How to be a video editor: The basics

I’ve been following the editing game for a long time and I’ve been editing for nearly as long as that time too. But one thing that really astounds me is what people dismiss as being the basics of being an editor.

You’ll probably read this and say, “are you serious?” or “surely this is some sort of joke post!” but I assure you (and I am deadly serious) on how many of these factors editors fail to adhere to.

Let’s break down some fundamental aspects which you should be applying.

Keyboard layouts and shortcuts

I kid you not, the amount of “editors” I know (or stories I’ve heard of) that do not have a keyboard layout set to their preference. The fundamental piece of editing is knowing your software, and in that involves knowing your keyboard layout. It doesn’t matter if you are using Final Cut Pro, Final Cut X, Adobe Premiere CS3-CC, Avid Media Composer, Windows Movie Maker, iMovie, or some other editing software – just know your equipment.

One of the biggest drawbacks are those colourful keyboards that have the shortcuts printed on them. They have no place in an editing world as far as my concern goes. As an editor you should must know what each button does, and when that timeline goes askew what accidental button did it (and how to fix it).

This becomes pointless if you change the keys

The amount of times I have seen edits go from near lock off, to being restarted because an editor has accidentally pressed the trim 10 frames to the left button without having it linked to the audio. Their first instinct is to finger bash the undo command until it can’t give you anymore. If you don’t need that shortcut – remove it. And if you’re too lazy to do so, know what button it is – and avoid it!

The other aspect is purely Avid Media Composer based, but actually mapping your keyboard with functions rather than using the active command pallet. You use the active pallet to test and see what the button does – not to be an active window and use it to edit from. I’m not saying this is the worst aspect of the list of basics here, but if you’re looking through a list of buttons for the add edit button, you’re probably wasting half your day.

If you find yourself looking for a function more than 3 times in a single edit, or over multiple projects chances are you’ll probably be better with adding it to your keyboard. You can always add and remove shortcuts – that is the beauty of these advance editors. Application of these shortcuts are basic functionalities of editing. In the same way you look for ways to edit around a missing piece of footage, or how to better convey a message to the audience, you need to find a far more succinct way of utilising the keyboard.

It goes to show, that editors who use tablets and pens to edit understand the basics since their entire tablet workflow is built by them. Each stroke means a custom function depending on their setting – there are minimal presets.

If you are not customising your keyboard then you are not thinking outside the box with your editing tools – which probably makes you mediocre anyway.

Know your editor – the programme

Different editing programmes do the same thing in different ways. Let’s repeat that to let it sink in. Different editing programmes do the same thing in different ways.

If you edit a sequence and want that sequence embedded in another, the way Final Cut Pro and Media Composer react to this action will differ. Media Composer will insert that entire sequence into the new one with all the cuts from the original. Whereas Final Cut will embed it as a new full track (no cuts). It might sound stupid, and make you angry that these functions don’t act the same but if you know the programme you’re editing on then you’ll know that Media Composer can do a Mixdown which will act like a full clip.

Now this isn’t the best world example, but the point is know what you’re entering into. If you are freelancing, don’t limit yourself to one editing programme. Know that one functionality in a non-linear editor is actually called this function in another.

In basic, simple terms, every editing programme is exactly the same (obviously not but cut, paste, trim, fade) and knowing how to do those simple actions not only makes you a better editor, but someone who can immediately begin the job than complain.

Codecs and containers

Here is a doozy of a basic: know what editing programme works best with each codec and container on different systems.

Final Cut Pro/X likes ProRes files – not QuickTimes (which is what container ProRes is wrapped in). Media Composer likes OP-Atom and DNxHD natively – normally wrapped in MXF and QuickTime containers respectively. Premiere Pro likes everything natively as well as hates everything natively (since it has no preference) but mainly whatever your sequence is playing back at.

The whole idea is knowing if you are importing a file that is not native to that programme expect it to not play nicely 100% of the time. This doesn’t mean it won’t work, but you might get error exceptions as it tries to decode the footage in playback.

Media Composer has a great hissy fit if you have a mismatch of formats in a project and try to preform time remapping. Or if you try to export the file it will tell you that there is potential of errors.

What you should know, as an editor, are the basics of what your limitations (and potential errors) by mismatching codecs and containers in your project are or could be.

Read our previous article about containers and codecs (and sandwiches).

Predefined settings

Lastly, (but there probably should be a billion more) are your workspace layouts. Just like you have a workflow on how to get your product from beginning to end, having a workspace that is consistent will aid in editing.

I have seen some shocking workspaces in my time, and screen realestate is not the excuse. The dual monitor setup, all the windows they need, but for some unknown reason they are just floating anywhere (see below).

I’m not saying have an OCD episode and ensure that every window has the exact same amount of pixel space to the other, but if you are jumping from edit to edit, company to company, or system to system you’ll probably want your preview/source window and timeline in the same spot each time. When you open a new project you don’t want to guess where the timeline will open.

They have borders for a reason right

Of course different editing programmes will have different windows, but if you’re jumping from Media Composer to Premiere Pro I would suggest having Interplay Assist and Adobe Bridge in the same spot. The effects tab to be in the same area each project.

What’s even more important, is that you don’t need every window active in that current workspace. If you’re editing, have your editing windows active. If you’re adding effects, have those windows at the forefront. There is absolutely no point having the colour correction window active if you are starting an edit.

That’s probably beyond basics to editing – that’s common sense.

Conclusion

In applying all these basic elements to your toolbox you will become a preferable editor to an employer’s choices.

What’s even more amazing is that if you actually take a copy of your settings with you (be it Media Composer XML, Premiere Pro user profile, etc.) you can add them into the programme for however long you need them for. If you are entering into a new format, say a new television show, rather than trying to learn (or set) your workspace to be set up to your settings you can import and begin the edit.

That’s probably the most basic element of them all. Being capable of editing without hinderance to the workplace, your workflow, and the client. Just because a keyboard is set a certain way doesn’t mean you can’t change it to your liking. But as common courtesy if you change something in the programme settings (user settings especially) that has not been approved to be the default, change it back.

People want to know they can employ people who will do the job, not be destructive, and not cause other editors issues. If you change your keyboard settings, you would’t like it if you came in the following day and saw half your shortcuts have changed.