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Resident Editor
Six Keys to Editing Success

by Craig Tollis

What do you need to work as a professional editor? Here are six areas I've found to be important when working on television and corporate video edits:

  • Speed
  • Organization
  • Precision
  • Technical Knowledge
  • Project Formats
  • Working with Others

Speed

As much as we'd like to think of ourselves as creative types, an awful lot of professional editing comes down to speed. It's the nature of the industry that there is always a deadline and never as much time (or money) as everyone would like.

Your producer should understand if you need some time to become familiar with a new facility or a project when you are first getting starting, but you should be able to come up to speed fairly quickly. If you are doing something for the first time or learning something new as you go (which sometimes happens even to experienced people) you might want to make sure your producer is aware of this, to avoid disappointment and potential embarrassment later on.

A great part of speed is technique. If you can get together a complete, but rough, version of your piece quickly, you then have time to go back and refine it. There is a temptation to try to perfect every part of your project as you go, but the worst situation to have is a deadline rapidly approaching with large sections of your project that haven't even been started. If you have a complete rough, you have something that, for better or worse, is at least "finished" and potentially usable. This will also let you discover potential problem areas early on in the edit.

Think of it this way - speed enables creativity. The more quickly you can get through the basics, the more time you have for refinement, improvement, and adding creative touches. Also keep in mind that you may be paid by the day or the hour, so the more you get done the better value you represent to the people who use you and the more likely they are to want to work with you.

Organization

Although the overall organization of the project will be the responsibility of the producer, being organized in your editing process will help you be more efficient, avoid making mistakes and generally appear to be in better control of what you're doing.

If a producer or client asks you for something, knowing where it is and finding it quickly makes a much better impression than a confused and frantic search. This applies both to how your organize your project in the edit system, and how you have organized files, information and physical media in your edit suite.

Precision

A big difference I found between editing classes and professional work is what constitutes a finished product. Sometimes you'll have space in which to be creative, but in the professional world the first requirement is usually that your projects meet specific goals, sometimes in very specific formats.

You will typically be given specifications for your project, either verbally, in written or script form, that the producer, writer, client and perhaps an entire committee of people have spent a lot of time planning, preparing, and approving. You will be expected to do your best to implement the project as it has been designed by the other people working on it.

Of course, there is some level of give and take. There are details that will be entirely up to you and your producer, and there are things that seem like a good idea on paper but just don't work in the edit. Part of your creativity is to come up with alternatives that meet the project's goals better than the way it was originally planned. You will generally be able to discuss changes. The producer will probably want to see your best attempt at following the original plan and then your alternative. It also helps if you can explain, in a constructive way, why it might be better to do something differently.

There is room for creativity and imagination, but be aware of the goals for your project and make sure you meet them.

Technical Knowledge

What you'll need to know technically varies with the job. If you're at a large facility, there may be engineers or other editors to help you. If you're on your own, it pays to know as much as possible about the edit system you're using. If you go to a new facility, don't be afraid to ask someone to show you how their specific system is set up.

The most basic thing you need to know is how to capture and output footage with optimal settings. On DV or firewire systems this usually straight forward, but with other formats like digital Betacam, and any analog format, knowing how to set correct video and colors levels is essential. Again, you should be able to ask someone at a facility for the specifics of their set up, but you should know how to operate a timebase corrector and read waveform and vector scopes.

Next, it helps to know how to deal with the inevitable quirks that plague most edit systems. A surprising amount of equipment and software does not work precisely the way it is supposed to--but only under certain circumstances... sometimes... maybe. Dealing with this is mostly experience in learning fixes and work-arounds, knowing web sites and discussion forums you can consult online, or having somebody you can call in case of emergency.

Although "Broadcast Quality" is becoming something of an anachronism, you'll be expected to notice and correct small technical problems before they are caught by a producer, quality control reviewer, or somebody further up the production chain. You need to develop a sensitive eye for small imperfections that can otherwise come back to haunt you when you think a project is done. Common issues are flash frames, missing or corrupted dissolves, and poor coordinating of timing when many things are happening on screen simultaneously.

If you are sending material to a station or network for broadcast you will generally be given a set of specifications about video and levels, formats for bars, slates, black and breaks, timecode, and other technical information. This tends to be station specific and requirements are usually very precise. Your tapes are likely to be returned to you to fix if they are not precisely correct.

In a small facility where you are working by yourself you may need to know how to reboot a crashed edit system, reformat or stripe media drives, stripe or black tapes for output, check audio or video connections, or even connect a microphone, deck or other equipment needed for an edit. What you will need to know varies -- you are an editor, not an engineer -- but more is always an advantage. Make sure to check with whoever is in charge of the facility before making a drastic change, such as reformatting a media drive.

Project Formats

I took many advanced Avid classes in college, so when I got out I thought of myself as knowing how to edit. I had the technical chops to run the machine and a good aesthetic sense. What I found I didn't know, and have spent some time learning, is formats.

There is a basic formula, or format, for most types of projects -- commercials, new segments, corporate pieces, even short films and features. There is a jargon that goes along with each that you need to understand and be able to use. What if you are handed some tapes and asked to cut a "nat sound piece," or a VNR?

Producers vary on the amount of guidance they want, or are able to give you. Your producer will usually understand the overall goal for a piece, but not necessarily the blow-by-blow details, and almost certainly not the technical intricacies of implementing them in the edit system. Sometimes it will be assumed that you will know the basic elements that make up each kind of project and do not need to be told explicitly what to do.

Your best resource for this kind of information is another editor, perhaps a book or website on the subject, and research. If you know you are going to be working on a certain type of project, watch as many of those kinds of things as you can and try to get a feel for structure and techniques. Producers will not expect you, or want you, to reinvent the wheel so much as produce new and interesting twists on established forms.

Working with people

The most common complaint from producers is that new editors know the technology but don't know how to deal with people. Editing is an inherently collaborative process. Somebody else has originated and will sign off on everything you do. How your producer feels about you when he or she walks out of your edit suite is as much about your success as the work you did.

Frequently, you'll have to be diplomatic about something that doesn't work. Instead of just saying no, which will get you a reputation for being difficult or negative, you'll need to demonstrate the problem and offer a solution. Editing is a curious relationship where you are the expert but not the authority for what is being done. Ultimately, and unfortunately, you're also the one who has to suck it up in the end and go along with whatever the producer or client decides.

This is not to say that you should expect to be treated unprofessionally or constantly criticized. If you don't get along with a producer, and he or she obviously isn't happy with your ideas, work or results, it is best for both of you if you don't work together - although exactly how this plays out will depend on your circumstances. It's generally in your best interests to be as positive and diplomatic as possible and avoid confrontation.

Remember, you are part of a team working towards a goal -- usually a very specific goal that has to be completed in a specific time. Ask your producer what deadlines he or she needs to meet. For example, ask when a rough cut or an approval copy needs to go out, or what a client or superior might want to see during a review.

Editing is as much about developing a working relationship with your producer as it is about skills and knowledge. I never consider myself there to just push the buttons, especially now that I have years of experience in seeing what works and what doesn't. On the other hand, I am there to do a job for the producer, not to satisfy my own creative urges.

Ideally you will find people to work with who appreciate what you bring to the edit session, will let you use your judgment and creativity, will give you enough direction to do the job right the first time, and will love what you make out of their project.

Note: Craig Tollis is an Atlanta-based editor and Filmmaker with ten years of experience. He will gladly answer your editing questions. Just email: craig@screenreport.com.