How To Be A More Effective Editor

Sifting through over 130 hours of footage on the first feature documentary I’d ever edited was not a joke. That was a lot of footage for anyone to have to go through, let alone for a first time editor. So as you might imagine, I did some things that I would definitely do differently on future projects.

There was a lot of down time, whether it be from technical issues or simply from my lack of experience, but all of it was necessary for me to develop as an editor.  And out of this, one of the things that I gained an appreciation for was the importance of being efficient as an editor.

I’m going to share what I learned with you now, so that you too can become a better, more assured editor, more adept at the craft of storytelling.


1. Have the required hardware and software

Nowadays, this has become maybe slightly less of an issue than in the past, but nonetheless you’ve got to do your due diligence and make sure that you will have the proper computing power to do what you want to do with your film, when it comes to editing.

Just before I was to be hired on to cut Bombhunters, I had been using what I thought was the most recent version of Final Cut Pro, which if I’m remember correctly was 3.0 .  But when I did a little research, I quickly found out that FCPHD (aka known as Final Cut 4) had been released the month prior, and that if I wanted to incorporate some HD elements into our film, I’d better make sure that I had the newest version of Final Cut Pro.

Of course, the next thing I did was research what the parameters were, in terms of hardware for the new version of FCP, and then quickly realized that I wasn’t going to have an adequate video card and that I was probably going to need to beef up the amount of RAM in my machine.  The RAM was pretty cheap, since I installed it myself, but the video card was not.

Through more research I was able to find a workaround so that I wouldn’t need the new video card, but at some point, I knew that if I was going to remain a professional editor, I was going to need to probably replace my machine.

My point here, though, is that you don’t want to find yourself in the middle of a job or set to begin full-scale post production on your documentary, only to find out that you don’t have the proper machinery to do so.  You don’t want to be caught surprised when your machine can’t really handle the 4k workflow or the added 6k footage.  That is not a fun moment.  Especially, if it’s a paid gig, and then you have to go back to your client and explain the situation!

So before you get to editing your documentary – or really, before you even shoot, since what you’re going to be cutting with may inform what you use to shoot with, though ideally you’d rather your camera choice be purely based on your aesthetic choices, of course – but at least before you sit down to begin editing, do yourself a favor and do some research the specs of your laptop or desktop computer to make sure that it can smoothly edit the footage and graphics that you’ll be working with.

Like I said, most likely, if you’re using a computer that isn’t more than 5 years old, or you’re not cutting a bunch of 6k footage, you’ll probably be just fine, but it’s definitely worth researching beforehand instead of scrambling after the fact.


2. Clean, tidy work space

Now this may seem a little too simple to share, but I’m telling you right now, if you’re anything like me, the more items that you have in your space or periphery, the more chance that you have for distraction.

So, before I start editing on my documentaries, one of the initial things that I’ll do is make sure that I’ve set myself up in a proper space.  This means things like, what is the orientation of my desk?  Is sunlight going to be directly in my face because I’m facing a window?  That’s probably not great for your eyes.  Plus, you might be tempted to watch all of the interesting things that no doubt happen on a continuous basis outside of your window.  Do you have a whiteboard in your office area?  If not, you might strongly consider.  I always make sure that I start with a nice clean, empty white board before each project.  Because I make a TON of notes, regarding everything from timeline structures, additional needed Broll lists, suggestions for stories, etc.  I also like to use a magnetic whiteboard, since this allows me to put up a few photos or other images that might offer up some inspiration.  But you don’t want too many, because that just becomes too much to look at, and then you lose the power of couple inspiring images.

You should also make sure your desk is pretty streamlined and clean.  Only the essentials should be there.  Your laptop or keyboard, a monitor (or two, if you decide on a dual-screen setup), maybe a small notepad, but other than that, you want to try and keep your area pretty clean.  Again, the idea is to be free from potential distractions.  So when you enter your space – which by the way, I like to think of as sacred, because it is, this IS your sacred space, this is where all of the creativity happens and stories start taking shape… – the idea is that you are making a conscious decision to leave everything else that’s happening in your life at the door.  You’re making a commitment to being in front of your film.  So, anytime you make that kind of commitment, you should treat that as such.. an important commitment of your time and energy.

