Professional Editing Techniques

iMovie 6 & iDVD: The Missing Manual Note: this article is taken from
iMovie 6 & iDVD: The Missing Manual
By David Pogue
ISBN: 0-596-52726-8
Copyright © 2006 David Pogue. All rights reserved.
Used with permission from the publisher. Available from booksellers or direct from O'Reilly Media, www.oreilly.com.

The preceding chapters have covered the technical aspects of editing video in iMovie: where to click, what keys to press, and how iMovie's various controls operate. This chapter is about the artistic aspects of video editing: when to cut, what to cut to, and how to create the emotional impact you want.

Put another way, this chapter is a continuation of the film-theory crash course that began in the first three chapters of this book. Chapter 2, for example, describes filmmaking techniques that you must think about at the time you're shooting. This chapter offers some tricks in editing.

The Power of Editing

The editing process is crucial in any kind of movie, from a home movie to a Hollywood thriller. Clever editing can turn a troubled movie into a successful one, or a boring home movie into one that, for the first time, family members don't interrupt every three minutes by lapsing into conversation.

You, the editor, are free to jump from "camera" to "camera," angle to angle, to cut from one location or time to another, and so on. Today's audiences accept that you're telling a story; they don't stomp out in confusion because one minute, James Bond was in his London office, but showed up in Venice a split second later.

You can also compress time; that's one of editing's most common duties. (That's fortunate, because most movies tell stories that, in real life, take days, weeks, or years to unfold.) You can also expand time, making ten seconds stretch out to six minutes—a familiar effect to anyone who's ever watched a final sequence involving a bomb connected to a digital timer (and heroes racing to defuse it).

Editing boils down to choosing which shots you want to include, how long each one lasts, and in what order they should play.

Modern Film Theory

When you're creating a rock video or an experimental film, you can safely chuck all the advice in this chapter—and in this book.

But if you aspire to make good "normal" movies, designed to engage or delight your viewers rather than shock or mystify them, then you should become familiar with the fundamental principles of film editing that shape virtually every Hollywood movie (and even most student and independent films) of the last 75 years. For example:

Tell the story chronologically

Most movies tell the story from beginning to end. This part is probably instinct, even when you're making home movies. Arrange your clips roughly in chronological order, except when you're representing your characters' flashbacks and memories or deliberately playing a chronology game, as in Pulp Fiction.

Try to be invisible

These days, an expertly edited movie is one where the audience isn't even aware of the editing.

This principle has wide-ranging ramifications. For example, the desire to avoid making the editing noticeable is why the simple cut is by far the most common joint between film clips. Using, say, the Circle Opening transition between alternate lines of the vows at somebody's wedding would hardly qualify as invisible editing.

Within a single scene, use simple cuts and no transitions. Try to create the effect of seamless real time, making the audience feel as though it's witnessing the scene in its entirety, from beginning to end. This kind of editing is more likely to make your viewers less aware that they're watching a movie.

Develop a shot rhythm

Every movie has an editing rhythm that's established by the lengths of the shots in it. The prevailing rhythm of Dances with Wolves, for example, is extremely different from that of Natural Born Killers. Every scene in a movie has its own rhythm, too.

As a general rule, linger less on closeup shots, but give more time to establishing and wide shots. (After all, in an establishing shot, there are many more elements for the audience to study and notice.) Similarly, change the pacing of the shots according to the nature of the scene. Most action scenes feature very short clips and fast edits; most love scenes include longer clips and fewer changes of camera angle.

DV ETHICSThe Home-Movie Dilemma

As you edit your footage, you're altering reality; you're showing the audience only what you want it to see. When you create movies that have a story line, that's no problem—the audience knows perfectly well that what it's seeing didn't actually happen the way they're seeing it.

When you edit home movies, however, you have a dilemma. How true should you be to real life? iMovie 2 came with a tutorial movie, in which you worked with footage that showed a muddy dog being unsuccessfully washed by two noncommunicative children. In real life, those events might have constituted an unpleasant experience involving a ruined carpet and yelling parents. But with the help of a little sweet guitar music and some selective editing, the entire affair becomes a sunlit, nostalgic snapshot of idyllic childhood.

