Documentary Storytelling

This article is a section of my MA Dissertation - Copyrighted by me, strictly no reproduction, even in a modified form, without permission.

Approach To Editing (Extra Section)

Comments from Editors


  • ‘So I have met the director, I am aware of the project, I have the material in the machine, and then I am going to start. So with documentary I start with looking at footage but this is very different between editors. I really need to get things done quite quickly even if it’s rubbish. For instance I have a colleague who watches material for two or three weeks and then start editing, I can’t do that, because then the threshold to be creative is too high for me I need to maybe watch something Friday or until lunch and then think this scene. I’ll start to put together just to get started is very important to me .. while been looking at material day in day out my energy goes my eyes get contaminated ... this is only just from me, I need to get started on something that’s so the watching of the material and the editing of the material goes almost hand-in-hand. Usually after discussing things with the director what he or she thinks I should start off with’
  • ‘Sometimes when I feel very lost, because you will feel very lost during the process, and you must embrace the lost thing as well because there’s always something coming out of it and I was always scared and frustrated before but now I’m like, I’m lost that’s a good thing, I’m just embrace it and think of how we can find our way. But sometimes when you’re very lost in the bigger structure it can be helpful to think about how could amending look like where could we end up, so sometimes maybe make a rough cut of the ending even if you can have to make all over again.’
  • I suppose when I’m with the material I’m thinking about what I like, what I want the film to look like, but you’re always thinking about what the audience is thinking as well (and what the director wants as well) yeah. Sundlöf

Before You Start

  • ‘The first thing I do is ‘normally calm down the Director because they have had a hell of a time on the shoot, they are knackered and have had no home life and are going for a divorce usually;). ..I think execs and TV stations underestimate the recovery time, as some of these shoots are absolutely crippling.’ ‘They want the positive, you represent a nice fresh face, I’m me - not their contributor or character. I’m me not the irritating sound man. I’m me not the miserable old man in the pub they see every night when they go there after an 11 hour shoot. You are a friendly face … you are there to support them and make it as easy for them as you possibly can.‘ Atkins

Screening Footage

  • ‘A big part of the process that is not talked about a lot is screening the footage... It may be the most important process is terms of documentary because the editor ends up looking at the footage over and over again but the audience is only going to see it once so the editors first reaction to the footage is absolutely critical to everything that happens after that point because you want to identify everything that kind of rises above the rest of the mass of footage, and you don’t want to loose any gems you can use later on in the process, so what are you responding to whether it’s something dramatic, whether its intriguing, something humerus, because often with documentary you look for things that are funny because that is a good element to have in the overall mix. With Capturing the Friedmans it’s a perfect example because starting the film was the initial concept of the film was about children's birthday party entertainers... There is an interview with David Friedman ... and he says some things on that interview that are really curious and mysterious and it was watching the footage that there was an indication that there was a whole other story. So its how you react to all the hours and hours of footage plus not missing something that could really alter the way you tell the story.’

    ‘You have to be completely organised and fastidious in terms of note keeping … ’ll take notes both on the screen and scribble stuff down in a notebook. At the same time I will create Semitic bins depending on the film. For example .. everybody who is talking about there water being fouled. There will be a bin with all that material and a bin with all the scenic shots. There will be a bin for say tape 25 with everything in the chronology of how it was shot and then many of those clips will be copied off into Semitic bins (it is copied not moved as the director knows the clips by these original tapes).

