Empathy in Editing

At Rooftop we have 12 video editors working on between 9 and 15 video edits every month.

These range from short three-minute social media videos to longer format fiction work, on topics from climate change to parenting, education, healthcare, infectious diseases etc.

Each video is made up of hundreds of editing decisions: what to show and what to cut, how to introduce the topic and land on the call to action, the right music choices, and deciding on what story arc to follow.

Some videos are planned for weeks and filmed with characters and locations in mind, while others are driven by a script and are built from stock footage libraries. My role as a video editor is to work within these parameters.

Getting to the heart of the story

Editing the former [planned shoot] allows me to build on top of the hard work that has already taken place such as the hours and days that go into the planning, travelling, and filming – all of which is managed in-house. At Rooftop, crews travel to remote regions in the world via plane, car, boat even, filming on location for three to five days and sometimes two weeks or more.

All that effort usually amounts to a few hard drives of raw footage, a few terabytes of interviews and B-roll (footage filmed to accompany the interviews) that land on our desks.

” Our task as video editors, is to transform the hours of raw material into concise and emotional stories that make sense, connect with the audience, and drive home an important message.”

We editors rarely get to meet the protagonists of the story in person, and we usually aren’t familiar with the shots that made an impact on the director on the day. Regardless, our job is to connect with the material and get to the heart of the story we’re trying to convey.

We need empathy for these characters, their stories, and the project. Without this part of the process – this connection – the project risks being mediocre at best. The final edit needs to stand out amongst a myriad of other media products that live online.

How do we stop people from scrolling, entice them to watch and engage them with the message?

Screenshot of Bibata from the film: We Will Keep Fighting Until Our Last Breath.

During the pandemic, we had the opportunity to work on a short documentary series for the Friends of the Global Fight to tell the story of people on the frontlines of Malaria, TB and HIV.

Due to travel restrictions our crews couldn’t be on the ground in-country, so local freelance film crews were commissioned to film in Niger, Indonesia and Malawi.

Hours-long foreign language interviews had to be cut into short, emotive stories with a common theme—the fight against these deadly diseases—that required many rounds of paper edits [cutting the content in a word document] before editing could begin.

Shaping the stories

The timeline [where we arrange our clips in our editing software] is where we get to make the hundreds of editing decisions that shape these stories.

When I get stuck into any edit, I like to consider how each shot conveys a specific idea or emotion. I watch through all the footage and begin making my selects [great shots or moments]. These are the building blocks of the story. With interviews, it’s not always about what is being said but also about the pauses, the expression on someone’s face, and the story behind their words.

Screenshot of our interview with Aissa from the film: We Will Keep Fighting Until Our Last Breath.

Connecting with people, sharing their passion

How long do we hold an interview shot after a compelling answer? Longer could mean more time for that moment to sink in or for the character to reveal something about themselves in their body language, for example.

When do we speed up or slow down the pacing [how slow or fast a scene feels] using longer or shorter cuts in B-roll and up-tempo or slower music?

I couldn’t help but connect with the passion that these healthcare workers had for their cause. In our video on Niger, Aissa and Bibata – healthcare volunteers who had suffered personal losses to malaria – are shown conducting outreaches and delivering malaria medication, door to door. I could sense their love for their work, in the way they spoke during their interviews. Even though they spoke in a language that I didn’t understand I could hear it in their delivery and see it in their eyes.

How do we decide what parts of their stories to cut and how do we layer in footage showing them in action to help audiences connect to their lives?

The authenticity of the B-roll showing Aissa speaking to a group of women under a tree about malaria medication, their beautifully lit slow-motion portraits, and the aerial shots showing them at work in their communities, giving us a unique perspective of their village in Niamey, were some of my selects.

Screenshot showing Aissa conducting an outreach, from the film: We Will Keep Fighting Until Our Last Breath.

Screenshot showing Bibata conducting an outreach, from the film: We Will Keep Fighting Until Our Last Breath.

“One of the greatest rewards as an editor is when things click and the hours spent familiarizing ourselves with the material, pay off.”

After months of in-depth editing and collaboration with the client on their needs, we delivered 3 x 12-minute versions that were tailored for policy makers and audiences in three different regions (Europe, USA and Japan) to support fund raising in the fight against these deadly diseases.

I’ve read somewhere that video editors are the first audience. We get to watch the material before anyone else does and take note of how it makes us feel. This is a great opportunity for us to develop empathy for the work and to form ideas that we can try in our edits.

Not all our ideas make it through to the final cut though, and that is ok.

Our empathy for the story and its characters needs to extend towards others in our team and our clients and their feedback on our work.

Together we can create stories powered by purpose.

We Will Keep Fighting Until Our Last Breath (Full film)

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