Turning Complexity into Simplicity—the Story Behind a Short Film’s Timeline in Media Composer

By in Timeline Tuesday, Video Editing

Every timeline has a story behind it, just like a structural storytelling piece that shows the editor’s craft.

It’s not that a timeline can tell you more than the edited film, but it can definitely deliver a lot of information about the approach, experience, organization, and even ‘hacks’ from an editor to get the job done fast and effectively.

The bigger or more complex your project is, the more important it becomes to pay attention to the way you are working.

To illustrate this, I will use a short film that I’m finishing called Damian, directed by Jose Luis Anaya. It is a mental thriller-horror story about a man-beast inside a madhouse.

First of all, lots of decisions were driven by sound in a mixture of suspense, horror, sex, silence, action, memories, montages, and oniric moments. It’s not always about what’s on screen. Some sounds are coming from other overlapping sequences. Sometimes the sound you hear doesn’t correspond to the picture at all, and vice versa. It’s just a crazy trip.

It took some experimentation to make the sound a storytelling element that could bring a new pattern of thoughts to the audience, rather than just supporting the picture. Sounds were actually treated as dailies. This way, the moviegoer will be watching and hearing two independent storylines at the same time.

Besides image and sound, we also extracted short picture fragments from other scenes to construct a third layer of emotions. This was never mentioned in the script, but it helped Jose Luis and me tell the story from the main character’s perspective. It actually feels like an uncomfortable thought-memory dance, rather than a picture/sound element.

This level of complexity needed some thorough organization, so I came up with a ‘track laying’ system, which works as a spine or a pyramid base for my timeline in Media Composer.

Feel free to copy, adapt, or share my workflow. Like keyboard shortcuts, every editor should create his or her own system, based on multiple factors: personal preference, level of experience, and/or project types.

Editing is a very new art form compared to the thousands of years of painting or literature. There, a single stroke or word can become an artistic movement or a specific style. Just by looking at a timeline you can spot pace, rhythms, problems or consistencies. The chaos or order in a timeline can tell a lot about an editor. Is he lost? Structured? Experienced? A newbie? Chaotic?

I will always try to create a complete cinematic experience, right from the start, during the first cut. This requires basic knowledge of other skills like sound design, color grading, vfx, and motion graphics. You don’t need to be an expert but it helps to evaluate the cut better. As the tools and software are getting more efficient, editors can tweak sound, images and effects, without even leaving the room.

Let’s have a detailed look at the timeline for Damian (click to zoom the image):

  • On the right, you’ll notice the 5.1 sequence with ambience (purple), sound fx (blue), music (green), mixes (yellow), and dialogue and production sound (white). I worked in an LCR environment which allowed me to create a better experience and let some sounds, like dialogue, live on their own without competing with other elements. Some sound requests were sent to post with blue markers.
  • VFX shots are marked in red for previsualizations or the latest version of the effect (red doesn’t mean it’s offline). Green is a final approved version.
  • Color graded clips are purple. This is useful when delivering versions for screenings, web, revisions, etc.
  • Titles and credits are yellow.
  • I also like to color code bins to spot things faster. If you recall the track laying system, you will notice that bin colors correspond to the colored clips on the timeline.

The timeline view above shows ingested, linked and offline media. Purple is linked or AMA media, red is offline media, and the rest is consolidated media on my system. The workspace below focuses on audio editing inside Media Composer.

Sometimes collaborators ask for clip durations, names, formats, bit rates, etc. The following timeline view displays all that information. This overview is useful on time critical projects (like advertising), when you need to compare versions, or know if and where you are connected to low resolution media.

So there you go, a lot of different ways to look at the same project. I hope these tips and tricks can be useful for your workflow. And remember, color coding clips and bins, different timeline views, and dedicated workspaces definitely help turn timeline complexity into simplicity.

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I am a freelance film editor based in Mexico City. I’ve been editing since I was 12. I have 7 years of professional experience. Today, I mainly focus on scripted and documentary films. Find me on Twitter and Instagram as @FernandoMaganda