There is no shortage of tutorial material on the actual nuts and bolts of editing, but there is a surprising lack of accessible knowledge on how to successfully approach and complete large editing projects, particularly documentaries, which can be unwieldy in their complex workflows, scope, and scale.
I compiled these notes throughout the six month process of prepping and editing the documentary takayna for Patagonia Films. It was a difficult time for me both personally and professionally, as I was grieving the sudden and premature loss of my father and working through his estate matters while simultaneously editing my first major documentary film and handling day-to-day media asset management for Patagonia’s global video needs.
During this period I worked incredibly long hours (and weeks), was in the worst physical and mental health of my life, and made a lot of mistakes along the way. But I learned a lot, finished the film, and made sure to take notes. This is a compilation of what I learned during this project and my previous ten years as an editor and media asset manager at Patagonia and as a freelance filmmaker focusing on brand, product, and environmental documentary work. This advice will apply well for anyone looking to edit a long documentary film or work with a brand in any capacity.
Everything Is In Its Right Place
•“Mise en place!” This goes for your physical, digital, and mental space. Tidy your office, desk, computer desk top, and file structure regularly; ideally at the start of every day. Have supplies, snacks, and drinks at hand. Keep your editing suite well-decorated, clean, and clutter-free for minimum distraction and maximum inspiration.
•“Look good, feel good, play good”. Dress for success. Wear comfortable clothes, but don’t be a slob. By donning presentable attire, you will enter “work mode” much faster, be more apt to go on a quick errand or walk to clear your head, and be ready for drop-in visits from directors or clients.
•Keep distractions to a minimum and protect your time to edit. Set aside time to check off mundane to-do list items at the start of the day or week. If new tasks come up when you’re busy, ask for a deadline and add them to a list to revisit later, instead of reacting right away. If you’re deep in the weeds on a project, set an out-of-office response on your email and don’t check it more than once or twice a day. Set your phone across the room so incoming texts and notifications don’t distract you.
•It goes without saying that you should back up your footage in at least three places (one offsite). But also remember to save your working project files periodically. Save a new version of your project file to the cloud every night, without fail. Replicate your sequences often. It will save your ass someday.
•Prep your footage in at least three passes. The more familiar you are with it, the better your edit will be. By reviewing the footage multiple times, you will be intimately aware of the overall content available to work with, connections that can be made between characters, scenes, and interview statements, and all the little moments that make a film shine.
•Be incredibly, insufferably detail-oriented and organized. This allows for the mess of creativity later. Create bins and sequences to organize footage by scene/location, interview subject, footage type, and quality, following a schema based on the scale and scope of the project. Consistency is key.
•Write your project log line, and come back to it often. This is the thesis of your film. It is easy to go down rabbit holes and follow false pathways - avoid this to save time and energy. Be willing to follow new pathways that present themselves, but always keep in mind the single overarching message of your project.
•Paper edits are your friend. Especially for the big ideas, early on. After reviewing your footage a few times, jot down a quick outline and use lots of sticky notes to capture the main moments and concepts you will try to convey in your edit. Arrange and rearrange them until you begin to connect ideas and main story points together. Hang a board with these notes on a wall near your desk and revisit it often. Don’t be afraid to rearrange again, especially after scenes and sections of the film begin to coalesce.
•Use a transcription service such as Trint to transcribe trimmed and prepped interview sequences. Often, this is a good way to quickly ascertain the content of your interviews and puzzle through the tougher concepts that need to be conveyed. If the timecode on your transcript matches the synced interview sequence, you will also be able to word-search your transcripts for a specific phrase or sentence and then quickly find the corresponding footage.
Entering Flow State: The Edit
•Start (and finish) new edits constantly. Post new work all the time and gauge reaction on social media. Make stuff, put it out into the world, and move on to something new. It can be freeing to work on something for fun, free of opinions and deadlines.
•If you want to rapidly improve your editing, cut a bunch of 15 or 30 second shorts. Or for a real challenge, try creating a 6 second spot. This exercise will make your editing and storytelling cleaner, tighter, and more efficient. Sometimes it helps to think of a larger project as a series of shorter edits. With enough short moments strung together in a logical fashion, suddenly, you have a film.
•If you’re having trouble getting started, go for some low hanging fruit. Alternatively, it can be good to start with your hardest scene first. When working on a new section, find your starting point and your ending point, and figure out how to link the two together in the most efficient way. Avoid extraneous content and dialogue. Find the cleanest line.
•Show, don’t tell. Give the audience time to make the connections or interpret a scene in their own way. Cut in a way that allows for comfortable tracking by the viewer’s eye, both in terms of visuals and how long it takes to absorb a specific shot. Use this rhythm to your advantage.
•Good editing is instinctual. You’ll know the exact frame to cut on 99% of the time. For a good exercise in pacing, watch films on mute and tap your finger each time you think it’s time to cut. If your pacing instinct is well-honed, more often then not, it will be exactly the moment the editor has chosen.
