Documentary editors have a challenge dramatic ones don’t: they have to find the narrative. When a documentary goes into the cutting room, it’s the editor’s job to work out not just what the story is, but how best to tell it. Now with the advent of digital technology, documentary filmmakers have the luxury of shooting more, creating an even greater challenge for the editor to carve a cohesive story.
In sympathy for the aspiring and newbie editors, the 2012 Sheffield Doc/Fest hosted “Hidden Storytellers: The Art of the Documentary Film Editor.” The session, moderated by the Garden Production Ltd.’s Creative Director Jonathan Smith, featured three of the UK’s leading documentary editors: Steve Barclay (“Gymnast”), Rupert Houseman (“Coppers”) and Sam Santana (“Katie,” “Anatomy for Beginners”). Here are the top tips gleaned from the event:
#1. It’s Up to You to Help the Newbies
Houseman: It’s a funny thing talking about editing. We’re usually in a contained box. In terms of assistant scheme – I was an assistant. But wasn’t paid. I did however get to sit in with some good editors, and got amazing experience. I’ve been contacted by would-be editors about how to get on and it’s almost impossible. The standards have keep on getting greater and greater. It’s really up to us to create that space.
#2. Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself
Houseman: What’s great about editing is sometime’s you catch something you did years later and you sit back and think, that’s not that bad. At the time you get so snowblinded at the process that you can’t see that.
Santana: When you edit a film yourself, sometimes you forget the number of stages the film went through in the cutting through until it all fell into place. But it did in the end.
#3. Sometimes You Have to Make the Cuts Ugly
Santana: At the beginning of edit, you have to look at every one of the rushes. To make a film different, you need to include little scenes. Sometimes you have to make the cuts ugly. Find room for the little things that don’t just give it narrative, but give it legs.
Smith: Bridge scenes are important. They soften the tone out.
Santana: I think it’s key, really. Those are the subtle things that give your film texture.
#4. Shooting Once Editing Has Begun is a Good Thing
Houseman: The narrative doesn’t end when directors come into the edit room. I’ve never met a director that’s nailed it when they’ve come into the cutting room. The film will always be better if you leave things open ended.
Santana: If they continue filming after you start the editing, the film can get better.
Barclay: Sometimes it’s technique to get the director out of the cutting room [laughs].
#5. Never Say No Without Trying
Barclay: I think the worst thing you can do is just say, ‘No, that won’t work,’ without trying anything. I have had directors say that they’ve had that experience in the past with editors.
Houseman: It’s wrong for you to say it’s impossible. It’s bad; it’s lazy.
Santana: It’s mean as well.
#6. You’re the Guardian
Barclay: I’ve had some [directors] who would just leave me to it. I’ve worked with others who want to sit on my lap. Both scenarios are fine. As an editor we’re the guardian of the film. If a director needs to get away for whatever reason, it’s our responsibility to send them home. It’s not going to do them any good having them stick around.
Santana: As an editor, you have to instinctively know that if the director’s hands on, then you have to let them be hands on. Instinctively the more you do it, the more you’ll now.
#7. Embrace the Script
Houseman: Sometimes a script’s vital. Sometimes you have to embrace it, and if you do, you have to do it well.
#8. Tell the Truth
Santana: As long as you’re telling the truth, you can still add things to intensify the scene – sounds that aren’t there, etc.
Barclay: For us, the first point of call is to tell the truth. We may find ways of doing that that take an interesting way to get there, but we get to it. It’s essential.