Turn Boring into Brilliant: Tips for Editing with Little or No Coverage
You’re sitting in an edit bay with your creative team and the clock is ticking on a piece that airs in three hours. It’s a good story—a suburban housewife relating the near-death experience that changed her life thirty years ago.
But it’s a story that takes her three minutes to tell and all you’re looking at for those three minutes is her sitting in a chair. And it’s a grey chair. Blank stares are exchanged and then you blurt out that question that so many editors have uttered before—“How the hell are we supposed to cover this?”
I’ve been a package editor for the Rachael Ray Show for the last five seasons. I can tell you that due to the constraints of our show—indeed most network and cable shows—there simply isn’t time for a three-minute story. In our world, that’s an eternity and you don’t want the only thing visually filling that space to be an interviewee sitting in a chair, no matter how interesting that grandfather clock in the background is. The channel switching risk is too great.
Also, most interviewees are going to flub a story that long at least a few times. Maybe they’ll have long pauses, have a lot of “ums”, “hmms” or say “like” or “you know” a lot. In most cases, by compressing their story, you’re going to make it more compelling, coherent and captivating.
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Our job as creators is, in most cases, to make that interviewee look as good as possible. You aren’t doing your subjects or the viewers any favors by leaving elements in that most folks, given the opportunity, would want to take out themselves.
Our job as creators is, in most cases, to make that interviewee look as good as possible.
So my mission today is to provide you with some techniques, tools, and ideas to make these stories from the past more visually compelling. These concepts can be adapted to be used across all genres, they’re not just for editing packages. If time permits, you might have the opportunity to use these techniques to shoot additional footage after principal photography is complete, but all these techniques involve shoots where talent isn’t necessary. This makes producers much more amenable to getting what you need because it’s a lot cheaper to shoot without talent. Sometimes you’ll be able to shoot with an iPhone right in the edit bay and ingest into your edit system immediately. Finally, even though they’re presented as discrete bullet points, it is very common to use several techniques in concert with others for an enhanced effect.
1. Nature Visuals/Abstract Visuals
When your interviewee is recounting their past experience, showing footage of the environment where it took place is very effective for situating the viewer. Things like blowing leaves, cityscapes, skies can be effective at evoking emotion. The effect is often enhanced by varying speeds of your footage, either speeding it up or slowing it down. Tailor your scenics to the tone of the story—feelings of sadness expressed with rain, feeling of happiness with sun, etc.
Dissolves or cuts can be used depending on the mood you’re trying to reinforce. Visual stylization can also be used to heighten the emotion. You might convert the footage to black and white for somber emotions or enhance the chrominance if the memories are happy ones.
A further enhancement to consider are blending modes, like screen or multiply, that you can use to superimpose your footage over the interviewee or other footage. Most editing systems have this capability built in, though you might have to hunt around a little for them. These modes can serve to enhance the connection you want the viewer to make between the footage and the interviewee’s story.
I’ve had occasions where this footage has come from material that was shot, but not initially considered usable. (This is a good time for a cautionary note to make sure you ingest EVERYTHING that was shot).
From :13 to :56 of this package, the woman tells the story of how she was held hostage in a bar. The footage of the bar has been heavily treated to evoke the dark mood. Some of it consists of inadvertent swish pans to empty restaurant ceilings (the setting where the event took place) that have been repurposed for effective content. I would also add that, in a case like this where the event is a traumatic one, you would want to make the footage as abstract as possible so the bar isn’t identifiable.
2. Sound Design
Sound is a very powerful generator when it comes to emotion. Try to imagine the sounds that might have been occurring during the events described by the interviewee. If they’re recounting a scene by a quiet lake, add gurgling water to your cut. A reminiscence that describes events during a tornado would be enhanced with wind effects, storm effects and sounds of destruction as homes are torn to pieces. Very few of our packages are unaccompanied by music, so obviously, your choice and scoring of music is going to have a profound effect on the emotional impact of the piece. Visualize a transcript of the interview (or even have a hard copy of one produced). You’ll find that when the paragraph breaks occur is usually a good time to switch to a fresh music track.
