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Introduction to Video Editing With ShotCut

Video (and Audio) Editing: A Bit of History

Strictly speaking, digital video editing, like digital audio editing, has only become feasible in the past few decades, after the technological revolution wrought by the 'digitization' of previously analog modes of audio and video/ image recording, as well as the exponential growth in home computer processing power and data storage.  By digitization here we mean the translation into pure digital code, which can be stored in computer files and manipulated in computer memory, of audio and visual information that had previously been stored and consumed in a wide range of physical media: magnet tape, vinyl discs, printed photographs or photographic negatives, celluloid film strips, and so on.  Thus the specific technology we are exploring in this manual is still fairly new; and yet the language we use for the procedures involved in digital video and audio editing represents an odd mix of terms familiar from, say, modern word processing -- for example cutting, copying, pasting, deleting -- and far more arcane terms that are now for the most part simply useful metaphors, but once referred to actual physical operations in the long history of editing audio and motion-picture recordings.  Simply to understand why we use these terms now, and what they mean, it is useful to understand something of that history.  Indeed, in a wider sense audio-visual media are only intelligible to us, readable as forms of communication, because they make use of a vocabulary that has evolved over the last century or more, and because we are also naturally tutored in that same vocabulary, starting from nearly as early as we begin learning our own native spoken languages.  But just because we are all fluent enough to easily read most audio-visual media produced today, it doesn't follow (at all) that we are all naturally fluent enough to produce it ourselves.  If the present manual was a guide to the general discipline of videography or film-making, we would spend the following chapters working systematically through the grammar and syntax of that filmic vocabulary, which most of us tend to understand only at a purely intuitive level.   Because this guide has much more practical ambitions -- getting you started with video editing using one particular software, Shotcut--we will confine the theory-and-history lesson to this single chapter (and invite you to move on to the next, if you're truly not interested).   Suffice it to say, though, that digital media editing today has a great  deal to do with the history of editing audio and moving pictures.

Audio: from Wax to Bytes

Most people are aware that Thomas Edison invented 'motion-picture' photography, to which we will return shortly.  Less well known is his invention, about a decade earlier, of a wax cylinder which was the first commercially-viable sound recording and playback device. Cylinder recordings were mass-produced by the 1880s, and dominated the early sound-recording market until they were displaced by the gramaphone disc record format after 1910 ('gramaphone' because Alexander Graham Bell, of telephone fame, was an early popularizer though not necessarily the inventer of this next-generation audio format).  With both cylinders and gramaphone disks, the mechanism of recording and playing was quite mechanical: in recording, the actual physical impressions made by sound waves (as amplified by a microphone) were imprinted into wax on the rotating master cylinders and later wax discs.  For playback of the mass-produced consumer item, the wax cylinders and (later) shellac-vinyl discs caused a needle to move with these impressions, which were essentially bumps in a groove, more or less literally reproducing the original sound wave and then amplifying it through a speaker, eventually with the aid of further electrical amplication.  It can be seen that the possibilities of audio 'editing' were extremely limited with these technologies.  One could decide when to begin and end a recording, which recording 'take' to mass-produce (sometimes), and once vinyl discs became long-playing enough to include multiple audio tracks, you could select which tracks to include on the record.   No editing at all, of course, was possible on the consumer side. 

This basic situation prevailed in the audio world until the next major technological revolution, the invention and perfection of magnetic tape recording (just before, during and after WWII).  The recording process was still in a sense mechanical, but now it was a matter of sound waves re-arranging magnetized iron-oxide dust which clung to a long, narrow acetate (plastic) tape.  The mass-produced end product was still usually a vinyl record, with that format dominating the music industry right into the 1980s; but in the recording studio, technicians were now free to physically manipulate the master 'tapes' to a considerable degree: cutting, splicing, copying; and after the perfection of multi-track recording, mixing multiple tracks together.  True audio editing was now possible, albeit in a labor-intensive form and only with specialized studio equipment (along with scissors and tape).  Beginning in the 1960s, groups like the Beach Boys and Beatles began pushing these editing techniques to sometimes exotic extremes, as part of their more general sound-engineering experimentation.  On the consumer side, a small measure of this new freedom to edit became possible once consumer-level tape recorders were available, especially after the compact audio casette format replaced bulkier reel-to-reel machines, though 'editing' here was still largely limited to what could be recorded and overdubbed; it was the hardy soul indeed who attempted to cut-and-splice the actual 4-mm-wide tape of an audio casette.  Still, by the 1970s and 80s the homemade compilation (or mix) tape had become an art form of its own among many consumers.

