When the good guys chase the bad guys, theater and television audiences know it’s not the other way around.
On the surface, the anatomy of any such visual sequence might matter little to the average viewer. In the trenches of successful film and videomaking, however, attention to image structure and composition is well-grounded: General recognition of a language of moving images has evolved over the 70-odd-year history of cinema and TV.
Successful writers, directors,and editors know that effective visual storytelling-whether for a Hollywood epic or ar at-home backyard movie-relies on some basic rules of visual grammar.
Shooting to Edit
Serious video and film directors “shoot to edit”-that is, they accumulate sounds and images with the intent of piecing them together later. Although it may seemboring when viewed in raw form, the footage ultimately springs to life when edited together.
Shooting to edit doesn’t mean you must have every single edit planned before you start the camera rolling, but it does require having a sense of what you’ll need later in order to edit together a good production.
ood editing requires good shooting. You won’t just happen to have all those shots of the audience unless you specifically made it a point to get them during that lecture. You won’t know exactly where the cutaways will need to be inserted, but you’ll have them available if you remembered to get them.
The editor is, in effect, the video seamstress whose goal is to connect different pieces of material together in such a way that no one notices the seams-one of many important aspects of the art of visual storytelling.
Scene of the Crime
Film and television programs usually begin with an establishment shot, to tell the viewer where the story’s taking place.
For a wedding, the establishment shot might be simple: a single outdoors shot of the church or synagogue.
In the case of a feature film or TV show, it can be a complex series of shots beginning with wide aerial views of a city, ultimately leading to a particular window in an office building where the action is about to take place.
The technique of using a wide-angle establishment shot to indicate where the action takes place can be implemented each time your story shifts venue.
In general, try editing each new scene so that it opens with wide shots, giving a broad perspective of where the characters are in relation to each other and their environs. Then move into medium shots and closeups of their actions.
For a backyard barbecue, you might first show the overall view of the yard from a neighbor’s porch or your roof. Then a series of medium shots showing people from the waist up-Mom preparing the meat, Dad lighting the fire, the kids fighting over the hula-hoop– reveals a family busy with preparations.
Closeups interedited with the medium shots contribute texture and detail: the molding of meat into patties or a match igniting the charcoals.
The establishment shots needn’t be the first thing you record with the camera; through editing you can rearrange the sequence at will. The important thing is to get the shots you’ll need.
Parts of Speech
It may sound simplistic, but every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Editing imposes this structure even where it may not really exist in real life. You should introduce your characters at the beginning, develop them in the middle, and bring them to some kind of Conclusion at the end.
Even the most humble home videos can follow this structure. If you’re shooting a family vacation, begin with the minutes of ocean waves doesn’t mean you must use it all! Generally speaking, the shorter each segment, the better.
Lastly, remember to include an ending-to wrap up the videotape, not necessarily your “story.” The conclusion of your video production is merely a convenient way of saying good-bye to the audience; don’t worry about drawing overall conclusions.
Often, when a story really has no natural ending, you must create one. Think of how many times you’ve heard a TV news report ending with the lines “Only time will tell” or “Now it’s up to the legislature (or courts or jury) to decide.”
If you’re taping a wedding, shoot the bride and groom sailing off into the sunset. At your backyard barbecue, a shot of the cleanup squad stuffing paperplates into garbage bags might help tie up the story. If more time must pass for additional research or before ramifications can be assessed, say so.
Visually, you can create an ending feeling by using another wide shot, like the establishment shot: We’re now leaving the story location… . Since editing allows you to shoot out of sequence, it’s often most convenient to record openiug and closing shots at the same time.
Jump Cuts and Cutaways
Suppose you’ve videotaped a lecture, and your material to edit is all “talking head”-a medium closeup shot of the person speaking. You want to condense the 90-minute speech to a more tolerable 20 minutes.
Whenever you edit from one point in the lecture to another, you will see a “jump cut.” The speaker’s face will suddenly be in a slightly different position, the hands will seem to have suddenly jumped from one place to another.
Visually, the edit will be extremely noticeable, even if the audio edit sounds smooth with one sentence ending and a new one beginning.
For many years,jump cuts were universally avoided in professional film and TV work. But in the 1950s, French “new wave” filmmakers deliberately began incorporating jump cuts to make audiences more conscious of editing.
These days, jump cuts are used to convey a sense of reality, frequently in “hidden camera”-style commercials for a true-to-life documentary effect. However, videomakers wanting their productions to have a slick look should avoid jump cuts whenever possible.
The “cutaway shot”-usually a picture-only edit-is the simplest solution to eliminate jump cuts. After editing the end of one of the speaker’s sentences to the beginning of a new sentence, you cover over the jump-cut by cutting away to a different picture for a few seconds.
The “reaction shot,” almost always recorded out of sequence and edited in later, is the most common form of cutaway. In the case of the lecture, it would show the audience-either in aggregate or just a few people nodding their heads and seeming rapt with attention.
TV news reporters use reaction shots all the time to cut away from their interviews. A reporter might follow a basic question (“Are you a corrupt politician?”) with several follow-up questions.
