Editing a film out of random snippets of video is an art form in and of itself. There are three chances to make a film; the film that is written and planned, the film that is shot and captured and then the film that is cut and edited together. This is the stage where everyone’s planning and hard work has to fit through the eye of a needle, the reality stage where decisions are made and creative battles will be fought. But it's not all fire and brimstone, this is the chance to make your film, the best film it can possibly be. Below are a few tips, tricks and considerations for editing a film together.
Having skills as an editor comes down to two main spheres. The first is whether you are a good storyteller or not and the second is whether or not you understand the tools to get you there. To be a successful editor, you need both. The former is something you hopefully have already, and the latter, is presumably why you’re here. We’ve assembled a selection of beginner techniques to get you started cutting and taping (figuratively and digitally of course).
We'll start with the general layout of most editing software and then delve into the techniques
Non-linear editing is a modern way of editing which is non-destructive, that is you don’t physically damage your tapes or footage in the process, and you can start at either end or anywhere in the middle. With traditional, linear editing techniques, popular in early to mid twentieth century, the use of physical tape created limitations categorized by the necessity to actually cut the footage (hence where the term ‘cut’ comes from) and an inability to assemble the pieces in any way other than from beginning to end.
There are many non-linear editing (NLE) systems on the market today ranging from consumer and home video level all the way up to professional Hollywood budget and everywhere in between. In a minute we’ll look at a few of the products/programs on offer, but first, a quick look at (roughly) how all NLE software works.
This is the basic layout of a non-linear editing system. Pictured above is the standard workspace for Final Cut Pro 7 but most non-linear editing software looks roughly the same as this, with a few changes in the details. Most NLE systems are broken down into three main components: the ‘Bin’ where files, folders and all your media (including pictures, music and video) is stored, the ‘Timeline’ where all the clips from your ‘Bin’ are organized chronologically from left to right and ‘Monitors’ which consist of two screens, one for viewing clips in your bin and the other for viewing your film that appears in the timeline.
The bin often appears at the top left of the screen (although this is not necessarily the case) and works similar to a conventional file/folder structure on a computer. Files and folders are structured from top to bottom. The bin is the place where all your media sits when you are working on a project. When you are finished with a shoot, you’ll upload all of your rushes (or video) onto a hard drive. The media on this hard drive then gets converted into a format that the editing software can understand.
Once the media is imported into your software it will appear in the bin and you can start editing with it. Something to note is that your media doesn’t actually ‘exist’ in the NLE system, the clips listed in your bin are just a reference to the actual files stored on your hard drive. This keeps the overall size of the editing file small but means you always have to have your hard drive (or whatever your media is stored on) connected to your computer so the software has access to the clips in their original location (read: Media Management for more information). You can preview clips in the bin using the bin viewer (see ‘Monitors’ below).
The ‘Timeline’ is a series of horizontal lines that occupy the bottom of the screen. It is divided into two sections; the top half for video and the bottom half for audio. When you drop a clip into the ‘Timeline’ the software automatically splits the clip into three components (video, audio left and audio right) and places them in the timeline appropriately. To layer clips on top of one another, drop the second clip in the video lane above the first clip. By doing so, the audio from this second clip will sit underneath the first audio. Your audio and video will continue to stack like this as you add more clips. When you press ‘play’ the video will playback on the timeline viewer (see ‘Monitors’ below).
When using a NLE system there is always a necessity to have two visible screens of information. One screen is for previewing clips in the bin. Using this monitor (sometimes called a viewer or bin monitor) the editor can select clips to view and decide on which clips to put into the final film. If multiple takes were taken of the same shot, you can quickly and easily check on this screen which one you prefer. Also, you can set ‘In’ and ‘Out’ points along the duration of the clip to determine what section of the clip you want to use, then click and drag from this screen into your ‘Timeline’ at the bottom.
The other screen (sometimes referred to as a canvas or timeline/project viewer) is the screen that plays back your final film, the one made of arrange clips in the ‘Timeline’. Getting to understand these two screens and use them effectively is essential to a good editing workflow.
