A well-made video tells a story effortlessly. Everything about the sights and sounds on the screen draws viewers in and transports them to a different world. However, creating an effective story — whether visual or written — is much harder than it looks. Once you’ve captured the raw footage that serves as the base of your story, how do you put all the pieces together to capture your audience's attention and imagination?
Whatever kind of video production you’re working on — corporate commercials, branding videos, educational courses, or documentaries — effective editing is critical. Video editing is the part of the visual storytelling process that allows you to change and perfect the color grading, music, lighting, and pacing of your film to create the right mood for the message you’re trying to send.
Video editing software is an editor's most important tool. This software helps video editors manipulate film and create a polished, complete story, and professional and beginner video editors are able to choose from a wide variety of software options. Companies like Apple and Adobe offer well-known products. Each of these company’s options, as well as the multitude of other software programs, varies in price and features.
The type of software you use will depend on what kind of stories you want to tell, and there are more options now than ever. As of 2023, some of the most popular non-linear editing programs include:
- Adobe Premiere Pro: 22%
- Apple Final Cut Pro: 22%
- Techsmith Camtasia: 11
- Apple iLife: 10%
The Core Elements of Video Editing
There are four core elements that video editors must consider while trying to create the desired message in their video projects:
Color in film is a powerful thing. Video producers and editors can use a color scheme to set the tone for a scene or even an entire film. The use of color can bring out the mood of a scene, underscore the entire theme of a film, highlight a character's personality traits, denote a film's setting and more.
Here’s a great video editing tip for beginners: Watch a color grading tutorial to understand how different colors will look and work in your film before you even begin the editing process.
The general color scheme of a scene or video is known as a palette. While there is an infinite number of ways to combine colors to convey meaning in your visual story, there are a few basic starting points. The five color palettes most often used in visual storytelling include:
- Complementary colors: Complementary colors, such as green and red, create a striking contrast when placed next to one another. When used in film, a complementary color palette can signify a conflict in the story.
- Split-complementary colors: This color palette makes use of a pair of complementary colors and then draws on two colors next to one of the pairs on the color wheel. A scheme involving purple, red, orange, and green is an example of the split-complementary color palette. This scheme offers the same level of contrast as the complementary palette, but produces less tension.
- Analogous colors: An analogous color palette will make use of colors that rest next to one another on the color wheel. For example, the warm colors red, orange and yellow are analogous colors. This type of color scheme, often found in the natural world, creates a pleasant, harmonious atmosphere.
- Triadic colors: As the name suggests, this color scheme forms a triangle on the color wheel — one color is taken from each point of the triangle. Generally, one color will dominate, while the other two colors serve as accents.
- Tetradic colors: The tetradic color palette brings together two pairs of complementary colors. In this case, one color will likely dominate the scene.
While color palettes are a common tool, video editors can also rely on the power of a single color to convey meaning. For example, the color red is typically representative of anger, passion, or violence.
If you’re working with footage that aims to make its audience feel or understand one of those things, you can focus heavily on anything with that color in the shot. Mute the other colors in the scene and allow the red to stand out.
The French film "Amélie" often comes up during discussions of color grading. This romantic comedy uses vibrant colors — notably the complementary colors red and green, plus a bronze shade — to set the mood for a whimsical and visually pleasing story.
Color grading is a video editing technique done during post-production. Editors will have little say on what colors are actually used during filming, but they can subtly change and manipulate the colors to shape the mood of any given shot using different tools.
Most non-linear editing programs will have specific features for color grading. You also have the option to use applications designed for the sole purpose of color grading. Some tools even include a grade accurate monitor, which ensures that any changes you make will not negatively influence the accuracy of the footage's colors.
If you have ever watched a film before the addition of its soundtrack or score and sound effects, you know how sound design can change the emotion in a video. Sound, like color, informs audiences of a scene's intent. Should viewers feel sad or excited? Should they feel excitement or dread?
Sound design is the process of sourcing and manipulating all of the audio effects, including music, used in a film. In addition to music, sound design also includes creating and altering the background noise and other sounds to match the actions happening in a scene. Both of these elements serve to establish a richer atmosphere.
A soft breeze and chirping birds, for example, can put an audience at ease. On the other hand, amplifying the sound of an actor’s footsteps against a silent soundscape can establish tension and suspense.
While all sounds affect the tone of a scene, music emerges as one of the most important elements. A film's music will help set the desired tone in part because music is so closely linked to our emotions. Upbeat and lively music will correspondingly make our moods trend upward. Soothing music serves to calm us.
If you want to know how music affects a scene, consider your own visceral reaction to a certain song. Try to think of a song that elicits the same emotion you would like to see mirrored in your audience.
Music not only evokes an emotional reaction, but it can also serve to forge an emotional connection. If you’re telling a story, you likely want it to leave a lasting impression on your viewers. The music in any given scene can make your audience members feel the same way as the people on the screen. That kind of connection heightens emotional investment in your story.
Music can also evoke a particular time or location, helping to orient your audience. If your film has a scene set in the 1920s, a jazz number can help your audience recognize the period. Similarly, you can use a country or region's widely recognized music to set the scene. For example, flamenco music could be playing if you have a scene set in Spain.
If you need more evidence of how music affects mood in movies, look to some of the most iconic themes in movies. The "Jaws" theme has become so synonymous with suspense that the music alone creates a creeping feeling of unease. The theme from Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Psycho" has essentially become the universal soundtrack to fear. These two examples do such a good job of setting an emotional tone that they continue to do the job even when separated from their respective films.
