Tips for Editing The Documentary

How To Video Edit A Documentary Film

If you want to become an expert in video editing, editing a documentary film will be a great start. The documentary films have brought a lot of innovations to the film editing industry. You can read about some of them in the Documentary Filmmaking History post, but the main one is Vertov’s film “The Man with a Movie Camera” which shows a lot of manipulations with camera and editing. The are no strict rules when it come to documentary and this kind of freedom can be great, but also castrating. A large amount of footage and the endless possibilities of editing can be scary, so here are some tips to make sense out of it.

Editing The Documentary Structure

  • There are a few general structures that documentary films usually use: The “talking heads” – which is a movie that is made entirely out of interviews. “The Personal Story”- Where the filmmaker is telling us something personal about him,
    The Narrator films
    – which are films that are being guided with a voice over and “The Day in A Life” films– which is a movie that follow a character or a group of people throughout the day (it can be more than 1 day). You can start with these basic structures and develop your style from there. 
  • The big difference between fiction and documentary films is that in a documentary film the structure needs to be invented in the editing room, so you might want to play around a little with the structure before you go into fine edits. That’s include deciding what’s going in and what is going out. You can read all about structure in my post on  Script Structure, but basically, you need a story that develops. It starts at one point and ends at another. As an editor, you have to make sure that the starting and the end point are clear to the audience in the whole story and in each and every scene. For example, if locations are changing, you need to make sure it is understood.
  • When you work on the structure of the film, you have to understand and even feel the social and political ideas of the director and his vision for the film. That is an important tip because if you won’t understand his vision, you’ll end up just being his tool that does only what he sais. Once you understand all that, your eyes become the director’s greatest tool. It is also advised that you’ll get to know the story and the script (if there is one) before the shooting. If it is possible I would even advise you to visit the set and maybe get to know the characters a little.
  • Don’t get stuck on the first draft for too long. Everything will change later on. Right now you purpose is just to understand the story and start getting ideas about how to tell it.

Editing The documentary Film Takes a Long Time

  • It is very hard to plan how long a documentary editing is going to last. Not only that building the structure takes time, but most of the times the editing stops because the director understands he needs to get out to shoot some more footage. One of the biggest challenges of the video editor is to know when to stop working on a scene. In video editing and Documentaries especially the number of times, you can fix a scene is countless. Knowing when to stop work on a scene is an ability you’ll get with the experience. Sometimes it’s best to let the scene rest for a few days and then come back to it, but trust me! When you’ll look at the scene again in one year, later on, it will look a lot better then how you think it is right now.
  • The problem with documentaries films is that usually, they are working with a low budget and they can’t afford too many hours, so you better learn how to work quickly and efficiently.

Digitizing/Capturing and Importing for Editing The Documentary Film

  • Since you will probably be working with a large amount of footage, it is important to be organized. That is why when you capture or import the files, you have to give them a name right away. The name should describe the file in one or two words. You should also write the scene it belongs to and the take number, So if we are having an interview with James the dog and the file we are naming are the second take and it belongs to the first scene, it will look something like this: James_1_2 or James_Int_1_2 (The Int stands for interview)
  • You have to know the footage very well. Watch every single shot of the footage. don’t be lazy. Each shot is important since you can never tell which one will add to a good cut. Watch also the outtakes, sometimes there are great treasures there. While you do that, you can start thinking about the general structure of te film and what it is about.
  • Many video editors like to import or capture the footage in low resolution to save space on their hard drive and when the movie is done, they re-capture or re-import the footage of the final sequence in a higher resolution.
  • I also advise you to organize  the files on your hard drive in a way you can easily find everything. That is an important tip, especially when working with the premier, or Avid AMA where the software is working with the original files by linking to them. Keeping the files organize will help you to prevent cases where the files in the editing software appear offline.