You might be tempted to put up film posters, or have some books lying around or some of your film equipment, but honestly, at least for me, these things just give me a reason to procrastinate or to put my mind in another place.  Which is exactly what I don’t want to do.  I want my mind to be on the edit, on my film.

Lastly, your edit space is a place where conversations happen, but those conversations are between the voices in your film and you.  Not conversations with friends or family on your phone.  So I think you should consider at least putting your phone on silent, if not simply putting it out of sight.  Emergencies happen, so I’m not going to suggest turning your phone off completely off, but you should make a commitment to maybe only checking it every hour just to make sure that there are no emergencies that need to be tended to.  Same thing with email.  Or the internet.  These are distractions.  Force yourself to not be tempted by them.  Because you know as well as I how easy it is to quickly look something up on the internet, only to suddenly find yourself down an interesting rabbit hole i.e. internet surfing hell.


3. Use proxies

This one is something that I was hesitant to use for the longest time.  I think that I may have been a little afraid that it might cause too much issues later on down the line when I went to reconnect to the actual raw camera files later on.  And so it wasn’t until I was actually forced on a job to use proxies on an edit, that I discovered the great advantages of doing so.

If you’re not familiar with proxies, the easiest way that I can explain it is that you’re essentially making it super easy for your computer system to edit with any kind of footage without having to transcode footage or without your system slowing down or worse just completely choking out, when you try editing with really robust footage.

I had to do this when I was editing a project that had a bunch of 6k files.  The turn around on the edit was pretty fast, so I didn’t really have the time to mess around with rendering or trying to beef up my system.  If you create proxies of your footage files you re basically taking the original media and converting them to a fairly high quality duplicate that is roughly ¼ the size of the original.  It’s also the same as what they call taking your edit offline.  It’s much easier to edit with these than it would have been with the original, much bigger files.  Once you have a final edit complete you would simply take your edit back online by reconnecting to the raw files.  Nowadays, this is a really straightforward process.

If you were using something like Adobe Creative Cloud, you would open up all of the footage in Media Encoder and encode to one of the Proxy codecs.  Then once you were finished with your edit, you would simply reconnect – and this is now within Premiere, assuming that’s where you edited the project – you would reconnect to the original files.  Then you would simply export your final project from here or back in Media Encoder.

If you know that you’re going to be using really big files or maybe a ton of different codecs, you should consider editing your footage with Proxies.  It actually doesn’t take a ton of time, and it’s well worth the headaches of having to constantly render and sometimes re-render footage every time you make the slightest edit or adjustment to a clip.


4. Create a drive infrastructure and stick to it

How many times have opened up a brand new project on a new drive and you thought ‘Hmm, what should I call these folders?  Should I put the footage from different cameras in different subfolders or entirely different folders?  Should I label these by days or card numbers?  And where should I put all of the graphics work for the film?  Are stills to be kept in the graphics folder?’ Or how many drives do you have with all sorts of different projects, with file systems that are all completely different from one another?  This is the worst nightmare ever whenever you have to find some footage, motion graphic or sound file and you realize that you’ve no actual system.  You just have files everywhere.

To be an editor, my doclifers, is to be anally retentive.  And with good reason.  You don’t want to lose hours trying to find Broll of Flopsy the dog, when if you had set up an drive and file infrastructure correctly in the first place, you could go back five years into a project and probably locate Flopsy in 30 secs.

It’s all about how your set up your project infrastructure on your hard drive.  I started doing this about ten years ago, when a post house that I’d been doing more and more work for insisted that their editors adhere to a very particular drive infrastructure.  I mean, they figured it out pretty quickly, being a business and all, the amount of down time that would happen every time an editor might open up another editor’s project file and have to work with it.  That’s the worst, because everyone has their own way of setting up their projects – understandably so – but it doesn’t really have to be this way.  And certainly not if you’re running your own business or this is your own film project.

