Documentaries Part 5: Editing
The documentary finally comes together in the edit suite as the content that has been recorded is assembled into the recognisable shape of a documentary film. This is one of the most creative, rewarding – and sometimes hugely frustrating – parts of the process. There are five stages:
- View everything that has been shot in advance – the rushes – and make a long assembly of the footage that succeeds in telling the story outline
- Shape this assembly of raw footage into a long-ish rough cut, which looks like a proper documentary
- After feedback from a first viewing, this rough cut is turned into a fine cut, which looks more like the final version and is nearly cut to time
- After viewing the fine cut, final changes are made and picture lock, which means no more changes to footage
- Finally, script lock – the script is signed off, recorded and laid on the final version of the documentary
Filmed content and archive material can be included in the assembly. As the editing process progresses towards the rough cut, this is effectively the first draft of your documentary. It may be too long in duration, but your general story and structure is probably in place. Some if not all of the sequences and themes that have been explored during production should be included. The rough cut is often the best time to address any difficult issues that have arisen during filming; are there other options available to solve the problems that arose when trying to tell a particular part of the story? This becomes more difficult when we reach the fine cut stage, because the film should be in a more final condition by then.
By the fine cut, the documentary is nearly to time. There may still be particular shots that need filming or extra interviews that still need to be picked up, but your film is clearly in shape. The voiceover narration is now fine-tuned to complement the pictures in the fine cut, and the information in the script is checked for factually accuracy. A viewing takes place of the rough cut by an executive producer, or a peer, who can offer constructive advice. Does the story make sense? Do holes exist in the storytelling that confuse someone watching it for the first time? That’s the great benefit of this viewing: a fresh and impartial pair of eyes acting as a member of the audience who hasn’t been immersed in every stage of the production process so far. This close and intense proximity to the content of the film can sometimes colour your judgement, and a neutral observer may spot issues you have missed.
Finally, picture lock, when all the pictures are in place and cut to time; and script lock, when the narration is finalised for recording, then laid down onto the final version of the film.
Getting to rough cut:
- Start by watching rushes
- Which scenes are strong
- How might the material be assembled
- Looking for moments the affect you in some way (emotionally or intellectually)
- Looking for sequences that are complete
- Interview soundbites that are strong and clear
- Material with the potential to reveal themes and issues
Paper edit: shapes the content that’s been recorded into a film on paper. But remember that what works on paper may not work in film. A juxtaposition of two interview quotes and two filmed sequences might read very well, but there might be something about the way the interviewee delivers the quote on screen that means the edit point just won’t work. Paper edits help you see the film on paper, but use this as just an initial guide. You should make changes accordingly when you see how quotes and sequences sit together in reality.
Transcriptions: You should transcribe interviews and sequences that contain a lot of relevant discussion – they should be transcribed accurately and thoroughly. This must not be a summary but an exact, word for word, transcription, including the ‘ums’ and ‘aahhs’ that were muttered by the interviewee, because they may become edit points. Transcribing interviews may initially appear painful and time consuming, but it will save you time in the long run, because you can go back to the transcription notes to check the detail of what is said in the edit. Filmmakers also transcribe the dialogue from actuality sequences. Write the notes clearly, one column for what’s said and the other for notes about what happens visually on screen.
- Note the energy levels of the interviewees – are they upbeat and visually engaging?
- Are there problems visually – mics in shot or someone sneezing in bacground?
- Juxtaposition: 2 shots or 2 sequences cut together to add meaning that isn’t necessarily contained in each element alone (but be careful to create a false meaning also).
- Entering late, exiting early: establish the most meaningful part of the scene, and cut in and out as close to those points as possible. You don’t want to cut out good action, just focus its meaning. You end the scene in a way that best sets up what comes next
- Sequences: you want to ensure that every sequence has a unique role within your film, advancing the overall storyline.
