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The Organizational of Editing

[Editor's 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 at 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.

Tape Organization

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 was that?

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.

Organizing Clips

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 clip.

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 on.
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




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