Computer Editing: The ABCs of NLEs

Today, nonlinear editing (NLE) is the common language spoken in home and professional editing suites. It’s important to know your NLE ABCs, whether you are looking to purchase a system and do your own editing or outsource your video and have it edited by a pro.

Take one part graphics, two parts audio and three parts video; add in a good dose of pre-production, sweat, inspiration and a post-production editing system, and you have the recipe for a great final production.

Things have certainly changed in video editing over the past 10 years. Gone are the days of physically cutting tape, hooking up one VCR with another and using the Record and Pause button to transfer choice clips from one tape to another or control synchro-editing. With the invention of the Amiga computer in the mid-1980s, then the Apple Macintosh and more recently, the PC advances by companies like Avid, Pinnacle and Ulead, video editing has come a long way.

From software solutions well under $200 to complete turnkey systems well over $10,000, the one thing common to every computer-based editing system is that it uses a software graphical user interface (GUI). And what some call the make-or-break elements of an edit system, the software interface tools, have come a long way since the old days.

Let’s take a look at some of the basic NLE elements.

Timeline vs. Storyboard

There are two types of interfaces common to NLE programs: the more traditional timeline editing approach or a storyboard interface. Some advanced solutions offer both timeline and storyboard interfaces.

Each has its advantages. For example, after digitizing footage from a DV camcorder via an IEEE 1394 (FireWire) cable to your computer’s hard drive, you need to consider a few things. Once the footage is on the drive, you can quickly pre-trim the fat to wind up with only the best clips. The storyboard interface is the easiest tool for this job.

Apple’s iMovie software is a perfect example of a storyboard interface. A picture icon, sometimes called a "picon" or a thumbnail, represents each clip; you can easily move the various clips into the desired order and even put transitions (also represented by picture icons) between the clips. This editing metaphor is based on the concept of pen-and-paper Hollywood storyboards used in pre-production to plan a movie. By using a simple storyboard interface, at least initially, you can quickly put the visual elements into any order you want.

Once your project sequence is in order on the storyboard, you can switch to a timeline interface. Timelines have their own advantages. Most popular professional packages feature a left-to-right editing timeline, where each event occurs in chronological order and the size of the clip is proportional to its length. This is in contrast to the storyboard, where each clip is represented by the same sized thumbnail, regardless of duration. At the same time, timeline-based editors offer an almost unlimited number of video and audio tracks that can appear on top of each other. In this way, you can play multiple video clips at the same time with effects like picture-in-picture and variable transparency. Audio clips can also run concurrently, featuring voiceovers, special sound effects and/or background music all happening at the same time. Choosing the number of audio and video tracks depends on how sophisticated your project is and how many audio and video sources you’re using. The real power of timeline editing is the ability to synchronize events in time, right down to the sub-frame level. This kind of precision is not possible with a storyboard interface.

The Opening Act

In addition to digitizing your footage, there are some things that your videos will need. If you are preparing a tape for a dubbing house or for broadcast, start with 60 seconds of color bars and a 1kHz audio tone so that a tape operator can adjust playback parameters before the video begins playing. A slate comes next with video information such as who, what and where, as well as contact information, video length and type of audio (mono or stereo, Dolby, 16-bit, etc.). Ten seconds of black typically follows up the bars and slate before your program fades in. Check with your broadcast or post-production studio for details on the specific format that is required.

Creative opening credits set up the viewers’ expectations for the rest of the video. Editing software allows you to easily use special effects and transitions to create credits worth watching. Only slightly more complex than a desktop word processing application, font size, color and style are all simple to adjust. Add in a little automatic animation and the rest is up to your creativity. There are a number of dedicated titling animation software packages, such as Boris Graffiti, readily available for more advanced effects.

Edit Bay Magic

Once your openings are completed, turn your efforts towards the actual production. Sometimes, some of the footage might not be ready for the edit session, yet you know you’ll need to save a place for it on the timeline. Creating place holders with blank footage approximately the same length as your future clips will hold their places until you later replace the blank footage on the timeline. You can continue working on your project even though you don’t have all its elements.

When you begin to edit your video, decide the order of how you plan to lay down or "edit to" the material. Will you lay down the sound first then edit the video to match the audio or vice versa? The answer depends on the type of production you are making. If you are creating a video with little or no on-camera dialog, you can lay down a bed of background music then record your voiceover narration and cut your pictures to match it.

You might grab some still photos or create some graphics to transition to and from. This will provide some variety instead of having to view a static medium shot of someone talking. You can add motion to still pictures by panning or zooming in and out on them. The award-winning PBS documentary special series The Civil War offered a stellar example of this technique.

Ain’t Technology Grand?

Today’s editing software solutions provide features and tools at a fraction of what they cost of just five years ago. But replacing a ton of old hardware with a speedy computer and some user-friendly editing software has not diminished the importance of effective story telling. Technology and technique do not replace a good story. It’s important that your video has a beginning, middle and an end, with a point of view or desired goal for the viewer.

Luckily, for less money than you might think, you have the ability to create network-caliber video that rivals that of the big boys (and girls). A relatively primitive video with the right editing can be truly effective and leave a lasting impression on your viewers. Technology’s a wonderful thing.

By knowing your NLE ABCs, you’ll know what to look for when you purchase an editing software package or be able to effectively discuss your video with a professional editor. May the edit be yours!

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