Now that you've seen the tools, its time to learn how to use them.
Cutting is the bread and butter of an editor. The act of cutting refers to making a decision in a piece of video as to where you want to split it up. The term was coined ‘back in the olden days’ where pieces of video (in feet, or ‘footage’) were literally sliced and diced by razors and taped back together into new and exciting forms. Nowadays we make digital cuts (which are non destructive, which means you can change your mind as opposed to the days when the blade was final) in our video files and use non-linear editing software (NLE) to stitch them back together. To cut a piece of video simply click on it in your NLE with a blade tool (or similar) selected.
An alternative to cutting (in some situations) is to set both an ‘In’ point and an ‘Out’ point in a piece of video. When we shoot video, we often capture more at each end of the action than we need to, and to meaningfully edit this pieces into a final video we need to ‘trim’ these end pieces off. To set an ‘In’ point, watch a clip from your bin (in your bin viewer) until the point where you think the clip should start. Pressing the ‘I’ key (in FCP7) will set an ‘In’ point. This means that when you add this clip to your timeline, it will start only from where you want it. The same goes for setting ‘Out’ points. Watch the clip until the point where you think the clip should end and press the ‘O’ key (in FCP7). When you drag this clip down into your timeline (the one marked with both an ‘In’ and an ‘Out’ point) only the portion of the clip that falls between these markers will be added. This is a quick way to trim the fat of your rushes when quickly adding them to an assembly cut.
When making a cut, editors will rarely slice video and audio at the same spot. When you do, the cut becomes really obvious to the audience as artifacts in the sound become much more apparent when accompanied by a visual shift. This type of harsh cutting is often referred to as Dragnet cutting as the old cop drama show Dragnet used them ubiquitously due to its existing in a time when people didn’t know a lot. In our time people know a lot and so what they do is stagger the cuts between the audio and video so as to make them less noticeable. There are two ways to do this, either with a ‘J’ cut or an ‘L’ cut.
A ‘J’ cut is when the audio starts a few frames (or seconds) before the video does (creating a ‘J’ shaped cut) and an ‘L’ cut is when the audio continues briefly after the video has stopped) creating an ‘L’ shaped cut). These help to maintain fluidity in the film as characters start talking before they are seen (mimicking the way we look at someone after we hear them start talking) or characters continue talking as we cut away to their listeners’ reaction.
When two clips transition the brain has a natural tendency to accept that the two events happened continuously (despite the fact that more often than not they didn’t). As an editor you’re job is to keep this ‘artifice’ intact. That is, to not allow the audience to be reminded of the camera (unless of course this is your intention, rules are meant to be broken!).
One important way that you can minimize the audience’s perception of your editing is to make cuts that ‘match action’. Let’s say you have two clips to cut together that show a woman drinking a glass of water. The first might be a mid-shot which shows her drinking and then returning the glass to the table and the second might be a close-up of her hand placing the glass on the table. To create a sense of continuous motion between the cut the best way to manage the transition is to match the action. In the first clip (the mid-shot) if you cut away just before she puts the glass down the second clip should start at that same relative moment (i.e. just before she puts the glass down, the glass and her hand should be in the same position they were when the previous clip was cut). If the close-up shows the glass already on the table for instance, then the audience will notice that ‘information’ has been skipped and the magic of filmmaking will be reduced to a jarring mess.
This can spiral into what’s known as continuity, depending on how big the differences are between shots. Be careful of clocks in the background of your shots with hands that swing wildly between cuts, or things like interview subjects wearing the same shirt, or same haircuts etc. if shot over multiple occasions.
It's also valuable to use movement and action as motivation for cutting. A shot should cut in whilst someone is walking across a room. It shouldn't show them standing still and then starting to walk. This movement will contribute to the dynamic feel of your edit, and create a sense of flow and pacing. Again, if you want some weird stilted un-dynamic effect then yeah, ignore this tip. Rules. Break them.
