how to edit a documentary

How to Edit a Documentary

Now that we’ve explored all the various video and audio equipment that will help you accomplish your goal, telling a great story, and you have a decent set of tools in front of you, it’s time to learn how to use them.

It may seem counter-intuitive to start with a guide on editing, but it’s actually easier to know what to shoot if you know how it’s going to be used. Over the past few years I’ve worked on a ton of shows and something I’ve noticed is that people who focus their careers too heavily on work in the field, producers and crew who are only shooting shows and not editing them, don’t always recognize how a scene is going to play after it’s cut together, which means they leave big holes in story that have to be fixed in post. This is to be avoided at all costs.

By understanding the basics of how a documentary scene plays out, everyone can elevate their storytelling, and even those who are more focused on field work can send better footage back to post.

Before I dig in, though, I want to make a disclaimer. This is not a tutorial intended to teach you the basics of video editing. If you need help learning your editing software, you should seek tutorials focused on technical skills. My personal favorite, and a service that I turn to often (even now, ten years into my career), is Lynda.com. Lynda’s video production and post-production tutorials are incredibly thorough. They offer courses for all levels, from beginner to expert. And, if you’ve exhausted their video production and post-production tutorials, they have a ton of business, freelance, and marketing tutorials included in their monthly subscription that will help you get new clients and scale your business up. I can’t speak highly enough of Lynda.com.

But this post is about editing a documentary from a storytelling perspective, so let’s get to it.

How to Edit a Documentary

As I mentioned in my post about documentary storytelling, the two basic components of a documentary are interview and vérité. There are more elements that you can include to make your story even more compelling, like music and graphics, but we’ll get into those later. For now, I want to focus on the fundamentals.

Nearly every documentary follows the same basic structure: beginning, middle, end. This goes for every character in a documentary as well. Instead of thinking about your subjects as talking heads stating information, think of each person in the documentary as a character. What is each character’s world like before the story begins? What kind of obstacles do they face throughout the story? What is their world like when the story ends? How have they changed or grown as a result of the story?

These are the questions that will tease out the larger philosophical and existential themes from your story. It’s helpful to think about the themes of your documentary, but what you really want to focus on is pulling these out of characters.

Of course, it’s not always possible to turn each documentary subject into a character, so at the very least your primary subject, your protagonist, should have the beginning, middle, end structure.

How do we accomplish this structure? With individual scenes comprised of interview and vérité. Let’s deconstruct.

Start with a String Out

Some time ago a bunch of film and television professionals created a workflow process called “stringing out.” Think of a string out as a rough draft of a scene. With string outs, your post-production becomes a two-step process. Each scene is strung out in its own sequence and then you go back through and edit each scene.

Strings outs typically don’t have music, and sometimes they don’t even have shots selected. They can be as simple as what is known as a “radio cut,” where all of the clips are laid out in a way that makes sense if you close your eyes and just listen.

If you’ve ever edited a video, you know that it can be a time-consuming process. In that sense, stringing out allows you to answer fundamental story questions of each scene before you get too far into the process of selecting shots, adding music, and cleaning up audio.

The biggest benefit of the string out process is preventing you from what is sometimes referred to in business and investing as sunk cost fallacy. Sunk cost fallacy is essentially holding on to irrational, emotional decisions based on the time you’ve invested into those decisions. When it comes to film and television storytelling, you’re a lot more likely to fix a story issue if you’re addressing it on the string out level, when you only have a few hours invested, versus the edit level, when you may have a few days or weeks invested… especially if the story issue requires a big change.

Create a Beginning, Middle, and End for Every Scene

I’ve talked about the need for structure in the overall story, that is, the need to have a beginning, middle, and end. That’s the macro view.

On a micro level, it’s important for every scene to have a beginning, middle, and end as well so that your audience doesn’t lose interest along the way.

Creating this effect is much easier than it seems.