    ‘I like to watch footage in the order it was shot chronologically because that in itself can tell you certain things about the story or how you may want to tell the story. That's time consuming part, looking at everything unless the director has decided like “we started filming this character and this did not pan out so don't bother with these 15 hours” ... (does that make you want to look at the tape?). ‘I guess that depends on how many other tapes there are.’. One of the things I am doing is ‘Writing down connections as things occur to you, like these two things could be interesting to see next to each other or that line is a great throw line that could propel us into the next thing. This is all done carefully so when the assembly is done you have these guide posts.’’ Hankin
  • ‘a good director will say listen, skip tapes 9 and 10..I don’t really trust them in the sense that I will kind of trust them, but if someone says don't look at a tape it is not very good that makes me want to look at it. That is what you do as an editor, just because they are convinced there is nothing there to look at it does not mean to say (there is not). That is why there is so many bad editors that are lazy, if the director says that's a load of nonsense they will not look at it, everybody suffers then as making a film is discovering stuff, its like lifting a pebble off a beach and finding a gold nugget.’ ‘Its not always possible but you try and aim for ‘ viewing all the footage in real-time’. Atkins
  • ‘You need to have it all in the back of your mind, I’m not saying you need to look it all in real-time you can scrub through and have it in the back of your mind, you may look at it and think there’s some sound I can use, there may be some pearls in there. ’Of course if there is not a stupid amount of rushes I would like to watch all the material ‘ with fiction I watch everything.’ Sundlöf

    ‘One of the things that hits me when I first get rushes is to think about how I’m feeling when I’m watching them for the first time, and I suppose the biggest challenge is to really know your footage and to know what the story is trying to tell. I’ve come across a lot of editors... who get a project... and those of people don’t even look at all the footage and it’s just like, I can’t do that I just have to find all the best stuff, all the gems because otherwise I just hate to be here, I wouldn’t want to do it....I suppose when I’m with the material I’m thinking about what I like, what I want the film to look like, but you’re always thinking about what the audience is thinking as well (and what the director wants as well) yeah.’ Parish

Bins, sequences and scenes

  • ‘in the first days or week just go quite freely in terms of what turns me on I guess and I have in a goody bag basically, I call it the goody bag timeline, but then when I get more serious I start making the structure, looking at the structure, what will the film look like, what does I contain what entities or sequences, and then even if it’s a really rough I find it very helpful if I reach from the start, the conflict over development, till the end if I can put that roughly on a timeline it helps me a lot to reach that point.’ Sundlöf
  • ‘I would spend the beginning of the edit looking at footage and sorting it into bins. Will do this for three or four days ‘as quick as possible. Will not necessarily top and tail but will ‘sort it out into chapters..themes, I will sort it out into characters.’ ‘The important thing it to get through this phase as quickly as possible, bus-stop footage, bloke in pub footage, woman talks to man footage’. ‘Everything that is digitised whizz thought it and put it in bins. I may have a bin with 200 shots in it ’. For shots that look particularly good ‘I put a cross on it’ at the end of the name.‘Atkins
  • ‘The quickest way I find to do it is go through in tape order, ripping through all the tapes and put them into scenes. I will take the bits like from each tape and put them on the timeline for each scene, this I will call a sync pool. I will put all the sync I think we will want for each scene very loosely, I will go through the whole (shooting) script. From experience I kind of know what I am going to use as I go through it, logging all the clips, so I can make sequences as I go through it. I may spend a week doing this (from a six week edit) but it is time well spent. ‘ ‘I will also make GV sequences (for the visuals), so I can whip through them when I need to find stuff. I have a sequence called ‘GV sad’ as there are lots of shots of people looking sad and quite reflective’, even if it is not in the script but I think it may be useful somewhere.’ Philips
  • ‘The first thing I do is go through all the rushes, I make sequences and make notes of certain impressions I have, feelings I felt while watching a particular clip. (So you tend to sort stuff into sequences rather than bins?) yes for example this natural history documentary I got sequences the Bears, for Eagles pretty shots. what I do with documentaries with contributors is not the clips, so I’m, click what they’re saying (so you tend to think in terms of scenes and have a sequence freak scene) yes (so you’d end up with almost everything on a sequence somewhere) pretty much, I think so. ‘ Parish

