If you’re new or unfamiliar with the video editing process, starting a new edit may seem like a complex and daunting task.
As with anything complex, a good plan can make any sized project far more manageable. Applying a couple of simple rules will keep you focused on the message, making your final project far more elegant and effective.
I do this by repeatedly considering 4 things throughout every edit:
What is the critical information I need to convey?
How am I going to end?
How am I going to start?
What can I take out that’s not relevant?
This may seem simple (or even obvious) at first glance, but don’t think for a second this is some film-school, academic discussion. Every day I edit, these 4 items are considered law of the edit bay, applied with each shot selection, to every cut and every review.
Here’s a breakdown of each step to understand why.
What critical information do I need to convey?
The most important job as an editor; Be sure viewers understand the information being presented. What should your viewers understand when they’re done watching your video? That key reveal? The information can be anything, such as how a protagonist reacts to his true love leaving, or the knowledge there’s a butcher knife in a certain kitchen drawer, or that some new paint brand repels water better than the competitor’s.
Knowing the final goal informs shot choices, shot lengths, music, everything from the start of production to delivery of the finished video. It’s the ruler by which all subsequent decisions are measured. The length of your project doesn’t matter. It can be a TV spot, a news piece, a single scene, or a feature film. Having that singular clear message from the beginning of an edit can make a huge difference in how your project is understood by viewers.
How am I going to end?
With the “key reveal” in hand, you need to know how it will be revealed, typically toward the end of the story. By knowing the ending, you can identify the things that need to happen beforehand to make that ending work. It allows you to see the connections that will eventually be the backbone of your edit. Often a lot of this is done for you in a good script, with solid production.
I originally came from a documentary background, where the story was often crafted from the raw footage, in the edit. In documentary production you rarely reshoot, so you must identify the primary elements “in the can”, then work backwards to build your story.
Even though I learned this approach from documentary production, this technique works with all edits because it helps define pacing, shot choice, and editorial decisions by focusing your goals.
Simply put, the ending of your story informs the beginning.
How am I going to start?
The start of a project is a magical place deserving of its own article but, to put it simply, the things you see at the start of a video is the promise of what’s to come. It’s a powerful opportunity for an editor to provide the viewer information and context for everything that follows.
There is an old axiom from Anton Chekhov that describes this quite well.
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.”
I won’t get into the academics here, as there is some flex in Chekhov’s words and how they might be applied to a modern edit, but the point is worth noting. What you see at the beginning has implications for the end. So, if the editor knows the end, they can better control the beginning and how the audience eventually experiences that end.
What can I take out, that’s not relevant?
As editors, we need to be persistent about removing distracting or redundant information. These rogue elements can dilute the impact of the “key reveal” and the information we need to convey. This persistence can be challenging to maintain, and often requires some practice and discipline. For example, this may require removing your favorite shot or scene from the final piece. It can be hard to accept, but you must trust the process. It’s for the good of the final production, and in the end, makes the project much clearer and more concise.
Sometimes I get stuck, or fear cutting something I might later regret. This happens to everyone but there’s an easy fix thanks to the magic of modern editing tools. Duplicate the editing timeline, then cut away everything you’re uncertain of in the back-up timeline. In most cases, you’ll never go back to the first timeline edit. Making these cuts, removing all the extra “stuff” can take a lot of discipline, requiring practice and practical experience to do well, but I guarantee, in the end, your story will be better for it.
I hope these tips are helpful the next time you start a new edit. Thanks for reading!