Video editing breakdown: “Everyone needs a painting”

It’s not often a video story comes knocking at my door. A few weeks ago, Pat Adams, my next-door neighbor, came over to my house to ask me how she could get in contact with Dan Pelle, a co-worker of mine at The Spokesman-Review. Adams told me she had painted a picture of Pelle’s dog Koko, who died in a vicious pit bull attack last year, and wanted give the painting to him.

I learned Adams has been churning out dozens of oil paintings of people’s pets that have died, and that most of the painting recipients had never met her. When she told me she did the paintings free of charge, I knew I had a story.

I spent a few mornings shooting Adams as she painted. As you watch the video, take note of some of the production and editing techniques I used:

I start the story with a video title card with music. This short opener allows web viewers to adjust their audio. It also makes a great thumbnail for Vimeo, if that is where you upload to.


I open the video with Adams painting at her kitchen saying: “I love to paint…”  I use a camera slider to add movement in the first two shots. It gives the video a cinematic feel and helps reveal my subject for the first time.

At 0.24 I introduce Adams with my opening narration. “For the past thirty years, artist Pat Adams has set up a painting easel and palette on her kitchen table…”  Yes, I could have told this story without narration, but I don’t think the storytelling would have been as efficient. In this video, I only narrate in places where the story needs definition or a transition of time or place.

When I started shooting with my Nikon D4 DSLR–a great low-light camera–I didn’t think I needed to light Adam’s kitchen. But the cool window light mixed with the warm incandescent light made it tough to get a clean white balance. Thankfully, I had a light kit at my house next door, and a few minutes later, I had two quartz halogen lights set up to bounce off the white kitchen ceiling. The white balance improved dramatically with the added warmer, softer light.

Audio. I love using a wireless mic on subjects. The audio is clean and dynamically full compared to using just a shotgun mic. It has one other huge benefit—it allows the subject to be more natural without having a big microphone pointed at them from a foot away. I can be across the room shooting wide shots and still be getting wonderful soundbites to use later in the edit. Where the wireless mic paid off in this story is when Adams would talk to the painting. Those parts were emotional gold when I assembled this story later in Final Cut Pro X.

In the first minute of the video, Adams reveals, as a young mother of a Down syndrome child, she had a small stroke. Her cardiologist told her she had to paint to relieve the stress. This is the first gold coin in the video. I don’t reveal the true direction of the story yet because I want to pull the viewer in and surprise them with the next revealing moment.

At 1.06, I say: “Adams put her brush to canvas. At this point in the video I use a super-tight shot of her brush dabbing the canvas with paint. This is one of my favorite clips in the video. I shot it with a 60mm macro lens. It helps hold viewer interest in the story because I am showing them something they can’t normally see.

The interview. I waited to do the interview until the second time I shot Adams painting. This allowed me to ask better questions. I kept a mental list to things Adams told me during the first shoot, which then helped me formulate better questions to ask her in the formal interview.

The next big gold coin comes at 1.47. Adams says: “I think the first animal I painted was Sage…” This is where the first emotional tug in the story comes. It reveals what the story is really about, and hopefully, keeps the viewer engaged in where the story is going.

Music. I learned a valuable lesson about how to use music after I posted the video asking for feedback on a Final Cut Pro X forum site. Professional editor Jeff Bartsch gave me this advice:

“Big sloppy rule of thumb: in much doc/reality/verite TV, you’ll find that most cues of music run between 30-60 seconds. Anything longer runs the risk of saying the same thing too many times or getting old. At the moment, the piece is 6 minutes and has only 2 cues of music that are pretty much the same, though the piece has multiple sections of exposition and progression of thought.”

What Bartsch helped me understand was I needed to use music as a transitional element. As the scenes, or tone of the story changed, so too should the music. I added in three more music tracks, each to fit the different tones of the story. It was a huge improvement (Thanks Jeff.)

At 2.15, I start showing some of Adam’s animal paintings. I used an out of focus photo of a painting palette as a colorful background. I use a drop shadow on the paintings to set them off a bit from the background.


The one thing I kept telling myself as I shot Adams as she painted was to, “shoot wide, medium, tight, tight, tight.” The variety of the tight shots really made the editing job easier because I could use those shots as transitions between scenes.

