14 Video Editing Tips for Cutting a Documentary Film
Editing Documentary.jpg

From file management to the bottom third, these fourteen video editing tips will help you design your documentary.

Weeks, months, and sometimes years after you've shot all of your footage for a documentary, you need to put it together. Whether you recorded everything you needed or not, miracles can happen in the editing room. This can also lead to disaster, but let's focus on the positive.

Find the story in the editing room and put it together to create a narrative. That is, of course, after you've done the tedious job of organizing and backing up all of your footage and transcribing interviews. Then you can do action cuts, L cuts, J cuts – all cuts. Have fun.

Jokes aside, editing a documentary takes time, patience, and skill. We can't help you with that. What we can do is offer advice. Below are fourteen tips for editing a documentary.

Secure the footage in at least two different places. Image via Nor Gal.

Whether you misplaced the storage device or damaged the data, losing footage is never ideal, especially when recording documentation. You just can't recreate some scenes. You need to back up the footage to make sure it is not lost. Ideally, you want to save the footage in at least two different locations.

Backing up footage in the office is the obvious choice. However, don't forget to backup it to a portable drive like portable SSD as well. This extra layer of protection protects the files if the original is deleted, lost, or damaged. Using the cloud as a secondary option is also a good idea and allows you to access your footage from anywhere with an internet connection.

2. Organize everything

Woman with laptop Make your life easier – organize your files in a special folder. Image via 13_Phunkod.

An organized file structure makes it easy to find everything you need later. You can create a detailed file structure and organize all of your footage and assets into a special folder. You can also use PostHaste from Digital Rebellion, free software that creates file structures based on your project. It can be downloaded for PC and macOS devices.

While the software saves a lot of time, it doesn't work miracles. You have to put all files in the folders yourself, but at least you know where to put them. Tori's article on archiving footage is great read as it explores the pros and cons of physical and cloud storage, as well as organizing files.

3. Transcribe each interview

I've conducted a number of interviews over the years, and transcribing is a given at this point. It's no fun to do, but it helps a lot in two ways. Firstly, it helps me get to know the interview better and pick up interesting quotes that I may have missed the first time. Second, finding a quote is as easy as searching for a keyword in Google Docs or Word. Transcribing everything will take some time, especially when it comes to transcribing interviews for a feature-length documentary. But it's worth it. You'll also want to put a timestamp after each quote so you can find it quickly in the footage.

If you have the budget, hire someone to help you. If this is not on budget, I recommend using Otter, which is free for the first 600 minutes of audio transcribed each month. The app uses AI to transcribe in real time and works on uploaded recordings too. Aside from adding timestamps, it knows who is speaking, although you need to identify the people before it can assign lines to them. If otter messes it up, you can edit it in the app. The Pro version costs $ 100 for a year and is worth every penny. 6,000 minutes of transcription are performed every month.

4. Use close-ups and medium shots over wide-angle shots

The soldier James RyanA middle shot of Tom Hanks and Tom Sizemore in Saving Private Ryan. Image via David James / Dreamworks / Amblin / Universal / Kobal / Shutterstock.

How a shot is framed is important. Too wide a frame for anything other than a recording can cause the viewer to wander and lose the plot. For most interviews, you will want to use medium recordings. A medium setting frames a subject from the waist. The middle setting feels most natural when a person is speaking, but if you're adding emphasis to a scene or adding tension / drama, close-up is the way to go.

A close-up will frame the subject above the neck, but sometimes it can only frame the subject's face. The close-up can also be used as a transition between interviews, which feels less disruptive than the transition between two interviews with identical frames. Close-up is also perfect for capturing and highlighting small details.

5. Avoid jumping cuts with multiple camera angles or b-roll

B-rollFill in uncomfortable transitions with B-roll. Image via PopTika.

People don't speak perfectly like in the movie. Real life is full of filler words like "umms" and "ahhs" that you need to work out. The problem is that cutting out these filler words in the middle of the sentence will result in skip cuts. Jump cuts look unprofessional, and while they get a pass on YouTube, documentaries are different.

One idea is to cut to a different camera angle if you need to make a cut. The problem is, you have to have a multi-camera interview, which can result in a tight budget.

The other solution is to cut to B-roll instead, which adds context to the story. When an interview subject says “ahh” cut a close-up of her hands, a cityscape, a bowl of fruit. It doesn't matter, although it should have something to do with history. It is better to cut on something that visualizes what the interview topic is saying. When talking about their childhood, maybe cut them to a picture from their yearbook or a home video. You have the idea.

6. Restrict the action

Similar to poor quality sound, viewers will only notice bad transitions when done poorly. Cutting on action is one of the easiest cuts for a seamless transition. If the subject moves and catches the viewer's attention, trim to the following clip and no one is smarter. When I say action, I don't mean film action. It's more of a movement, and it can be as simple as an interview subject looking off camera or moving in your seat.

