Nonfiction Picture Editors Find True Stories in the Raw Footage

Editors who cut documentaries or nonfiction are bound by a code of truth to their subjects. They cannot alter the facts to speed up a narrative or increase drama or tension in their stories.

They often do the job without a blueprint or locked script. When documentary and nonfiction filmmakers set off on a project, they’re inspired by an idea or impression and don’t know where it will take them. And it’s the editors who journey with them that do much of the heavy lifting, sifting through massive amounts of footage to excavate a cohesive narrative.

“The way to get through (all the footage) was just to start taking bite-size chunks. So we started on the Buffalo Bills section and the Watts riots sections,” says Bret Granato, an editor on ESPN miniseries “O.J.: Made in America.” “If you try to look too far ahead, it will paralyze you.”

The filmmakers had originally seen the project as a four-hour documentary but the rough cut was about 10. The version that aired was nearly eight hours long.

“When the audience knows the ending, the only way to get them to stick with us is to [show] the events with a completely different perspective,” says Granato.

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Matt Meech, editor on the BBC America series “Planet Earth II” had to find truth and drama in the stories of giant lizards, Komodo dragons.

“There’s a certain flow that you have to stick to whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, but it’s different in the way you attack the footage.”
Spencer Averick

“If you can ease people into a new sequence by using a genre they understand, it helps to make the transition smooth,” says Meech.“When you have two Komodo dragons crashing into each other it helps to use action film techniques.”

James Wilcox, an editor on the Nat Geo series “Genius,” a scripted show based on the life of Albert Einstein, sees the work of an editor as fundamentally the same whether cutting a doc or traditional drama. The editors on this show compressed certain sequences in Einstein’s life.

“I was inspired by his struggles to live his life and his passion for what his knew,” says Wilcox. “We wanted that truth — his truth — be part of everything we did and you want the same drama and truth to be in any project, whether it’s scripted or documentary.”

For Netflix documentary “13th,” editor Spencer Averick also focused on finding truth, even when it wasn’t clear what that meant. “There’s a certain flow that you have to stick to whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, but it’s different in the way you attack the footage,” says Averick.

“Ava [DuVernay, the director] knew there was this major problem with incarceration so she just started talking to people and I got all this wonderful footage. We had to find the story in there.”

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