Editing is the skill of telling a story with video, images, and sound. Because the best editing is not recognized by the viewer, it is often referred to as invisible art.
A well-edited video immerses the spectator in the story; no components of the actual cut should be visible unless the purpose is to demonstrate a digital impact on the material.
Even when a video shot is thoroughly planned, surprises and adjustments occur during editing. An idea that appears brilliant at first glance may not work in the finished video. Unexpected moments of greatness, on the other hand, may appear in your footage to give your video a lift.
Editing can make or break your video. This article tells you how to approach this essential process. We use the Apple iMovie editing software in the examples, though other editing software work similarly.
Table of Contents
Step 1. Logging your footage
After you return from a shooting location, follow these general steps to log your footage — the most important step in preparing for the editing process:
1. Download the footage to your computer
Using a modern camera, this process can be completed quickly — just copy the digital video files from the camera. Shooting on tape is more time-consuming because you have to let the tape run so that your editing program can capture all footage digitally. Refer to your camera’s instruction manual to find out how.
2. Import the footage into your editing program
You may already have completed this step if you downloaded the footage using your editing software, but in other cases, you first have to import the footage manually.
3. Organize your clips
After you have a bunch of clips that cover different parts of your project, start by organizing them to better see what you have. Group clips that are related to the same scene. Editing programs offer different methods to help, such as folders or “bins” in which you can store clips, labels, and tags that you can assign to clips, or “events” that group related clips.
4. Watch your footage
Review all your clips to determine what you have. If you have a lot of footage, there’s no way to avoid this time-consuming step.
5. Remove unwanted material
If you have clips that are clearly unusable, remove them immediately. Don’t delete them — just store them in a folder labeled Unusable in your editing program or in your computer’s file system. Sometimes a clip that looks unusable now can come in handy later.
6. Take notes
The best way to find your footage quickly during editing is to take the time to take notes about every clip. Add a few simple words about the content of the clip and its level of quality. Notes can be taken in the editing software directly in line with the clip you are referencing in most programs.
7. Mark the best clips
If you have multiple takes of a scene, mark the one you think is best. Many editing programs let you use a special Favorites functionality, or you can simply make a mark in your notes. Also mark B-roll footage that you think looks good, and make notes of the best sound bites in interview clips.
Logging your footage may seem like a tedious and time-consuming process, but investing time in it pays off later. During editing, you can waste a lot of time hunting for a particular clip that you somehow recall but didn’t mark properly.
Step 2: Trimming video clips
Clips often tend to be too long. If you want to use a one-take video, you can simply trim off unwanted pieces at the beginning and the end. Fortunately, trimming a clip on your computer is fairly easy. The best tool depends on the platform you use:
On the Mac
Mac users already have QuickTime, a preinstalled media player that has basic editing features.
If you want to trim a clip, open the video file in QuickTime, and then choose the Edit➪Trim command.
A timeline showing the entire clip appears. Drag the yellow handles to mark the start and end of the clip, and then click the Trim button. The resulting clip can be saved or exported for use on YouTube or on your website. Figure 8-1 shows how to use the trim function in QuickTime.
On the PC
PC users can select from a variety of video processing tools that provide the trimming function.
An easy way is to use Windows Movie Maker. This simple editing application is free, and it works well if you want to trim only a few clips.
In some editing programs you will need to save the trimmed video as a new clip, or else you lose the rest of your footage.
Some simple video programs even let you assemble multiple clips into a longer clip. For example, QuickTime lets you add a clip to the end of the current clip by choosing the Edit➪Add Clip to End command.
On a PC, use Windows Movie Maker and simply drag and drop the clips to the storyboard. This method works for assembling two or three clips, but don’t expect it to replace an editing program. As soon as you want to move beyond the simplest trimming level (and save time in the end), invest in quality editing software.
Step 3: Making a rough cut
The first step in determining what your video will look like is to make a rough cut, in which you line up all the good footage to figure out what works. A rough cut is typically much longer than the final product, and it lacks many of the elements from the final video, such as titles and visual effects.
To make a rough cut, first log your footage. Then follow these steps:
1). Review your storyline in sequence. Tackle every scene separately.
2). For every scene, find the best takes that you marked during logging.
3). Mark in and out points for every clip to trim it to the part you want in the video.
In and out points are indicators you set on the individual clips that make up the scene. An in point is the frame in the clip where you would like to begin viewing, an out point is the frame you would like to end the clip with.
Don’t worry much about the exact timing. It comes later. In and out points can easily be changed once your clip is in your timeline.
4). Insert the clip in your editing program’s timeline, in any order you want.
5). Repeat this process for all scenes to assemble a sequence of clips that tells your intended story.
When you watch your rough cut for the first time, it probably looks bumpy, overly long, and <ahem> rough. Your goal is simply to figure out how well your material works when it’s assembled.
If it’s possible in your editing program, make a safety copy of your first rough cut, of either the timeline or the whole project. This copy may come in handy later in the editing process when you don’t see the forest for all the trees and you need a fresh perspective. Making a copy can also be a helpful way to find raw clips quickly if you have a lot of footage.