First Assembly

  • ‘You always cut the characters first, what else have you got to go on. They are the story, what else are you going to cut shots of, versions and sky...Its a non brainier, that's what you do.’ (do you cut visual sequences on time line or separately then drop them on). ‘you always cut sequences separately, its hard to explain.’ Atkins
  • What I normally do is my first assembly is chronological, I just want to get it down, get my arms around the story, chronologically before experimenting with any other type of structural approach. To me that is the part of the process that is the heavy lifting because that is when you are really deciding how to get from A to Z. (Do you cut the sync first) ‘Yes, some people call it a radio cut, its really about getting the narrative through lined down as the first thing from beginning to end ... without paying much attention to the visual attention side of it, ... and them on subsequent passes as it gets boiled down starting to work more with the visuals and rearranging things structurally. (so you put everything into sequences and put them on one timeline so you can move things around) ‘Exactly’. Hankins
  • I am trying to get to the point where I have a first assembly as quickly as possible not just so I don't loose my energy but you’re able to look at the material in a fresh way and that’s very difficult if you’re not experienced because so many things that could interrupt you - like the producer coming in saying we want to make a pitch, could you edit together something for pitch, and if you’re not experienced your say yes sure I’ll do it; but if you’re experienced say - no, I’m here to make the film you’ll have to ask someone else to take out material to make the pitch, because if I’m going it lose my energy, my focus and that’s everything you have. Sundlöf
  • I like to get to the end of the story even if it’s quite badly. ... I hate rough assembly, I hate the first process because, ... It’s a long process and as much as I love editing I don’t like sitting in a chair all day long so if I can get that process over and done with…. and plus as soon as I can see a film there I get motivated to carry on. Parish

Refining Edit

  • ‘You cut each scene as if no other scene is next to it, its totally isolated, you cut it in its bin and you call the bin (for example) “Frank talks to David about his serious emotional problems”’ I have quite descriptive long bin names. ‘Then when you have cut the scenes all you see is an infinitely swappable and floatable’ set of sequences on the main timeline so they can be moved around.’ (how about going from one scene to another) ‘Passing the baton on is a bit of a clichéd term a lot of editors use. Its a bit of a relay race, the outtro of one scene has to relate to the intro of the next.’ Atkins
  • (After assembly) ‘you would have an overall look at what you have want and don't want and then start scripting to get yourself between sequences. Generally (for a hour show) you would have a 2 to 3 hour assembly and start winkling it down - possibly removing sequences (from main sequence although you will still have the actual sequence), you can start to work in independent sequences and you may see they can melt together so you don't need all the different ones. From there on in all jobs are different.’ Philips
  • Dealing With feedback
  • ‘‘I think a very tricky part of the process is knowing how best to deal with feedback. We kind of touched upon it earlier but once you have a rough cut to screen you get all our various feedback coming in how to best deal with it....“it’s not bad ideas from dumb people that screw your show is good ideas from smart people that screw up your show” I thought it was a great line because it’s true. It could be a really good idea that somebody has but for a different film, the film that they would want to make. I think that knowing how to interpret all this feedback in terms of the film that you’re making, that you wanna make, is really important because you can start to go down some blind alleys … As a film-maker you have to be very clear and steady about what you were doing and what you want to achieve otherwise you can be really chasing your own tail.


There is general consensus as to the general approach to editing but there is also a need for the editor to approach the task in a way that works for them. Some editors can go for days without putting anything on the timeline and others to keep interest and energy need to start cutting sequences and it is not a case that the more experienced do one thing and the less do others. Stefan Sundlöf will dive in quite early to get things going and Richard Hankin will Screen most of the footage before even cutting scenes. All do see the need to get a rough assembly done fairly early to start to see the shape of the story.

The general approach seems to as follows.

  • Talk to the director to get a feel for the story and for me this would also include understanding the story.
  • Start looking through a lot of footage (although Stefan Sundlöf will start doing some cutting as he goes). This is a very important process and includes a lot of note taking.
  • There are several approaches to sorting the footage. This is either sorting the footage into bins or putting it into sequences. Bins enable you to see the slips in a list and read the descriptions of each clip while sequences enable you to scrub through the footage quickly but ultimately both achieve the same. If sequences are being used they will not necessarily be sequences that will go on the timeline, they will often be just to group footage. You could have a sequence of GVs of people looking sad or walking over a certain bridge.
  • Work out what all the scenes you may need and have a sequence for each scene.
  • Put all the scenes onto a main timeline so they can be moved around, removed or even merged. This will give you the rough assembly.
  • <>The assembly then has to be ordered into a narrative, this is often a radio edit.
  • At this point music (maybe temp) is often added.
  • Start working on the visuals and cutting visual sequences.
  • There is then an almost endless process of refining but each visual and story sequence have to be kept separately so they can be moved around a main timeline.