In a way, you've already pre-edited your life, simply in selecting what to film. Most people don't film the family bickering at dinnertime, the 20 minutes when the baby screams inconsolably, or the uneventful hours family members spend sleeping or watching TV. You're probably more likely to film the highlights—the laughter, the successes, the special events.

But when you edit this footage in iMovie, you'll probably weed out even more of the unpleasant, the boring, and the mundane. You may even be tempted to rearrange events, making the movie funnier, more entertaining, and more cohesive. When it's all over, you'll have a DV cassette filled with sunny, funny, exciting footage that may have come a long way from the much less interesting reality it was meant to capture—especially if you add music to your movies. (Music gives footage enormous emotional overtones that weren't there at all when the scene was originally filmed.)

All of this introduces a fascinating ethical challenge that's new to the iMovie era. In the past, few people could edit their home movies, so every home movie was pure documentary. With your DV camcorder and iMovie, you must decide whether you're a documentary maker, a storyteller, or both—and in what combination.

Maintaining Continuity

As a corollary to the notion that the audience should feel that they're part of the story, professional editors strive to maintain continuity during the editing process. This continuity business applies mostly to scripted films, not home movies; still, knowing what the pros worry about makes you a better editor no matter what kind of footage you're working with.

Continuity refers to consistency in:

  • The picture. Suppose we watch a guy with wet hair say, "I'm going to have to break up with you." We cut to his girlfriend's horrified reaction—but when we cut back to the guy, his hair is dry.

    That's a continuity error, a frequent by-product of having spliced together footage that was filmed at different times. Every Hollywood movie, in fact, has a person whose sole job it is to watch out for errors like this during the filming process.

  • Direction of travel. In the effort to make the editing as seamless as possible, film editors and directors try to maintain continuity of direction from shot to shot. That is, if the hero sets out crawling across the Sahara from right to left across the scene to be with his true love, you better believe that when we see him next, hours later, he'll still be crawling from right to left. This general rule even applies to much less dramatic circumstances, such as car chases, plane flights, and even people walking to the corner store. If you see her walk out of the frame from left to right in Shot A, you'll see her approach the corner store's doorway from left to right in Shot B.

  • The sound. In an establishing shot, suppose we see hundreds of men in a battlefield trench, huddled for safety as bullets and bombs fly and explode all around them. Now we cut to a closeup of two of these men talking—but the sounds of the explosions are missing.

    That's a sound continuity error. The audience is certain to notice that hundreds of soldiers were issued a cease-fire just as these two guys started talking.

  • The camera setup. In scenes of conversations between two people, it would look really bizarre to show one person speaking only in closeup, and his conversation partner filmed in a medium shot. (Unless, of course, the first person were filmed in extreme closeup—just the lips filling the screen—because the filmmaker is trying to protect his identity.)

  • Gesture and motion. If one shot begins with a character reaching down to pick up the newspaper from her doorstep, the next shot—a closeup of her hand closing around the rolled-up paper, for example—should pick up from the exact moment where the previous shot ended. And as the rolled-up paper leaves our closeup field of view, the following shot should show her straightening into an upright position. Unless you've made the deliberate editing decision to skip over some time from one shot to the next (which should be clear to the audience), the action should seem continuous from one shot to the next.


    For this reason, when filming scripted movies, directors always instruct their actors to begin each new scene's action with the same gesture or motion that ended the last shot. Having two copies of this gesture, action, or motion—one on each end of each take—gives the editor a lot of flexibility when it comes time to piece the movie together.

    This principle explains why you'll find it extremely rare for an editor to cut from one shot of two people to another shot of the same two people (without inserting some other shot between them, such as a reaction shot or a closeup of one person or the other). The odds are small that, as the new shot begins, both actors will be in precisely the same body positions they were in as the previous shot ended.

When to Cut

Some Hollywood directors may tell their editors to make cuts just for the sake of making the cuts come faster, in an effort to pick up the pace.

The more seasoned director and editor, however, usually adopts a more classical view of editing: Cut to a different shot when it's motivated. That is, cut when you need to cut, so that you can convey new visual information by taking advantage of a different camera angle, switching to a different character, providing a reaction shot, and so on.

Editors look for a motivating event that suggests where they should make the cut, too, such as a movement, a look, the end of the sentence, or the intrusion of an off-camera sound that makes us want to look somewhere else in the scene.

