Editing at the Speed of Thought

I like editing. For some people, the millions of potential cut points in an edit is daunting – it’s easy to lose track of the edit and zero in on the exact “right” cuts, trying to pluck order out of the infinite. For me, editing is finite. It’s free of the madness and unpredictability of capturing the image. You have before you every shot available, and the story is hewn from that raw material one decision at a time.

The truth is, there aren’t millions of potential cut points – there are only a few right ones, and finding those moments to cut is simply a matter of approaching the material openly and reacting honestly to the emotional content before you.

For the editing process to be truly emotional and reactionary, you have to edit at the speed of thought. You can’t be deciding a cut point, and then breaking your focus by clicking around your program to select the tools to drag your footage into to the right place. A good edit doesn’t happen by agonizing over one cut at a time. Like a sculpture, a good edit happens by roughing out the overall shape of the piece and then refining.

To do this, you have to know your editing program inside and out, you have to tailor that editing program’s keyboard shortcuts to your own preferences, and you have to constantly reexamine your process and ask “Can I do this faster? Can I do this more efficiently?”

Recently, we underwent a post-production change from a Final Cut based post workflow to an Adobe Premiere based one. Both programs have their upsides, but the fundamental fact of the matter is that Apple is making way more money selling iPhones and iPads, and their heart just isn’t in the pro apps world anymore. Read more about our changeover by clicking here.

The following are some of my favorite tricks for editing. It should help you zip around your timeline much faster, and save you a lot of time by shedding unnecessary mouse movements and keystrokes. I’m also going to reveal some of the thinking behind my choices, and hopefully, you’ll apply some thinking of your own to improve your keyboard layout. Remember – the goal here is not to be speedy to be showy – you are speedy because you want your editing to be reactive to the content.

My advice is more tailored for people who use Final Cut or Premiere. However, the principles I’m outlining should apply to any editing program where you can edit your keyboard shortcuts.

Find your hands.

Where do your hands rest, naturally, on the keyboard? I’d bet most of you have your left hand with your index finger over the ‘F’ key, on the left side of the keyboard, with your right hand on the mouse.

Therefore, you should center the majority of your most used key commands on the left half of the keyboard. It does you no good to have your left hand bouncing around all over the place (or even worse, needing to hold down a modifier key like Alt or Shift while your right hand moves away from the mouse to hit another key).

Next, examine what commonly performed actions require multiple keystrokes and mouse movements to accomplish and see if you can’t do it all in a single go.

Zoom in and out

Here’s my favorite example, and one which will literally save you hours of time over the course of your editing career – zooming.

In Final Cut, I see a lot of people click the magnifying glass tool, and then click on the timeline to zoom, and then click the arrow tool to return. The next step up presses ‘Z’ to select the tool, saving a bit of time. Other programs will do something like Command+[ or Command+] to zoom in and out of a timeline.

But when you select the magnifying glass, your next step is to ALWAYS zoom in, isn’t it? So why not get rid of clicking on the timeline to zoom in and out?

Final Cut allows you to bind a key to “Zoom in on playhead” and Premiere calls it simply “Zoom In.” Hitting that key will start popping you into the timeline, which is no problem because when do you ever need to zoom in on the timeline at a spot that isn’t right where your playhead is?

I bind “Zoom In” and “Zoom Out” to Z and Shift+Z respectively. That way, when I want to punch in on what I’m working on, it’s a single keystroke. Backing up is just holding shift and hitting the same key. It’s all on the left hand and requires minimal movement.

Zoom around

I bind A and S to “Go to Previous Edit” and “Go to Next Edit” respectively. This allows you to bounce around your timeline significantly faster than simply JKL shuttling allows. It also puts your playhead constantly where the action is – at the point of cuts.

As a caveat – if you’re the kind of person who’s used to using tons of video tracks and layering them on top of each other, this method won’t be as effective for you. You should discipline your editing to one or two tracks of video at MOST (in most situations), and using proper editing tools like Slip edits to fine tune that cut from that point forward.

Reviewing the timing a cut is simply a matter of backing up one cut and then hitting play (A, then Space). Skipping past a section simply involves popping on the S key for a bit.

In addition, I will bind two keys to stepping foward or backwards in a set interval.  In Final Cut, it’s “Go Backward/Forward One Second” and in Premiere it’s “Step Back/Forward (Five Frames)Personally, I put those keys at 1 and 2 (put it wherever you’re comfortable). In addition, I will bind 3 and 4 to moving the playhead back and forth a single frame. That way, you have every tier of movement all controllable with your left hand – cut to cut, one second (or 5 frames) at a time, and then a single frame at a time.

Cut faster.

Rather than ‘B’ pulling up the blade tool and then manually clicking to cut somewhere, simply bind B to “Add Edit.” This will cut at the playhead – because that’s what you’re seeing so that’s where you’d want to cut anyway.

With those simple rebindings, you bring a majority of editing actions into the immediate reach of your left hand, which will allow you to move faster, edit more efficiently, and turn in a more cohesive end product in a shorter amount of time.