I’ll share with you the drive infrastructure that I use.  And while yes, it’s ever evolving, depending on the needs of projects or sometimes just depending on advancements in technology.  For instance, back in the good ole Final Cut Pro days, that would have been version 7.0 for me, when DSLRs were really big, we always had to transcode our footage.  So my filing structure always had two separate folders for footage.  One labeled ‘Original Footage’ and another labeled ‘Transcoded Footage’.  But I haven’t needed to transcode footage like this in years, so eventually that folder just wasn’t necessary in my infrastructure.

The obvious folders that you’re going to need will be things like Footage, Sound, Graphics, Project Files, etc.  You can name them in ways that best suit you, everyone has their own unique ways of labeling things, but I’d recommend being fairly generic so as to make things easily recognizable should someone else ever need to use your edit.  I use titles like ‘Original Footage’, ‘Audio Sources’, ‘Graphic Sources’.  Then within these I’ll have subfolders like ‘Music’, ‘Sound Files’, ‘Stills’, ‘Motion Graphics’, ‘Title Cards’, etc.

Again, the idea here is easy access, quick recognition, efficiency.  Just as you want a clean editing space, you want a clean edit.  So your hard drive structures and project files within your edit should reflect this.  Remember, no distractions and minimize the downtime.


5. Learn and Use Your Shortcuts

And I don’t mean quick workarounds to your editing workflow.  I’m talking about your actual keyboard shortcuts. I know.  I can hear the collective groans of about half of you.  But there is a reason that they’re called shortcuts.  Because they save time and they work.  Trust me, if you learn just even a minimum of a half dozen shortcuts you could literally shave off probably 25 percent of your editing time – and I’m being conservative here.  If you doubled the amount of shortcuts that you know, say a dozen or so, you can increase the efficiency of your editing workflow by 50 percent.  That is a lot, people.

Think about how long it takes you to use your mouse and to go up to the dropdowns, try and find the correct action for what you’re trying to do or even the relatively small amount of time that it takes to go over to your tools panel.  I’m telling you, if you learned the shortcuts for how to change to the splice tool, or to perform an insert edit, to set or remove ins and out points, to perform a slip on a clip, or to zoom in or out of your timeline… if you can do these types of things with a one quick hit of a key – and bonus if you don’t even have to look down at your keys – then through sheer accumulation throughout the time, imagine the time you will have saved. Now multiply that for a week or a month… imagine the efficiency of your editing and the amount of time saved.  I’d guess you could double, if not even triple your output, compared to if you were using the dropdown menus, tool bars, mousing around, hunting and pecking.

If nothing else, you have to at least learn and use the shuttle back and forward, stop and start functions without using your mouse.  For most editing software, that’s what you’d refer to as the home area – where you always want your dominant editing hand resting.  That’s usually the ‘jkl’ and spacebar area.  Those will allow you to quickly go through or to step through frame-by-frame your footage on the fly without constantly scrubbing through with your mouse in one hand and tapping the space bar with another hand.  Seriously.  You have to learn and use those basic shortcuts, if nothing else.

When I was first learning the shortcuts for Final Cut I bought myself one of the slipover covers for my keyboard.  These are color coded highlights of the keyboard shortcuts.  Once you start using them, you quickly remember them.  Honestly, learn a shortcut and use it about three times and you just sort of naturally and intuitively remember it.  Something with the brain and motor connection, would be my guess.   Its for Premiere Pro, but I don’t even use it anymore.  I long ago learned the shortcuts, but I kinda like how it looks.  And of course, it protects the keyboard from the remnants of my snacks.


What editing tips can you share that work for you on your projects? Let us know in the comments below.


Host and TDL Founder, Chris G Parkhurst

Chris is a documentary filmmaker and the founder and host of The Documentary Life, a platform which aims to inform and inspire documentary filmmakers from around the globe.

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