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.



Documentary Storytelling

How To Tell A Story In A Documentary Film

A good story is a must in documentary films. You might have an interesting story, but that’s not enough. If you have a good story, your movie won’t be only interesting, but also unforgettable.

Here are all the stages of developing your documentary film’s story:

Find an idea for your documentary film

Observe the world around you. Everywhere you will look there is a story to tell, and every story is representing a bigger story. Keep a journal and write every idea you head. Now:
you never know when you will get back to those ideas so write the idea in detail. Things that are obvious to you now, might not be that obvious when you’ll come back to them after a few months.
Another good advice is to start reading newspapers and magazines. If you want to tell a story about real life, you got to look for it in real life.
You should have a lot of passion for your idea.

Developing the idea

The important thing to think about, when you are working on a new documentary idea, is how can I sell this movie and to whom? Let’s face it- you are going to need money to make that movie. A documentary might take years to shoot and even more, years to edit- it’s going to cost you. So thinking about your potential finders can really help you to understand how your film should look like. You need to have a general idea about it, don’t go into deep details. Unlike in fiction, documentary films are usually much more flexible with their structure, but you do need to think about what your documentary financiers might want to achieve from the film? Who is your target audience? and etc.

The next thing you need to think about is your point of view in the story. This is a very important part because this is the message your movie will deliver. I recommend reading the find your own voice article, but for now, I will tell you that to do that you need to look at the conflicts of the story and the main character and to think what’s your honest opinion about them.

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You can’t go into the script writing a stage without doing a research on the subject first. While you are doing the research, you can start working on a few very general storylines for your film.

Writing the documentary script

The documentary story structure has the same principles that every good story should have in any form of art: The 3 stages- beginning, middle and end(not always told in chronological order), a character that growths and changes as it confronts obstacles, a point of view, a climax and a resolution. The difference between documentary and fiction is that a documentary film deals with facts and not fiction. I will talk about those things in the “Script Writing Classes” section later on,
but for now, you will need to know that:

The beginning is the part that introduces us to the characters, their world and their main conflict. It is also the part that needs to hook the audience to the movie and to let them know what kind of film it is going to be.
The middle part is the part where you will probably won’t have a lot to write about. Many documentary directors have a problem with writing this part, but it is important that you will at least have a list of logic scenes that will prove your message of the film. This will help you to stay focused and not to wander all over the place. When planning the middle part, I would divide it also to a beginning, middle and end.
The climax- The last conflict our main character is going to deal with before the end part comes. It should be a very big conflict.
The end is the conclusion of the film. The ending should still be following the mood and atmosphere of all the film. It should be, as Aristotle said, ‘inevitable’ and ‘unexpected.’

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The characters

you want your characters to have some kind of journey with obstacles, but that’s not enough. You need them to have another narrative in their life. You need characters that have an interesting backstory. Sometimes you might find yourself shooting 10 characters with the same story just to find the one or two that you will need.
As long as your actor is able to take action, you can use every character you want. The character also needs to change throughout the film.

Writing a script for the documentary is very hard, but you must have at least a general idea about it so you will be more focused on the shooting. that will save you time and money in the shooting and editing stages and will improve your film.

Documentary Filmmaking Tips

Tips For Documentary Filmmaking

Film school online
Film school online

Documentary filmmaking is a long process and sometimes an exhausting one. You must be prepared for disappointments and for the process of learning from those disappointments.Since you don’t have a deadline to finish shootings, as oppose to fiction films, You can find yourself shooting for years and spending, even more, years on editing the film.

The important thing to know is that when you’ll do a documentary that will work, the benefits are great! You get to explore undiscovered sides of your life and to share your voice, which turns out to be the voice of many others, with your viewers.
this is a result that has no price.
I wanted to start this documentary filmmaking course with some tips to get you start

So here are some Documentary filmmaking tips to help you get started:

Documentary director’s characteristics

As a Documentary filmmaker, you must do whatever it takes to document what is important and meaningful in your opinion. A documentary filmmaker is a one who lives to reveal hidden truths. With that, even when you tell the complete truth, you may fail, if you won’t be able to prove your film as such. A documentary filmmaker needs to have the ability to tell a story through visual images, and to be able to touch the emotions of his audience with the help of these images.When you’ll deal Documentary with a particular subject, as a filmmaker, you must be aware of three things:

  1. All the features and the point of views of the same subject,
  2. To be aware of the emotional changes that apply to him when he was exposed to the details of that world,
    and of course
  3. Be aware of the medium with which he communicates.

You will achieve awareness of these three things from repeating practice.

Communication with the viewer

The cinematic language you’ll choose to transfer your ideas has a great influence on your communication with your audience. Your movie audience needs to understand as soon as possible the message you want to discuss, and how you are going to deal with it. On the other hand, What you really need to decide is, what is more, important to you- Delivering the viewer a message or learning something about yourself and delivering it to the viewer. In my opinion, a good documentary film should be able to take us to a world of ideas we didn’t know or were too afraid to go in by our self. To help us go into these worlds outside our boundaries, a good story is a must.

