“If I had six hours to cut down large a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.”
~ Abraham Lincoln
Wise words indeed. And this translates well into my line of work.
Work Smarter and Faster
My approach to editing is simple: I spend a lot of time preparing my project, getting to know the dailies, and making sure that everything is as I need it, so I can concentrate on the cut. Basically, “sharpening my axe.”
A lot of my work is spent on TV drama, films, or commercials, where I have a director or clients in the room, but I need to do a fair amount of creative cutting on my own before I present the cut and do work with clients. Whether on my own or with clients, when I’m in the creative zone and on a roll, the last thing I want is to have my thought process interrupted because I can’t remember what alternate takes we have, or because I need to go searching through bins. When the cappuccinos have arrived, the wifi passwords handed out, the lunch orders placed, and I finally have the attention of all the people in the room, I need to keep that attention.
My preferred workflow involves stringouts for each scene, where I lay the dailies for that scene end-to-end. I add markers to this stringout sequence and I cut from this stringout sequence only, rather than from the clips themselves.
In Avid, you can cut from one timeline to another (you can also view your source timeline). In Premiere you can use pancake timelines, use a timeline as a source, or simply have two timelines open and jump between the two. I prefer the latter because I use a keyboard shortcut to switch between timelines and I don’t like the lack of screen real estate you get with pancake timelines (I also don’t like the name pancake timelines!)
Stringout (with cut on a separate tab or panel:
(Note: You could use this method in FCP X too, but its range-tagging and browser clip management system accomplish many of the functions stringouts provide in other NLEs. But that’s a topic for another article.)
Apart from the fact that I need a quick way to stringout the dailies, I also have a way of keeping all that info in one place using markers. I have a separate color marker for each of the stages:
- Stuff I like
- Stuff I like on the 2nd pass
- Stuff the director likes
- Stuff the agency (or producer) likes
- Stuff the client (or exec producer) likes
A lot of feature and drama editors get the assistant editors to do these stringouts because it can be quite laborious; but I find it a good way to start getting familiar with the footage. In fact, I know assistants who have been asked to do stringouts line-by-line—every instance of the first line of dialog for the scene, followed by every instance of the next line of dialogue, and so on. I only find that beneficial in very rare cases.
Instead of loading clips into a source monitor, one-by-one, and looking for those marks, I make the marks on the stringout. This way I can find, at a glance, every moment that every relevant person liked or wanted to try. Even if I open that project five years later, I will still have all of that info available to me, at a glance. I’ve often had clients amazed at how I manage to “remember” who liked what takes, and why.
Another factor is that after 21 years in the cutting room, I’ve cut TV shows, TV commercials, music videos and films in Avid, Premiere Pro, FCP7 and on Lightworks. I’ve used FCP X a little for editing and I use DaVinci Resolve quite extensively for grading. Because of this, I’ve come across some very cool, quick ways of doing things in one bit of software but can’t always transfer that way of working to others (like a lot of editors, I often don’t get to choose the software).
Enter Keyboard Maestro
I’ve watched many online tutorials and experimented with ordinary mice, gaming mice, ergonomic mice, track balls, Wacoms, even game pads. With all of these I’ve tried to speed up my workflow, to find the fastest, most intuitive way to keep my footage organized so that I can stick to that creative process without slowing down.
Keyboard Maestro is a really neat bit of software I’ve recently started using which helps me achieve the speed I like to work at. It can do lots of things, but the feature we’re going to use here is the ability to execute a series of key commands with one keypress (this is sometimes called a macro). All of the things I’m going to cover in this article can be achieved without using Keyboard Maestro—but they do take a few extra (and repetitive) shortcut keys to happen. You can also find other, similar tools that can accomplish the same task.
I’m only just scratching the surface of what you can do with Keyboard Maestro. For now, I only use simple macros instead of typing keystrokes to “sharpen my axe,” rather than exploring the ins and outs of KM. One of the cool things is that I’m able to make macros that are program-specific, so they only work in Premiere. I imagine that I could build one macro in Keyboard Maestro and another in Media Composer that have the same trigger and do exactly the same thing but use entirely different commands inside the program!
Let’s dig in.
Build the Stringouts
I’m going to start the process by creating a timeline for each scene with all of my dailies for that scene. This stringout will look something like this:
Cam A is on v1 and Cam B is on v2. If there was a Cam C it would go onto v3. There are gaps between the slates/setups so I can easily locate the points where the setups changed.
I can easily see that there are three setups/slates for this scene:
- The first setup has three takes, from both cameras.
- The second setup also has three takes with two cameras but there were some rolling resets—in other words, the action or dialog was reset without cutting the camera, hence the same take name. In this timeline I’ve already cut out the parts I don’t need so I can quickly get to the action.
- The third setup has only one take and was Cam A only.
