Shooting for the Final Edit

There’s a big difference between a birthday party video and a Martin Scorsese film. It’s not just the budget or the Hollywood stars, but also the techniques that the movie makers use. Where home videos document an event, often in real time, filmmakers take a different approach. They start with a concept of how their final product will look and then work toward those ends. They shoot their story with the final edit in mind; with every shot designed to fit in with the shots that surround it.

In this article you’ll find some tips on shooting for the final edit. This advice may not land an Oscar on your mantle, but it will give your videos a more polished, professional look.

Tape is Cheap

Unlike film, tape costs next to nothing. That being the case, use it – lots of it. Mini DV tape costs about a dime a minute, so don’t be afraid to overshoot a scene. When you’re shooting to edit, multiple takes should be the norm, and you should shoot the scene until it feels right. It’s much less time-consuming to shoot extra angles of a shot than it is to struggle with trying to repair it in post production.

Mix It Up

Variety is the spice of life, so shoot your scenes from multiple angles and elevations. Once you have a usable take with your standard shot, shoot the same scene again from a low or high angle. Try a take where you use lots of extreme close-ups or extreme wide shots.

Experiment with both hand-held and tripod shots. There are places for both, so see which one best suits the scene. Try several different speeds when panning and tilting. A nice, slow pan may feel right when you’re shooting it, but it can turn out to be painfully long in the final edit. Experiment with using a movement that feels unnaturally fast. You may find that your uncomfortably quick pan is the shot that looks best.

Or, dump the movement altogether. Instead of tilting down to a man’s hand as he picks up his coffee cup, shoot two different shots. One medium close up of the man’s face, then a close-up of the cup as his hand grabs it. Editing these shots together can give the scene a different pace.

One Thing Leads to Another

When shooting for the final edit, it is important to keep in mind the relationships between your individual shots. When pieced together they will need to flow seamlessly and give the impression that the onscreen action is instantaneous. The better your visualization of the final product, the easier it will be to tape the shots you need.

It’s helpful to have a rough storyboard of your project. A storyboard is nothing more than a sequenced series of thumbnail sketches that represent your individual shots. The sketches don’t need to be terribly detailed, just enough to show the basic framing and subject matter of each shot. You can also use a numbered list of brief shot descriptions.

Take your list or storyboard with you to your shooting location and check off the shots after you’ve completed them. This helps ensure that you won’t get to the edit bay and realize that you’re missing part of your scene.


Sooner or Later

When using a shot list you have a bit more flexibility in staging your scene. Shooting in sequential order is no longer necessary. Instead, organize your individual shots based on location and setup.

Let’s use the following scene as an example. A beat up sports car carrying two hoodlums pulls into a convenience store parking lot. Music is blaring from the stereo, and through the passenger-side window we see that the driver seems nervous. The passenger gets out and walks to the payphone. He fishes for some change in his pocket, deposits the coins into the slot and dials a number. Meanwhile, the driver keeps checking the rearview mirror. The man at the phone finishes his brief conversation, walks back to the car, gets in, and they drive off.

You could organize the taping of this scene in the following way. First, shoot the wide shot of the car pulling into the parking lot. Then, tape the final shot in the scene; the car pulling out of the parking lot. Next, take the shot of the passenger getting out of the car, followed by the shot of him getting back in. While you’re still set up in that location, you can shoot the driver checking the rearview mirror. Finally, shoot the phone booth sequence. This will save you set-up and tear-down time, especially if you are using lights, wired mikes, tripods, etc.

Keep it Clean

Clean edits are a key to giving your product a professional look. To help with this, roll plenty of extra tape, or pad, at the front and back end of each shot. Let the camera roll for at least five seconds before the action starts, and keep it rolling for another five after the action ends. A little padding will give you flexibility if you later decide to dissolve or wipe between shots. It also guarantees that you won’t cut short an actor’s action or line.

To help action match up from one shot to the next, your actor’s movements should lead into, and flow out of the shot being taped. The storyboard from the example above calls for a close-up of the man’s hand depositing the coins into the slot. When taping this shot, have your actor move through the entire sequence, not just the single shot. Have him fish for the coins in his pocket, pick up the receiver, deposit the coins and begin dialing. Even though we’ll only see the coins going into the slot, the extra action at the beginning and end of the shot will keep the movements fluid and give you plenty of clean edit points from which to work. Tell your actor that his actions should be consistent from one take to the next. If he does not do this, continuity problems can occur (see Considering Continuity sidebar).

Cover Me

If you’ve made a mistake during your taping, and you find that two of your shots don’t match up without a break in continuity, you need a bail out. For this situation, it’s handy to have cutaways or cover shots.

A cutaway is a shot that relates to the scene, but is not necessarily vital to it. Possible cutaways from our example above could be a medium shot through the store window of the clerk talking to a customer, an extreme close-up of any of the actor’s eyes, or an extreme-wide shot of the location. You can use a cutaway to bridge from one shot to another while letting the regular audio roll underneath.

Shoot several cutaways for every scene, and give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back if you don’t need to use them. If you can get by without cover shots that means your scene was well planned, and well shot.


[Sidebar: What’s Your Angle?]

When covering a scene in multiple shots, think "Wide, Medium, Tight, Repeat." Shoot a wide, establishing shot, followed by a medium shot, followed by a close-up. Change setups and repeat. The variety helps your scene flow and keeps it interesting.

Extreme close-ups can be extremely helpful. An XCU of someone’s eyes or hands gives you the option of going to the next shot without the danger of a jump-cut. Use a tripod for these shots to avoid exaggerated camera jiggle.

[Sidebar: Considering Continuity]

A jump cut occurs when a person’s position does not match from one shot to the next. For example, someone’s hand is in his pocket for one shot, then at his side in the next. Stress to your actors the importance of keeping their movements consistent during multiple takes. Shoot cutaways in case you need them.

If shooting a scene where two people are speaking to each other, imagine a line running between them. You never want to cross over this imaginary line. If you do, the on-screen direction they are facing will be reversed, thus confusing the viewer.

Make your cuts while your subject is moving. The human brain is more forgiving of imperfect edits if movement is taking place. Small gaps or overlaps in action are not as noticeable.

Abrupt changes in audio can break continuity or unnecessarily draw attention to edits. Record a good length of ambient sound on location (traffic or crowd noise, chirping birds, etc.) that you can run continually in the background of your scene. This will help smooth transitions from one shot to the next.

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