No matter how great your cinematography is — or how great an underlying story is — your finished product will ride or die in the edit. Fortunately, there are a handful of storytelling techniques we can employ (no After Effects-level learning curve required!) that will take your work in the edit from zero to hero. We humans are designed to experience (and enjoy) a great range of emotion, so buckle up to learn how to tug on those heartstrings and play them like a fiddle.
1. Obey the Theme
This isn’t the key command du jour, which you might have been hoping to find as editing technique #1 — but this is better. Whenever I start editing a project, the very first question I ask myself is, “Is there a strong theme?” Not just, “Is there a theme?” but, “Is there a strong one?” A strong theme will allow each scene to constantly remind you and (more importantly) your audience why you’re watching, whose perspective you’re telling the story from, and what the story is talking about (a person, a product, an idea).
With a strong theme comes the delicious storytelling cocktail that builds the narrative to drive an emotional impact. This particular recipe, in this order, is a great starting point when designing your story:
- Wonder/Tease (Imagination)
- Mystery (The Hook/“5 Seconds of Weird”)
- Possibility (Targeting the Demographic)
- Connection/Identification (We Care About You/You’re Just Like Us!)
- Contrast (Now vs. Future)
- Engagement (Call to Action/ROI)
In parentheses are the marketing parallels to filmmaking. Many trailers and commercials plow through these elements in short periods of time. In unscripted television, we build each sequence (the building blocks of acts) around these six ingredients. Using this formula, we ensure that very episode, act, sequence, and scene asks, “’What is?” and ‘What could be?” (the last three).
Watch how these elements play in a single scene in this excellent Westworld scene breakdown. Yes, this clip is about acting, but look at how the six elements are employed in the writing:
As you layer these six components into your theme, your story will create powerful connections between your theme and your audience, which will create both an emotional impact and — wait for it — ROI. Most arcs will follow this recipe, from starting with a hook, asking, “What if?” and contrasting that with “what is.” For example, “Spaceship!” (hook) + “What if the evil Empire takes over the entire galaxy?” contrasted with “The last hope for our salvation is the Jedi, and they’re pretty much gone,” creates an emotional tension that pays off dividends. Similarly, “People would like me if I had that incredible new iron” contrasted with, “My clothes are always wrinkly and people think I’m weird” can’t help but make you wonder what life would be like on the other side.
The editor is often the final authority on creating an emotional impact. When bringing your scenes together, make sure you’re checking your work against the six elements by continually asking yourself how what you’re working on relates to the theme. Remember also to not give away too much. Our brains want to solve problems that come from not having enough information. Since film is a temporal medium, you can control how and when you layer in story points. The story can become anything in your capable hands. To wit:
2. Layering Sound Design
This is absolutely my favorite editing skill. Let’s start with some fun examples. A few years ago, a studio accidentally uploaded a teaser of this scene from Everest (2015) without any sound design. To me, lacking sound design, the scene feels like a documentary (with really clean production audio) — it’s remarkable how the lack of sound influences how the scene looks and feels:
And here’s the final mix, where you can breathe a sigh of relief that the tenets of professional filmmaking have returned. How much more “real” does it feel?
Sound puts us in the place, and the tiniest sounds can have big impacts on believability and emotion. How silly does that scene look without any of the ambience, sound effects, and impacts? Sound can foreshadow or show us things that are happening offscreen — it expands the world to more than just what we’re seeing, lends itself to performance, and improves the scene by justifying cuts. In this case, the somewhat sterile edit feels urgent, in part because the audio impacts that transition some of the cuts help guide us through the scene.
Here’s an example of the trailer for The Mummy (2016) with only hits, dialogue, and stings in the mix. Turn your sound up and watch the whole thing:
Kind of takes the magic away, doesn’t it? Also, does Tom Cruise really sound like that? What we do get from this, besides how wacky people screaming sounds, and how important impacts and “stings” are, is how important layering is. Layering can mean combining many sounds to create one sound, as explained in this video:
But layering can also mean how you combine your discreet tracks — music, foley, SFX, ambience, and dialogue — to create maximum emotional impact. The point is, you want to create authenticity, which helps your audience feel like they’re living in the world of your story, to drive the experience. You need to create this artificial world for your viewer without tipping your hand.
Here’s the final mix of The Mummy trailer. Notice how the sound of the engines places us inside the airplane, then the impacts outside the aircraft indicate that something’s wrong. (That Tom Cruise scream still can’t be forgiven, though.)
As with editing, sound design should be invisible. Fortunately for us, there are thousands upon thousands of sound effects available online to experiment with. Something as simple as a whoosh below a cut can go a long way toward helping your viewer understand what’s happening, especially when graphics or animation are involved.
3. Music: Give and Take
Choosing music is often the hardest part of an edit. Music can tell us how to feel in a certain moment, and provides important information for viewers. It can be a challenge to hit the right tone when you’re working from pre-existing tracks, and it pays to know when to use music and when to avoid it.