From an organizational standpoint, you can open your scene on a piece of vérité, something that establishes where the characters are and what the scene is going to be about. Then, an interview can come in and give more context or further explain where the characters are and what they hope to accomplish. This is your beginning.

Cut back to vérité, your characters further pursue their goal within the scene, and an obstacle is placed in front of them. Sometimes this obstacle is external. They are hoping to get something in vérité and they are faced with a challenge. Sometimes this obstacle is internal. Vérité plays out while the character explains in interview what they are thinking and feeling throughout the process. This is your middle.

Finally, the character either triumphs over the obstacle or is defeated by it. It’s best when this happens in vérité and is reinforced by interview, but sometimes it can only be explained in interview with some illustrative shots to cover it.

This scene propels us forward in story, into another scene, with another beginning, middle, and end, and this process repeats to accomplish the overall structure of the story.

As a note, when you’re shooting a scene in the field, chances are the characters aren’t going to have a conversation with a natural beginning, middle, and end, unless it’s heavily produced like a reality TV scene. That said, if you think about things you are shooting as scenes and you pay attention to things that could play as a beginning, middle, or end, then when you interview your characters about the scenes you can ask questions to better shape the scene.

Exemplifying obstacles both internal and external is the most effective way of getting your audience to think and feel things. A good filmmaker will take scenes where these obstacles are exemplified and then use vérité and interviews to slowly layer in more context and information, providing both personal stories from individual characters, and larger topical stories, while doing this over a longer period of time — the entire course of the film.

Additional Storytelling Tools

There are other elements besides vérité and interviews that you can use to create a scene.

Lots of documentaries use photos or graphics to create scenes, especially historical documentaries or scenes in documentaries that are meant to explore a character’s backstory.

Even though the coverage is different, the storytelling techniques are the same.

In fact, some documentaries will go so far as to add sound design to old photographs so the viewer feels like they are there, living in the photograph. In that way, the photograph serves exactly like vérité.

Narration is also a good tool to use in place of, or prior to an interview, to provide context. When I worked on Lockup for MSNBC, we used the narrator as an omniscient voice that would provide information about a character. That would free up the character’s interviews to focus on things like how they feel about their situation, their environment. By cutting back and forth between narration and interview, we actually created something like a dialog between narrator and character that helped tell a simultaneously more specific, and more general story.

Last but not least, music is one of the greatest tools that a documentarian can use to tell an effective story. The most common way editors use music when putting together a documentary is not to use one music track for an entire scene, but rather change music cues throughout the scene to signify a change in tone. A scene might start with some flashy shots of the city, an exterior of a building, and then get into the vérité of a scene. All the while, an upbeat music track might be playing underneath the scene. Then, when a character faces an obstacle, the tone of the music can change from upbeat to dramatic, or comedic (depending on the scene).

One technical trick most professional editors utilize is what’s called a “sting out.” Instead of having music fade out, editors will use the very end of a music track (if the music track ends on a beat), and cut that ending where they’d like the music track to end. Instead of fading out, the music then ends suddenly, but ends in a way that feels seamless and natural. If you’re interested in playing with this trick, try to find a song that ends on a beat instead of fading out. Then, scroll back a few beats and try to cut some time out of the song so it ends on that beat, but is significantly shorter. If you need to, you can add a short crossfade between clips to make it more seamless. Keep playing with this until you can make it sound good.

Practice, Practice, Practice

All of the techniques I’ve laid out in this post take practice. I’ve worked with people who have been editing for years that are still learning new tricks. Each scene calls for a slightly different editorial approach and demands something new from the creative person trying to shape it. So, embrace the fact that documentary storytelling is impossible to master, and just keep practicing.

In my next post I’ll dive deeper into how to shoot a documentary, keeping in mind some of the things we’ll need to tell a compelling story in edit.

In the meantime, go shoot some stuff so you can practice editing.

Practice, practice, practice, and when you’re done with that, practice some more.

At the end of the day, filmmaking is not the end result, it is the practice of creating, so you should be putting yourself in as many situations to create as possible so that you are always honing your skills.

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