Tips for Video Editing 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. The main one is Vertov’s film “The Man with a Movie Camera,” which shows a lot of manipulations with camera and editing. There are no strict rules for the 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 of it.

Editing The Documentary Structure

There are a few general structures that documentary films usually use: 

  • The “talking heads” – 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– films that are being guided with a voice over 
  • And “The Day in A Life” films– movies that follow a character or a group of people throughout the day (it can be more than one 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, you create the structure mainly in the editing room, so you might want to play around a little with the structure before you go into fine edits. That includes 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 endpoint are clear to the audience in the whole story 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 essential tip because if you don’t understand his concept, you’ll end up just being his tool that does only what he sais. Once you know all that, your eyes become the director’s most excellent tool. You should also get to know the story and the script (if there is one) before the shooting. If 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. Your purpose is to understand the story and start getting ideas about how to tell it.

Editing The Documentary Film Takes a Long Time.

It is tough to plan how long documentary editing is going to last. Building the structure takes time, but most of the time, the editing stops because the director understands he needs to shoot some more footage. One of the video editor’s biggest challenges 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 look at the scene again in one year, later on, it will look a lot better than how you think it is right now.

The problem with documentaries films is that they usually work with a low budget and 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 crucial to be organized. 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 crucial since you can never tell which one will add to a good cut. Watch also the outtakes, sometimes there are great treasures there. You can start thinking about the general structure of the film and what it is about while you do that.

Many video editors like to import or capture the footage in low resolution to save space on their hard drive. When the movie is done, they re-capture or re-import the final sequence’s footage in a higher resolution.

I also advise you to organize the files on your hard drive so 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 organized will help you prevent cases where the editing software’s files appear offline.

Organizing the Files for Editing The Documentary Film

Each video editor has its way of organizing 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 all depends on your film. You should have a folder for B-roll footage. B-roll footage is visuals without anyone talking to them. Each of them should have a short name that describes what is happening in the shot in general. Organisation the footage is crucial in video editing, especially in a documentary film where you usually get a lot of different types of footage.

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 that you will find yourself asking in what day the clip shot. Oh, and one more tip- You might want to have the clips in frame view so that 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 documentary films are known as Talking-head films. It means they are built mainly or entirely from interviews. The trick the video editor uses so that it won’t be boring is to cut away from the talking head to the more interesting footage. B-roll visuals should be connected to what the talking head says 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 says and not to his specific words. If he is saying “I was despondent,” showing him crying as visual will be: saying the same thing twice, and that is boring. Try to find footage that enhances what the interviewee is saying.

On your editing software, insert the B-roll shot on a different layer from the interview 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 that I can delete all the coughing, pauses, and “umms” of the interviewee.

If you have a lot of interview footage, it can be useful to ask the producer a script for all the interviews. It will be a lot easier 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 were know-how.

Editing The Documentary Sound

You might think that sound design 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 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 dialoges.

The biggest work with a sound you’ll have is fixing the coughing and pausing of the interviewees and the voice-overs. Sometimes you’ll need to take one sentence from one interview and attach it to another from a completely different interview.