Thoughts on editing documentaries, by Steve Audette, ACE

Recently on The Rough Cut Podcast, Steve Audette, ACE shared his thoughts on cutting documentaries for Frontline. Frontline is an in-depth doc series from PBS and has been around since 1983.

The whole interview is fascinating, as Steve recounts his journey through editing and the process for the Frontline team. Along the way, he shared several thoughts about cutting documentaries that stood out to me.

“The mind cannot absorb what the butt cannot endure.”

Steve Audette, ACE

^^ This is my new favorite quote. While verite films (watching life happen, often in real time) are beautiful and moving, they also tend to be longer. This makes it harder for the viewer stay focused, especially in a world full of other options. Steve says they use narration to truncate time and information, and keep the story moving.

Documentaries are different from scripted films, in that you don’t have a set structure or plan. Thus, Steve describes how the editor must understand all of the assets available to him/her (footage, narration, photos, audio, etc.) and hold everything in their mind in an abstract way, and from there work to discern a cohesive structure.

I appreciate that thought especially, in holding all of the information in an abstract way. There isn’t a set structure for how the information should be ordered, so you have to see and understand all of the pieces, and then look for a structure that fits that best.

Lastly, Steve talks about how people usually watch documentaries only once. (When I think back over the docs I’ve watched, I can’t think of one I’ve watched more than once.)

With that in mind, Steve says they work hard to make sure the information is cohesive and understandable, so that the viewer gets everything they need to.

Hearing from someone who has been in the trenches of documentaries for so long was fascinating, both in how he worked and how he thought about storytelling in that medium.