Tips (Editing a Documentary)

  1. Shoot tons of B-Roll. 
  2. This is a big one. Obviously if you are coming in as the editor you may or may not have been present for the shoot. Anytime you watch a successful documentary, like on HBO or Showtime, if you study the editing, you will notice what really makes good docs more then talking heads is great B-roll to cut away to. If you do not have enough for a given sequence, then you have to get creative. You are working in a visual medium, it’s always better to show then to tell. This can be more challenging in documentaries, especially if you don’t have the actual footage to show!
  3. Organization is Key.
    You are likely going to be sitting on countless hours of material. A system of organization will aid you tremendously. For instance in whatever NLE you use, create seperate bins/sequences, whatnot, for each subject, scene, event, etc.
  4. Don’t Rush It
    When dealing with what could seem to be a huge amount of material, with a very small ratio of what will be used, give yourself plenty of time to properly view and absorb the footage. For instance if you have 10 hours of raw footage, 2-3 times that may be needed after watching it to properly ‘digest’ it to where you can begin to put the pieces together.
  5. Find The Narrative
    Whatever it may be, every documentary should have at least one story element that can conform to the traditional, 3 act structure. Once you find a piece strong enough for this, everything else can be structured around it. Sometimes you may have several narrative ’stories’ playing out, if so find the strongest one and let it dictate the flow of the story.
  6. Leave Things To The Imagination
    Let the audience wonder about certain details. Every mundane detail spoonfed is not interesting. Leave key information for later to build a sense of interest and suspense, for a big reveal later. Be mindful of the audience experience and use this to your advantage.
  7. Utilize The ‘Real’ Moments
    Funny asides in the interview, the little things, etc. These add a sense of humanity and fun. Don’t stick strictly to the formal interview stuff. Docs that entertain are usually also more successful in educating as well.
  8. Watch Good Documentaries
    If you will be doing a documentary, you should certainly watch some. All HBO documentaries are excellent, and Penn and Teller and This American Life are exemplary Showtime docs.
  9. Aim High
    Try to give your piece a sense of cinematic vision and style. Don’t think of it as ‘just a documentary’ that may air on public access, try to create something that can move and change peoples lives. Documentaries are very capable of doing so.
  10. Find the Primary Theme or Objective
    Find the universal theme in your piece and use it to tell the story in the most impactful way possible.
  11. Avoid Overstylizing or Understylizing
    Many documentaries actually benefit from the raw, right out of the camera look. Others call for a more powerful, fast, MTV rapid fire cut, type of aesthetic. Determine what is right for your subject matter and act accordingly.

Tips from Chance White on: 10 Tips to Editing A Documentary

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