To Paraphrase Donald Trump, "Who knew that video editing would be so complex and time consuming?"

Photo courtesy: ODL-Design ©2017

A few observations about video: Shooting is less than half of the game, editing is where you tell the story. But if you didn't shoot it right in the first place it's very hard to tell the story right. 

I'm kind of a "big picture" guy. I like the big outlines, and because of that I'm more drawn toward the collegial meetings and the hands-on shooting than I am spending days and days in self-imposed solitary confinement; sitting in front of a computer, staring at tons and tons of options; many of which could work just fine in a final video. If you put them together correctly. 

I sent over a rough edit of my Canada shoot to my client about a week ago. I'd worked hard to incorporate everything we talked about in the program I sent along. But even after I sent it I still sat in front of the computer with the video timeline stretched all the way out across my monitor. I was looking at the little telltale peaks and valleys in the audio track. I was trying to track down the spot where one of my interviewees made a "tsk" sound just before they spoke. I could fix that. And then I look for the subtle scrape of someone else's wristwatch across the top of a desk as they shifted and got ready to initiate their response to a cogent question. It seems like no matter how many times you sit down and open up a project there is always some way; no matter how small, to improve it. 

Today was "detail day." I used a program called, Motion, to build moving titles and I spent time kerning type and worrying about line spacing. I spent a lot more time nudging the color so it would be exactly the way I wanted it. I think I tried every transition technique in Final Cut Pro X to get to the one I finally settled on for one pesky edit. 

What I realize now is that you have to approach every editing project with a plan. You have to know how you want to start out and how you want
to end and then everything in the middle more or less falls into place. It's also good to keep notes. If you want head sizes (and positions) to match up on the screen when editing between different clips you'll need to know the X and Y coordinates and, if you want your color to be consistent it's a good idea to make notes about saturation levels and exposure settings. You quickly arrive at the realization that editing (well) is all about obsessing over the details. 

On my previous shoot I practiced some things while shooting that helped in post production. Here they are: 

Since I was using multiple cameras for some scenes the first thing I did after setting up lights and planning the action was to do a custom white balance on the same gray target for every camera I'd be using in each specific location. The benefit is that all the cameras from the same scene had color that matched up really well when I started to piece my project together in the editing.

For the same reason I made sure to match exposure levels as well. I used a Lastolite collapsible gray/white target for both the white balancing and the exposure. Exposure is easy; just fill the frame with the gray target, set your camera to manual exposure, and then set your exposure indicator to its zero or middle setting. Done. Having one target for both exposure and white balance makes things efficient. Especially when you have one camera shooting wide and one shooting tight in the same location. 

Getting consistent results means you save a ton of time instead of trying to match up too many variables. 

The same goes for your shooting style. One of my video savvy friends told me over and over again to try and keep the space above peoples' heads from having too much space. I didn't want to give anyone a "haircut" but I wanted just a sliver of space between the tops of heads and the top edge of the frame.

It's hard to remember everything when shooting and directing but my Sony cameras have safe area settings that include 80% and 90 % of the frame. These show you the "live" areas that are safe to put important content in to make sure it doesn't get cropped out, unintentionally. With the 90% set I can park the top of a head against the safety line and have a guide to refer to for everyone I interview. When head sizes are in the same ballpark cutting between different interviewees isn't nearly as jarring. 

Size matters and so does speed. If you are panning as part of your technique you'll find that having a cadence and a pace that is very similar from scene to scene makes for a calmer and more watchable program. When shooting at 24-30 fps you can only pan so fast until everything becomes a blurry mess. So, in a nutshell, consistency rocks. 

Another thing I noticed was that keeping eyelines level was less jarring than having some interview set-ups where the camera was lower than the subject and some where the camera was looking down at the subject. Video seems more "watchable" if the eye line are in the same ballpark. 

One thing I came to realize as I shot was that I could be too impatient to move from scene to scene when shooting "b-roll." If something looked interesting then letting the camera roll a little longer gave me more options later on. 

As far as directing goes I found out that you sometimes have to step out of the documentary role and go into "advertising" mode. I had one difficult subject who kept getting lost in the details and kept mentioning names and places that were irrelevant to our program goals. I finally stopped letting the interviews go free form and directed him almost sentence by sentence until I was certain I got the lines I needed to move his part of the program forward. It's nice to be polite and collaborative but at some point you realize that you have to come home with the "goods" or you aren't going to get asked back for the next project. I hesitate to put words in other people's mouths, Wait. that's a lie. I love to script people, I only wish they sounded as authentic when I was feeding them lines as they do when we are just conversing....