A ‘jump cut’ occurs when too little information changes between shots (see ’30 degree rule’). Jump cuts can be avoided by using cutaways (see ‘B-Roll’) in between so as not to have the two offending clips ‘sitting next to each other’ like two disruptive students in a classroom. Although generally undesirable, jump cuts can be used to achieve interesting cinematic effects such as time passing or the unhinged movement of a character. MTV and countless music videos also use jump cuts as a way of making things look ‘edgy’.
The term ‘B-roll’ refers to any footage that is not considered to be a main shot (or ‘A-roll’). The distinction can be a little hard to discern at times, a good example being the difference between an interview shot (‘A-Roll’) and cutaways to the interviewer nodding (known as ‘noddies’), close-ups of the interview subject or other items in the room. These cutaways can be used to cover up imperfections in your interview (or as simple distractions to keep the visual story from becoming static and boring). For instance, you may want to stitch together the first half of one answer (in your interview) with the last half of a different answer. If you were to cut directly between these two pieces of video your interviewee would jump sporadically. Place a close-up over the transition of your interviewee’s hands ‘talking’ excitedly and suddenly you have a cohesive piece of video.
Cutaways can also be used to achieve artistic results as whatever dialogue your interviewee (or character in a drama) is saying will colour how your audience perceives the overlay. The same overlay of cracked, parched dirt takes on different meanings depending on whether it occurs over the top of someone speaking about poor farming practices or the state of the economy in a recession. Overlay can be used either to compliment or contrast. Both are effective in different contexts so be sure to experiment.
Overlay footage helps to illustrate what someone is saying and can add meaning to otherwise menial footage. Whatever your interview subject is saying will colour how your audience perceives the footage that is overlaid so be careful, but use this to your advantage.
When cutting from a talking head to overlay, try to use a minimum of three cutaways, to tell a short story, in three different frame sizes, perhaps starting with an obscure close-up then pulling out to mid to reveal and then a wide to end the sequence, or the other way around. Cutting away to less than three clips in a sequence has the potential to feel stilted and too short and your audience may become confused (see 'coverage')
One last valuable tip editors, make your editing choices, cut the film you want to, but always be aware that these could change and that final say is not yours and that that is ok. Don’t take it too hard if the director wants to drop a clip here or there or doesn’t at all like your work. Stand up for yourself and be strong in presenting your artistic reasons for the choices you made, but be flexible and don’t become so attached to the film that it becomes your baby, because people can do whatever they want to your baby. And they will. Sometimes your solution to a problem will win out and you can convince someone that your intentions are correct, but as an editor you have to be able to hear what people are saying and take it on board.
What video editing software you use is entirely up to you and the needs of your project. There are countless pieces of software on the market today ranging from free, consumer level NLE’s up to super expensive professional grade systems that are used on modern Hollywood blockbusters. Some even come equipped with proprietary hardware controllers for more immersive editing. Whilst the list here is by no means exhaustive, it gives you an idea of some of the types of software out there today. Navigating this minefield can be difficult at the best of times, so take your time and weigh up the needs of your project with the balance of your bank account.
Final Cut Pro is Apple’s flagship professional video editing software. iMovie is their freeware version, bundled with most macs nowadays but Final Cut Pro is a step above. The new version, Final Cut Pro X, provides professional level editing software for the pro-sumer customer; a powerful tool with a less daunting learning curve than most. The software is only available on Mac and comes in at around $300.
Media Composer (the name of media company Avid’s NLE) is a powerful multi-platform supported NLE. With a wide variety of media formats supported (including 2D and 3D video). Avid are also one of the companies who make custom hardware accessories to work with their NLE from advanced video cards and tailored computer solutions to interface equipment that circumvent what traditional keyboards and computer mice offer. Avid Media Composer is available for $2499. Avid Media Composer is available on both Mac and PC.