Later, when the interview is edited, bits of each answer can be pieced together to sound like a single coherent answer to the original question. The resulting jump-cuts are eliminated by editing in reaction shots of the reporter nodding or taking notes.
Since news crews usually work with just a single camera (except for big-money productions like 60 Minutes), often these reaction shots are recorded after the interview is over. The cameraman simply changes the camera’s position to record shots of the reporter.
The reporter then re-asks the main questions, which are later edited in place of the original questions to give the appearance that a camera was trained on the reporter throughout the interview.
Cutaway shots can be inserted to illustrate whatever the speaker is talking about. For a lecture on homeless Americans, you could cut to shots of actual homeless people on the streets. If the lecture is about a new artificial heart pump, cut to a drawing of the device or a shot of the working prototype.
Cutaway shots should usually last no more than two or three seconds, unless they’re particularly complex or compelling. Avoid repeating the same ones.
For audience reaction shots, get several different closeups of people watching, as well as various medium and wide shots of the whole audience.
If you’re using diagrams and subject-related cutaways, get several of them and try to insert each at the most relevant points of the lecture.
Intercutting between two or more different events-creating simultaneous action-lends a sense of tension and excitement.
Suppose you’re editing 20 minutes of tape shot during a family barbecue. The first 10 minutes show the kids tossing a ball around. Then there’s five minutes of your spouse cooking the burgers, and five minutes of table chatter as everyone eats.
After editing together an appropriate introduction, you can spice up the production by intercutting between your spouse and the kids.
Start with your spouse’s handling of the raw meat, explaining the special recipe. Then cut to the kids picking up a ball and throwing the first few tosses. Then cut back to your spouse placing the patties on the grill. Then back to the kids falling all over each other as they try to catch a wild throw. Back to your spouse flipping the ground beef over. Then to one of the kids imitating a major-league star. Back to your spouse preparing buns.
At the end of the sequence, you can bring the two events together when your spouse calls the kids to the table to eat. Now cut to the table-chatter segment.
Even if the kids actually played ball two hours before your spouse started cooking, the intercut editing will create the feeling that these two events occurred simultaneously.
Similarly, you can edit recurring visual themes into your production to set a mood or add a comedic element.
Your vacation footage might include 20 minutes of ocean waves lapping up against the shore, a sequence most viewers would find at least mildly boring.
Rather than eliminating it all together, however, you could intercut short five- or 10-second wave segments between each day’s events. The waves serve as visual punctuation to separate scenes, suggest that another night had passed, and create an overall watery mood.
Along the same lines, suppose every time your family wanted to stop to eat, the kids argued over whether to patronize HoJo’s or Pizza Hut.
By interspersing five or six such fights (or just a single fight divided it into five smaller parts) throughout the final edited production, the kids’ incessant bickering offers a comedic element.
Consistency’s the Key
Screen continuity is another important editing consideration that must be thought through beforehand as well as during shooting.
In a nutshell, it amounts to this: If someone starts out on the left side of the screen, keep em on the left. If someone else is on the right, keep them there.
In a two-person interview, for example, you’ll often shoot “over the shoulder” of the person asking the questions to show the face of the interviewee.
If the back of the questioner’s head is on the left and the interviewee’s face is on the right, then you should maintain the same relationship when editing in the reaction shots. The back of the interviewee’s head should now be on the right, the questioner’s face on the left.
Remember the “180-degree rule” while shooting: When you first set up the camera, imagine drawing a line through the heads of the two people. Imagine a semicircle around that line, representing an arc of 180 degrees.
As long as you keep the camera positioned anywhere in the semicircle, you’ll maintain screen continuity. Crossing over the imaginary line will reverse the left-right relationship.
When editing, you can cover over breaks in screen continuity with neutral cutaway shots, which don’t show either of the subjects.
Editing chase scenes offers a classic exercise in maintaining screen coutinuity. If the good guys start on the left, chasing after the bad guys on the right, then all subsequent shots should show both good guys and the bad guys running toward the right of the screen. When editing, maintain this direction in wide shots, medium shots, and closeups.
Screen direction can be changed in either of three ways. First, you can show the actual characters changing direction: by turning around a corner, for example.
Secondly, you can show the switch in perspective by physically moving the camera from the first position to the second while the tape is rolling (difficult to do smoothly with low-budget tripods and dollies, however).
Finally (and usually most easily), you can “switch edit” from a series of rightward-moving shots to a series of leftward-moving shots by culling to a neutral head-on shot in between.
If a man is first shown running to the right and you want to edit to a shot of him running to the left, you should first cut to a shot of him running directly towards the camera (neither left nor right) and then cut to the changed direction, or to another shot not showing him at all, such as his point of view.
Cutting On Action
To hide the seams of your editing, make your cuts immediately after an action
Let’s say you have a variety of wide, medium, and closeup shots of a lecture speaker. Instead of using cutaways, you can avoid jump cuts by editing between different views of the same person. The size of the person’s face must change dramatically from one shot to the next-such as from a wide shot to a closeup.
