How to make your video editing easier

Every time I start a new project in Final Cut Pro, I get an anxious feeling as I stare at that blank timeline. This is a critical time for all editors, because it means you have to finally commit to the story you want to tell. Unlike video editors working on long-term documentaries, newspaper videojournalists have to turn and burn pretty quickly. Most of the video projects I produce, I have less than one or two days to shoot and edit. That means I’d better have the story structure sketched out in my brain even before I put the tape in my camera. Here are some of the things I do to make my video edit easier later:

  • When I am shooting a story, I’m always asking myself: “How am I going to get into my story (opener), and how am I going to get out (ender.)” The way you shoot your story will either lead to an efficient edit, or a nightmare, where time falls through the rabbit hole, as you try to create a story from a mishmash of clips.
  • I’ve written about this ad nauseam, but will continue to preach it–Define your story before you start to shoot. Simplify your grand plans. If you’re not doing some definitive documentary, then you will only have one to three minutes to get in and out of your story. Beware of tangents that can lead you off on a different path.
  • Identify your subjects early. I ask myself: “Who is going to help me tell this story?” The person that becomes the narrative thread needs to be compelling. I look for characters first–people who ooze personality. When I’m at an event, I start asking people, “Who has the biggest mouth?” Usually all fingers point to one person. That bigmouth is where I start first.
  • How you interview a subject is critical. Being a one-man band, I don’t have the luxury of having a reporter to do the interview for me. That means I need to get the narrative I will need to construct my story later. Long, rambling interviews, will slow you down when you start to edit. Ask the right questions that elicit tight answers full of information and passion. It’s important to keep eye contact with your subjects. If they stare at the lens, they will have that deer in headlights look. I like to give exaggerated facial cues to my subjects to let them know what they are saying is right on. Getting a subject to open up quickly will only help you later when you do your edit.
  • Shoot video of what your subject talked about. This is hugely important. When you can connect related video with the narrative, your video edit will crackle. Don’t forget to shoot b-roll of the people you interview. This will help you cover the talking head later.
  • Shoot more b-roll than you think you will need. As I learn more and more about story pacing, I realize that 5 to 8 second video clips are just too long. Editing shorter sequences of wide, medium and tight will really help keep your viewer engaged in the story. Don’t give them a chance to be bored. I have to remind myself at this point to be creative. Your b-roll is where your vision comes into play. Get your knees dirty, think in layers, shoot lots of tight details.  Put your camera on a tripod and shoot long telephoto shots that fill the frame. Doing so will help you craft an edit with lots of visual variety. Finally, make sure you have a couple of wide establishing shots. You will use them in your edit later.
  • Shoot the action, but don’t forget to shoot the reaction. Let’s say I am shooting someone making a widget. I would shoot a wide shot of them in the room, then move in and shoot a medium shot of them working on the widget. Then I would capture a tight shot of the hands working on the widget. The next shot is what many inexperienced video shooters fail to get. Turn the camera up and shoot the face (reaction.) Later, when you’re assembling this sequence, you’ll have that face shot that will rock on your timeline.
  • Shoot lots of nat sound pops. This TV term is something newspaper videojournalists need to master. A nat sound pop is a short video clip—maybe a second or two long–that has a compelling burst of sound. It can be someone’s reaction to a fire, a cheer at a football game or a quick blast of natural sound like a train whistle. Be on the lookout for these pops. Trust me, they will help your edit later.
  • Finally, look for transitional pictures that will help you deal with changes in time. Going from day to night in your story? A sunset shot will help your viewers make that leap in time. 

18 thoughts on “How to make your video editing easier

  1. I’m not a reporter but your ideas on how to cover a story using video are nothing short of brilliant! I think they are applicable to a much wider audience than just other print reporters-cum-videographers.

    My favorite part is you don’t write too much. Must be your reporter background. Short, to the point and you don’t bury the lead.

    Thanks for sharing.



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  4. Sounds like someone has been to the National Assocaition of Press Photographers bootcamp. Narrow you focus, Action/Reaction, Everything has a sound, Make your subjects comfortable, Beginning/middle/end, transitions.

    While they may be new to you and the evolving platipi of the printed page, they are the hammers, box wrenches, pliers, and screw drivers, in every TV photog’s tool box. Glad to see you’ve found them. They’ll take your stories to the next level. Just don’t think fool yourself into believing you’ve stumbled onto something new.

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  7. Turdpolisher (Rick),

    I realize what I’m suggesting is nothing new to the guys and gals carrying monstercams. What you might not understand is that they’re literally hundreds of newspaper journalists being asked (or told) to shot video for their publications. Most are not given the training to be successful.

    Everything I suggest here are things I have incorporated into my own storytelling. I learned by studying the powerful work done by TV news shooters like John Goheen, Jim Bolser, and Scott Jensen. I learned (from my failures) by shooting and editing hundreds of videos in the last four years for my newspapers website. I had the fundementals ingrained into me during nine days of being tortured by P.F. Bentley and Dirck Halstead at the Platypus Workshop. I know I am preaching to your choir, but TV news shooters are not who I’m trying to help. Rick, I’m not some false prophet. I know I still have a long way to go to reach the skill level of the average TV news shooter. But watch for me in your rearview mirror. I’m learning fast.

  8. We understand, Colin and welcome the competition. Truth is, we’re probably a little defensive from being taken for granted by our own management all those years, then dismissed as dinosaurs by online neophytes. The tips you’ve listed and names you dropped tell me you’re well on your way. Eventually we’ll all meet in the middle and have drinks.

  9. Colin,

    I take no offense at any of this. I’m glad to see others embracing good storytelling techniques. I’m just a little crustier than most.

    I actually applaud what you’re doing here. I’ve sent more than a few print shooters from the local fish-wrap to your site. It’s a great place for them to start. They already have the basics they just need a place to run along side and hold the seat when the training wheels come off.

    I think you’re doing a fine job communicating it all. And with a site like this, the transition will be much less painful.

    The only time I get my back up is when the guys with ink in their veins act like the tools we television guys have been using for years is a new discovery.

    Again, I applaud your efforts to expand visual storytelling to a whole new breed of video journalists. Sharing our experiences and learning from each other is the only way to take it to the next level.

    I’ll get the second round, and I’ll leave my crusty on-line persona at the keyboard. I’m really a nice guy.

    Welcome to the scrum.


  10. Thanks Rick,

    Last night, a story I did with a freelance TV news producer, was broadcast on my local PBS station. I think in a few years video news shooters will all just going blend together. We who hoist the video camera, should not be judged by the medium we work in, but rather let us be defined by how good we can tell a story.

  11. Nice post! Your tips are very interesting and informative, maybe that’s a good thing to do when editing a video easier. I should try what you do. Thanks!

  12. Colin,

    You have obviously been editing for quite a while. I’m a professional editor as well. While often I read posts where editors speak in a non-helpful “editor’s language” and tell you that you need all these fancy video cards and tools to edit something when you really don’t, you cover the basics for what you really DO need, which is lots of b-roll, reaction for the action, and more footage than you’ll use. I’m editing a reality show right now, and my biggest challenge has not been what’s there, but what’s not there. Great blog man, and great advice. Check out some of my own work on the link below my name.


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