7. Run into the next clip with a J-cut or L-cut

The J-cut creates a clip by expanding its audio onto the previous clip. When you're viewing B-roll, start playing the audio for the next clip, matching the audio with the video. You can see an example in Logan's video above (# 3 1:05). This type of editing is all over TV shows and movies, but most people don't acknowledge it because it's so fluid.

The L-cut (which you can also see in the video above) is the opposite of the J-cut. To do an L-cut, cut to the next clip while the audio from the previous clip is still playing. This creates a temporary audio overlap that also feels seamless.

Both cuts are great for a natural transition.

8. Keep graphics and lower thirds easy to read and review them several times

Would you like to make your documentary more professional? Add lower thirds. These titles can introduce interview topics, locations, and time. You want to choose something that suits your project. You can start with our 15 free lower thirds or learn how to do one.

One of my favorite problems with documentaries is that I forget the names of everyone halfway through when there are too many interview topics. Sometimes the time between respondents' performances can be an hour or more. At that point, I forgot who they are and how they relate to history.

I know that I am not alone and the solution is simple. Call up the introduction in the lower third for each character a few times throughout the movie, especially if it has been more than thirty to forty-five minutes. And protect the motion graphics. A simple lower third with a drop shadow will do just fine.

Ken Burns is one of the most successful documentary filmmakers in history. One of the tricks he often uses is rightly the Ken Burns Effect, which is the simple effect of zooming or panning an image – a common practice common in many documentaries. By zooming and panning, an otherwise static recording of a single image is moved, making the recording visually more interesting. While the Ken Burns Effect is mostly used out of necessity due to the lack of footage, it is still effective in providing visual context to the viewer.

While the specific steps for restoring the effect vary between NLEs, the process is simple enough. On DaVinci ResolveI open the "Inspector" tab on the cut Click on the page Video Tab and under TransformI'll create one Zoom keyframe at the start of a shot, zoom inand then create another Keyframe At the end. To pan the shot, I do the same with that position Frame.

10. Kill your darlings

When I took a creative writing class, my professor always told us this. When you kill your darlings, you'll know when to let go for the project.

In Werner Herzog's master class, especially in the episode about editing, he says something in the same direction. He discusses how you might find scenes in the Editing Room that you loved while recording, but that just don't fit anymore. Instead of shoing it where it doesn't belong, it's best to kill your darlings at this point. He also mentioned being ruthless with his editing and deletes his outtakes entirely after completing a project. That may be going too far, but he's not wrong. Be inconsiderate, cut off the fat, kill your darlings.

11. Construct a narrative

In the Ken Burns Masterclass there is a chapter on story crafting that is a must have. He says he and Steven Spielberg approach story writing in a similar way, except that Spielberg can make it up.

Although fiction offers unlimited creative ways to create a narrative, there is plenty of room for creativity when telling nonfiction. Creating the narrative tells a story, and each story starts somewhere. You need to find that starting point and cut the footage so that it tells a story with a clear beginning, center, and ending. Real life has a way of unpredictably unraveling. Your job is to pull on every thread until the story solves itself. Find the narrative that's already there.

12. Use music to set the sound

Symphony orchestra Music sets the tone – choose wisely. Image via stokkete.

In filmmaking, music is just as important in setting the tone as anything else, and it is no different with documentaries. In contrast to film, however, music in documentaries is often more subtle. What some would call "cinematic" music – lots of strings and piano. When done right, the music feels natural. These types of tracks take a back seat, but still convey emotions and emphasize the scene. Here are a few things to consider when choosing music for a documentary.

PremiumBeat offers a wide variety of such titles and can be easily browsed from this website. Just click the Music link at the top of this page and find what you need. You can search for songs based on mood, genre, instrument, or keywords like "documentary", "movie", "movie" and so on. Listen.

Stock footage can help any project. Whether you've forgotten to record a b-roll for a specific scene or need a drone shot of a city, Shutterstock can help. Shutterstock offers thousands of royalty-free clips in 1080p and 4K resolution, from natural footage to slow-motion clips and incredible animation.

For productions on a tight budget, licensing footage may be cheaper than traveling to shoot b-roll or renting special equipment like a drone or high frame rate camera for slow motion shooting. Use Shutterstock's search bar to find what you need.

14. Go away for a new perspective

Sometimes you need to go for a walk, have a cup of coffee, or splash some water on your face to part with work. It works out. I can't tell you how many times I've moved away from a writing project, only to come back hours later energetic and with a new perspective. When you are deep-working it is important to take a step back and not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Don't take work home with you either. In Cal Newport's book Deep Work, which I recommend to any creative reading, he advocates strictly mapping your working hours and only working during these hours – deep work. He says that thinking about work drains you mentally and releases you of your energies for the next day. When it is time to work, remove all distractions and do just that. After that, forget you have a job and enjoy your life. Let the mind rest until tomorrow.

For more tips, tricks, and advice on filmmaking, see the following articles:

Cover picture above Soloviova Liudmyla.


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