The best video editing programs bend over backwards to help you learn them. You get paper manuals, digital references, CD-ROM tutorials, training videos, sample projects and hot links to Web-based assistance. One or two fuddy-duddy companies even offer phone numbers answered by humans. Sooner or later, these helpers can teach you everything you need to know about operating their editing software. But not one of them teaches you how to make a video.
All those dandy training aids are like the book packed with your Acme Giant Carpentry Kit, which explains how to use every tool in your shiny new chest, but doesn’t teach you to build so much as a breadboard, let alone a lawn chair or a house. The sad result is that too many folks who made boring incoherent video with their camcorders and VCRs now use editing software to keep right on making boring, incoherent programs. The only difference being that these are now digital boring, incoherent programs.
The cure? For starters, this magazine offers monthly articles on video production techniques, with a lot of emphasis on editing, including this monthly column dedicated to editing techniques. To put these techniques into context, it helps to understand the basic principles that underlie them. With these fundamental principles and the editing techniques they support, you can tap the power of your computer-based editing system to make programs a pro would be proud of.
Cutting to the chase, here are those basic editing principles:
1. Structure. Without a coherent organization, a video is not a program but only a jumble of shots.
2. Simplicity. The better the content, the simpler its presentation tends to be and vice-versa.
3. Brevity. No matter how fine your program may be, no one else is as fascinated with it as you are.
4. Pace. Viewers can digest images extremely fast. Throw your audience new images frequently.
5. Variety. Even at a dizzy pace, too much of the same thing is deadly; and "too much" happens a lot sooner than you might expect.
With our list of principles in front of us, let’s look a bit closer at each one in turn.
Your show is a failure if viewers respond, "And your point is…?" Every video needs some form of organization to give it purpose and direction. Programs like training videos have their subjects, and often their structures, built right in; but what can you do to organize Susie’s 16th Birthday or Thanksgiving at Grandma’s?
One approach is to give the program a working title that announces a theme, like The Great Driver’s License Birthday or Grandma Goes Vegetarian. All of a sudden you have built in organizers to guide your shooting and editing.
Even if you don’t think up a theme before you shoot, you can often find one when you edit. Were your vacation skies gloomy and gray? Call your video A Good Trip in Bad Weather and start each sequence with a visual reference to leaden skies or pouring rain. The repeated motif will help tie your show together nicely.
Editing a similar travel project, I noticed that, quite by chance, I kept appearing in different chapeaux: an Outback stockman’s hat, a trucker’s cap, a floppy fishing sun model, etc, etc. In the finished show, I made a freeze frame of the first appearance of each new headgear with a supered title like, Hat Quest Continues or Is This Finally the One? This corny running gag provided all the structure my modest family video required.
Digital newbies are subject to two fatal temptations. First, because they suddenly have the technical capacity to make a feature movie, they think they can make a feature movie. As a former high school teacher, I can’t tell you how many student epics I’ve babysat that were planned to look like Gladiator and ended with amateur actors duking it out on a volleyball court.
Any video more ambitious than a weekend snapshot is work. It can be fun, satisfying work, like say, a hot tennis game, but hard work nonetheless. If the projects you plan are too complex, the resulting videos will be disappointing or never get finished. So begin with simple program concepts and work your way toward more complex efforts.
The second digital tempters are bells and whistles: all the zippy transitions, whizzbang special effects and multiple video/audio tracks just begging to be played with. Resist their entreaties. Making digital whoopee may be a blast for the editor but the results are often confusing, irritating, boring or all three at once for the viewer. Instead of showing off your new digital tricks, use formal elements strictly in support of content. After all, that content is the reason for your show’s existence. Your audience can see better digital fireworks during breaks on the six o’clock news.
Make it snappy. How snappy? As a rule of thumb, five minutes tops. For one thing, short plus simple equals practical: you’re far more likely to finish shooting and editing short projects than long ones. For another thing, your viewers are more likely to remain alert and receptive, not to mention present.
What if you shot five hours of tape on your Hawaiian cruise? Sorry. No matter how much it kills you, cull it down to five minutes. All right, maybe ten, but no more than that. You can take it as an iron law that no one else on the planet is even ten percent as interested in your footage as you are. Give viewers only the very best of the very best of those five hours and they’ll be pleasantly surprised and lavish in their praise. Force-feed them everything you want to see and you’ll say Aloha forever to that group of viewers.
Even if your Hawaiian epic is as fast as a war canoe, it can still act like Novocain if it’s nothing but, well, fast. Pace is not synonymous with speed. Pace concerns both the rate and the rhythm of your program material. Just as a succession of similar sentences grows boring, a string of similar shots feels quite dull and mechanical.
So if you assemble a lightning montage of Hilo shopping, follow up with a leisurely survey of lunch. Then perhaps a brisk anthology of the afternoon on a black sand beach and a languorous, tropical sunset. In this respect, a well-paced video is like a musical composition, constantly varying in its speed and energy.
But, you protest, we went wind surfing right after shopping; that’s two fast sections in a row. Hey, who cares about when you did what. Move the wind surfing to after lunch, to provide a relief from the speed of the shopping sequence.
The virtues of variety go beyond pacing. It’s good to shuffle subject matter as well as sequence intensity. Here again, the trick is to free your mind from the real-world chronology of the original events and re-sequence them to deliver a fresh topic every couple of minutes.
That’s right: every two minutes or even less. In a typical ten-minute program, divide it into five to seven sequences. Does that seem way too short? Study commercials to see how much content can be delivered in 30 seconds.
By now, the underlying moral should be obvious: to keep your audiences interested in your shows and coming back for more, make your videos short, sharp and lively. And keep in mind that the awesome capabilities of your new digital system should operate in support of, not instead of, solid content.
The Hawaiian vacation’s easy because there’s so much to do; but what if you’ve backpacked the Great Smoky Mountains instead? Hike, camp, hike, camp, hike. In fact, a hiking vacation offers an amazing variety of subjects, but it’s up to the director to find and tape them. Apply the principles of structure, simplicity, brevity, pace and variety and watch the magic of organization shape your video.