It’s tedious! Try counting cuts—each time the shot changes in a movie, TV ad, music video, etc., a decision was made, a shot was looked for, an edit point was perfected.
Preparing to make the best choice is the uphill part of the process. Think of it as finding and grouping all the corner, edge, and like-color pieces of a puzzle before putting it together.
The Biggest Factor
I met Michael McKean while screening the first documentary feature I edited. We were briefly left alone together in the edit bay. He asked, “how many hours?”
All I could think about was that I’d dedicated a ruling portion of my life to editing those past few months and was all but completely burnt out. I knew what he meant, but instead, I replied, “Oh, I don’t know, I haven’t been keeping track, maybe around 60 hours a week.”
I could tell I said something wrong, I just didn’t realize it until it was too late.
He was asking about the edit ratio. For example, if you shoot 65 hours of footage for an hour long movie, your ratio is 65:1.
That ratio is the most significant variable when estimating editing time. More footage = more organizing = more decisions.
All an editor does is organize media into a bizarre assemblage of rectangles blindly constructed with only story in mind—at least that’s how it looks software-side. But before you can mindfully get to the assemble a much more recognizable order must be achieved.
Most edit time is spent looking for the next shot. Meticulously organized footage makes finding that shot a fluid process, preserving time, gumption, and creative flow.
Interviews and B-Roll
In film editing it pays to be thorough.
Organizing interview footage and other dialogue driven footage into subclips serves two direct functions: becoming acquainted with the story, and creating random accessibility.
Subclips can then be arranged into bins (folders) according to topic for quick access during the assemble—and later when addressing notes.
B-roll footage should also be organized, at a minimum, by location and subject.
Narratives and Commercials
Scripted footage is different. A skilled director will create puzzle pieces with the shots, usually with more precision than documentary shoots allow for.
That makes the editing process more about comparing takes than finding the right moment of footage. Storing takes in bins identified by lines of a numbered “shooting script” allows for quick A/B comparisons so the editor and director can focus on what matters most: the actors’ performances.
A Multidimensional Puzzle
These days editors are often expected to be “predators”. The term traces to traditional movie making, where picture editors do just that, leaving sound design to the sound editors.
In addition to crafting the narrative, predators create engaging soundscapes to help push the story along—fortunately, it’s lots of fun, but it takes time.
Then there are the graphical and transitional elements frequently deployed in promotional work. Every detail reflects a decision, and execution is rarely as direct as most crafts.
For example, inserting a b-roll clip.
Find the clip—compare all potential shot options
Open the selected clip (double click or key command)
Grab the play head with the mouse to scrub/search the clip, then mark the in point (key command or mouse click).
Repeat step three for the out point
Insert the clip into the timeline (key command or drag and drop).
Key commands are crucial! An experienced editor will fly through those four steps rarely touching the mouse. Nevertheless, it’s not like graphic design, where a move with the mouse directly accomplishes the objective—and your work is always in view.
Once in place, the shot—and the splice—need to be tested and smoothed out, kind of like sanding a piece of wood.
In some ways film editing is always abstract, the final product only exists within the flow of time. It’s 24 frames each second, organized into a meaningful adventure of site and sound—and, it all comes down to making hundreds of decisions.