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Good, Fast & Cheap? Avoiding Some of the Pitfalls of Pro Video Editing

Danny Greer
By Danny Greer
By Danny Greer

There’s an old saying, “if you want something done good, fast & cheap, pick two.”  As video editors we often struggle to provide our clients with all three, minimizing the return on our time investment and costing us our sanity in the process!

In this post, we’ll offer a few tips to streamline your editing process…so that both you and your client walk away happy and feeling good about the editing process, as well as the final product.

Don’t Lose Sight of the “Big Picture”

Know the big picture of your project going into it…and stay focused on that.  It’s far too easy to get micro-focused in the editing suite, concentrating on minute details before the rough cut has even been completed.  Don’t forget it’s called a rough-cut for a reason!  Create a paper outline of the video structure to give you an overarching view of the project.  Then, make it priority #1 to get that outline realized on the timeline.  For some types of projects (corporate, news, etc) it may even be beneficial to lay out the structure first and then go back and add b-roll and supporting video. Don’t pick away with color correction, go crazy with effects or spend unnecessary time mixing audio this early in the process…as it’s possible that some sections may not even make it into the final version.  Just remember…get the “big picture” put together first!

Complete Tasks Previously Agreed Upon

Another trap some editors fall into is giving every project the “full post treatment” when the client hasn’t agreed to pay for it.  For instance, if you’re cutting an internal corporate interview it’s highly likely that the client doesn’t see the need for (or have the money to pay for) hours of detailed color correction.  Likewise, they may not have budgeted in time for high-end audio mixing.  Do the work you’re getting paid for! That’s not to say that you shouldn’t make every project look and sound it’s best…but rather, do the best work you can given the constraints of the budget.  That being said, there may be “issues” with the project (for example, bad audio) that simply can’t be done in a basic editing workflow.  If so, address these concerns with the client and let them know that it may require more specialized attention…and thus more money in the project budget.

Ingest, Export & Rendering

When you estimate a project, be sure to include all stages of the post process. Editors/producers can quickly get into hot water by neglecting media import and export (deliverables) when you’re creating a post budget for a client.  Depending on the video acquisition format, coupled with the editing application you’re using, file ingest time can vary wildly.  For example, H.264 Quicktime files (from DSLR cams) can be edited natively in Premiere but must be re encoded to a different codec to be edited in Final Cut Pro.  File encoding and transfer takes time and should be accounted for in the post budget.  Likewise, the time it takes to create deliverables (and perhaps the cost of the deliverables themselves – tape, dvd, etc) also need to be included.  Will you be creating files for web delivery?  A batch of DVDs?  Transferring to Beta (yes, still happens more than you might think)?!

Render time should also be accounted for in a project’s budget. Will you be keying out footage from green screen?  Rending complex plug-ins and effects?  Although it’s not always easy to guess the render time for a post budget, you can get a more accurate estimate by running a few tests.  If you’re keying 20 minutes of video, apply effects to one minute of similar footage (frame rate, codec, frame size).  Record how long it takes to render and multiply by 20.  Although this isn’t an exact science it might help you get a good approximation for your proposal.

As a side note, some post houses prefer to bill for ingest, export and render time at a lower hourly rate than time with a pro editor (as these tasks might only require “machine time”).

Stock Video/Audio and Outside Elements

Will you be using stock video, still images or music in your project?  Will you need to have an original score composed?  It’s important to relay to your client the approximate cost of these elements.  Do preliminary research to determine how many of these stock elements you may need and the cost of each. Be sure to include these costs in your post estimate/proposal.

Account for Revisions

Rounds of revisions don’t have to be painful.  Let your client know up front how many revisions your proposal includes (in some cases 2 will suffice) and the approximate number of hours allotted for editing said revisions. Set up a revision structure in the proposal and let the client know that after those changes additional costs will be incurred.  This way, they’ll likely pay closer attention to each version…making more requests early on in the process.  Without a formal revision structure you run the risk of the project going on for perpetuity, a constant ping-ponging back and forth between client and editor.  This will surely lead to dissatifaction with the project…for all parties involved.

Track Your Time

As an editor, it’s good habit to keep diligent records of the time you spend on your projects.  Note exactly what work was completed (color correction, rough cut, compositing, etc) and the amount of time it required. There are a myriad of time tracking applications you can use to assist in recording your post work (for a few check out our previous post on “Post-Production Apps“) or if you’re old school, jot it down in a consistent place.  Time management is important because it allows you to have accountability to your client and keeps in you in line with the the time constraints outlined by the project budget.  By assessing the time you’ve spent on a project you can evaluate your “project pace”. Developing a steady work pace over time is essential to being an efficient editor.

Play it Safe

Estimating project hours is a skill developed over years “in the trenches”.  A whole host of variables go into the time it may take you to complete a project (your personal “project pace”, your familiarity with the technical equipment, your experience in completing similar projects) and it’s often up to you to simply give your “best guess” as to how long it may take you to complete a job.  As good practice, you can add a “contingency fee” into your estimate (typically around 10% above the overall projected cost) that will account for unforeseen circumstances in the post or production process.  Let the client know that the contingency fee is for their benefit (to avoid being given an unexpected bill) and that they may likely have that fee returned if all goes according to your estimation. It’s best to play it safe. A happy client whose project is completed within budget is likely a client that will return with more work.

Know When To Walk Away

We all want to produce the highest quality work, but like in many arts, video editing doesn’t always have a concrete ending.  You could tweak color for weeks, adjust sound for days and mull over frames for the best places to cut.  Don’t drive yourself crazy. If you’re at the end of the project’s budgeted time and you’ve created a good product, it’s likely time to move on. Insuring that client and editor have the same expectations from the start will make it that much easier for both to walk away happy upon project completion!

Do you have any tips for avoiding common mistakes in project management?
If so, we’d love for you to share them in the comments!