Of course it's not nearly as romantic as Helen Van Dongen made it look (pictured below). I don't know about you, but I don't work in an all window, light and shadow filled office with film bins on one side of the room next to a Moviola, but I like to pretend it's like that sometimes. In reality I’m probably not cut out for the linear nature of editing of that time. I admit I’ve been enjoying my developing Super 8 film hobby, but for my day job, it’s hard to imagine living without my beloved Command Z keystroke.
When it comes to documentary in fact, it’s especially hard to imagine non-linear editing due to all the footage often involved. I’ve been told that because film and film equipment was generally expensive, filmmakers didn’t have the luxury of shooting every little thing in case it proved useful in the edit room. I can see how that could work to ones advantage. Sometimes less it more. An editor can get bogged down by having a lot of footage to screen and make sense from. Still, it’s very frustrating to need something and not have it. Sometimes those shots that seem like the filmmaker is just shooting to shoot, can turn into a poetic metaphor in post. You just never know. So I guess I’d rather have too much than not enough even if it means additional time spent screening and making notes. It’s just a necessary part of the process.
A documentary I worked on over the last several years told its story through contemporary as well as archival material. It amounted to around 120 plus hours of footage. As we put together the string out for the story, and just before a story consultant was scheduled to come on board, the filmmaker discovered another 30 hours of possibly very useful footage shot during the ‘80s. It had to be screened, even if we were on a roll. The new footage could change the approach or strengthen weak areas we’d been trying to problem solve. I guess my point is that there are no shortcuts, in my opinion, around screening the footage. It doesn’t matter how much there is. It has to be watched by both the filmmaker and the editor. Ideally it should also be screened by the editorial support staff.
Another project I've been a part of has a decent amount of footage to get through. It requires several people to screen all of it and the filmmaker has assigned an Assistant Editor to start screening so one of the AE will know the footage inside and out. This will be of great value, especially because there is substantial footage.
Screening can't be done in anything but real time if you ask me. A person can easily miss important moments if they're just fast forwarding through footage. Screening takes time, but it will save frantic searches later on because you know that one shot is somewhere on Tape 45, or was it tape 127? Of course sometimes you'll be searching through footage no matter what, but screening in advance allows you to understand better what you have to work with and know where dramatic or seemingly key moments are. Sometimes those places are a good place to start, or at least they are for me. I also remember more than I usually give my recall ability credit for.
Since documentary stories are often shot without a script and sometimes involves archival footage, they are more likely to have copious amounts of material in the edit. Personal essay filmmaking frequently incorporates historical as well as personal imagery. Creatively it’s exciting to have these different elements to work into a hopefully compelling, dramatic and emotional story. Family archival photos and films are frequently rich with nostalgia but they can also convey awkwardness, powerful or funny moments, depending on how the edit is done. I personally enjoy working with these kind of elements, but editing is a time consuming craft and even more so if you are a documentary editor. Although screening tons of footage feels daunting, I have to admit that getting to know the material, as I consider its creative potential, is one of the most interesting stages of the process. Starting on a documentary and diving deep into the material is like getting to know someone you’re curious about. If it’s a good project, it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.