Non-Fiction Editing: A Basic Workflow

I remember hearing a quote years ago from a sculptor who was asked how he could create such wonderful sculptures from a block of marble. His reply was that the statue was always inside the marble. He just knew which pieces to chip away.

I feel that way when editing non-fiction stories, like the ones I work on for St. Jude. When I first sit down with all of the raw footage, it can be daunting. It's difficult to get my head around all of the material, because we usually capture a lot of great stuff when working with patients and their families. The challenge is to pull all of those interviews and all of that b-roll into a concise, compelling story that does justice to the families, while presenting St. Jude's mission in an authentic and meaningful way. Like the statue that slowly reveals itself from the large block of marble, so too does a good non-fiction narrative - if you know where to cut.

Here's a brief overview of my workflow as I sit down and start putting together a non-fiction story:

Getting Organized

The first thing I do is set up different bins for my different needs. I have a separate bin for each interview and each interview subject. I also have separate bins for all of my b-roll. For example, let's say I spend a day shooting with a family at a local park. Well, all of the park footage will go into a bin. B-roll footage at the family's house will go into another bin.

Once I create all of my bins and folders, I start the tedious process of logging all of the footage. I take the original interview clips and start subclipping them into smaller parts. I add comments to each subclip, typing in key thoughts, phrases, and bites into the Comments field. That way when I'm scrolling through my bin later, I can quickly return to a specific sound bite when I need it.

Building Each Chapter

I try not to tackle the entire story in one go. For me, it's still too early to see every little twist and turn a story may take. I have a general idea of how I would like for the piece to be structured (this is discussed during pre-production), but the actual path of getting from A to Z has yet to unfold.

Therefore, I don't bite off more than I can chew in my first pass. I take what the interviews give me and start to assemble the story slowly, by concentrating on specific sections of the narrative. For example, I might work on a section pertaining to a family's home life. Then I might work on another section that focuses primarily on the subject's interests or personality. The point is simply to rough in all of the story's individual chapters. I build out all of these sections as separate sequences. When I make revisions to these sequences, I always create a duplicate first. That way, I can always go back to a previous edit if I need to. In fact, it isn't unusual for me to take bits and pieces from previous versions and use them in updated versions.

I enjoy building the story in separate sequences because it gives me the flexibility to re-order the chapters easily as I start to build the entire story.

Master Assembly

What's great about modern NLE's is the ability to nest sequences. Once my individual chapter sequences are assembled, I will start to nest those into a master sequence, so I can get a better sense of how the overall story will flow. If the arc isn't working like I want, I can then easily re-order the nested sequences to help make the story better. And just like the individual chapter sequences, I create a new master sequence each time a different editing choice is made. This method is helpful not only for the editor, but also for the editor-client relationship. Sometimes clients will ask for changes, only to change their minds and ask you to go back to the way it was before. Sometimes they may ask you to go back to the way it was two versions ago. If you are diligent about keeping your sequences numbered and organized, it's easy to revert back to an earlier version.

In another post I hope to write more about the process of building a story. For now, I thought it might be helpful to provide a brief technical overview of how I organize my projects.