How to Remain Sane While Cutting the Mundane

How to Remain Sane While Cutting the Mundane

Highlights

  • “Corporate” videos can make you feel like your creativity and talents are being wasted.
  • The secret to jazzing up boring corporate edits is to think like a screenwriter.
  • Editors can transform mundane corporate work into insanely creative videos by focusing on the fundamental elements of the story.
  • Practicing these skills on “boring corporate jobs” will only make your creative insights more valuable when narrative and artistic projects come up.
  • You can help yourself craft a more compelling story by planning ahead, and working with the production crew before shooting even starts.

A new editor kicked a question out on Reddit that caught our attention.

“I’m editing very very boring corporate videos. I’m about a month and a half in and I’m going insane. Any tips…?”

Among the top suggestions to quell this “soul crushing” activity were, “making silly cuts when no one is watching,” “smoking weed,” “quitting,” and “listening to podcasts…but God help you if you have to edit with the sound on.”

We suggest a different approach. Would you believe that even the most boring projects can sharpen your editing skills, increase your value to any post-production team, and maybe even be a little fun along the way? Well, they can, you just need to think like a screenwriter. If you do that, you can cut just about anything into a compelling video.

The Corporate Casket

Why did an entire thread of editors resonate with the pain of cutting boring “corporate” videos? What qualifies as a corporate video anyway? Well, there are all kinds. There are the  30- and 60-second local commercials, or the  hour-long internal training videos, and of course the dozens of different YouTube pre-roll ads and explainer videos.

For many, corporate video feels like the casket where our creativity goes to die. Whatever the subject or intended venue, the videos are formulaic and don’t take many artistic risks. Editing them feels predictable, and will eventually lead to your work feeling like drudgery rather than anything artistic.

In my experience, the most mundane and mind-numbing videos are ones based on interviews.  Typically, you’ve got a bunch a interviews, some b-roll in a corporate space, and often the audience is another business. This is only one type of corporate video, but I will use them in many illustrations below because they are so universally identifiable with what editors hate about “corporate video.”

Why Even Try?

The key to not going crazy with a “mundane” edit is to view it as a creative challenge. “How do I get this from uninteresting to riveting?” You can face this in large or small projects. So the challenge of making a “mundane” corporate edit interesting is a worthy challenge. If you can do it on a small project, you can do it on a big one. But it is on these little projects where you truly cut your teeth, and sharpen your skills as an editor.

In this article we’ll cover technical strategies for making the most of mundane projects, and prove that you can grow creatively even when you’re bored. It just might change your perspective on that bland list of upcoming projects. And who knows, maybe you’ll want to revisit an old edit or two, and see what you can come up with.

There are a few tips that you can do in pre-production and production that will make your job easier as a corporate video editor. Jump to the end of this article if you are working with a team and have the ability to provide input into those phases. But, if you’re ready to get down to the nitty-gritty of making the edit itself more creative, engaging, and less “mundane,” read on.

Thinking like a Screenwriter in Post

When you edit interviews into a piece, to a certain degree, you are writing. You are crafting a story with a beginning, middle and an end. For screenwriters, that is a 3-act structure—and that’s a fantastic place to start. Ask yourself questions like, “How will I open this story?” and “How will I contrast that with the ending?”

In screenwriting, you have a protagonist, or hero. That hero goes on a journey, tackles obstacles, learns, obtains a lightsaber, magical elixir, or a special treasure. Your hero desires something, and the world stands in his/her way. These basics of story structure have stood the test of time, because they are the fundamental elements of telling a story.

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Elements from Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” can be applied to corporate videos to make them come alive.

You will hear this journey in nearly every interview, because stories are how we communicate values. Of course, local ads aren’t blockbusters, but they still have a story, so you need to think like a screenwriter.

Cutting internal communication videos won’t make the next PBS documentary, but there is still a story to be told, so thinking like a screenwriter will help there as well.