Organizing the Files for Editing The Documentary Film

  • Each video editor has it’s own way to organize the material. It can be by scenes or by characters. You can make a bin for interviews, a bin for dialogs or maybe even divide the bins by locations.  It’s all depend on your film. It is recommended to have a folder for B-roll footage. B-roll footage is visuals without anyone talking to them. Each one of them should have a short name that describes what happening in the shot in general.  Organisation the footage is very important in video editing especially on a documentary film where you usually get a lot of different types of footage.
  • Personally, I like to import or capture the footage into bins with the names of the tapes or cards that they are taken from and after that to copy all the clips to the new organized way I decided to go with. Knowing where the clip is coming from is very important for the whole process of the editing and I promise you, you will find yourself asking in what day was that clip shot at. Oh, and one more tip- You might want to have the clips in frame view, so you can find them quickly.

Know Some Basic Color Correction Techniques

I think every video editor should know basic tricks with color correction especially when working with a documentary. The problem with documentary films is that there isn’t always time to set white balance and lighting so the footage can come out very flat. You will be expected to fix at least small errors of color

Editing the Documentary Interviews

  • When having a movie with lots of interviews it is better to start with editing the narrative through the interviews. Then you can start playing with the clips and their order. Try different things. Don’t think about structure yet, only the story.
  • Many documentaries films are known as Talking-head films. It means they are built mainly or entirely from interviews. The trick the video editor uses, so it won’t be boring, is to cut away from the talking head to the more interesting footage. The B-roll visuals should be connected in some way to what the talking head is talking about at that moment, but don’t repeat with the visual what the interviewee is saying. The visual should be loyal to the premise of what the interviewee is saying and not to his specific words. If he is saying “I was very sad” showing him crying as visual will be to say the same thing twice and that is boring too. Try to find footage that enhance what the interviewee is saying.
  • On your editing software, insert the B-roll shot on a different layer from the interviews layer.
  • The B-roll should be edited by the rhythm of the speech as if the speech is music.
  • The great thing about covering the talking head is tat I can delete all the coughing, pauses and “umms” of the interviewee.
  • If you have a lot of interviews footage it can be a good idea to ask the producer a script of all the interviews. It will be a lot more easy and fast to read the script then watching all the material. The Media Composer has a way to connect the interview clips to the written transcript, so it’s very recommended to use it if you know how.

Editing The Documentary Sound

  • You might think that sound design is something that is needed only in narrative films, but that is wrong. The documentary films have a lot of sound errors that you might need to improve. Personally, when it comes to documentary films, as an editor, I like to do it myself and not to send it to sound design. One of the main problems I run into as a video editor in documentary films is that since all the characters are attached to microphones, there are no background noises and I need to add them myself.
    On the other hand, sometimes there might bee too much background noise that needs to be clear so we can hear the dialogs.
  • The biggest work with a sound you’ll have is fixing the coughing and pausing of the interviewees and of the voice overs. Sometimes you’ll need to take one sentence from one interview and attach it to another from a completely different interview.



The #1 Software for Screenwriters & Filmmakers

Final Draft 9

I’ve  decided to write a review for the Final Draft 9 software because it’s a software that solved me a lot of writing problems and I think, it’s a “must tool” for every aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker. 

This software has been developed by an aspiring screenwriter that got tired of keeping his scripts in the Hollywood format standards. He started working on this word processor and within 5 years from the software launch, it has become an industry standard for working with production companies. The Final Draft screenwriting software has been around for the last 24 years and it has become a status symbol for the industry filmmakers. Whatever work you do in the filmmaking industry, I can promise you – the Final Draft software will make your job easier.

So why Final Draft 9 worked for me?

When it comes to writing. For me, nothing beats the pen and paper way of writing. It took me a long time to work with a Wordprocessor (There was a time when I even used Emails as a word  processor). My biggest wish was to have enough money to pay someone that will copy my scripts to a Wordprocessor in the right script format, so I can keep on focusing on the story.

Well, Final Draft 9 does just that and more. the Final Draft software automatically formats your story into the industry standards and that was the main reason I decided to try it.

Have a personal script writing guide

Working with the Final Draft  9 is like having a personal script writing guide throughout your script writing process. The Final Draft 9 software has more than 100 templates that guide you through the structure of the script. Again, you can focus on the story and stop pounding your head about script structure.

The Cool Features

The Final draft also has tabs next to the script that allows you to create 3 important tools for every screenwriter and every filmmaker that needs to break down a script: 

  • a scene list,
  • a card index,
  • and character list

These are important tools you must have by your side during the screenwriting process. The cool thing with Final Draft 9 is you can move around them simultaneously while you are writing your script or even print it if it’s more comfortable.