The assistant editor has made multicam clips and placed them into scene bins for me. In Premiere Pro I prefer using the multicam function for synching up even when there’s only one camera because the merge clip function is destructive, i.e. you can’t match frame back to your original source file once you’ve used it. If you use the Multicam command, you can always get back your original .wav file as supplied by the sound recordist. (In Avid Media Composer, you can always match frame back to your original sound file.)
These Multicam clips have takes the same name as the .wav files from the sound recordist. I could have had the assistant rename them, but I’m happy with the naming convention here which tells me the scene, slate and take (we’re using the British slate system).
I have a bin containing scene bins, labeled with their scene numbers. In this case, I’m getting the entire episode in one go; but in most situations, I’d be assembling while they shoot so I’d get a few new scenes per day, every day, from random episodes. Some scenes have been shot together or have so much overlapping material that it becomes cumbersome to keep them all separate, e.g. 302-308.
I’ve opened Sc 313 and I can see that I have 7 clips. Instead of pulling them into the source monitor one-by-one, I can Select All (Cmd+A) and right-click to access the command New Sequence From Clip.
This will make a new sequence with all of these clips which will have the same name as the clip I right-clicked on (and the icon for this new sequence is very similar to the Multicam icon) so I immediately rename the new sequence. I call it STRINGOUT 313. I also give it a color label to identify it easily in the bin.
Two important notes:
- I always Clear In and Out markers (ALT+X) before I add the clips into the timeline, just in case the assistant has left a marker on the clip. I want the whole clip for now but will top and tail them as I watch.
- I always make sure I’ve clicked on the down arrow next to the Name column to make sure I’ve ordered the clips in their name order. This ensures that the sequence is assembled in that order. I like to watch the dailies in the order that they happened so I can get a feel for how things changed as the shoot progressed.
Now I have a sequence that looks like this:
But if I scroll through the timeline, I’m only going to see one angle of each take, unless I choose to watch in Multicam mode, i.e. both cameras at the same time. Personally, I prefer to be able to scroll through the timeline and see everything for that scene as its own clip; not only for myself but also when the director and I look at the footage.
So I’m going to set up a shortcut which will put each clip into the timeline twice, and change the second instance of each clip to show Cam B.
This is where I use Keyboard Maestro to save me time and eliminate possible errors.
For each clip, I have identified a series of keyboard shortcuts to take it from one single instance in the timeline to two instances (one for each camera).
Using Keyboard Maestro, I’ve mapped the following commands into a macro:
- X (to mark clip)
- ‘ (to delete the clip and store on clipboard)
- SHIFT+V (to insert the clip once)
- SHIFT+V (to insert the clip for the second instance)
- ALT+UP ARROW (to lift the clip to V2)
- PG DOWN (my Premiere-assigned shortcut to switch to next camera angle)
- SHIFT+CMND+A to deselect all clips
This might look like a lot, but in Keyboard Maestro I have this set up so that all I do is press F14 and it does those seven steps for me.
For this scene I’ll do it 7 times to take it from a timeline with 7 clips and one video layer, to a timeline with 14 clips and two video layers. So, very quickly and with very few keystrokes, I’ve laid out all the dailies for that scene and I can start watching.
Now I start watching the dailies
If I want to watch both cameras simultaneously, I can still watch in multicam mode by pressing SHIFT+M. How I watch the dailies all depends on the way the scene is covered. If the two cameras are pretty stable and aren’t moving around too much, I’ll watch both cameras at the same time. If the cameras move a lot, then I’m not just watching for performance, so I find it easier to watch Cam A and then watch Cam B. Sometimes I watch all takes on A then all of B.
While watching, I delete all the rubbish I don’t need from the start of the takes. This is super-quick and saves me having to scroll through the whole preroll/setting up again, next time I’m looking at the takes.
I use the Ripple Trim Previous edit to playhead command (Q) and Ripple Trim next edit to playhead (W). This is not a separate pass. I can trim these clips on-the-fly while watching the video, without pausing. I generally do trims as I review the takes.
I do not like hearing the AD shout “Action”, nor do I like seeing the actors while they’re out of character. I only want to see the actual takes. The same goes for when I’m sitting with the director, watching dailies, or looking for moments. The director certainly doesn’t want to hear their own voice instructing the actors between takes. Anything that isn’t an actual take is distracting and time-wasting, so I like to have the takes lined up neatly and ready to view.
Adding Gaps and Markers
While I watch, I add markers when I need to, and make notes on the markers only when I need to. Pressing the Marker key a second time will bring up a menu where you can add comments and change marker color.
I work with my overlays switched on, but have a marker preset which shows only marker descriptions, because at this stage I don’t want to be distracted by having the timecode there as well. You can access the Markers menu from the spanner icon in your record window.
