Video Editing Best Practices Part II: How to Use Pro-Grade Video Editing Software

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By Dustin Sklavos

My job here as a writer for NotebookReview is to distill complicated information into something that the average consumer can understand. Most things computer-related have some kind of basic analogy anyone can grasp, but video editing is wholly its own entity. The basic workflow is simple and logical to me because I’ve been doing it for nearly a decade now. How do you quickly convey it to someone who’s completely new at it?

As I said last week, consumer grade video editors don’t solve this problem at all. If anything, they complicate it, because instead of just simplifying the workflow of professional grade software, they create their own disciplines and languages. If you want to take that knowledge and apply it to something more powerful and flexible, you’re out of luck. Ironically, the more powerful software is in many ways less complicated because it doesn’t take these workflow shortcuts.

In this second part of my video editing series, I’ll walk you through the basic elements found in professional video software. When I started to learn the software — in my case, Adobe Premiere — I found the interface to be very intimidating. But later, when I went off to university proper, I had to learn Final Cut Pro and was pleased to discover that it was in many ways basically interchangeable with Premiere. What I learned with Premiere could be easily applied to Final Cut Pro, and vice versa. Professors even said as much. My ultimate goal here is less to tell you exactly how to use this software as it is to give you a baseline to work from, an understanding of what you’re looking at so that you won’t feel intimidated but instead ready to learn how to use these powerful new tools.

BEFORE WE START

Video editing formatsSo before we get into the program proper, we’re going to need to understand the formats that digital video is shot in. I can see how this screen might be at least somewhat terrifying even on its own, but we can break it down pretty simply.

First, there are really only three formats you’re going to need to care about here:

  • DV
  • HDV
  • AVCHD

You can largely ignore the other ones listed because odds are you’re not going to get your hands on a RED ONE camera anytime soon (and if you do, I both envy and despise you). Your camera is liable to have the format it shoots in printed right on the side of the box if not the camera itself. The majority of consumer video cameras these days — at least the ones that shoot in high definition — shoot AVCHD, I’m actually alarmed (and disappointed) at how fast video cameras have gone tapeless.

Format isn’t absolutely essential; for the purposes of Premiere Pro at least, you’re choosing the format you want to master your video in. Any other media you add to the finished product will be converted to your master format. You can mix and match formats, add still images or MP3s, whatever, and the software can handle that, but the final product will be in the master format.

THE OVERVIEW

Video editing masterSo once you get your project started in the software of your choice, you’re liable to see a window that looks something like this:

This looks exponentially more complex and frightening than it actually is. Your screen is going to be blank when you start, but I wanted to use an existing project so you can actually see some of this in action and understand what you are and will be looking at.

I want to be clear that while Avid tends to deviate some from this layout, Apple’s Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere Pro are practically bosom buddies. Like my professor said, they’re essentially interchangeable.

TOOLS

Video editing menubarSo starting from the top we have the menu bar and the tools.

I’ll be honest, and maybe it speaks ill of me, but I don’t use half of this stuff. Most of what’s in the menu bar is going to be able to be found somewhere in the actual workspace, so what you need to concern yourself with are the set of tools beneath it.

As much as I’d like to detail all of the tools, there are really just two you need to be aware of that are going to carry over between basic disciplines: the Selection tool (already highlighted in the image) and the Razor tool (the tool that looks like a razor).

The Selection tool is fairly obvious in function, working like you’ve always known the mouse pointer to in any other program. It highlights, clicks and drags, etc.

The Razor tool’s function is unique to time-based media: when used on a clip on the timeline, it will split that clip in two at whichever point you click. If you’re editing a clip and there’s an anomaly (say a screaming child) in the audio, you can use the Razor tool to make cuts on either side of the anomaly to isolate and remove it. That’s really the tip of the iceberg; the Razor is simple in concept, powerful in practice.

PROJECT WINDOW

Video editing project binThe project window, also known as the bin, holds all the assets you’re going to use for your project. There are video clips in the window, folders which can be used to organize the individual assets, along with timelines and audio clips. Anything you’re planning on using for your project should be here. The top of the window just shows you whichever asset is highlighted and gives you some basic information about it.

