11 Takeaways from a Documentary Editing Course

Docs in Progress, a Maryland-based documentary organization whom I have long admired, recently offered a Zoom-based class in documentary editing. Taught by H. Paul Moon, the class combined theory and practice through Adobe Premiere. Here are 11 takeaways from that intense and interesting class. Note that these tips avoid the specifics of Premiere but instead focus on the bigger picture ideas of documentary editing, which was my motivation for taking the class.

1. Organization is essential.

Keeping all of your materials organized and separate is essential. One approach is keeping Premiere on one disk, program project files on another disk, and assets such as video and audio files on a third disk.

2. Use descriptive filenames.

For every file that you include in a project, take advantage of the long filenames and make them as descriptive as possible. “John Interview” is perhaps not as helpful as “John Interview about Minneapolis Riots 1 June 2020.” The description can be even longer than that. Use that space as needed.

3. Documentary editing falls into two general styles: evidentiary and verite.

Evidentiary editing refers to the process of using everything in the documentary — interviews, voiceover, images, music — toward making a clear, larger argument with the film. Verite editing refers to editing within the fly-on-the-wall style of filmmaking, which might involve removing the director’s presence.

4. Editing interviews is a form of intense people watching.

Or an intense form of character study. When editing interviews, watch for micromoments that communicate part of the story. Body language, including facial expressions, gestures, or body movement, is key here. Body language communicates more than words can ever say — just ask anyone who has gotten into an argument over a misunderstood text message.

5. Chronology is manipulated more than you might think.

An amalgam scene brings together audio and video from different times to create a composite scene that might represent a larger, frequent activity in the film. A series of staff meetings might be presented as an amalgam scene, for example. If the scene flows right, the audience might never notice.

6. Editing is a process of problem solving.

And not just the “problem” of fashioning a coherent story. Editing can help with some of the random things that come up during production. For example, if the camera hiccups and fails to capture image, but the needed sound comes through perfectly, an editor might create a montage to accompany that audio. A dull visual interview can be livened up with related cutaways. A sync sound error can be corrected in the same way.

7. Ask why the film is leaving a scene.

Entering a scene is easy enough — it might introduce new people, switch to a new location, introduce a new problem, add a new angle, or something similar. But how do you know when to leave a scene? This question is perhaps one of the most challenging in editing. Too long scenes feel sluggish and heavy, while too short scenes feel superfluous and quick. Having a reason for moving on to the next scene helps with maintaining flow, pacing, and story.

8. Ask how shots relate to each other.

While a shot in itself might convey some meaning, putting a shot in sequence develops that depth of meaning through the relationships among them. (Think Kuleshov effect here.) Do the shot pairings maintain the integrity of the shots and their meanings? Do the create unintended meanings that might be misread, especially regarding people? Even if you’re changing an angle from one shot to the next, have a reason for doing so.

9. Color correction involves two types.

One production class I took blew past color correction as a “do as you see fit,” so it was nice to learn this lesson. One type is luminance correction, which refers to exposure or lighting only. An example here might be when someone shoots into a window, and the abundance of light blows out the window in the shot. Luminance correction can fix that problem. The other type is chrominance correction, or color correction. This kind includes white balance and the general “look” of your film. More specifically, color might address highlights, shadows, exposure, and contrast.

10. People first in all things.

Whatever you do in editing, from changing angles to using transitions, and from brightening a color to deepening a shadow, make sure you focus on the people in the scene first. People, after all, are the most important part of a documentary.

11. Room tone is your friend.

No matter the project you work on, make sure that you have some on-location room tone to work with. Room tone is just a few silent seconds of recording a quiet room, and it makes all the difference in deepening the quality of a scene’s sound and in shifting from one scene to the next.

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