Video Editing, Part VI
In this module we'll cover the final editing guidelines.
Guideline number 4: Cut away from the scene the moment the visual statement is made.
First, a personal observation. From the perspective of having taught video production for more than two decades I can say that more than 90% of the videos I see from students are too long. Most could be vastly improved by being edited down -- often, by at least 50%.
When I tell students this they seem skeptical until I show them sample scenes from commercials, dramatic productions, and resume reels from noted professionals.
If you ask someone if he or she enjoyed a movie and they reply, "Well, it was kind of slow," that will probably be a movie you will avoid. "Slow moving" connotes boring.
The pace of a production rests largely with the editing, although the best editing won't save bad acting or a script that is boring to start with.
So how long should scenes be? That depends.
First, keep in mind that audience interest quickly wanes once the essential visual information is conveyed. Shots with new information stimulate viewer interest.
In this regard there are some additional points to consider.
New vs. Familiar Subject Matter
Shot length is in part dictated by the complexity and familiarity of the subject matter.
How long does it take for a viewer to see the key elements in a scene? Can they be grasped in a second (take a look at some contemporary commercials), or does the subject matter require time to study?
You wouldn't need a 15-second shot of the Statue of Liberty, because we've all seen it many times. A one- or two-second shot would be all you would need to remind viewers of the symbolism (unless, of course you were pointing out specific areas of damage, restoration, or whatever).
On the other hand, we wouldn't appreciate a one or two second shot of a little green Martian who just stepped out of a flying saucer on the White House lawn.
Those of us who haven't seen these space creatures before would want time to see what one really looks like.
In an earlier module we mentioned montage editing. With this technique shots may be only a fraction of a second (10-15 video frames) long. Obviously, this is not enough time even to begin to see all of the elements in the scene.
The idea in this case is simply to communicate general impressions, not details. Commercials often use this technique to communicate such things as excitement or "good times."
Next, cutting rate depends on the nature of the production content.
For example, tranquil pastoral scenes imply longer shots than scenes of rush hour in downtown New York. You can increase production tempo by making quick cuts during rapid action.
Varying Tempo Through Editing
A constant fast pace will tire an audience; a constant slow pace will probably tempt them to look for something more engaging on another channel.
This is one of the reasons that editors like parallel stories in a dramatic production -- pace and content can be varied by cutting back and forth between stories.
How you start a production is critical, especially in commercial television.
If you start out slow (and boring?), your audience will probably immediately go elsewhere. Remember, it's during these opening seconds that viewers are most tempted to "channel hop" and see what else is on.
(How many times have you started to check out an movie on Netflix, and when it seemed to take too long to get into the story, switched to another option?)
Because the very beginning is so important, TV programs often show the most dramatic highlights of the night's program right at the start.
To hold an audience through commercials, newscasts regularly "tease" upcoming stories just before commercial breaks.
So, try to start out with segments that are strong -- segments that will "hook" your audience. But, once you have their attention, you have to hold onto it.
If the action or content peaks too soon and the rest of the production goes down hill, you may also lose your audience.
It's often best to open with a strong audio or video statement and then fill in needed information as you go along. In the process, try to gradually build interest until it peaks at the end. A strong ending will leave the audience with positive feelings about the program or video segment.
Sometimes a strong scene will start a dramatic production to engage attention and then a flashback such as "two weeks earlier" will explain how things got to that point.
However, jumping back and forth in time can easily end up confusing an audience whose attention is divided between competing factors.
To test their productions directors sometimes use special preview sessions to try out their productions on general audiences. A director will then watch an audience's reaction throughout a production to see if and exactly where attention drifts.
Guideline number 5: Emphasize the B-Roll. Howard Hawks, an eminent American film maker, said: "A great movie is made with cutaways and inserts." We've previously noted that these commonly go under the heading of B-roll footage.
In a dramatic production the B-roll might consist of relevant details (insert shots and cutaway shots) that add interest and information.
One critical type of cutaway, especially in dramatic productions, is the reaction shot -- a close-up showing how others are responding to what's gong on. Sometimes this is more telling than holding a shot of the person speaking.
For example, would you rather see a shot of the reporter or the person being interviewed when the reporter springs the question: "Is it true that you've just been caught embezzling a million dollars?"
The do's and don'ts of interviewing can be found here.
By using strong supplementary footage the amount of information conveyed in a given interval increases. More information in a shorter time results in an apparent increase in production tempo.
The A-roll in interviews typically consists of a rather static looking "talking head." In this case the B-roll should consist of scenes that support, accentuate, or in some way visually elaborate on what's being said.
For example, in doing an interview with an inventor who has just perfected a perpetual-motion machine we would expect to see his creation in as much detail as possible, and maybe even the workshop where it was built.
This B-roll footage would be more important to see than the A-roll (talking head) interview footage.
Guideline number 6: The final editing guideline is: If in doubt, leave It out.
If you don't think that a particular scene adds needed information, leave it out.
By including it, you will probably slow down story development, blur the focus of the production and sidetrack the central message.
For example, a TV evangelist paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy network time. He tried to make his message as engrossing, dramatic, and inspiring as possible.
But, during the message the director saw fit to cutaway to shots of cute, fidgety kids, couples holding hands, and other engaging things going on with the audience.
So, instead of being caught up in the message, members of the TV audience were commenting on, or at least thinking about, "that darling little girl on her father's shoulders," or whatever.
There may have been a time and place for this type of cutaway, but it was not in the middle of the evangelist's most dramatic and inspiring passages.
So, unless an insert shot, cutaway, or segment adds something significant to your central message, leave it out!
A recent study done at Columbia University and published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronics analyzed the editing of news pieces.
It was found that if a set of postproduction rules is used, viewers would be able to remember more information. In addition, the rules make the stories more compelling to watch.
Although the rules centered on news pieces, many of the principles apply to other types of production. The rules are condensed and paraphrased below.
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