Before I talk about editing, a questiont:
The Question: If you’re reading these posts, is there something you’d like me to cover that I haven’t? Or is there some detail you’d like covered more in-depth?
As a secondary question, I was thinking about putting all these posts together, expanding them a hair, taking a few old articles I’ve written on the subject of movie-writing and putting them together as an ebook.
Since it’d be pretty short, I’m thinking I’d sell it for 99 cents.
If you’d like that kind of thing, let me know, and I will get it done.
Now we’re into editing. If you know anything about editing, say, twenty years ago, it was all done by hand. Meaning someone had to log the film, then trim it using special razor blade devices, then splice it using a special kind of tape…
That would have driven me insane.
So if you’re reading these posts, and thinking that you’re going to shoot on film, and try to make your first movie look really, really professional, so you can sell it and start your film career…
Don’t do that.
It wastes time and money, and you’d be much better off paying a really good director of photography and having him shoot on HD video. You’ll save money. Lots of money.
And you’ll save conversion time, because if you can find a local place that still cuts film, I’m not sure you want to know those people, as they are clearly not all there, if you get what I’m saying.
Surprisingly, while I’m not a professional director, I am a professional editor, inasmuch as I’ve been paid to do it.
So this is my advice.
1. Get yourself a fast computer. You can use a slow computer, if you want to, but trust me, you’ll spend a lot of time feeling sad while waiting for stuff to happen.
I’m not saying you need the newest and biggest and best. But last year’s computer is going to treat you a lot better than a computer that’s more than five years old.
Do I have a preference, Mac Vs. PC? I use a PC. I’ve used a Mac, and so much of what they do seems counterintuitive to me. Because, and I say this honestly, I love my second mouse button. Love it. Use it all the time. Have no idea how people live without it.
I will say that PCs are cheaper. So if you’re on a budget (Of course you are! You’re reading this online instead of buying a book!) a PC is probably the way to go.
2. Get yourself some decent software. In all honestly, what you need depends on what you’re doing.
I know people who do really snazzy stuff with iMovie, which is free. And honestly, MS Moviemaker looks pretty decent these days, too. So if you’re just making a practice flick, or doing that test film I talked about earlier, try using something that’s on your computer already.
As for the other major software you can get. Yes, you can pick up the real software that the pros use, but it’ll run you a few thousand dollars. Then you’re looking at Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere, and Avid software.
However, all three types of software I just listed also come in “Home” versions.
And here’s the only place I’ll make a recommendation that’s entirely personal:
I really like Adobe Premiere Elements.
Why? Well, it’s got what I think of as a training wheels version, where all your scenes are lined up in boxes, you mostly use a very simple drag-and-drop system, and when you try to “cut” something, you have a little scissors to do it with.
Really. It’s a graphic that looks like a pair of scissors.
Whenever I’ve worked on editing jobs, I can figure out about 95% of what I want to do without having to look at the instructions.
And the other 5%, I can find using the fairly decent search function.
Now, I will say, I’ve recently started using version 9 of Elements, and I like it less than the version I was using before. A few things have been moved, the help files aren’t as good, and it’s locked up on me for reasons I don’t understand.
However, I also got a new computer at the same time I updated, so there may be some issue there.
That said, yeah, I’d still go for Elements. The first time I opened up the program, it made sense, was easy to use, and I cut together a silly little trailer for a movie in about an hour.
The first time I tried to use Final Cut, I stumbled around for 45 minutes, and all I accomplished was putting some footage into the program. I couldn’t figure out how to get it on a timeline, how to change the sound and video… Nothing.
And when I showed it to my students, I had the same issues. I handed them a copy of Elements, and got them cutting and moving and editing in about 15 minutes.
I had a special guest come in to give an hour of editing training on Final Cut, and at the end of it, I got mostly blank stares.
The good news is, while Elements used to be a PC-only program, you can now use it on a Mac.
The better news is, if you’ve got a few months to spare, Adobe drops the price of their software constantly. You can generally get elements for about $80, and then get a $20 rebate.
Okay, so enough about software, how do you use it?
Personally, I always start with a really basic assembly. Since most of the time, you’re shooting out of order, your footage is kind of all over the place.
In theory, this should be easy. All your footage is a big puzzle, and all you have to do now is put it together. All the pieces are there. It’s just that some pieces look better than others… (That’s pretty much it for that metaphor.)
So start by putting it in the right order. Get the lines of dialogue where they belong. Get the action where it goes.
If you were paying attention to my previous screed in directing, you should have all your shots, so that shouldn’t be a problem, right?
So get it all in the right order.
Then, start watching it.
If you’ve got 90 hours of footage, this could take a while. If you’ve got four (Robert Rodriguez said he had 4 hours of footage for his 80 minute “El Mariachi,” and I believe him) it’ll take you, you know… half a day.
Can you start cutting right away? It’s a matter of personal style. With my students, since they’re always rushed, they usually have two takes of a scene that works, and as many as ten of a scene that doesn’t. They shoot a lot of hand-held, rather than cutting back and forth between actors, so that speeds the process.
Generally, if they just choose the last take, their final cut is pretty much ready to go. So there’s no real need to watch each take, again and again, looking for the perfect cut.
But! That’s no always the case. And sometimes, you’ll realize that something needs to be moved around, and often it’s easier to do that when your “film” is in one huge chunk, instead of a bunch of little ones.
So watch it all before you start cutting, if you can.
Keep a copy of the script nearby, and refer to it as you cut. Why? Because just like when you were shooting, it’s easy to cut a line, or miss an important gesture. It’s not a big deal now, but if you cut something, and delete it, you’ll have to go footage-hunting later, and that will irritate you to no end.
But hey, at least it’s not film.
(An aside: If you’re doing a big, multi-day shooting project, try to watch the footage every day. I say this because I almost didn’t once, on a three day project, and then at the last minute I thought I should check the footage. In one shot, nothing was white-balanced, and EVERYTHING was blue. Luckily, we had a day left to reshoot. So we did.)
Once your movie is cut, walk away from it for a couple of days, then go back and rewatch the whole thing away from the computer, if you can. Drop it to DVD, go somewhere else, and see what you think of it.
Then take an axe to it, and pull out all the little bits that don’t need to be there. Cut away. Take out the lines that you don’t need, and the long pauses that seemed meaningful the first time.
Then show it to some people. Talk to them. Take notes.
Then take an axe to it again.
Then show it to some more people.
When you’ve got it to the point that the movie more-or-less works…
Then fix stuff.
Add or replace the music that needs replacing. Don’t use famous music unless you’re rich, or you never want to show the movie to anyone, ever, in a public space.
Fix the sound editing. Add in all the little sounds you think are missing. If you want, get a sound designer. But yeah. Fix it. Just wait until you reach this point to do it, of you’ll end up moving a bunch of sound effects around over, and over, and over again until the movie is done.
And when you’ve done everything you can to make the movie as good as you can… slap on some credits.
Credit everyone who helped. Thank them profusely, if you can. Why? Because you want them around to help you make another movie. Plus, it costs you nothing. It’s just words on a screen, and the people who want to turn off the movie can totally do that.
Just remember, though – if you’re making a short, little or no credits at the beginning. And make your credit crawl quick at the end, so it can be programmed easily at film festivals.
And are you done?
Eh. I’d show it to one more small group before you shove your baby out into the world at large. And if there’s a big problem?
By now, you’re probably pretty sick of your movie, and never want to watch it again. But if something is wrong – and I mean really wrong – you want to fix it now, before you start showing it off to the world and spending money to have people tell you where you screwed up.
And that’s editing.