Sometimes the best way to improve something is to step away from it. When the quest for success tempts
you to study the details, consider that new ideas and inspiration may instead come from seeing the bigger
picture. Watching from a distance may reveal more than studying carefully with a microscope.
That’s what this month’s column is all about: stepping back. Editing video gets complicated
easily. Spending lots of time wrestling with technology may slowly draw your attention away from what
editing is all about.
Why not take a moment to study some of the basic hows and whys of video editing? It might spark new
creative energy that will improve and revitalize your work.
What is Editing, Anyway?
How would you answer the question, “What is video editing?”
Would you call it electronically compiling a montage that tells a story onto a piece of videotape? Or would
you say that it’s clipping out the boring parts of a video to make it more fun to watch?
Both are good answers, but the second has that broad, less-technical approach just perfect for this
exercise. Too bad it addresses more of why we edit video and less of what editing actually is. Why
we edit is very important, and I’ll get to that in a moment. For now, though, let’s focus on what exactly we
do when we edit.
The second answer says that when we edit, we clip out the bad or boring parts of a video. Before
we can get rid of the bad parts, don’t we first need to decide which parts are good and which are bad?
That’s really the heart of video editing: making decisions to separate the shots that will end up in
the video from those that won’t. The idea or concept for the video helps you make those choices.
Think about a typical project like a wedding video. Let’s say a couple hands us some raw footage
tapes of their wedding. They ask us to condense this footage into a short video for them.
We scan the tapes and find a dozen or more flattering close-ups of the bride and groom. We also
find about half an hour’s worth of not so flattering footage.
We see shots of some audience members smiling, some crying, along with a few shots of folks
looking uninterested. In places the camera stays steady, in others it jumps and jiggles around. Sometimes
we can easily hear what’s happening, other times we can’t.
The point is that we have quite a variety of material to choose from on these tapes.
So how do we go about choosing the best shots for a wedding video? That depends on the kind of
wedding video the couple wants us to make.
For the best result, we should pick the shots on these tapes that reinforce or communicate the
overall concept or idea the couple wants in their tape.
If they want a traditional wedding tape, one that shows a pleasant ceremony with happy
participants and guests, we stick to using the pleasant, flattering images in the final tape. Shots with
frowning faces, ugly camera moves and muffled sound don’t tell the “happy wedding” story very well, so
we avoid them whenever possible.
The goal of editing is to surf all of the video and audio options to find scenes that tell the story
best. During the process, we also try to eliminate as many shots that don’t tell the story as we can.
Of course, all the wonderful wedding shots in the world won’t do much for this couple unless we
have some equipment and technical expertise to put them together on a videotape. Without careful
decision-making, however, what ends up on their wedding tape may not look so good.
Why Editing Matters
As we continue to creep toward the next millennium, we also continue to throw ourselves into the
information revolution. Count on the revolution itself throwing huge amounts of information back toward
us at an alarming rate.
The promise of 500 TV channels, (or the threat, depending on your opinion), the Internet and its
World Wide Web are just a few places where video communication will multiply exponentially.
Even if we devote every minute of a day to absorbing this wealth of video, we couldn’t possibly
watch it all.
That’s why editing matters. We need people to condense, clarify and hopefully improve the stories or
messages presented to us in these videos.
Take the 24-hour news and sports cable networks as examples. Both use video, audio and graphics
to constantly update and summarize pertinent information from around the world. At every step along the
way, someone is editing the content before it reaches us, deciding what to leave in and what to leave
While your projects are built and distributed on a much smaller scale, they’ll reap the same editing
rewards as the big folks at the networks.
Instead of subjecting your family to all nine hours of your vacation footage, why not sift out the
best nine minutes and edit it together on one tape. Maybe even add some music to spice it up even
The family will certainly sit still to watch your nine minute video. Maybe even the dog will. If you
edit it well, they’ll probably come away with the impression that the trip was a barrel of fun, which is what
you wanted to tell them in the first place, right?
