editing low-res footage

Zoom Calls, Home Videos, and Selfies, Oh My! Video Editing Tips for Lower-Quality Sources

Jonny Elwyn

February 26, 2021

If the coronavirus pandemic has caused high-profile reality show celebs to record themselves on their iPhones, via Zoom calls, and with other low-resolution cameras, then all bets are off.

In a world gone remote, an editor with a few key video editing tips and tricks up their sleeve will be better able to handle low-quality video sources, both from a technical and creative perspective. Up-scaling low-resolution video content to fit with higher-quality content is not a new editing challenge—documentaries, news shows, and social media videos all make extensive use of "non-ideal" footage—however, between today's production environment and the public's growing acceptance of these sources, it is an increasingly common one.

Here are some simple but effective video editing tips for making the most of lower-quality video sources.

Don't Fight the Resolution

The first suggestion would be simply to run with the aesthetic if you can.

Obviously, there is greater latitude to do this from a production quality standpoint in quick-turnaround content like news, reality TV, or online branded content. In most cases, the quality of the sound has more influence than image quality over whether the viewer can follow along—and in many ways, embracing the "Zoom call" aesthetic reflects our current shared experience. Reality TV shows, for instance, can incorporate a more personal, intimate feel using grainy, handheld, unprofessional images sourced by the actors or presenters themselves.

Examples also show video-call footage where the producers signal to the audience that they're seeing lower-quality footage by showing the laptop with the celebrity before cutting to the full-screen, up-scaled low-quality footage from the call itself. There isn't any pretense about the source of the content.

Embrace New Strategies

Editors can also make the most of an image's lower resolution by adopting a picture-in-picture visual design. This is a great approach for interview content, with both "screens" displayed side-by-side in front of a branded, color, or subtly animated background.

A picture-in-picture approach also opens up opportunities to incorporate subtitles, which are often required for social, or other video angles in the frame. With the obvious caveat to beware overcluttering the image, this further information adds real value.

Up-Scale Intelligently

You can now watch the historic 1896 Lumiere Brother's film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat in glorious 4K thanks to a combination of artificial intelligence and machine learning used in the up-scaling process. For comparison, here is the 720p source clip.

There are now numerous convincing and fairly inexpensive plugins and online services that leverage these kinds of algorithms so you can up-scale your own footage to match the resolution of the rest of your project—for example, Beauty Box from Digital Anarchy or Image Restoration from Boris FX.

It's also worth noting that you can up-res media either before bringing it into editorial or while in post production, depending on time and cost, of course.

Leveraging Perception over Reality

One final video editing tip for incorporating low-quality video sources into your edit: simply leverage the fallibility of human visual perception. In other words, make the footage "appear" sharper and clearer with an increase in scale.

Simple things such as increasing the contrast within the image can add to the perception of clarity. Adding a touch of sharpening to the image can work as well. You can also artificially soften or de-focus the background elements in the frame, thus driving contrast to the center point of the image.

With all of these tweaks, subtlety is often the key—it's very easy to overdo it and end up with a degraded image rather than a convincing up-scale.

Don't Ignore the Other Issues

There are issues to be dealt with beyond increasing the resolution of low-quality video sources. For example, most iPhones are set to shoot in a variable rather than constant frame rate. By default, they frequently auto-adjust their exposure and color balance based on perceived changes in lighting conditions.

One of the easiest ways to avoid these issues is to record the footage with a dedicated iPhone video recording app, which gives you many more professional features. Alternatively, you could transcode your iPhone footage to a specific frame rate before bringing it into your editing software. If you're recording with multiple iPhones, a Bluetooth sync app could come in handy, too.

If you will be editing in a Zoom call, there are far better ways to record both sides of the conversation than using Zoom's built-in meeting recording, which defaults to a lowly 640x360 aspect ratio. Especially if both sides are using Apple Macs, the simplest method is to use QuickTime's built-in video recording feature to capture a clean 720p recording from a webcam.

Editors can't always expect to receive high-quality footage—especially during a time of widespread lockdowns and remote work. To make the most of this shift in the industry and audience minds alike, editors will have to stay open to interpretations of the perfect shot and the tech to make it happen.

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Jonny Elwyn
Jonny Elwyn is a freelance film editor and writer from London and the author of How to Be a Freelance Creative.

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