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How to Edit Video: Conversations

Editing is important in any craft, but I think video is where it really shines. With a novel, you might be able to go without an editor if you’re really awesome, but in the movies? Without editing, a movie is just a sequence of unrelated takes. It needs to be edited into a coherent story. Video editing is a huge field with countless experts honing the craft every day, so it can be daunting for a newcomer; but with the right attitude, it’s really not that hard.

This tutorial will be about conversations, one of the most important elements in many movies. It might seem as simple as lining up the correct takes, but there’s a bit more to it than that. The audience will spot any slight timing mistakes, so you have to make sure everything is perfect. But what is “perfect” for a conversation?

Conversations in theory

The first thing to do when editing a conversation is to decide whether the conversation is real or unreal. “Real” conversations are typically more serious; they’re the conversations that are edited tightly so that the space between lines is for drama. This means that a “real” conversation should only leave gaps for the audience to feel an emotion. “Unreal” conversations are typically more comedic. An unreal conversation should leave gaps for the audience to process information. I like to think of them as “real” and “unreal” because the unreal conversation is something that’s much more common in storytelling than reality. An unreal conversation is usually for exposition or humour, which are things that are usually embedded in emotion when done by actual people.

What this all means is that, the vast majority of the time, dramatic dialogue moves faster than comedic dialogue or exposition. Because drama is understood mainly through emotions, it’s not something you need to slow down for; the audience will understand right away. Comedy and exposition are things that the audience needs to think about (in order to find the humour or to understand the information), so you need to give the dialogue more breathing room.

In many cases, it makes absolutely no difference whether you categorize a conversation as “real” or “unreal”. Just edit however you see fit, then watch it back and see if it sounds right. If the joke goes too fast for anybody to laugh at it, you’ll know that you need to slow it down. It has nothing to do with how “realistic” the conversation is: if it sounds right, it is right.

Conversations in practice

To edit a conversation properly, you need one video track and two audio tracks. This means that free editing software such as Movie Maker or iMovie cannot edit a conversation as well as prosumer-level software such as Pinnacle or Vegas. If you’re really interested in video editing, you need to invest in some decent software.

Start out your conversation by picking out the takes you want and placing them in order. Put the audio for each take onto one of the audio tracks aligned with the video track. Alternate the audio track for each clip, so the first audio clip goes on track 1, the second on track 2, the third on track 1 again, and so on.

Do some trimming so that the video clips are timed correctly. It doesn’t matter too much if you can’t decide whether your conversation is “unreal” or “real” at this point; you can just go back and fix things later if you need to.

To make a good conversation, you need to never cut the audio. The audio clips for the dialogue should always crossfade into one another. The best way to explain this is with a picture.

This is an unreal conversation, with large gaps between the lines. If it were real, the dialogue would be much closer together.

Notice how there are no cuts in the audio? Compare it to the video track, which has several cuts. This is a matter of basic logic more than anything: if you imagine your conversation as an actual event, it makes sense that you would abruptly change view to see the different people. But when would the audio ever cut? It wouldn’t. Audio needs to be smooth all the time or it sounds very amateurish.

Once you’ve mixed the audio smoothly and put your video in the right order, you’re ready to playback your edited project. Try to listen from an outsider’s perspective and determine if the conversation is moving at the right speed. With modern non-linear editing software, it’s incredibly easy to go back and make minor changes to the pacing. Continue to watch your conversation and edit until it’s perfect.

Written by Likes to Ramble

4 Comments

  1. Mike · December 10, 2009

    Wow, this was good, Bran. I learned something. I’d never actually thought about it before. You can do that with Pinnacle Studio but it’s a bit less obvious — I’d never seen the second video/audio tracks till just now. The help tells you how to do J-cuts and L-cuts, but you can’t crossfade directly unless you drop in a dissolve transition. You can make it so short it’s hardly noticeable, though.

    Here’s a dissolve with cross-fade set to 1 second; it could be shorter. There are also separate tracks for titles, sfx and music.

  2. Bran Rainey · December 8, 2009

    Yeah, I used Sony Vegas for the screenshots. The principle is the same for most software, though. I think Vegas is the best for amateurs, since it’s fairly powerful without being too complicated.

  3. Jason Hicks · December 8, 2009

    The few movies I’ve made seemed very cutty and rigid and could probably benefit from editing like this. It looks like you’re using Sony Vegas?

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