Documentary Film Editors Talk About Their Process

This article was originally published on PremiumBeat’s blog.

Some of Hollywood’s top documentary editors got together at Sight, Sound and Story 2015 to discuss their process. Here are some highlights from their chat.

Documentary film editors Andy Grieve (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, The Armstrong Lie), Zac Stuart-Pontier (The Jinx, Catfish), and Pax Wassermann (Cartel Land, Knuckleball!) sat with Garret Savage (My PerestroikaReady, Set, Bag!) in conversation as part of Sight, Sound and Story’s annual New York City event, presented by Manhattan Edit Workshop on June 13th. Here’s some of what they talked about.

Image from Sight, Sound & Story

Garrett: What kind of thoughts or advice can you give on how to start a film and how not to start a film?

Andy: I think about it as compartmentalizing information. The worst situation is like when you’re on the subway listening to music and your headphones are tied in a knot. You don’t want to end up like that. Start small. Don’t think, “This is the first scene, this is the first clip, this is how I start or end the film,” just watch the footage and make small things and gradually connect things together. I never tie knots I don’t think I can untie. A lot of times I don’t even do much cutting, I just kind of watch and add locators, or cut selects before I really start to assemble scenes. For me a mistake would be cutting a bunch of stuff that becomes useless. It’s getting ahead of the process.

documentary editors
Image from HBO

Garrett: You don’t like creating a ton of select sequences, you like creating fewer rather than more?

Andy: That’s evolved with technology because you can have longer sequences. I just don’t like to have tons of bins open which can be messy. You can find the process that works for you. I know editors that write out tons of note cards and put them all over the wall. Everyone has their own sort of process, but in a bigger sense it’s about not being overwhelmed and finding a way to keep things separate, and then once you’re ready, start putting it all together.

Pax: I have a discussion with the director about why they wanted to make the film and what moments they really want to pop in the film. A lot of times those moments aren’t reflected in the footage. Sometimes you do have to cut a scene to get the director’s confidence in order to have the room to play. With the younger directors that’s even more necessary because they’re more nervous and anxious.

But first do a very quick overview of watching everything, making a lot of notes, holding on the first impressions. I make all kinds of stickies with all sorts of musings and ideas. It gets kind of ridiculous, but I try to hold onto those thoughts because by the time you get the first rough cut those first impressions are gone and you can’t get those back.

Then you make a basic overview reviewing stuff, some of it watching very intently, definitely not going crazy with selects. Selects become a burden at a certain point. You can become beholden to the selects when what you really need to do is just look at the footage. Keep it all open for as long as possible, especially selects for an interview.

Read the full article on PremiumBeat’s blog.

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