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Tips For Editing Documentaries

Cutting documentaries can be very difficult. Even if you’re a veteran editor, there’s always something new you can learn. I decided to ask the Twitter community what their tips and tricks were for editing documentary videos. Here are some I thought were helpful:

@ go in with no preconceptions and allow the story to flow. No-one has a monopoly on good ideas in the edit room #postchat
@craigaw1969
Craig Wilson
@ Write out scenes on index cards, visually shuffle and structure your film. Watch other docs and narratives for inspiration.
@jongrubbs
Jonathan Grubbs
@ Make sure you: understand the topic; know your footage; keep the big picture in mind whilst you're stressing the details.
@andymees
Andy Mees
@ Understand the subject. Get to know your footage. Read the director's treatment & research material.
@dwolfmeyer
Dan Wolfmeyer
@ @ BE ORGANIZED. Discipline is not the enemy of creativity--it is the editor's best friend.
@JamesRBarton1
James R Barton
@ great organization is the foundation on which great stories are built in documentary post. #EditingAndPost #postchat
@j_salvo
Juan Salvo
@ Take some time to figure out how you want your meta-data & organize before you start importing & stacking stuff up.
@ProleArtThreat
John Boldrick
Tips for editing documntaries? @ Log, Log, Log, Log and Log some more. And never underestimate the speed of transcripts
@tutehn
Micah Rix-Hayes
@ When doing a rough cut, NEVER second guess your edit decisions until you're down with the edit, then fine tune your cuts.
@ Find moments that spark; construct scenes around them. Often despite original intentions. You are the slave to the footage.
@PaulForte
Paul Forte
@ @ my favorite edits when doing a doc are often letting a great shot play out, even if it’s a long one. #PostChat
@John_Castelli
John Castelli
@ try to avoid excessive use of VoiceOver. Remember it's still a visual form and you can tell a story with images too:)
@Kenbostero
Adam Barton
@ Never cut away from an interview if the subject is looking off camera. Also never cut away on a blink. Maintain eye contact.
@fitzternet
John Fitzgerald
@ Also: Lay out 1 or 2 important interviews on a timeline. Mix, match, re-order them. Thats where u find the real story.
@fitzternet
John Fitzgerald
@ No worries. Also, spike the volume whenever subject gets emotional in an interview. Voices get lower as they get emotional.
@fitzternet
John Fitzgerald
@ Find out what kind of audio you'll be dealing with. Audio quality is more imp. than doc video quality for end product.
@ProleArtThreat
John Boldrick
@ There can often be a vast chasm between what happened in real life vs. what happened on screen. Pay attention to the LATTER!
@PaulForte
Paul Forte
@ Try to be honest when editing documentaries. Don't try to tell a story, that's not there. Listen and you'll know. #PostChat
@unityofmulti
Joern Bielewski
@ Give viewers a reason to care w/variety of facts while showing the heart of the story & history #EditingAndPost #PostChat
@NinjaKittay
Katie Toomey

Those are some great tips! Thank you all who contributed. One of the main parts of creating a documentary (or any video for that matter) is organization. As mentioned in several tweets, organization is extremely important. It may be tedious and boring, but it will pay off in the end.

If you have some tips to editing docs you would like to share with the post-production community, leave it in the comments section below. Also, feel free to bookmark this page for future reference.

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About The Author: Connor Crosby

Award-winning filmmaker, photographer, and website developer. Experience using numerous NLEs including Final Cut Pro 7/X, Premiere Pro, and Avid Media Composer.

4 Comments

  1. avatar
    Monica F P Williams

    First question to ask to yourself is Why do I or the public care about this story /characters?
    we should never forget the viewers.
    Go with your guts, if you feel empathy with the subject The viewers will feel the same.
    Show all sides of the story even if you don’t agree with one of the other.
    My 2 cents :0)

  2. avatar
    Joseph Citta

    Overall, ask yourself – “what makes this interesting? Or – “why would someone want to watch this?”

  3. avatar
    Diego Lopez

    Don’t be afraid to “kill your babies” – don’t fall in love with things that simply aren’t working in an edit. Once you get to a point where you can’t think of other ways to get that shot or interview bite to “work,” get rid of it. Then keep it in the back of your mind (or in a sequence or bin that I like to call “bite zombies”) – if it truly deserves to be in your edit, a place will reveal itself.

    Essentially, just realize that you can’t think outside of yourself and your biases and pre-conceived ideas of what should be. When you let them go, you might find a new, sweeter and more vibrant path to that idealized destination.

    And as always – work in passes!

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