Film or Video

There are many benefits to shooting in a video. A lot, actually. George Lucas once said about moving to digital that “It’s as profound a change as going from silent to talkies and going from black-and-white to color. It gives artists a whole range of possibilities that they never had before”. The advantages are big: You can shoot with a relatively small camera, which helps greatly in documentary shootings, especially if you do not want to stress your film’s object.
In addition, you can use a very large amount of raw material – As much as you want really – and it doesn’t cost much very compare to film. You can also move your materials to film (Of course there are preparations to be done).
On the other hand, there is nothing like the look of the film, so if you still shooting on film, do a lot of tests with video and know what you’re going to take and how to in advance.


Let’s be honest. In today’s world chances that your documentary will be shown in big theaters are pretty low. Today you are able to distribute your own movie over the Internet and it’s not a method you should take lightly. Many filmmakers have done just that. They picked a site where the audience could for a small fee download their movie and watch at home. Sometimes the site also contained behind the scenes of the film, trailers and more. This is a method that saves costs drastically and most importantly it is reducing your dependence on production companies and could help your chances to reach more people than on TV. The distribution through the internet is great mainly because your can reach directly to the people that most likely will take an interest in the film and not just everyone like TV does.

I hope these Documentary filmmaking tips helped you to understand what it really means to be a documentary filmmaker. I f you think you like it, I invite you to read the rest of my post in the documentary category.  I’m sure you’ll like it.

Documentary Filmmaking History – Part 2

Documentary Filmmaking History

In the first part of this Documentary filmmaking history article, I have reviewed a series of films that were a lot of inspiration to the documentary filmmaking industry that we know today. Now I want to address two equally important documentary styles in the documentary filmmaking history that came later on:

The – Direct cinema and  Cinema verity

After the second world war, the artist started to think what they did that contribute to it. One of their realization was that the obsession for esthetics had something to do with the rise of the Nazism regime. Many arts form at the after WW2 period started to focus more on the realism in their arts and the film industry was not different.  The fiction films brought us the Italian neo-realism that used real location and real people instead of actors and the documentary brought us two main sub-genres opposed the propaganda style of the older documentaries.

Direct cinema

The Direct cinema documentary filmmakers were a group of revolutionaries, who tried to interfere as little as possible in the shootings. These films were not mass production films. They were shot under the location’s natural lights and with no preparations. Their unique was in the presentations of life experiences in the most direct way possible. Sound like a documentary at it’s best, right? Well… Not so much – The thing is that when someone knows he is being watched, he will act differently, so are we really documenting the reality without any intervention? People do not behave naturally when they know they are being filmed. It is difficult to say that these films really have documented the reality as it is like they claimed they did.

A director that is very influential in the genre is Albert Maysles,  An American director. He shot with his brother, David, films with the camera on their shoulder and Interviews with a very little intervention on their part. They did wildly successful films like What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA, which documents the band’s visit in the USA, Another movie was Salesman– about a Bibles sales agent, and Gimme Shelter about the Rolling Stones and the show that ended in the death of one of their fans.

Cinema verity

Cinema verity’s (‘cinema truth’) approach claimed that since we can’t really document reality as it is, we can encourage participants to interact with the film director. The genre was provocative and not ashamed that the camera had the power to design the reality it documents. If members of the Direct cinema took the camera to location, hoping that something will happen, at the Cinema Verity they really tried to create situations.

An important film that can be a good example is The Titicut Follies from 1967 of Fred Wiseman. The film follows the life of the mentally ill and criminals institution. 

The movie Chronicle of a Summer from 1961 of Jean Rouch is a good example as well. The film begins with a discussion of two directors on whether it is possible to behave naturally in front of a camera. The Film’s creators take the question to the streets and ask people if they are happy. The goal is to see how people react when they are near the camera.

The greatest contribution of these two genres was, that they freed the documentary films from the need to write a script. Both of them didn’t know what will happen and the video editors had to deal with the mass of raw material.

It was a very, very abbreviated record of the beginning of the documentary film genre. The main idea I was trying to pass you on these two articles is that right  from the first film, arguments about whether documentary films should reflect the reality as it is, have been asked all the time. I would recommend anyone who wants to direct documentaries to watch as many movies of the genres that are mentioned here to develop your documentary tools.

Here are some more recommended films:
Land of Silence and Darkness of Werner Herzog 1971- The film follows the lives of deaf-blind people and gives us an idea of the true meaning of loneliness.

Best Boy of Ira Wohl from 1979 tells the story of a family crisis. Aging parents wonder what to do about their son, a disabled 50 years old man. This is a very moving film with long moments of so-called direct cinema.

