Traditionally documentaries are constructed around the interviews that provide much of the narrative structure. This is intermixed with B-roll to go over them and direct cinema footage, also in line with stock video and photos. For large projects with many tapes of interviews and direct footage this can be hard to organize into an actual story line. Some people prefer to do a paper edit first to make their story editing be more productive.
A paper edit is a text volume that lays out the essential “script” of the documentary. What you have to do first is take a close look at all of the footage you have and think about where the story is. What elements do you want to focus on? What are the important points in the story arc? From here you construct a general outline that highlights the order of events, what is primarily looked at, what characters take precedence, and what footage you want to extend these things.
Transcriptions and Logs
You then take the outline and begin to make the paper edit from it. You transcribe every interview accurately and then combine it with notes about the quality of each small interview clip. Then take detailed logging notes of all of your direct cinema video. From here you begin to layout this text piece by piece, laying out the entire content of the film. Instead of simply going in and finding interview clips and chopping them together to construct the story you do it on paper with the logging notes and transcriptions. This is done in a general way for the entire film, until you get to where you would like it.
B-roll and Music
From here you begin a correlative document that lists B-roll that will go over some of these segments and music tracks that will also go well. The best way to do this is to lay the entire paper edit out on large boards and then start placing the B-roll and music notes next to it so it matches up in the time code. From here you have a blueprint for the story editing that you are about to do.
This will usually make a film construction that is much longer than what you actually want. Follow the paper edit while you are editing, and once you are done you can begin cutting things out and altering the aesthetics. This is not an absolute way to do it, but may work best for your creative process.