One of my all-time favorite examples of music creating an emotional impact is this ending scene from Star Wars: A New Hope, which is primarily score. The French horns tell us something royal is happening, while the giant cymbal rolls tell us greatness is coming. The procession crescendo is clearly building us to the end of the film.
That feels about right — a triumphant end to a massive story. We’re supposed to feel happy and proud, like all loose ends are being tied up — and we do. What happens, though, when the music is turned off? I would expect the story to largely remain intact. We should basically understand what’s going on, regardless of the audio, right? Maybe not. Please excuse Chewbacca:
That this feels horrendously awkward is both an understatement and a testament to how important music is, particularly here. While this example may seem disconnected from the projects you’re working on, ask yourself: how often have you let music alone carry a scene? Let’s take a look at another John Williams music sample, this time from Jurassic Park, in a scene that has dialogue. Watch for about 45 seconds:
In this particular case, we don’t necessarily miss the music. It seems about what we’d hear: helicopter ambience and dialogue. Jeff Bloom is a little nutty, and the acting feels a little theatrical, but that’s par for the course. Overall, fairly straightforward. What happens to the emotional impact, however, when music is added? It’s a little subtle, so see if you notice:
Here’s another example, from Rocky, without music:
Clearly, music drives emotion in a very big way. The ultimate point here is not that music is important, which is self-evident, but that layering music and sound design creates a one-two emotional punch that can amp up your story incredibly. Of course, choosing not to add music can have an impact of its own:
Here’s a scene from WALL-E that is the perfect example of layering quiet moments with score. It makes me tear-up every time:
None of this, of course, applies to music videos, but it’s pretty fun when you turn the idea on its head:
4. Faking Camera Moves: Pushes and Pans
Big impacts can come from small pushes or pulls by keyframing the “scale” parameter in your NLE. “Push ins” ask the viewer to pay attention to a particular element in a scene; they can also connect two disparate frames by mirroring movement between shots. For example, pushing in on a shot of one character, then cutting to a push on a shot of another character helps audiences link these two characters (or moments) together.
Reversing the “push in” to a “pull out” creates an entirely different feeling, depending on the context of the scene. Fortunately, both are possible (and easy) to do in post. Of course (if you’re not shooting higher resolution than your delivery), you’ll lose some resolution, but the moves in or out don’t have to be big in order to convey the meaning you seek — in fact, most often they should be subtle. When making pushes in post, you won’t get the optical changes you would if the camera were actually dollying in or out, but most audiences won’t notice. This Cinefix video essay talks brilliantly about both:
You can also create pans and swooshes in post by using pre-made transitions or creating your own keyframes. No surprise: pushes and pans can have even more impact when accompanied by a bit of sound design. If you’re not sure how to do any of this, tutorials abound on YouTube. Bonus tip: If there’s not a cinematographer attached who you’ll anger by tinkering with their compositions, you might also take the opportunity to fix uneven horizons (typical in gimbal and drone work), or uneven compositions.
5. L Cuts and J Cuts
Are you noticing a theme here? Audio plays a crucial role in emotional impact. Layering in music and sound design takes on another level of complexity with “L” cut and “J” cuts — the audio edits that allow specific audio from a previous scene to linger over the next scene, and conversely, from a future scene to the current scene. L and J cuts allow you to further drive home the impacts you’re looking to make by clueing the audience in to things that are happening outside of the frame. Have a look at this extraordinary video essay explanation from Rocket Jump Film School:
Do you notice how hearing audio ahead of time can be used in an artistic way? And how letting audio linger after a cut can help paint a more layered portrait in the next frame? L and J cuts are subtle, but can deliver an emotional punch when the time is right. The rest of the time, it’s just good filmmaking.
Bonus Tip: Emotional Delivery System
Don’t forget that the best way to convey an emotion is to see or hear someone else (a character) experiencing that emotion (even WALL-E!). According to renowned psychologist Paul Ekman’s theory, any human can recognize any one of six emotions. There’s a psychological phenomena known as “mirroring” that causes us to reflect back emotions or behavior that we’re seeing — so, if you are trying to convey a theme that’s happy and uplifting, you should be showing characters when they’re smiling and happy.
This may seem self-evident, or even too simple to state, but it’s critical that, as an editor, you’re finding the performances that speak best to your themes. When creating their footage, for example, many Pond5 artists will design a scene in which the talent portrays many emotions. As the editor in charge of emotional impact, footage like this gives you free rein to find and assign the best possible performances for your scene. Even if you’re working with a director and cutting scripted content, always remember that your audience will be inclined to feel what they see.
Ekman’s Six Universal Emotions: Anger, Fear, Disgust, Surprise, Happiness, and Sadness
Of course, there are thousands of tricks that can help pump up the emotional response from your audience. But by incorporating the tips here into your best practices, you’ll find that small changes can have big results. Give a few of these a shot on your next project and let us know how it goes!