The scene list

The scenes list is a list of your scenes, that you can take a look at very easily while you are working on the script itself. The scene list feature will make you work a lot faster than others.

Let us go into detail as to more things you can do with the scene list of Final Draft 9:

  • Insert new scenes very easily and add it to your script simply by double click on it.
  • You can also highlight the important information in them, categorize each scene with a different color for each category. For example, you can have a category for scenes that move forward the storyline, the characters, the conflict and more. Many producers and film directors use the Final Draft software to categorize the scenes by locations, time of day, characters and more. A cinematographer can use it to categorize scenes by indoor and outdoor scenes.
  • It is also an important tool when working with other crew members as it helps you reach each scene very easily.

The Characters List Tab

Every script has its characters list. Nothing special here, but it’s a known fact that the problem most writers have is to keep up with the small changes they are doing to their characters. The characters list is a productive and easy way to keep up with the changes you make to your characters. You can also highlight the characters in the script so you can find them easily. This is an important tool also for directors, producers, art designers and more. 

The Script Notes Tab

This is one of the coolest features in the software. You can write the script notes and then stick them into the script in a way that it is still hidden if you don’t want to see them. On the current version of Final Draft 9,  they are much easier to use than in the previous versions and  you can categorize them too.


I think the most important advantage of this software is the time this software can save you. It also helps you to focus on your story and leaving out all the technical stuff that make many screenwriters quit. In this product review, I’ve only mentioned the big features of the software, but there are a lot more. Let me know if you have any more questions. I know a lot of filmmakers (not only writers) in Hollywood, Broadway and even outside of USA countries are using it and I know it helped a lot of writers that were not able to deal with all the formal script writing demands. 

Pre-Production Steps

The Pre-Production Stage

There are 3 parts in a film production: Pre-production, production, and post-production. Pre-production is a very important part of the film production. It is the preparation stage and failing it, might create the failure of the film production or at least make it much more expensive.

The pre-production planning usually starts right after you got the finance for your film and when you have the final draft of the script. At the end of this stage, you should know how you are going to make all the scenes written in the movie script to look and sound good in the movie.

It is impossible to go through all the things that need to be taking care of in one post, but I’m going to go through the important ones and if there is something that interest you more, and you want me to go deep into it, let me know and I’ll do that. You can either write a comment at the end of the post or send me a message through the contact page.

Budget and schedule your film

  • The first thing you need to do is to schedule and budget your film. Now, you should have at least some finance by now and plan the budget is planning how you are going to spend their money. You can do it by breaking down the script. Pay attention to how many night scenes you have, how many scenes are in the same location or could be shot in the same location (even if in the script it’s not the same place).
  • Also, see if there are things you can change in the script to make the production less expensive. Read more about it in thisLesson and I also recommend reading the lesson on Making a Low-Budget Film. 
  • When making the budget, you should include expenses for the investment packet to get more money. The investment packet is something you do want to look professional and you might need even a professional graphic designer.
  • You should also pay attention to office expenses – that is something that usually beginner producers intend to ignore, but it affects the budget hard. If it possible get a line producer and a unit production manager and let them take care of the budget and scheduling the film. 

Hiring the crew members

  • After understanding your budget, you can understand how many crew members you need to have. This is a very important part and the crew you’ll choose will affect the quality of your film.
  • Read the article about the producers helpers. These are crew members you can’t compromise in to be able to do your job right, but there are many more crew members you need to find: Camera operators, audio operators, production assistants, an assistant director, director of photography, a prop master, gaffers, grips, hairstylist, a makeup artist, script supervisor, set designers, still photographers, location scouts, Transportation, Mechanical Effects team, catering, security.
  • Make sure all crew members share and believe in your vision and that they are available on the dates you need them to be.


