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How to be a Documentary Filmmaker Part II


Welcome back. I presume you read my previous post of How to be a Documentary Filmmaker Part I. If not, go there then come back. It will make more sense that way.

Step Four: Edit the Story. Many people find this part painful. I don’t disagree but I’ve learned to like it. The story really comes alive on the cutting room table. I am not going to convince you to like this process, but just remember, if the film is not edited well it is just a pile of jumbled rubbish and you’ve just wasted the first three steps that took you here.

Here are the steps I follow when I edit: a) Review the Dailies and Make Notes, b) Organize Your Project, c) Lay Footage on Timeline, d) Mixing and Adjusting, e) Correct for Colour and Sound, f) Sound Design, g) Titles and Effects, h) Export.


a) Review the Dailies and Make Notes. Dailies is a fancy name for footage. They call it dailies because they review it at the end of each shooting day. Although the name doesn’t make much sense the practice does. I make a habit of reviewing my footage as soon as I come back to my computer from shooting. This way everything is fresh and I can plan for reshoots if necessary. This is where you make mental notes of what to do and what not to do (a.k.a. the kicking yourself moment) Regrets in filmmaking is unavoidable, just make sure you have a plan of recovery.

I don’t make notes the first time I review the footage. I just watch them and let my brain work in the background. I watch it again when I am ready to do the editing. This time I make notes about the footage. You can choose to do it using paper and pencil but I recommend making the notes right inside of the editing software you use. For Premiere Pro CC you can expand your Project window and customize it. I will go into detail on Project Organization on my future blog post. For now just organize it in a way that works for you and make notes about each piece of footage.

Here’s what I pay attention to: a) description of the footage. b) quality of the picture. c) quality of the audio. d) are there multiples of the same footage?

For example: Clip0019, Leon talking about how he got the job, picture good, sound poor bc. mic noise.

I do this for ALL the footage, no exceptions. In Adobe Premiere I use a trick to name them without affecting the original file so they are easy to find and organize. When this is done I am ready to move into the next step. Message me if you need to know the details, as it takes long to explain here.


b) Organize your Project. Once the footage are noted and named I put them in different folders according to story points. An example of story point is: early childhood, mid-life, old age, future aspirations. Whatever your story is it must have a spine to thread everything together. This spine could be time, could be seasons, could be different topics, could be characters, could be colour, shape, taste, food etc. The spine is that something that tells the audience everything here belongs to be in one movie. If your movie is about EVERYTHING that exists under the sun then EVERYTHING THAT EXISTS is your spine! Embrace the idea of the spine and your story will flow well.


c) Lay down the footage onto timeline. If you did steps a and b well, this step should be a breeze. This is where editors have the most fun. It is like a painter laying down well mixed paint on fresh canvas. The timeline is yours to play with. That means it is your own personal time machine. You can travel back and forth in time; freeze time; fast-forward time; repeat time; ignore time etc. You are dictating how your audiences spend the next 60 mins (or however long your movie is) of their lives. Choose wisely on how to present your story using the powerful time machine. Get better at it by watching the all time classics. Experiment and have fun.

d) Mixing and Adjusting. Once all the necessary footage is laid down on the timeline you will need a break. Take a couple of days off or go camping over the long weekend. Then when you come back to the project you have a brilliant fresh mind and a pair of eagle eyes. Do all the tinkering and fine-tuning you want for the next couple of weeks. Watch and re-watch your movie at different times of the day. The only thing you have to keep in mind is that do not take forever. Set a deadline for yourself and keep it. I give myself two weeks for a short projet.


e) Correct for Colour and Sound. I already wrote on the subject of Colour Correction. Please refer to that by going to the category of “Filmmaking”. Correct for sound is another whole topic of study that is very complex. I will not bore you with it here. I am also not qualified to instruct you on that. I will only tell you what I do and you can take it or leave it.

First I make sure my levels are good. I peak my audio levels at -4.0 dB. For clips that have extremely high or low points I subdivide them and make sure they are acceptable. Pay special attention to dialogues as they are important to your story.

Secondly, I make sure the transitions are smooth. When audio levels jump off a cliff, you hear a click, and that is very unprofessional. So make sure you add some ramps and cross fades to smooth out the sudden changes. Adobe Premiere has some basic tools under Audio Transitions. I find them adequate 90% of the time.

Thirdly, I trim the audio to lead the audience. This is a trick to make your audience hear the click of the hammer before they see the gun. Movies do this a lot to make the pictorial transition more smooth. You can do it with almost any sound. You can make a person say “Hello” before he shows up on screen. Experiment with it but don’t over do it. I never lead more than half a second so as to not disorient the audience.


f) Sound Design. This the shortest section ever. Because I don’t do it. I leave it to the professionals to do it. In other words, outsource it. I know my limitations and I rely on people with better skills to do it for me. Give them credit and pay them, even it is not much. They will appreciate the opportunity and you will end up with a better movie. Trust me.

g) Titles and Effects. For documentary I do not go crazy with titles and effect. I keep it simple and legible. For my graduation fantasy film however I went all out and had dinosaurs and exploding suns and bloody swords and snowstorms. Ah…. Good old times.

Do what you feel is right. My advice: Less is more and keep it simple.


h) Export. This is another big topic. But I will simplify it for you. Just render your movie out as full resolution Quicktime mov with “animation” and uncompressed audio. It will be a big file so keep a couple of copies on portable hard drives. Then later, when you decide what platform you want to show your movies on you can simply use something like Media Encoder to compress your Full Movie into a smaller file. Vimeo, Youtube, Facebook, Tudou, etc., all have their own requirements. But since you have your Full Movie you can tailor to each one using an encoder. If you are showing it at movie houses, get the file requirement from the projectionist and then encode it for them and bring them the portable hard drive.

Step Five: Show your Film. So we’ve come to the final holy grail of documentary film making process. How to show your film. I have two films under my belt and a couple more in the works, but my bookshelf is still curiously empty of awards. So clearly I am not your expert on how to show your finished film. I can only share with you what I have tried and what results I got back.

Online Platforms: Youtube and Vimeo are the biggest players. I like Vimeo for the quality and clean layout. They tend to have higher quality content. Youtube is vastly popular and will get you more exposure. But sometimes more exposure is also more headaches. Try both and see which one you like.

Public Showing: You can rent a space and equipment to show your film and tell people about it. I’ve shown my film in gyms, peoples’ basements as well as cinemas. Costs and effects vary. I have also had my film play on the big screen at festival. The point is, you have to play it by ear and be adaptable. Keep pushing your film in front of people’s eyes. That’s the only way to get noticed.

Hard Copies: I do have my films in DVD format for people to purchase. Creative Space does a good job manufacturing the DVD’s. They charge a fee for it. is also connected to them so you would think it is a natural choice for hard copy outlet. I myself have not sold too many copies of my film this way. But the service is made to order so I did not lose money either. You can also make your own DVD’s for people to purchase. I find this time consuming so I do not do it often.

Film Festivals: Withoutabox is the platform I’ve used to submit my films to festivals. It is fairly simple and requires a fee. I have also dropped off my films to festival offices, but I find that very time consuming and not worth the trouble.

TV Network: I have not explored this area. I am looking forward to learn from those who have.

Netflix: This is an area I would like to explore in the near future. If you have any experiences with it please leave me a note. Thanks in advance.


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