How to be a better video editor

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This article is the final installment of a four-part series. The first article, “How to be a better producer,” appeared in the August 2010 issue. Part two, “How to talk to a camera,” appeared in the October issue. Part three, in December OU, covered videography.
An editor is like the master chef of a television show. Armed with video cards full of ingredients — all the footage shot for the program — you must combine creatively to cook the delicacy the producer ordered. Sometimes the ingredients are superb, which makes the job easier. Sometimes they are stale, undercooked, over-chopped or downright rotten; but it’s still up to you to fix up something viewers want to consume.
I’m a producer and on-camera host, not an editor, so I rely heavily on editors to make my work look good. The editors I hire must possess the following skills:
As editor, you create the show’s open, close, bumpers and graphic visual support. While the network gives you a graphics package, there are still more important effects that need to be added to the program. Creative graphics greatly enhance the visual part of a show. If raw footage is a painting on the wall, graphics are the mat and frame. A unique frame can make a ho-hum picture really pop. Accordingly, with a little creativity, you’ll turn your programming from average into exceptional.
Animation is a graphic effect that moves. Instead of having two arrows appear on a map showing the start and end of a fishing expedition, have the arrow move along the river. The static arrows and the moving arrow make the same point, but the latter does it in a more sophisticated, visually interesting way. Creating animated effects takes more work, but if time permits, they make the program more engaging.
Pay attention to pacing. Television time is greatly accelerated compared to real life. If the viewer has to wait too long for something to happen, you’ll lose the viewer. This is the challenge in outdoor programming when the gobblers don’t come into range or fish don’t bite. If the videographer gave you plenty of cut-aways and angles, use them. If they didn’t, then consider an animated interlude with narration and music to compress time, rather than use a 30-second shot fromover the hunter’s shoulder as he watches turkeys 400 yards away poke the dirt.
Whether the field producer hands you the cards and walks away, or gives you a highly-detailed paper cut, you still have to tell a story that holds a viewer for 30 minutes. Consider starting with a “bang.” After starting with exciting action, fill in the blanks without creating a lull, then build to a climatic finale. If you leave the viewer wanting more at the end of every segment, you’ve told a good story.
Many editors hole up in front of their monitors, working in isolation until the show is done. However, it is important to get feedback from others throughout the editing process. As you’re working, show your work to other people, even friends and family, for a viewer’s perspective.
We think of television as a visual medium with moving pictures telling the story. It’s natural to emphasize the visuals and then rush the sound mixing in order to meet a deadline. But audio is as important as the picture. It can make or break the production. Anything distracting to you, no matter how minor, is distracting to the viewer. Be picky about sound. Add music and other sound effects judiciously to create mood, build suspense and heighten the climax. Carefully balance ambient sound with on-camera voices and narration. Viewers will quickly change the channel if they can’t clearly discern a voice from background sound.
Anyone can cut or dissolve from shot to shot. Think out of the box now and then, creating visually-interesting transitions between shots. Likewise, don’t overuse unusual transitions, as that can detract from the story. As a writer, I learned the importance of transitions from paragraph to paragraph. They are just as important in television production. Smooth transitions allow a program to flow, compress time unconsciously for the viewer, and carry a viewer’s interest from shot to shot. Jump cuts are just that: jumpy. Ten quick cuts in 20 seconds will make the piece seem cut up. That’s okay when you strive for that look; but otherwise, keep it smooth
Take interest in the topic. There’s nothing worse than an editor putting together a show about bass fishing with lead-free tackle if he has no interest in fishing. That doesn’t mean you have to love what your current project. You might know nothing about it when you’re handed the assignment. But learn as much as you can, just as the field producer and host must do before they shoot the show. The more insight and enthusiasm you bring to the edit room, the better.
Fixing mistakes from the field in post-production is a fact of life, no matter how meticulous the field producer and videographer are. Be patient within reason. Offer constructive criticism for next time. Most importantly, do your best. And if you ever hear a producer utter the words, “Don’t worry. We can fix it in post,” I give you permission to swamp his canoe.♦
–A member of the OWAA Board, Lisa Densmore has garnered numerous awards during her 20-year television career, including three Emmys, dozens of Tellys and the OWAA President’s Award for television in the Excellence in Craft contests. Her website

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