24 Feb 2019

How to Edit - Part 2: Ingest & Assemble

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Dealing with Verité

Dealing with a documentary with verité scenes list can be a different battle. There are fewer short cuts when it comes to dealing with this sort of footage, and the work time exponentially increases. I find the most powerful friend in this situation is once again a good notebook combined with a deck of index cards.

Going back over the logging notes, divide up major actions and events into scenes. What moments really stuck out to you as important (where are your markers?), and

Make a list of all the possible scenes for your film. Make up a little title for each scene, and write it on it's own index card. Write down any important moments, beats, visual, etc, as well as where you can find the footage.

Figuring out how all the scenes go together is where that 'zen' thinking comes back into play. How can you construct those telling and defining moments into scenes? How will those scenes build off of each other? How do you intend on giving your audience context for what's happening on screen? How will the events play out?

Again, there is no magic formula to writing a documentary, what works well on an Errol Morris documentary might not work for yours, but there are some general tips that can help you along the way.

Structure your film around people and events - I'll be the first person in line to say that “traditional” three act structure is silly, or at least for people making a film. Three act structure seems to make a lot of sense, after a picture is completed because it is a way to reverse engineer and articulate what is happening on screen from the audience's point of view of a finished product.

Ultimately, for the filmmaker, the problem with this sort of imposed structure is that it disregards the individual mood, style, and needs of a unique story for the pointless sake imposing some generic road map. Especially in the early phases of putting a documentary together, trying to force your story into a shell where “exactly on page/at minute X, such and such happens,” can do more harm than good.

Instead, try to think of putting your film together as a collection of “reels,” or little chapters which are a collection of scenes that explain a little more about what's going on or how an event is playing out. Each reel will tend to run around 12 to 20-ish minutes, and almost act as short films within a film. Feature films will have somewhere between 6 to 10 reels in this case, each made up of any number of scenes.

The only real rules I tend to follow here is that in the first reel you want to establish the who, what, where, when, and why of your main character(s) and start introducing the major themes of the film. The second reel should start building the conflict or issues that will spring up, and finally in the last two reels you should be in the process of answering and resolving the questions you've raised. This might sound very generalized, but you'd be amazed at how liberating it can be to think about this free form!

Grab a sharpie and some of those index cards and start writing. Lay them out on the floor, pin them to a wall, stare at them, keep asking yourself “what if I tried this, does this make sense?” Eventually you'll come to a point where you've laid out your scenes and, at least on paper, everything seems to fall into place. Now is the time to make a commitment to run with it.

Go back through you footage in the computer and lay out what you think you'll need to create the scenes. Save a lot of the detailed cutting for later, right now, while you're assembling your story, think in the widest brush strokes possible. Don't cut anything too tightly because it will only make it more complicated to revise later.

It's important to dedicate ample time to the assembly edit, to make sure that you have the correct backbone for your film. Although, mulling over your story should never, and I mean never, be an excuse to not be working. There is an inherent fear in many of us that the first thing you put on the timeline just has to be correct. This isn't so. You might be forming the core of your story, but the details and corrections will come later. Trust your gut, follow your first impressions, lay out the story.

Further Reading

How To Edit. Part 1: Preparation

How to Edit - Part 3: The Edit Itself

Peter Haas

... is an award winning Brooklyn-based filmmaker and writer whose first celluloid love was “Godzilla.” Since age 9, he’s been chasing monsters and men, camera in hand. His chief inspirations are classic German Expressionist cinema, the free-wheeling creativity of Terry Gilliam, and the fog-shrouded forests of his New Hampshire birthplace. Through his films, Peter strives to unlock the experience of "ecstatic cinema" -- a viewing experience that challenges, delights, and sweeps up the audience in equal measures.  His work has appeared in American Cinematographer, Red Shark News, various broadcast networks, and various festivals around the world.

Website: www.peterjhaas.com

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