In a lot of ways editing a documentary is much more difﬁcult than a narrative. Documentaries ﬁnd their voice in the editing bay, so if you’re looking to craft an engaging story there’s a few things you must always do. Here are a few essential tips for ﬁnding your story when cutting a documentary.
Since shooting ratios on documentaries can be ridiculously high (sometimes 100:1 or higher), staying organized is one of the best ways you can make your job easier throughout the editorial process. The vast majority of editors understand that it’s important to have
an organized project ﬁle with bin, shots, and takes labeled appropriately. But in order to really stay on top of things, the organization needs to extend beyond the project ﬁle.
Files and folders should be organized just as well on your hard drives in order to avoid ofﬂine media and workﬂow issues when sending your project out for sound/color/VFX. I also recommend organizing and logging all interviews as meticulously as possible within your project in order to streamline your process for recutting interview segments later on. For instance, you might want to add markers to sequences with synced interviews in them and label each marker with the interview topic. It will take some more legwork up front, but can save you hours and hours of sifting through footage later on.
Plan Ahead, Then Work from Instinct
Although it’s tempting to wait until you’re in the editing room to start conceptualizing the exact edit and ﬂow of the story, putting in the early legwork will pay dividends when you jump into the edit.
It’s usually best to work with the director and crew before shooting in order to ensure that the ﬁlm is being shot with editing in mind. Similarly, you should then be able to go into the edit knowing the director’s exact vision. It’s typically not possible for the you, the editor, to be present for all the shooting, so let the director know what you would like from the shoot – the good takes, the blown takes, b-roll, etc. This will be immensely helpful when you start logging footage.
Based on how good the on-set notes are, and how much time is allotted for the edit, it’s often worthwhile to do a rough paper edit. Working with a director in this stage will make the edit go smoother, as you’ll have a clearer idea of their vision based on the footage that was captured. It’s also useful for knowing what still needs to be shot. Get those Post-It-Notes ready and map out a rough story structure.
Once you get into your editing app, there’s no exact formula for cutting a documentary. One popular approach is to cut the bulk of interviews together ﬁrst as a starting point and working out from there. If you’ve gone through the footage and one particular moment really sticks out to you – maybe consider cutting that ﬁrst, and then working the other scenes around it, assuming it’s a pivotal moment.
Or maybe you have a vision for a beautiful opening montage and are able to build out the ﬁrst act completely sequentially by starting from square one. Tackle the material that speaks to you and inspires you the most. Doing so will lead to further inspiration once you start hitting the next few scenes and sequences.
Get a First Cut Done Quickly
If you’ve ever cut together a feature documentary before, you know very well that the ﬁnal cut often looks nothing like the ﬁrst cut.
Documentaries typically have far more revisions than narrative ﬁlms. Since there’s so much footage to pull from, each revision looks that much different. The point being that your ﬁrst cut doesn’t need to be perfect… it’s going to change immensely anyways.
The ﬁrst cut is really just a mold at which you can start chiseling away. It’s better to have that mold ready sooner than later so that you can tear it down, rebuild it, and do it all over again, as opposed to trying to make that ﬁrst cut perfect and then becoming frustrated when it needs to get recut.
Even if you believe you can make a near-perfect ﬁrst cut, your director, producer, sales agent, or whoever else might have a say in the process may very well feel differently.
The best thing you can do is get through your ﬁrst cut as quickly as possible (which, by the way, also forces you to work on your instincts) and then start reﬁning things from there.
Did we leave anything out? Tell us about it in the comments below.
For Additional Information and tools, Be sure to check out these resources.