Story is the perfect tool for a corporate video communication, because corporate videos are typically somebody selling something.

Think Outside the Boring Box

Can you transform this piece into something entirely unexpected? Can you play with time? Like start with the conclusion and work your way back to an opening. What if you only used b-roll and no headshots for an interview. The inaugural Frame.io Masters film about award-winning commercial director Mark Toia is a great example. There are no headshots of him talking, just a VO, with a sweet accent and awesome b-roll. Your b-roll may not be as dramatic, but the approach may still work.

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Can you find visual metaphors in stock footage? Maybe shoot some inserts of items or props that weren’t on set, but can make the story more visual. Many times you can use After Effects or Apple Motion to do simple animations of SVG icons to turn an interview into an explainer video. It takes very basic animation skills to do some simple sliding in and out of elements, but it will improve the video, and give you an area to grow in.

Post-Production

Let’s get to the meat of why we are here. How can we use a typical corporate interview to sharpen our storytelling skills?

First, we’re going to organize and analyze our footage. Next, we’ll apply the story structure skills of a screenwriter to the interview. Finally, we’ll finesse the edit with simple, but powerful editing techniques.

Find Your Theme

A key aspect to editing like a screenwriter and building an effective story is to find those themes and obstacles that will provide what screenwriters call the “rising action” and “conflict.” One of the best ways to do that is with metadata.

Metadata is a powerful tool for logging and organizing the major story beats of interviews. For instance, if several of the employees mention a theme like, “here we are like family,” or “we’re genuinely passionate about creativity,” mark those spots on the clips in your bin/event (or tag them accordingly if you’re using FCP X). If they mention a common objection from customers like, “at first it seems expensive” tag every instance.

Suffice it to say, mark the spots in your footage that hit key story points. Then use those same terms to mark the good spots in b-roll. Now you can group your footage by all the corresponding best parts.

You might also be interested in: Edit Faster and More Efficiently with FCPX’s Metadata

Identify the “Main Proposition”

What is the singular, fundamental main idea that the video is conveying? Maybe it is said outright, or maybe it is implied. But for corporate videos it probably boils down to something like “our product is great, you should buy it” or “our service is great, you should hire us.” This goes for both internal and external commercial communication.

You might think, “They are just telling how third quarter sales went.” But in that communication is a “sell.” They want buy-in from the other departments in the company. They want other departments to get behind initiatives they are championing. There is something, some key message that is being sold. That is the “main proposition” of your video.

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If your video has multiple or competing propositions, you need to cut it into two videos. Each video should have one, and only one, main idea that it is hammering home. If you split this up, if you have multiple “main messages” in one video, all of them will become diluted, and the video’s effectiveness will be reduced. In other words: cut the fat.

Build an Outline

Identify the common themes that pop up in your interview(s). Each of these themes should support the main proposition. If a theme doesn’t—cut it. No matter how compelling, it is a distraction from the main proposition, and an off-ramp from making your case to buy the product or service that your client is offering. These supporting themes and points will be the building blocks of your story. But how do you determine the order in which to place these building blocks?

Let’s say there are 5 main themes and they go in an ascending order from least interesting (Theme 1) to most interesting (Theme 5). You need to grab viewers’ attention first, but you also need to save the biggest punch for the finish. So consider an outline like this:

  • Open and allude to the main proposition
  • Theme #4 (second most interesting)
  • Theme #1 (least interesting)
  • Theme #2 (somewhat interesting)
  • Theme #3 (more interesting)
  • Theme #5 (most interesting)
  • Conclusion

The reason for this outline structure is simple. By jumping straight into an interesting beginning, you give the viewer hope for an interesting video, and a reason to keep watching past the stuff that some might find boring. After the dip going into Theme #1, you are able to keep that promise by continuously ratcheting up the excitement level. Finally, you have saved “the best for last.”

