How To Cut: A Feature Story for News or Current Affairs

A feature story is ”a special human interest story or article that is not closely tied to a recent news event. It goes into great detail regarding concepts and ideas of specific market interest.”

So how do you approach the edit for a feature story for a current affairs program like 60 Minutes or A Current Affair? I have been cutting stories for Channel 9’s A Current Affair for four years now and in this blog I am going to explain my general approach to “laying an edit”. I cut this story which aired a few weeks ago, take a look:



On the outset the story appears to be constructed quite simply, the actual edit is rather complicated, as you can see from the timeline example below:

Screen shot 2013-03-15 at 4.38.01 PM
Final Cut Pro 7 timeline of a completed story.


The story consists of a video track about four minutes long, there are several audio tracks containing grabs, natsot, voiceover, music and effects. Within the video layers there are motion graphics, motion effects and colour effects applied to the video. Taking into consideration this story was shot on the same day it aired, I had to build this project from scratch, quickly yet professionally and make it appear polished and presentable for a national audience within just a few hours.

How did I not freak out? I would be lying if I said I never did! When I cut my first feature story for A Current Affair I remember looking at the clock every five minutes counting down until my story aired, my fingers typing on the keyboard faster and faster - worse, often the network would promo the story during the day while I was cutting it! Talk about pressure. You go into an edit suite with nothing, knowing your story is booked for a 6:30pm slot and if you do not get it done well, there is no other option than to get it done!


1. LAY THE BED

The reporter and producer have usually already shot listed and written a script. It features the grabs from the rushes, with timecode for the in point of where the grab starts followed by a transcription of it. In capitals is the voice over written by the reporter. This is the starting point for all news, current affairs and documentary features. Here is what the script looks like:

121003-Anthony_Passport


From this script I “lay the bed” of the edit. By “laying the bed” I mean putting down on the timeline the ESSENTIAL elements that are needed to drive the story forward. They are the talents grabs from interviews and the reporters voice over. The voiceover serves as the reporters way to describe to the viewer their observations, details about what is going on, links between grabs etc, while the grabs serve as evidence or further support of the reporters description and/or observations.

The materials you are using to lay the bed often come from an “A Roll”, that is the primary vision needed or shots for the story. The interview, the vox pops, the walk thru with the detective all serve as A roll material. As you can guess “B Roll” is additional vision or “overlay” that you use to overlay the A roll. This is a term that stems back from film days. A more detailed explanation can be found here.

I work my way through the rushes and lay every grab in order as they appear in the script. If a grab is back to back, I place them one after the other, if there is to be voiceover between grabs I insert about three seconds of filler between them, this signals to me later something has to go there.

This is a pretty quick process, I aligned all audio from the grabs on Audio Tracks 1 & 2, alternating so that I can overlap them as needed later when trimming.

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Final Cut Pro 7 timeline with grabs.


With all the grabs down I make sure all audio tracks are audible and level, none jump out, peak or are too quiet. With the grabs in place I now lay the voice over.

Bringing up the reporter’s voice over I level it, then begin inserting it in between the grabs where it is supposed to go according to the script. I place this on Audio Track 4 keeping it separate from the grabs. Again this is quite a quick process as I am just laying the bed to get something down. With the grabs and voice over down my timeline now looks like this:

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Final Cut Pro 7 timeline with grabs & Voiceover.


This approach is good because it lets you know straight away if you have all your vision and voice to make the story work. If a grab is missing, there is still plenty of time to find it. It also notifies you of the timing of your story but more importantly if you look at the timeline it shows you what you need to fill with your B roll and the bed acts as a skeleton for the story, everything else builds on top of this bed.


2. TIMING MUSIC

The main difference between a feature story and a news package is the length (usually a feature story takes a lot longer to air because it is a more in depth look at a particular subject) and the addition of music. News stories will not feature music because they do not have time, here we can use music to create more of a mood to the story and help to evoke viewer engagement.

Since all the music I use comes from a music library unfortunately I have to time the vision to the music, not the other way around as you would do in a feature or drama series where a composer takes your final cut and composes music timed with the edit.

It is easier to apply music at this stage. With grabs and voice down I already have a sense of the story and can begin searching for tracks I feel are appropriate to the mood of the story. Once I have the tracks I import them and begin laying them in the timeline. It is usual to lay music at this stage because I can move grabs and voice around very easily to suit the music, it becomes harder and more complicated later one when you have all your B roll on the timeline.

The other advantage to applying the music earlier is when I begin to lay my B roll I can time the vision to the music cues in the track. Cutting on the beat or change of pace which will give the package a more coherent feel, the music is actually being incorporated into the edit rather than just placed there as a background filler.

With grabs, voice and music down my timeline is beginning to take shape.