The next story gold coin comes at 3.07 when Adams says: “What’s the scariest thing in handing someone a painting”? I cut to Adams walking out of her kitchen with a dog painting and giving it to a young couple in the living room. Adams voice over continues to talk about her fear of rejection, but at the same time, the couple tells her they love and are amazed by her generous gift. This is where understanding the power of the edit—how you can weave different threads of narrative and have it all work together to advance the story–is so important.

At 4.00 I take Adams out of the house and into her car to deliver the painting to Dan Pelle. Other than knowing that she is bringing him a painting of his dog Koko, they had not met until he opens his door. I just told Dan I was going to be there and to just ignore me during their interaction.

I shot some driving scenes on the way, and then a shot of Adam’s pulling into the driveway. This is where it starts to get technically messy. I switched to a traditional video camera for these scenes, because in run-and-gun situations, I find a DSLR is too slow to focus and make auto balance corrections on the fly. And because my video camera has two channels of audio (shotgun on the camera and a wireless on Adams) it gave me backup audio if one of the audio channels failed.

My favorite edit comes as Adams exits her car and shuts the door. I straight cut directly to Pelle opening his front door and greeting Adams. In one simple edit, I cut a whole bunch of time out of getting Adams from her car to the front door. I think it works, but it is a bit jarring.

At 4.30, Adams is invited into the house. It is technically challenging to go from outside daylight to inside incandescent mixed light. I put the camera into full-auto mode and hoped for the best. As I headed into the house, the camera was recording Adams and the Pelle’s as they introduced themselves. I can’t really shoot any cut-aways to cover the weird transition of white balance and exposure shift. Later, as I was editing this scene, I added a still photograph of the dog painting to cover of some of bad color shift. I always strive for perfection, but sometimes it just out of reach.

The next gold coin is the interaction between Dan Pelle and Adams during the painting hand off. It is emotional (for her) and yet what Dan Pelle tells Adams is heartfelt.


So how to get out of this story? Ira Glass, producer of “This American Life” says that a good story has to have a moment of reflection to remind the viewer why it was worth spending their time watching your story. As I was reviewing my footage, I came across this audio gem: “Its wonderful to see them. It’s like having your pet back home. Everyone needs a painting,” said Adams. I knew this clip was going to be my ender, my moment of reflection in the story.

“Everyone needs a painting” has gotten a lot of positive feedback from viewers. “I’m bawling in front of my computer,” is one common comment on Facebook. Knowing that my edit instilled an emotional response, makes me feel confident I told a compelling story.


Get low-noise audio with a DSLR and a wireless microphone

The more I do video production with my Nikon D4 DSLR, the more I have come to like how it handles in-camera audio with an external mic attached. One of the big issues with the first generation video-enabled cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II and the Nikon D3s was they had limited audio capabilities. Many producers felt the need to record separate audio into a recorder like a Zoom H4n and then sync it later in post. What a pain. It’s one of the reasons I put off switching from a traditional video camera to a DSLR.

Sennheiser G2 Wireless MicWith my Nikon D3s, I went the route of trying to use a JuicedLink audio interface to manage my audio. The unit bolted on to the base of my camera, which made it feel bulky. It had great features like dual XLR audio inputs, levels monitoring and a headphone jack, but the truth is, on that piece of equipment, I could never dial in a clean audio signal.

A big part of the problem was the way the D3s handled audio with only three levels settings—high, medium and low. The last time I used the camera with the JuicedLink, I had such a high noise floor (a low background hiss) in my interview audio that I just left it on the shelf after that. Soon after, I upgraded to the Nikon D4 and have found I could generate low-noise audio, especially with a wireless mic, all without all the add-on accessories.

I like using a DSLR to shoot formal interviews. The shallow depth-of-field makes the subject look great. I use my trusted Sennheiser G2 wireless mic for my audio. Be advised,  out of the box the gain on these mics are set really high. The first time used it,  I had such distorted audio that it ruined the video story I produced for the newspaper. I quickly learned how to turn down the levels and make them work with my Sony Z1u video camera.

When I first used a wireless mic with My Nikon D4 (plugged directly into the camera’s mic jack,) I found the same high noise floor that my JuicedLink produced. After fooling around with the settings I came to this conclusion: I had to turn the levels on the mic back up and turn the camera audio levels way down. With the right balance (the mic sending the clean signal, which I assume overpowers the camera’s weak pre-amps), I now  get quality audio without a lot noise-floor hiss.

