×

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.

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.”

More Artisans

  • Crawl Movie

    'Crawl' and Other Disaster Movies Pose Unique Obstacles for Production Designers

    The rampaging fires, earthquakes and storms of disaster movies present unusual challenges for a production: On top of the normal work of creating a film’s lived-in and realistic locations, designers must build sets that the forces of nature can batter, flood and ravage into something completely different. Take “Crawl,” in which a Category 5 hurricane [...]

  • Costume designer Michele Clapton

    Costume Designers Fashion a Plan to Fight for Pay Parity in Upcoming Contract Talks

    The Costume Designers Guild Local 892 is gearing up to fight for pay equity in its 2021 contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, establishing a pay-equity committee to raise awareness of the scale disparity between the mostly female CDG membership and the mostly male membership of the Art Directors Guild Local [...]

  • This photo shows composer Hans Zimmer

    Hans Zimmer on Recreating Iconic Score: 'The Lion King' 'Brought People Together'

    Composer Hans Zimmer is seated at the mixing board at the Sony scoring stage, head bobbing to the music being performed by 107 musicians just a few yards away. He’s wearing a vintage “Lion King World Tour” T-shirt, frayed at the collar. On the giant screen behind the orchestra, two lions are bounding across the [...]

  • On-Location Filming Slides 3.9% in Los

    On-Location Filming Slides 3.9% in Los Angeles in Second Quarter

    Held down by a lack of soundstage space, total on-location filming in greater Los Angeles declined 3.9% in the second quarter to 8,632 shoot days, permitting agency FilmLA reported Thursday. “Although our latest report reveals a decline in filming on location, local production facilities tell us that they are operating at capacity,” said FilmLA president [...]

  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

    How 'Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood' Turned the Clock Back for Its Shoot

    Crossing the street took months for the crew that turned back the clock 50 years on Hollywood Boulevard for Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” Production designer Barbara Ling created false fronts for buildings that were constructed off-site and installed by crane just ahead of the shoot. Set decorator Nancy Haigh described [...]

  • Just Roll With It Disney Channel

    Disney Channel's Scripted-Improv Comedy Crew Shares How They 'Just Roll With It'

    The title of the new Disney Channel series “Just Roll With It” appears to be as much a directive for its cast and crew as it is a description of the multi-camera hybrid sitcom, which is part scripted and part improv. The plot revolves around the blended Bennett-Blatt family — strict mom Rachel (Suzi Barrett), [...]

  • "SpongeBob's Big Birthday Blowout" cast

    'SpongeBob' Voice Cast on Acting Together in Live-Action for 20th Anniversary Special

    On a brisk morning in February, the members of the voice cast of Nickelodeon’s flagship animated series “SpongeBob SquarePants” gathered to work on a new episode, like they’ve done most weeks over the past 20 years. But instead of being in a recording booth, this time they’ve assembled at a diner in Castaic, Calif., shooting [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content