Why Documentary Editing is the Best
WARNING: The following is meant to be taken as a opinion piece, this is my view on editing in my personal career.
I think that documentary editing is the absolute best things that could have ever happened to me as an editor. Working in a collaborative environment there are times when the editor’s voice feels less important than others: [insert narrative] producers or directors will come with strict guidelines for how an edit is “supposed” to look. Dailies and accompanying shooting scripts dictate what direction the story is going to go in and what shots already have the best look. I am over exaggerating the confines of which the editor lives in, but I feel like in comparison there are a lot more places to innovate and feel the impact of your work as an editor in documentaries.
Documentary films, by definition, are movies that tell a story with real life. Real people, real moments, the tragedies, the victories, and everything that can be sandwiched in between daytime news casting and and proper story telling. The protagonists we list in these types of movies can be some inciting event…or it could be a singular person. This is where the playground occurs in post-production. Now, I am not going to gloss over the fact that many projects are political; there are many films that have to be contextually sound. (This is a whole different topic called Documentary Distortion, something that I will touch upon in another piece). Keeping all of this in mind, what is truly great about editing these sort of films?
Documentary editor Zac Stuart-Pontier once said in an interview at Sight, Sound and Story that, “One of the amazing things about documentaries is they continue to grow as you work on them. It’s this organic thing even though the footage doesn’t change. It’s constantly staying new when it’s working.” I believe that to be 101% true. Thinking about the challenges that documentaries present in the editing room, it’s almost like the story that needs to be told is hidden somewhere in the footage. Puzzle solving: it’s the art that involves solving a particular challenge or trying to connect the dots in a way that makes the film have a sense of dramatic intensity. It’s something that I myself have said: documentaries are like a puzzle that have a 1000 different ways to solve it. It’s the editors job to find the one that works best.
In an interview with Joe Bini (the man who edited many of Herzog’s films for 20 years), he states that film editing takes longer to edit, and often the editor has to push on forward even if he has been with the project for longer than he initially thought. Edits on narratives have it easy in that they have already been assigned a script by someone in the writing room. The documentary editor, often collaborating with the director, has to sort through the footage that he is presented and piece together the story first. This process is often done through what is called a paper editing, and it has to take into consideration how many different story arcs are possible.
Conclusively, what is it that makes documentaries so much more interesting, and really, so much more fun? As previously mentioned, there is much more creative freedom that is given to the editor, and so many different ways to tell a story. For example, what I have liked to do in a documentary edit is taking one thought from one person and continuing it with someone else (having the interpretation being that the 2 interviewees are somehow conversing with each other…the power of the kuleshov effect!). The amount of ways that a documentary can be cut are endless and truly gives the hidden art of editing the best chance at being at the forefront of people’s mind.
I will leave you, the reader, with this: take on a documentary project and see what happens. You might be surprised at what you are presented with and what you can make with it. After all, anything is possible.