Is my camera audio as good as recording separately to a Zoom H4n? I’d say depends on what you are doing with the video. If its going to be broadcast on TV, or destined for the big screen, then maybe not. But, if you are producing for the Web like I am, I’d say it’s more than good enough.

You can hear an example of what my wireless Nikon D4 audio sounds like in the interview and voiceover audio in this video I produced for a speech therapy clinic:

Here are my settings:

On my Nikon D4 (the same as on the Nikon D800,) I set the camera on manual and dialed the camera audio down to number 4 level.

On the Sennheiser receiver pack (the one that connects to the camera) hit the “Set” button then toggle the left selection button until you get to “AF Out.” Hit “Set” again and toggle the left arrow until you see -12 Db. Hit “Set” again.

Next on the transmitter pack (the one connected to the lav mic) hit “Set” then toggle to “Sensit” and hit “Set” again. Toggle until you get -06 Db. Hit “Set” again.

Now do a test. Watch your in-camera levels. If they are too low, bump up your audio level to “5,” but no more. If they are still too low go back into the mic pack and set the AF Out level to -6 Db.

Just remember that there is no phantom power with DSLRs. You need battery power from the mic for it to work properly. I sometimes put my big Sennheiser ME-60 shotgun mic on top of camera and it works like a charm with very low noise. Just make sure you have a fresh battery in mic and that it is turned on. If you don’t, you won’t record any audio.

One of the great things about the new generation DSLR’s is that they have headphone jacks to monitor your audio. Use it, or you’ll regret it later (trust me on this one.)

Audio Recorder/Preamp Shootout

Robert Rozak, President of JuicedLink, compares and demonstrates the different preamps and digital recording devices for their low noise capabilities . The key information he stresses is that a preamps connected to a DSLR camera are just as good if not better that recording audio separately with say an Zoom H4n. Take a listen and judge for yourself.

Final Cut Pro’s Voice Over Tool is a Time Saver

recordIt took me forever, but I finally tried out Final Cut Pro’s voice over tool yesterday for a daily video I did about a 100 people who lined up at a hardware store to buy snow shovels. The record 60-inches of snow that has fallen in the last month in Spokane, has made snow shovels scarcer then George Bush is on the national scene. 

The voice over recording feature in Final Cut Pro is one I had almost forgotten about. Now that I have started to do more narration in my videos, I realized my present workflow was really inefficient. I had been using an Edirol -R9 digital recorder connected to condenser mic–a Rode NT3.  After recording a script with four or five takes, I would import the audio files into Final Cut via USB from the recorder. It was all very time consuming.

I’m still trying to get the hang of writing a video script.  I usually edit my video in a linear fashion, stopping to add narration when needed. I know this goes against the TV news model of recording the entire script and then quickly laying the b-roll and cutaways on top of the audio. I found the voice over tool is perfect for my editing style.

Here’s how it works. My newspaper bought a cheap USB audio mixer (it cost about $120 bucks) a while ago when we were kind of playing with podcasts. Since we gave that fad up, the mixer was just gathering dust. I rescued it and hooked it up to my Mac. I plugged in my Rode NT3 mic in via XLR cable, turned the power on and was good to go.

In my shovel video story, I would drop some edited b-roll clips on the timeline, then place my play head where I wanted to start my voice over. I went to: Tools>Voice Over to open the voice over tool. It was pretty simple from then on. I clicked the red record button and got a visual and audio countdown before the recording started. It automatically backs the play head up five seconds for the countdown.  I read my short script and when done, hit the space bar to stop recording. The audio clip then appeared in my timeline right where I had placed the play head.  I clicked into the timeline and listened to the clip.  If I hated it, I’d just hit delete it and do another take. 

Some things to remember: You’ll want to make sure you have video clips on the timeline because the voice over tool won’t record on a blank timeline. Also, it won’t record past to end of the last clip or a blank spot between two clips on the timeline.

Update: Peter Saliva adds this even better tip for recording without video on the timeline:

“Another trick you can try when using the voice over tool: set an in and out point in your time line where no media exists, for say 2 minutes. Then you have established a duration in which your voice over can be recorded and you don’t need to have media present. You can record multiple takes without the hassle of muting or disabling additional audio tracks with other media.”

Final Cut Pro’ s voice over tool is going to make doing narration much easier for me.  Now, if I could just learn to write better scripts…