Editing a documentary can be the most challenging for any beginner filmmaker or editor. And even if you do turn pro or end up working in a snazzy video production company, chances are, you’ll still have plenty of challenges as an editor to face.
You’ll have to review hours upon hours of interview footage, listening to what’s being said or looking for that particular snippet you need. Plus, there’s the actual editing itself. It can be tedious and overwhelming.
If you’re looking for some sort of general plan, we’ve got you covered. We’ve got 10 tips you can follow to make sure you don’t go crazy as you edit. Some of these tips are practical but trust us, they will help save your sanity (and time) in the long run.
1. Make Careful Notes During The Shoot
Help yourself out by taking detailed notes before or right after your shoot. The notes can help you identify the footage during post. What’s more, the more notes you take, the easier the job will be for you (if you’re also editing the footage) or an editor (if you’re handing off the project afterward.) Make sure to add crucial info like the – date, time, location, subject, settings, camera gear used, one sentence or two about the context for the footage.
2. Organize, Organize, Organize
Short or feature-length documentary, you’ll likely end up with plenty of content. It’s important to have assets and footage organized so you can easily find them when you need them. This means having all of your folders labeled correctly and stacked according to your workflow. While organizing footage can be time-consuming, it will prove helpful once you get into the editing bit because you’ll know exactly where each one is located.
3. Always Have A Backup
This might seem like a no-brainer but it’s easy to overlook it. Once you’ve organized files, it’s important to create a backup immediately. After shooting, it’s best to have an upload system in place right after, including having copies on a hard drive as well as on a cloud ready for access in case things go wrong.
4. Have Your Interview Footage Transcribed
This isn’t anyone’s favorite part but it’s incredibly helpful. It’s important to do this especially for feature documentaries. Have the interviews transcribed and have them timestamped during pauses or breaks. Type out all of the words said. This will be helpful when you need to search for a particular sentence or answer from the subject. You can use the timestamp to locate it from the footage. Sure, this might take forever but it’s a crucial step nonetheless.
5. Separate Your B-Rolls from Interview Footage
This is good practice. Treat your B-Roll footage as completely separate from the interviews. Edit them independently before Incorporating and editing the two together. It’s also advisable to edit your Interview sequences separately (see below), so you have an easier time creating an outline and building your visual narrative from there.
6. Edit Each Sequence Individually
If you have an overwhelming amount of footage, it’s best to edit them per sequence. Remember, you can’t and shouldn’t edit your entire documentary at the same time. You will get lost, frustrated and easily overwhelmed. Focus on one sequence at a time before you start putting everything together to create the entire documentary.
7. Follow a Story Arc When Editing
Once you have all the sequences done. You can start putting it together. Every good documentary follows a story. Have a beginning, middle and end to your documentary. Take the audience into a story arc that they can follow along and become emotionally invested in. It doesn’t matter whether your documentary is short or long, make sure to include this.
8. Create Variety in Your Shots
Use a variation of shots to keep your audience engaged in the interview. Wide shots are great for introducing your subject to the audience but mix it up with close up and medium shots as you go along. This will allow your speaker to better connect to your audience.
9. Keep Your Lower Thirds Crisp and Clear
Avoid motion graphics or moving parts in your lower thirds. Keep it clear, crisp and legible. Choose a nice font that’s easy to read and try not to go crazy, unless for some reason it’s part of the aesthetic of your documentary.
10. Use Stock Photos and Assets When You Need Them
If you’re lacking footage or crucial elements in your documentary, don’t be afraid to use stock photos and assets to enhance your documentary film. Adding photos also helps in hiding edits or break away from long, static shots.
Editing a feature-length documentary is challenging. But with these tips in place, you can at least bring some form of organization into what could otherwise be overwhelming chaos.