Finally, when shooting organization is a great thing. I stopped after every set up in order to take notes that would later prompt my memory. A note pad and pen are still features, not distractions. 

A few note about audio: It's harder than shooting video. Rooms all have their own sound, heaters and air conditioners are uniformly acoustically destructive, doors are seemingly meant to be slammed, conversations just on the other side of the walls are rarely discreet, the room with the best "look" will have the most electrical noise and interference. 

I know that wireless microphones are all the rage amongst filmmakers these days but all except for the ultimate, high end units are vulnerable to radio interference, electrical interference and even the vagaries of warring collections of cellphones. It's not that the interference always causes a steady noise pattern that will drive you crazy, it's the intermittent stuff that will wear you down. Stuff like a static discharge right in the middle of the best (and most emotionally honest) interview response, which leaves a spike right in the middle of your audio. 

If I'm in a room that has lots of vectors of interference I reach for a wired, hypercardioid microphone and put it at the end of a boom pole. A good, balanced cable, carefully kept separate from that orange, electrical extension cord, can reject noise a lot better than most wireless systems. And the perfectly positioned microphone (with a larger diaphragm) can sound better too. 

When I get ready to record the first thing I do is have someone engage the interviewee while I set audio levels. I try to make sure that my meters bounce around between -12 and -6 db. That way I'm pretty sure I won't get an overloaded when someone raises their voice with emotion or emphasis. I can always bring up the levels in post (especially if my pre-amps are quiet) but I can't undo distortion caused by levels that were set too high. It's just like clipped highlights in photography. 

If possible I try to treat the room we're shooting in by bringing in cloth backgrounds, people's coats, soft equipment cases and anything else that can help absorb sonic reflections and echo. I need to buy some actual sound blankets and start bringing them with me on location shoots. Treating a room seems like a pain in the butt but it sure is better than trying to fix bad audio in post production. 

Cover any hard surface that doesn't show to the camera with something soft and you'll thank yourself later when you listen to your material. 

There's no such thing as a universal microphone. You can't just buy a cool shotgun microphone and expect it to do everything. Sure, a nice shotgun will sound great if it's in the right position; about 18 inches from your talent or interviewee's mouth, but if you are shooting a wide, establishing scene and your person needs to speak while you are shooting a wide frame, you'll find that the same $1500 shotgun that you thought so compelling at 18 inches ends up sounding like a $30 microphone when you back it off to six or ten feet in a "bouncy" room. That's a compelling situation for using a lavaliere microphone....

Don't forget to get the ambient sound effects! I had people walking up and down a metal ramp for the video b-roll. Since they weren't speaking or being interviewed on the ramp I didn't pay attention to getting good audio of their footsteps. Boy oh boy! Big mistake. I should have gotten a microphone rigged up to follow the camera because the addition of the audio to the video of the footsteps would have added a lot more texture to the scene. Even if you don't shoot the sound effects concurrently nothing is stopping you from asking the talent to repeat the action again (after asking everyone in the room to get quiet...) while you get in close with the microphone.

Let's take a second to talk about camera choices: Someone asked me in comments this week to explain why I would use "hybrid" cameras or photography cameras with video features to do professional work. The implication might be that I was short-changing myself by not buying a very expensive, dedicated video camera. But this isn't necessarily so. 

I've shot on many different types of video cameras, including the beastly heavy, Sony BetaCams from the 1990s. I'm here to tell you that everything has changed. Until very recently almost every dedicated video camera came complete with teeny-tiny sensors. Think 1/2 inch or 2/3rd inch max. 
The small size of the sensors meant that, for equivalent angles of view, the prevailing professional cameras had very, very deep depth of field. They also didn't handle low light well at all. The first "full frame" video cameras ranged from between $60,000 and $240,000. They delivered a slightly bigger than APS-C sensor. 

Today's full frame photography cameras, like the Sony A7Rii and A7Sii can deliver great performance in low light because their bigger sensors are more efficient. But more importantly the bigger sensors give more depth of field options. More choices. More artistic choices. More practical choices. And they do it well at a fraction the price of top video cameras. 

You give up convenience. You give up XLR connectors (but you can get a great adapter from Sony that gives them right back). You give up built-in neutral density filters but you can add them right on to the lens and you have the option of using variable neutral density filters, which give you more control. What you gain is less weight and a much smaller form factor. As well as savings left in your bank accounts. 

After having edited several hours of 4K footage from my RX10iii I found myself wanting for nothing when it came to the look and the quality of the material I was able to produce. Same with the A7Rii.