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Final Cut Pro 7 timeline with grabs, voiceover and music.


All music used is reported to APRA and a licensing fee charged through the production company (in this case Channel 9). You can get your own Beatbox (which I love) by following this link. There are other alternatives too such a Big Bang and Fuzz or Audio Network.


3. B ROLL

This is the point where I actually begin to “edit” the story. With the bed down I can now begin to fill in the black holes and overlay the grabs with hopefully beautiful vision from my B roll, though not all vision is generally beautiful but make do with what you have got!

When laying B roll the idea in a newsroom environment is to complete the story a quickly as possible, all to often I have to get the story out sooner rather than later. My first aim to fill all the black holes (where the voice over is) or cover any grabs that have been “butted” together to make audio sense (a jump cut may be apparent in a grab I have shortened because I cut out the words “ummmm”). Once all the black holes are filled and jump cuts covered I have a story that could potentially go to air in a very rough form, but it would pass. It may not be the most polished story, but it is something to fill the spot. Once I have all black holes filled I go back and begin another pass, relaxed knowing if push comes to shove I have got a completed package I can give the studio.

It also gives me an opportunity to see if the vision is working or not and if the story makes sense. If it is not, there is time to shoot extra vision that may solve the problems or restructure the story. It has happened!

The quickest and most effective way to replace filler is to perform a 3-point edit. More information on what a 3-point edit is can be found here.

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Final Cut Pro 7 timeline with in and out points marked in the timeline. In the viewer window (to the left) I have marked an in point. FCP will now fill from the in point until the end point on the timeline.


Now I can watch back the vision with the voiceover and decide an out point, I simply mark In where I want the new vision to start, with an out point at the end, scroll to a new shot in my B roll, mark in and perform another 3-point edit. I do this for all the filler.

I usually spend quite a bit of time getting the right shots to fill the gaps, they should be reflective of what the reporter is talking about in their voiceover or what the talents grab is about.

Laying B roll is not just limited to filling the black holes, you also need to consider perhaps overlaying the grabs to cover edits such as jump cuts, dodgy camera moves or perhaps the grab is too long and you want to make it more exciting rather than being a “talking head”. There is no rule as where B roll goes but generally, I let talent talk on screen for a few sentences before bringing in B roll.

Here is what my completed timeline looks like:

Screen shot 2013-03-15 at 4.38.01 PMFinal Cut Pro 7 Timeline with grabs, voiceover, music and B roll and graphic elements.


It is also important to lay the audio of the B roll even underneath the grabs, I usually put it on Audio Track 3. I lower the audio level so it is audible but not distracting or muffling the grabs and voiceover. Vision without sound seems odd, even when there is narration if there is no sound matching the vision on screen it will feel slightly off to the viewer.


4. TRIMMING & GFX

After a few hours of laying the B roll as overlay on my timeline the story is nearing the final stage of polishing, I can now adjust the heads and tails of my shots. I often like to overlap the start of end of grabs with B roll, extending the tail of some overlay to go over the start of a grab before cutting to the talent. This acts to soften the cut and gives the edit a smoother flow, the talents grab can be heard as the overlay continues signalling to the viewer we are about to cut to the talent. It marries the shots together rather than looking like a separate segment within the story.

By watching the package and trimming/rolling the heads and tails it begins to take on a polished feel. It is cohesive, flows and hopefully does not feel disjointed in any areas.

Another aspect of feature stories in this modern time is motion graphics. If the story is a medical piece for example there may be a large graphic that shows how the operation is supposed to take place. If there is to be a graphic generally this is stipulated in the script and the voice over that matches the graphic, once I have laid it in my timeline at the bed level, is exported to the graphics department for them to work on At the end of the day I will receive the graphic timed to the voice and I can just drop it straight in.


5. TRANSITIONS, GRADING & SFX

Finally the story is nearing completion. If I still have time before my package is needed to air I will do another pass, this time putting in any transitions eg, a swish pan, dip to black or a dissolve glow. Sometimes a transition such as a simulated swish pan can help move you through the story a lot smoother than an abrupt cut if something is not quite right with the vision.

I only use transitions sparingly and try to keep them simple. One thing I do is put a six frame dissolve between all natsot (B roll) audio cuts. This makes any background noise fade
into each other rather than be an abrupt “stop and start” effect.

Sometimes I may lay sound effects for certain graphic moves or camera moves, I will grade shots to either fix them up or make them prettier. The end result is a completed story ready to export to the server and played out to a national audience.

Hopefully you found this first blog post from my “How To Cut” series informative and easy to understand. If you have any comments or suggestions about how I should approach the next one please email me. I would love to hear your feedback and to make this more accessible and everyone looking for answers on topics such as this.

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