February 20, 2016 Inbal Voitiz

Editing Documentaries – A Foolproof Plan

Editing a documentary is no easy feat. Compared to edits of dramatic films, documentaries have an additional challenge of generating a narrative amidst a large, often disjointed pool of video footage. The documentary editor must bridge the gap between the vision of the director and the contextual needs of the audience, providing a compelling narrative that highlights the most important and moving elements of the story whilst establishing tone and character development.


Just like in any other filmmaking work, headaches and hassles can be avoided by sufficiently planning ahead. A timeline generator like Timeline JS can keep not only your workflow on track, but also the events included in your film. Although the director’s vision and flow of the documentary is likely to change and develop as time passes, a clear mission with actionable references (via written outline and videoboard) will help keep you on track for the long run. Klynt is a great tool that can assist you with storyboards, as well as mixed media editing and producing interactive layers. It may also help to watch the meta Capturing Reality, a documentary on the art of making documentaries, to get a sense of the process at hand as expressed by seasoned filmmakers.

Keep the following points in mind if you’re new to editing docs:

View everything

As daunting as it may seem, it’s elemental to view all of your footage and document each clip in as much detail as is possible. It can often seem like you don’t have the exact shot you need for a certain reel, but chances are you have something in your arsenal that can adequately be cut in later on. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and energy by classifying your footage as precisely as you can, with necessary tags, labels, locations, color coordination, etc. Furthermore, viewing all of the footage will allow you to see the film’s potential and possible routes of direction. Korsakow is one application that allows you to create an interactive, nonlinear narrative that doesn’t require programming knowledge.

Editing documentaries - view everything!

Narrative structure

The narrative structure of your documentary will largely dictate the overall tone of the feature. Several options include the story being told via:

  • an authoritative voice over
  • the director’s narration on film
  • interview clips
  • a “day in the life” shadowing approach
  • reenactment of events
  • textual framing

Your documentary may follow one or more of these approaches, and will be a guiding light in the overall style and feel of the finished product. Bridge scenes are important in softening the tone of your work as well as providing the film with rich texture.


Interviews are often where the real substance of the narrative comes to life. In terms of organization, some editors prefer to work with written transcripts with accompanying on-film timecodes, providing both textual as well as as audiovisual templates from which to draw material. Others find that dialogue search technology such as Soundbite reduces time and increases efficiency in finding desired vocalized bits. Longer interviews or a heavy reliance on a bulk of them for your documentary can sometimes become static, so try to make them more dynamic with interplays of jump cuts and B-roll footage.


Supplemental footage

When you’re working with home movies, family photos, stock footage, news clips, and the like, be sure to keep track of sources and copyrights before this information gets lost in the mix. If you know from the get-go that you’ll likely use certain supplemental footage, have someone on your team make an organized list of the intended media, contact information, and status updates on their legal rights for use in the documentary. Again, to be forewarned is to be forearmed, and few things are worse for a director than having to cut one of these elements from your final cut due to legal issues.


Just because post-production has begun, it doesn’t mean that shooting has to be wrapped. In fact, more often than not you’ll find that leaving shooting open-ended works in the best interest for director and editor alike. You’ll be able to capture supplemental moments and essences you may have missed, or only realized would work favorably after compiling necessary edits and placements.

Above all with documentaries, it’s essential to be honest and transparent with your narrative. Any hints of inauthenticity or mistruth can severely damage the hard work and effort put into the film, let alone your professional reputation. Keep the narrative raw and sincere, and allow audiovisual tweaks in the editing room to elevate the substance of the original footage.


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About the Author

Inbal Voitiz Inbal Voitiz is Co-Founder of LookAt, where she is focused on producing the tools for video professionals, so that brilliant, inspiring beautiful videos will come to life.