Editing Natural Action

In my profession, I am typically editing natural action on video. Which is to say, most of my shots are not staged for the camera, and it’s my job to make the finished product look as professional as possible, given the circumstances at hand. I enjoy my profession for many reasons. It’s challenging, creative, spiritually fulfilling, and anthropologically interesting. As a high school theater student, my drama teacher had us keep observational journals of people as study for building characters on stage. I find the observational qualities of recording event video to be similar, with the additional considerations of photographic composition and dramatic coverage to add spice. I think it is very gratifying to preserve the lives of REAL people with the same level of care and artistry that might be dedicated to commercial media, and I think this form of video scrap-booking will become more commonplace as ubiquitous technology and video become more rooted in our lives. So all of that being said, I would like to share several general observations about editing natural action that the reader might find useful in editing their own home video.

Pick up the pace. Obviously, we are conditioned to short format media. When editing, you want to give the viewer enough time to see the action or take in the scene in a clip, but not much longer than that unless there is really a good reason to keep watching. A good rule of thumb is last in, first out; meaning trim to the last point just before the relevant action and cut away just after. Tight trimming highlights the point of a clip, and in so doing can increase its power. Of course, I can’t give this advice without including the caution that you want to avoid trimming so tightly as to make your video disorienting and choppy. The choice is what makes it an art, but in general, five and ten seconds is a long time in TV land, and two seconds is getting pretty tight. The goal should be to find the heart of the clip, what makes it interesting and compelling, and to trim it for best presentation.

Motion is important. Movement in video can give a sense of progression & dramatic impact, but stability is key. If a shot is moving, you want it to be smooth, and if the movement is action, you want to be as clear as possible about what that action is. Therefore, you want to try to always complete any visual action in a clip and not cut mid-motion, as this tends to look awkward. Try to make your edits as clean as possible, unless you are using a transition or effect to enhance your presentation.

Elementary editing. To avoid choppy and amateurish looking video, you want to avoid jump cuts. A jump cut happens when you edit between two visually incongruous shots of a subject, causing them to appear to jump in some impossible way. This might seem like a restrictive statement, but with a bit of creativity and a few camera angles, you actually have tremendous latitude in presenting subjects. The trick is to avoid obvious visual incongruity, but basically everything else goes. So if you have a different angle, or framing, you can inter cut readily to move the story along.

Audio influences perception. Therefore, you may want to strip your video of natural audio if it is nothing but background noise. Of course you can keep anything that is meaningful, but consider editing to music and mixing in natural audio when appropriate. Good editing software should let you edit audio & video tracks separately, so you don’t have to have obnoxious audio transitions with every cut.

Clean up your images. Most software will have some feature to allow you to brighten & adjust the color of your images. Get to know your color corrector and you will be able to dramatically improve dark home video.

Humans have a reorientation response to movement and visual changes, which is a fundamental perceptual part of what makes the experience of watching TV different from home video – just the simple barrage of images is enough to transfix. But when tasteful editing is applied to actual moments of importance in the lives of real human beings, I believe it can enshrine a moment in memory for the couples, families, and communities concerned.

Once you have used these tips to edit your home movies, you can build a video archive of your special family memories. Birthdays, parties, and events of all types can be archived in this way. Or, you can entrust your family memories to a professional like myself for editing.

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