The past 30 years of video technology have democratised movie-making – maybe too much. Anyone can now shoot high-definition video on a smartphone and instantly upload it to YouTube for the entire world to see. That type of uncut cinema verité style makes for good cat-playing-piano clips (if there is such a thing), but the videos that are truly important to you deserve more polish.
The best way to get great results in the editing bay is to shoot quality footage in the first place, with a strong sense of the tale you want your video to tell. But it’s amazing how a little bit of work in a basic video-editing program can turn some less than perfect clips into a dramatic exercise in visual storytelling.
Resist the impulse towards special effects and other visual tricks – if you don’t know how to organise, arrange and splice your clips into a harmonious narrative, then all that stuff is just decoration on an unbaked cake. Following these simple guidelines will do a lot more for your video.
1 UNRAVEL THE STORY
Most consumer-grade video-editing programs are nonlinear, which means they allow you to grab and manipulate your clips without destroying the original material. Software such as Windows Live Movie Maker and Apple’s iMovie, and shareware such as AVS Video Editor, use a storyboard that lets you lay out your clips and rearrange them however you like. Most professional moviemakers would start with a script, then storyboard before they shoot anything. But for clips you’ve already taken, you’re going to have to do that process in reverse.
Take the clips you want to use and drag them to the board, then rearrange them until you see a story emerge. Don’t worry about clips blending together at this point; just look for a rough sense of narrative progress. Consider the mood and pacing of the footage. Is it sports video with lots of movement and action? Are there lots of close-ups and dialogue? Has your subject been shot from multiple angles? The longer you want your movie to be, the more variety you should be looking for. If it seems as if something’s missing, make notes about additional footage, or B-roll, you can film to fill in the blanks (iMovie has dummy clips called Animatics that you can use as placeholders).
2 TRIM THE FAT
It’s good to overshoot when it comes to video. But the more footage you have, the more ruthlessly you have to cut in post-production. The process of editing is all about being selective and stitching together your best material in a way that tells a story efficiently. In each clip, look for the crux of the action and drop anything that’s not pivotal. (Most programs let you trim with a simple select and delete.) As a general rule, try keeping clips under 10 seconds – short shots will give your movie a lot more energy than longer ones. That said, don’t cut your clips so short that they become confusing.
3 CLEAN IT UP
It’s best to plan your lighting, composition and camera technique before you shoot, but in case that didn’t happen, there’s still plenty you can do with software. The capabilities vary from program to program. Windows Live Movie Maker is the least sophisticated, but if you’re willing to tinker with third-party filters, you can use the free, linear VirtualDub program to do some basic corrections, then import the clips into WLMM for editing.
More sophisticated video suites such as iMovie and AVS offer cropping, colour correction and stabilisation, which can compensate for sloppy camerawork. Tinkering with the image can have a downside, however – digital cropping and stabilisation can lower resolution. But used judiciously, these tools can help smooth out variation from clip to clip, or turn a bland shot of someone talking into a dramatic close-up.
4 BLEND IT TOGETHER
Frequent cuts and angle shifts make a movie more dynamic, but done wrong, these techniques can be jarring. Knowing how to gracefully move from one shot to another is an art form. Most video editors offer lots of fancy sweeps, mosaic dissolves and other spinning, flipping novelty transitions, but if you trust your material, keep it simple. Transitions are usually found under a menu or palette (some software labels them as effects). Don’t use too many kinds of transitions – rather stick to quick cuts for back-and-forth dialogue, cross-fades for blending clips together, and fades to either black or white for complete scene changes.
5 SMOOTH OUT THE SOUNDTRACK
Unfortunately, the built-in mics on camcorders and smartphones are uniformly awful for recording dialogue. If you were unfortunate enough to capture Bigfoot’s first recorded growl in a windy patch of forest, both AVS and iMovie offer tools to remove background noise. But remember, software can’t perform miracles, and while it’s advisable to tinker with the audio settings to get the best results, too much noodling will cause muffled distortion.
Keep in mind that your audio doesn’t always have to be tied to your video. If you’ve got footage of your daughter telling a hilarious story about the family dog chasing its tail, but it’s just a still shot of her talking, split the audio track from the video and splice in a shot of the dog spinning around while she tells the story, then cut back to her giggling hysterically at the end – it makes for a far more interesting effect.
Finally, if your recorded audio is garbage or just irrelevant to the action, drop in some music for a mood-setting soundtrack. Editing together wistful memories of your kid growing up? Dial up the sentiment with some Jack Johnson. Trying to make your hockey team’s highlights even more awesome? Lay down a track of AC/DC and match the visual cuts to the rhythm changes. But don’t invite the wrath of music industry lawyers – if you’re posting to the Web, search for royalty-free music on Web sites such as freeplaymusic.com.
Advice from an expert: Joel Negron, film editor on Sleepy Hollow, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and 21 Jump Street
… on getting organised
“Go through your video and make a select reel. It doesn’t have to make sense, just get your best footage for each section of the story. Some people make multiple select reels for close-ups, wide shots, medium shots, or all shots of each actor.”
… on adding drama
“When editing, I use music from other movies. You can have a shot of a guy just sitting on a bench, and there’s nothing happening, but if the music is telling you to feel sad, then you’re going to feel sad, and if the music communicates tension, then you’re going to feel tension.”
… on filling in the blanks
“If you’re editing footage of, say, a football game, and the cameraman filmed a touchdown pass, but missed the ball in the air, then the easiest thing to do is cut to a shot of the crowd, then cut back to the guy running the ball.”