Editing Video

Editing Video

By: Chris Gamel

This article first appears in the 2011 Fall Issue of Currents, the quarterly publication of the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA).


The strength of video is its ability to tell a story.  Like a composer combining individual notes to create a song, editors assemble raw footage for their narratives.  A unique blend of art and science, editing is an essential step in the filmmaking process.

Before any editing can take place, however, there are two editing concepts that need to be understood: non-linear editing and non-destructive editing.

Non-linear editing is one of the great breakthroughs in the history of video editing.  In the early days of film production, everything had to be filmed in the order it would ultimately appear.  Can you imaging filming wildlife under these conditions?  A cheetah makes a kill directly in front of you, but you can’t use it because you are not ready for a hunting scene!  Telling natural history stories would be impossible.  Today, non-linear editing lets us film scenes in any sequence and then shuffle them into the order we want.

Non-destructive editing means that as video clips are edited, the original footage is not altered in any way.  If I want to use only a short piece of a scene (for example, a lion’s roar), the rest of the footage is unchanged and can be used in a different way.  Again, cutting and altering individual clips for your movie does not change the original file in any way.  This means we are free to experiment throughout the editing process without fear of damaging our original footage.

The basics of video editing are simple.  Import the footage, select the pieces you want to use, put the pieces in order, and export the finished product.  These are skills that can be taught in only a few minutes.  The challenge is creating a video that is worth watching.

The purpose of this article is to provide some tips and tricks that, if followed, will greatly improve your film.

  • The key to editing is to constantly remind yourself that the goal is to tell the story.  It sounds obvious, yet editors regularly include scenes that have nothing to do with the story.  It doesn’t matter how hard the scene was to film or how warm the memories associated with it are.  If the scene doesn’t help the story move along, cut it out.

  • While still photographers are often overwhelmed with video, it is not new.  The first motion picture was made in 1889!  There is no reason for you to reinvent the wheel when you start editing.  If you want to know what works, turn on the TV.  There are hundreds of programs available, each of which was put together by a professional editor.  Watch what they do and try to figure out why.  Own a DVD player?  Turn on the commentary and listen as the directors, editors, and actors explain why they made the choices they did.  There is an established industry that has already done this work—you just need to open your eyes and approach the material with a critical eye.  You might not like everything you find, but sometimes finding out what does not work is as important as identifying what does.

  • Audiences have short attention spans.  If you want to keep them watching, you need to grab and hold their attention.  One way to do this is to mix up the visuals.  As still photographers, we are used to creating visual variety.  We photograph subjects with different lenses, under a variety of lighting conditions, and from unique angles.  The same approach must be applied to video.  Mix up the visuals, and your audience will stick around to hear what you have to say.

  • Few things are more boring than watching a shot that goes on too long.  Next time you watch your favorite natural history program, start counting when a new scene comes on and see how long before the editor changes the clip.  I can almost guarantee that you will never reach ten seconds and you will rarely get past four seconds.  By constantly jumping between clips it becomes possible to artificially create some of the energy and excitement that comes from actually being there.  As an editor you want to remember—keep your shots short.

  • One of the most basic errors editors make is going back in time.  I’m not talking about the time travel of science fiction movies.  I’m talking about the mistake of showing events occurring multiple times.  When you cut between scenes you can’t go back in time.  For example, let’s say we have two cameras set up to film an osprey bringing a fish to its mate as she sits on the nest.  These cameras provide different angles of the same interaction and we get the idea that it would be cool to edit the scene so that we start with camera A and end with camera B.  So far, no problem.  The cut point (where we switch from camera A to camera B) is right after the male osprey gives the fish to the female.  Here is where many editors time travel.  They will use the first clip (camera A) up until the point where the female takes the fish from the male.  They will then switch to second clip (camera B) and start with the female taking the fish from the male.  If you watch these two clips in sequence, the male gave the fish twice!  To work, the second clip has to start immediately AFTER the female gets the fish.  It sounds obvious, yet going back in time is one of the most common editing mistakes.

  • Today’s editing systems provide a huge variety of transitions.  Keep it simple—don’t use them.  Like Photoshop filters, just because a transition is available doesn’t mean you should use it.  Unless you can articulate a specific reason, limit your transitions to three types: cuts, dissolves, and fades.  A cut is the default transition and consists of one clip ending and the next clip starting.  They are simple, not distracting, and 99 percent of the time should be your go-to transition.  A dissolve is when one clip fades out and the next clip fades in.  This signifies a change in either location or time.  A fade usually occurs at the end of a film when a clip fades away and is replaced with a color (usually black).  Fades give the audience time to sit back and absorb the previous scene.  When in doubt, stick to cuts, with the occasional dissolve or fade thrown in for creative impact.

  • Editing involves both video and audio.  In the audio category, sounds can be broken down into dialogue, sound effects, and soundtracks.  To make sound editing easier, select different audio tracks for each of these categories and add audio files to the appropriate track.  This simple step will make editing the audio files much easier.

  • Remember that copyright covers music as well as photography.  Just because you like a song doesn’t mean you can use it in your movie.  Music-making programs such as Garageband, as well as local musicians and royalty-free music are legitimate sources for music that will keep you out of legal trouble.

  • Finally, watch your sound levels (aka volume).  Have you ever watched a video where the volume jumps from really loud to very soft?  Don’t do that to your audience.  Learn to adjust sound levels and then make sure that your levels are consistent throughout the entire film.

Editing can be a lot of fun and one of the most creative aspects of filmmaking.  But like other skills, it takes time and practice to develop.  By applying the above tips to your editing projects you should see an immediate improvement in the quality of your videos.