From about 1:00 to 1:30 in this clip from Man On Wire, Phillipe Petit relates the start of his tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. When he begins the walk, sound effects of the wind and birds engage us and help us share his experience. You’ll note that the cue for these sound effects is the line, “something… called me upon that cable” which makes for an elegant introduction to the “calling” of the sound effects. With time, you’ll hopefully develop this skill of editing what your interviewee is “telling” you to do.
3. Creative Use of Stills
Sometimes there are occasions where you will have some coverage, but it’s not exactly what you need or not nearly enough of what you need. This can be a common issue with stills. You might have stills of the interviewee from a different period of their life, or in a setting different from the milieu of the story being told.
I always urge producers not to be too straight-jacketed by these considerations. Audiences are usually pretty forgiving about such things. If the interviewee is recounting a story from their teens, you can usually get away with a photo from that general period, even if they’re in their twenties. There are some editing tricks you can do that will give you even more leeway.
Using your editing system’s native tools, or a third party plug-in such as StageTools, you can zoom in very close on the eyes in a photograph. Viewers instinctively lock in on eyes. This can excuse a multitude of sins that may be occurring due to mismatches of time period or setting. Try and get high-resolution photos whenever possible as this will let you zoom in very close with little, if any, resolution loss.
Sometimes you’ll have a very limited number of stills to cover a substantial amount of time. This could be because they are the only stills that exist or, for budgetary reasons, they’re the only stills that can be used.
From about 2:00 to 4:00 of this clip from Love, Lust and the Bikini, we see the first bikini ever made modeled for the first time. One still is used repeatedly. But, because it’s color treated in so many different ways, has so many different camera moves put on it (pushes, pulls, pans, 3D treatments), and so many different areas of details are highlighted, the problem of having limited material is mitigated.
Develop sensitivity to the kind of camera move that makes the most sense. When a particular feature is being discussed, a push in to that detail makes the most sense. Pull-outs are more like reveals to show the overall scope of the scene. If you have a series of stills, you’ll find a checkerboard pattern of push-in, pull-out to be most aesthetically pleasing. Repeating the same type of move can get monotonous quickly. If you weren’t able to get a higher resolution still, multiple low-resolution ones can be used to fill the screen. If you need a background, it’s a common practice to blur and blow up the still and use it for that purpose. You can see that technique used for some of the standard definition archival footage in the Love, Lust and the Bikini clip.
4. Create a “second” camera angle in the edit bay
On higher budgeted shows or packages, you’ll often have the good fortune of having multiple camera angles of the interview at your disposal to choose from. In this case, you could just use that second angle (or third) to cover your jump cuts. You don’t really need any further techniques like the ones outlined here, though it might be nice to aesthetically enhance the interview if you’re so inclined.
But what if there was no second camera? Well, you’re out of luck, right? Not necessarily.
When I was starting out and dinosaurs roamed the earth, standard definition ruled the land. 720 times 480 non-square pixels of glory. (Ah, the good old days). Well, those days sucked. Because enlarging that image by more than about 20% in most editing systems was going to turn it into a pile of pixelated mush.
Thankfully, we’re in a 2K, 4K, 6K, and even 8K world now. A one-camera shoot just became a two-camera (or even three-camera shoot if the capture resolution was 6K or higher). If you’re editing strictly for the web, where 720p is still a common delivery resolution, even 1080p footage can be punched in. In a worst-case scenario, where the capture resolution matches the editing timeline, I’ve gotten away with close to 50% enlargement of footage with little to no perceivable quality loss.
Shooting in a higher resolution allows you to crop in with no quality loss. In one shot you get a wide and a medium close-up.Current technology makes punching in for a straight cut completely feasible. You’ll usually find this works best if the camera is locked off. You can also leverage this technological capacity to go to another level. Switch to your director’s brain and create your own camera moves using the software of your editing system. Listen to the emotional tone of the interviewee and let that guide the staging of the camera move. These cover the gamut from dramatic zooms to the face (more common for a comic effect), to subtle drift ins/drift outs.
Listen to the emotional tone of the interviewee and let that guide the staging of the camera move.
