A single set of shots can yield many different feelings, depending on how
you mix and match them. We’ll show you how to achieve different editing
effects. Better yet, we’ll help you show yourself, with a hand’s-on
20-second video project that you can shoot in under an hour, and edit in
100,000 different ways.
Yes, literally 100,000! This is true if: you shoot our 10-line script from
five different camera angles, and edit the raw footage by switching angles
for each new line of dialogue. If you do this, that’s 10 to the fifth power,
or 100,000 possible combinations
That’s only hypothetical, but there are dozens of practical shot combinations,
each producing a different effect on the viewer. To get you started, we’ll
show you just four of them.
Here’s the Setup
Look at the script in the sidebar on page XX. This is a scene in which character
X parts company from character Y. In our storyboard X is a woman, and Y
is a man. The scene takes place in a coffee shop.
However, you don’t need to have these elements to shoot the script. The
story could take place anywhere: in a kitchen, a living room or an office.
Any two actors will do, because age, gender and ethnicity don’t matter.
The characters illustrated in our storyboard are probably breaking up a
romance, but your characters could be business partners, roommates, or kids
collaborating on a science project.
The lines of dialogue in the script are short, because amateur actors often
dislike memorizing a script. For this reason, you may want to provide a
cue card for each actor: a felt marker on cardboard is fine. To use cue
cards, prop each actor’s card as near as possible to the other actor (so
that the reader seems to be looking at the other actor), but out of the
camera frame. Once you’ve recruited two actors, you can prep the entire
shoot in 20 minutes (well, 30 if you print slowly).
Shooting the Raw Material
Though you’ll be shooting in your own locale with your own actors, we’ll
continue with adult female X and adult male Y.
Start with the full shot to establish the locale and the characters. Begin
by shooting all 10 lines of the script from this position. If your location
allows, try to get a true full shot, showing most or all of both characters.
Next, get a medium (waist to head) or loose closeup (head and shoulders)
shot of X. Be sure to move your camera around to obtain a three-quarter
angle. Don’t just zoom in from the full shot camera position, because a
smooth edit requires a change in both image size and camera location.
Have both characters play the entire scene, though you’ll shoot only X.
Having someone to react to will help your actors keep the scene flowing
Now get the tight closeup of X. If you can’t move the camera still farther
to the side, vary the shot by changing the camera’s height –say, from a
neutral height to a low angle. Shoot the entire scene again.
The remaining setups repeat the scene twice while shooting Actor Y: first
in medium shot or loose closeup and then in tight closeup. And that’s a
wrap: if prepping and shooting each setup takes ten minutes, you’ll be done
in under an hour and ready to edit.
Choices, Choices, Choices
There are so many ways to edit these five shots into a sequence that we
couldn’t begin to cover the major options. To reduce the job to a manageable
size, we’ll make some restrictions. First, we’ll limit the discussion to
overall approaches to cutting the sequence, without showing details
such as exact cut points and split edits (in which one person’s sound carries
over the other person’s image) Secondly, we won’t cover the pacing of the
scene, that is, how long each shot lasts and how long the actors take to
get through all the dialogue. (The editor can control actor pacing to a
Each approach is designed to convey a different editing effect: a low-intensity
scene, a scene that builds intensity as it goes, a high intensity scene,
and a final version that "gives" the scene to character X.
Four Different Edits
The first version of our scene is edited to be distant and detached.
Like the other versions, it starts with an establishing full shot, but then
moves in only as far as loose closeups.
Notice that the tight closeups are discarded in this edit because the bigger
an actor’s face on-screen, the more emotional the effect. Notice too that
in Figure 2d we return to the full shot, backing away to provide a relief
from even the mildly intimate loose closeups.
For a scene this short you could even get away with playing the whole thing
in full shot, with no edits at all. That strategy would turn the audience
into distant, uninvolved spectators, an effect that can work very well in
the right context.
Now let’s move to the next version. In this version, we build the drama
gradually by starting with the wide shot, then moving in to loose closeups
and finally evolving to tight closeups. (Don’t forget, the edited scene
might have eight or ten back-and-forth shots rather than the six sample
This is the classic method for building intensity because, again, the bigger
the face, the more emotional the effect. It’s particularly effective for
relatively poker-faced actors like John Wayne. Though the expression doesn’t
change much, the closer and closer views convey progressively heightened
Onward, where the objective is to heat up the scene pronto and keep the
emotion intense throughout. Note that there’s only one loose closeup before
we punch in to tight closeups (again, imagine these alternating rapidly
For a more modern look you could could even omit the establishing shot.
This would provide the most intense effect of all. Later, as they leave
the room, you could use the full shot to tell the viewer where they’ve been.
Finally, look at Figure 5. X is in five out of six shots, while Y is in
only two; and X gets multiple tight closeups while Y gets none. The effect
is to give the scene to X.
Why? Suppose X is the main character and Y is less important. You don’t
care how Y feels in splitting with X, but you do want to know how X reacts.
The edit in Figure 5 directs the desired emphasis to the lead character.
We said we wouldn’t cover split edits, but if you give almost all of the
visuals to X, even when the voice on the track is Y’s, then you create a
scene whose central point is the effect of Y’s decision on X.
We’ve modeled four ways to edit the same footage –six or seven if you count
the suggested variations. To really explore the possibilities, you may wish
to begin by making some of our edits and then experimenting on your own.
You could give the scene to Y instead of X, for instance, or play with timing
and emphasis. (If you feel more ambitious, shoot inserts of things like
X’s hands playing with a napkin, to provide cutaways for timing.
Even if your assembly deck lacks insert and dub features, you can still
have voice-overs by staying on X while Y is talking offscreen (since you
recorded all the dialogue with every setup.
And that only scratches the surface….
The Project Script
1. X: You don’t look happy.
2. Y: We need to talk.
3. X: Okay, what about?
4. Y: This isn’t working.
5. X: What do you mean, not working?
6. Y: Just that: it’s no good.
7. X: You can’t be sure.
8. Y: Sure enough. I’ve made up my mind.
9. X: Don’t be too hasty.
10. Y: I’m sorry, but it’s over.
Cue card for X
1. You don’t look happy.
3. Okay, what about?
5. What do you mean, not working?
7. You can’t be sure.
9. Don’t be too hasty.
Cue card for Y
2. We need to talk.
4. This isn’t working.
6. Just that: it’s no good.
8. Sure enough. I’ve made up my mind.
10. I’m sorry, but it’s over.