One of the things I have realised is that the approach has to take into account all the director’s needs, as Mark Atkins said the director may of just got off a gruelling shoot and may want to start with a cup of tea and a chat. This has made me realise that easing into the process may be a good approach. Going in all guns blazing is not always the best approach, you need to sus out the director. It also strikes me that once the director has discussed the story and what their vision is there may be a good opportunity for the director to have some head-space on there own while you start screening and sorting the footage. In some ways if they have just got off a shoot this may be a good way for them to distance themselves from the production but that is only if it is what they want to do. I would imagine after that initial cuppa a lot of directors will want to get stuck in as soon as possible. I may suggest I have a few days with the footage and they use this collect their thoughts.

Screening footage

This is a very important part of the process, especially that initial screening as it is the only time the editor gets to see the footage the way the audience will as the audience will only see it once. Both Richard Hankin and Jacob Parish stressed the importance of making detailed notes about how you felt about the footage the first time you saw it. Looking at as much of the footage in real-time was seen as being important. This is particularity crucial for the sync as their could be stuff said there that changes the story and catching this early is important. Richard Hankin talked about how spotting an intriguing piece of sync made them go from turning Capturing the Friedmans from a film about children's entertainers to what they ended up with. It is also to make notes about footage that is interesting, intriguing, may be good for beginning, may be good for end and possible grouping of footage (i.e. clips that would be interesting to see next to each other). What I learned about this will be very useful in the future and will certainly change the way I screen footage. I am certainly going to have to be extremely organised and fastidious in terms of note keeping. I will defiantly aim to look at as much of the footage as possible even if the director does not think it is useful.

Bins, sequences and scenes

I like Mark Atkins practice of going through everything as quickly as possible and putting it into Bins. I think this is a good way of getting an overview of what material there is. I generally have a bin called Interviews and have sub-bins for each contributor. The reason I like bins rather than sequences is you can have a hierarchy and I find it very easy and productive to think in this way.

I do like Steve Philips idea of sync pools as it seems a good way of starting to work out what the scenes should be but I would still want the contributors to each have there own bin so I can find stuff easily. I find if a director wants me to find something someone said they generally know who it is that said this.
First AssemblyThe idea of a first assembly is something I first came across when reading the Behind the Scenes book about Walter Murch. As previously I have been working with news type pieces where the narrative is less problematic I tend to start from the beginning cutting a rough-cut straight onto a single sequence rather than cutting scenes into sequences and creating a first assembly onto the timeline. I think this is a good approach for fast turn around news but I can see documentary and more sophisticated factual needs more of an assembly made up of scenes approach

I am defiantly going to take up the idea of putting each scene into its own sequence, I have done this before and it makes manipulating a long timeline much easier. For me it is a type of abstraction and a very good way of organising things. Cutting the characters first seems to make a lot of sense and I like Richard Hankins idea of doing it chronologically. I think this will help to get to the end of the assembly without stressing too much about what order scenes should go in. As several people have said, it does not matter if the first assembly is not much good but getting one helps drive the process forward and helps everyone get there arms round the story.
Refining Edit

What mark Atkins said about cutting each scene as if is was on its own is interesting, I guess the segues can be added afterwards although if you are also thinking in terms of ‘passing the batten’ there always must be a consideration as to how you go from one to another. This seems like a bit of a contradiction but it is good to aim for both.

Richard Hankin talks of the process being one of multiple passes and Mark Atkins Atkins talks about going from a long assembly to a progressively shorter and tighter finished film. It is this refining process that requires all the skill and experience and all I can really do is edit as much as possible and learn as much as possible about storytelling because as several people agree all jobs are different from this point on.

Dealing with feedback

What I got from Richard Hankins is that dealing with feedback is a lot to do with assessing it against your and the directors vision and it is important to be clear and true to that vision. People may give good feedback that relates to the film they think you should make rather than than one you want to make. I guess the question for each piece of feedback has to be firstly does this relate to our vision and secondly if it does how can it be taken on board.