The Art of the Edit

When Oliver Stone turned over the massive amount of raw footage that became JFK, editor Joe Hutshing knew it would be a challenge.

“I wondered if it could even be watchable,” Hutshing says. “It was so incredibly complicated. It was like looking at a schematic for a TV set and then imagining actually watching the TV.”

From the mountain of raw footage, to the first five-hour cut, to the final three-hour-and-eight-minute editing masterpiece, Hutshing had to make decisions, consider choices and re-examine goals. This is editing.

Editing systems may range from sophisticated digital suites with all the bells and whistles to basic single-source systems consisting of a camera, TV and VCR. Still, the functions of editing remain the same:

1) to connect shots into a sequence that tells a story or records an event;

2) to correct and delete mistakes;

3) to condense or expand time; and

4) to communicate an aesthetic.

Whether you’re creating a Hollywood feature film or tightening a vacation video, the challenge remains the same: to take raw footage, and within the limitations of equipment and budget, transform it into something compelling and watchable.

A basic understanding of video editing techniques, aesthetics applications and systems should help.

Shooting With the Edit in Mind

Editing may be the final step of the production, but to make a truly successful video, you need to begin making editing choices in the concept stage. What will the overall look of the piece be? The mood? The pacing? Will you cut it to music? What kind of music?

There are several techniques that will help you plan.

Prepare a shooting script, a storyboard or–if it is not a scripted production–an overview for your program. This will be the blueprint for your production.

A shooting script lists the action shot by shot, along with proposed camera angles and framing.

In a storyboard, actual sketches illustrate each scene. It’s a good opportunity to see what will work before you shoot it.

An overview should include: the chronology of shots as they will appear in the video; approximate timing for each shot; and information about accompanying audio, graphics and titles for each scene.

Next, prepare a shot sheet. Make sure it includes every shot listed in your script or overview. Get several shots of each item on the list.

“You need a variety of shots,” says Kevin Corcoran, vice president of Pacific Media Center in Santa Clara, California. “In a basketball game, for example, you get shots of the crowd, shots of the scoreboard, shots of the referee, shots of the environment. In action that’s typically long and drawn out, you need to consolidate information. You need to have images to cut to in order to make it look smooth.”

Even in scripted productions, Corcoran recommends getting a variety of shots.

“I always try to get a wide shot and a head and shoulders shot for each block of text,” says Corcoran. “Who knows what you’ll find when you go into an edit? There may be something that bothers you with continuity in the background of a wide shot. Now you have a place to go.”

While Joe Hutshing had massive amounts of material to edit for JFK, Corcoran says the more common problem is too little material.

“Often there are large sections to be removed and no smooth way to cut,” says Corcoran. “This is especially true when you’re editing on a two-machine, cuts-only system. Ideally, you will have some other framing, another angle, a reaction or some other activity happening in the environment. If it’s a person at a podium talking, you need an audience reaction shot or two or three. You must have cut-aways to consolidate a half-hour speech without jump cuts.”

You also invariably end up with footage you can’t use, often due to the unexpected appearance of objects on tape that you never noticed during the shoot. Once, when editing the “dream house” segment of a TV program, I discovered a power supply right in the middle of the kitchen floor. Nobody saw it in the field and every sweeping pan–all wide shots–included the ugly box. Other than featuring a dream house with no kitchen, we had no option but to use the embarrassing piece of footage.

“There will always be things in shots you don’t see when you’re shooting,” Corcoran says. “Things reflected in mirrors or windows, things in dark areas of the picture. It’s important to change your framing to avoid having problems like this in the edit.”

If you will edit your video to music, select the music in advance and time zooms and pans accordingly. If this isn’t possible, shoot a slow, medium and fast version of each camera move. In general, shots should be five to 15 seconds in length. Know the pacing and shoot accordingly.

You’ll enjoy a lot more options in your edit sessions if you aren’t desperately “fixing it in post.” Taking the appropriate technical precautions saves you from having to scrap otherwise good footage due to lighting, audio or other technical problems.

“In an event, things will only go wrong,” Corcoran warns. “In weddings, for example, the light is nearly always bad. A camera light is essential, especially if you don’t have gain control. And you’ll need a lot of batteries for that light.”

Good lighting greatly enhances the quality of your videos; invest in a lighting seminar if you need more information. As a rule, the brightest spot in your picture should be no more than 20 to 30 times brighter than the darkest spot or you’ll be editing silhouettes.

You’ll have trouble in your edit if you don’t white balance several times during an event. This is particularly true during weddings, which may move from bright sunlight, to a dimly lit church, to fluorescent lights in a reception hall. If you don’t white balance, the shots won’t match–you may end up dissolving from a well-lit scene of groomsmen decorating the getaway car to a blue, blue reception.

Production Pains

Production can be exhausting, with long days of hard physical labor, but it’s vital to stay alert. On a particularly grueling corporate production a few years ago, a camera operator, who was also monitoring audio, removed his headset during a break and forgot to put it back on. Our talent, the president of the corporation, removed his lavaliere microphone to stretch, and sat down on it for the remainder of the production. Try to fix that in post.

