Nonlinear Editing: A Guided Tour

If you recently purchased a nonlinear system, you’ve probably spent some time getting familiar with the basics of nonlinear editing. Odds are, you figured out right away that there’s a lot to learn when making the switch from tape-based editing. New concepts, commands and techniques seem to come at you faster than you can make sense of them.

If this sounds all too familiar, you’ve come to the right place. In the next few pages, we’ll walk you through the steps of nonlinear editing, revealing a potpourri of valuable tips and tricks along the way.

With so many different software and hardware solutions out there, we can’t give you specific instructions for every system. What we can give you are tips and techniques that apply to a variety of nonlinear editing systems.

Digitizing Decisions and Capture Concerns

It’s no exaggeration to say that how you capture or digitize your video has a significant impact on every other step in the editing process. Digitize well and you’ve set the stage for an efficient, enjoyable and productive editing process. Make a few bad decisions as you digitize and you may regret them from first frame to last.


  • Decide how much is enough. On systems that allow you to set resolution and quality when digitizing, you get to juggle the trade-offs between image quality and storage time on your drive(s). Don’t bother storing a great deal more quality than your final distribution format (or tape format) will support. To choose your compression settings, digitize the same clip at various resolutions and quality levels, run those clips to tape and pick from those.

  • Don’t clip your clips. When you’re digitizing a given scene, grab a little extra on either side of the clip–five seconds is usually adequate. This gives you some time to transition in or out of the clip. Trim a clip too tight when you digitize and it will limit your options. If several clips sit within a few seconds of each other, digitize them as a block and define the individual scenes at a later time.

  • Name your clips well. When it comes time to name your clips, give them titles that will make sense in the heat of the edit. Folks on Mac or PC platforms can (and should) use long file names. "Dan in alley climbs ladder.avi" will be easier to identify than "chase6.avi."

Enhancing your Editing Experience.

Once it’s time to actually edit, your approach will depend on the specific software package you’re using. Some systems use a timeline interface, while others use a storyboard approach to assemble video clips. Either way, there are several techniques you can use to improve your editing.


  • Learn some keyboard shortcuts. Nonlinear editing systems tend to be very mouse-intensive. Drag, roll, click–some tasks take a great deal of time to accomplish with the mouse. Keyboard shortcuts, if your system offers them, perform crucial editing tasks with one poke at the keyboard. Shortcuts that nudge clips left or right on a timeline or change their in or out-point one frame at a time are especially useful. Commit to learning and using one new keyboard shortcut each time you edit and you’ll see your speed jump dramatically.

  • Shrink that preview. Because a nonlinear editing system has to do a lot of math to perform even the most basic dissolve, transitions and effects usually don’t happen in real-time. Unless you have special hardware, they usually have to be rendered. Even previewing transitions takes precious time. You can reduce the amount of time it takes to render a preview by reducing the preview window size until it’s as small as you can stand. You can save even more time if you drop the preview frame rate to 15 per second or lower and set your audio to 22kHz mono. For crucial monitoring, increase these as required. Drop your preview window from 320×240 at 30 frames per second (fps) to 240×180 at 15fps, for example and you’ve cut the computer’s workload by a factor of four. Since previews are written to the disk for playback, smaller previews take up less hard drive space as well.

  • Tame those transitions. Just because your nonlinear editing system offers hundreds of nifty transitions, you’re not obligated to use them all. (For more about transitions see Changes For the Better: Understanding Transition Effects by Jim Stinson, on page 54 of this issue) Keep your wits about you and use only those transitions and effects that really enhance your video. Not only will excessive, flashy transitions detract from your video, but they’ll greatly increase both preview and final rendering times. Always remember–less is more.

Titles, Layers and Filters

When it comes to adding visual spice to your productions, a nonlinear editor is a great tool. Here are some tips for adding titles, filters and multiple video layers to your latest masterpiece.


  • Title with care. Those not doing multimedia production should remember three key limitations of NTSC video when making titles. First, it displays images at a lower resolution than your computer, so tiny fonts and thin lines are a no-no. Second, NTSC doesn’t handle color as well as VGA–avoid titles with highly saturated hues, especially "warmer" colors like red and orange. Third, TVs don’t display the whole video screen. Keep your titles roughly 20%-40% of the way in from screen edges to be sure they won’t appear to be cut off on playback.

  • Filters can be your friends. Video filters can do much more than just add eye-grabbing effects. They can also help correct poorly shot footage by digitally altering each frame as it renders. For example, you can brighten up an under-exposed scene, tweak color to correct bad white balance, even sharpen up a slightly out-of-focus shot. Filters take a bit longer to render, but may be well worth the added time.

  • Layer it up. What if you need more layers of video, titles, transitions or effects than your software will allow? One solution is to render as much of the scene as possible back to the hard drive, then bring the rendered scene back into the software as a single clip. When you render each pass, do it at full resolution with little or no compression. You’ll get very little degradation and you can use this process to add as many layers of complexity as you wish. Keeping each sub-render on the drive until you’re completely satisfied allows you to go back and make changes if necessary.

All About Audio

Most nonlinear editing systems give you as much control over your audio as they do over video. This means your videos can sound as great as they look, provided you practice some good audio hygiene while editing.


  • Avoid distortion. When you combine multiple sounds, their levels add toward the maximum sound level your system can handle. When you exceed this level with a nonlinear system, digital clipping causes grating, raspy distortion. When you hear even the slightest bit of distortion, you need to bring down individual track levels until your sound is clean.

  • Watch those levels. With frame-by-frame control over your sound, there’s no excuse for mis-matched audio levels. With a click of the mouse, you can easily drop music underneath dialog, smoothly crossfade two pieces of music, bring up a quiet section of an interview or eliminate an untimely sneeze from somebody off-camera. You’ve got nearly unlimited control over your audio–use it.

  • Audio needs filters, too. Like video filters or effects, many nonlinear editors include audio filters as well. You can use these for creating effects, such as echo or artificial room reverberation. Perhaps even more useful are audio filters designed to correct shoddy sound tracks. An equalizer plug-in will help you brighten up a dull voice or add fullness to a tinny sound. A compressor filter will make sound levels more consistent, while a noise-reduction filter may eliminate 60-cycle hum caused by poorly grounded electronics.

  • Loop your audio. In the cut-and-splice world of nonlinear editing, it’s easy to make a chunk of sound or music repeat over and over. Called "looping," this technique is a staple of professional film and video editors. With care, you can trim a piece of music so it smoothly repeats with itself. Duplicate the sound down the timeline or project and you have an endless music bed. Background and ambient sounds loop even easier. Duplicate a 30-second piece of chirping crickets, restaurant babble or traffic under your video and no one will be the wiser.

A Tip in Time

These tips just scratch the surface of what can be done to make nonlinear editing more fun, efficient and rewarding. With some time in front of your editing system, you’ll come up with a list of tips and techniques all on your own.

When you do come up with that list of cool techniques, we want to hear them.

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