Video Editing Without Software

Perhaps you’ve cabled your camcorder to your VCR and tried to edit one or
two videos, and now you wonder if it’s really worth the hassle, because:

  • The first few seconds of every shot were completely missing, or
  • The opening seconds of several shots were marred by wavering rainbow lines,
  • When you replaced a shot in the middle of your tape, the start of the
    following shot broke up into lines and visual garbage.

These are common gremlins that interfere with crash cutting. Crash
cutting, or "two-fingered editing," is editing by simply copying
selected shots, in order, to a new tape.

To ensure that we’re talking about the same thing, take a look at the crash
cutting edit setup in figure one. The VCR used to play back your original
footage is called the source deck (your camcorder works fine for
this purpose). The VCR used to build your program is called the assembly
. Your assembly deck is probably your humble, hardworking home VCR,
on furlough from playing rental movies.


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Actually, bare-bones cutting systems work well if you know how to get around
their limitations. Let’s start with the easiest problem to work around:
restoring the first couple of seconds to the start of every shot.

The Rundown on Runup

A VCR never starts recording instantly. If you transfer footage by simultaneously
pressing PLAY on the source deck, and RECORD on the assembly deck, playback
on the source deck will start at once, but your tape in the assembly deck
won’t begin recording for another one or two seconds. As a result, those
first seconds will always be missing from the edited tape.

To avoid this problem, you first need to figure out how long the recording
delay (called "runup") is on your particular VCR. There are ways
to calculate runup precisely, but let’s keep it simple: start by assuming
a 1.5 second recording delay and then adjust the time you wait between starting
the assembly deck and the source deck by trial and error. Here’s how to
do it:

  1. Position the assembly tape at the last frame of the shot before your planned
    edit(using slow motion controls, if you have them) and press PAUSE. Then,
    press RECORD on the assembly deck so that the readout (on the deck or TV
    screen) says RECORD/PAUSE.
  2. Position the source tape on the first frame of the shot you want to put
    into your edited tape and press PAUSE. Then, reset the counter to zero,
    and rewind the source deck to negative ten (-10).
  3. Place one finger on the PAUSE or PLAY button of each deck (some brands
    of VCRs resume playing or recording by pressing PLAY instead of pressing
    PAUSE a second time).
  4. Start playback on the source deck, and eyeball the moving counter: -10,
    -9, -8, -7, -6…
  5. Just after minus two unpause the assembly deck.

If your deck has a two second delay, actual recording will begin when the
source deck hits 0, which is the first desired frame of the new shot. If
it doesn’t start recording until say +3 you’re still ok. The edit started
after where you wanted, you can just try again. But, if it started on 1
you’re in trouble. You’ve just lost a second of your program; you may have
to start over. You should practice on a test tape and get your timing down
as well as possible before trying to edit an important program.

With experience, you won’t need to zero the source deck counter, and you
can start your countdown wherever you want to make an edit. For example,
if the shot you want to put into your tape starts at 5:14, and your deck
has a two second delay, back the source tape up to 5:04, count down from
there, and start recording at 5:12.

This sounds more complicated than it is to do. Try it a few times, and you’ll
soon find you can precisely begin recording where you want. So precisely,
that you can have a door start opening at the end of one shot, then, in
perfectly matched action, continue its swing in the next shot.

The End of the Rainbow

So, the runup problem is easy to solve. Unfortunately, the problem of putting
a shot in the middle of a program that ruins the picture isn’t as easy to
fix. In fact, the only simple solution is: don’t try to replace footage
in the middle of the edited program–at least not on regular home equipment.

The reason: before it records a shot, the VCR erases the part of the tape
it is going to use. Making sure it’s nice and clean. Unfortunately, it erases
a few seconds beyond the end point of the new shot. That’s no problem
if the rest of the tape is blank; but if some video is already recorded
there, the VCR erases its opening seconds, leaving the garbage you see when
you play it back (Figure 2).

What about the problem of wavering rainbow lines marring the opening of
brand new shots (Figure 3)? Most home VCRs cannot avoid them. Your only
choice is to ignore those brief rainbows. Otherwise, you couldn’t edit your
raw footage at all.

Or could you?

If you’re willing to invest $400-$600 in a new VCR, you can get one with
flying erase heads. Decks with flying erase heads make perfect, rainbow-free
edits every time. The more expensive decks are fitted with special recording
controls called INSERT and DUB, which let you replace shots in the middle
of a show! By using DUB, instead of RECORD, you can replace the sound without
disturbing the picture (great for music or narration). Or, by using INSERT,
you can replace a section of picture without erasing the existing audio.
Most VCRs with flying erase heads also let you use the INSERT and DUB features
together, to replace both picture and sound.

If you don’t want to buy a new VCR, don’t worry, you probably have flying
erase heads already–on your camcorder.

Reverse the Flow

Most consumer camcorders are fitted with flying erase heads, and all but
the cheapest ones will function as VCRs. By using your camcorder as the
assembly deck (instead of using it as the source deck,) you can make rainbow-free

To take advantage of these features (and other features built into your
camcorder like fade and wipe transitions) simply cable your editing setup
in reverse (Figure 4).

Using your camcorder as the assembly deck works well with VHS or VHS-C.
This is because you can play the camcorder’s tape and the final edited tape
in your home deck.

This process is more difficult with 8mm and Hi8 format camcorders. Your
regular VHS deck can’t play tapes from these formats. To edit on you camcorder,
you must:

  • Copy your original footage to a VHS tape for playback in your home deck.
    This is a second generation tape, and suffers a loss of quality.
  • Plug your camcorder into your TV to play the final edited tape.

But if you shoot 8mm, you are probably already playing tapes back from your
camcorder, so this slight inconvenience won’t bother you.

As long as you are willing to use these tips when crash cutting, you can
have decent-looking, glitch-free edits–without buying any new equipment.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.