  • I already uploaded a post about Casting an Audition  and I recommend going through it. For now, I will say that when you choose your talents, make sure they are available for the days you are planning to shoot.
  • When the auditioning stage is completely done, make sure you have a list of all the actors that are acting in the film, their role in the film, their telephone numbers, their agents and every other detail you need to be handy to you.

location scouting

  • Sometimes having one good location can really improve your film. When looking for locations you have to think about: the size of the location, parking places, transport facilities, toilets, do you need to build anything?
  • You also need to check how much control you will have on the location during shooting. You want to have as much as possible.
  • Pay attention to audio problems that may occur in each location- like traffic or electricity. Personally, when I find a location I like, I always like to walk around and see if there
  • are others locations in the area, I can use. It will also be good if the location will be close to a first aid station and a police station.
  • You may also want to do insurance to the locations. In the article Making a Low Budget Film, I’m talking about how to lower expenses in that area.

The Master Production Calendar

  • Your job as the producer is to plan each day of shooting. You’ll need to decide how many pages of script to shoot each day. Usually, it’s 2-5, but it can be a lot more if you need to save money.
  • Try not to shoot for more than 12 hours in a day. Keep the shooting as simple as possible.
  • Each day of shooting you will publish a daily schedule to make sure everybody know what they need to do and how much time they have to make that happen.
  • The master production should include a daily schedule for the pre-production and post-production. 

Taking care of post production

  • Your job here is to find editing rooms, video editors, colorist and sound designers.
  • If there is a special song that the script needs, you should also think about music licensing. Al
  • Think about how you want to release the film. Is it through a file? Beta tape? Film? 
  • In the Make A Low Budget Film post, I talk about how to save money in the post-production stage, so if you haven’t read it yet, I recommend doing it.

So these are the important things to take care of in the pre-production stage. As I said it will be impossible to go through everything here, but there are a lot of other things to pay attention to  like creating a final script, storyboarding, funding more money, taking care of communications, rent production offices if possible,  insurance coverage, open account for the production, pre-production meetings with all the main crew members to make sure they have what they need and more 

The Script Treatment

Writing A Script Treatment

Knowing how to write a treatment is a skill that can really improve your script and your marketing chances. It is one step after the list of scene stage and before the first draft of the script.

The main problem with script treatment is that when someone asks you for it, you have to make sure that both of you are on the same page as for what a treatment is. Many producers say they want a treatment, but they really mean a pitch (which is a presentation of the script in a few sentences) or an outline ( which is a summary of all the scenes). In most cases, a treatment is the film’s story in a form of a prose (written in paragraphs instead of on the script’s format). The treatment will focus on the highlights of the film and it must be written in a third- person and present tense and to describe only what the audience can see or hear in the film.
The writer’s main job when writing the treatment is making everyone (including himself)  understand how the story is going to be treated.

What is the script treatment good for?

  • First of all – marketing. The treatment is going to be your main marketing tool. Its purpose is to help the reader visualize the film. Producers need to read hundreds of scripts a day. They simply don’t have time for that. That’s why many producers will ask you to hand them a treatment before you hand them the script. If they’ll like the treatment, they’ll ask you for the script.
  • In addition to it being a marketing tool, it is a great writers tool. I really recommend writing the treatment before you start working on the script. The treatment will make you focus on the main story, without the scenes and the dialog that might hide the problems with the story. Using a treatment will save you a lot of time you can waste on a bad script. Eventually , if your basic story isn’t working, the audience will not like your script.
  • The treatment is also a great tool when you already have a script. Sometimes you have a script with great scenes and great dialogues, but they are so great that they hide the story’s problems like story structure problems, conflict problems, premise problem etc. Many writers write the script treatment when they are having that kind of problems in their script or when something in the script doesn’t feel right and they can’t out their finger on what it is.
  • The treatment is also a way to make sure you are using the 3 Acts structure correctly. There are more complicated structures with much more than 3 acts and if you want to go deeper, I recommend reading the book Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need

In short, you have only your emotions to sell.
This is the experience of all writers.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

How long should the script treatment be?

There are many opinions as to how long the treatment should be. It should be somewhere between 1-25 pages. Now, I know the last sentence didn’t help you very much, but it really depends on the kind of treatment you write, the kind of writer you are and the purpose of the treatment. The general rule for all kind of treatments is to try to keep it as short as you can, without being too vague. You don’t need to write every detail of the film. When you are getting too deep into the details you might find yourself getting lost. Stay focus on the main story. You can also write about the sub-plots in the treatment, but make sure they are staying sub-plots. Don’t go too deep into them.

