If You Want to Learn How to Tell a Story, Edit a Documentary
There's more than one way to learn how to tell a story. It's not just about sitting down with a writing utensil and a sheet of paper (or a computer and keyboard) and letting one come to life on the page. Sometimes that happens during editing. Find out how editing a documentary can greatly improve your storytelling skills.
This is a guest post by Gregory Bayne.
"Editing a documentary is akin to someone handing you a bag of sentences and asking you to write a book."
That quote, by my friend and colleague Travis Swartz, perfectly captures the essence of what it is to stare into the abyss of countless hours of random footage, tasked with the purpose of bringing it all together into a cohesive narrative that has meaning.
It’s the marathon of film editing, and after a decade of cutting numerous feature and short form documentaries, it’s taught me a few things about how to be a better storyteller.
Curiosity Required, and Context Is Everything
My first outing as a documentary editor was trial by fire. The film was Trudell (Independent Lens, Sundance 2005), a feature documentary about John Trudell, a legendary Native American activist who played an integral part in the American Indian Movement throughout the 1970s and went on to become a respected poet and spoken word artist. As an early 90s film school graduate, my first challenge in approaching this work was my profound lack of frame of reference. Throughout all of my teens and twenties I had been dead set on making narratives, and the entire scope of my experience had been shaped by that world.
When I sat down before the footage that first day the controls looked the same, but it was immediately apparent that documentary editing was a much more free-flowing canvas than anything I had ever attempted before. On the surface it may have seemed the edit would rely heavily on facts, timelines, or just recreating events “as they happened." The reality was a work driven by character, emotion, and the world of its subject.
As I worked through reviewing the footage, and the in-progress cut that I was tasked with re-imaging, I was struck by how limited my knowledge was on the subject matter at hand. It scared me honestly, as I thought it was a deficit that would eventually be revealed in the work. Over time, I realized it was quite the opposite. As I sat through hours and hours of interview and archival footage, I found myself fascinated and my curiosity piqued. Not only was I getting the opportunity to do what I love, I was receiving an intense education on the American Indian Movement, and this incredible individual who had lived, and shaped, part of our American history.
With no agenda, other than attempting to understand the footage in front of me, I found that an avid curiosity, combined with an outside perspective allowed me to come at the story and subject from a wholly fresh perspective. This approach helped me suss out much needed context around his life and our shared American history, enabling me to help shape the narrative in such a way that an audience with no prior knowledge of the film’s subject would feel the story. And, ultimately, movies (documentary or otherwise), are only as good as they make us feel.
As a documentary editor, you are the conduit between the director’s vision and the audience. It’s important to remember that even as a director/editor, which are roles I have occupied on my last two projects, the basis of our relationship to the audience is created through a proper crafting of the context for our stories. What are the circumstances and/or facts that shape our characters’ worlds and their stories? How do we creatively allow that to inform the film in such a way that it still leaves room for subtext, yet gives the viewer the footing necessary to grasp the content?
Context provides the audience entrance into these worlds and our characters’ lives. Once established, we can then go about the business of building the emotional landscape necessary for our audience to feel the story and in turn (hopefully) have a film that means something to someone.
Tip No. 1 - Watch all the footage. Yes, all of it.
Even if you, like me, shoot the majority of your footage, you should invest the time in watching all of your footage simply because you don’t want to miss anything. Sometimes it’s that random outtake that you thought nothing of at the moment, or a passing look from your subject that suddenly, in context, reveals more about who he or she is than all the sentences you’ve just masterfully cut together.
Watching all the footage also is the first stop in revealing what your film is, or has the potential to become. Whether documentary or narrative, we’re only as good as our footage. Invest the time in figuring out what it’s telling you.
The Horribly Wonderful Fact That a Documentary Can Be Anything
Apart from the core idea of presenting “truth” (which even when attempting to be objective, can be highly subjective), documentaries share little in common in terms of a broadly cohesive genre. There really are no hard and fast rules (including any presented here) or templates that can be easily manipulated to fit your particular story or subject. Like all movie genres, there are some well-worn tropes, but the documentaries that, for me, generally rise to the top do so by finding their voice, tone, structure, and approach through the lens of their subject:
The Cruise presented a first person ride with Timothy "Speed" Levitch, in which the maker (the esteemed Bennett Miller) and his camera were, with us, the audience to Speed’s unique tour of New York via the GrayLine.
The Maysles brother’s masterful Salesman captures the stark “sale, no-sale,” survival tale of traveling bible salesmen in a wash of unflinching black and white that embodies the dying profession these men find themselves stuck in.
The Kid Stays in the Picture perfectly reflected the tone and glamour of Robert Evan’s Hollywood, from its slick presentation of iconic photographs, to its slow tracks through Evan’s Los Angeles estate.
In my own film, Jens Pulver | DRIVEN, which is about the legendary mixed martial arts fighter Jens Pulver, the work purposely reflects the raw, rough-around-the-edges demeanor of the fighter himself, while simultaneously creating space to dive inward with his internal monologue as he prepares for a make or break fight.