Cast a Vision for the “Holy Land”

To one degree or another, a corporate video is saying that “if you buy my product, or service, to some degree, your pain will be alleviated and your life will be better.” Look for a description of their prospective client’s life once they have that product or service. That vision is what is called “the holy land.”

Here is a simple example:

“Take this pill, and your back will be pain free, and you can play with your kids on the floor again!”

“Take this pill” is the main proposition. “Your back will be pain free and you can play with your kids on the floor again” is the “holy land.”

Contrast and Tension

A story can’t keep rising in interest if it only hits a single emotional note. In my experience, the very longest that you can stay on one emotion is about 45 seconds. Even if a video is “positive, positive, positive!” it starts sounding like somebody is playing a single note on a piano, and the listener gets irritated and loses interest.

What is the solution? Contrast and Tension.

When you go positive, after a while you need to introduce a negative, or a challenge, that might be explicitly stated or just implied. The movement of positive to negative provides contrast in your story. It produces a tension between your main proposition and the obstacles of everyday reality.

You want to scan your interview footage for obstacles that might arise in the mind of potential clients. Connect these obstacles and challenges to your outline so that they setup the next step. We know most things aren’t that easy. So by anticipating the objections of a client, you can setup your themes to be more plausible.

In our example of taking the pill, an objection could be “I don’t want to take pills all time” or “I have a hard time swallowing medicine.” Here is what an outline looks like when you insert objections:

  • Open and allude to the main proposition
    • The Holy Land
  • Major Objection #1 sets up Theme #4 (second most interesting)
  • Minor Objection #2 sets up Theme #1 (least interesting)
  • Objection #3 sets up Theme #2 (somewhat interesting)
  • Objection #4 sets up Theme #3 (more interesting)
  • Major Objection #5 sets up Theme #5 (most interesting)
  • Conclusion

Now we can see the contrast between objections and themes. People often naturally insert these into their interviews. People describe the problems they wanted to solve and the the applicable solutions. A good editor, just like a good screenwriter, is able to identify the dramatic weight of these problems and solutions to the end viewer and stagger them into a compelling story.

Notice that we didn’t list an objection before Theme #4. Now, there is no need to copy this formula to a T, but here we are leaving a narrative “vacuum,” for the big “Major” Objection #5 to fill. The biggest objection, and the biggest solution come through at the last.

I once read a quote that said, “any time-based art, like a movie or a ballet, is a contract with the audience that you have saved the best for last.” That is so powerful.

Lay out the biggest obstacle, the biggest solution, then pull in your “land the plane” line. That line calls the viewer to an action to buy the product, or give you a call. The video has systematically made the case for the product, anticipated and answered the most likely objections of the customer and inspired the viewer to act.

Any Topic Can Be Made Compelling

Have you seen the documentary Helvetica? That is a truly engaging and captivating documentary. It takes a font that many consider “boring” and turns it into a compelling drama. When you take a close enough look at mundane topics you often unearth compelling stories. Presenting mundane information with style, sound design, and compelling music can totally transform a piece.

Fine-tuning the Edit

You might be thinking, “Great! Our edit is complete! We’ve got a powerful story from a mundane interview.” However, the work isn’t finished.

The outline is strong, but the execution still needs finessing and fine-tuning in order to command the attention of the viewer. It’s not merely about better or more exciting cuts, it’s about building a story each step of the way just like a screenwriter would. This will help you break up the mundane corporate video edits and will push you to think about them from an entirely new perspective.

Turning “Good” into “Great”

Let’s see what it takes to make a good corporate interview video into a great one.

In the Blink of an Eye

Renown editor, Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather Part III, The English Patient), wrote a book on editing a number of years ago called In the Blink of an Eye. It is absolutely worth reading, but his premise is simply, “cut the footage on the frame just before a person blinks, and cut back to them just after blinks.”