- Anticipate confusion: is everything clear for the audience seeing and hearing this story for the first time? Is all the vital explanation detail included? Is there any detail included that confuses matters? You should always ask yourself that question as a filmmaker.
- Be fair and accurate. Are you honestly reflecting the real story, as opposed to the story you want to tell?
Rough cut to fine cut
Some tough decisions have to be made. Content has to be dropped to cut the film to time. So, is all the material you need included, or does more footage still need to be filmed? Is the story as strong and tight as it can be? Or is more work required in the edit?
An impartial viewing of the rough will help in this regard.
10 questions to consider at the rough cut stage:
- Have you checked your facts thoroughly?
- Opening sequence: how strong are the opening frame and the opening sequence? Think carefully about the first images the viewer sees.
- Have you lost track of your story?
- Are there redundant interviews or sequences?
- Must you drop favourite scenes to make the story tighter and stronger?
- Are there too many characters or story threads?
- Does the film need to breath more in certain places to signify their importance?
- Have certain interviews been cut back so much that they’ve lost their impact?
- Is there an important voice or point of view missing from the film?
- Is the film an honest and accurate reflection of your story?
Be your own audience – and be honest:
- Is this interesting?
- Would I keep watching?
- What do I care about here?
- Who am I worried about?
- Am I confused?
- Do I need more information?
Fine cut to picture lock
A chance to make a final check that all the important detail from the treatment is included. Again, an impartial viewing of the fine cut is very useful.
Narration and voiceover
Many documentary-makers avoid voiceover in their films, because they believe it sounds preachy, with a ‘Voice of God’ presence in the narrative. So, you must ask whether you the voiceover to be delivered by someone unseen.
- Voiceover can include facts, exposition, backstory
- Can move the story forwards, drawing the audience into the story
- Provide facts that would otherwise be unknown to the viewer, especially complicated detail that’s hard to explain
- Something that takes 10mins of interview to explain properly, can be neatly written in 15 seconds because the script focuses on the key points that the viewer needs to know
Think about the point of view in the voiceover. Is it first person narration by the film’s main character – is it their story? Or is it third person omniscient – the ‘Voice of God’?
There are different ways in narrate: can use graphics, text, stats, actuality.
Narration should breathe life into the pictures. So you write to add information to the pictures, not simply describe what you see. Your narrative script should advance the story to the next scene, the next sequence. Tell the viewer something they can’t see within the frame. Words and pictures need to work together, each building upon each other: the concept of works complementing pictures.
You are writing to be spoken aloud. Every word matters, so you must think carefully about every single word you include in a script. Sentences should be short, direct and written in the active voice. They should always be checked for accuracy and read out aloud, because sometimes what appears clear on paper, may lose its meaning when read out aloud. Will it make sense to the viewer when heard for the first time?
Avoid long words when a shorter one will do; don’t include tongue-twisters or quotation marks (the latter mean nothing when read out loud, of course). Read aloud as you write. You want to hear the rhythm of your script, how the words sound together in a sentence, and to find out if there are words that will be superfluous for the viewer. And as you write, read it to the pictures. Do they complement each other?
10 points for writing narration:
- It must be grammatically correct
- Anticipate what your audience needs to know to understand the story as the narrative arc unfolds
- Don’t stereotype – use gender neutral terms whenever you can; e.g. ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ if the person is unknown
- Don’t overload the script with detail. Just give the viewer what they need to know to understand the context of the story. Too much detail becomes confusing
- Foreshadow important information. Tease drama and turning points that await the viewer
- Make sure you don’t overpower the role that strong interview sync can use in driving your story’s drama. Voiceover should make points that get you to the next important piece of sync interview or sequence. Let interviewees lead the story.
- Use words sparingly and for a specific purpose. They’re precious.
- Convey telling details that add to the knowledge of the viewer, providing a role that pictures can’t within the story
- Put information in context for the viewer
- Ensure that all important characters are clearly identified in the script
Further reading: Documentary Storytelling by Sheila Curran Bernard