By this time, however, a far more radical revolution was brewing in computer labs and recording studios: the advent of digital sound recording, in which the audio wave itself was 'sampled' at regular and very frequent intervals, and the results coded into a digital sequence that could be de-coded, at playback, into something much like the original sound, with an audio fidelity corresponding to the rate of sampling and the resulting density of information stored. At first this simply meant that studios could record with considerably higher fidelity, and were also free to manupulate recorded sounds far more widely, and sometimes wildly (notable pioneers here were artists like Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush in the early '80s).   Subsequently, digitization meant that the vinyl record was finally replaced by the compact digital audio disc, or CD, across the consumer audio market.  Technology for home-recordable CDs was available, at least in theory, by the late 80s; but the practical limitation was the capacity of home computers to hold and manipulate, in memory, the considerable amounts of digital information involved, and to store and share the resulting digital files.  But of course Moore's Law and the internet would take care of that: with computer capacity doubing roughly ever two years, by the late 90s it was quite feasible, on a home computer, to record, edit and then share your own audio in .wav and other file formats.  After that it was simpy a matter of more and more mature editing software being developed. In a contemporary sound-editing tool such as Audacity (also free and open-source), we can record or import, cut, splice, cross-fade, amplify, distort, sample and mix down multiple audio tracks--even though every one of these terms actually refer to the simple manipulation of digital information, rather than to the literal, physical, mechanical operations they once meant for sound engineers, before the digital era. It's simply easier to visualize what you're doing if you use the older, mechanical-era terms.

Video Editing: From the cutting-room floor to Shotcut

But this is a manual about digital video editing, right?  It is; but the history of audio editing is germaine on several counts. First, of course, your video 'tracks' will likely have or require audio 'tracks' as well, which will need their own editing (and while some of this can be done in Shotcut or other video editors, more complex sound editing may require the use of a tool like Audacity itself).  Second, the history of digital video recording and editing runs largely parallel to that of digital audio, with a 3 to 5-year delay at every stage since the technological demands of storing and manipulating digitalized video information are much greater than with audio (just think about the difference in size between a 5-minute mp3 audio file and a 5-minute mp4 video file).  Now, working backward from the digitizing revolution, it happens that for several decades prior to that, video information was also often recorded and stored in analog form on magnetic tape; and this video tape could therefore be edited in something like the same physical way as magnetic audio tape. However, analog video tape was never really able to render high-quality, high-resolution motion-picture images, and so was typically reserved for either home video recording (which gave us our first widespread use of the term 'video' itself), or for recording television shows in a period when televised images were typically low-resolution in any case.  High-quality motion-picture recording still required a technology that was essentially unchanged from its invention way back around 1890, by several inventors simultaneously but most succussfully by an employee of Thomas Edison.  This was the motion-picture or 'movie' camera, which worked by exposing a series of still photographs very rapidly in succession (first 12 or 16, then 24, and finally 32 still images or 'frames' per second), as they passed the camera lens on a celluloid strip.  In that era, still photography was already fairly advanced, and some photographic cameras had begun to capture their still images on a long strip of negative paper or celluloid (such 'film rolls,' first invented by the Eastman Kodak Company, would remain standard media until the advent of digital cameras).  But while these strips of still-photograph negatives were then developed onto separate sheets of paper for the final photographs, the new movie-camera film was developed or transfered onto another long, thin celluloid strip; and that strip could then be run past a bright-light projector at the same frame-speed at which the images had been 'shot' or exposed originally.  The result, for the viewer, was a sequence of still images succeeding each other so rapidly that the brain processed them as a single, continuous, moving image: whatever moving objects had been 'shot' originally appeared to come back to life on the moving-picture screen.    

