Within the last couple of weeks I started the process of submitting my first documentary feature film to a few festivals. Completing the movie was a three year process and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next. But after scouring 4TBS of footage featuring a few hundred hours of events, performances, and multiple in depth interviews, I thought I might share a few nuggets of wisdom I gained (and probably should’ve known beforehand) throughout my shooting and editing process.
Preface: Often when you have what you think is a great idea you will hear the advice, “Just go do it.” or “Don’t wait for permission.” I think these mentalities can be vital when you’re first dipping your toes into new creative waters. Often just by diving straight in you discover a new way of doing things by accident. And there are the other times you just fumble your way through to the end. But learning through making mistakes is a great way to remember what not to do on your next go around. This is a recounting of my own mistakes. Maybe you can avoid them.
Number 1: Log Your Footage Immediately or As Soon As Humanly Possible.
After a long day, week, or several weeks of shooting you might have the impulse to dump your footage on a hard drive and give yourself some space and rest from the thing you’ve been staring at through a camera for hours on end. You’re tired. You’re hungry. You want to have a bowl of cinnamon toast crunch and go to bed. I get it. Burnout is a real thing. Then there are two or three more shoots that come and go where you do the same thing. Before long you’ve created a major backlog of work for yourself. Setting up your project then naming and describing all of your footage in a clear and concise way as soon as you possibly can is going to save you from a great deal of pain, frustration, and delays. The longer you wait, the less fresh the footage becomes in your mind. If you procrastinate, you’ll spend hours rewatching footage in order to remember everything you’ve shot. Don’t do it! Save yourself! Logging properly and quickly will save you from overshooting and capturing duplicate footage as you move forward in a project. It just makes sense. Know what you’ve shot by logging your footage.
Number 2: Sound is Most Important
If you have bad sound in your interviews or during key moments of your film you don’t have a thing worth sharing. Make sure you have a quality sound set up.
On a few of my interviews, due to financial constraints I tried to work with just one lapel mic resting between two subjects. It made my sound editing so much more difficult. If you’re using lapel microphones, make sure your subjects have their own mic and that each mic is being recorded to its own channel.
Another thing to remember ( and this is getting more technical ) before you start editing is to make sure your audio clips are set up correctly in your browser and sequences. Premiere Pro has been known to import audio tracks as stereo tracks into your timeline. I don’t know anyone who actually likes this setup, but I’m sure there’s a reason for it somewhere. Most of us will want our two mic inputs from our camera to import as two individual mono tracks (also referred to as dual mono). Here’s a link that describes what I mean in more detail and how to fix it if you’re having this issue. Make sure you modify your clips before you begin editing. I cut the first 3rd of my movie with stereo tracks as my audio and then had the joy of trying to go back and fix it. If you make sure your audio is setup correctly before you start cutting, adjusting and tweaking your sound will be so much easier.
Number 3: Trust Your Instincts on Story and Don’t Overshoot
I am a fan of the gut feeling. It occurs on projects when we know we have captured everything we need to tell a compelling story. But we all remember the early days at the computer when we realized we missed a shot from our list or don’t have enough cover footage--that time we panicked and had to figure out how we could make it work, or scheduled reshoots, or whatever. But at some point as a shooter and editor you consciously or unconsciously reach a new level. It’s the point where you’re shooting for your edits as you go. And in that, there will be a moment when you feel like you’ve got it--everything you need to finish a great edit and deliver. Listen to that feeling. Shooting more footage than you need is a waste of your resources. It’s a waste of your time on location, it’s a waste of time for your subjects and/or actors and crew, it’s a waste of money if you’re paying anyone or delaying the return of rented equipment, and finally a waste of space on hard drives that are infinitely filling up as fast as they can be purchased. If you have to convince yourself that you “might need this shot” for some weird, unlikely scenario, you don’t need it. And even in the unlikely event that you could’ve used it, if you planned well and covered yourself there’s something else you captured that will work. Trust yourself. If you don’t, work on getting to the place where you can. It just feels better.
And that’s all I have today. While most of my experience comes from documentary style work as a Producer/Shooter/Editor, I think these tips are applicable to scripted work as well. Let me know if you have your own tips you learned from years (or even months if you're actually new to this) of multiple mistakes and missteps. Learning by doing can be fun, and sharing what we glean from our errors can help us all be better filmmakers and people.