When it comes to the video production process, we’ve explored Power Statements, Creative Briefs, Crews and the Technology that makes it all possible. But we’ve never really looked at the editor or the process of editing.

If you’ve ever watched a craftsmen shape lumber into a beautiful piece of furniture, then you have some idea of what a documentary film editor does–they start with raw elements and craft something beautiful. For editors they work with hours of raw footage and cut away the rough edges to shape a compelling story. And like all craftsmen, the documentary film editor is a unique breed able to find, develop and polish a story.

Selecting the Story

Just like a craftsman patiently selects the right materials, so editors always begin the process by getting acquainted with their content. Much of that story content comes from interviews. For it’s usually from those interviews that the narrative is found. So all documentaries begin and end with the story. That’s why this stage the edit is often called the Story Cut, because it’s here that the editor discovers and selects the stories that will become the foundation for the film.


Shaping the Story

One characteristic of a great editor is their ability to determine which stories will work best, for all documentaries are made of multiple stories. So at this point in the process, the editor continues to shape and refine those stories, guiding and unifying them into the right message. And finding that message can be difficult, maybe that why we call this the Rough Cut. Whatever the reason, this is where the editor begins to refine and shape the story–think about timing, pace and feel.


Finalizing the Story

By this time, the editor has spent days, weeks and sometimes months with the film. He knows the characters and their stories intimately. And it’s through the knowledge that she can now begin the finishing touches or the Final Cut.

Here minor adjustments are made to make sure every frame is in place. Here the editor will ripple, slip, slide, or roll an edit to make sure everything is where it needs to be. Here edits are measured not by hours, minutes or seconds, but by frames, (and there are 30 of them in every second). But to the editor these frames matter, because at the end of this stage, the film will be “locked”, which means after this, nothing will move–video or audio. Then and only then will the story be finalized.


Polishing the Story

The story is in place and the picture has been locked. Now the editor uses his last 2 tools, the nuance of color and sound to polish the story to perfection. The goal here is to make sure nothing draws the viewers attention away from the story.

Here hundreds or thousands of audio files are taken into an audio suite and mixed. And while the audio is being mixed, the editor will use color to enhance the tone and mood of a scene. It’s during the color correction process that colors can be changed and day turned into night. This is where the film is polished to perfection so that the story shines.

In the end, editors are craftsmen, storytellers and technicians. They are a unique breed of artist who work with pixels instead of wood, marble or stone. Sure, anybody can buy a computer and download editing software, but it takes more than a computer and software to be a editor. It takes a craftsmen to find, develop and polish the story of a film.

QUESTION: What are the best characteristics of the editors you’ve observed?