When I come across a new setup I move everything later by about 30 sec in order to create the gap you see between setups. Note that once I’ve added the markers, I need to be careful about how I move clips later. Although Premiere Pro has a setting which allows you to Ripple Sequence Markers, this only works when inserting or trimming. It does not work when moving the clips manually. For this scene I added a gap, even though the slate numbers didn’t change. This was because there was a clear change of dialog or camera, so my assumption is that they didn’t have time on set to do a new slate.
Using Colored Markers
I rely on gut feel for watching dailies so I make notes when I need to remember something or find something. My most common marker comments at this stage are
- RS Pref (in other words, my preferred take)
As with most drama editors, I should also be looking at the continuity notes and taking note of the many comments that could be made.
These can include the preferred take as indicated by the director, continuity errors, script deviations and so on. In order to differentiate these notes from my own observations, I use another color marker (orange). As mentioned, you can do this by pressing the Marker key again and clicking on a color, but I have that assigned to a different shortcut key for each color as I go).
At this stage I might have a timeline that looks like this:
When I start cutting with this, I use shortcuts for navigating between markers, but you can also use the markers window in Premiere Pro which shows you the markers as a list along with thumbnails and timecodes.
Review with the director
Let’s fast-forward a little. I’ve watched the dailies, made notes, and done my first assembly. It might look something like this:
I don’t have a million bins open, I don’t have a million timelines open, I just have the cut.
I show the director, and when we get to Scene 313, she asks me what else we have for that scene.
The long way: Find the scene bin, open the scene bins, search through the clips one by one and see what else you have.
- Stop on the take scene she wants to see.
- Match frame the clip to the source monitor (default is F)
- Reveal in project (my shortcut is ALT+F)
- Open the STRINGOUT from that scene (it will be in that bin)
That whole process takes about 2 seconds, and it quickly becomes muscle memory. I only have to do it once for that scene and will keep those two timelines open as long as we’re working on that scene.
We’re going to recut the scene, so the director wants to know which take I used (so do I). Now it’s very fast to get to the exact frame I used in the cut, using Match Frame from the cut, switching to the Stringout and using Reverse Match Frame (Premiere default is SHIFT+R).
Again, I use Keyboard Maestro to create one key that can perform these four keystrokes:
- F (match frame)
- SHIFT+3 (timelines)
- SHIFT+3 (to go to next timeline)
- SHIFT+R (to go to that exact frame)
So with one keystroke, I can see straight away which take a clip is from and how many others there are in that setup. Using my stringout I can quickly navigate to the other takes on either camera and find alternatives.
I go through the takes with the director. She sees takes that she likes and gives me some other notes. I now switch to red locators (again, this is on a Premiere shortcut). We not only change the cut, but I now have notes of a lot of other stuff the director likes. Most importantly, I’ve made these notes without slowing the cutting process down in the least.
My stringout timeline might start looking like this:
Fast forward some more.
Review with Producers or Clients
The producer comes in (or in the case of a commercial, it might be the creative team). They look and make comments. We look at some dailies and I try to first show them the stuff the director likes. Easy to do because I have those marked in red.
They might want to look through all the takes, so we run the stringout for them. Sometimes I’ll only play them A cam because they’re looking for a specific performance rather than a camera angle.
As they like a take, I add more markers. This time in white. Again, on a shortcut so I don’t slow down the process.
We cut for a while and the Exec Producer comes in (or the studio exec, creative director, client, whoever). We look at the cut, and when we look at takes, I try to show them what the previous parties have liked rather than show them everything. If they like certain other moments… yup, new markers in a new color.
Fast forward five years and I have to recut the show. There’s a new producer, new broadcaster, new everything. Everybody is finding it tricky to know what to do or how to make changes, struggling to remember what it was that they liked at the time, what they wanted to try or thought would work.
My stringout timeline has all that information, right there in the Premiere Pro project. It’s now very easy to revisit only the best moments for the show and try to fix whatever new problem we’re faced with:
But Wait, There’s More
This method only scratches the surface of a workflow I’ve taken years to hone. It combines a very specific combination of muscle memory, OCD, impatience, and artistic skill.
I’ve covered it in Premiere Pro because that’s what I’m using at the moment, but have a very similar workflow in Avid Media Composer and if I started cutting in DaVinci Resolve I’d probably work in a similar way.
Because Keyboard Maestro can be used to do anything from typing text, opening applications, operating iTunes, resizing windows, (even switching users on your computer!) It makes sense that you can use it to eliminate any repetitive tasks and keystrokes that you make too often. Just yesterday I used it to batch rename a bunch of files so that DaVinci Resolve wouldn’t accidentally conform from the wrong ones.
Today I created a stringout of dailies for a scene and added colored markers for easy navigation and organization. A fairly simple task but I’m able to do this in a matter of a few short minutes, with complete accuracy, and in a way that helps me edit faster and more creatively when it counts.
What are some of the tricks and tips you’ve picked up over the years to speed up your editing?