Editing: Excellent polished work

Morgan Paar, April 2008

From rough cut to finished product, you want to deliver the goods as cleanly as possible. Here are the Seven Steps to Creating an Excellent Polished Work.

0Your goal with your rough cut is to lay down your shots in the order in which you wish to tell your story. Chances are, if you're producing a narrative, you decided the order of your scenes in pre-production, and you now just need to follow your storyboard as if it were a recipe and assemble the clips accordingly, picking the "best" take for each scene. Many documentaries "write themselves," as the characters describe the subject matter. Either way, in the rough cut, you lay down the shot video and associated audio in the order you wish to tell the story, cutting out everything that does not move the story forward.


Now it's time to polish the rough cut into a smooth, shiny finished product. Unlike the rough cut, where you were lumping together footage to see how the juxtaposition and timing of clips worked together, the polishing requires that you take out your "digital magnifying glass" and work on more of a frame-by-frame level of adjustment.

Let's look at seven aspects of the final edit that we'll call the Polish Edit.

1. Edit Room Floor

We'll start with one of the most difficult of the steps: killing your favorites. This is not technically difficult, but it is psychologically hard. The general rule is that you should cut everything that does not move the story forward. But what about that unplanned shot of the rare ivory-billed woodpecker that flew out of the jungle and landed on the head of the Bengal tiger that walked onto the scene during the magic hour while your camera just happened to be rolling? Cut it! It's difficult to be objective with these edits, especially if you are the one who shot the video. Many times you need to listen to others who tell you that something is not working. It's interesting to watch on DVD the extended director's cuts of major Hollywood films to see scenes cut out of the original theatrical releases. Nine and a half times out of ten, you'll find that it was appropriate to remove those scenes.

2. Total Running Time

Most times, especially for a paid editing job, you will have a TRT or Total Running Time limitation that you must observe. The strictest example of this might be a segment for television. If you make an hour-long show for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), it will be not 60 minutes, but 52 minutes and thirty seconds - not one frame longer or shorter. If you shoot a wedding video or a short video for a film festival, you may have more leeway. Otherwise, you need to know your parameters and keep them in mind as you polish your way to a final cut.

3. Continuity and Transitions

2We are putting continuity and transitions together because, as you check the continuity between your clips, you may decide to use one transition or another to assist with the continuity. As we have said many, many times before, on the pages of the Videomaker magazine and website, your most-used transition will be a straight cut. But if you are editing a documentary and you need to slice up a locked-down, talking-head interview (static, tripod-mounted, medium-closeup shot), you may find yourself needing to use cross-dissolves, especially if you don't have many cutaways or B roll. Also, when using rendered transitions such as cross-dissolves, remember that you can adjust the length of the transitions, if you have ample heads and tails on the clips you are affecting. Don't always use the default 30-frame/one-second cross-dissolve. Maybe a long three-second cross-dissolve will add to the emotion of the scene. Or perhaps a lightning-fast ten-frame wipe will get your point across better. Use as many frames as you need to best transition between your clips.

4. Sound Effects/ADR and Other Non-Natural Audio

You may have added some sound effects during the rough-cut process, but sound effects, ADR (Automated or Automatic Dialog Replacement, aka looping), Foley (recreating and syncing incidental sounds such as footsteps) and other non-nat sounds usually happen after "picture lock," when visual editing is complete. There is not much point spending time inserting sound elements into scenes that you might cut, so you usually start enriching the audio after you have a fairly solid rough cut, at the very least. Here, the old adage "less is more" still applies. It's not the "big" sounds such as explosions and gunshots that are going to make your work excellent; it's the subtle sounds. Viewers may not even notice background sounds like birds, wind, traffic and dogs barking in the distance, but they will notice if they are not there. These little sounds are naturally around us everywhere, every day. Stop for a moment and just listen to your audible environment. Now think about putting those sounds in your work. Do you have a scene in a dodgy, urban neighborhood? Well, make that police siren seem to come from way off in the distance, not up front, and you have the beginning of a rich soundscape.

5. Sound Sweetening

3Sound sweetening is a time-consuming and maybe even painful process, but it's so important. The majority of unbearable films at film festivals can credit their demise to poor sound. Good sound, of course, starts on location, but it ends with sweetening. Are the levels for every single sound element perfect? Your VU (volume-unit) meter or audiometer is your friend here, but not the final authority. An editor's ear and common sense should determine the best decibel level for each element of audio. The main point is to examine each sound unit individually and then together with the other sounds in the scene, to make sure the levels are perfect.

6. Rhythm

This section does not appear towards the end of this article because it is enacted last; a good editor is thinking about rhythm even before she/he first sits down at the edit bay. An editor should always be conscious of rhythm. Producer/director Jim Jarmusch often listens to different types of music before and during an edit to put him in the "rhythmic mood" he wants for the edit. Good editors will often shave or add as little as a single frame, one-thirtieth (or one-twenty-forth) of a second to keep the rhythm. This is a frame-by-frame procedure. Perfect rhythm can make or break an audience's attention.

7. Color Correction

4 Color correction is purposefully last. This should be the final step for a couple of reasons. As with sound effects, there is not much point in fine-tuning the color of a clip if you will only edit it out later. Plus, new high-end color correctors or color grading applications, such as Apple's Color, are stand-alone apps, not plug-ins or effects that work within the editor. Grading is to the picture what sweetening is to the sound. It deserves vast amounts of time to be properly tweaked. It's not a one-click adjustment. Good grading can make the difference between having a good video and a great video.

Contributing editor Morgan Paar is a nomadic producer, shooter and editor, currently teaching high school video production.

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