I am a video editor. For more than two decades, I’ve sat in small darkrooms and tried to seamlessly connect disparate moving images. And last year, I realized I’ve been going about it entirely the wrong way.
Editing is building.
In my line of work – documentaries – I usually begin with an interview transcript. This is the foundation. Sentences, or what we call “bites,” are organized into a text story. The corresponding snippets of video are then sequenced on to a timeline in an editing program like Adobe Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro X. This is the radio cut, so named because at this stage it’s most helpful to hear what the story sounds like without regard for picture; i.e., what you’d hear on the radio.
Once the structure is sound, it’s time to lay in the visuals, or “b-roll.” And here’s where my process failed.
For decades, I tried to make this first pass good enough to publish. I finessed and polished. I homed in on small stumbles and worked them until they were smooth like river-worn rocks. My goal was not just to tell a good story. It was also to impress my boss and my clients about just how much I could accomplish in a first pass. If I’m really honest, I was insecure about my abilities and didn’t want to let go of my work until I was confident I could no longer make it better.
The problem with this approach, though, is that not only is it shortsighted, it ultimately wastes a lot of time.
You don’t need to polish the wood floor before the roof is complete.
Editing is revising. We return again and again to the same moments, adjusting an edit by a few frames here, raising the volume by a hair over there. There is a seemingly never-ending series of tweaks and adjustments to be made. It’s all too easy to become obsessed with the smallest details only to realize that half the day has passed.
But by allowing the first draft to remain unpolished, we can build in layers, confident that the foundation is strong before moving on. Which is not to say there won’t be changes. There are always changes. But this path hopefully mitigates the heartbreak of spending hours perfecting a few small moments only to have the client toss it all aside as superfluous.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting you try to pass off sloppy work. To be sure, a good edit demands attention to detail, even an obsession with it. But excellence in editing is achieved through a process of revision. And closing that process down too quickly does a disservice to your work by limiting the possibility of change and improvement if you’ve already grown attached to your work and the time invested. The less polished a piece is, the more malleable it remains.
And let’s be honest, there’s usually a certain arrogance at play when we think we can get it right the first time, circumventing the need for feedback or client involvement.
Professionals seek out feedback. They don’t try to circumvent it. Plus, no one, no matter how good, can really succeed alone.
Finally, postponing a polished cut makes it easier to remain focused on one task at a time. On this pass, I tell myself, I’m not going to spend the extra time to finesse the ambient sound or take half an hour to make sure the two music tracks cross-fade seamlessly.
Of course, this kind of restraint takes practice. More specifically, I think, it means letting go of the notion that we constantly have to achieve perfection. Obviously, that’s an impossibility, but more importantly, when we don’t cling so tightly to results, there’s lots more room to play. And play is the place where the unconscious loves to make connections. This is the space where creativity flourishes.
There are always exceptions, and there are times when taking this approach may not be wise, for instance, when working with new clients with little experience of the editing process. Presenting them with a rough draft without explanation is certain to raise concerns.
But rather than submitting a polished first draft, I might suggest instead taking the time to break down the process and educate your client about what to expect with each new version. In the end, it will serve you both for the better.
Eric Maierson is a two-time Emmy-winning video editor and producer. His work has appeared in The New Times, The New Yorker and Time. Previously he was the Senior Editor at MediaStorm.
He curates a weekly newsletter, “Fave Five,” and his website is ericmaierson.com.