The first time someone edits a video, they often wonder how anyone can find the process fun. The equipment seems so confusing, everything moves in slow motion, and creating a simple show can take hours if not days.
If you’ve ever cursed the time it takes to edit a video, maybe you need to change your approach to
editing. By planning and making some decisions before you sit in front of the equipment, you can make
your edit sessions less tedious and more productive. Heck, you might even make them fun.
The next couple of pages offer some suggestions about where and how to streamline the complete
videomaking process so that your edit sessions go more smoothly.
Make Decisions Early
Those of you new to editing may think that in a long editing session, most of the time is spent dealing
with equipment. Edit controllers and special effects generators make editing easier and more creative, but
operating them eats up lots of time. Add the need to wait for VCRs as they shuttle tapes back and forth to
make each edit, and you’ll see why it’s easy to blame equipment for wasting editing time.
Surprisingly, operating the gear is often where we spend the least amount of time in an edit
session. Most of what we do when we edit is make decisions. We decide how to assemble different shots in
our video to best tell the story to the audience.
To find the best sequence of shots, we need to explore different ways to put them together. We
need to see how moving a few shots around can make the story funnier, or easier to understand.
Entertaining those options–and hence making those decisions–is inevitably where a major part of editing
time goes. Once we make the decision, telling the equipment to execute the edit goes pretty quickly.
Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy way to escape making decisions when you’re editing videos.
Decisions are the core of editing, and you always have to make them. You can, however, minimize the
number of decisions you need to make as you sit in front of your VCRs or your editing controller.
Start by addressing as many of the creative or aesthetic possibilities for your video as possible
before you start shooting your video, let alone editing. This little trick can dramatically reduce
how much time you spend in the edit session.
Write an outline or a script of the story you want to tell. It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece
worthy of a Pulitzer prize. It should just tell the story on one or two pieces of paper. The point of creating a
script or outline is organization, to put the details of the story into the proper order. Take some time to do
exactly that. Use a pencil and paper to make your first editing decisions.
Once that’s done, go through the script one sentence at a time. Think of an image you can shoot
with your camcorder that will complement each sentence. If it’s a line of dialogue, think about how you
can shoot who’s talking, or who’s listening. If it’s a line of narration, consider what image might enhance
what’s being said.
Also, think about special audio and visual effects you can add. Imagine what kind of music would
make the show’s opening shot more dramatic. Perhaps a sound effect can make a scene seem more real or
If you’re working on a video of your vacation, or a similar project where you can’t predict the
kinds of images you’ll get when you’re shooting, planning this far ahead may not be as easy. You can,
however, write a general outline of what images you’d like to see in the finished video. Then do your best
to capture those images during your vacation.
When you’ve thought carefully about each part of the script, transfer your notes onto a shot sheet:
a list of video images you know you’ll want to have in the video. Take this sheet with you on the shoot.
Check off each image as you shoot it. If you find yourself stumped for what to shoot next, the shot sheet
will tell you.
The bottom line when planning ahead is to clarify as much of what you want to see in the video
before you shoot a single frame. By making decisions early in the process, you can make the final editing
go that much faster.
Edit in the Camera
Another easy way to save editing time is to make edits on the shoot with your camera, not just at
home with your editing equipment. All camcorders come with one of the best edit controllers around: a
start/stop button. By using it to edit as you shoot, you can save even more time in the editing session.
Start by memorizing this rule: wasted tape on the shoot becomes wasted time in the edit. Roll tape
when the action starts, and stop when the action stops. Don’t let tape run free between takes, or when
nothing’s happening. Letting it roll wastes not only tape, but also precious battery power.
Shoot only the shots you think you’ll need. That doesn’t mean ignoring opportunities you didn’t
expect, or sticking rigidly to the shot sheet outlined above. It simply means stopping for a moment to
consider if a shot belongs in your video before you press start.
If the situation you’re taping is totally spontaneous, and you can’t possibly predict when
something worth taping may happen, then you’re better off letting the tape roll. It’s preferrable to come
home with a few great video moments sandwiched between two hours of dull video than with no great
moments at all.
But if you know what to expect, and you can choose when and where to roll tape, do it. You’ll
surprise yourself with how much editing time you can save.
A, B, C
If you’re not going to edit in-camera, don’t try to cram all of your shots onto one cassette. Although
this reduces how much tape you use, it can actually increase how much time it takes to edit all that material
That’s because videotape is linear. In other words, you can only get from point A on a tape to
point C by first passing through point B. By grouping all of the shots onto one tape, you force yourself to
waste time waiting for that tape to shuttle back and forth. The longer the tape, the greater the time
In the editing session, if you want to start the show with a shot at the head of the tape, and then cut
to a shot at the end of the same reel, you’ll have to wait for the VCR to shuttle the tape from beginning to
end before you can make the edit.
