When editing a documentary you very often find yourself using stock footage or photos.  And in case you didn’t know it, stock footage and photos cost money to license for use in your projects.  Sometimes they are inexpensive(say $5/second) and sometimes they are exorbitant ($60/sec with a 10 second minimum).  Because you have a limited budget on your documentaries, it is up to the editor to keep track of how much stock footage they are using, and to use it responsibly.  Because it is very easy to get carried away and use a lot of the good (ie EXPENSIVE) stock footage, and wind up with a bill of $60,000…when you have a budget of $12,000.  As editors, we have a few tricks we can employ to keep the prices low.


One way to easily keep track of how much footage you are using, and see roughly how much it might cost, is to color code the footage.  Color all the free stock footage, or the really cheap footage, the color GREEN, for example. Green means GO!  Means that this is the stuff you might want to look at first.  The really expensive stuff, color that RED.  Red is the color of STOP, DANGER!  This is the EXPENSIVE stuff…use it sparingly.  Then you might assign the next expensive stuff ORANGE, the stuff that costs just a tad more than free BLUE.  Purple somewhere in the middle.  If you using FCP your colors are limited, but if you are using AVID, you have many MANY degrees of color to choose from.  This way you can tell, by a quick glance at the timeline, roughly how much stock footage you are using.


One trick that helps is to take the shots you want to use and slow them down 50%, or more.  This doesn’t always work, it depends on the context of the footage and what is being said.  But it works a lot of the time.  HOWEVER, a few stock footage companies have gotten savvy to this practice, so they have modified their licenses to state total PROGRAM time, meaning how long they appear in the program, opposed to total clip length.


One thing you can do is use a photo or bit of stock footage more than once.  If the stock company doesn’t have that “total program time” license, this will help save a lot of money.  Instead of using 5 pictures of a subject, use 1.  Yes, it can get a bit repetitious, but if you get creative with your cutting, and vary how close you see it each time, it might work out fine.  I once cut some VH1 show about Leann Rimes, and we only had 3 pictures from a certain point of her youth.  But use used each still about 10 times.  But, this being VH1, each time you saw the still, there was some crazy move or series of quick cuts that made it appear different each time you saw it.  This works sometimes, but not all the time.


You want to cover what the person is saying with something to show what they are talking about, but you just can’t afford to.  You need to trim the fat.  Normally we editors use footage and photos to cover what ar called “pull ups,” parts of the interview where we either cut out long pauses, or verbal stumbles, or where we trim up sections of peoples stories to make them more concise.  We cover the edits.  But there are times where you don’t trim, because the person is able to get their point across without is needing to trim.  So in these cases, you might just leave them on screen the entire time.  Yes, it can be boring to just see a talking head, but when you need to cut costs, you do what you have to do.

To tell you the truth I was only able to really pull this off once successfully.  I have done it plenty of times, but only once did I have an interview subject so engaging, so energetic, that I just wanted to see him talk.  I had him on screen for 42 seconds.  Which was a good thing, because everything that he talked about we didn’t have artwork or photos to show.  And the funny thing is, the producer at the network gave me a note asking if we could see more of this guy.


You might find yourself in a position where your show is cut, but the stock footage used in the cut adds up to $24,000.  And you only have a budget of $10,000.  So you need to cut out a LOT of footage.  Let’s assume that you already tried the slowing down trick, or the companies have that “program time” clause in the contract.  Now what are you to do?  You have a lot of fat to trim.  Well, to do this we can employ a trick that a producer of mine actually preferred to using stock footage…getting “abstract.”

Instead of always seeing what the narration or the interviewee is talking about, show something that alludes to it. For example, on a documentary special I worked on, BLOOD DIAMONDS, there were a lot of personal stories of the atrocities in Sierra Lione, Liberia and surrounding countries steeped in the illegal diamond trade.  We did use a lot of stock footage, and yes, it was expensive.  But when it came to the personal stories, we tried to be more abstract.  A prime example of what I am talking about is in a scene that I have posted on my website as part of my editor’s reel.  That can be found here. (WARNING, the atrocities discussed are of a pretty graphic nature.)

Are you done watching?  OK, let’s continue…

We didn’t have footage of soldiers or people being taken prisoner.  But we did have lots of b-roll.  The b-roll used here is of a rainstorm that hit a village.  There are kids playing in the footage, reaching their hands out to feel the rain.  It’s basically just the DP shooting and trying to keep dry.  But as you can see, it works really well with the story.  The rain sets a gloomy and bleak scene.

And the slow motion and strobe effect and color corrected work in a such a way to make it appear to be flashes of memory. The hands you see reaching out, and the forms of people you see in the doorway are of kids playing and giggling.  But it was edited in such a way to make it fit within the context of the story.  The resulting visuals with the subject’s story set a very powerful scene.

Another example of this type of coverage was done more recently on a show I am currently working on.  It is a crime documentary and a big part of it was the court case.  Initially a lot of stock footage of the court case was used when people described it.  But when we added up the totals, it was triple the budget we had.  So the editor cut out a good 80% of the footage, and replaced it with stock shots of an empty courtroom.  Something that was shot for another show over a year ago.  But the generic footage used in this abstract way worked very well.  And we only used footage of the court case when it was needed to show specific elements and soundbytes from the case.  This is something you see often on DATELINE and 20/20 as well.

This is now something I try to do on a regular basis.  I’m incorporating it into my “style” of editing, where possible.  And by “where possible,” I mean that not every doc calls for this, or you end up with camera people who don’t shoot enough footage to allow you to do this.  So this can be a note to all shooters too.  Shoot a LOT of b-roll.  Get plenty of angles, and plenty of interesting things.  It is good to know going in what the doc is about, and what the possible stories are so that you can keep this in mind when shooting.  I know many talented DPs who do just this.  And they are even kind enough to comment, on camera while shooting (which I hear when I capture), “Hey, editor…this might be really good for that section on blankety blank.”

It is also useful if you the editor have access to a camera (hopefully one that is similar to what the rest of the show was shot on) so that if you wanted, you could go shoot some of this abstract stuff yourself.  I have been able to do that on occasion as well, and it really makes the producers happy.