Normally when I work on a documentary…well, any sort of project be it a documentary, reality show, competition show…and especially narrative work…I am handed a script. And I build a show based on this script. If I am not handed a script, I am given what is called a “string out” of the footage…the interviews and VO (or a text slate with what the VO should be) all in the order the producer wants it. Either the producers do this or they have the assistant make the string out…based on a script they hand them.

So, at some point in the process, the initial structure of the project was dictated to me by someone else. Now, it might change as editing progresses…that’s the normal progression of editing. Cut what works, move things around, add more things, until you get what will be the final project. But the producer/writer had first stab at the footage and story structure.

But recently I was given a project where I was given creative freedom…almost total creative freedom. I was given the footage, I was given transcripts of about 50% of the interviews, and was told what the main points of the project should be. What points I needed to hit upon. But the sound bites I used, the order in which it went, and the b-roll added was all up to me. I was given near full creative control….and that excited me.

Now, this is a normal process on many productions. There are docs out there that the editor is given a lot of creative freedom on. I just never seemed to land those kind of projects. I always wanted to, I’d like to flex my creative muscles and show off my story telling skills. So when I was approached to edit a short documentary aimed at art education…I leapt at the chance.

So I had this drive full of footage…all Canon 5D transcoded to ProRes 422, and someone was kind enough to merge the clips with the second-system audio that was recorded too. I later found out that this footage actually came from a project with another aim entirely, but that many of the questions asked would pertain to the project I was assigned. It was dual-use footage. Well, the interview were. about 98% of the b-roll and non-interview footage was meant for the other project, so I needed to figure my footage needs as editing progressed.

Because this footage was ProRes, and was synch in Final Cut Pro for the previous project, I opted to use FCP for this job as well…even though I much desired to move all future project to Avid. But I was fine with FCP…I’m fairly comfortable with it.

So…where to start? Here I am with the footage…some transcripts (timecoded, so I can find the footage easier), and a few notes on the direction the project needed to go. Well, the only place to start is to watch the interviews fully and pull selects. While the questions pertaining to my project were asked later in the interviews, I opted to watch them fully, because you never know what nugget of information someone will say, even if the initial question doesn’t ask for it. And yes, in multiple instances, I found great statements in the questions aimed at that other project. I used many of them.

I broke the interview selects into categories. I didn’t put down all the selects from one person and then all from another. I’d separate them out by topic. Where were they from? What is their tribal affiliation (this was a project on native artists), where were they educated, where did they get their inspirations from, what type of art did they do…and so on. I did this using separate sequences for each topic. And when I was done, I made a master selects sequence and strung out the answers, separating the separate sections by 5 seconds of black. So it would be one person saying something on the topic, then another, then another.  And a cool thing that happens is that when someone spoke on a topic…expanded on it, they lead into another topic that I was going into, so it was a great segue tool.  I could have one person talk, then another, then another, back to the 1st person, third again, 4th, second…who then transitioned us into the next segment.

HOW did I determine who went first, second, third, and then when to go back to the first person?  That’s tough to explain. Explaining the creative process is difficult, as I edit by “feeling.”  That is, I feel that I need to have this particular sound bite from someone, and that a sound bite from a second person sounds very similar, so I’ll use that next.  I won’t use the full selection from the first person as they seem to mention several things, so I’ll grab the first thing mentioned, then use a similar bite from other people back to back, and then go to the second thing they talk about, then add the other people who also talk a little about similar circumstances, then back to the interviewee who will carry the conversation to the next topic.

Confusing?  Yeah, I can see that.  It is best to show examples of this…be able to do the rough string out, then duplicate the sequence and show the building of the sequence, and duplicate again with every change made so that people can see the process.  Not something I am able to do with this project…but I hope you get the general idea.

Once I have the rough stringout, or “radio edit,” I will watch it a few times, and show the client it (or producer).  This is basically the spine of the piece…the order in which the story we are telling is laid out.  I don’t add any b-roll, or music.  I might add cards where I think b-roll or pictures should go, but typically not at this point.  I don’t want to add anything at this point because things will be re-arranged and shifted to better tell the story.  Once we get this all adjusted correctly, then I move onto adding other footage.

The next pass is where I add what footage I have, what stills I have, and then cards or “slates” with descriptions of what I need, or think will work, for these sections. This is my first ROUGH CUT…lacking music, but where I start to add pacing, space out the dialog, add the b-roll and, if needed, other footage that includes audio.  This is where the piece starts taking shape.  After this, I might show it again, show where I am and what footage needs I have.  Or I might do a second rough cut pass, this time adding music and rough sound effects (if needed).  Adding music is where pacing really starts to take shape, as it can add dramatic emphasis to what is going on.  You can have someone make a statement, and then raise the music over b-roll, or over the interviewer’s face (say they are sad, or really happy and you want to show that) and let that play out for a while.  Because you don’t want to just raise the music randomly, choosing the right music, and planning how it plays out so that the part you want swells when you want it…can be difficult.  It is often the hardest part of the process for me, and the most time consuming.  I have to search for hours, days for JUST the right music.  And then edit it so that it sounds right, and swells when I need it to.

But after I add music, I tend to call this phase the FINE CUT phase.  No longer rough, but not really final.  It is a “finer” cut.  There will be versions during this phase…Fine Cut 1, Fine Cut 2…as I rearrange things, find new music, replace shots…and add more shots. FINE TUNING if you will.

That is sort of the phase I am at right now. I have a cut that has music, most of it is covered with b-roll or pictures, but I still have a few sections that need footage, and the show title is still just a black card, as we are working on a final title for the project.  But thus far most of what I have done has been up do me.  The client has made suggestions for what to cut, what to add, move this section there, that one there.  And at one point saying that there seemed to be missing a point they wanted to make. They knew that they had them talk about it, but forgot to have me include it.  As it so happens, I did have a timeline with those sound bites, as I came across them as interesting, but didn’t know where to put them.  The clients note reminded me of those, and lit a lightbulb in my head.  I added them to the piece and they made it better.

Now the cut is in the clients lap, awaiting more materials to cover some gaps.  But it is almost done.  It is really exciting to work on something where I was given footage and a few general notes about the tone of the piece, and given near full-creative freedom to make it a reality.  Normally work with scripts, or producers in the room…or with extensive notes. But this time I was allowed to do what I wanted, explore creative ways of solving things…and that is refreshing.

OH…that brings up one point…a creative solution to a problem.  For the painters, installation artists and print makers, I had images of their art.  But for the authors, I have them reading selections from their books on a stage.  Not the most exciting visual.  The camera work wasn’t the most steady at times, and at one point, this being shot with Canon DSLRs, the 5D stopped recording after 12 min (a known issue about overheating sensors).  I needed something to make this…better.  So I called the client and asked for the books that the authors read from. When I got them, I used my own Canon DLSR (T2i) and shot extreme close-ups of the books, followed the reading down the page.  I then layered this over the footage of the authors reading, so that we the viewer, could follow along.”  It seemed to work well.