Film Editor Techniques


Editing is a craft that each editor approaches with similarities and differences in style and technique. If you follow my editor interviews or those at Steve Hullfish’s Art of the Cut series, then you know that most of the top editors are more than willing to share how they do things. This post will go through a “baker’s dozen” set of tips and techniques that hopefully will help your next, large project go just a bit more smoothly.

Transcoding media. While editing with native media straight from the camera is all the rage in the NLE world, it’s the worst way to work on long-term projects. Camera formats vary in how files are named, what the playback load is on the computer, and so on. It’s best to create a common master format for all the media in your project. If you have really large files, like 4K camera media, you might also transcode editing proxies. Cut with these and then flip to the master quality files when it comes time to finish.

Transcode audio. In addition to working with common media formats, it’s a good practice to get all of your audio into a proper format. Most NLEs can deal with a mix of audio formats, bit depths and sample rates, but that doesn’t mean you should. It’s quite common to get VO and temp music as MP3 files with 44.1kHz sampling. Even though your NLE may work with this just fine, it can cause problems with sync and during audio post later. Before you start working with audio in your project, transcode it to .wav of .aif formats with 48kHz sampling and 16-bit or 24-bit bit-depth. Higher sampling rates and bit-depths are OK if your NLE can handle them, but they should be multiples of these values.

Break up your project files by reel. Most films are broken down into 20 minute “reels”. Typically a feature will have five or six reels that make up the entire film. This is an old-school approach that goes back to the film day, yet, it’s still a good way to work in the modern digital era. How this is done differs by NLE brand.

With Media Composer, the root data file is the bin. Therefore, each film reel would be a separate timeline, quite possibly placed into a separate bin. This facilitates collaboration among editors and assistants using different systems, but still accessing the same project file. Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro CC don’t work this way. You cannot share the exact same FCPX library or Premiere Pro project file between two editors at one time.

In Final Cut Pro X, the library file is the basic data file/container, so each reel would be in its own library with a separate master library that contains only the final edited sequence for each of the reels. Since FCPX editors can open multiple libraries, it’s possible to work across reels this way or to have different editors open and work on different libraries independent of each other.

With Premiere you can only have a single project file open at one time. When a film is broken into one reel per project, it becomes easy for editors and assistants to work collaboratively. Then a master project can be created to import the final version of each reel’s timeline to create the combined film timeline. Media Browser within Premiere Pro should be used to access sequences from within other project files and import them into a new project.

Show/hide, sifting and sorting. Each NLE has its own way of displaying or hiding clips and subclips. Learning how to use these controls will help you speed up the organization of the media. Final Cut Pro X has a sophisticated method of assigning “favorites” and “rejects” to clips and ranges within clips. You can also assign keywords. By selecting what to see and to hide, it’s easy to cull a mass of footage into the few, best options. Likewise with Media Composer and Premiere Pro, you can show and hide clips and also sort by custom column criteria. Media Composer includes a custom sift feature, which is a filtering solution within the bin. It is easy to sift a bin by specific data in certain columns. Doing so hides everything else and reveals only the matching set of media on a per-bin basis.

Stringouts. A stringout is a sequence of selected footage. Many editors use stringouts as the starting point and then whittle down the scene from there. For example, Kirk Baxter likes his assistants to create a stringout for a dialogue scene that is broken down by line and camera. For each line of dialogue, you would see every take and camera angle covering that line of dialogue from wide to tight. Then the next line of dialogue and so on. The result is a very long sequence for the scene, but he can quickly assess the performance and best angle for each portion of the scene. Then he goes through and picks his favorites by pushing the video clip up one track for quick identification. The assistant then cleans up the stringout by creating a second version containing only these selected clips. Now the real cutting can begin.

Julian Clarke has his assistants create a similar stringout for action scenes. All takes and angles are organized back-to-back matching the choreography of the action. So – every angle/take for each crash or blast or punch within the scene. From these he has a clear idea of coverage and how to proceed cutting the scene, which otherwise might have an overwhelming amount of footage at first glance.

I use stringouts a lot for interview-driven documentaries. One sequence per person with everything. The second and third stringouts are successive cutdowns from that initial all-inclusive stringout. At this stage I start combining portions of sequences based on topics for a second round of stringouts. These will get duplicated and then culled, trimmed and rearranged as I refine the story.

Pancakes and using sequences as sources. When you use stringouts, it’s common to have one sequence become the source for another sequence. There are ways to handle this depending on your NLE. Many will nest the source sequence as a single clip on the new timeline. I contend that nesting should be avoided. Media Composer only allows one sequence in the “record” window to be active at any one time (no tabbed timeline). However, you can also drag a sequence to the source window and its tracks and clips can be viewed by toggling the timeline display between source and record. At least this way you can mark ins and outs for sections. Both Final Cut Pro “legacy” and Premiere Pro enable several sequences to be loaded into the timeline window where they are accessible through tabs. Final Cut Pro X dropped this feature, replacing it with a timeline history button to step forward or backward through several loaded sequences. To go between these sequences in all three apps, using copy-and-paste functions are typically the best way to bring clips from one sequence into another.

One innovative approach is the so-called “pancake” timeline, popularized by editor/blogger Vashi Nedomansky. Premiere Pro permits you to stack two or more timelines into separate panels. The selected sequence becomes active in the viewer at any given time. By dragging between timeline panels, it is possible to edit from one sequence to another. This is a very quick and efficient way to edit from a longer stringout of selects to a shorting one with culled choices.

