Media Production

The #1 Talent Of The Best Video Editors

I meet video editors on a regular basis, and generally speaking they want to talk about:

1. What editing software they use. (Final Cut, Avid, Adobe Premier – whatever)
2. What effects software they use. (After-Effects, Photoshop, Maya – whatever)
3. What cameras they like to edit footage from. (RED, DSLR, Canon C300 – whatever)

But I rarely talk to a video editor who wants to talk about storytelling. It seems really low on the food-chain for most editors. But the truth is, being able to tell a story is the single most important skill you need. That’s one reason I hate to see directors or editors sending demo reels that are “compilation” reels. You know the kind – they pick some hot tune and then cut single shots together from the last 50 projects they worked on. I’ve written before why I hate to see those kinds of demo reels. You can read that here.

So – if you’re a video editor and not a great storyteller, here’s what I’d do:

1. Read the book “Story” by Robert McKee. Most people think it’s just for screenwriters, but it’s a fascinating analysis of how to put a story together.
2. Start reading novels. Put down the video magazines and pick up Moby Dick. Novels will help you understand the flow, pacing, and style of great stories.
3. Watch story driven films and videos. I say “story driven” because sadly, a remarkable number of videos, TV programs, and even movies today are driven by something other than a great story. Learn to tell the difference.
4. Start exploring stories on a regular basis. There are plenty of books, conferences, and seminars on the subject.

The bottom line is that with commercials, short films, TV or movies, unless you can look at a file folder full of shots and craft a great story out of those images, you’ll never make much of a mark in the industry.

Experienced editors:  What’s your best recommendation for improving storytelling skills?

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  1. Another insightful post. This malady is common and not just among editors — I find far too many shooters (camera, DP, whatever) who know all about how to shoot a great scene, but have no clue how to use visuals to tell a story. Sad.

    As someone who has told stories visually for decades, I can’t support Phil enough on this topic.

    My favorite book on the topic is “Save The Cat” by Blake Snyder (and the couple of follow up books in that series). But the main thing is to start writing and telling stories that have three acts – a beginning, a middle, and an end. Rinse and Repeat.

  2. I find a lot of editors (and even some directors and producers) get caught up in the visual treatment of the piece rather than focusing on where the piece is going. What is the viewer to understand? What is the take away? If all the viewer remembers is that the cat morphed into a dog and forgets that you were selling ACME dog food you have missed it. As a “preditor”, I am constantly reviewing my work and asking others to view it as well to see if I am making a real connection. If not, as Joe says, “Rinse and repeat”. Life is too short to be mediocre.

  3. Very insightful post. We sometimes get so caught up in getting the perfect shot or editing it rightly but lose sight of the big picture. At the end of the day, the big picture is all the matters. How does this shot help enhance or convey the story I have already crafted. Love this post!

  4. Absolutely agree. Great editing is so much more than button pushing- it’s about manipulating the audio/video to convey a message that connects on an emotional level & takes the viewer ion a journey that changes them. It’s an incredible talent to tell a story & have it connect in a meaningful way in :60.
    However– I disagree Moby Dick! Lol. The worst book ever written. Haha. I’ve tried desperately to read it three times & just cannot! The first page is brilliant, then Melville lost me. But I would say read some of the Russian novels like War & Peace, Crime & Punishment…and the all time classic Red Badge of Courage. All are favorites for pacing.

  5. Great points Phil. I enjoy talking tech, but they are just a means to an end- evoking emotion with your audience. If you can do that, the message and story you tell will hit the target every time.

  6. Totally agree with you guys but in the business I’m in – Christian Media, it’s even more important for the editor to really know the storyteller himself.

  7. I love this. Unfortunately, I see way too many videos that say almost nothing. They look good- or at least flashy- but tell me nothing about the event, subject or person featured. I realize that in Church work we often get tasked with hype pieces to create excitement for an upcoming or past event. However, many times the hype pieces are the result of taking the easy way out. The Story we are given to tell is way too important for us to constantly resort to winging it. Christian media already has a bad name and most of the great work done by churches remains untold.

    If we are tasked with telling people back home what is happening on a mission trip or at summer camp, we can’t put the camera down mid-day because we think we have enough footage to slap on top of a four minute song. We have an opportunity to do more and show others how God is working. Put your filters away and try to tell that story. The easy way may satisfy those who hired us, but we work for Someone way more important than that. Telling the story can change lives.

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