Shoot for the Edit

By Stuart Sweetow of Audio Visual Consultants © 2003

Originally published in Camcorder & Computer Video Magazine Camcorder & Computer Home Video Magazine Logo

If you are using computer editing equipment to merely assemble your program, you are missing out on the capabilities this remarkable tool has to enhance your creativity. You can try out different combinations of shots and experiment to your heart’s content. You can rearrange shots, extend or shorten their lengths and play around with your scenes until you have them just right.

The key to creative editing is shooting your video from a variety of camera angles. Directors give editors plenty of choices of shots within a scene. As they shoot a scene they re-positioning the camera so that the editor has a variety of angles to choose from. They add close-ups, reaction shots and shots taken from different perspectives. This variety is what gives professional films and videos an attention-grabbing, dynamic look.

You don’t need a Hollywood studio to fashion this professional look. You can do it with any camcorder. All you need to do is follow some of the techniques of film directors.

You can employ these techniques with documentary-style videos, event videos, home movies, educational films–just about any video you intend to edit can benefit from a few directing techniques.

The Basic Sequence

When you ask people to view your videos, you need to keep in mind that they expect nearly the same quality viewing experience they get watching broadcast television. Digital camcorders come pretty close to duplicating the sharp images captured by studio cameras, and even low-cost, computer editing equipment has many of the same capabilities and features that broadcast editors have at hand. The difference between most videos edited at home and those produced at professional studios is the shot selection and sequencing.

Scenes in movies and television shows frequently start with an establishing shot or long shot (LS). This shot usually lasts 5-7 seconds in the final video, but plan on shooting more like 15-20 seconds to have enough footage. As the scene progresses through a variety of shots, sometimes the editor will return to an establishing shot to remind the viewer of the overall setting.

The next shot in a basic sequence is usually the medium shot (MS). The medium shot is the most common shot, usually showing one or two people in action. Again, shoot at least 15 or 20 seconds so you will have choices in the start and stop points when editing.

Then comes the close-up (CU), the most dramatic of the shots, where the viewer sees detail. Since most videos are viewed on a screen much smaller than those in movie theaters, camcorder users are wise to include plenty of close-ups when shooting their scenes. To give yourself a assortment of choices when editing, you can shoot close-ups from more than one angle. You can also zoom in for extreme close-ups (ECU) for added impact. Orson Wells shot Citizen Kane’s dying word, “Rosebud” with an ECU of the actor’s lips. The producers of television’s “60 Minutes” frequently show an ECU zeroing in a politician’s eyes and mouth when they catch him stretching the truth.

While ECUs and CUs are usually the most powerful of the camera shots, most editors are careful to avoid going directly from a long shot to a close-up; they usually insert a medium shot between the two. However, if your intention is to throw your audience off balance or draw attention to a particular dramatic sequence, you can jump to a close-up.

At the end of a scene, the editor usually returns to a long shot to re-establish the setting once again. The long shot, the medium shot and the close-up all work together to tell the story. When you are editing together your video you will thank yourself for shooting the sequence from variety of camera angles.

Master Shot and Over-the-Shoulder Shots

When you watch a simple conversation between two people on television, you rarely see just a static shot of the two. Usually the director sets up a master shot that shows both people together. Then, he repositions the camera to re-shoot the dialog from over the shoulder of the first actor. Finally he gets a third shot from over the shoulder of the other actor. This gives the editor three camera angles from which to choose.

With these shots to choose from, the editor typically starts the sequence by laying down an establishing shot–the master shot of both actors in profile. Next come two OTS shots. Then the editor might choose to re-establish the setting by showing the master shot. After that he would add another two OTS shots and so on. With computer editing equipment, you can sync the audio from the master shot so it sounds continuous. The next time you turn on the tube, look for this type of sequence.

Vary the Camera Angles

You can add life to your videos by shooting them as filmmakers shoot movies. They repeat the same scene from two or more camera angles. That gives you choices when you are editing. With computer editing systems, you can try out different combinations of camera angles to see which work best together.

To add a dramatic look, try shooting the scene from a very low angle, such as from the floor. With the camcorder kept at its widest zoom angle, you can create a striking composition that grabs your viewer’s attention.

Get up on a chair or a ladder for a birds-eye perspective. Again keep your camcorder zoomed back. This wide, overall view is good for creating an establishing shot to show your viewers everything in the scene.

Directors’ Shooting Tips

Whenever you stop shooting and start again, you risk having what directors call a “jump cut.” That’s a situation where the subject appears to jump from one position to another as you view the two shots together. If the camera remains in the same location, the background remains the same. But usually the subject moves, even a little, from one shot to the next. The viewers see that movement as a jump. If you haven’t captured some shots to avoid it, you can become frustrated during the edit session.

To avoid a jump cut, simply move the camera to a different position between shots. The rule of thumb that directors use is to move the camera by at least a 45-degree angle. That creates enough of a perspective change so that the viewer does not notice that the subject has moved. An angle change such as this simulates the look of a two or three-camera shoot.

When shooting action it’s a good idea for you to start running your camcorder before your subject enters the frame. Television and film directors say “roll camera” a few seconds before they shout “action.” This allows the camera to record a brief shot of an empty room followed by the subject walking in. If you don’t have this extra footage, you may be disappointed in the editing room. The actor may appear to jump into the scene. This technique is what directors call a “clean entrance.” Similarly, when the action in a particular room or setting is complete, let the actors make a clean exit.

Watch your screen direction. If the actors are moving from screen left to screen right in one shot, make sure they maintain that same direction of movement in the next and subsequent shots. If not, you may confuse your audience. Of course, in the case of a mystery movie, you may want to do just that.

Parallel action is another technique that directors use to build drama. One sequence of shots shows the damsel trapped in a downward spiral of distress as another sequence shows the hero across town making his way to rescue her. The editor alternates shots of the damsel and the hero, all the while building up suspense.

Cut-ins and Cutaways

When television and film directors shoot a basic sequence, they plan on shooting cut-ins—close-ups of the subject and cutaways—reaction shots. For example, if you are watching a football game, you will see a close up of the runner being tackled—a cut-in, and you will see fans cheering—a cutaway. You probably have already been shooting cut-ins and cutaways with some of your videos. Now is the time to shoot them with intention all the time.

If you have a kid’s birthday party to shoot, you might start with an establishing shot of the entire room showing the decorations. Then you’ll get medium shots of guest arriving and the birthday celebrant greeting them. Next, shoot cutaway reaction shots of other guests watching the celebrant.

When it’s time for the cake, get a close-up of it. When guests sing “Happy Birthday” shoot a variety of medium shots of them, followed by a cutaway of the birthday celebrant in all his glory. A close-up of blowing out the candles would be followed by a cutaway of the guests applauding.

Compressing and Controlling Time in Editing

When the celebrant opens his gifts, your viewing audience could get bored pretty quickly. The editing process helps compress time by showing only the essential shots rather than the frequently slow process of unwrapping gifts.

Here is where your various camera angles will come into play. If you shoot from only one angle and stop and start the camera to edit out some of the tedium of unwieldy wrapping paper, you may end up with jump-cuts. The background will remain the same, but the subject in the foreground will have moved. As the birthday boy or girl starts to open the first gift, stop the camera, and move it about 45 degrees. Then wait for the dramatic moment when he yanks out the gift from its box. You can repeat this sequence of shots with each gift, and your viewers will appreciate how you compressed time for them.

Music Videos and Montages

Some say that most of the creative work in music videos takes place during the editing process. Quick cuts, special effects, wild filters—these all contribute to the dynamic impact of music videos. However, you still have to shoot enough shots so that you have a variety of angles to choose from. And you should also keep in mind that the video is designed to complement the music—not the other way around.

Some music video directors will play the music during the shoot and let the performers “lip sync” to the prerecorded soundtrack. Then, in the editing room, the images are cut to the music. If some of your music video includes “concept video” scenes with acted out sequences, music may not be played during the shooting. Before the shoot time out the music beats, and craft your camera moves to last for one or two beats. For example, the start and stop points of a zoom or a pan shot could be made to synchronize with the music. This technique can also be used when making a video that will go to instrumental music.

The French have a word for a variety of quick shots cut together to music. It is called the “montage.” The openings of many movies incorporate a montage of shots, and some dramatic directors such as Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock use the montage technique to elicit emotion in their viewers. The montage is a fun way to put together an art video, a music video or even a family vacation video.

Shooting the Interview Sequence

Most computer editing systems allow you to superimpose or “key” titles over the picture. When you shoot an interview and have to key in the name of speaker, make sure you start the scene not too tightly on the subject’s face. You don’t want the titles to appear over his chin.

When recording audio for an interview, make sure the interviewee speaks in complete sentences. You may be editing in only certain statements; these make more sense to the viewers when they hear complete sentences. There is nothing wrong with coaching the interviewee to re-state an idea so you have it as a complete sentence.

Usually your finished video is shorter than the original interview. In the editing process, you include only the statements you want. How to you avoid a jump-cut when you switch from statement to statement? When you can show both the interviewer and interviewee in your video, you can use cutaway shots of the interviewer reacting, to cover up those jump cuts. Simply ask the interviewee to stay a few minutes later after the interview to shoot over his shoulder to get nods and smiles of the interviewer. You see this technique nearly every night on the evening news.

Creative Editing

The editor of the video is the one who makes the finished product. You may be the director, the camera operator and the editor all in one, or you may be editing the video for someone else. In either case, make use of one of the best features of digital editing—the ability to experiment with various shot combinations and make changes as much as you wish.

Frequently, professional editors will put together a “rough cut” of the video prior to the final “fine cut.” In the rough cut you simply put the shots together in their sequence and then look at the video to evaluate strong and weak points. Maybe the pacing in some sequences is too slow, or in others, too fast. Perhaps some shots can be replaced with others. Maybe rearranging a particular sequence will better tell the story. Digital editing software lets you change scenes to your heart’s content.

Once you have experimented with various shot sequences, you are ready to complete the video with its fine cut. At this phase you can add titles, transitions, music and sound effects. You can adjust the timing of some shots to start or stop a little earlier or a little later. Some editing software lets you add effects filters and perform color correction. The best part about this phase is that you can still experiment and refine until you are totally pleased with the finished product.

Trying out different combinations and lengths of shots, playing with sequences and pacing, experimenting until you have it just right—that is what computer editing lets you do. In order to use this amazing tool well, you need to think like a director, plan for editing as you shoot and give yourself creative choices by taking the time to get those extra shots.

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