This little tip is so handy for identifying the best frame to make a cut on in an interview. It sounds a bit crazy, but yes, cutting on the right frame is a must. A small micro-expression can cause an interviewee to look shifty or untrustworthy. Cutting back to a person just before they blink can cause an awkward moment, making the interviewee seem unsure of themselves.

Play Against Type

Sometimes productions hire a comedic actor to play a straightforward evil villain. The flipping of expectations can make something predictable come alive. Get the big guy to talk about his newborn baby daughter, or get the mom talking about a wild night on the town.

When an editor is able to create a set of expectations and then flip those on their head, you have captured the audience’s attention. Using goofy music in a transition, or using the interviewer’s off camera question without any context are ways an editor can “play against type” and keep the audience on their toes.

Eliminate Verbal Clutter

Yes, you should go through the interview and cut out the “umms,” “ahhs,” and lip smacks. Removing this “verbal clutter” and covering the cuts with b-roll transforms your interviewee into an expert on-camera talent. People will actually be shocked at “just how good” they are on camera!

Of course, that is often due to the editor eliminating verbal clutter, carefully covering edits, and reorganizing their interview to preserve the “essential truth” of their interview, even if it means re-arranging the lines. And of course, it should go without mentioning, but you must have integrity as an editor and not distort what interviewees say.

The Human Touch

The best way to make a mundane video into a compelling editorial journey is to find the human element. A director I work with likes to spend the first 15 minutes or so of an interview just talking about the hobbies and background of an interviewee. This stuff usually doesn’t make the cut. But sometimes it does. Sometimes they even reference it later in the meat to the interviews. And when they do make it in, these personal stories and laughs make great offbeat intros, and opportunities for b-roll.

Punching In

Providing a close-up shot to emphasize some emotional aspect of what the interviewee is saying will not only break up possible monotony, but can provide additional emotional impact for the viewer.

A 40-50% difference is a great rule of thumb when punching in on interviews. So going from a 100% to 140-150% in scale will avoid a jump cut.

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To smooth out this cut even more, identify the eye on the interviewee closest to camera. Then overlay the incoming clip with reduced opacity. Line up as close as possible the eye nearest to the camera. Screen Shot 2018 10 23 at 8.28.30 PM

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Lower the opacity and place it where it needs to go. The combination of the 40-50% upscale and the alignment of the eyes will result in an “invisible cut” (which is the name of another great book by Bobbie O’Steen). You can get even more mileage out of the technique by alternating scale levels between b-roll clips. You will get the effect of multiple cameras even if you are limited to one. (Of course, if the project was shot in a resolution significantly higher than the resolution of the edit, there will be no quality loss at all.)

If you make these  sensible preparations for production, and take the skills of a screenwriter into the edit, you will grow from a bored, frustrated automaton into a masterful editor of stories. Not only that, but people will value your technical skill and creative insight way more because of it.

After all, if you can turn a “mundane” interview into a powerful video, imagine what else you can do.

Appendix: Prepping with Purpose and Direction

Below are some value tips your team should consider in the pre-production and production phases of the project. Click here to jump back to the post-production section.

Pre-production

Sometimes a video is boring through no fault of the editor. You can try to cover a sterile interview as much as you want, but poor planning during pre-production will severely limit your creative options.

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If you’re lucky enough to work on an in-house team, you have a huge opportunity to give input during pre-production. Before your next project, sit down with the director and see if you can plant a few seeds that will maximize the creative yield of your cuts.

Note that some of these tips won’t make the job itself less mundane, but think of them as a basic foundation for later being able to effectively spice up the edit and the process.

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Interview Essentials

Here are some really basic things to ask that can be super helpful.

Ask your interviewer to make sure that all interviewees say their first and last name (and spell it, especially if it’s unusual), and give their title. You probably won’t use this in the edit, but if the piece you are editing has multiple subjects, it is surprisingly easy to get them mixed up!