In this package from the Dr. Phil show about a son terrorizing his parents, notice that on many of the sit-down interview shots of the parents, there are slight drift-ins. It’s a subtle but effective way of heightening the urgency of the piece. In pieces I edit, a slight drift in on an emotional bite ending a package is almost de rigeur.
5. Creatively adding stock footage
Packages are usually presenting a very unique, personal story, so you might be surprised at how effective adding stock footage can be, especially combined with the techniques already covered. A quick Google search will reveal a panoply of stock footage resources at your disposal. Some of them even feature stock footage that’s free of charge with Creative Commons 0 licensing (i.e. you can use it without having to credit the creator. The caveat here is that many of those CC0 stock sites do not vet contributors to ensure proper model release forms have been cleared. So use at your own risk).
In addition, Avid and Adobe, among others, have branched into the field (either directly or through affiliate companies) and created in-application links that will instantly connect you to stock footage libraries (provided you’re online). In the neverending bid for your production dollars, you’ll find plug-ins from some of the major stock footage companies that provide similar convenience.
Keep in mind, you’re going to have restrictions if the topic of your project is a sensitive one. Nobody with a recognizable face, stock footage or not, wants to be tagged in your serial murderer documentary, at least not without additional compensation.
So how do you find the footage that will work best with the story your interviewee is telling? Obviously, you can look for footage that coincidentally features actors recreating the event in your piece. But that’s going to take a lot of luck. Additionally, footage that features actors’ faces has a tendency to look overly stagy and cheesy. It’s a better idea to look for footage that features parts of the body that could pass for the interviewee in a pinch. On a formal level, footage like this involves showing what the camera would be shooting (“seeing”) during the telling of the story. But looking for footage that articulates what the person would see (POV) can be equally effective.
In this episode of Frontline, The Man Who Knew Too Much, from 2:55 through 3:40, the narrator describes agent John O’Neil arriving at his office at night. This production had a higher budget, so stock footage probably wasn’t used, but the principle is the same. All the shots in this sequence represent what could have been the POV of the protagonist. Generic elevator shots, readily available on stock footage sites, were used to “move” him from point A to point B.
6. Solid Colors
Most editing systems can generate any solid color or gradient you want. It’s not something that’s conventionally thought of as coverage, but that’s exactly what it’s serving as every time you fade to or from black. At the time of this writing, the hottest trend in movie trailers is fading in and out of black. It’s been compared to the opening and closing of a curtain. Transitions to and from black can also be effective if your story is a sad or somber one. Transitions to or from white will lend your material a more ethereal feel. I’ve even cut or faded to red on occasion. If you’re clever with your music scoring, this can greatly enhance the pacing of the interview, in addition to the obvious purpose of hiding those jump cuts. (Click image below to see video).
In this package from the Dr. Oz show, from :48 through 2:24, a woman talks about her near death experience. There are multiple occurrences of cuts and fades to black, white and gradients. The subject of death encompasses both dark, solemn and spiritual subtexts and a creative editor can use tools as simple as colors to evoke this.
7. “Keep It Naked!”
Lastly, after giving you six methods for creating and/or dressing up your coverage, don’t make the mistake I’ve seen so many inexperienced editors make.
The sin of over-coverage.
If you have a good interviewee telling a compelling story, there are going to be moments where the interviewee gets visibly emotional if the story is a sad or poignant one. There might be a funny section where she really lands a humorous verbalization or gesture.
These moments are powerful and engaging. The viewer will want to see the interviewee’s face and eyes during these moments to make emotional contact. Leave them uncovered! Don’t lose sight of the primary goal of your package—to elicit emotion. I’ve seen editors cover emotional footage of an interviewee breaking down with footage that doesn’t come close to matching the intensity of a person crying (which makes me sad as an editor watching a missed opportunity).
Don’t lose sight of the primary goal of your package—to elicit emotion.
There they are—seven techniques and theories for enhancing the storytelling and emotional impact of your piece. Come to your edit bays armed with these extra ideas and concepts and you can help produce a more professional looking and sounding piece with greater emotional impact. It’ll make your producer happier, your interviewee look better and might just land you your next gig.