We’ve all done it. We’re eager to start working with our footage and cutting together a scene, promo, music video or whatever. So, we dive right into the cut, dropping our favorite shots, lines, sound effects and music into the timeline. We add a few extra video and audio tracks to accommodate everything. Making good progress right? But then we realize it.
“Oh boy.This thing is a mess.”
When you start any new editing project, a little thought and planning goes a long, long way. On all but the simplest cuts, it’s important to take a few minutes (or longer if needed) to think about the point of the piece you’re about to put together.
Plan it out in your head, in writing, or via discussion as best as possible. Some editors refer to this process as mental editing or paper cutting. The more complicated the scene or project, the more important this is.
It may seem like an unnecessary extra step but trust me when I tell you, it’s worth it. A few minutes of mental editing can sometimes save you hours of real editing.
So what types of specific things should you be planning out before you start editing? Well, that depends. Let’s take a look at a few example situations and discuss how you might plan out the cut first.
Situation 1: Building To a Punchline
In this type of situation, you will often have pretty clear guidance from a script. The script will usually tell you which lines go in which order and where the joke falls. So it’s just a matter of laying them out in the timeline, right? Well, sort of.
In this deceptively simple situation, many editors lose track of the scene’s flow and get mired down in the details. Don’t worry too much about finding the perfect coverage, avoiding jump cuts and getting your timing perfect — yet.
The way to mentally edit this type of challenge is to have a clear idea of the sequence of events and what lines or shots will best setup the punchline of the joke. In short, make sure you know where you’re starting, where you need to end up (the punchline or reaction) and basically how you’re going to get there.
Let’s look at a hypothetical example:
A young man shows up to a fancy cocktail party and doesn’t realize he has a hole in the back of his pants. As he’s mingling in the crowd, his friend notices the hole and snickers. He points it out to another friend, who goes wide-eyed and shakes his head. The scene escalates as multiple people begin to notice the hole, while the main character is still oblivious to it.
Finally, the tension is broken when the main character drops a cocktail shrimp on the ground, bends over to pick it up and his pants finally completely split open with a loud rip. The whole party goes quiet, there are a few muffled gasps and his friend loudly states, “Wow, Steve, I didn’t know it was THAT kind of party.”
Yeah, it’s a cheesy example. However it illustrates a linear sequence of events with cause and effect that builds to a climatic moment.
If you were editing this scene, you’d want to make sure you were very clear about how the scene would begin and how the hole would first be noticed. You would want to think about the various moments that escalate the tension as more people noticed and reacted to the hole. Then, you’d want to decide how long you planned on letting this tension build until the pants finally split wide open and the friend delivered the punchline.
This may seem like an obvious way to approach the editing. However, you’d be surprised at how many times editors jump into a cut too quickly without a solid plan only to find that the events in the scene don’t necessarily make sense and feel motivated.
I like to think of this process as figuring out your “story anchor points”. Once you have a pretty good idea of what they are, then start piecing it together in your timeline and filling in the gaps. Let’s take a look at another tip.
Situation 2: A Music-Driven Montage
In this situation, what you’re about to edit is heavily based on the music with a fairly simple sequence of shots to accompany it. Unless you’re working with a composer who can time the music precisely to the shots you’ve chosen, you’ll want to start by getting your music right and then cutting the shots to fit.
A common mistake editors make in this situation is to lay out all of their shots and then they place the music underneath, hoping that it will work. Granted, sometimes it does. But you know what always works? Planning out your music first.
The “paper cutting” in this situation basically requires that you listen to your chosen music track, find the parts of it that provide a good starting and ending point and figure out how much time you’d like it to take. It would also be wise to mark the shots you’d like to potentially use in the sequence and set them aside for a moment.
Now, cut your music into the timeline. Edit it so it begins and ends as you’ve planned and finally arrange your chosen shots over the music in a way that feels pleasing and appropriate. We will get deeper into the details of music editing another time.
Of course, once you’ve got the picture and music arranged together, you will likely need to spend at least a bit of time tweaking it. That’s a given. But I guarantee you that it will be much less time than if you hadn’t approached the montage by considering the music before the picture — and that’s all part of the mental editing process.
Situation 3: A Romantic Moment
What about situations when you don’t have scripted dialogue and the sequence of events will be largely determined by the visuals? Examples of this might be a romantic moment or a fight scene.
Let’s consider a romantic moment between two lovers as an example. In this scene, there is no dialogue to be exchanged and the music is not the main driver of the events that take place. Rather, the mini story here will be told by the glances and smiles a couple shares during a quiet meal at a sidewalk cafe.
Before editing, you need to think about the idea you’re looking to get across in the scene.
Is the point to show them getting to know each other? If so, you will want to plan out a sequence of glances that become increasingly more relaxed and intimate. The glances will serve as your grid, so to speak, around which the rest of the scene will be arranged.
Or is the point to show a couple who has been together for a long time and are taking a much-needed break from daily life with a good meal? In that case, you’ll want to find the moments that give convey a high level of familiarity from the beginning and highlight their enjoyment of the food perhaps.
Make sure you’re mentally clear about how you’d like to setup the scene too. Do you want to start on an insert shot of something on the table before cutting to the shots of the couple? This might be more appropriate if the focus of the scene is the enjoyment of the meal and their time with one another.
Or maybe you’d rather use a master or establishing shot to get an idea of the location and then focus in on the pair sitting at the table. This might be more appropriate if you intend to show the growing closeness of the couple and their process of warming up to each other.
No matter what type of scene or piece you’re about to edit, there is usually a list things you should consider and at least roughly plan out before beginning to cut. The trick is to figure out what is driving your piece and let that guide you through the creation process.
This rule applies no matter what you’re editing. Once you know where to start, where you need to end up and a couple key moments in between, you’ll find it’s a lot easier to edit something together in a way that actually works.
By its very definition, editing is about reworking and making changes. However, the more you can get right the first time, the faster and less frustrating the process will be.