Non-linear digital video editing tips

Video editing was revolutionized by the invention of digital video and FireWire. FireWire is a cable (also known as IEEE 1394) that connects DV cameras to your computer for the purpose of transferring data from the DV tape to your hard disk. The beauty of FireWire is that the data transfer is lossless. This means that when you record your edited video project back to the tape via FireWire there is no loss of quality.

Perhaps more importantly, the real significance of the DV revolution is that it introduced non-linear editing, which is massively more efficient and quick than traditional linear video editing. Non-linear video editing systems allow you to edit your video project with drag-and-drop mouse movements. Although non-linear digital video editing systems can appear daunting at first, they are in fact quite intuitive. This article is based on my own experience with digital video editing.

The first thing to do before you start editing your video project is to optimize your computer for digital video editing. Video editing places very high demands on your computer’s resources and it is therefore vital to configure it properly before you start editing your video.

Having optimized your computer, you are ready to capture the video footage. This is the process by which the footage on your DV tape is copied onto your computer’s hard disk via the FireWire cable. The captured video is saved as an AVI file. These are your source files, which you will edit with your non-linear video editing program (such as Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 or Final Cut Studio).

1. Preparing for video capture

Editing begins with reviewing all of your raw footage and choosing the shots you want. In theory this means choosing the best take of every shot you filmed; in practice, for top results you have to identify the best part of each shot in different takes. For example, you might decide that the best beginning of a shot is in take three, whereas the best ending of that shot is in take seven. For best results you should capture both takes and use them to assemble your project.

Do not be tempted to start capturing video before you have carefully chosen the shots you want and carefully noted their timecode.

Before capturing video onto your hard disk you should defragment all of your hard disks and reboot your computer. Capturing video is very CPU-intensive and your computer needs all the help it can get.

2. Capturing digital video

It goes without saying that you should not simply transfer the entire tape onto your hard disk as a single file. This huge AVI file would be a nightmare to edit. Instead, you should capture shots individually and you should name them according to a well thought-out rationale. A good naming strategy for your source and video files is to start with the character name, followed by the shot size, followed by the take number or any other identifying detail. For example, “Jane CU café 3” (third take of Jane’s close-up in the café scene). If you stick to a similar rationale when you capture your shots you will be thankful you did so when the video capture is over and you have 200 or 300 individual video clips that you need to edit into a coherent film or video. For very complex projects, such as feature films, you might want to go a step further and create a series of folders (e.g. a folder for every major sequence), thereby adding a hierarchical level to your shot nomenclature.

The details of the capturing process differs for every non-linear video editing program, but in essence what happens is that you control your DV camcorder or DV deck from your editing program, which will record the video stream from the tape via the FireWire cable onto the hard disk. You should start the tape at least five seconds before the shot you want and you should start capturing at least two seconds before the beginning of the shot you want. I strongly recommend that you enable the “abort on dropped frames” function of your video editing program, or its equivalent: it will ensure that video capture is aborted if a frame is dropped during capture. It will save you from having to keep an eye on the frame counter.

You should defragment all of your hard drives again after capturing 5 or 10 minutes’ worth of video.

3. Editing your project

What you should now have is a selection of carefully-named shots in a folder somewhere on a dedicated hard disc. At the end of the process the hard disk should still have plenty of free space on it.

Depending on the video editing program you are using, you might have to import your shots into your project; however, if you captured video from within the project the video clips should already be in the project bin, ready to be dragged onto the timeline.

The timeline is where you assemble your film or video. You simply drag shots from the bin onto the timeline and start editing your project. The performance of your computer is still an issue, and to this end you should make life as easy as possible for your video editing program by, for example, disabling video clip thumbnails and any other bells and whistles that drain RAM and CPU resources.

Remember to save your project at regular intervals and to back it up on another hard disk at the end of every day. Video editing programs tend to have their own archiving system, whereby they save a distinct copy of the project at regular intervals, so that if your main copy becomes corrupted you can rescue most of your work by opening the next most recent project file in the project archive.

The secret to making life easier for yourself during post-production is to be extra tidy with your timeline, and to be completion-focused throughout the editing. This means that you should double-check that there are no empty spaces in between the shots immediately after cutting a sequence. You should lock the shots when you have assembled them into a sequence and applied video effects. This ensures that you will not accidentally move clips or change their settings. You can always unlock them later to tweak the cuts or the video effects.

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3 thoughts on “Non-linear digital video editing tips

  1. If you have moved to tapeless production, how has your work flow changed?

    Does it make sense to convert AVCHD files to AVI before editing?

  2. I’m a little shocked to not see Avid mentioned. I realize it’s expensive and has a more complex workflow, but in the end it is actually the only system with which you can do certain things. And that is not smoke. I’ve worked with all of the NLE’s some more than others, but none had the all-around capability of Avid…not the entire Avid system, but just the Avid software. It is literally true that with Avid you get results that you’d never have imagined while using any other software. I could go into vast details, and that would be a very long post.

    But here’s an example. Let’s say that you have a project where you need to gather a bunch of stills from your various shots. Let’s say that you have a couple of hundred shots from which to get these stills. So you need a few hundred stills. With any other NLE, this can take you weeks. With Avid, you can get those stills in about 15 minutes.

    Avid is laced with abilities such as this, that don’t get advertised and almost no one knows about…not even MOST avid editors. But Avid is real freedom. It’s like using a word processor as opposed to a typewriters.

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