Old fashioned 8mm film editing

Power of the edit

A video can be very powerful. But who holds that power?

I think it is the editor because he or she has a lot of influence over the finished product.

I first noticed this when I began doing interviews (actually, I had noticed it earlier, shooting drama, but it hadn’t had quite the same impact). It’s something I think interviewees should be aware of (in the way politicians are).

What do I mean by ‘power’?

Ultimately, it’s a question of timing. Perhaps the most high-profile example was back in 2007 when The Queen was made to look as though she had stormed out of a photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz. It transpired the editor had twisted the story by playing two clips out of sequence (something editors tend to do. In fact, that is rather the point of editing).

I have watched interviews unfold through my viewfinder – the interviewer asking questions that, hopefully, will lead to short, sharp ‘soundbites’ that make the interviewee look good. More often than not, the interviewee responds with a drawn out answer, full of ‘ums’, ‘ers’ and hesitations (nothing unnatural about that, we all do it). But these ‘mistakes’ don’t look good.

So we get rid of them.

When I started editing interviews, I didn’t think it was possible to lose the ‘ums’, the ‘ers’ and the (very common nowadays) habit of beginning every sentence with an unnecessary ‘so…’ My thinking was that, especially if we only had one camera on the interviewee, the edit would jump.

Of course, it’s easy to cut the audio but the picture, I thought, can’t take the edits. How wrong I was.

My director wanted to tell his story. ‘Take out the mistakes,’ he said. ‘Yes, but the footage will jump,’ I said. ‘Sort that out later,’ he said. ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘OK.’

So I took out the offending bits in the audio. We cut out individual words or phrases. Then we swapped sentences around.

Eventually, we get a ‘corrected’ interview. The interviewee sounds good. Competent and concise. Of course, she is jumping around all over the place, but that’s up to me to sort. This was the bit that surprised me (though I have to say, the challenge is always exciting).

‘Correcting’ the visual edit

For a start, you can zoom in on the edit. You lose a bit of definition but if it’s not too extreme, nobody will notice. You hold the full shot on the first part of the sentence before, when you get to the cut, zooming in. Hopefully, the head hasn’t moved too far and you don’t notice that two sentences have been stitched together to create one new one!

If the head did move too much (or if a bus in the background suddenly ‘disappears’ mid-sentence) you need to employ a different tactic. This is where your cutaways or noddy shots come into play. Cut back to the interviewer briefly (just long enough for that bus to go) or cut to the interviewee’s hands to demonstrate how confident she is in what she is saying.

In the very worst cases, you might cut away to a graphic or general view. You can then stitch individual words together to make up a sentence that was never actually said!

THAT is POWER.

The benefits are clear: the interviewee was a nervous wreck on the shoot, but YOU have made her look confident, concise and professional.

Of course, the editor has the power to make the interviewee look bad too. So make sure, if ever you are interviewed on camera, you say nice things about the editor.

TIMING is EVERYTHING

As I said, I first noticed this when shooting drama.

Drama is a funny thing when it comes to filming. Some actors are ‘loved’ by the camera whilst others are not so fortunate. If the camera loves them, half their battle won (probably more than half).

An actor relies on timing whether they are working in theatre or film. In the theatre, their natural timing is fully exposed for the audience to see. If they have it, they have it. If they don’t, they don’t.

Not so in video.

An actor who isn’t sharp can benefit from a good editor because it is the editor who provides the timing. They will seek out a look from an actor as a response to what another character is saying. That look may not be the actual response to what was said. Sometimes, it may not even have been part of the scene that was shot – the camera just happened to remain on them.

I noticed this when filming drama students. The good actors are the good actors. Other actors need the help of the editor. One actress had the advantage of the camera loving her, but her timing wasn’t great. With some careful editing, we greatly improved her performance.

So, be very careful because everything is in the edit.