Choosing the Next Shot

As you've read elsewhere in this book, the final piece of advice when it comes to choosing when and how to make a cut is this: Cut to a different shot. If you've been filming the husband, cut to the wife; if you've been in a closeup, cut to a medium or wide shot; if you've been showing someone looking off-camera, cut to what she's looking at.

Avoid cutting from one shot of somebody to a similar shot of the same person. Doing so creates a jump cut, a disturbing and seemingly unmotivated splice between shots of the same subject from the same angle.

Video editors sometimes have to swallow hard and perform jump cuts for the sake of compressing a long interview into a much shorter sound bite. Customer testimonials on TV commercials frequently illustrate this point. You'll see a woman saying, "Won-derglove changed … (cut]) our lives, it really did … (cut) My husband used to be a drunk and a slob … (cut) but now we have Wonderglove." (Inevitably, a fast cross dissolve is applied to the cuts in a futile attempt to make them less noticeable.)

As you can probably attest if you've ever seen such an ad, however, that kind of editing is rarely convincing. As you watch it, you can't help wondering exactly what was cut out and why. (The editors of 60 Minutes and other documentary-style shows edit the comments of their interview subjects just as heavily, but conceal it better by cutting away to reaction shots—of the interviewer, for example—between edited shots.)

DV ETHICSThe Internet
Continuity-Screwup Database

It's fine to say that the film editor's job is to attempt continuity of picture, sound, direction, and so on throughout a movie. The trouble is, that's not nearly as easy as it sounds. Remember that the editor works by piecing together individual clips from many different camera shots that may have been filmed on different days. When the production is as complicated as a Hollywood movie, where several different film crews may be shooting simultaneously in different parts of the world, a few continuity errors are bound to slip in—and sometimes they're hilarious.

Catching continuity errors in Hollywood movies has become a beloved pastime for thousands of movie fans. Premiere magazine, for example, carries a monthly feature called Gaffe Squad, in which readers point out continuity errors in popular commercial movies. An Internet search for film continuity errors yields hundreds of Web sites dedicated to picking apart the movies. Among these, the Internet Movie Database Goofs page (http://us.imdb.com/Sections/Goofs—capitals count) is Ground Zero; it's probably the largest collection of viewer-submitted movie errors ever assembled. They run along these lines:

Raiders of the Lost Ark: "During the firefight in Marion's bar, Indy's gun changes from a .38 revolver to the Colt .45, back to a .38, then back once again to a .45. This might be the reason that he is able to fire his gun seven times with every loading."

Back to the Future: "When talking to George at the clothesline, both of Marty's shirt pocket flaps are out, but in the next shot one of them is tucked in."

Pulp Fiction: "When young Butch is receiving the watch from the Army guy, the time changes twice as it is flipped over in his hand."

Jurassic Park: "As the helicopter lands on the island, we get a nice overhead view of the landing area, featuring a waterfall and two Jeeps waiting to take the passengers to the visitors' center. But when we see the ground-level view of the helicopter landing in the next shot, we see the Jeeps backing up to the position they were already in three seconds earlier."

Titanic: "When Capt. Smith orders, 'Take her to sea, Mr.Murdoch—let's stretch her legs,' they're standing to the right of the wheelhouse looking forward with the sun coming from their left. When Murdoch walks into the wheelhouse to carry out the order, the sun's behind him."

The Shining: "We see Jack Nicholson chop apart only one of the door's panels with his axe—and yet after we see him listen to the arrival of the Snow-Cat, both panels are chopped."

In other words, making a perfect movie is almost impossible. Of course, as an increasingly experienced film editor yourself, you already knew that.

Popular Editing Techniques

Variety and pacing play a role in every decision the video editor makes. Here are some common tricks professional editors use, which you can also use in iMovie editing.

Tight Editing

One of the first tasks you'll encounter when editing your footage is choosing how to trim and chop up your clips, as described in Chapter 5. Even when editing home movies, consider the Hollywood guideline for tight editing: Begin every scene as late as possible, and end it as soon as possible.

In other words, suppose the audience sees the heroine receiving the call that her husband has been in an accident, and then hanging up the phone in shock. We don't really need to see her putting on her coat, opening the apartment door, locking it behind her, taking the elevator to the ground floor, hailing a cab, driving frantically through the city, screeching to a stop in front of the hospital, and finally leaping out of the cab. In a tightly edited movie, she would hang up the phone—and then we'd see her leaping out of the cab (or even walking into her husband's hospital room).