The same applies for a marketing video you create for a local company. You may be tempted to
say absolutely everything you can think of about the company in the video. Avoid that temptation, and
instead, do some pre-editing.
Choose to say only the things you can support with compelling, interesting pictures. Otherwise the
video will get boring, bogged down with minutia better left for the back pages of brochures and
As you approach an editing session, remember that editing’s purpose is to clarify, condense and
improve your video’s message.
Gear May Not Matter
Video and film pioneers didn’t create editing tools and techniques so we can all enjoy more a complicated,
expensive hobby. At least I don’t think they did.
They wanted better ways to tell stories, to educate people, to entertain people. They wanted to
make communication more efficient, to boil messages into shorter, more intense packages. The tools of
film editing, and later on video editing, gave them that.
Be glad the fruits of their labor have made their way to our desktops. If they hadn’t, we might still
be watching all nine hours of those vacation videos.
The editing technology we use lets us take the edit decisions in our minds and bring them into
reality for other people to watch. Part of the satisfaction we videomakers feel is the reward comes from that
Without editing tools, you probably couldn’t create the kinds of programs you do. At least not
easily. For that reason, the editing gear we all own or aspire to own is very important in the process.
As I mentioned earlier, however, those tools can often trap you. Nifty new features, better
performance and more creative opportunities, can all combine to lure your attention toward the tools of the
trade instead of the process itself. (They can easily lure your wallet, too.)
Beware of this emphasis on technology. The truth is that while gear is an important part of the
process, the simplest editing gear in the world can create compelling videos. Provided, of course, it’s in the
hands of someone who understands the big picture.
Every piece of editing gear, from the cheapest infrared handheld controller to the most expensive
A/B roll time-code model does one thing: translate your mental edit decisions into electronic edits on a
piece of videotape. (If you’re working in a non-linear environment, the gear makes edits happen inside a
computer or on a hard disk drive instead of tape, but the general idea still applies.)
How those different products make edit decisions become actual video edits varies. Typically,
better controllers make the process easier, but all controllers can make basic edits. And basic edits are all
you need to create good videos.
Expensive editing gear does make the job easier. Instead of letting you make only basic edits, a
better controller may let you “preview” an edit before you record it. Previewing lets you see if an edit will
indeed look the way you imagine it. Should something not look right after a preview, the controller lets you
make an adjustment or two and try again until you get it right.
Even better gear can keep track of all of your edit decisions electronically, so you can come back
and re-edit a section if needed. You can also save decision lists for works-in-progress and finish them when
you find spare time.
Despite the advantages of pricey editing gear, remember to study the results and techniques of
editing as much or more than you study the tools. Focusing on tools over technique is like studying the
virtues of a hammer instead of the learning how to build something.
Early Decisions Count
You may think the video editing process happens only in front of an edit controller. Not so. Editing begins
the moment you have an idea for a video project.
Throughout the production process, you make decisions that affect the content, presentation and
impact of your entire video. Do yourself a favor and pay close attention to these early choices.
Where you decide to put the camera may influence how many angles you have to choose from
during the edit session. Poorly placing the camera around a scene may limit how well you can tell the story
later on when you edit.
Choosing if or when to start and stop the tape can affect how much “waste” footage you shuttle
through during the edit. Avoid wasting tape and time with this trick: a moment before you press the button
to roll tape, ask yourself whether the shot is necessary, or whether you’ll want to use it later. Most of the
time you’ll roll anyway, but the few times you choose not to will save a minute or two of shuttling later on.
Add those minutes up and you’ll see why it’s an important decision to make.
Making some alert decisions during the early steps in a project can save minutes or even hours
when it comes time to edit. You’ll make a better video, too.
Think back to the couple who asked us to edit their wedding video. Had they hired us to shoot the
raw footage, we could’ve made some erudite decisions about where to put the camera, what people to shoot
and how to mike the various participants. Those simple choices might have saved us an hour or two in the
edit, maybe more. Best of all, the couple would’ve still come away with a great video.
By understanding that every decision during the production process is a form of video editing, you
can help yourself become a more efficient and effective videomaker.