My new rule of thumb: The ratio of b-roll material (texture, cutaways, angles different from the "A" camera shots) to the primary camera material should be at least 3:1. You can never have enough interesting material to use over mismatched cuts and other transitions. 

My newest rule of editing: If you love the way a project looks and your client wants changes, be sure to make a copy and then start a new project file for the new revisions instead of changing the one in front of you. You don't want to blunder around with a good working file and then have the client change their minds and want to go back to a project version that you didn't save out. Save, save, save. 

If the writing is incoherent today it's probably because I've been editing since 6:30 this morning. But....we're done, delivered and approved. 

P.S. Murphy's Law: I get approval for the "water-marked" music track I researched and found at PremiumBeats.com and I go to download the paid for, un-protected version to drop into the project. It was one of the last things I needed to do before delivering it to the client. Wouldn't you know it? Murphy's Law strikes in the form of an Amazon.com cloud meltdown that shut down sites (which use their service) all across the web. They were down for hours. Finally got a note from PremiumBeats.com customer service to let me know the downloads were available and their service was back on line. I made the deadline; just under the wire. Yikes. 


Anders said...

That was a really interesting read. It is quite funny, but even my Nikon P330 with its tiny 1.7" sensor takes better video than my old digital Sony video cam that was quite expensive 15 years ago. Is there any reason why you shoot video at 24-30 fps instead of 60 fps?

MO said...

Video forces You to start all over on a new workflow. Hard work, for a long time. Nice reading like Always :)

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi Anders, I have this idea that if 24fps-30fps have the same 100mbs throughput as 60fps that you must be getting a better files at the slower speeds as the camera only has to process half as many frames in the same time span. I use 60 and 120 when I want to slow action in post but my clients all want 30 fps in their videos. Some sort of uniform standard.

I like the look at 30 (and 24) but 60 seems too smooth to me.

Also, the difference is one stop of light.

Dave Jenkins said...

After my slide-based audio-visual production business began to die in the early '90s as a result of the sweeping takeover of the market caused primarily by the introduction of higher quality, lower cost video cameras, I bought myself a Canon Hi-Band 8 and began to market myself as a video producer. I had all the tools -- I had written a few hundred scripts by this point in my career, I understood sequencing, etc., and had a state-of-the-art camera.

I did several videos, mostly for a Christian denomination that had been a long-time client. What I discovered was that I hated the process, especially editing. Digital editing is probably much more interesting, but editing analog video makes watching haircuts seem absolutely fascinating by comparison.

So, I began recreating myself as a commercial photographer, some of which I had been doing all along anyway. I have never regretted that decision.

If you enjoy the process of creating video, "good on yer," as the Ozzies say. You are undoubtedly a better man than I am. I'm thankful to be far enough along in my career and in life that I don't have to deal with it.

Mike Mundy said...

In my old Econ 101 class, the example was that of a law firm where one of the lawyers happened to also be the fastest typist in the firm. Point being the utility of specialization, since you wouldn't expect the lawyer to type his own briefs . . . more efficient to have a secretary do it.

I'm thinking that this might also apply to video editing, which calls for a very particular skill set and personality. But hiring a video editor . . . ? Probably not doable, unless you can send your video files to Korea.

ODL Designs said...

A great read as usual Kirk. All the thoughts on different element were very useful. I like the 3:1 ratio as a rule of thumb as I have been int he not-enough-cutaway-footage scenario!

Hopefully we will get to see a finished product!

Anders said...

Thanks for the explanation Kirk. I'm getting more and more interested in video after reading your articles.

Michael Matthews said...

A wealth of solid information. Anyone getting into video should flag these posts containing the how-to nits and grits of shooting and editing. They can save untold hours of suffering. Far better than running up against each of them one by one and having to find a way to fix them.

You're right about editing: it can be a bit of a rabbit hole, particularly for those who work alone. Obsessive would be one way to describe it. Collaboration with a trusted editor remains the best way to ease the pressures of deadlines and the curse of perfectionism. But budgeting for that can push your costs beyond competitive. Sending your video to Korea is an excellent idea. Whether it's Ben or someone else, you might consider posting your almost-final-cut to a private, password access site (Vimeo?) with a simple request: tell me everything that doesn't work. By having a set of eyes and ears completely unfamiliar with the source material and shooting conditions point out any weak spots....a shift in audio tone, an edit where the video change precedes the audio change when it should be the other way around, a match cut that's really a jump cut....you can poke your head up out of the rabbit hole and breathe fresh air. Then dive back in for the quick fixes. If the running time is five minutes it wouldn't take more than ten minutes to view, log the few questionable points, and email the list. The combination of fresh eyes and ears plus absolute candor can be invaluable.