You might keep this principle in mind even when editing your own, slice-of-life videos. For example, a very engaging account of your ski trip might begin with only three shots: an establishing shot of the airport; a shot of the kids piling on to the plane; and then the tumultuous, noisy trying-on-ski-boots shot the next morning. You get less reality with this kind of tight editing, but much more watchability.

Variety of Shots

Variety is important in every aspect of filmmaking—variety of shots, locations, angles, and so on. Consider the lengths of your shots, too: In action sequences, you might prefer quick cutting, where each clip in your Movie Track is only a second or two long. In softer, more peaceful scenes, longer shots may set the mood more effectively.

Establishing shots

Almost every scene of every movie and every TV show—even the nightly news—begins with an establishing shot: a long-range, zoomed-out shot that shows the audience where the action is about to take place.

Now that you know something about film theory, you'll begin to notice how often TV and movie scenes begin with an establishing shot. It gives the audience a feeling of being there, and helps them understand the context for the medium shots or closeups that follow. Furthermore, after a long series of closeups, consider showing another wide shot, to remind the audience of where the characters are and what the world around them looks like.

As with every film editing guideline, this one is occasionally worth violating. For example, in comedies, a new scene may begin with a closeup instead of an establishing shot, so that the camera can then pull back to make the establishing shot the joke. (For example, closeup on main character looking uncomfortable; camera pulls back and flips over to reveal that we were looking at him upside down as he hangs, tied by his feet, over a pit of alligators.) In general, however, setting up any new scene with an establishing shot is the smart, and polite, thing to do for your audience's benefit.

Cutaways and Cut-ins

Also as described in Chapter 2, cutaways and cut-ins are extremely common and effective editing techniques. Not only do they add some variety to the movie, but they let you conceal enormous editing shenanigans. By the time your movie resumes after the cutaway shot, you can have deleted enormous amounts of material, switched to a different take of the same scene, and so on. Figure 10-1 shows the idea.

The cut-in is similar, but instead of showing a different person or a reaction shot, it usually features a closeup of what the speaker is holding or talking about—a very common technique in training tapes and cooking shows.

Reaction shots

One of the most common sequences in Hollywood history is a three-shot sequence that goes like this (Figure 10-1 again): First, we see the character looking off screen; then we see what he's looking at (a cutaway shot); then we see him again so that we can read his reaction. This sequence is repeated so frequently in commercial movies that you can feel it coming the moment the performer looks off the screen.

From the editor's standpoint, of course, the beauty of the three-shot reaction shot is that the middle shot can be anything from anywhere. That is, it can be footage shot on another day in another part of the world, or even from a different movie entirely. The ritual of character/action/reaction is so ingrained in our brains that the audience believes the actor was looking at the action, no matter what.

In home-movie footage, you may have been creating reaction shots without even knowing it. But you've probably been capturing them by panning from your kid's beaming face to the petting-zoo sheep and then back to the face. You can make this sequence look great in iMovie just by snipping out the pans, leaving you with crisp, professional-looking cuts.

Otherwise, it's safe to say that iMovie fans create reaction shots far more often nowadays than they did when using, say, iMovie 1; now it's easy to cut to a listener's reaction as the sound of the speaker's voice continues. Creating this effect requires nothing more than a video overlay, as described in Section 8.10.

Parallel cutting

When you're making a movie that tells a story, it's sometimes fun to use parallel editing or intercutting. That's when you show two trains of action simultaneously; you keep cutting back and forth to show the parallel simultaneous action. In Fatal Attraction, for example, the intercut climax shows main character Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) downstairs in the kitchen, trying to figure out why the ceiling is dripping, even as his psychotic mistress Alex (Glenn Close) is upstairs attempting to murder his wife in the bathtub. If you're making movies that tell a story, you'll find this technique an exciting one when you're trying to build suspense.

Figure 10-1. 
Top: You've got a shot of your main character in action.
Middle: We cut away to a shot of what he's looking at or reacting to.
Bottom: When you cut back to the main character, you could use a different take on a different day, or dialog from a much later part of the scene (due to some cuts suggested by the editor). The audience will never know that the action wasn't continuous. The cutaway masks the fact that there was a discontinuity between the first and third shots.


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