For the past two years I’ve had the pleasure of judging the wonderful work your students have submitted to the various video contests at STN. During that time I’ve judged at least a half a dozen other contests, including several on my site EditStock.com. I even won an editing contest as a contestant along the way. So lets just say I know a thing or two about how these contests work, and more importantly how to win them.
This year at STN I gave a presentation called Winning An Editing Contest, after which students clamored with follow up questions and came by my booth for personal feedback on their projects. That’s why I’m writing you this guide — to pass along the universal information they need to win these kinds of contests. This information should not be kept secret. I want your students to all create great films that make my job to pick a winner tough as bricks!
Lets take a look at the specific steps that every student can follow to make their cut an award winner.
First, lets break down the way that I judge a project into three broad categories: technical execution, creative execution, and gimme points. These parameters aggregate into a total score that I track. That score does not reflect a ‘grade’. For example a score of 80 is not a B, and a 90 is not an A. Rather the purpose of the scores is to give myself a way to rank the videos while keeping each category's weight in mind. I think many of the cuts are A+ work.
Lets look at each of those three categories, and how to score high in each parameter that makes them up.
Gimme Points Category:
There are three places that you should expect all of your students to collect full points, regardless of their access to equipment or skill level as filmmakers. It might even be legal for you as their advisor to personally check.
The easiest points to earn are the ones for following directions. If I'm picking between two cuts and one didn't follow the directions it will certainly not be picked. In fact, it may be disqualified. The directions for these contests are often just one or two guidelines, mostly revolving around the duration of the project, or using a particular image or line of dialog. Yet, inevitably one or two entries will fail to meet the criteria. Don’t let that be your students! One project that I LOVED at STN went from first to six place in my rankings simply because it was over the limit by 10 minutes!
To understand why those few points matter take a look at this chart showing the standard deviation of scores that might be given out in a given contest. The difference that five points for following directions can make the difference between ranking in the top 2% statistically and placing in the top 13%.
I'm not taking about taking off points for a few cuts that don't match here. What I will take off points for are major continuity mistakes such as breaking 180 degree line, cutting to another camera angle that has changed by less than 30%, or strange changes in location / time of day between scenes. Students are not going to know about these major rules without your help.
Poor Technical Work:
I will almost never give a student a poor score for their camera work, sound work, graphics or any other technical category unless there is a major blunder. Typically the videos your students submit are excellent. Much better than the videos I was making as a kid. Only obvious technical problems like an incorrect aspect ratio, picture going black randomly, or sound dropping out will land your students in this score. Even then I will check with the director of the contest to make sure the glitches were not caused by the contest itself.
The way to make sure your students get at least an average score is to have them watch their final export several times before submitting it. I recommend watching for a video and sound pass separately. Try turning off the sound and watching your cut for video problems. Then do the same for sound, turn off the screen and listen for any mistakes.
The Technical Categories:
The technical display of a student’s work inherently posses disparity. Each school has its own set of resources. Some schools have more than others. That said, creating an interesting shot doesn’t take a dolly track, RED camera, and a steady rig; it takes planning.
Camera / Directing Parameter:
Mostly what I'm looking for in their camera work is at least one shot that is 'planned'. Students should be encouraged to learn how to storyboard.
(storyboard from Bully EDU)
Generally students shoot basic video coverage meaning a wide shot, medium, and close up. Students who show creativity with planned shots will land in the excellent portion of my scale. In one commercial I recently watched a student shot a POV from inside a bag of chips. In my mind, this scores equally to a shot drone shot from 500 feet above the school. If you have the drone don’t let the kids get lazy. They will still score better with me if they plan their shots to help tell the story. A great drone shot might be a fly over of your main character after they escape from prison like in the critical moment of Shawshank Redemption.
One more thing. You need at least one shot that will blow everyone away. In the recent editing competition that team EditStock won our graphics artist designed this remarkable shot of a space ship taking off from a planet that we used as our last shot. Think kind of thing leave an enormous impression with the judges.
Directing is everything. This is the category that floats or sinks based on all the other categories. Sound, editing, story, lighting, acting, everything. This is all the responsibility of the director. Camera has a big impact on directing and vice versa. The director should only be satisfied with creative shots, good lighting, and great sound. If you’ve got a bright student director encourage them to seek perfection instead of ‘good enough’.
