Editing is an important part of making video. But the best edits are those that the audience doesn’t even notice.

Have you noticed how some videos move from scene to scene so smoothly it’s almost as if you don t see the edits? Your mind can recall only the story, the images or the music from these great programs. Of course, you ve also seen videos that look so disjointed and "choppy" that the story never gets going, and the images don t pack their full emotional punch. What separates these two kinds of videos is aesthetics–specifically, editing aesthetics: how pleasant or unpleasant the arrangement of the pictures appears to the human eye.

Mastering editing aesthetics is more art than science, but there are some rules that most editors agree will help you tell a better story using moving images. Follow those simple rules and you can make the story in your next video flow effortlessly across the screen.


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Know the Tools

In certain ways, editing a video is similar to building a house or a piece of furniture. To do the job, you need a certain set of tools. To do the job right, you need to know how and when to use those tools. To edit video, you have a set of editing tools called transitions. The secret to making great video is learning when and how to use them.

Transitions help you tell a story with video. Each video transition sends the audience a subconscious message about what’s happening on screen. By choosing an on-screen transition that supports what’s happening in the story, you make the video easier for an audience to follow.

The cut is the simplest of these transitions. It inherited its name from the way film motion pictures are edited: by physically cutting the mylar film and reassembling it using splicing tape. On screen, a cut appears as an instantaneous change from one scene to another within a program. Your mind reacts to a cut the same way it reacts to eye blinks. Each eye blink clears the current mental image, and prepares your mind to process a new one. Blinks punctuate your visual study of the world around you. The cut edit mimics that behavior. It uses a familiar visual technique to present a story to your audience.

Cut edits are still the tool of choice when you want to tell a story with moving images. They ve survived the tests of technology and time for one major reason: they re invisible. Sure, you can spot when one scene cuts to another in a video, but notice that the cut itself has no tangible characteristics. Because it’s hidden, it’s less intrusive aesthetically than other types of transitions, and perhaps less likely to distract the audience from your story.

Technology Takes You Beyond Cuts

In addition to cuts, many special effects generators (SEGs) and switchers let you create more elaborate visual transitions to get from one scene to the next in a video. The dissolve is the most popular electronic transition. It’s a gradual blending of two images as they transition from one to the other. In visual storytelling, dissolves most often mark the passage of time, or a change of location. The duration of a dissolve will affect how the audience reacts to it. Longer dissolves will slow the pace of the video, shorter ones will keep it moving quickly. The choice for you depends on the mood and pace of your project.

Fades are a type of dissolve that typically mark the beginning or end of a scene. The fade has roots in theater, where stage lights slowly turn on and off to signal the start and end of acts in a play. In a video, fading "up" from black to a title or moving image often signals the beginning of a sequence. Fading "down" from a scene to black commonly ends one.

Wipes, which are animated geometric patterns that work as visual transitions, give you a creative way to get from scene to scene. Instead of blending images together, like dissolves or fades, wipes use moving shapes and geometric patterns to reveal new images. The patterns may be simple, such as horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. On better switchers or SEGs, you ll find more complex wipes. Venetian-blind wipes and circular clock wipes are good examples. Some SEGs may also let you use shapes like stars, hearts or other objects as wipe shapes.

As transition devices, wipes work best when they accent or enhance the action in a scene. In a wedding video, for example, a heart-shaped wipe is perfect to signal the emotions of the event. For videos about cars or motorcycles, circle wipes between scenes can suggest the spinning wheels of the vehicles in your program. You can use vertical wipes like theater directors use curtains to mark the beginning and end of a segment. Wipes from left to right across the screen can communicate the passage of time. Think of this technique as the visual equivalent of saying, "Later that day…."

Digital special effects encompass an incredible array of transitions, including slides, squeezes, zooms, page turns, strobe and mosaic, to name just a few. Each can have a pronounced visual impact on your story. If you choose a digital transition that fits the mood and pace of your story, it can add just the right amount of spice. If you choose an effect simply because it looks neat, you ll probably wind up confusing the audience. And be careful not to overuse digital effects in a program. Too many squeezes or strobes can completely distract the audience from your story. In most programs, a handful of digital transitions is all you need to add some sizzle and move the story along.

Start With the Cut

Since the cut is the one type of edit almost all of you can make, it’s the transition you should start with when trying to improve your videos.

But beware of the jump cut. A jump cut is a cut from one scene to another that is very similar. It is very distracting. You can cause a jump cut by cutting from a scene at one camera angle to another shot of the same scene from a similar camera angle, or by cutting from a shot where the subject moves in one direction, to a shot where the subject moves in the opposite direction. In either case, the effect of the cut is that the subject seems to "jump around" inside the frame, hence the name. Jump cuts leave viewers confused and unsettled. Make it your editing goal to avoid them.

The easiest way to fix jump-cut problems is with cutaways. Cutaways visually move away from the main storyline for an instant to show details about a different but related part of the story. They give you a great way to "hide" or eliminate jump cuts. Although a cutaway interrupts the flow of the main visual story on screen, it leaves the story intact in the viewer’s mind. As long as the cutaway itself is short, usually a few seconds or less, a viewer will perceive that whatever happens in the cutaway appears to happen simultaneously with the main story. You can use that effect to your advantage to show the audience extra details about your story while avoiding jump cuts.

Another way to solve a jump-cut problem is with a neutral cut. Instead of cutting away from the action with a cutaway, use a neutral cut to diffuse the edit’s jolt, yet stay with the main action. In a neutral cut, also called a z-axis cut, you cut from a shot where the subject moves across the screen, to a shot where the subject moves either toward or away from the camera. Aesthetically, the neutral cut diffuses the jolt of a directional jump cut. It lets you cut scenes with action moving in different directions without disrupting the action or confusing the viewers. If you sandwich a two- or three-second shot of a group of runners heading away from the camera between two shots of them taken from different directions, the action will appear continuous, moving in the same direction.

Hiding the Cut Edits

A trick called a split edit can help make your cut edits even more transparent.

In split edits, the sound from a scene cuts in either just before or just after the picture. Edits with sound first are called audio-lead-video splits. Those with picture first are called video-lead-audio.

You may recognize the split-edit technique from news programs and documentaries on television. In them, you often hear the voice of an interviewee a moment before you see him. Hearing his voice first smoothes the visual transition to the interview segment. It’s almost as if you lure the audience’s attention to the sound of the interviewee’s voice, and then sneak in the visual cut when they re not looking. It’s a slick technique, and documentary editors use it regularly to get back and forth between interviews and narration.

Split edits can also hide minor flaws on your raw footage. If you bumped the camera during the first few seconds of your interview, an audio-lead-video split can keep the audience from seeing the bumpy footage.

All edit controllers can make cutaway- or neutral-cut edits. But you ll need a more advanced controller if you want to make an automatic split edit, where the controller handles the "overlap" of sound and picture for you.

With a standard controller, you can simulate the split edit by making two edits. First, edit the complete interview clip into place. Then go back and insert a video-only shot to overlap the cut to the interview as little or as much as you need.

When to Use Different Edits

As a rule, cuts are the best edits. A fancy visual effect every now and then can enhance the video. But keep in mind that wipes, dissolves and other special effects leave a mark on your program, and in the mind of your viewer. A barrage of slick edits may look flashy, but it can also draw attention away from your story and toward the edits themselves. Use digital effects sparingly to accent particular moments or events.

A good way to learn more about editing aesthetics is to study major motion pictures. Most use the basic cut to tell the entire story, with an occasional wipe or fade to help mark major events. You can greatly improve your projects by adopting the same techniques.

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