shots most definitely don’t have to be part of the original plan. In fact, if you’re looking
for them, they probably weren’t, or you’d find them on some log sheets. I can’t tell you how many times
I’ve saved a production with some stray shot of an actor. Usually the person is standing around
looking dumb, waiting for the action of the scene to begin.
Here’s how it works. You show the hero running screen left to right. Cut to a close-up of his face as he
looks around. In the next shot, the monsters are running right to left and it’s still aesthetically pleasing. The
audience accepts the fact that the hero has stopped to gather his wits and "sees" the monsters coming. The
direction they go from there is less important, because the first runner’s action has stopped.
Coming and Going
Entrances and exits provide the same problems. If a character exits the set or a door on the right side
of the frame, be sure he reenters on the left in the adjoining shot. This is easy to goof, since often the two
adjoining sets may be miles and days apart.
Let’s consider an example from your B-grade schlock epic. The monsters have just finished off
the local grade school’s gym class. Tired, with full bellies, the motley crew decides to hightail it back to
their waiting spaceship, which is conveniently waiting right outside. The principal of the school was happy
enough to let you shoot inside of the gym, but building a spaceship in the parking lot was out of the
question. So the ship has now landed in your backyard, which is doubling as the school’s front lot.
In the scene, the monsters exit the building, with a pan shot following them out of the door, screen right.
In your backyard, the monsters should enter the shot from the left. If you’re going to try a mock-up of the
school’s gym door, make sure it’s opening action matches as well. A door hinged on the right in one shot
should be hinged on the right in subsequent matching shots. Again, stray shots can save the visual
aesthetics of the project if continuity blunders arise.
Talk, Talk, Talk
Conversations are also a stumbling point in creating visual smoothness. The easy way, of course, is to keep
both speaking actors within the frame throughout the conversation. But if you’re going for the talk-show,
talking head technique, you once again need to pay attention to screen direction.
In Monsters Among Us, for example, a witness to the aliens’ death and destruction
races to the police station to report the crime. The witness begins pouring out his guts to an interrogating
officer. The witness sits on the right-hand side of the screen, speaking and looking towards the left. When
you cut to the officer, he must be on the left, addressing the right-hand side of the screen. If not, it will look
like witness and copper are both speaking to some unknown third person.
When shooting an over-the-shoulder conversation, keep the listener’s body slightly within each shot.
This establishes a point of reference toward which the speaker can direct his dialogue. It’s a popular
technique because the method keeps both actors within the whole scene, even though you only really "see"
one at a time. If you must shoot on days when both actors are absent, a stand-in can do the trick.
Finding someone with hair that resembles the missing actor is the most important factor. You can easily
alter their apparent height by having them stand on boxes, and weight doesn’t matter because all you’ll see
is the back of the person’s head. Again, pay attention to sight lines and screen direction. Any mix-up in
these simple cuts jars the viewer and disrupts the flow and aesthetics of the scene.
Framing alternate shots within conversations is also a concern. In action scenes, it’s not vital to keep
shots similar. In fact, varying the framing makes the shot more interesting. With a normal conversation,
however, it may be unsettling to jump shot size. If you show one character in a medium close-up, over-the-
shoulder shot, the matched shot of the other character should reflect this framing. If you jump to a full-
body shot, you’ll lose the flow of the scene.
Shooting a very dramatic conversation allows you more leniency. A cut to an extreme close-up of one
of the subjects may actually add to the aesthetics of the production. Maybe your hero, in the course of a
discussion, has discovered that his wife is a monster. At the point she utters these words to him, you might
want to frame her lips or eyes in an extreme close-up to emphasize the shocking nature of the news.
Cutting Your Audio
Editing aesthetics don’t exclusively deal with the visual. Remember, sound is 50% of the show, and a bad
audio cut can be just as disturbing as an awkward visual transition.
As the monsters run through a dense forest in search of human food, it’s nice to hear some ambient
forest sounds. The sound of their feet thrashing the branches and leaves also adds to the scene. If you
suddenly drop one of these elements in an adjoining scene, you’ll distract the viewer from the flow of the
Another sound problem occurs when matched shots are recorded at different times or locations. Maybe
your hero is talking to the police chief outside of the hospital. You decide to shoot all of one character’s
lines first, then move all the gear and get the other actor’s dialogue. Due to the time of day, traffic was light
when the first character was talking. Three hours later, when you’re getting the responding characters’
speech, traffic has changed. More cars are driving by and stopping. Even an occasional truck steams
through the area.
On location, you may not be aware of background sound differences because you’re shooting the scenes
separately. The sounds of only one character can be heard at one time. But cut two of these shots together
and the difference in sound becomes painfully obvious.
Correcting this problem is tough. Leaving out the possibility of a re-shoot, your options are limited.
Some sound equalizers may help. I’ve tried to solve this condition by dropping in some added traffic noise
to the cleaner track, which worked fairly well. Whatever you decide to do, just remember: it’s
easier to add sound than remove it, and easier still to shoot it correctly in the first place.
Keep the Viewer Focused
Like I said earlier, editing aesthetics are tough to describe. They involve using a little bit of everything at
your disposal to create a believable viewing experience for your audience. They help to keep the action
flowing smoothly, keeping the viewer focused on the story content rather than on the production itself. In
short, they help to create the illusion of reality in a motion picture, encouraging the viewer to suspend his
or her disbelief for the duration of your work.
And don’t worry. If your work has aesthetic appeal, you’ll know it. If somebody tells you
otherwise, you can always beat your breast and claim that nobody understands your personal vision.
Or you can go back into the editing suite and try again.