Video can be mesmerizing and memorable — or it can be generic and forgettable. And, contrary to popular belief, it often has to do more with the editing than anything else. Though editing can’t always save a bad production, it is what turns a “good” production into a “great” one. Editing is what turns raw footage into a creative, well-polished narrative. Though it often takes experience in editing to get better at it, there are many things that even beginners can consider when trying to become a great video editor.
Telling a Story through Video Editing
Is your video telling a story in the most effective way? Visual media is able to tell a story in a different way than written scripts. Even without words or narration, a visual language can go quite far. Establishing shots, action shots, and tracking shots can all be used to create a narrative — but you need to be aware of the story that is being told.
Often it’s important to be as conservative as possible when video editing. The idea is to ensure that the scenes are placed in a chronological order that is easy to track — that nothing is out of place or unnecessary. Often you will have to pare down scenes that simply don’t contribute much to the story, even if those scenes have been shot well or are interesting in and of themselves. It is not the individual scenes that are important, but instead the overall piece.
Similarly, it may be necessary to add scenes or to move scenes around if you find that the story has become muddled or confusing. Sometimes the only way to do this successfully is to run your movie by a test audience. A test audience can tell you what they think happened in the story, what they were confused about, and anything they would have wanted to know more about. A test audience should usually be the audience that is the closest to the demographic that you’re targeting.
To someone who has worked closely on a video, some things may seem obvious when they’re really not — an actor that looks pensive to a director can instead look angry to an audience. It’s these details that become important, as ambiguity can make it difficult to convey the right message. This is especially true in commercials, infomercials, and other business-related works, as in general the audience’s takeaway should be fairly precise. In artistic works, such as short films and fiction, some ambiguity may be possible (or even necessary) in service of the work.
Editing in a Sequence
One thing that can help with developing a narrative is the process of editing in a sequence; ensuring that shots are sequential even if they are very different shots. A wide pan can establish a scene, while fixing on a character can establish that they are the focus. Once that has been established (scene and character), the video can move on to the action and the plot. These types of sequential establishing scenes are important, as they tell the audience what they should be paying attention to (and what they shouldn’t), and they give the audience important information about the context of the video.
When editing, not all of the scenes have to be one right after the other. There can be gaps — and often must be if you want to avoid any dead time that isn’t interesting. As an editor, it’s important that you can identify the “important” times of your video’s chronology that the audience needs to see, while cutting areas that are unnecessary.
Ensuring You Have the Right Material
It’s very rare that anyone has ever shot too much material. When editing, you often need to go back through what you’ve shot so far in order to make scenes work together, to add interest and drama, or to establish setting. The more clips you get, the better, as it’s very difficult to acquire additional footage after a shot has already been completed. When actually working on a production, film crews should work to take as much b-roll as possible, as it may be needed during the editing process. Editors can then use this footage as desired.
Taking multiple takes of important shots is important — even if it’s believed that the right shot has already been taken. Multiple reaction shots can also be critical, in the event that the editor decides that a different nuance or inflection is needed. The more material an editor is able to work with, the better the final product will be.
Likewise, it has to be understood what an editor can and can’t do. No editor is going to be able to create a masterpiece with bad footage — and for the most part, an editor usually shouldn’t try to salvage poor quality video and audio. Either the shots should be shot again or different shots should be used in their stead.
Choosing the Right Sound and Music
Sound and music is a tremendous component of any video production. An editor will generally have some audio to clean up and sync, but they will also need to choose other audio as well to suit the video. This includes sound effects (which in larger productions may be managed by foley artists and sound designers) and a musical selection.
Music is an excellent way to convey atmosphere and drama, but it has to be selected properly so that it’s not intrusive. Ideally, music should not be noticed but instead should augment what is going on in the screen. It should never compete with what is on the screen and it should never obscure important audio cues, such as voice lines or sound effects.
Sound effects also need to be chosen carefully. Realistic sound effects will heighten a production, whereas distracting or too loud sound effects will simply detract from it. Editors will need to choose which actions to emphasize and which actions to ignore; they will also need to choose scenery sounds to fit a location, such as birds chirping in a park, or machines whirring in a factory. All of these choices need to be made with the audience in mind, as it will be setting the tone for their experience.
Pacing the Story Properly
Pacing is very important. Many stories can go slow at the start but become very fast by the end — if this shift is gradual, the audience is fine, but if it alternates or comes out of nowhere, the audience may feel very lost. Pacing is often a matter of the speed of the scenes and cuts, where stories that cut more often are often perceived as faster. An audience often needs breathing room in order to digest a video, which can come in the form of establishing shots or simply slower-paced scenes. Even some silence, if used strategically, can help.
Music can also be used for pacing. As noted, music is very critical to the overall tone of a story. Jaunty, upbeat music will often increase pacing, whereas somber or classical music can make a piece feel slower or more sedate. Your music selection will inform your audience regarding how your video is expected to feel.
Transitions and Special Effects
When in doubt, special effects are out. If special effects seem to be amateurish or are not completely professional, modern audiences will usually cringe at them. Fancy transitions, text effects, and so forth are generally relegated to slide shows today and the modern audience has very little patience for them. In general, editing should appear to be natural and unobtrusive; titles and notifications should always be classic and simple. Rather than using screen wipe effects, fades or simply abrupt transitions are more often used.
Video editing is, of course, also an art; many people have a “feel” for what is and isn’t right, especially as they review a video and look at their end results. But testing with an audience can also be important, as can studying the general skills involved with video editing. Ultimately it becomes important to focus on the message of your piece and what will distract your audience and what will engage them.
Article by Joe Forte, co-owner and producer at D-Mak Productions, a professional production and post-production house based in Phoenix, Arizona.