The first steps of writing a script treatment

I’m going to give you a few tips that will help you write the best treatment you can have, but before that, I want to go through with you as to what are the first steps you should take when planning to write a treatment.

  • When approaching into writing a treatment, the first thing you need to do is work on your story premise. A clear premise will help you to stay focused on the backbone of your story. Write your premise on a little note and keep looking at it while you are writing the treatment.
  • A good title for the film is also a good way to stay focused on the main theme. Make sure the title is expressing the main idea of the script and what kind of genre it is.
  • Write an outline. An outline is a list of the main events in your story. Focus only on the plot when you do that. Simply write the story while focusing on the main events of the plot and the sub-plots. Make it about one paragraph for each event. Try to make it up to 5 to 10 pages for a feature film.  Read each event out loud and try to imagine it on the film.
  • Now, try to tell your story in one or two sentences. This is an important stage in understanding your story. If you understand your story well, it will save you time when you are writing the treatment. If you are having trouble with that, then there is something wrong with your story.
  • Write a Synopsis. It should be no more than 1 page and it should tell only the plot. Put some time and effort into it, you will use it later on when you’ll try to sell the script, but this will also help you understand the main parts of your story. You need to write only about your main characters important actions that move the story forward and as always- write in third-person- present and no emotions of characters.
  • Your next step is to make a list of the scenes of the film in a chronological order. Write only one sentence to describe each scene. Some writers like to write the scenes in cards so they can play with their order.
  • It is important to go through all the actions of your characters and to understand why the character acting the way he does. Also, understand the relationships between the characters. Why are they together? At least in your mind have their back story.
  • Make it sell. Think how the treatment will “catch” the reader to read more and make sure the style of the film is expressed.

Tips for writing a script treatment that sells

Now, that we covered what a script treatment is, I can give you a few cool and proven tips to help you write a good treatment that will sell your script.

  • Imagine the film. Start by imagining your film. Try to sit in audience seat and see how you are reacting to everything that happens there. Try to focus on the audience feelings and experience as you write the script treatment.
  • keep the treatment simple and clear. Write it in a way that the reader will understand completely where each act starts and ends. There are some writers that even mention the acts in the treatments or even the Mid-point. Try to stay focus as much as you can in the story itself. Try to avoid dialogues as much as you can. Don’t describe any feelings or thoughts of your characters. Remember! Describe only what we see or hear in the film.
  • Put a lot of efforts on the beginning of the treatment. Some writers like to even write the opening shot. Also, make sure the reader can relate to the protagonist right away. You should also try to go into the action of the film within the first two paragraphs. This action has to be something that will arouse the reader to read more. Just be careful not to exaggerate. In the story conflict lesson, we talked about the impotence of the commitment of the main character to her goal. Make sure it is understood right at the start and remember- the main character doesn’t have to stick to that goal throughout the movie, just until his next big goal will arrive.
  • Know the big crisis point. Even before you start working on the script treatment, you should decide right at the front what is the (you can read about it in the story structure lesson).
  • The treatment should deliver the tone and the mood of the film and also the experience that the audience will get from watching it, so if it’s a comedy, write it funny. If it’s an action film you can bring more details on the action scenes. If it’s a drama movie, focus more on the conflict.
  • Know your audience. By audience I mean, who is going to read the treatment? For example, if you are writing it for an actor that you want him to be in the film, focus on his part of the film, so it will look bigger.
  • Make sure that the protagonist’s growth and the changes are clear. the treatment also needs to deliver all the main and supporting characters, that are important to the events in the story.


Writing a script treatment is a profession. There are many writers that even make a living just from writing treatments. As I said it is a very important tool for the writer but also for your marketing package. Take the time and efforts to do it right. I also recommend reading the book Writing the Killer Treatment: Selling Your Story Without a Script by Halperin, Michael.There is also a great course from The Writers Store that is all about writing treatments you can read about it by clicking this link
Write My Treatment

The last thing that you need to remember when you are writing a treatment is that changes still may come. You are not writing the final draft, so focus on making it sell.

Internet Movie Script Database