Sometimes, it takes a while to tease out the appropriate structure, tone, and approach. In my current film, Bloodsworth -- An Innocent Man, about Kirk Noble Bloodsworth, the first death row inmate in the US to be exonerated by DNA, it took years of work to finally land on its hybrid approach. The film is driven by its protagonist via direct to camera interviews, and accentuated by animated recreations of his memories and archival material, all of which is set against “in the moment” footage of his efforts to repeal the death penalty in the state which sentenced him to death. All of this is then held together via a motion-graphics based timeline that helps keep us grounded throughout the film as we jump back and forth in time, building the narrative of his case.
Whether or not we have a solid idea of exactly what the story is, and where we want it to head, I say again, we’re only as good as our footage. The beast and the beauty of documentaries is their unpredictable nature. Ultimately, if we follow the cues from our footage, and the character (or characters) captured within, we find our way.
Tip No. 2 - The scourge of transcripts, get Soundbite or PhraseFind instead
There have been times I’ve worked with writers and story editors on documentaries who have presented “paper edits” created through transcripts without watching all of the footage. While the sentences they have cut together on paper sound immaculate, they often prove impossible to replicate due to the imperfect nature of human speech patterns.
Do yourself a favor, save the expense, save some trees, and invest in dialogue search software. I apologize to all the transcriptionist out there, but in my experience I’ve found sitting down and watching the footage, marking it, making notes, and having a helpful tool like Soundbite, or PhraseFind, which allows you to search specific spoken phrases or words throughout the editing process, is much more time efficient and relevant mode of work.
Fact, Truth, Story, Character & Tone
So exactly how does editing a documentary make you a better storyteller? Well, in my humble opinion it’s because it puts you in the thick of real life, and forces you to study the complex nature of real people. There’s a level of factual accountability that comes with that, which causes you to have to look at situations from all sides in order to represent what truth is. And, figuring out what truth is can, from time to time, create delicate political situations in the edit bay, with compromises and deep frustrations -- just as in life. There is what people want shown, opposed to what you must show, and the delicate balance lies therein.
What comes out of that struggle, and the whittling down of footage to its core meaning, are the stories of our human experience. They’re messy, sometimes incomplete, sometimes over the top, or shrouded in mystery, but by working through them, and solving visual, character and story conundrums, we become better students of human nature, and in turn better storytellers.
Ultimately, while the approach and workflow between narrative and documentary editing may differ, at the end of the day, as with all of cinema, we’re still locked in a constant battle to balance story and character and to strike the appropriate tone. In turn, the skills we learn in the depths of real human drama become highly transferable to any genre or medium.
Tip No. 3 - You only have a short period of time to introduce the language & story of the film
Documentaries can be anything, but you have a short period of time to introduce what your “thing” is. In “Jens Pulver | DRIVEN” I wanted to make sure from the beginning that anyone, MMA fans or beyond, could understand who Jens was, and why we were watching him. Additionally, I wanted to establish the tone of the film -- its photography, sound, and approach -- in those opening moments so that there were no surprises along the way to get in the way of the story. Before we’re 10 minutes in, the entire visual language of the film has been introduced.
In Bloodsworth -- An Innocent Man, I’ve set out with the same approach, but have squeezed many more elements into those opening moments. Here’s the in-progress example.
Finally, after a decade of working in this medium, I’ve found that documentary is the ultimate training ground for filmmakers. It’s a form that can be done as a crew of one, and generally requires you to get up to speed on everything from running a camera and getting clean audio, to mastering the often overlooked skill of listening to people. It demands that you get out of your comfort zone at every turn, and ultimately leads you to that solitary art of sitting alone in the dark in front of countless hours of footage chasing after the story that lies within.
In a medium (movies as a whole) that is rife with derivatives of derivatives and built upon the narratives of the narratives that we watched as kids on TV and in theaters, these true life stories continue to remind us, in their own small ways of what it is to be human: the beautiful and the ugly. It’s no wonder the medium has blossomed in recent years.
For a great resource on documentaries, visit the documentary about making documentaries, Capturing Reality. There are a number of fantastic interviews hosted with a number of our top documentary filmmakers from around the world.
Check out the Kickstarter campaign for Bloodsworth -- An Innocent Man here.
Gregory Bayne is a filmmaker living and working in Idaho. A veteran editor and cinematographer on numerous feature and documentary films, he has produced and directed two feature films since 2009: the narrative thriller Person of Interest and the intimate documentary Jens Pulver: Driven. This widely praised, fully fan-funded feature about the legendary mixed martial arts champion was released by Gravitas Ventures/Warner Brothers in 2011. Currently, Bayne is in post-production on his second documentary feature, Bloodsworth - An Innocent Man, about Kirk Noble Bloodsworth, the first death row inmate exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States, and in production for his forthcoming series, Zero Point.