Audio / Music:
The dialog comes first and foremost. Does the voice sound good? Did the students use a microphone that is better than a camera mic or laptop mic in the case of a VO. A good voice recording will get your students work into my average category on its own.
Next, if it's a news story did the student leave in natural sound? Knowing where to add nat sound is an art in an of itself. Nat sound should be present over all b-roll shots. The best placement of nat sound is between ideas. Think of this like the a break in an essay separating paragraphs of thought.
Finally in films, did the student add sound effects? A yes here is a huge plus, and often the difference between an average score and an excellent one. It means attention to detail.
I will not automatically deduct points for not having music. Some projects don’t need it. However, most of the time I encourage students to have it. If the music picked is a good compliment to the story’s genre, and fades in an out smoothly, I will give a high average score. Your students will rate excellently if the music they picked is also edited to end in a natural way instead of just fading out.
For a top notch score students need to pick music that has great crescendos and edit their projects to hit high story points right on those crescendos. Most students do not have time or put in the effort to do this, but it is worth it. This kind of effort may well be the difference between winning and finishing 4th or 5th.
Crying, loving, yelling, really emotions in general can be embarrassing for teenagers to display around each other. I get that. I was a teenager once. But if your students put in the effort, I will notice. You get an excellent if your student actors show some bravery.
As a professional editor myself, this is the aspect of filmmaking nearest and dearest to my heart. I judge it ruthlessly. Kidding, but I do love it when I see a great cut. Students will score who apply graphics nicely, music and voice is sound mixed properly, and there are no issues with the smoothness of the cuts will only get an average score from me.
For me to rate a student as excellent at editing you often need an excellent director. I don't get to see the raw footage. I don't know if an amazing editor took a poor project and made it an average one (no easy task) or if they took an excellent project and made it an average one.
Editing is a team effort. A great director, teaching advisor, or fellow student helps the editor tremendously by giving thoughtful feedback. A great editor should always seek feedback.
Oh, and no dips to black between scenes please. Knowing how to transition from scene to scene is particularly difficult for new editors. They are always tempted to simply fade to black because it’s easy. Yet, almost no movie does this with any regularity. Work on those scene transitions!
A good story has a beginning, middle, and end. Lets take a look at the winning cut of this 2016 Doritos Superbowl ad. The beginning is just two shots, a sad dog followed by a “no dogs allowed” sign. During the middle we see the dogs trying to get in to the store. The end is when the dogs succeed. This was accomplished in 30 seconds! No allowing your students to get away with saying, “but we don’t have enough time to make a beginning, middle, and end.” All stories need this. Otherwise the story is amorphous.
In the professional world we take time to make sure the film’s beginning, middle, and end are well balanced. Take this photo from the cutting room of the recent film JOBS, staring Ashton Kutcher that I was an associated editor on. We spent days and weeks deciding where exactly the big transitions should be.
More on script writing - do not use voice over. Ever. The 'story' in a film is known as exposition, and exposition should be shown (not told) through the subtext of a scene. Subtext is the inferred story your audience gathers from watching the world and the characters played out on screen. If your audience is listening instead of watching you’re showing them an audio book instead of a movie. For example instead of a voice over that says, “everyone on earth has become a monkey,” show it! Watch the video below to see what if feels like to a viewer who is listening to a voice over while watching your film. Their attention is split.
Avoid story cliches. No waking up in the morning and it was all a dream. When I said this during my presentation I think 25 students fell out of their chairs. If each student takes a moment to look around at the other 24 students on the floor they will understand why it’s cliche, because everyone does it!
This morning as I babbled on to my much more talented girlfriend about this over used plot device she noted the idea of God and the Machine. It’s used to describe a plot problem that is suddenly resolved by some magical act that the audience had no way of anticipating. Your audience feels like they’ve been lied to. The character didn’t earn their resolutions through a struggle. If they don't earn it, they didn't change. If they didn’t change, the story didn’t move.
If I’m judging a news story I look for a good balance of the reporter’s opinion, with that of an interviewee. If there is no interviewee it would be nearly impossible to get an excellent score from me.
If you’ve read this far hopefully you’ve gotten some great take away advice… from me. It’s important to remember that each judge has their own grading system. Still, if your students follow this advice they will be much better story tellers, and that’s all that matters. I hope to see you all again next year at STN 2017.
Good luck to everyone!
Misha Tenenbaum CEO, EditStock
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