Shoot + Direct: Documentary

Part 3: Edit

The UK’s top directors, producers and editors share practical advice and insider tips to help you stand out from the crowd

A scene from Miraculous Tales (BBC NI)

A scene from Miraculous Tales (BBC NI)
"The edit is the brutal truth,
when all the chickens
come home to roost and you discover whether you’ve just wasted an awful lot of time and money or if you’ve nailed it"

Lee Phillips, Series Producer, Self-shooting Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV)

Lee Phillips, Series Producer, Self-shooting Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV)

Whether you’re assembling a tightly scripted series, sculpting a complex ob doc or cutting your own film, the edit is where you see your vision take shape.

This guide looks at how award winning observational, presenter led and poetic factual films are put together. It sheds light on the collaboration between director and editor as well as the decision-making and storytelling process in the edit.

Storytelling tips

Narrative is at the heart of factual programme making
If your story can’t be perceived by the audience, you’ve failed.

There are no absolute truths
Don’t be afraid to make decisions and craft your own version of the narrative.

Edit what you have got
You need to work with the events, comments and emotions that you have captured on video. Let go of the things you scripted or hoped for but didn’t get.

Editing is reordering
If you are true to your subject and it’s not misleading then you can alter theorder of things.

Your objective is to create acredible world
The story can be extraordinary but should be consistent and make sense in thecontext of your world.

Reveal the emotional world that your characters inhabit.

Every scenario is different
Don't restrict yourself by trying to adhere to a template. Stay open minded.

Be open to criticism
If anyone has comments on your work you should listen. You might not agree withtheir criticism but it could indicate another problem that you can identify and change.

"Knowing how to edit makes you a better shooter. You instinctively know the shots you need to tick off in order to have a cut-able sequence - big wide, close-up, reaction shots..."

Lee Phillips, Series Producer, Self-shooting Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV)

Lee Phillips, Series Producer, Self-shooting Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV)

Observational films

HMP Aylesbury (ITV) was produced by Wild Pictures and follows some of the country’s most troubled young offenders. This observational series was primarily shot by Lee Phillips working with a shooting assistant producer who helped cover flash points and find characters and stories.

HOW TO BUILD AN OB DOC

Lee Phillips, Series Producer/Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV), Coppers (Channel 4)

The post-production for the two-part HMP Aylesbury (ITV) was run across two edits simultaneously. Filmmaker and experienced editor Paul Dosaj did the main crafting of the episodes. Lee spent time in another edit assessing and culling characters and storylines before feeding the most promising ones to Paul.

Observational films can be time consuming and expensive

‘I wish I could find a simpler way of making these films a quicker way of making these films, They take forever, the take a long time to edit and they are ultimately quite expensive’.

Lee Phillips, Series Producer, Self-shooting Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV), My Breasts Could Kill Me (Sky 1)

HMP AYLESBURY (ITV)

HMP Aylesbury (ITV) - Please note this clip contains disturbing scenes

HOW TO EDIT AN OB DOC

Paul Dosaj, Editor/Producer - Miraculous Tales (BBC NI), HMP Aylesbury (ITV)

OB DOC EDIT TIPS
WITH SERIES PRODUCER AND SELF-SHOOTER LEE PHILLIPS
HMP Aylesbury (ITV), Coppers (Channel 4)

Some films are made in the edit
It’s difficult to structure and plan an observational documentary before the editing stage. Don’t try to force the narrative during the filming: ‘People say to you what’s it about? I say ‘I don’t know what its about yet’. I will know where it’s got strengths and where it’s weaker. But I’m going to let the footage and the characters tell me what itsabout as I go along’.

Legal issues
When making films where the characters are likely to be involved in criminal trails or legal disputes, for example, documentaries shot in prisons or following the police, be aware that incidents, characters and storyline may have to be cut at any moment for legal reasons. You need to shoot enough quality material to compensate for this: ‘This sounds crazy but in an ideal world I want to be able to ditch all of my edited film and still make the film again from my other rushes, that’s how much back up I want in terms of good material’.

Share your knowledge
Run through with your editorthings like characters that you know have an interesting emotional journey and are well covered in terms of what has happened to them. Then, hopefully with the aid of a good log, let them examine the footage.

Trust your editor
Find an experienced editor that has a similar taste and sensibility to you and trust them to get on with their work and make you look good. There’s no need to sit looking over their shoulder.

If the editor likes your material it can be a huge confidence boost, but more than that they offer a fresh perspective and will often improve the film by seeing a scene in completely new way that you hadn’t considered.

"The editor is the first viewer and first audience member you aim to please. You want them to desperately want to cut your footage. To make sense of it and help you make sense of it"

Lee Phillips, Series Producer, Self-shooting Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV)

If the editor likes your material it can be a huge confidence boost, butmore than that they offer a fresh perspective and will often improve the filmby seeing a scene in completely new way that you hadn’t considered.

Don’t judge
Key attributes in the production of HMP Aylesbury were covering everything thoroughly, being instinctive and following action as it unfoldedand forming relationships with very troubled people without being judgemental. The viewer is with the prisoners and can empathise with them, which makes for a richer film. The filmmaking was not ‘arch’ or underhand and it’s important to be able to confidently show a film to the contributors.

