Editing a documentary is neither easy nor fast. Even when we start with an outline, that outline is likely to change as we get to know the footage, the subjects and events. A good place to start is to look at all the footage while suspending judgement. Look for and collect those magic moments of truth and beauty. Then I can begin to string them together and see what flows.
Research in structuring the documentary
Documentary structure is often determined by the film’s subject. There are a number of common structures used in documentaries:
- “Voice of God” narration tell the story
- Interview clips tell the story
- “Day In the Life” where the camera follows the subject
- The filmmaker appears on camera and guides the story as a first person guide, such as Michael Moore, Werner Herzog and many others
- Re-enactment of historical events using actors, photos and stock footage.
Some documentaries use a combination of these structures. It comes down to telling a complete story. Narration and titles can be used to weave the separate pieces and ideas together into a cohesive whole.
Story Telling And Character
With the exception of the mockumentary, the characters in a doc are real people being themselves. The character moves from one situation to another to effect change. It is common for a character to go from weakness to strength. The character moves to greater tension and then to resolution. Viewers expect this pattern of start, tension and resolution in a story and characters. The editor can portray the character with sympathy or disdain.
A good ending is when
- the action ends
- the viewers know what the characters will do
- the ending answers the questions in the film (often, but not always)
- the ending is logical and satisfying.
Interviews can be a powerful way to tell a story. Stacey do the main edit work, we disscuss all the content and structure.
If I were to ask all interviewees the same questions, I would have a wealth of choices in the editing room. For instance one character could start a sentence and another could finish it. By selecting the right sound bytes, the editor could tell a complete story using only interviews without any narration.
If there is a lot of interview material, organizing it can be a challenge. We prefer to work with written transcripts (including time-code) of the video interviews. A paper edit can be a more efficient way to start the job. The jump cuts may be covered with cutaways or B-roll although we prefer to leave the jump cuts visible rather than hide them.