The Art of the Edit

When Oliver Stone turned over the massive amount of raw footage that became JFK, editor Joe Hutshing knew it would be a challenge. 

 “I wondered if it could even be watchable,” Hutshing says.  “It was so incredibly complicated.  It was like looking at a schematic for a TV set and then imagining actually watching the TV.”

From the mountain of raw footage, to the first five-hour cut, to the final three-hour –and-eight-minute editing masterpiece, Hutshing had to make decisions, consider choices and re-examine goals.  This is editing.

Editing systems may range from sophisticated digital suites with all the bells and whistles to basic single-source systems consisting of a camera, TV and VCR.  Still, the functions of editing remain the same:

• To connect shots into a sequence that tells a story or records an event,

• To correct and delete mistakes,

• To condense or expand time and

• To communicate an aesthetic.

Whether you’re creating a Hollywood feature film or tightening a vacation video, the challenge is to take raw footage and within the limitation of equipment and budget, transform it into something compelling and watchable.

Shooting with the Edit in Mind

Editing may be the final step of the production, but to make a truly successful video, you need to begin making editing choices in the concept stage.  What will the overall look of the piece be?  The mood?  The pacing?  Will you cut it to music?  What kind of music?

There are several techniques that will help you plan.  Prepare a shooting script, a storyboard or-if it is not a scripted production-an overview for your program.  This will be the blueprint for your production.

A shooting script lists the action shot by shot, along with proposed camera angles and framing.

In a storyboard, actual sketches illustrate each scene.  It’s a good opportunity to see what will work before you shoot it.

An overview should include:  the chronology of shots as they will appear in the video; approximate timing for each shot; and information about accompanying audio, graphics and titles for each scene.

Next prepare a shot sheet.  Make sure it includes every shot listed in your script or overview.  Get several shots of each item on the list.

“You need a variety of shots,” says Kevin Corcoran, vice president of Pacific media Center in Santa Clara, California. “In a basketball game, for example, you get shots of the crowd, shots of the scoreboard, shots of the referee, shots of the environment.  In action that’s typically long and drawn out, you need to consolidate information.  You need to have images to cut to in order to make it look smooth.”

Even in scripted production, Corcoran recommends getting a variety of shots.

“I always try to get a wide shot and a head and shoulders shot for each block of text,” says Corcoran. “Who knows what you’ll find when you go into an edit?  There may be something that bothers you with continuity in the background of a wide shot.  Now you have a place to go.”

While Joe Hutshing had massive amounts of material to edit for JFK, Corcoran says the more common problem is too little material.

“Often there are large sections to be removed and no smooth way to cut,” says Corcoran. “This is especially true when you’re editing on a two-machine, cuts-only system.  Ideally, you will have some other framing, another angle, a reaction or some other activity happening in the environment.  If it’s a person at a podium talking, you need an audience reaction shot or two or three.  You must have cutaways to consolidate a half-hour speech without jump cuts.

You also invariably end up with footage you can’t use, often due to the unexpected appearance of objects on tape that you never noticed during the shoot.  Once, when editing the “dream house” segment of a TV program, I discovered a power supply right in the middle of the kitchen floor.  Nobody saw it in the field and every sweeping pan-all wide shots-included the ugly box.  Other than featuring a dream house with n kitchen, we had no option but to use the embarrassing piece or footage.

“There will always be things in shots you don’t see when you’re shooting,” Corcoran says.  “Things reflected in mirrors or windows, things in dark areas of the picture.  It’s important to change your framing to avoid having problems like this in the edit.”

If you will edit your video to music, select the music in advance and time zooms and pans accordingly.  If this isn’t possible, shoot a slow, medium and fast version of each camera move.  In general, shots should be five to 15 seconds in length.  Know the pacing and shoot accordingly.”

You’ll enjoy a lot more options in your edit sessions if you aren’t desperately “fixing it in post.” Taking the appropriate technical precautions saves you from having to scrap otherwise good footage due to lighting, audio or other technical problems.

“In an event, things will only go wrong,” Corcoran warns. “In weddings, for example, the light is nearly always bad.  A camera light is essential, especially if you don’t have gain control.  And you’ll need a lot of batteries for that light.”

Good lighting greatly enhances the quality of your video’ invest in a lighting seminar if you need more information.  As a rule, the brightest spot in our picture should be no more than 20 to 30 times brighter than the darkest spot or you’ll be editing silhouettes.

You’ll have trouble in our edit if you don’t white balance several times during an event. This is particularly true during weddings, which may move from bright sunlight, to a dimly lit church, to fluorescent lights in a reception hall.  If you don’t white balance, the shots won’t match-you may end up dissolving from a well-lit scene of groomsmen decorating the getaway car to a blue, blue reception.

Production Pains

Production can be exhausting, with long days of hard physical labor, but it’s vital to stay alert.

Microphones can fall down, batteries can die, a cable can go bad. Without headphones, you may not know until it’s too late.

“If you know from your headphones there’s no hope for the microphone,” Corcoran says, “you can unplug it and let the camera mic try.  It’s going to be better than what you’ll get otherwise.  Nothing can kill a production faster than bad audio.  Wear your headphones all the time.”

For most productions, steady images make the most sense.  Always use a tripod.  Hand-held looks, well, hand-held.  There’s a trend right now to overuse this technique, but avoid the cinema verite, or “shaky cam” look unless you’re after a strobed look or the effect is actually motivated by something in the script.

Be sure to allow for preroll.  When you switch a camera from the stop mode to record, it rolls back several seconds before it achieves “speed” and begins taping.  Allow five seconds, 10 to be safe, before cuing the talent to begin speaking or executing your shot.

Unless your edit system is very precise (plus or minus two frames) you will have trouble editing to the word, so make sure that you have two seconds or more of silence before your talent begins.

This is better than saying “action” to cue the talent: if the narration begins too quickly, you may end up losing two seconds of narration in edit to cut out your cue.  Instead, count “five, four, three” . . . and cue talent after a silent count of two and one.

With high-end systems, you can encounter a similar problem.  If the tape is checked and action begins too soon, you won’t be able to back up over the break in control track to execute the edit.

To allow time for a good transition, instruct your talent to fix a gaze on the camera for two seconds before and several seconds after a narration.  A quick, sideways glance for approval, a swallow or a lick of the lips before or after speaking may be difficult to edit out.

If you don’t have control over the talent’s timing and delivery-for example, when shooting a training session or weddings-your cutaways and reaction shots will be critical to mask cuts.  Remember to shoot plenty. 

 

Excerpted from “the Videomaker Guide to Video Production”, a Focal Press title.