Creating a Story Out of Nothing: Editing Unplanned Documentaries into Compelling Stories
I have been working on various projects as an editor for a number of years, primarily in documentaries and digital advertising. When it comes to documentaries, one thing that I constantly run into is documentaries that are shot with no clear story in mind. It is the one thing that I assume I will have to deal with in every project that I take on. Now there are countless ways I know of that can help to avoid the problems an editor faces when attempting to assemble a story from scratch, but unfortunately for a lot of editors, we don’t get called into a project until after it has been shot and people have returned from wherever it was they were shooting. Usually in these cases, pick up shots are next to impossible to get, so how can we tell an intriguing story with footage that has no clear story.
When I approach these short one-off documentaries that is usually just a bunch of talking heads with some additional B-Roll, I use what I call the “setup, build, pay-off” approach.
The first thing to note is that if you don’t have conflict in a story it kind of, in some ways, ceases to be a story and becomes an “information regurgitation” or just moments. If you are trying to tell a good story you need to have conflict.
When I receive the footage my first task, after making sure the footage is organized and properly prepped, is to watch all the interviews. This takes a good amount of time but it really is the only way to know what kind of material you have to work with. When watching the interviews I search for every bit of struggle, conflict or difficulty that the subjects we are following may be facing.
I feel it is important to setup what the struggle is as soon as possible, but that is not all. If a goal is mentioned, what the subjects are trying to achieve, then I include that as well. It is important to give the audience context as to what is trying to be achieved and then what the opposition is that is keeping them from achieving it.
If it is a story of a business owner starting up their company, look for anywhere that they mention what their business’ vision is, then follow that with what is keeping them from achieving it.
The build is for building a relationship with the subjects of the documentary. What struggles they have, are having, etc. Searching through either interview footage or B-Roll that maybe captures them having a difficult time or struggling is golden for a documentary. There is a reason why big blockbusters have so much destruction in movies, it builds tension and gives you reason to root for a character. So use anything that resembles struggle to help connect with your audience. Just be sure you have setup your story properly, without context struggles means nothing.
This is the part that brings the smile, the tear, the warm fuzzy feelings. If you have done your job by properly setting up the goal and struggles with experiences of difficulty, your pay-off can bring it all home. Searching for that moment may be hard, but what to search for in your footage is any mention of a success or conclusion to the work being done. The pay-off doesn’t have to be a success, it can be identifying missteps and moving forward, complete failure, etc. The pay-off you decide on really depends on two things 1) what does the story call for and 2) what footage do you have.
This approach has worked for me on countless projects, but don’t feel the need to include every story element. I always search for the strongest single story in the footage, it helps if the client/documentarian has a little bit of an idea of what they are looking for, if not then go with the biggest struggle that most directly matches the subjects goals.
I know, B-Roll is also sometimes lacking. This one is really hard, but as a note, using footage out of context will often times give you the proper material you need to supplement your story and feel “in context.” An example might be someone who is looking at a piece of paper, out of context they could look concerned or worried, it takes some creative manipulation but there is sometimes more in the B-Roll than you would first expect.
If the client is happy then your job is done and you can only hope that the next time they plan a little better. If not, then at least you have some tools in your back pocket to help you get out of a bad situation.