January 25, 2011 \ Geoff Birmingham
What Makes the Best Video Editor?

(Editor’s film reels, Patrick Gallo)

“What’s the definition of great editing?” is a question we get asked with some regularity.  It’s not as obvious as, say, identifying beautiful camera work.  And it also depends what kind of video you are talking about.  A documentary-style editor is probably going to have a different skill set than someone who works on commercial spots.

Since our promotional videos have more of a documentary approach, I’ll speak from that perspective.  And I actually have to give credit to a client of ours, Christian Housh at Exploration Summer Programs, for summarizing what he liked about our work as it relates to this subject.  For him, a well-produced video:

  1. Collects multiple, often disparate pieces of content, and integrates them together seamlessly;
  2. Creates elegant transitions to move from one idea to the next;
  3. Presents a satisfying story arc; and
  4. “Is just the right length.”

Regarding the first point, it’s a little known fact that in the production of documentary-style videos, there usually is often way more footage shot than is included in the final video.  With our productions, we will have anywhere from three hours to even six or seven hours of video that we shoot for a 5-7 minute video.  This includes lots of interview material and lots of b-roll.

(Aside: if you hire a production company to create a video for you, explore with them ways to take advantage of the unused video – just because this material landed on the cutting room floor doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of other nuggets that could be made into mini-marketing or promotional videos.)

Because so much disparate video is captured, the editor must be able to figure out how to piece it all together in a compelling way.  Part of the success is first figuring out what the best story is and creating the arc – beginning, middle, end – that Christian refers to.  As the editor moves from one theme to the next in her story arc, it’s important to create transitions that feel natural rather than forced or clunky.

Finally, the video has to accomplish all of this with a certain degree of brevity.  Even a well-crafted video with a lovely story arc and elegant transitions will fall short if it’s too long, i.e. the audience tunes out.

As Christian noted, often these elements aren’t obvious to the casual observer.  In fact, I remember one of my film school professors saying something to the effect of: “the best editors are the ones who aren’t noticed.”  In other words, if you notice something clumsy in the way a film presents itself, then it was probably bad editing.  If you don’t notice, and it keeps you engaged to the end, then the editor probably did her job well.