Revolutionary as this was in the general history of media, for our purposes what is important here is that, almost from the very beginning, the nature of motion-picture technology itself meant that it could be, and indeed had to be, edited, in a way that early audio media simply could not be. The very first motion pictures shown to audiences, in the late 1890s, were simple novelty pieces consisting of a single, perhaps unedited 'shot' of a few minutes duration.  But soon after that, film-makers began trying to tell real stories in their films, whether documentary or fictional.  And from that point on, however well one had planned and set up one's scenes and cameras, however well-rehearsed the actors might be in a fictional production, it was never possible (then as now) for the raw footage to simply become the end product shown to viewers.  For a single scene or even a single "shot"--a few moments of action as shown from a single camera's perspective--one might need any number of 'takes' to get it right, meaning that an hour's worth of exposed film might only yield 10 minutes or less of useable film 'footage' (film strips being so long by this point that it was only practical to measure their length in feet).  This useable footage had to be found, cut out from the rest, and spliced together--leaving the remainder "on the cutting-room floor." Once directors began shooting scenes with multiple cameras at once, these different shots needed to be spliced together in appropriate sequences, 'cutting' back and forth for example between one actor's face and another, or between two speeding vehicles, or an actor and a wall-clock.  Also, of course, up until the late 1920s all films were silent--there was no technology till then for a  synchronized sound track--which meant that all dialogue, as well as introductory and scene titles, and other expository information, had to be presented in the form of static text 'titles' (the same text image repeated in enough frames to appear long enough for the viewer to read), and these too had to be painstakingly 'intercut' at the appropriate times. Of course, even after the advent of sound in film, movies made in one language would need subtitles added in for a different audience.  Finally (just in terms of the most basic film editing), there was the matter of how to transition between scenes.  It was too confusing to the viewer to simply jump instantly from one scene into the next, as you generally would between shots within a single scene.  So film-makers invented a whole panoply of ways to effect these transitions, over a few seconds duration: 'fading out' one scene to black (or more rarely white) and then 'fading in' the next; 'dissolving' one scene into another; 'wiping' from one scene to another--by way of a line moving left to right, right to left, top to bottom, etc; or more exotically as an 'iris wipe', in which the new scene appears as a circle from the center of the previous scene and expands outward, or begins from the outside and moves in til the previous scene disappears.  A huge amount of the story-telling burden in motion pictures can be carried by the way they are edited together; indeed one could take the same raw footage of a real or staged event, and edit it differently to tell widely varying stories (which is why the "Director's Cut" of a classic film can be sometimes startlingly different from the familiar version released by the studio).

In addition to editing as such, film often had to be 'treated', altered or enhanced after it was exposed, to give it a more appopriate look for the audience.  Sometimes a shot was perfect but slightly too dark, and had to be lightened, or vice versa; or the contrast between light and dark heightened, or lessened; or the film had to be tinted slighty from the original black-and-white.  Indeed, in the first decade of film there were occasional efforts to 'colorize' short films (as still photographs had been colorized for decades), which at that time meant painstakingly hand-coloring each individual frame--a practice nearly as labor-intensive as making hand-drawn animated films, and thus not long continued. And once color film-photography itself became feasible, by stages during the 1930s, the resulting coloration not infrequently had to be 'corrected': changing the hue or saturation or contrast level, for example, which could be done either chemically or by projecting the film through a filter of some kind. This practice has continued in film-making up to the present -- indeed if anything the temptation to play with color and light effects is probably greater now, since, like everything else, it can be done with a fraction of the labor in the digital era.

And that really brings us to our major point here: every one of the operations of editing and enhancement discussed above, as applied to historical film-making, can now be accomplished through video-editing software like Shotcut.  Quite often we need these features, because storytelling of any kind through video still depends, to a great extent, on many of the same techniques pioneered by film-makers (and television and music-video producers, following them) over the past 12 decades. And just as we saw in the case of digital audio editing, in digital film editing most of the specific operations (though not all of them) have the same names as the corresponding visual effect in a pre-digital film, even though they are no longer attached to the physical process from which the name originated: shots and clips, cutting, splicing, fading in and out, wiping, tinting and other color enhancement, applying filters, bringing in subtitles and intertitles.  In the 'how-to' chapters of this manual, we will examine examples of most of these operations, as well as a few basic operations that wouldn't have made sense before the era of digital editing: how to open a video file and import further assets; how to add an audio track to your video, or strip one away, etc; and how to export your final product.

With this excursion into theory and history out of the way, it's time to take a look at how we can install the Shotcut software, and then dive into how Shotcut's user interface exposes the controls to make these kinds of editing operations possible. 


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