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Because of the nature of documentaries you can often end up with hundreds of hours of footage and unless the footage was shot with a specific script in mind you're often carving through all this material to extract and shape the best and clearest story. Remember, in a documentary thousands of stories can exist, and it's up to you to find the best story for your purposes. So in order to set yourself up for the most success you'll need to prepare well. Let's take a closer look at the preparatory phase. Early on it's beneficial if you can meet with the producer and director so you can gain initial insight into the film's flow as well as be available to consult with on topics relating to the post-production schedule and budget.
It's good to also be aware of all the assets coming in from the production team and determine how much you will need to acquire and create on your own. You'll also need to start planning the distribution requirements. The research stage is an important part that you should not overlook. Without a clear script, you will need to spend time figuring out the story's thesis or main idea. You will need to determine how you'll be able to support this thesis, and you'll need to ask yourself serious questions about your documentary's audience. Additionally, you will need to work to construct a style, and you will need to see what tools and assets you have that can help you achieve your goals.
Now technically, you will need to be aware of all media formats, types, and frame rates that will be used to assemble the documentary. With documentaries, you'll often be working with a plethora of material of all different types. So it's good to know this information sooner rather than later. You'll also need to make decisions regarding the use of hardware and software in the post-production workflow, and you will need to figure out what you already have and what you need to buy or rent. You will also need to go through all your material and log all applicable shots.
Use the production crew's production notes and take plenty of notes yourself. Occasionally, you will get the chance to screen the material with the director, which is nice so you can establish a link to the vision of the project. During this process, you will ideally boil down the footage to 30% to 50% of its entirety to make selects. Essentially, you are mentally carving out the material that you think you'll need even if you choose to capture it all. You should however appreciate your role of objectivity as the person who was not in the field.
Detach yourself from the footage and judge it as the person who is delivering the product to the audience. Before capturing devise a precise labeling and logging scheme. If you're editing for a post house, there's most likely a naming scheme already in place. Perhaps the most common method is to devise a code that involves both the name of the show and the number of the tape or digital file for that show. Once the material is in your project organize it into content and subject specific bins. Also, add custom information to your clips, like rating, quality, description, and composition so that you can easily find clips based on qualitative data.
Remember, hunting and pecking through hundreds of hours of material is not good for the creative process. By the time you found what you're looking for the magic is gone, and you've lost your momentum. Finally, if you have scripts or transcripts, import them and then link your master clips to them using Script Integration. As you can see, there is an awful lot of things you need to figure out before you make your first edit. Indeed, organization of documentary projects is absolutely critical in order to maintain creative momentum and to tell the best possible story.
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