While my focus as a filmmaker has always been narrative work, I’ve spent many weeks and months editing interviews for documentaries and corporate promo videos over the years. The process can be incredibly challenging, but there are some simple fundamentals that can speed you up in the editing room without sacrificing your final product.
The principles I’ve outlined below can apply to virtually any project that involves interviews. It doesn’t matter if you’re working on a feature length documentary, a short film or even a promotional video – it always comes down to crafting a great story through creative problem solving and strategic editing.
The same could be said about narrative editing, but the workflow takes an entirely different shape. With narrative, shooting ratios are typically much lower and you are almost always following a script that can serve as a blueprint.
With interview driven projects, you’re often faced with the task of cutting down a mountain of interview footage. In some cases, you may be working with 10+ hours of interview footage for a video that is only intended to be a few minutes, which is what I want to focus on today.
While it’s always good practice to limit your shooting ratio so you down bog yourself (or your editor) down when it comes time for post. But in scenarios where it’s unavoidable and your source material is simply overwhelming, here’s what to do –
WATCH RAW FOOTAGE AT 2X SPEED
With a deadline looming over you, you need to conserve as much of your precious time as possible for the creative edit. One of the easiest ways to do this is to simply play your source material back at 2x speed (or in some cases even 3x).
That said, this should really only be done at the very beginning of your process, when you’re simply watching your footage back.
As with any project, your first step should always involve watching every frame of your footage to know what you’re working with. You want to do this before you start pulling clips or building out an edit. The 30,000 foot view is so important.
But if you’re working on a project with a tight turnaround and a couple dozen hours of interview material, watching every frame in real time can sometimes be counterproductive. Rather than skip this step entirely (as so many filmmakers do), simply increase your playback speed to watch everything. Even a 20 hour project can be watched in a single day using that method.
The benefit of doing so is twofold.
First off, you know instinctively what you have (and what you don’t), so when it comes time to pull selects you can make decisions with more confidence.
But it also helps highlight really great footage by allowing it to cut through the noise. If a clip jumps out at you at 2x or 3x speed, you know it’s good. And those are the ONLY kind of clips you should be looking for when narrowing down dozens of hours of material.
BE RUTHLESS WITH SELECTS
Once you’ve watched everything at least once, you can start your playback/review process again from the top, this time actually pulling aside selects as you go. Depending on how much source material you have, you may want/need to keep playing back at 2x or 3x even in this phase.
Many editors start with this step and skip over the previous phase (watching the material without pulling clips), which is never a good idea. It may save you a couple minutes up front, but can create major issues down the road if you haven’t pulled the right material.
At the same time, you truly have to be ruthless with your picks. If you’re working on a short film, promo video or corporate spot, you probably only have 2 or 3 minutes to tell your story. That means 99.9% of your source material isn’t going to be used. Remember that going in so you aren’t too precious with your choices.
If a clip doesn’t immediately grab you, stand out from the others, or provide new insight, leave it on the cutting room floor. Some editors will pull far too many clips and then overwhelm themselves in the edit later on. They would always be better served editing using their instincts, and pulling aside only the best of the best material.
PRIORITIZE OPENING & CLOSING STATEMENTS
Even once you hand-pick all of your best clips, chances are you’ll still have tons of trimming to do. Maybe you’ve cut 20 hours of source material down to 1 hour of selects – it’s a great start, but not even close to the 3 minute target you may be after (as an example).
So the next logical step is to make more selects from the clips you’ve already pulled aside. This time though, you’re going to be looking for different criteria.
What I’ve found most helpful in this stage is to look for clips that offer one of the following 3 criteria:
- A great introductory statement
- A great closing statement
- A concise explanation of the video’s throughliune
These three items will make up 90% of what you use in the final edit. Most of the interviews you’ve recorded will get really into the weeds on details that are probably not important for your final product.
Perhaps in the case of a feature length doc, you may need some of that material. But for shorter edits – which is what we’re talking about here – all you need are the absolute essentials. So avoid pulling aside clips that are too wordy or would require you to create too many “frankenbite” edits.
Ultimately, you’ll be left with a fraction of the selects that you once had. If you started at an hour, now you’re probably down to 10 or 15 minutes.
GROUP SELECTS INTO CATEGORIES
Before you eliminate any more clips, I always recommend grouping your selects. In most cases, this will simply take the form of: beginning, middle & end.
In other words, any clip that might work for the intro should go in the “beginning” section of your timeline. Any clip that sums up the thesis really well should probably go in the “end” cluster of clips. Just start loosely pairing things together, not worrying if they cut together perfectly, but simply seeing how your material looks in context when properly organized.
Depending on your project, you may want to group clips in a different way. Let’s say your project follows a week in the life of your interview subject, maybe you’ll organize the clips by: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc.
There’s almost always going to be a section or two that will have too much material, and grouping your clips like this will help you identify those issues. Then, you can start eliminating extra clips from sections that already have an abundance of choice, and narrow your selections down further.
CUT YOUR STORY USING AUDIO
Finally, you can start to actually edit your material by selecting the very best clips from the groupings of clips you’ve created in the previous step.
Don’t worry too much about visuals at this point. If someone is looking off-camera, or there’s an issue with the background – you can figure it out later. For now, you’re just trying to tell the story as best you can with the audio. As long as the dialogue track plays cohesively when you review it, you’ll be able to shape a great finished piece.
So go through all of your final selects and start at the top. Find the very best intro clip and drop it into your timeline. Depending on which clip you choose, that will dictate which clip comes next, and so on.
Follow this process until you get to the end of your selects, and you’ll be left with a timeline that includes only the best clips that are most complimentary to each other.
If your runtime is still a bit long, you can always go through one more time and trim soundbites down further or eliminate clips entirely. But this phase should go quite quickly as all of the heavy lifting and creative problem solving has been done.
ADD B-ROLL & MUSIC
If you’ve followed all the steps above, you should be left with a short timeline of only your best clips, each placed in the perfect order.
Now all that’s left to do is finish the rest of the video! But seriously, that’s the easy part. Drop in a music track, add some spaces and pauses for breathing room, and drop b-roll on top that corresponds with each talking point.
Most of us spend the vast majority of our time in this phase, when we should really be spending the least amount of time here. It’s not that it’s unimportant by any stretch, but it shouldn’t take long if you’ve laid the foundation by building out a great structure and story.
Putting in time up front to pull the best clips you can possibly find and pairing them in a strategic way is 90% of the battle. That’s your story right there… Everything else is just the skin that goes on top of it.
Keep in mind, every project is different and some films (especially long format documentaries) may be best served with a different workflow. But for those of us in need of cutting hours upon hours of interview footage down to short videos under a deadline, I can’t recommend this workflow enough.