Video editors are tasked with pairing the right music with the right scene in order to create that emotional impact. You have the option of exploring online libraries of royalty-free music, or you can spend money for specific tracks.
Once video editors have the music for each scene, it’s their job to determine how the audio levels will work. Here’s a quick music video editing tip: The general rule of thumb is 18 dB to 22 dB for music's audio level. However, every scene and film is different. A video editor will make the final call based on each individual scene.
Light is another seemingly subtle feature that has a significant influence on how we feel during each particular scene. Videographers have a large degree of control over what type of light is used during filming and how lighting affects mood in the film. Different types of light sources include:
- Fluorescent light
- Hydrargyrum medium arc iodide (HMI) light
- LED light
- Natural light
During filming, the key light serves as a scene's primary light. This light will be the brightest in the scene. Lighting can be used to create moods ranging from even to intense.
Neutral lighting in film is defined as basic lighting that diminishes shadow. This type of lighting does not aim to evoke strong emotions in viewers. Instead, emotionally neutral lighting creates an atmosphere with a balanced tone, which is why it’s a favorite of news shows.
A small, bright light can create a sense of high drama. On the other hand, a larger, softer light will produce the opposite effect. Mood lighting in film depends not only on the type of light, but also on the positioning of the light. Different light angles will create different moods. Some angles will up the drama of a scene, while others will create a more relaxed atmosphere.
Once video editors have footage, they’re able to manipulate the lighting further to enhance its effect and purpose. Video editors are able to do this by altering a number of different aspects of the film, including:
- Color: Different colored lights can be used during filming. In post-production, video editors can emphasize those different colors. For example, a video editor can amplify the hue and temperature of the red light in a scene that means to establish a violent or passionate mood. One tip is to use this technique judiciously, as manipulating the color of one light will likely impact the color of any other lights used in the scene.
- Contrast: Contrast refers to the scale of blacks and whites present in an image. Video editors can alter a scene to become low-contrast, high-contrast or anywhere in between. A low-contrast scene will have soft imagery, creating a calm or even nostalgic mood. A high-contrast scene will appear sharp. This can be used to create a gritty mood.
- Highlights, mid-tones and shadows: Filmmakers make use of beams of light, or highlights, to draw attention to a particular aspect of a scene. The shadows in a film are areas where light is blocked by an actor or object in the frame. Mid-tones are the shade between highlights and shadows. These elements further empathize contrast.
- Motivating focus: Color and contrast go hand in hand. Video editors are always conscious of how one affects the other, and how the two elements can work together to achieve the right message and mood. A video editor’s focus on the artful mix of color and contrast will play a vital role in showing the audience a desired message.
All of these aspects of film fall under the video editor's power. The scene's mood will be altered depending on what these highlights accent, what the shadows hide and what the mid-tones emphasize. Highlights can create a sense of realism, shadows can weave an air of mystery, and mid-tones can amplify a certain mood by focusing on a specific color.
Pacing in film, like any other element of editing, is an art. Slow or fast, there’s no one correct way to pace a film. Instead, video editors determine the tone they want a scene to take, and use their expertise to establish pacing that conveys the right message. As you know from watching any feature-length film, the emotional tenor will change from scene to scene. This is where pace and rhythm editing enter the picture.
Effective pacing not only finds the right timing for each cut, but it also helps the film’s story find patterns, symmetry, and flow in its imagery. Video editors should always ask themselves if a pacing decision makes a film’s story move forward in a logical, meaningful way that will have the desired emotional impact on viewers.
Pacing is used to evoke a certain mood in a scene. Slow pacing can draw viewers in and build tension. Fast pacing can be an excellent tool to highlight the intense action of a scene. In between these two extremes, normal pacing serves as the rhythm of everyday life. This type of pacing creates a sense of calm for viewers. Nothing out of the ordinary is happening at that particular moment.
Most video editing software will have pacing tools. These tools will allow you to speed up or slow down your entire film and individual scenes. A good video editor will try different tempos to find just the right pacing. A film’s pacing not only has to match the visuals, but also the audio. The music playing in a particular scene will influence its pacing. For example, a scene featuring fast and upbeat music will likely work best with faster pacing.
A film can be beautifully shot and acted, but the wrong editing decisions can disrupt or even ruin the story. An excellent video editor will be the proverbial man behind the curtain. Everything he or she does is behind the scenes of a film, but the effects are nothing short of magical.
Contact NextThought Studios
Good video editing skills can be hard to find, but the team at NextThought Studios is dedicated to this art. Our expertise extends to video production of all kinds. Contact us today and find out how our video editors and production team can help tell your story.
Janelle Bevan, M.A.
Janelle has produced and project-managed a wide array of videos ranging from corporate commercials to long-form documentaries. While completing her Master’s degree at the University of Oklahoma, she served as the graduate assistant to the department chair for Creative Media. Janelle has worked with many nationally recognized organizations, creating documentaries for the National Association of Broadcasters, designing and editing instructional videos for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and producing the 2015 Broadcast Education Association awards show in Las Vegas. Janelle is a six-time Telly Award winner and won a 2016 Emmy for her documentary featuring a collaboration from three executive producers of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Janelle served as NextThought’s Director of Post-Production and Media Management and helped facilitate over 1,000 videos during her time at NextThought.
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