Mikes can fall down, batteries can die, a cable can go bad. Without headphones, you may not know until it’s too late.

“If you know from your headphones there’s no hope for that microphone,” Corcoran says, “you can unplug it and let the camera mike try. It’s going to be better than what you’ll get otherwise. Nothing can kill a production faster than bad audio. Wear your headphones all the time.”

For most productions, steady images make the most sense. Always use a tripod. Hand-held looks, well, hand-held. There’s a trend right now to overuse this technique, but avoid the cinema verit or “shaky cam” look unless you’re after a strobed look or the effect is actually motivated by something in the script.

Be sure to allow for pre-roll. When you switch a camera from the stop mode to record, it rolls back several seconds before it achieves “speed” and begins taping. Allow five seconds, 10 to be safe, before cuing the talent to begin speaking or executing your shot.

Unless your edit system is very precise (plus or minus two frames) you will have trouble editing to the word, so make sure that you have two seconds or more of silence before your talent begins.

Never say “action” to cue the talent. If the narration begins too quickly, you may end up losing two seconds of narration in edit to cut out your cue. Instead, count “five, four, three…” and cue talent after a silent count of two and one.

With high-end systems, you can encounter a similar problem. If the tape is checked and action begins too soon, you won’t be able to back up over the break in control track to execute the edit.

To allow time for a good transition, instruct your talent to fix a gaze on the camera for two seconds before and several seconds after a narration. A quick, sideways glance for approval, a swallow or a lick of the lips before or after speaking may be difficult to edit out.

If you don’t have control over the talent’s timing and delivery –for example, when shooting a training session or wedding–your cut-aways and reaction shots will be critical to mask cuts. Remember to shoot plenty.

In the Frame

Good framing and composition are vital in achieving aesthetically pleasing video that is cohesive and makes sense. A well-composed shot provides viewers with the information needed to follow the story. It reveals, through spatial relationships, the comparative importance of individuals and objects, and the effect they have upon each other. It focuses attention on details, sometimes subtly, even subliminally. Good composition can also disturb, excite and/or heighten tension if the script calls for it.

You can’t fix poor framing and composition in post. A lack of head room will make your subject seem suspended from the top of the TV monitor. Framing a shot to cut at the subject’s ankles, chin, hands or hem line is an uncomfortable look that doesn’t allow “closure,” a process in which the mind fills in the missing elements.

Remember the rule of thirds: place important elements in the top or bottom third of the screen. In a close-up, place the eyes at the one-third baseline. In an extreme close-up, the eyes are at baseline of the top third, the mouth is at the baseline of the bottom third, and, through closure, the chin and forehead are filled in.

Distracting or inappropriate backgrounds are nearly impossible to work around so pay attention to every detail when you shoot. In one production, a children’s singing group performed a number in front of a blackboard. In the edit, I noticed one little girl standing directly in front of a large letter “M”–creating the look of two perfect, pointed ears. Again, saved by the B-roll.

Sometimes even balanced and thoughtfully composed shots don’t cut together well. For example: if you’re editing an interview or dialogue, cutting between head shots of the interviewer and guest, you need the heads angled slightly toward each other (to imply the interaction of the two) and off center, leaving “look space” or “nose room.” Without look space, your interviewer will appear to address the edge of the TV screen. Centered, we have no sense of the spatial relationship of the two. They could be sitting back to back.

Similarly, maintain “lead room” for your subject to walk, run, bike or drive into.

Walk the Line

One production basic that can cause major consternation in the edit suite is “crossing the line.”

Let’s say you’re shooting a parade passing in front of you, from left to right. A politician waves from a passing float, her back to you. You dash across the street and resume shooting, getting a great shot of her smiling face. When you go to edit, however, you’ll find that you crossed the line: half of your parade marches left to right and the other half marches right to left. Cutting together footage from both sides of the line will create a bizarre montage where bands and floats and motorcades seem to run into one another.

Respecting the line is especially important in shots that track movement or where geography, such as movement toward a goal post, is critical to the viewer’s understanding of the action.

Camera angles also play a role in the viewer’s ability to interpret and believe the action. Let’s say you want to show a child trying to coax a kitten from a tree. First we see the child looking up. We cut to the kitten cowering on a branch. We cut back to the child. The scene gains impact with the right camera angles. We see the child, framed left, looking up. Cut to a reverse angle shot looking down at the child, over the cat’s shoulder, with the cat framed right. The camera angle duplicates the cat’s line of vision. Cut to a low angle shot of the cat from the child’s point of view. The edited sequence is fluid and believable.

There are two kinds of continuity you should monitor for successful editing.

First: continuity of the environment. A made-for-TV movie has a scene in which a man speaks to his doctor. He wears a shirt with the collar turned up. Cut to the doctor. Cut back to the man, and his collar is flat. Cut to a two-shot and the collar turns up again. Productions on all levels are full of goofs like this one. To avoid adding blooper footage of your own, pay close attention to detail both in production and in the edit.

