How to Edit a Documentary

Two Parts:OrganizeRough cut

Editing documentaries takes more time and skill than editing a narrative film. The main difference is you shape the film in the edit suit.

Part 1

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    Shoot a lot of footage. It is easiest to edit a documentary that has a lot of coverage.
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    Segregate the footage in folders. Split footage up into folders, e.g. "b" roll, interview, etc.
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    List all the footage in a log. Watch all the footage, listing highlights, overall action in the scene, and anything else that you feel is important. Write down what happens and what you think is appropriate. This is a huge job, so don't underestimate how long it will take. Make sure to break the core into manageable chunks.
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    Index the interviews. This is where you capture the gust of what the interviewee says, not the entire dialog. Do this by breaking down the interview into half minute segments. Work out where these should go in the interview at the end. This will be useful when it comes to the paper edit.
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    Convert to standard definition. Editing a documentary can put a lot of strain on, especially if you are working in HD. Do an offline edit where you convert to standard definition. When you have locked off (finished) the edit, re-import HD footage.
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    Paper edit. Create a two column table in word with one column for video and the other for audio. Each row is a different scene. Put all clips and interviews in order and play around until you are happy with it. You can edit after that. This is helping you create a blueprint for your edit.

Part 2
Rough cut

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    Cut up. Break down interviews and other longer things into manageable segments. This can be done in final cut by marking when someone goes onto a new topic.
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    Lay out interviews in order in timeline. On top of this start putting appropriate shots.
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    Slash cut. Put all your footage in order on the timeline without doing any editing.
    • Putting on loud music can help you do this, as it drowns out your internal dialogue and doubts.
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    Find tempo music for you to edit to.
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    Rough cut. Start cutting.
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    Work out why you are procrastinating:
    • If you are not satisfied with the structure, create a beat sheet for your documentary and brainstorm what doesn't work.
    • Analyze structure of similar documentaries. With editing, it's easier to get lost in the small details. By analyzing similar documentaries it can make you think creatively about it again. With longer documentaries unless you have a presenter, it is common to have a parallel narrative.
    • Do you find it unpleasant? If so, write down why.
    • Do you feel overwhelmed by the task? If so, break it down into more manageable chunks.
    • Are you disorganized? If so, write down why.
    • Are you a perfectionist? Don't go for perfect. Instead, go for what is achievable. Rough cuts are only rough, so just do it and don't try to make it perfect.
    • Go for a walk. A gentle stroll helps you to reflect.
    • Work under time restrictions.
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    Screening. When you feel fairly happy with your rough cut, show it to people who are not involved and ask for their feedback. At this stage, you can still make drastic changes. However, remember that their feedback might not always be helpful, so always follow your instincts.
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    Polish. Based on the feedback, go back and do more editing.
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    Watch on a different screen and take notes. Watching your documentary on a different screen such as a TV, mobile, or ipod could help you spot things you didn't spot.
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    Grading. Colour correct your documentary to achieve continuity between different cameras and achieve a particular mood.
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    Separately sync it if you recorded the sound. It's a great tool, for this is plural eyes.
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    Adjust levels of sound. Beware that sound editing could take longer than expected.
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    Do another screening with some professionals before you master your film.


  • Create an edit suite. set aside an office space in your house for editing. This means that you can control your work/life balance and not allow this project to ruin your social life.
  • Don't try to do too much. Doing a little bit every day is better than burning out.
  • Keep a notebook. Write down ideas or challenges you are having in the form of questions.
  • Backup a lot. Keep several backups of your footage. If you find you don't have enough space, you should at least keep a couple of backups of the best clips you are editing in the timeline.
  • Don't overshoot, but shoot enough. In the past, many reports where edited on tape, where you edit when shooting. Practice doing a short piece. This way, it will teach you to make quick decisions on edits and shoot enough, but not go overboard. In the past, with film, people didn't have enough money or space to shoot 200 hours of footage, so why should you? Prioritize what you film and it will make editing easy.


  • Keep several backups. If you don't do this, you could lose months of work.
  • Find a composer. Getting permission to use music is both time consuming and expensive. Make friends with local composers. There are many composers out there who would love to help on your film.

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