Write & Assemble
The best way of describing the writing part of a documentary is that it is very “zen.” You have all these quotes, scenes, moments and shots in front of you and you have to start putting them together in a way that tells the story.
Simply put, there are no true short cuts, there are no magic formulas. You have to have a clear vision of what the story you want to tell is about and how you want to lay it out to your audience, but there are some basic workflows we can discuss here to make your edit go faster and easier.
First, ask yourself, what kind of documentary are you intending on making? Is it composed mostly of sit-down interviews? Are there many verité scenes that are going to be used to tell the story of the film? Will it be a mix? Both methods have a similar workflow, but slightly different tricks to getting the job done.
The fastest route to assembling the first pass of a film rooted in sit-down interviews is to create a rubric of subjects and/or themes. Typically you will ask multiple people about similar events or subjects. Create a list of these subjects (I sometimes color code) as a guide. Now, go through your interview transcripts and label quotes based on that list.
Make a new GROUP called “Rubric” and add a bin for each of your rubric subject.
Referring back to your marked transcript, create sub-clips of your selections.
Creating a sub-clip will create a new, trimmed, version of the clip, but only the portion that you have selected, making it easier to find specific parts of the clip.
It's a good practice to rename the sub-clip (don't worry it won't effect your original media) to something specifically recognizable. For instance: “DAVID.Redshark History TK1” (TK is short for TaKe).
Now go through all the sub-clips you have created and sort them into their own individual bins. If you have renamed your sub-clips to include the title of the rubric then you can use your NLE's search function to quickly sort the clips for you.
Once you have all your interview bites organized, you need plan out how you want those subjects to play out in our story. Make, yet another, list of what you think the story needs to unfold using the titles of the rubrics you created. This will create an outline, a roadmap for your assembly.
Now, here's a fun trick for quickly slapping together your assembly:
First, create a new edit.
For each subject in your outline, open that bin, and select all the sub-clips. Now drag those clips to your edit's view monitor and... there you have it! You just made your first, albeit rough, assembly of the scene. Continue to do this for each subject. The assembly will come together incredibly fast. Obviously, not all of this material is going to make it into the film, but now the film has some basic structure for you to work with.
If you're going to work with scenes it's a good idea to treat them like you a narrative fiction film. Make a list of all the scenes you have, write each scene on an index card and tape them up to the wall.
I typically make a bullet point list of important events, visuals and/or actions that occur within the scene.
In a manner similar to the sit-down interview method, create sub-clips based of the scenes and bullet points, and organize your materials into appropriately named bins.
You can easily add the best parts of a clip to a new edit by using the “insert” tool.
A small technical, house-keeping aside about your edit. It's a good idea to keep your video and audio tracks organized and consistent throughout your process. This will make mastering your film a lot easier on the colorist and sound mixer, and for yourself when you go about makes changes.
Here's how I generally lay out my audio and video tracks:
V1 - Main picture / verité scenes or interview
V2 - B-roll and scenics / cutaways / stills and graphics
V3 - titles
A1–4: Location Sound
A5–6: Voice Over (or ADR)
A11, Forward: Sound Effects
You can find your own way method for arranging tracks, but what ever you choose if you remain consistent throughout the process, you and your finishing editor(s) will thank you later!