You’ve wrapped principal photography on your video. Now it all comes down to the edit; assembling all the pieces to make a compelling, cinematic narrative.
Many photographers who have moved into motion work say that they learned the most about how to shoot video while trying to edit their own work, or by working closely with video editors. Their feedback on technical mistakes, the types of footage they were missing and how to best to organize their clips can be crucial to understanding how to approach a video project.
We asked some experienced editors to provide insights into their work and some advice for new directors.
PROVIDE ENOUGH COVERAGE, AND A VARIETY OF IT.
For photographers used to capturing decisive moments, the biggest adjustment when shooting video is learning what to shoot; the goal is to provide the editor with the footage they need to weave together multiple clips with smooth transitions. Photographers used to looking only for the best compositions need to learn how to shoot the same scene in many ways while keeping the look consistent.
“I like working with photographer/directors,” says Raphael Rice, who edited Seeds of Hope
, a documentary for the non-profit World Vision directed by photographer-turned-director Josh Victor Rothstein
. “They have a good eye, and as an editor it makes my job easier to work with good shooters because the footage is more likely to be usable. But it’s not automatic.”
Some photographers may not be used to finding and making use of multiple angles. Rice says, “A good shooter can make it seem like there were two cameras in the room by shooting from two different angles. In order to do that, they have to understand how angles work narratively, how close or how far they have to be, so as to feel like it is still the same scene even though the two shots are from different moments.”
As an example, Rice notes, “After the main conversation is captured, if I get some coverage of a conversation from an angle where I don’t see the subject’s lips moving, that will be very useful as a cutaway.” A cutaway—footage inserted into the flow of continuous action—can be used to avoid abrupt jumps by the subject. Seeds of Hope, for example, features an interview with actor and World Vision spokesperson Hugh Jackman, shot with the camera placed close to the subject and then further away, on a different angle. Rice pieced together footage from each angle seamlessly, intercutting footage of Jackman on his way to testify at the United Nations.
He adds, “The director has to have a sense that they have gotten enough… synced conversation, and while that conversation is still going on, at risk of not capturing the subject’s face when something important is said, they will move to a new angle and get some good cutaways. The shooter has to be thinking on many levels to pull that off.”
GET THE BEST AUDIO YOU CAN.
“Focus on getting clean sound, because that will make a bad film seem better,” Rice says. Checking sound quality and audio levels while also shooting and directing is difficult, so many editors recommended working with a good crew that includes an audio engineer.
To get high-quality sound, directors and their crew typically choose to use an external recording device rather than record sound directly to the camera. That creates an additional problem: syncing audio with visuals. “I’ve actually been handed a lot of footage that is not slated. Getting raw footage and un-slated audio files is my worst nightmare,” says Stephen Venezia, a director and editor at Nimblefox Productions
. Venezia, who has worked on music videos for Paramore (directed by Sophia Peer)
and Girl Talk (directed by Allen Cordell), says, “Sometimes I’ll have to sit down with five hours of talking heads and have no idea which audio files belong to which video files.”
When recording interviews, Venezia recommends noting the take and subject, and always using a clapboard. If you’re not using an electronic clapboard or slating app, write down the timecode on your digital recording device, or call out the take and subject at the start of the recording. If you’re paying an editor by the hour, syncing the audio saves money.
DIRECT FOR ACTION, NOT COMPOSITION.
“Sometimes when I get footage from a photographer moving into video, I tend to notice that the model—or whoever they’re shooting—might be a little more rigid,” says Venezia. It’s a problem an editor can’t fix. Learning to direct subjects with an eye for body language and emotion takes practice; good video casting also helps. Before attempting to work with actors, he says, “I think people need to understand how to direct for video as opposed to just for photos.”
DON’T LOSE SIGHT OF THE STORY YOU’RE TELLING.
There’s a lot to remember when shooting multiple takes from multiple angles. The goal, however, is not so different than when shooting stills: to communicate a story. Stephen Mlinarek
, who edited a video for 2b bebe (directed by fashion photographer Brooke Nipar)
, says photographers already know how to capture mood, tell a story, and communicate a client’s message. “Making the leap from one medium to the other, it’s easy to forget that your goals are the same when caught up in how simultaneously exciting and difficult the prospects of film production are,” he says. His advice: “Remember what you’re trying to say.”
Venezia observes, “I think that people who might be unfamiliar with video tend to shoot a lot of content and then just hand it to an editor and say, ‘Assemble this.’” Directors need to pre-visualize all the material they want. Storyboards can guide the shoot; they’re also useful when it’s time to explain the story to the editor. Venezia recommends designating a note-taker during shoots, marking which takes worked and which ones had technical problems or audio flubs.
UNDERSTAND WHAT IT WILL TAKE TO DO THE JOB.
“There’s an expectation some newbies have about what can be achieved that isn’t realistic within their content, budget or timeline,” says Mlinarczik. He advises directors, “It’s far more beneficial to ask me what’s possible instead of telling me what you think I should be able to do within a given period of time.”
Depending on the video format you choose and the editor’s software, the editor may need to convert or transcode the video files. In planning a budget and schedule for a job, Rice says, “I like to build in a tech day” devoted simply to organizing and prepping all the files.
The most time-consuming part of an editor’s job is reviewing all the footage. “More footage is more time. It doesn’t matter if you want a 30-second piece; if you hand me ten hours of footage, it’s going to be a long edit,” Rice says.
He adds, “The more you can do to be organized—narratively, technically—the happier I am.”