I get asked to look at and offer suggestions on videos all the time. Frequently, the request is followed by the statement, “I don’t know what it is, something just doesn’t feel right.”
Edits don’t work for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes it depends on the cut itself, the music, the sound, the color, the speed, and any combination of those elements. The sooner you can spot why a particular cut or moment isn’t working, the less time you’ll spend trying to solve the problem through experimentation.
When reviewing a video, there are three areas I pay attention to, looking to discover which one may be the possible culprit. Usually, a video can be fixed with one of these simple things:
1). Match the Rhythm to the Mood
Rhythm refers to the visual pacing of a video. You might think that rhythm is dictated solely by the music track. However, a number of things contribute to the feeling of rhythm. Music is certainly one aspect. Here are some others:
- What action is happening in each shot
- The length and duration of each shot
- Additional sound effects
- Additional transitions
For example, let’s say we have these nice, long steady shots of bison grazing on the prairie. You know, something Ken Burns might shoot for a documentary. However, our music track is an aggressive grunge rock piece, drums pounding and the distortion telling us the pace is grinding. It’s obvious these two elements–grazing bison and grunge rock–aren’t the right mix.
In your videos, this disparity might not be so obvious. Yet the fact that you’re saying “something feels off” tells you to look for this. Pay attention to when your cuts are falling in relationship to the music. Are they happening on beat? Is action within the shot coinciding with a flourish or crescendo in the music? Is the action within the shot matching the feeling of the music?
This technique is used a lot in reality TV to amp up or cast an emotion for the audience to experience. This interplay of cuts, action within the shots and music can help you craft an emotional space for your viewer, even one that’s not there. Matching the rhythm of your cuts and action can be a solution to a video that doesn’t “feel right.”
2). Move the Eye With Focal Points and Eyelines
Focal points are the area of the frame our eye is drawn to. In a photograph or painting, composed of a single frame, the focal point is easier to spot. In film and video, the focal point often moves throughout the frame as the subject moves about the space. Also, our subjects can also lead us to a new focal point, based on where they’re looking or pointing. This subtle difference is called an “eyeline.”
When focal points don’t match from cut to cut, the brain has to take time to discover the new focal point to make sense of the new image. If cuts are happening quickly and focal points don’t match, the brain can’t keep up. This can result in disorientation when watching the video.
Often, fixing dissimilar focal points from shot to shot is a simple matter of adjusting the in or out point of the cut so that the focal point of the old cut lines up with the focal point of the new cut. This is true even if your subject in the old cut is pointing or looking at something. Match the new cut so that the place where the subject’s eyeline is pointing to.
You’ll see this concept of “pointing to” when two shots of single actors talking are cut together. Actor One is looking across the screen to the right, telling us he’s looking at his conversation partner. When we cut to Actor Two talking across the table, her face is on the right side of the screen and she is looking across to the left. Our eyes know to look across the frame when the cut happens because the actor’s eyelines told us to.
When cutting a montage, whether a series of quick cuts or even just b-roll showcasing a series of actions, link each shot together by matching focal points. Even if that focal point moves throughout the frame during the shot, ensure that the next cut happens where the focal point of the old one ends. This guides your audience’s eyes through the sequence and prevents a feeling of disorientation.
By the same token, this technique can be used to purposefully unsettle and disorient your audience. Using this technique this way depends greatly on what emotional space you need your audience to feel, and what you need them to know about a particular situation or character in your video.
3). Guide the Ear with Better Audio
Many video producers outside of Hollywood underestimate the power of their audience’s ears when watching a video. If a video can’t be heard, or worse, the audio tracks are incorrectly leveled, it won’t matter how beautiful or perfectly cut the video track is. Make your audience’s ears suffer or work too hard and they’ll tune right out.
I often say to new filmmakers that it doesn’t matter if the video is slightly out of focus or shot in a lower quality than is standard today, so long as your audio is pristine. Your ears will make up for what your eyes can’t see. This is why everything from music to sound effects are so powerful at helping us create an emotional space for our audiences.
Music plays an important role in videos, often telling us what to feel about a particular moment or sequence. But if the music makes it impossible to hear crucial dialogue, then your audience can’t follow the story. Also, if your music track features a singer, make sure the vocals don’t compete with your subject’s talking.
Background noise, such as automobile traffic, lawn mowers, airplanes, indoor fans, screaming kids, dog barking, or even just clothing rubbing and moving can cause distracting auditory signals. Take the time to clean what you can when editing your audio.
Remember that a single set of speakers won’t tell you everything about what your audience can hear. I often listen to my mixes on three different sets of speakers and headphones in an effort to listen in as many different environments as possible.
When all else fails, work with a professional sound designer and mixer to level your work. If your edits are destroyed by bad audio, then all your hard work is for naught. This is why I work with a professional sound woman out of Reno, NV, to ensure that my critical work can be heard well, sounds clean, and is capable of being listened to in a variety of environments. When quality is on the line, it pays to work with professionals who know more than you.