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Making it in the Cutting Room
Documentary and narrative film have a lot of similarities in terms of story structure, character and integration of aesthetic elements, but much of their creative production is very different. In a narrative film a screenplay will drive the production, leading to what you create on set and how you construct the edit. In creative documentary film you will likely have a lot of plans and outlines, but much of what occurs out of your control will guide your final film. In this way, you actually create the film in the editing room more than you do with any other type of film production, and this means that you have more freedom and more challenges. For documentary filmmakers that want to avoid the clichés of historical and television documentary projects and instead want a cinematic film, they will often try to really construct scenes in their film. Here is a look at how the process for editing together these segments in a documentary film works.
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Though your creative documentary process will allow for a lot of spontaneity and instinctual decisions, the documentary film editing workflow still relies on involved organization. Without this organization, you will find yourself running on chaos, unable to create cohesion and realize ideas. To help with organization, you need to work with outlines that express what you want from both the whole of the film and each scene. You should start your documentary editing process by having a film outline that shows the process for how you want your film to go. This will likely be a version of one that you have been modifying during the physical production of your film, creating segments from situations that you filmed and ideas that you want to express.
Begin revising your outline as you work on it, creating a record of what you change. You do not need to stick to it as if it is a hard law, but you need to have it guide you through your process. You will likely make your most creative and important decisions from actually working with the footage and not just relying on the outline, so instead work backwards by making changes and then altering the outline. What this will do is allow you to see what changes you have made on a given scene so you will know then how to address many of the surrounding scenes. It will be incredibly necessary for your documentary film editing workflow to return to the outline that you created and made changes to during production since you are trying to draw out scenes that you intended to film when you were there. This will illustrate the communication between the physical production and the post-production process.
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What a scene really is going to be is an artificial interpretation and reduction of a real life event. When you are filming your documentary production you are going to be making choices about how you film a given situation both by what you find interesting and what you think will be important when trying to construct a video sequence that will be reasonably representational for the actual event. When you are putting together the scene, you are going to need to use a narrative flow, often appearing chronological even though it will likely not be.
To do this, you need to create notes about what happened from your footage, and create markers about what is important. If you do not know what you want people to take from the scene, you will not be able to edit it appropriately so that it communicates. To find the right flow for your documentary scene you will need to look to narrative films for inspiration. What this means is that you will have to give it a beginning, middle and end, as well as identify main characters and conflicts. This will allow people to identify and follow a character through your documentary scene and then use this as the marker you use to guide your documentary film editing workflow.
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The difference between an informational documentary and a cinematic one is aesthetics. This means that in the scene you create an emotional connection and focus from the audience using a play of video and audio. To do this you need to use a variety of different camera angles to create a form of coverage that will allow a real physical space to emerge for the audience. Music should be employed in the same way that you would in a narrative film, and you can even try adding sound effects to accentuate sounds that may be on the location.
You are likely going to modify the mood, story space, and even some of the factual flow according to your vision and how you want to communicate to the audience. All of these choices are made during your documentary editing process, and the choices are often a negotiation against your sense of "truth" you want to maintain and the aesthetic choices. There is no hard and fast rule for this negotiation, so you have to look to your own integrity and what you think the truth of the scene is.
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Based on author's own experience.
Screenshot captured by author.