Suppose the speaker drinks from a glass of water throughout the lecture and you want to cut between a wide shot and a closeup as he pauses to take a sip. You’ll really be culling between two different occasions where he sipped the water, but if he used the same hand and stayed in pretty much the same position, the edit will look fine.
Start with the wide shot; then, just a moment after he begins picking up the glass, cut to the closeup of him bringing it to his lips. Culling on action not only helps “cement” the two pieces together, it also helps you compress time.
You needn’t show the raising of the glass through the air,just the beginning of the action (in the wide shot) and the end of the action (in the closeup).
If you study the editing of TV commercials in slow motion, you’ll notice this technique used repeatedly.
Zoom Spells Doom
Without doubt, the single most common violation of the basic rules of moving-image grammar by hobbyist videomakers is overuse of zoom lenses. Incessant zoom-ins and zoom-outs can be nauseating to watch. Unless used to convey a sense of action, they’re usually irrelevant and should be edited out.
In general, it’s almost always better to cut (edit) from a wide shot to a medium shot or closeup than to zoom between the same shots.
Try this experiment as proof: First, shoot a wide shot of several people sitting in your living room, zooming and panning to closeups of each face.
Second, start with the same wide shot of the people, but then pause the camera without zooming in. Zoom in on one person’s face, and start the camera rolling again. Stop recording after a second or two, frame the next person’s face, then start rolling again. Do the same for each subject.
Comparing results, you’ll no doubt agree that the second approach ,in which you suddenly cut from a stable wide shot to a series of stable closeups, looks a lot better than the first in which you zoom in from the wide shot to closeups.
Make Your Move
Think of the zoom lens as not one, but five or six different lenses combined. Many professional cinematographers still prefer to use “prime” (single focal-length) lenses, considering optical quality superior to that of a zoom.
Regardless, the zoom lens offers an extraordinary convenience, allowing you to gather wide, medium, and closeup shots from a single vantage point. Use the zoom to frame a shot, and then start the camera rolling, without touching the zoom again until you’re ready to frame the next shot.
To discipline yourself, try leaving your camera’s zoom lens at one particular setting-wide angle, or “medium” (halfway to telephoto)-for several hours. If you need a closeup, just position yourself closer to the subject.
Choosing the optimum zoom setting -or focal length, as it’s technically called-for a particular shot depends on how much of the picture you want to be focused, and how prominently you want the main subject to appear in front of the background.
If the camera was stable for a few seconds on a wide shot, zoomed in, and then was stable on the closeup, you can edit directly from the wide shot to the closeup. If important audio material accompanies the zoom, edit in a “cutaway” to cover the zoom.
All Together Now
The word “montage” simply means “editing” in French. But in America the term suggests a quick visual sequence incorporating lots of different images all relating to a single theme, usually set to music or to nonsynchronized sound.
Montages are a great way to edit together travel videos, because it’s so common to arrive home with good visuals but poor audio.
Suppose your travels through Paris yielded shots of the Eiffel Tower, Le Louvre, and the Champs Elysee-purely visual accounts which can be edited together easily with music. Be sure to include shots of the family pointing, laughing it up, etc.
Juxtaposing a staged shot of someone pointing a finger (as if saying, “Look at that!”) to another shot of the Eiffel Tower will look great-even if you actually recorded the finger pointing several days later on a street nowhere near the Tower.
As you edit, put your own finger right on the TV screen above the point where the main action is leaving off (i.e., someone pointing to the sky). This is where your eyes will be drawn to. Next, find a shot of the Eiffel Tower framed at the same point on the screen.
If you’ve got a child waving at the end of one shot, try to have the main focus of the next shot framed where the waving hand was. Using this visual technique, you can edit many different images together into a smooth, cohesive sequence.
The edits discussed so far have been “straight cuts,” in which the first frame of the new shot occurs immediately after the last frame of the old shot. Each new shot contributes to a sense of “real time” by showing the next thing that happened.
To convey that a considerable amount of time has passed between the end of one shot and the beginning of the next, use a fade technique: to black at the end of a shot, and up from black at the beginning of the next.
The longer you keep the screen black, the more time will seem to have elapsed. But don’t go beyond a few seconds or people may assume your program has ended!
Film editors also dissolve between images instead of fading to black for a similar sense of time passing. However, this effect can be expensive to achieve with videotape.
Digital effects available with some of the newest top-of-the-line camcorders, including the Panasonic PV-S350, allow you to freeze-frame one shot, hold it in memory indefinitely, then dissolve to live action in the next shot.
The effect’s message is similar: a stylized sense of passing time. But you are limited to performing these edits in the camera-you can’t add them later.
Like good cooking, video production requires good ingredients and thoughtful preparation. Cook em together through careful editing, and you’ll have a delicious dish to enjoy for years.
Cliff Roth, a freelance writer and producer, teaches audio production at the Institute of Audio Research in New York and has taught video production at schools in New York and for Falcon Cable TV in Los Angeles.