Adobe is a trusted name in all things media and video editing is no exception with Premiere Pro (and it’s lite equivalent Premiere Elements). It’s flexible and intuitive and integrates fantastically with the rest of the Adobe CS6 family, a host of apps, plugins and programs meant to handle dedicated tasks from colour grading to graphics and special effects. Adobe has a lot of different pricing plans depending on what pieces of software you want access to; you can buy single programs or collections of them all with different pricing structures or you can hire them out at $20 a month each or $50 a month for the whole bundle. Premiere Pro is available on both Mac and PC.
Lightworks has been in the NLE game longer than almost anyone (along with Avid) and have helped drive and change the way NLE’s work since the 1980’s. Their software today is hugely competitive and has been used in many major motion pictures over the last few years (including ‘Hugo’ and ‘The King’s Speech’, their website boasts many more). Lightworks Hollywood name dropping isn’t just empty chest beating however, the software comes in at the $0 mark (that’s right, it’s free) so Edit-Share (the company behind Lightworks) have had to work hard to inform public opinion that this isn’t just another scrappy free NLE (of which there are many). Lightworks also offer some hardware controllers if spending nothing isn’t your thing and a $60 Lightworks Pro is also available. Lightworks is currently only available on Windows with planned (since 2010) Mac, Linux and Open Source versions.
Wikipedia - List of File Formats
Spend a minute looking at this Wikipedia entry and you’ll begin to see just how many different file formats there are and just how useless it is to try to summarise. In short, a file format is like a container that holds information that computer can decode. The file format specifies how the computer should handle the data in the file because a video file has very different needs to a text document.
When it comes to your film, there are probably only a handful of file formats you are likely to come across and its good to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of what they are. Obviously, as a filmmaker, the main assets you will have are video files, but not exclusively. You will also have a bunch of picture files (in the form of PR stills or other photos), audio files (your recorded audio, soundtrack files etc) and most likely a handful of ‘miscellaneous’ document files (such as call sheets or production plans).
Trying to describe here all the video formats you might come across is fruitless. Suffice to say that there will be a lot, and at first you might not know the difference, but with more and more exposure to them (and their respective pros, cons and occurrence during different phases of your project) they will start to become second nature.
For instance, the format that your camera shoots in (whatever that may be, in our case it is X) is most likely not the format you are going to edit with. The raw camera data is often to large and unwieldy to directly edit with so we convert it into something more suitable (see your NLE for more ideas as to what is ‘suitable’). From there, you’ll use whatever format you’ve settled on and edit your video. Then, when you export it you’ll have to decide again what file format you need, is it for web? Is it for DVD? How big can the final file be for delivery? What quality do you need? These sorts of questions will define what format you finally deliver your project in.
Don’t be afraid of file extensions, and if you come across a *.* that you don’t understand or have never heard of, a quick Google search will reveal its true intentions.
Pictures are probably one of the easier file formats to get your head around. Different file formats ‘compress’ the original data using different algorithms. Some file formats are good for maintaining quality with low file size, some discard quality for file size and some have great quality and big file sizes. There are a lot of different picture file formats and choosing the right one at the appropriate time is key.
For example, PNG is good for use on web because it maintains quality and clarity whilst drastically reducing file size. GIF’s are good to use when you want to have an animated image, as they are the only picture format that can store multiple images like a digital flipbook, but their quality is heavily compromised and they can appear blotchy. JPG are highly ubiquitous and are in wide use across the Internet today.
There is a more information on audio file formats under Export Delivery and Soundtrack and Audio recording.
As with video, audio file formats will have different pros and cons based on when you need to use them. You will have the audio from your microphones that may need to be converted or synced to use with your NLE. Your NLE will want particular file formats to edit with just like video so be aware of what these are.
Depending on the scope of your project you will probably only run into .doc and .pdf. The former are editable documents for Microsoft Word and Text Edit and the latter are ‘finalised’ documents for viewing and printing etc. These two are fairly ubiquitous nowadays and probably everyone already knows about them.