If you remember our last article that spoke about timecode and frames per second, you’ll recognize them here. The bit that says “720 x 480 (1.2121)”? That refers to the resolution of the video (720 pixels wide and 480 pixels tall) and the aspect ratio of the pixels; a 1 means the pixels in the video are square, greater than 1 means they’re horizontally oblong, and less than 1 means they’re vertically oblong. It’s completely normal for the pixels in video not to be perfectly square: DVDs all run with a 720×480 resolution that’s stretched in some fashion.

The “48000 Hz — 16-bit — Stereo” line is information about the quality of the clip’s audio track. At this early stage it’s not essential to concern yourself with these details. The only bit that’s really important is the difference between Mono and Stereo: Mono is short for Monaural, and means that the sound has a single audio channel. Stereo, on the other hand, means that the sound has a left channel and a right channel.

SOURCE AND PROGRAM WINDOWS

Video editor source window Video editor program window

Traditionally an editor is going to have two video playback windows. The first is the Source window, shown above-left. The Source window is where you can preview individual clips within your project, as well as set “In” and “Out” points: specifying where you want the clip to start and stop when you drag it onto the timeline. It’s simple enough: you’d want to watch the clip you’re planning on using before actually putting it in your project, right?

The other is the Program window, shown above-right. The Program window is almost always to the right of the Source window, and it represents your project thus far. Every edit you make, and every tweak to the video, will appear in the Program window. Other than that, the windows are basically identical. So how do we read them?

You’ll notice there are two instances of timecode in the window: one is where you currently are in the clip or timeline — that’s the yellow one (which you can also enter a timecode into to jump around the clip or timeline.) The other one tells you the duration of the clip or project.

Below it are the basic playback controls in the center. The “play” symbol should be familiar enough; the arrows to the left and right of it are used to step forward and backward one frame. And finally, the slider beneath those controls is called a “shuttle,” and allows you to move back and forth in the clip or project at varying speeds: the further back you drag it, the faster you rewind, while the further forward you drag it, the faster you fast forward.

INFO AND LEVELS

Video editor info windowVideo editor levels display

The Info window, shown above-left, is simple and useful enough. The top of the Info window just gives you information about whatever clip or asset you have selected, which is the same as the information at the top of the Project window whenever you have a clip highlighted there.

Levels, shown above-right, are extremely important to be aware of. In Premiere this window is labeled the “Audio Master Meters,” but the function is basically to visually represent how soft or loud your audio is. Sound levels for video editing are measured in negative decibels, and the space between 0 and -6 on the meters is generally right where you want your sound to be (assuming it’s something you want audible.) If you hit 0, the audio is crushed and you lose sound quality. Trust me when I tell you it sounds bad.

THE TIMELINE

Video editor timelineAnd here’s the most important piece: The Timeline. This is where all of your editing and sequencing is actually done. The tracks on my timeline here have all been labeled for my purposes while working on my own movie, but some basic rules apply.

The top set of tracks are always going to be the video tracks, and they’ll appear layered exactly as they’re represented here: if you put a video clip a track above another one, the topmost video is the one that’s going to get played. If the topmost video has transparency in it, the next video down will show through, and so on.

The bottom set depicts the audio tracks and these mix together depending on how you’ve set the volume of each individual track. Remember the levels? The levels window is representative of your complete audio mix.

My timeline here is not slightly different from what most look like because this one is using a master video clip and then making subtle tweaks here and there, altering individual scenes with new clips. But you can see at the far right a cut from one clip to the next on the video track titled “Original.”

Finally, in the audio tracks you’ll see waveforms, which represent the sound levels of the individual sound clips on the tracks. The taller the waveform is, the louder it is.

CONCLUSION

If you didn’t get everything here or feel I missed something, don’t worry and don’t panic. My purpose here is less about helping you just dive in and start editing and more about learning the basic concepts that go into editing video. Any editor you use is going to have some measure of a learning curve to it and they all include tutorials and documentation. I wanted to give you a baseline. You don’t need to know what every little thing on each window does because some of it is just used for precision or to streamline your workflow.

In the next and final chapter of this series, I’m going to talk about what I think is one of the most important and most often forgotten/ignored parts of doing video work: the hardware. Video editing is very demanding on hardware, but if you set up your system right you can simplify the process tremendously. It can mean the difference between a final project render taking three hours or taking just thirty minutes — all on the same hardware. Stay tuned.


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