The Down-and-Dirty Guide to Editing a Great Story (from hours of raw video)
Ever since teaching film at the middle school and high school level I have loved helping students learn the skills to become great filmmakers. I recently got a pretty open-ended question from one of these students on how to turn 4 1/2 hours of video into a story worth watching. This is a topic that is near and dear to me, as I have to do the same thing (on a much bigger scale) in editing Schoolhouse Rocked. Luckily, the fundamentals are the same, and learning these fundamentals is the key to becoming a great filmmaker.
4 1/2 hours of footage is a lot! This young filmmaker had recently gone on a mission trip and had come back with hours of assorted footage, people talking and sharing their experiences, people working, kids playing, etc. Now it was time to turn this footage into a film – and one that is actually worth watching. This is no small task, but by following some simple steps it can be done.
How long is too long? Filmmakers are usually tempted to think in terms of “how long should the final video be” when approaching projects like this. This is the wrong question to be asking, and will lead to the wrong outcome. Whether a video is fifteen seconds long (most commercials), or four hours long (Gone With The Wind, The Ten Commandments, Dances With Wolves), what really matters is STORY!!! I have seen completely boring 15 second commercials, and have been completely engaged through four-hour epics. Story makes all the difference.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
1) Watch ALL the footage
Sit down with a notebook and pen and watch every grueling minute of footage and take great notes (mark clip names and start and stop times with specific notes about content and story). This makes all the difference in getting this much footage edited.
Look and listen for STORIES! You want to listen to everyone and be looking for unifying threads of story that run throughout the dialog. It is great if you can tell a single story with a start, middle, and end (a 3-act structure). It is better if it has dynamics (rising and falling action, rising and falling emotions), It is best if this single story can be told by several people (not repeated, but multiple viewpoints unified into a single story). Story is king!
2) Once you have your story in mind and have great notes, it is time to start the ROUGH edit. (We’ll get back to that “rough” bit in a minute)
Only bring the clips in to your project that you know you need, and use folders to organize clips. I use the following folders to start every project: Music, Titles, Story (broken into subfolders by character and camera/angle), b-roll, and behind-the-scenes (not always necessary). This way you don’t have to scroll through miles of files to find what you need. I create all the folders first, even if they don’t have content yet, because I know I will need them.
3) Edit dialog first.
Don’t even worry too much about visuals. As long as the footage isn’t a mess, get the dialog edited. Use good headphones and listen critically. Make sure that pauses at cuts are natural (not too long or too short), and make sure there are no pops at the edits (use crossfades or ramp the volume down and then up for the next clip). Make sure that there is no distracting noise (wind, hums, static, etc. – don’t be afraid to use noise reduction, but don’t overuse it. If you can hear the noise reduction you are using too much).
Once you have the story put together in dialog, EQ, compress, and mix the audio to get the levels and sound right. I usually try to get my dialog peaking at about -6db on the meters, and pretty heavily compressed. If you don’t do this viewers won’t be able to hear it on little laptop speakers. You want it pretty loud (get to know your compressor well!)
4) Think about music REALLY early.
This is almost as important as the dialog. While the dialog will make the story, the music will set the mood for the story. Pick carefully. Listen to lots of music and choose something that will set the proper tone.
Drop your music into the edit sequence early and listen to it while you cut. If you can, cut to the music (put cuts on the beat). Cutting to the music is more effective with uptempo songs, but works on slower stuff too.
You don’t need music through every minute of your edit, but all your music should work together, and you should open and close with music.
Watch your levels. Dialog is your primary audio (unless you are doing a music video or montage sequence), so make sure every word can be heard clearly. If not, the music is too loud.
5) Once your dialog and music are edited it’s time to work on picture.
Since your dialog is edited, much of the picture edit should be done. Now it’s time to make it look good. If there is an edit while one person is talking, switch to another camera angle or use b-roll over the cut so that you don’t see the person’s head jerk.
Look for b-roll that enhances your story. Don’t be afraid to slow down b-roll. Most b-roll looks better slowed down (I always try to shoot my b-roll at 120 fps to slow it down in post)
Use “J” and “L” cuts to bring some excitement to the edit. Have someone start talking during b-roll, then cut to them, or start on them talking and then cut to b-roll.
6) Cut rough, then polish! (Here’s the scoop on that “rough” business – This should actually be point #2, but it is a bit easier to understand here. Just remember to implement it at point #2)
This is one of the hardest skills to master. People tend to want to polish every cut as they make it. DON’T! Make a really rough cut first, just to get the story put together, then go back and polish one thing at a time (first dialog and music, then visual edit timing, transitions and effects, then color). This not only helps you get a good story put together more quickly, but it makes your computer run better throughout the edit, because you save the heavy lifting (audio plugins, transitions, effects, and color correction) for last. Learn this well and early and you will thank me for the rest of your career!
7) Less is more!
Nothing screams “amateur: more than a million crazy transitions, weird color correction, bad effects, etc. I used to tell my film students that they could only use cuts and dissolves in their edits. Cuts are appropriate for most edits. Dissolves signal that you are in a new time or place, or that the subject or topic has changed. I use fades to and from black (and occasionally white) for beginnings and endings (when appropriate), Mostly cuts for all normal edits, and dissolves to signal some big change. That’s pretty much it, unless there is a really important stylistic reason to do something different.
Note: I’m not saying you can never use that cool “glitch” transition, or a zoom or wipe transition when appropriate, but they have to be APPROPRIATE and serve the story! Unless you are editing action movies, extreme sports, or music videos you will find that you can get by with cuts and dissolves 99.999% of the time. I challenge you to develop this discipline, master the art of the edit using cuts and dissolves, and when the time is right for that special “page curl” or “star iris” transition you’ll know it (hint: the time will never be right for either).
8) Don’t forget titles and graphics
Us appropriate opening titles and closing credits to put the finishing polish on your edit. This little step takes it from “home video” to “short film”. Remember rule #7 – less is more! Use simple titles and look like a pro.
Backstage Pass members can listen to the following talks I recently gave at the Miracle Mountain Ranch Photography and Media Summit. Both classes are around an hour and include presentation slides, notes, and additional resources.