Step 4: Switching it around
The great thing about modern editing software is that you can experiment by moving clips and entire sequences to find the best combination of clips and scenes. Be careful: You can easily get lost in the experimentation process. First, consider why you would want to change something, and if you have a truly good reason, do it.
Try some of these suggestions:
1. Use different versions of the same take
Sometimes, a take that you think is best when you watch it in isolation no longer works well with the rest of the material. If you’re unhappy with a take, try using a different take of the same shot to see whether it improves the entire scene.
2. Drop clips or entire scenes
Shorter is typically better in editing. If you feel that a particular clip or an entire scene doesn’t add much value to the video, drop the clip entirely and watch the video without it. If you don’t miss it much, your audience will likely never miss it.
3. Change the order of scenes
Particularly in documentary-style and educational videos, scenes don’t necessarily have a natural fixed order. You can also change the sequence completely for dramatic effect.
For example, if you sell lawnmowers and you want to show how your latest model performs, you can grab your viewers’ attention if you first show the pristine lawn that results from using your product and then demonstrate how your product was responsible.
Editing is storytelling, but stories don’t always have to flow linearly. Early in your video, specify to your audience that you have something interesting to say. Learn from the pros: James Bond movies, for example, don’t start with a boring explanation of the villain’s latest evil plot, but rather with a high-octane action scene that grabs the audience’s attention immediately.
Step 5: Creating cuts
A rough cut is all about finding the right way to tell a story with your video. In a written document, the rough cut would be the equivalent of the outline and first draft. But there’s more to editing: Just as you would refine a written text for style and powerful language, refine your video edit with better timing, transitions, additional material, and refined cuts.
Working on these elements is the style aspect of video editing, and it makes all the difference between a video that’s barely watchable and one that excites viewers.
A cut in film editing connects two shots. One shot ends and the next one begins, and between them is a cut. The word cut comes from the act of physically cutting celluloid film in traditional movie editing. Today, in the age of digital editing, no cutting is taking place, though the name stuck.
Different types of cuts serve different purposes. Depending on the effect you want to achieve, use one of these cut types:
Hard: This is the most basic (and by far the most frequently used) type of cut. One shot ends, and the next shot starts immediately. Both the picture track and the soundtrack are cut at the same time.
Transition: One shot flows into the next with some kind of visual effect. The simplest form of transition is the fade, which softly transitions one picture to the next. You can use many different types of other transitions, some of which can look quite elaborate; use such transitions with caution, since the editing should be felt not seen. You don’t want to take away from the viewing experience with starburst transitions every minute. Use transitions to suggest a special relationship between two shots, such as a scene transition.
Cross fade: This cut type can be used between shots as a softer replacement for hard cuts. If you want to edit to slow music and achieve a flowing pace, the fade is a useful technique.
Jump: Cut from one view of a person or an object to another one that’s only slightly different. You should generally avoid using the jump cut, but it can be used occasionally for dramatic effect. It’s also used in interviews or talking-head videos to shorten a statement or to add visual variety. For example, the person who’s speaking can be shown in a medium shot while you cut to a slightly tighter shot for the next sentence.
Your rough cut probably uses plain hard cuts exclusively, but as you start refining your video, you may want to consider using these other types of cuts to help advance the story and make the viewing experience more sophisticated.
Many beginners in video editing overuse fancy transitions. Modern editing programs are supplied with dozens of different transitions, and spicing up a video with all that eye candy is tempting. But don’t forget that most viewers are more impressed by good storytelling than by overused special effects. A good rule of thumb is that 95 percent of your cuts should be plain hard cuts. If you use more than a handful of fades in your video, you’re probably overdoing it.
Step 6: Filling the gaps with B-roll
The term B-roll describes supplemental footage that can be used to provide additional context for the viewer or to fill gaps in the main storyline. Having plenty of good B-roll is always a good idea because it makes an editor’s life easier.
Use B-roll in your video in these common scenarios:
- Illustrate what a speaker or an interviewee is saying by showing the subject of the explanation.
- Add a bit of rhythm and visual polish to an otherwise long and visually boring scene.
- Separate scenes in a scripted video to give the viewer breathing room. Many TV series use a few pieces of B-roll between scenes — for example, in shots of the city where the story is taking place.
- Hide cuts in an interview or another continuous scene. If you have only one perspective of an interviewee, shortening the interview is difficult. Cutting directly looks jumpy and indicates that you’ve omitted material. If you cut instead to a piece of B-roll while the interviewee is still talking, you can easily mask the cut.
- Disguise small flaws in the footage. Did the camera suddenly shake in the middle of the interview, or did the subject move briefly out of focus? No problem — simply use a bit of B-roll to hide the mistake.
If you use B-roll only to disguise mistakes, your use of it may become too obvious. Use B-roll frequently to make your video more interesting and varied. But also avoid using B-roll that has nothing to do with the subject and doesn’t add true value.
Step 7: Polishing Your Video
After you refine your rough cut into a well-timed, well-trimmed video, it’s time to apply the final layer of polish. A bit of further fine-tuning makes the difference between an acceptable video and one that looks truly professional.
