Documentary Editing Tips for Working with Lots of Footage

When it comes to approaching each of the phases in the documentary editing process, you need detailed, well-planned, and clear strategies that will lead you through every step of the process.

The steps include managing and organizing raw footage, developing selected reels and every other stage down to the final export.

It takes a bit of craft and talent to take seemingly shapeless footage and turn it into focused scenes, but with proper guidelines by your side, it’s possible to learn how to craft a proper structure for a documentary.

Importance of Documentary Editing

In the past few years, documentaries have gained a great deal of importance, and viewers are demanding more and more documentaries with each passing day. Such high demand has caused an increase in the audience’s expectations as well.

This only emphasizes the importance of documentary editing even further. Filmmakers are now required to pay special attention to storytelling and style, as the standards go higher and higher. The truth is that if it’s done right, a documentary can thrill audiences, regardless of its length.

With all this in mind, if you need to polish your production to meet the latest demands and standards, here are six excellent tips that will help you achieve your goal.

Six Documentary Editing Tips

1. Subtle movement is useful

  • Since most of your screen time is made of documentary interviews, you can use them to work on your skills and creativity.
  • Still, you will be challenged, as making a wrong move might cause you to lose momentum.
  • Keeping a headshot or covering your interview footage with b-roll is an important decision to make.
  • If you want to tell a story, sliders might help to keep things fresh and without any distractions while they draw your viewers into the footage.

2. Interesting Personalities are a Must

  • By featuring interesting personalities and characters, you can add a whole new dimension to your video.
  • This will make it stand out by adding the complexity needed when covering certain subjects.
  • Additionally, these personalities will help your viewers get further into the story and understand it better.
  • Capture your viewers with something more than just a story. Present charismatic and charming characters in memorable ways, and you will win your audience over.

3. There are Multiple Camera Angles for a Reason

  • You can do whatever you want in the editing room if you use multiple cameras.
  • This will give you more options and possibilities, as different angles of shots add to the subject’s on-screen eloquence.
  • On top of all that, you can manage verbal tics and pauses better when using multiple camera angles, all while adding more dimension and intimacy to your subject.

4. Sound Plays an Essential Role

  • Sound is almost as important as video, as it helps to elicit emotional responses from the viewers together with visuals.
  • Capturing ambient sounds, therefore, plays an essential role in your documentary editing
  • Punctuating certain emotional moments with music will only add to the entire viewing experience.

5. Lighting is Important

  • If your lighting sucks, the quality of your camera is irrelevant. So, proper lighting is simply a must if you want your video to look professional, but more importantly, engaging.
  • Since lighting has a few basic principles, follow them until you get the best result.
  • It’s always best to use a natural light source if possible.

6. Find good inspirations

  • Spend some time exploring, analyzing, and examining your favorite movies, documentaries, and videos.
  • This will give you a useful insight into how directors use sound, light, and other elements.

This will also point you in the right direction when it comes to proper use of shadow and contrast.

Hire a Professional Video Editing Company

If you find it a bit overwhelming to follow these steps of the documentary editing process, hiring a professional video editing company might just be the best way to achieve your goals.

These highly skilled professionals and experts are always ready to share their knowledge and skills where they are needed the most. With the best, cutting-edge technology, these companies will be able to help you create unique and memorable documentaries with excellent editing, at the most affordable prices.

There are many good video editing companies, one of them being Video Caddy (VCD). Their highly customizable and personalized solutions will match your exact requirements.

Tips for Working with Lots of Footage in Documentary Editing


You will need to handle a lot of footage if you want to film a documentary, and that makes the edit challenging. Still, managing the project can be a lot easier if you follow these simple guidelines.

Keep Track While Shooting


Keep track of whatever you are doing by taking down notes all the time. The more, the better. This includes every piece of information related to your project, such as the subject, time, date, and so on. This will help you remember all the details when it matters the most and allow you to keep things well-organized.

There are cameras that allow you to make notes directly on the files, but if you don’t have them, a simple notebook will do just fine. The things you need to keep track of are:

  • Date
  • Time
  • Location
  • Subject
  • Recording settings
  • Gear
  • Other cameras
  • Context

Always Have a Backup of Your Recorded Footage

The moment you finish recording, upload, organize, and take a backup immediately, especially if your shootings last more than one day.

The best thing to do is to use a laptop to store your footage data and keep it from getting lost, over-recorded, or deleted.

To keep your files organized, arrange them into relevant folders, and it will be easier to keep track of your progress. This is crucial to prevent any loss of footage, so always back up your footage.

B-roll and Interviews Don’t go Together

Keeping b-roll and interviews apart is a smart thing to do when working on your documentary footage. If it’s standard interview-driven footage, keeping the two separated will make working on your material easier. With that in mind, you should always start with the interviews.

Build a strong foundation for your documentary by using the NLE timeline with all the interview bites. You can create your NLE timeline by pulling quotes from the interview footage. The next step is to use your B-roll shots to give a visual aspect to your narrative that will add to certain interview points.

Prioritized Bins

To separate B-rolls and interviews, it’s best to create different bins. You can prioritize these bins based on the frequency of use. Delete any footage that you don’t use to avoid confusion and keep things tidy.

Deal with Sequence by Sequence

Since you’ll be working with a lot of footage, go at it one sequence at a time. It simply isn’t possible to edit your documentary as a whole, so take it sequence by sequence to avoid getting frustrated, lost, and overwhelmed.

The Story Arc is the Summit of Your Work

Your documentary has a story of its own and to be able to tell that story in a meaningful and compelling way, you need to have an intro, middle, and end. This is what is required in order to create a story arc that will cause an emotional response from your viewers.

Close-Ups and Medium Shots

If you always want to maintain the attention of your audience, use close-ups and medium shots. While wide shots are excellent in certain situations, close-ups and medium shots will help you make your documentary more relatable.

Helen Clark is a professional content developer at Video Caddy. She works closely with creative and videography professionals and has in-depth knowledge of video, animation, storyboard topics.

Guest Author

Would you like to become a guest author or video contributor for Video Entrepreneur Magazine? Send your article and video ideas and / or samples to editor@vtrep.com for consideration. Author resource box and backlinks included.