How to Survive Editorial on Your Feature Documentary and Finish Strong

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

So, you’ve got your film on tape and you’re feeling good as well you ought. But, before you start writing that acceptance speech, know that what lays ahead—post-production—will be even more work than you have yet put in.

Documentary is editing. In a way, the work has just begun. It will take weeks, months, maybe years. It will grind you down, confuse you, infuriate you, bore you to death, cause you to question why you ever thought this film was a good idea. And still the edit drags on.

That can be discouraging news. But, what follows is some battle-tested wisdom to help you reach the sought-after goal: completion of your first feature-length documentary.

Hunker Down

Some years ago I was having trouble sleeping, in response to which a friend offered the advice I use my bed for no other purpose than sleeping or making love. This had the ring of wisdom to it, and having a long-running habit of falling asleep to Charlie Chaplin films I gave the idea a try. Not only has it led to better sleep, but adapting the concept to my documentary workflow has led to greater productivity as well.

The adapted version of the bed rule goes like this: designate an area in your home to work exclusively on your edit and nothing else. If you are able to add to that a dedicated computer, all the better.

Maybe you have a spare bedroom, an oversized closet, an unused basement; maybe all you have is a heavy curtain with which to partition the living room. Wherever it is, lay claim to a piece of real estate whose sole purpose is to house post-production for your documentary. This trains your brain, “When I enter that space, there can be only one outcome: I will finish my film.” No other end is fulfilled in that space. Very powerful. 

Listen To Your Story

For the first cut of your documentary, forsake its visual aspect entirely paying attention only to the words spoken in interviews. Using your Outline as a guide (refer to blog post OMG… I’ve Got the Best Idea for a Documentary!), edit these sound bites down so that all that’s left is a radio play. Uninterrupted, continuous, whole; with beginning, middle and end; minus all asides and impertinent responses; devoid of “ums,” pauses, coughs, stutters, and any other artifact to detract from the wholesale enjoyment of your documentary-in-audio. You’ll end up with frighteningly choppy video, loads of jump cuts. Don’t worry, these will eventually be covered over with B-roll, a second camera angle, or myriad other coverage techniques. 

Try to get this first cut under two hours. Are there repetitions? Lose ‘em. Does more than one speaker give the same information? Pick the better of the two, eliminate the other. Are there story beats that worked in your Outline but don’t come off in the edit? Save a lot of runtime and resolve these with on-screen text or voiceover.

This is also a good time to identify the spots where voiceover might go. The likelihood is low that the placement, wording, or necessity of a particular segment carries through to your final edit, but that's not a problem right now. Simply identify the potential need, and wait for all the facts to come in before deciding finally on each voiceover segment.

Save The Worst for Last

As you begin editorial on your feature doc, start with what makes the most sense. There are sure to be at least a couple scenes you can already see play out in your mind; there may even be single-take scenes that require next to no editing. Start there. 

This will provide you with two much-needed boosts: firstly, confidence. To see your film start to come to life in such a real and rapid way is truly inspiring and the fulfillment of months, if not years, of work. Secondly, momentum. This is a precious commodity in independent productions, as typically you’ll rely on sheer guts to push through the work at hand. If you can achieve momentum, especially this early in editorial, ride it as long as possible.

You might infer that working in this order will leave you with the most difficult scene for last. There’s some good news for you on this front as well. For that scene that at the outset seemed so daunting and unkind, has through editorial become less so the more you’ve learned of your film. By the time you’re staring it in the face, it’s not the same monster it seemed from afar. All you were lacking was the whole set of facts.

Forge Ahead

You’ve likely heard the riddle: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” What it means to post-production on your doc is that you must do everything in your power to keep taking steps: one more bin, one more clip, one more cut, nudge, scene, sequence. However small the task, its completion inches you that much closer to a finished film.

This deep into your documentary the most detrimental event that could occur (other than having all your footage destroyed or erased) is stalling out—forsaking all the hard work you’ve put in, throwing up your hands, and muttering “Forget it,” because the path ahead is too daunting to see through. This situation must be avoided at all cost.

Even while making persistent progress, the odds are against completing an independent doc; stalling out at any point along the way, even in post, could prove a kiss of death. Dark forces like lack of finances, scheduling conflicts, laziness, lack of tenacity, and probably the most destructive—ego—beset your film’s path on all sides. When these forces strike, work halts; when work halts it becomes increasingly difficult to pick it back up again the more time that passes.

If and when you become stuck, don’t stop. “Waiting for inspiration” will not serve. Edit something, anything, just keep moving forward. Knocking shots together, any shots, is like flint to dry tinder: eventually it will catch.

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About the Author

Ryan Steven Green
Ryan Steven Green is an award-winning documentarian whose words and work have been published by VICE, Al Jazeera, CBC, Zócalo Public Square, and NPR. While his personal work has screened at festivals across North America, he has also contributed to the Emmy-winning PBS show Travelscope, the non-fiction films of Jay Duplass, and the global collaborative documentary One Day on Earth. He teaches documentary filmmaking at ArtCenter for Teens in Pasadena, CA.

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