1. Fine-tuning your edit
Videos can benefit from a number of relatively simple steps you can follow to improve certain aspects that viewers may not even consciously recognize:
Tweak your cut timing. If a cut seems even a little bit off, spend some time fine-tuning it. Even placing a cut a frame or two earlier or later can make a difference.
Add music. You may have already worked with some temporary music tracks during earlier editing steps, but now is the time to finalize all of your audio and background tracks.
Clean up the audio track. Most audio tracks can use some additional work. Be sure that the levels are correct and consistent throughout the video. Viewers don’t like viewing one scene that’s too loud followed immediately by one that’s barely audible. Some editing programs have the Normalize Audio function, which optimizes audio levels automatically. Also, hard audio cuts rarely sound good. You can add a dis- solve transition to the audio track while still applying a hard cut to the picture track.
Use color correction. Scenes in general should have a consistent look between shots; different video cameras can pick up different color influences. The color-correction feature in most editing programs will help fix color inconsistencies between shots and scenes. Color- correction also lets you give your video a unique and more interesting feeling. For instance, bluer light or colder light is used in many crime scenes, more yellow or warmer light is typically used in more romantic movies.
2. Adding bells and whistles
You can add a number of elements, as described in this list, to complete your video and make it look more interesting:
Titles: A video should have a good title sequence, and editing programs offer a variety of different templates. Try a few different styles to see what works best. A general rule for any text on screen is viewers should be able to read it quickly twice. Be sure your title sequences are not too long, viewers on YouTube typically have less patience than viewers in the movie theater.
Sound effects: A well-placed sound effect can make certain scenes much more interesting. We aren’t talking about explosions, alien ray gun sounds, or Wilhelm Screams, but about basic background tracks or sounds that match the visible content on the screen. Sometimes, your original background sounds for a scene aren’t good, and you can use canned sounds to replace them. Some editing programs come with small libraries of sound effects, and you can find more online.
Visual effects: Most editing programs have effect filters that change the look of your footage completely. Though you should always use these effects sparingly, they may occasionally help make your video look more interesting.
You can experiment with bells and whistles in the earlier stages of the editing process, though you typically should wait until the end of your editing process before trying to use them fully. They’re typically time-consuming to apply, and if you change your edit afterward, you may have to do unnecessary work.
Step 8: Adding Voiceover and Sound Effects
Many videos used for marketing employ voiceover narration, using offscreen narrators to tell viewers about the company’s products or services. Most video editing programs have a voice-over recording feature, which is useful if you’re recording your own voice directly into your computer.
To record your own voiceover, invest in a mid-quality external microphone. You can buy good USB microphones for well below $100 — a worthy investment because your voice-over tracks will sound much better.
As with voice-over narration, you can also add sound effects. Most noises you hear in a typical Hollywood movie aren’t recorded live on the set but are added later in the process. Recording sounds on location is tricky and often creates mediocre results.
So, sound effects are most often added during the editing process. This list describes the major kinds of sound effects you can use:
Background or ambient: Continuous background noises that suggest where the video scene is taking place work well to establish the location. For example, a busy city scene needs vehicle noises, lots of footsteps, and the occasional siren. A beach scene needs wind and water sounds. These background sounds are easy to apply. If you can, record a few minutes of ambient sound on your video set to capture the audio character of the location.
Hard: This type of sound effect accompanies visible events onscreen, such as slamming doors or passing vehicles. This type is a little more difficult to apply because they must be synced precisely to the picture, though most editing programs let you do it quite easily.
Most advanced video-editing programs are supplied with a small library of basic sound effects that you can easily use in your edits. Just add an audio track, drag in the sound recording you want, and shift the track around until it fits the scene.
You can find additional sound effects online from stock sound libraries such as Shockwave-Sound.com (www.shockwave-sound.com) and Soundsnap (www.soundsnap.com). Most of these sounds have specific descriptions, such as “Cars passing by at 25 mph on a somewhat busy street,” so you can likely find something suitable.
Step 9: Exporting the Final Version
When you finally finish editing, you export the video from your editing program so that you can use it later.
Typically, you should export multiple versions of a video because you can use the final product in different ways:
Export an archive master copy with the highest possible quality that your editing program offers. You can always decrease, but not increase, quality (and therefore file size). That’s why you should store a high-quality copy, in case you want to create other versions later.
Keep a copy just for YouTube purposes: YouTube export settings are always changing, so be sure to double-check the current best practices for settings directly on your YouTube channel upload page. Typically the settings look like this:
- Container: mp4
- Audio Codec: AAC-LC
- Video Codec: H.264
- Acceptable and common frame rates: 24, 25, 30, 48, 50, 60 frames per second
- Aspect Ratio: YouTube players are all 16:9, a typical resolution is 720p: 1280×720
Most of the editing programs let you directly upload videos to your YouTube channel. Uploading this way is convenient, but if you notice a mistake after uploading the video, you’ll have to remove it, which can be a hassle.
Normally, exporting video to your hard drive first is recommended for backing up and test purposes — watch it one last time, and then upload it manually to gain more control over every step.