Another tip is to request that the interviewer lead interviewees to answer in complete sentences. For example, if the interviewer asks, “what is your favorite color?” you want to hear the interviewee respond “my favorite color is blue,” not just a context-free “blue.” This will give you a lot more flexibility in building the edit.

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But even with this flexibility, your video needs to be clear, and it takes a lot more than a editing skills to pull that off. It is vital that there are really simple, distinct statements that frame what the video is about. This is often tricky, because interviewers like to ask questions in the style of everyday conversation that give the interviewee more freedom to “beat around the bush.”

However, because time is limited on set, too many warm up/personal questions can get in the way of the main idea, which might never get spelled out clearly. So you want the interviewer to capture as many soundbites that are directly related to the topic as possible.

“We are Big Machine Company, and we manufacture construction equipment” is probably more usable than “we make products for the whole industry.” This might seem obvious, but that is what makes it easy to forget in an interview. These clear statements are key for an editor trying to develop a cohesive edit. Without them, the video might be confusing, or less precise than the client expects.

The final point we recommend for interview prep is to guide interviewees toward a statement that “lands the plane.” You want a strong summary statement from the interviewee that sounds like something you can end the video on. Perhaps it summarizes what has been said, ends on a powerful quote, or defines the “call to action.” The hardest parts of a story are the beginning and ending. If the interviewer can obtain a clear “landing the plane” statement, you will have a solid option for a strong finish. daniel mccullough 514242 unsplash

Together, these tips provide the essentials for a clear interview. They aren’t fancy or creative. But that isn’t the point. The point is to give you an insurance policy against a lackluster interview. If your interviewer follows these steps, you will have everything you need to communicate the message of the video clearly. And once you’re there, then you can enjoy the freedom to spice up your creative choices and your editing experience.

Production

There are some key technical decisions that your team can make during production that will simplify your workflow. And the simpler the workflow, the more opportunities to get creative.

Resolution and RAW

If your team has to choose, you might recommend shooting interviews with a single 4K camera rather than 2 HD cameras. Zooming in digitally with 4k footage from one camera is often just as effective as two HD cameras, especially since many of us are still delivering in HD. This gives you much more control over style and pacing, and you’ll have to wrangle less data.

Blackmagic RAW and ProRes RAW have now joined REDCODE RAW as robust raw compressed codecs that are practical to use in your NLE. A chorus of voices usually gets raised about raw being “overkill” for interviews. Frankly, raw simplifies things. When you shoot an interview you often have to shoot under crappy light, or shifting lighting conditions. In those scenarios highly-compressed codecs like MJPEG, Sony’s XAVC, or AVCHD end up producing footage that is very difficult to correct for pleasing skin tones. However, if you shoot that same interview in 4K on a six year old RED Scarlet MX under even crappy, green-spiking, fluorescent lights it is so much easier to correct the image to get a workable picture. So even though it seems counter-intuitive, a nice camera that shoots compressed raw, is a worthwhile investment in your sanity.

Timecode

Many modern production teams were weaned on the Canon 5D, a Zoom audio recorder, and Pluraleyes for syncing. This setup works well, but it can be improved upon. If your team records second source audio, see if you can influence them to consider a camera and an external recorder combo (like the Zoom F8 and the older RED Scarlet MX) that supports timecode jam syncing. This will make syncing the audio from your interviews much easier.

On set of “The Suitcase” Directed by Abi Damaris Corbin. Image © Logra Studio Photor

Most mainstream NLEs have audio syncing abilities that don’t necessarily require third-party tools for most jobs (Final Cut Pro X will even automatically mute the scratch audio from your camera, while still allowing you to see the waveforms to get a visual check on sync.)

Thank you to Reuben Evans for contributing this article.

FCP X veteran, filmmaker and Executive Producer at Faithlife TV/Faithlife Films. Reuben is currently in post production on his fifth feature-length documentary. And he is a co-writer on the upcoming narrative film "The Farmer and the Belle," due in theaters Thanksgiving 2018.

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