For the best possible editing situation, you also need to watch continuity of action. If your talent can give you numerous takes with identical blocking, you’ll have lots of editing options. Cuts-only editing is at its best when you can achieve a multicam look by cutting to different framing on action. Look for the apex of the action–the full extension of the arm, the widest part of the yawn, the clink of glasses in a toast–and use that apex as the marker to cut to a new angle of the same action.

Motivate It

Transitions should occur only when motivated by something in the story.

A cut is the instantaneous switch from one shot to another. The most common transition device, it duplicates the way we see. (Just try panning or zooming with your eyes.)

A dissolve is the gradual replacement of one image by another. Use it to show a passage of time or create a mood.

A wipe is a special effect of one image pushing the other image off screen. With digital technology, the options are nearly endless. A wipe can erase, burn, fold, kick or flush the first image from the screen. Wipes signify the end of a segment and the complete transition to a new time, place or concept.

A fade is the gradual replacement of an image with black or vice versa, used primarily to begin or end a program or video segment.

Creative editing, using a variety of transitions, is still possible on a cuts-only system. If you can’t fade in or dissolve, begin your shot out of focus and gradually make the image clear. A very fast pan–15 frames or so of light, color and motion flying across the screen–is almost as effective as a dissolve. Allowing your subject to exit the shot ends a scene with the finality of a wipe. Cutting to a static shot, such as a close-up of a flower, a sign or a building, defines and separates scenes.

For greater insight, learn from the pros. Rent a well-done video and create an overview and shot sheet.

There are also seminars and many excellent books available on framing, composition and technique. For an in-depth study of media aesthetics, look for Herbert Zettl’s Sight, Sound and Motion.

Of course, editing is a practical as well as an aesthetic skill. On to the practicalities.

Editing Systems

Practically speaking, editing is simply copying selected video from the source tape to the edit master or record tape. A wide variety of systems and methods are available.

Single-Source Editing. You can perform single-source editing from your camcorder to your VCR. Your owner’s manual will include complete directions; basically, you control the edit by pressing “play” on your source deck (camera) and pausing and releasing pause on the record deck (your VCR). The transitions are cuts only.

This type of editing becomes frustrating quickly. As the editor you must locate edit points, manually set pre-roll, start the machines at the same time and react at precisely the right moment to control the edit. Frame accuracy is usually a problem. If you hit record too soon, you suffer video noise between edits. Too late, and you lose frames on the edit master.

Expanded Single-Source Systems. The first investment single-source editors usually make is an edit controller. Most edit controllers allow you to shuttle to locate scenes, to mark in and out points, to read and display frame numbers either from a pulse-count or time code system such as SMPTE or RCTC.

These editors perform the pre-roll function automatically and start the machines together. Many systems give you: 1) the option of insert or assemble edit; 2) the ability to “trim”–add or subtract a few frames without resetting in and out points; and 3) the ability to preview your edit. Some perform audio or video only edits and interface with a computer to store an Edit Decision List (EDL).

You can also expand single-source edit systems with an audio mixer, a switcher and character generator.

Multiple-Source Systems. These give editors the capability of A/B Roll Editing. The typical system consists of two or more source VCRs (A and B), which supply material to the video switcher or computerized editing control unit. There, the material is edited, combined with effects and sent to the record VCR. Audio from the source decks is also mixed and sent to the record VCR.

Multiple-source systems allow an editor to connect two moving video sources with dissolves, wipes and other transitions.

In nonlinear systems, every frame is stored in digital form and is instantly available to the editor. Once you’ve designated an edit and transition on the computerized EDL or storyboard, the computer executes the edit instantly. You can grab a scene from anywhere in your source footage without waiting for a tape to cue. Experimentation becomes effortless.

As you move up to the more complex systems, do your homework. Read product reviews before you make the investment. Find out what peripherals you need for basic operations and efficient editing.

Investigate the availability of classes and users groups in your area. Is there a local production facility that rents a suite featuring the same system? You may need a back-up plan if your system goes down and you’re facing a deadline.

Advanced Editing Systems. These systems feature Digital Video Effects (DVE), better compression, exciting animation, special effects, pro titles and more. They are revolutionizing editing, providing greater options, accuracy and speed.

The ramping of capabilities means a ramping of complexity; you’ll need education and practice to get up to speed. The systems are relatively expensive and the technology is constantly changing. It isn’t easy to know when to make the investment. Some videomakers complain that editing functions have not been designed with editors in mind; they’re waiting for upgrades to correct this.

Again, do your homework. If you can, rent a suite and actually do an edit on a given system before you buy.

The Final Cut

It’s pay off time. You planned ahead, you paid attention during production, and now you can relax.

Because editing is going to be great fun. Enjoy.

Janis Lonnquist is an award-winning video producer whose corporate clients include Intel and America’s Funding Source.

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

Related Content