•Great editing is about what you don’t use. Less is more. Don’t use everything that was shot. Start with the obvious best clips first, rely on the lower grade shots only if need be. Don’t use unnecessary shots or cuts to build a scene. A straight cut is better than a dissolve. The list goes on. Just keep it simple.
•Timing is everything. Know when to let it breathe. Know when to move it along. It’s all about tension and release, both within a scene and throughout an entire film. If you have a section with rapid cuts and lots of action, follow it with a slower, more contemplative section that allows your audience to take a break and process what they just saw. As a project progresses, print out photos of each scene and arrange them on the wall for an at-a-glance look at the overall energy flow and tension/release of your project.
•Sound is half of your edit (and sometimes more!). Leave some air space for sound design. Don’t go wall to wall on music or dialogue, especially when you know the audience will need a moment to process what they’ve just seen. When possible, cut dry and avoid temporary tracks for as long as possible. When music and sound design is finally added, it will really make the scene shine.
•Details make the difference. Cut on a specific frame, add subtle soundscapes, use nearly imperceptible changes in color to differentiate scenes.
Sustainability: In it for the Long Haul
•Establish a routine and you will soon learn what time of day your best work is likely to be produced. Understand this, and use it to your advantage.
•Don’t be a hero. Avoid burnout, and take breaks - throughout the day, and for longer periods (a few days, or a week) during large projects. A lunchtime bike ride does wonders to reset your mind. Looking at an edit with fresh eyes can do wonders for your work.
•Know when to stop for the night - creativity hits diminishing returns. But also know when to keep going. Momentum is real, and it’s your friend. Recognize a good thing when you see it.
•You may be tempted to eat unhealthy food and maximize your hours in front of a screen in the hopes of squeezing out one more sequence, but this is counterproductive over the long term. Fuel yourself well, get plenty of rest, maintain good health, and it will result in good work and high output.
•Good coffee or tea can help kick start a day or give you a boost in the afternoon. A beer or two can help late in the day. Cannabis works for some, but I find it to be a hindrance. Hangovers are not your friend - so save the big nights for after you wrap on the project.
•An electric-assist standing desk is a very good idea.
Room for Improvement
•Show your work to other filmmakers and editors, friends, family, and mentors. Watch it with them, and you will watch it through their eyes. Take their opinions seriously, but also know when to ignore notes. Remember that you don’t have to let your edit get crushed under the weight of every single note you receive. Decision by committee will kill your film.
•For rough cut reviews, kindly explain what kind of notes are appropriate and actionable at various stages of the review process and make sure your client keeps the plot. When working with a hypercritical client, a first rough cut that feels “finished” and clearly shows your vision will stand up better to criticism and provide for a smoother review process overall. Have a reason for everything in your edit. Defend that reason if it’s not immediately evident.
•Edit side by side with someone you trust. Talk through what you’re doing (and why). It can really help a project come along in short order.
•Iterate, iterate, iterate - and save your sequences. You might want to go back to a previous version. Create new copies of sequences every night before shutting down, and periodically before major shifts or forks in the road. Have options available of different shots that could work for a scene.
•Kill your babies - but don’t kill all of them. Trim the fat. Be ruthless in your edits. Less is more. Keep it tight. But not too tight. Know when it’s finished, and don’t keep tinkering. Second guessing your work only leads to wasted time, energy, and a weaker final product.
•You will run into technical problems. Chances are someone else has, too. Google is your friend.
Finishing and Delivery
•Delivery is one of the most important stages of making a film. Attention to detail is everything. Most editors mess it up in some way. Review your exports with a fine toothed comb before sending them off.
•Don’t make assumptions. Ask your client how they’d like files delivered - file names, codecs, versions (text-free, music-free), split audio stems, media-managed project, etc. The producer you are working with isn’t always the person with the answers to technical questions. Deliver everything at the same time unless otherwise requested. Ideally, all of these details would have been worked out early on, during the contract stage of the project. But they usually are not. Often it is up to you as editor to ask these questions.
•Deadlines get pushed and compounded, and it always falls on the shoulders of the editor to save the day. Anticipate this on every project, and work ahead of your deadlines. Stay calm, do what you can, and help to set expectations for what is and isn’t possible. Be gracious, and your client will hire you again. Often times they are under huge pressure as well, and you’ll be a hero if you save the day.
•Clients almost always come back well after project completion for minor changes or forgotten versions. Know when to do a favor and provide these assets free of charge in a timely fashion. But also know when to charge for additional time.
•Communicate. Whether you are handing off a project for color, sound, or score, or shipping a final delivery, be incredibly clear about what you are sending, what stage it is in, instructions, what is coming next, etc. Be clear and concise. A little goes a long way.