Editing Live Music Videos: Timing Your Cuts

I covered the macro aspects of editing in my previous post; check that out for my take on how to use subject, balance, distance & pacing to support the music. This is the micro side; zooming in on each cut to make sure it lands on the best frame. This is one of those things that makes a small difference individually, and a big difference across the whole video. When you nail your timing, the cuts flow seamlessly (sometimes invisibly) through the song, becoming another aspect that supports the performance rather than distracting from it. My cuts land on one of two cues; visual & audio.

Visual Cues

Visual cues are motions that draw the viewer’s attention, covering up the transition of a cut and maintaining the visual flow. Visual cues include:

  • a performer moving, turning, waving, nodding, jumping, etc.
  • a guitar strum, piano chord, drum hit, etc.
  • a light flare or lighting change
  • a camera pan or zoom

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Most motions have a windup (negative) movement preceding the action (positive). For a piano chord, the negative would be raising the hand, and the positive would be bringing it down on the notes. Find the moment right between those two (where the movement hangs for a frame); that moment is usually the best place to cut. Cuts on visual cues are most effective when the subject in motion is visible in the preceding shot; for example, when you cut from a shot of the guitarist & bassist to a close-up shot of the guitarist. In this case, you can cut 1-3 frames forward/later so the motion begins in the first shot and continues in the second. This way the eye follows the motion, and the cut itself is barely noticeable.

Audio Cues

By cutting on audio cues, you reinforce the beat and flow of the music through the visual element. The best audio cues are transients; they pop out of the mix and are easy to line up on. As a general rule, look for transients that fall on the beat (usually a quarter note). Examples include:

  • a drum or percussion hit
  • the beginning of a note or chord

Zoom in on the waveform and find the transient you want to cut on. Find the frame that lines up with the transient, and move 1-3 frames back/earlier; that’s where you want to cut.

tyler_1

Oftentimes visual cues will be linked with audio cues; in that case I tend to cut on the visual cue, as it usually lines up with where I’d cut for the audio anyway (1-3 frames before the transient).

I’ve found that it’s good to use both kinds of cuts in an approximately equal ratio. Cut on too many visual cues and you risk being out of sync with the music; cut on too many audio cues and the cuts start to feel repetitive. When you’ve got a good mix of both, the edit feels dynamic, engaging, and syncs with the rhythm of the music.

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