Essay: I close my eyes when I edit
Francis DiClemente
Issue: June 1, 2016

Essay: I close my eyes when I edit

As a video producer/editor at Syracuse University, I work with colleagues to create editorial, promotional and admissions-related video content. And while the subject matter — mostly alumni profiles for award presentations — may not be as compelling as a true crime documentary or an expose on Scientology, I attempt to produce a cogent narrative for every piece I edit. My goal is for someone with no connection to the university — perhaps an 87-year-old grandmother residing in Omaha, NE — to understand and appreciate the story. 

Most of the videos we produce are in the range of two to eight minutes, and our small video team is at a disadvantage of having to present a lot of information without the use of a narrator. As a subjective editorial decision, our marketing director advises against incorporating voiceover narration, calling it “stodgy” and the “voice of God.” I disagree with her assessment, and if given the opportunity to offer my opinion, I would point out that voiceover narration helps to build the structure of a video and streamlines the narrative. I would also argue that some of the best examples of current nonfiction filmmaking — e.g. CBS’s 60 Minutes, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries, the works of filmmaker Alex Gibney, and the PBS shows American Experience, American Masters and Frontline — employ narration. 

So in putting together our projects, we shoot multiple interviews and the sound bites must serve to relay the information of the story; they form the foundation of the piece. And after I log all of the interviews and start assembling a rough cut, I get to a stage where I have about 10 or 12 minutes of straight sound bites (with no supporting B-roll footage), and I’ll need to cut it down to about three to five minutes. So at this point the work is the visual media equivalent of Ernest Hemingway’s “shitty first draft.” The bones of the story are there, but they’re buried under too much flab. 

I will ultimately cut large chunks of my timeline, although I don’t believe the effort in assembling a longer version is wasted. I know some editors who prefer cutting a tighter sequence to start out, assembling only the very best sound bites and disregarding the rest. Their approach is much more efficient, but I prefer making a “fatter” sequence because I feel it offers insight into the subject matter, giving me a deeper knowledge of the topic, which I believe benefits me as I edit the piece.

However, I know I must be merciless or the story will remain muddled. The project deadline draws near and I start to think I will never be able to fix my timeline.

Over the years I have developed and perfected a single technique that helps me cut down my projects, giving me the clarity needed to extract the useless parts of my stories and then shape the jumbled leftovers. 

I edit on Avid Media Composer and I use headphones because I like to get precise when trimming long pauses in sound bites and removing “ums” and other stammers of speech. But when dealing with a fat rough cut, I will take off the headphones, turn my back to the twin, wide-screen monitors, face the opposite wall, close my eyes and play the sequence from start to finish. This technique of disregarding the visual and only paying attention to the audio gives me an outsider’s perspective, fooling me into thinking I am hearing the piece for the first time.

For the first pass, I will resist the urge to stop and cut sound bites. I just let the timeline play uninterrupted, allowing me to gain a sense of the full video. 

I listen for anything that jumps out at me — sound bites that are redundant, superfluous or fail to advance the story. I also consider ways I can improve the structure of the story by shuffling section topics or the order of sound bites.

I’ll listen to it at least one more time without headphones, grabbing some scratch paper on my desk and jotting down some notes or a rough outline. I will ask myself questions like: Is that bite necessary? Do any interview subjects appear too many times on-screen? Is there a better bite that relays the same information? What is the main thrust of the story and what parts of the timeline fail to support that theme or subject?
I will then turn around, plug in my headphones, duplicate the sequence (so I keep the longer version unedited) and start chopping away. And pretty soon I will have a tightened version of my story skeleton — one that falls within range of the suggested running time for the project (perhaps long by only :30 to a minute).

When I feel comfortable with the story I have revised, I will ask my colleagues to listen to the rough cut. They will make suggestions that help me to further streamline the piece. And then I work on adding supporting visuals, stills and B-roll footage, with photo moves and lower third graphics coming later. 

With more than eight years of experience in video production, I have come to realize I am a better project manager and producer than I am an editor. I am not creative or daring enough to be a post production superstar. I do not possess the technical expertise to create After Effects animations or layer my videos with complicated effects. But even though I may not be as sophisticated or knowledgeable as other editors, I believe my ability to synthesize information, crafting clear narratives, makes my work stand out and benefits our clients and the university.   

It’s also worth noting that while video technology has advanced with the use of drones, GoPro cameras and 4K footage, when I watch online videos I will click away if the story doesn’t draw me in. Breathtaking visuals cannot compensate for a weak story; only a strong narrative holds my attention. And closing my eyes when I edit helps me to get closer to achieving that goal. 

Francis DiClemente is a video producer and freelance writer in Syracuse, NY. His blog can be found at: