How to Cut Short Documentary Films, Part One: Organizing Your Footage Like a Pro

In celebration of their latest promotional offer, our friends at The Academy of Storytellers have pulled two impressive pieces of educational content out from behind their paywall.

Before we get to today's lesson, which is all about how to get effectively organized when cutting short-form documentaries, here's a little bit of information about the Academy. First up, their introductory video:

Essentially, the Academy of Storytellers is an ever-evolving education solution for independent freelance shooters and production houses alike. In addition to the technical and creative tutorials, they've got all sorts of information about everything from pitching clients and maintaining fruitful client relationships, to pre-producing, budgeting, and more. There are well over 125 exclusive tutorials right now, and they add two more every week. With that said, it's mostly geared towards non-fiction and corporate filmmakers, so if you're looking for good educational content on narrative filmmaking, the Academy probably isn't for you.

Academy of Storytellers Logo
So, here's the promotion that they're currently running. From now until Friday November 13th at 9 PM PST, you can register for the Academy with promo code "awesomesauce" and save $80 off the annual Academy membership fee (bringing the total down to $299 for a year of filmmaking education). As a bonus, you'll also receive a promo code for 25% off a new Vimeo PRO subscription. 

Now that all of that is out of the way, let's get to the fun stuff. Short-form documentaries have exploded in popularity in the past few years, thanks in no small part to the fact that high-quality video and sound can be had for less money than ever before. They provide an effective method to profile an individual or a brand, and they're a great way to document an event or even a sandwich that you love.

Here's Ryland Brooks, the in-house editor at Story & Heart, to show you his exact process for cutting short documentary content. In this first tutorial, Ryland walks us through the un-sexy but critically important organization process that makes assembling the story a breeze. Here's part one:

Essentially, what Ryland is recommending here is that instead of bins, you use a series of well-organized sequences to keep all of your most important media where you can easily access it. For instance, he builds a sequence for every individual interview, cuts out all of the fluff, then labels everything using a disabled slug of black video on top the other video tracks. That way, you can just look at the top track to know exactly where you are in the timeline. He then does the same thing for each individual reel of B-roll. In order to keep track of the great moments that he will definitely want to include in the finished piece, he simply bumps up the slug of black video to a higher track.

Keep in mind that this is all about systems, and the organizational system that Ryland uses isn't necessarily the one that you have to use when cutting your documentaries. If using a disabled track of black video on top of everything doesn't appeal to you, don't do it. Just make sure that you have an organizational system that allows you to keep track of your most important pieces of media and access them quickly without having to search around and skim through tons of media. All NLEs today have a ton of built-in tools for staying organized. Choose the ones that work best for you and stick with them.

In another tutorial that we covered earlier this year, Ryland and a few of the talented filmmakers that regularly contribute to the Academy shared their best tips for being as efficient and organized as possible in the edit. This, of course, ties in nicely with the theme of the previous tutorial, and provides a few other helpful tips that you can use for getting your own process organized.

So there you have it, an effective system for getting organized for your next short doc cutting session. In the next video, which you can expect to see on Tuesday of next week, Ryland will share his process for actually building the story, piece by piece.

In the meantime, if you're interested in signing up for the Academy of Storytellers (and saving some money off their regular price), head over to their registration page    

Your Comment


Am i the only one who doesn't like the questions in between the explanations? They just seem so off.

November 9, 2015 at 2:31PM, Edited November 9, 2:31PM


I felt like I just watched a bunch of ads.

November 9, 2015 at 9:47PM, Edited November 9, 9:47PM


Labeling by using items on the timeline is an interesting idea, but I would recommend using an adjustment layer (and not making any adjustments) instead of black video, so that there's no need to worry about making sure that the track it's on is toggled off (not visible).

November 16, 2015 at 8:43PM, Edited November 16, 8:44PM

Tony Virili
Digital Mercenary

When organizing and cutting long interviews I like to utilize markers in Premiere Pro. As I go over the footage I"ll place markers, set the in/out points and add a short comment on what the interviewee is speaking. The benefit of this is being able to use search. Say you have a 30 minute interview of a writer and at 2 points he mentions a book, now while cutting if you require that part you can simply do a search with the name and get that clip.

November 16, 2015 at 11:24PM

Marib Alam

I was just about to say the same thing. Like you say, using markers is a MUCH better way of doing it:
1) You can enter a lot of text and type whilst the clip is playing - I can't type fast enough to transcribe speech in real time but at least type in key words and phrases
2) You can search in the Markers panel (which I didn't even know existed until I happened upon this way of working
3) Adding and then disabling layers of black video seems a real faff - especially having to copy and paste from one sequence to another
4) The marker text shows up in the Source Monitor and on top of clips in the timeline - it follows the clip
5) You can add markers, extend them (Alt+drag) and enter text all whilst the clip is playing (best done by opening the clip into the Source Monitor. Also helps to create a new workspace with Source Monitor and Markers panels large).
This video is not showing best practice, if you ask me.

November 17, 2015 at 1:40AM


Thanks for your detailed comment. I am a noob with editing video, but even to me this article seems like a real hacky approach to dealing with metadata. I feel way more comfortable using features dedicated to storing and searching text, like these 'markers' you describe.

November 18, 2015 at 6:36AM

Tim Beynart
Master of None

Anything to save time is worth investigating. Prior to this way of working, I was making transcriptions on paper - by hand! - with timecode references, then going through with a highlighter. This was fine, but obviously cumbersome. In theory I could take the notes away and work on a paper edit in the traditional manner, but I find that having everything together on screen with the footage fits my way of thinking better. I won't be throwing away my notebook, but this way is faster and doesn't rely on the legibility of my deteriorating handwriting.

November 25, 2015 at 2:31AM


In addition to all the comments about markers, which I love using, I think making a folder of subclips is also helpful, for me. For example, right now I am shooting and editing a piece on public works here in Memphis, TN. I am at a lot of community and public official board meetings, shooting for hours at a time. When reviewing the footage I like to make subclips and name them after the person who is the subject of that particular shot with a one to two word description of what has been said or done as well as a numbering system, in case the same topic is brought up ("sammie bus routes 01," for example.) I place them into the folder I have named based on the location and date of where and when I was shooting ("Riverview Community Center 092015," as a folder name). I find it helpful for when I want to find a specific person and moment. I can search and then edit the clip into my sequence easily. But good organization is different for each individual, so I appreciate the additional perspective of this tutorial and all the comments below.

November 18, 2015 at 11:29AM

Andrew Joseph Gafford
Videographer/Video Artist