Scene wall. Walter Murch has become synonymous with the scene wall, but in fact, many editors use this technique. In a scene wall, a series of index cards for each scene is placed in story order on a wall or bulletin board. This provides a quick schematic of the story at any given time during the edit. As you remove or rearrange scenes, it’s easy to see what impact that will have. Simply move the cards first and review the wall before you ever commit to doing the actual edit. In addition, with the eliminated cards (representing scenes) moved off to the side, you never lose sight of what material has been cut out of the film. This is helpful to know, in case you want to go back and revisit those.

Skinning, i.e. self-contained files. Another technique Murch likes to use is what he calls adding a skin to the topmost track. The concept is simple. When you have a lot of mixed media and temp effects, system performance can be poor until rendered. Instead of rendering, the timeline is exported as a self-contained file. In turn, that is re-imported into the project and placed onto the topmost track, hiding everything below it. Now playback is smooth, because the system only has to play this self-contained file. It’s like a “skin” covering the “viscera” of the timeline clips below it.

As changes are made to add, remove, trim or replace shots and scenes, an edit is made in this self-contained clip and the ends are trimmed back to expose the area in which changes are being made. Only the part where “edit surgery” happens isn’t covered by the “skin”, i.e. self-contained file. Next a new export is done and the process is repeated. By seeing the several tracks where successive revisions have been made to the timeline, it’s possible to track the history of the changes that have been made to the story. Effectively this functions as a type of visual change list.

Visual organization of the bin. Most NLEs feature list and frame views of a bin’s contents. FCPX also features a filmstrip view in the event (bin), as well as a full strip for the selected clip at the top of the screen when in the list view. Unfortunately, the standard approach is for these to be arranged based on sorting criteria or computer defaults, not by manual methods. Typically the view is a tiled view for nice visual organization. But, of course, the decision-making process can be messy.

Premiere Pro at least lets you manually rearrange the order of the tiles, but none of the NLEs is as freeform as Media Composer. The bin’s frame view can be a completely messy affair, which editors use to their advantage. A common practice is to move all of the selected takes up to the top row of the bin and then have everything else pulled lower in the bin display, often with some empty space in between.

Multi-camera. It is common practice, even on smaller films, to shoot with two or more cameras for every scene. Assuming these are used for two angles of the same subject, like a tight and a wide shot on the person speaking, then it’s best to group these as multi-camera clips. This gives you the best way to pick among several options. Every NLE has good multi-camera workflow routines. However, there are times when you might not want to do that, such as in this blog post of mine.

Multi-channel source audio. Generally sound on a film shoot is recorded externally with several microphones being tracked separately. A multi-channel .wav file is recorded with eight or more tracks of materials. The location sound mixer will often mix a composite track of the microphones for reference onto channel one and/or two of the file. When bringing this into the edit, how you handle it will vary with each NLE.

Both Media Composer and Premiere Pro will enable you to merge audio and picture into synchronized clips and select which channels to include in the combined file. Since it’s cumbersome to drag along eight or more source channels for every edit in these track-based timelines, most editors will opt to only merge the clips using channel one (the mixed track) of the multi-channel .wav file. There will be times when you need to go to one of the isolated mics, in which case a match-frame will get you back to the source .wav, from which you can pull the clean channel containing the isolated microphone. If your project goes to a post-production mixer using Pro Tools, then the mixer normally imports and replaces all of the source audio with the multi-channel .wav files. This is common practice when the audio work done by the picture editor is only intended to be used as a temp mix.

With Final Cut Pro X, source clips always show up as combined a/v clips, with multi-channel audio hidden within this “container”. This is just as true with synchronized clips. To see all of the channels, expand the clip or select it and view the details in the inspector. This way the complexity doesn’t clog the timeline and you can still selectively turn on or off any given mic channel, as well as edit within each audio channel. No need to sync only one track or to match-frame back to the audio source for more involved audio clean-up.

Multi-channel mixing. Most films are completed as 5.1 surround mixes – left, center, right, left rear surround, right rear surround, and low-frequency emitter (subwoofer). Films are mixed so that the primary dialogue is mono and largely in the center channel. Music and effects are spread to the left and right channels with a little bit also in the surrounds. Only loud, low frequencies activate the subwoofer channel. Usually this means explosions or some loud music score with a lot of bottom. In order to better approximate the final mix, many editors advocate setting up their mixing rooms for 5.1 surround or at least an LCR speaker arrangement. If you’ve done that, then you need to mix the timeline accordingly. Typically this would mean mono dialogue into the center channel and effects and music to the left and right speakers. Each of these NLEs support sequence presets for 5.1, which would accommodate this edit configuration, assuming that your hardware is set up accordingly.

Audio – organizing temp sound. It’s key that you organize the sounds you use in the edit in such a way that it is logical for other editors with whom you may be collaborating. It should also make sense to the post-production mixer who might do the final mix. If you are using a track-based NLE, then structure your track organization on the timeline. For example, tracks 1-8 for dialogue, tracks 9-16 for sound effects, and tracks 17-24 for music.

If you are using Final Cut Pro X, then it’s important to spend time with the roles feature. If you correctly assign roles to all of your source audio, it doesn’t matter what your timeline looks like. Once properly assigned, the selection of roles on output – including when using X2Pro to send to Pro Tools – determines where these elements show up on an exported file or inside of a Pro Tools track sheet. The most basic roles assignment would be dialogue, effects and music. With multi-channel location recordings, you could even assign a role or subrole for each channel, mic or actor. Spending a little of this time on the front end will greatly improve efficiency at the back end.

For more ideas, click on the “tips and tricks” category or start at 12 Tips for Better Film Editing and follow the bread crumbs forward.

©2016 Oliver Peters