28 Up in 1986 by Michael Apted. A TV series that lasted 21 years. The series follows the number of children at the age of 6 and then coming back to them when they are mature. A Series that is sensitive and interesting.

That’s it. If you have any other good examples or other sub-genre in the documentary field that you want me to talk about, please let me know.

Documentary Filmmaking – Introduction

Documentary Filmmaking – Important Key Points

In this article, I will go through some very important key point of documentary filmmaking. I’m going to start with an important discussion that should be the beginning of every documentary filmmaking course and I’m also going to write some tips to get you started. I’m also going to talk about finding an original idea for your film and the types of documentary films out there. In the next lessons, I will talk about the basics of non-fiction storytelling, The art of the interview, The history of documentary filmmaking and much more.

So let’s study documentary filmmaking 

What is a documentary film?

The definition of documentary film is kind of a controversial one. Some say that the documentary filmmaking purpose is to document the reality and some would say that the role of the documentary is to interpret reality.
So who is right?
The truth is that there is no such thing as an objective film. The only responsibilities we can be fixed to a documentary filmmaker is to be fair to its object (some would argue even that). That is to let the subject that you document a chance to express itself and to be treated with respect.

Quick tip:
Many film schools will tell you that an honest documentary filmmaker
needs to show all the sides of the subjects. That makes sense, but be careful! Most subjects are not simple as black and white and there is a lot of grey. You need to find the grey area that has the blackest colors and the most white colors, but don’t attempt to give everyone sides.  Sometimes there are just too many

The movie “Roger and Me” by Michael Moore is a good example for documentary filmmaking. Michael Moore is a documentary filmmaker that keeps challenging the objectivity of documentary film.
He himself claims that what he shows in his films is real, but admits that the voice overs are his personal interpretation of the facts.
The truth is that if he would just show the facts, it wouldn’t be interesting. The reality is not so interesting. Not enough to just copy it without making a commentary.

it’s important that you’ll understand that directors that are less provocative than Michael Moore also gives interpretations from their perspective to the facts that they’re taking about. That’s why most of the documentaries are made with the director’s narration.

I don’t really believe that documentary is objective reality and fiction is all illusion.                            
Mike Mills     

What am I trying to tell you?
A documentary film can not show an objective world. When you frame a certain reality into the shot, you’ve set your point of view on the object. How is that different from staging a scene in fictions? Once you’ve decided what goes into the frame and what’s not, this is your point of view. How can you objectively decide when to turn on and off the camera? 

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Be fair to your subject – but also with your film

Some may say that if the photographed object is OK with you shooting him in certain situations, then the decisions about what’s getting in the film and what does not are yours alone. There are those who feel that the director should discuss with his object about what can and can not enter the film. I don’t believe in that.
But here is the kicker:
You are not your object parent! What is important is that the film will turn out good.
Eventually, you’ll have to trust your instincts. You shouldn’t be lying about your subject to make the movie more interesting, but if your subject of the film wants to be part of the decision process of the film, that might lead to trouble.

Find an original subject for your film

To find a good story for a documentary film, in my opinion,  is more difficult compared to finding one for a fiction film. Of course, there are repeating themes (especially if you are in film school): your grandmother who raised you as if you were her child, this guy that has to deal with cancer or other terminal illness, In Israel we have lots of films about the Palestinian and Jewish problem. The problem with those issues (important as they are) is that they all been done too many times. So if you’ve been going to film about those issues, you better find a way to make it breathtaking and original. For example the film “Freeheld”, that deals with cancer, but in an original and interesting way. It tells the story of a woman dying of cancer who wants to leave all she has to her spouse, Stacey. She encounters difficulties because they are not husband and wife and together they fight for what’s right according to their point of view.

You know, the process of making a documentary is one of discovery, and like writing a story, you follow a lead and that leads you to something else and then by the time you finish, the story is nothing like you expect                             
William Shatner

Most documentaries are about the present or past, but there are no strict rules. There are films like The War Games, which is highly recommended documentary for fans of the genre, from 1965, that describe a possible future: The Film takes all the terrible facts of the second World War and uses them to describe a nuclear war on London in the future. Whatever time period you’ll choose to talk about, it always has to revolve around something that happens in life.

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How to review a documentary film

Another important point to talk about it in the context of Documentary Films is how do you criticize a documentary It’s hard to say stuff like the subject is not interesting.
I think that when reviewing the documentary, you do not judge the issue but how the director introduced the topic. It is very important that the director will investigate and show the character he chose to shoot and even more important, why he chose them.

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So what can you learn from it about making a documentary?
When you write your documentary or treatment for one, ask yourself over and over, Why did I choose this project? What can I bring to this issue? And what I can do here that we have not seen yet?

I hope you enjoyed this post and let me know if you have anymore questions or ideas for lessons