Reduce wasted shuttle time by recording video from different scenes, camera angles or shoot
locations on separate tapes. If your project is a vacation video, use a different tape to record each
destination, tour or major landmark. When you’re at home editing, instead of shuttling back and forth from
one scene or location to the next, just pop one tape out and another in.
The same rules apply if you’re shooting a staged or scripted story. By recording different
locations and camera angles on separate tapes, you only need to switch tapes to show a different angle of
the same scene, or to move to a new scene.
Done properly, the in-camera technique can eliminate big chunks of time you normally waste
waiting for tapes to rewind or fast-forward.
Learn How to Log
This kind of logging doesn’t require you to have superb balance or a nearby northwestern lake. The
logging I’m talking about is making a detailed list of the different shots and scenes that you record on a
videotape. All you need to make them is a pad and pen.
Videotape logs differ from the shot sheets mentioned earlier. A shot sheet describes what you’d
like to record on a tape while you’re shooting, while a log is an exact record of what you actually captured
on a particular tape.
A basic tape log has two things: a short description of each scene or shot on a videotape, and a
counter or time code number that marks where it starts and stops. The description tells you what’s in the
shot; the number tells you where it is on the tape. Logs are extremely useful tools that can help you
conserve editing time, and make better videos. Basically they keep you and your footage organized.
If you can’t picture how logging can improve the editing process, imagine trying to build a house
without knowing where to find the proper tools or materials. That’s a bit of what editing without a shot log
Instead of shuttling through an entire stack of tapes to find one ten-second shot, you can consult
your tape logs. Once you find the written description of the shot you want, you only need to shuttle through
one tape. If the tape log includes a counter or time code number, you can save even more time by shuttling
to exactly where the scene starts.
Although creating any form of a videotape log will help organize your footage and expedite
editing, a few hints can make your logs easier to create, and more helpful to use. A very handy habit to
learn is logging as you shoot. Make learning the technique easier by starting with a good shot sheet. As you
check off shots from the shot sheet, jot down some brief logging information in a margin.
If your camera reports either time code or counter numbers in the viewfinder, write them down. If
you’re shooting more than one take of a scene, write down the take number. If something unusual or
important happens in that particular take, jot that down, too. Even if you do a killer job of taking notes on
the shoot, you’ll probably have to do some additional logging at home or in the studio on other VCRs.
Unless you’re working with a VCR that supports time code, (which assigns a unique number to
each video frame), don’t forget to rewind the tape to the beginning and reset the counter before you start
When possible, play the tape in the same VCR you’ll use for playback during the edit session.
This assures that any numbers you record on the log will match the numbers you’ll see when you sit down
to edit. Speaking from experience, nothing will frustrate you more than realizing that an edit VCR’s
counter doesn’t match the one from the machine you used for logging.
Spend most of your time logging the good takes. Make some notes about what happens in the
shots in-between, but focus on the shots that you know are worth using. Record the beginning time code or
counter number of each good shots as precisely as possible. This will help you shuttle find the start of a shot more quickly when you edit.
As for a shot description, don’t write a novel. Some projects may not require more than a few
words, others may need one or two sentences at the most. In most cases, a simple summary that includes
the shot subject, “size”, and location or camera angle works just fine. (Angles might be low, medium or
high. Shot size can be either wide, medium or close-up.)
If your shot sheet includes a number for each shot, include that number on the log as well.
Also include the length of each shot or take. This can come in handy if you want to determine the
final length of your show. Just add up the lengths of each shot from your log sheets, and you’ll get a fairly
accurate estimate of total running time.
Those of you working with non-linear editing systems don’t need to worry about time spent waiting
for tapes to shuttle. However, you can still use these hints to expedite the editing process. If you want to get
the most benefit from a non-linear system, you’ve got to be organized.
Logging still matters in the non-linear realm, only now you have the option of visually organizing
clips into bins and groups. Instead of writing a line or two on a piece of paper, most systems allow you to
write a tag line that appears beneath a video freeze frame.
The same rules apply for what to include in the description, like take numbers or shot size. Don’t
bother with time codes or counter numbers, though–the computer takes care of those for you.
Since you don’t spend time waiting for tapes to shuttle with non-linear, you can spend more time
actually trying practice or “preview” edits. You can do this with many traditional linear editing systems,
too, but it eats even more time.
Be careful of doing “too many previews” in a non-linear environment. Trying hundreds of
practice edits of one scene or series of scenes won’t make the process move any faster, nor will it guarantee
you find the perfect edit. Know when to stop previewing and move to the next edit to keep the edit session
Once you edit a handful of videos, whether using VCRs or a non-linear system, you’ll begin to
understand how editing helps tell a story on video. That insight and experience, along with tricks like in-
camera editing and logging, will make you a more efficient videomaker.