Note: This is the first article in a new regular column by Craig
Tollis. We invite you to send your comments or questions to Craig
Craig will gladly answer your questions in upcoming columns.]
By Craig Tollis
Editing is one of the most invisible, difficult to describe, elements
of filmmaking. It's not obvious where the subtleties and nuances
lie in cutting together shots to make sequences, sequences to make
scenes, and scenes to make a story. Despite the fact that audiences
have an immediate, intuitive appreciation for good editing over
bad, many of the details and niceties of the craft only start to
make sense once you've sweated for a while over why something does
or does not work.
In the ten years I've worked and trained
as a editor, I've learned something from every project I've been
on, and from every editor I've worked with. This article is not
intended to be a comprehensive explanation of the edit process,
which would take an entire book. I'll try to touch on a variety
of basic concepts which I've found important and helpful or difficult
and confusing in my own experience.
Editing is, in the end, a personal and
subjective art. Every editor has his or her own preferences about
what is done and how it is done. Yet, while there is no one right
way to edit, there are lots of wrong ways. At least, there are counterproductive
ways and things that you think will work but don't. There are also
the basics that you never seem to be able to get away from.
So, for the sake of discussion, let's break editing down into three
elements: 1) organizational, 2) technical and 3) creative.
Depending on the size of the team and
the budget of the project, some of these responsibilities might
be taken on by assistants or other post-production facilities, but
the editor has ultimate responsibility for the project coming together
to getting a good result, and so he or she should still be aware
of these issues.
Everyone in the production process should
be involved in keeping things organized, but since the edit suite
is the place where it all comes together, the ultimate practical
responsibility tends to fall to the editor. Good organization is
essential on a complex project with hundreds of tapes and multiple
editors, but it's an advantage on any sized project.
Organization on the front end enables creativity on the back end
- because you've already gotten the boring stuff out of the way.
When you sit down to edit a scene, you want quick and easy access
to your footage, to see your options immediately, and to be able
to get into the groove and feel of what you're cutting, not constantly
puzzling and searching over locations of shots or wondering what
your options are.
This seems dead obvious, but tape organization
is one of the most common issues that arise on a project. It's potentially
one of the most expensive and embarrassing problems you can have
if you lose footage and have to reshoot. Where's the tape from the
second half of last Saturday? Didn't we shoot something down at
the hospital? Where's that? Is it still in the camera? Whose camera
Tapes should be rounded up as soon as
possible after shooting. Someone in camera department should be
responsible for this, but it doesn't hurt to ask nicely what their
process is and perhaps suggest what is helpful to you in editorial.
Most of the time you'll want tapes removed from all cameras at the
end of the day, even if you only shot a little on a tape. The cost
of another blank tape is a lot less than having to reshoot something
if you lose the footage.
Printing out labels with a unique tape
ID is a good idea. It reduces the chances of assigning duplicate
tape numbers. Typically one label is put on the tape itself (being
careful not to obstruct the mechanism) and a second with the same
ID is put on the tape box. Plan where shot tapes will be stored,
usually in the edit suite, where they can be ready for capturing.
It's best to get tapes out of bags, cases or cars as soon as possible
and into a temperature controlled environment.
Projects, Bins, Folders and Sequences
As non-linear editing systems have become
more powerful and more flexible, it's become increasingly important
that editors choose to be organized. The tendency is to let your
project develop in an ad hoc way as footage comes in and you start
to work on it. However, there's a huge advantage to taking time
beforehand to think about how you're going to arrange things.
If your project breaks down into sections, e.g., by scenes, segment
or topics, consider organizing your bins and folders to group elements
together for each section, plus a few for miscellaneous. They key
is to give yourself an easy way to find related footage during the
edit. As you go along, make sure any new material goes into the
correct bin for its purpose. This also makes it easier to see what
footage you have and what you're missing at any particular time.
On long form projects, we frequently
use multiple sequences divided up in a similar way - by scene number,
topic or program segment. Working with short sections simplifies
things and reduces the chance of making a mistake that impacts your
entire project. It also makes you think about the length, content
and meaning of each section against the others in the project before
you start putting them together.
There's a temptation to capture footage
in large slabs for the sake of convenience. If you have time, however,
it's always better to log your footage shot by shot and capture
clips in short sections. This will sometimes make your captures
more reliable, and will often make your edit system more stable.
It generally gives you more flexibility when dealing with these
shorter media files, especially if you'll need to move them around
or share them.
There are a variety of different schemes
for naming clips. If you're cutting a feature, you should have scene
and take numbers. Alternatively, you might want to include brief
shot descriptions (WS, MS, CU, pan left, push in, etc.) in the clip
names or in comments. For sound bites it's not unusual to use the
interviewee's name followed by the first and last few words of the
Whatever method you choose, it helps
to be consistent. The key, again, is to think about the clip in
terms of how you will use it in the finished piece - what the clip
means to the project.
Organizing the Timeline
I'm a huge fan of timeline readability
- using tracks, particularly audio tracks, in a consistent way,
having meaningful names for clips, and generally keeping things
as simple as possible. If you always lay your music onto channels
5 and 6, for example, you can look at a sequence and instantly know
where you've laid music and where you haven't. We typically break
our sound out on the same tracks every time this way (primary voice,
voice over, natural sound, music, sound FX). It's also valuable
if you can keep your video tracks laid out in a simple way so you
see what is going on at a glance: titles, visual effects and so
Timeline readability also plays a big role for me in reducing mistakes,
or finding and correcting them: locating black holes or flash frames,
seeing where sound or music might be missing, noticing where something
has been accidentally added or deleted or is out of sync. If you
stick to a regular plan in the way you lay out your timeline, mistakes
and problems will jump out at you immediately, rather than having
to be caught during an output or at a screening.
Next time: Technical Editing.
Please send any questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.