Poetic films

Paul Dosaj is an award winning filmmaker of a wide range of narrative documentaries. His credits range from editing landmark series Welcome to India (BBC Two) and ob doc HMP Aylesbury (ITV) to producing and editing more experimental films like Miraculous Tales (BBC Northern Ireland).

Directed and shot by Daniel Vernon and executive produced by Alison Millar of Erica Starling Productions. Miraculous Tales was made without conventional narration and the film has a mystical atmosphere.

"Director Daniel Vernon has an unusual sensibility. He wants to explore away from the mainstream, which leads to very interesting rushes. He shoots in a way that’s unconventional and cinematic, which leads one to enter a magical world. I think there should be more films like Miraculous Tales commissioned"

Paul Dosaj, Editor/Producer - Miraculous Tales (BBC NI)

A PLACE YOU WOULDN’T NORMALLY GO

Paul Dosaj, Editor/Producer - Miraculous Tales (BBC NI), HMP Aylesbury (ITV)

Miraculous Tales was originally conceived as a film about the effect of the collapse of the Irish Economy on rural people inIreland. The filmmakers were not interested in making a current affairs film and had difficulties casting ‘people were very reticent about talking to us and it felt as if it wasn’t going to be a really profound story’. Eventually a very different kind of story began to emerge.

MAKE MIRACLES – SHOOT THEN REVIEW

Paul Dosaj, Editor/Producer - Miraculous Tales (BBC NI), HMP Aylesbury (ITV)

Miraculous Tales (BBC NI)

Miraculous Tales was shot over a number of filming blocks in between which the producers reviewed the footage and assessed what else was required. In this unconventional way a lyrical and experimental film was crafted.

SCULPT STORY FROM RUSHES

Paul Dosaj, Editor/Producer - Miraculous Tales (BBC NI), HMP Aylesbury (ITV)

"The editing process on an observational documentary is very organic. But on a presenter led film I can see the structure clearly, certainly by the time I’ve shot it, but ideally before we even get the camera out"

Lee Phillips, Series Producer, Self-shooting Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV)

Lee Phillips, Series Producer, Self-shooting Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV)

Presenter led films

One of the ways that presenter led films differ from ob docs is that it’s possible to write a shooting script, with pieces to camera and narration, that can be adhered to right through to the final cut.

STRUCTURE A PRESENTER LED FILM

Lee Phillips, Series Producer/ Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV), Coppers (Channel 4), My Breasts Could Kill Me (Sky 1)

Lee directed Dawn O'Porter on a number of films including My Breasts Could Kill Me (Sky 1)

MY BREASTS COULD KILL ME (SKY 1)

My Breasts Could Kill Me (Sky 1)- Pre-titles

"An editor won't love it the way I love it and that's important. They will spot things because they are watching just the footage on screen. They're not distracted by the fact that I got up at three am to get that shot"

Lee Phillips, Series Producer, Director - My Breasts Could Kill Me (Sky 1), HMP Aylesbury (ITV)

Lee Phillips, Series Producer, Director - My Breasts Could Kill Me (Sky 1), HMP Aylesbury (ITV)

Working with an editor

Logs and transctipts
Having transcriptions of your interviews and conversations and/or logs detailing what is on each clip can be time consuming and costly to produce. They do, however, save a great deal of time in the cutting room. They can be used to select sound bites, to refer back to, to highlight and make notes on.

Story Notes
On a complex documentary it is useful to have detailed notes about characters and their stories, for example what a prisoner was convicted for, when they will be released and which of the other characters they get on with or don’t. You might want to create a database of characters, themes and story arcs.

Watch the rushes together
Where possible it’s a good idea to watch the rushes with your editor, this will mean that you both understand what footage is available and can start talking through ideas and making notes.

Don’t be too prescriptive
Make the most of the skill and experience of the editor when crafting the story.

Find a common language
A collaborative relationship between director and editor is crucial, it helps if you like and trust each other because you’re going to be spending a lot of time together and there will be stressful moments. When executives and commissioners view the film they will add strong opinions to the mix so it’s important for you and your editor to have a shared aesthetic or vision.

Ego is the emeny
The edit suite is not the place to compete or be judgemental, any criticism of the material should be constructive and you and the editor should compliment each other.

OPPOSITES ATTRACT

My Breasts Could Kill Me (Sky 1), Video editor/Producer - HMP Aylesbury (ITV), Miraculous Tales (BBC NI)

"Part of an editor’s job is to be a psychoanalyst and reassure the director that there is something here. If it’s a mess then come up with ideas of what’s needed to actually make the story work, there’s no place for negativity in a cutting room"

Paul Dosaj, Editor/Producer - Miraculous Tales (BBC NI), HMP Aylesbury (ITV)

Don’t worry
You might wonder if your footage is in focus, properly exposed and audible or if you captured the essence of a particular scene. It’s natural for anyone investing time and effort in a creative project to worry about the outcome. Stop worrying.

Your footage will likely be better than you expect and it’s the editors job to help you make the very best of the material. Eventually you will start to see your vision coming together and when you do it’s the most satisfying part of filmmaking.

Miraculous Tales (BBC NI)

Miraculous Tales (BBC NI)

Where next?

SHOOT + DIRECT: DOCUMENTARY GUIDES

Rewind for more production tips from award winning documentary film makers:

IDEA + DEVELOP + PITCH GUIDES