What Does a Documentary Editor Do?

Editing documentary footage requires a sense of storytelling.

Editing documentary footage requires a sense of storytelling.

Documentaries have emerged as a powerful medium, where individuals can reach wide audiences in order to promote an agenda, create awareness of a cause or affect social change in some way. And while the dissemination of information is a key ingredient, documentarians will tell you that they are first and foremost storytellers. As an editor, your role is crucial in helping shape that story by determining what stays in and what gets cut.

Choosing a System

Your first order of business is to select the hardware and software you're going to use. Even if a documentary is shot on film, it will invariably be transferred to video for the purposes of editing. So you should never have to worry about cutting actual film. Instead, you will use a nonlinear editing system, which allows you to access, trim and assemble any of the source footage in any order you see fit without destroying it. The three most popular systems are Avid Media Composer, Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere. Avid and Adobe are available for both Macs and PCs, while FCP is for Macs only. All of these systems are suitable for handling the large amounts of footage a documentary usually requires.

Logging and Organizing

Much of the job will include inputting footage into your editing system and organizing it in such a way that you can find and access it quickly. This is particularly important with documentaries since there are often large amounts of footage to deal with, no script to work from, and few (if any) slates to demarcate the heads and tails of shots. The footage is usually provided to you by the producer or director on a hard drive. Upon connecting the hard drive to your system, you can begin the process of logging the footage, which consists of watching and labeling it according to the content. Editors of scripted films can use the scene number or slug line for logging; but documentary editors must come up with a description of the scene.

Telling the Story

Your most fundamental role in the process is helping the director tell the story. You'll have to search through all of the footage in order to determine which parts are essential to conveying the message or narrative intended. Trimming dozens of hours of video and constructing it into a coherent 90-minute film without the aid of a script takes patience, discipline and an inherent understanding of what makes for a compelling story. Footage may be in the form of an interview, reenactment or news-style observer. You may also be tasked with locating stock or archival footage and still photographs that can be inserted between the filmmaker's footage to aid in the storytelling. Any preexisting material you find should be thoroughly checked to ensure you have the proper clearances to use it.

The Finishing Process

Because budget limitations are common, you may have to perform a number of additional functions that contribute to the polished look of the film. This includes sound editing, color grading, online editing and format conversion. Sound editing entails cutting, connecting, blending and overlapping different tracks so that it all sounds like a unified whole. Color grading centers on adjusting hues, shades and color temperatures to achieve a desired look or effect. Online editing is the process of reassembling the final cut of the film in a high resolution format suitable for a distribution master. And format conversion is simply laying the finished film off to various media types, such as Quicktime, MPEG or AVI files.

 

About the Author

Mark Heidelberger has been writing for more than 22 years, from articles and short stories to novels and screenplays. He is a consummate foodie, loves to travel and has run several businesses, all of which influence his work. He also holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from UCLA.

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