7 Documentary Editing Tricks I Love To Use

If you’re new to editing, curious about editing, or have been a professional editor for 50 years, I think we can all agree that editing is a powerful force. The idea that you can burrow in a dark room, not leave for 12 hours, and come out with something beautiful that resonates with people is such a cool thing.

A quick note about me - I’ve been editing professionally for about 3.5 years, but I’ve been editing since I was twelve years old. I just finished editing my feature documentary about Laos, This Little Land of Mines, where you can see almost all the examples below. I mainly talk about documentary and advertising editing because that’s where the majority of my work lies. I’d like to get more into narrative editing, but I find documentary editing to be much more challenging and fun - because most of the film is made in the edit room as opposed to the writing room.

Most of my tips below are for documentary editing, but they are certainly translatable for narrative editing.

  1. The Character Introduction

    • Story is king, and character drives story. People watch movies for lots of reasons, but one of the main ones is to feel less alone - to find something they can relate to on a conscious or subconscious level. When introducing a new character to the audience, take your time. Don’t pop them on the screen with a lower third, that doesn’t make them interesting. Show them doing something true to their character first. Create a montage. Have another character talk about them, foreshadow them for the audience. A specific example of this that I loved was in Netflix’s Wild Wild Country when they introduce the main character (Anand Sheela) deep into the show. In fact, all the editing in this series was incredible. It’s a huge inspiration to me.

  2. Creating A Sense of Place

    • Just like with character, your audience also needs to be slowly introduced to the place. As an editor, it can be very easy to forget that your audience hasn’t been staring at this content/story for days, hours, weeks, or maybe even years. All they know is what you tell them. For my documentary about Laos, I had to constantly remind myself that I should assume 100% of my viewers have never been to Laos. They don’t know what it smells, sounds, or looks like. Giving audience a sense of place - mise-en-scène - is a holistic effort.

  3. Leave Room for Sound and Score

    • I have to honestly say, this is a learned skill. It’s one of those things that is easier said than done, and requires a ton of discipline. I’ve heard it easier for those of us who come from a musical background (which turns out to be a ton of editors). I recommend using temp tracks - but don’t use ones you really love. Just use pieces that have the right tempo and mood - because regardless, you will spend time with these pieces and before you know it, completely bond and fall in love with them. Also - use a site that doesn’t have watermarks. I freaking love Epidemic Sound. Their customer service is attentive and kind. Also MusicBed, because of course. If you’re working with a score composer, ask them if they prefer to work with a rough cut or picture lock. They’ll appreciate it and it’ll make your collaborative partnership easier. A good composer can make your editing look even more amazing!

  4. The Montage

    • We all know the montage. The most famous ones that come to mind are usually work-out montages, like the this well-known scene found in Rocky. What a great movie. Montages are an editing tool used to show the passage of time. They are usually accompanied by dialogue-less scenes and music. But there is more to montage than that. Montages can also be used to tell short stories, like the famous introduction of UP. Montages can be used as texture, which is something I’ve been using in my editing lately. Montages can be used to connect themes by juxtaposing different ideas back to back to help the audience connect two ideas.

  5. The J-Cut

    • The J-Cut is one editing technique I use very often. If you’re an editor or getting into editing, you’ll hear the term J-Cut and L-Cut all the time (if you’re working with the right people!). A J-Cut is when the audio begins before the video. I use this in my film to hep create a sense of place (see #2). I let the audience hear the birds and river before the video shows it to them. Conversely, an L-Cut shows the video before showing sound, or while you’re still hearing the sound from the last clip. These cuts don’t always have to start from black, in fact, most times they are used in dialogue editing. A “J-Cut” means the video and audio in the timeline kind of form a “J” shape, while an “L-Cut” forms an “L” shape. In this video, one of my favorite youtube creatives Justin Odisho breaks it down for you. This technique will make your editing seem professional and much smoother.

  6. Subtitles Are Your Friend

    • After making a feature film with subtitles, I have a lot to say about this subject. Subtitles don’t always have to be ugly type just slapped on top of your video. For my feature film (where you’re reading subtitles 90% of the time) I used Helvetica 91pt font and played around with the subtitles. I let them linger on the screen, I paced them in a way that they were easy to read. If you’re making a video that needs subtitles for it’s audience, I would make those subtitles part of the art. They’re a huge part of the experience, so the more you can integrate them instead of thinking of them as an after thought, the better the experience will be for your audience.

  7. Throw your emotions into it.

    • Finally, my last bit of advice is to throw your emotions into it. There’s a subtle line between cheesy editing and powerful editing, so that’s why knowing your subject matter and audience are very important. But don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Editing is an emotional art form. People are watching your video because they want to feel something. Anger, happiness, somber, enlightened, joy, comfort. Every edit should be justified. Be particular about every frame. Care about the details. Take pride in your work, no matter how big or small.

Bonus tip!

This isn’t really a tip, but I feel compelled to include it! I can’t believe I have to say this - but use external hard drives. I use a Mac and LaCies are the best drives I’ve ever worked with. I’ve also worked with storage cloud systems, drop box, and various raids. I prefer to work with LaCies that have external power source and don’t suck power from your computer. Organize your files. KEEP them organized. Align your Premiere organization with how it is organized on the hard drive. This is how I typically organize a drive:

If you made it this far, I hope you learned something or found something that reinforced what you already knew. Happy editing!



Why I Keep Talking About Laos

Don't feel like reading this long thing, but want to donate to my documentary? Scroll to the bottom or visit my Indiegogo page here. 

Hey everyone!

If you've been following along with me on any form of social media, you've probably seen me post about my trip to Laos. Why do I keep posting about Laos?

If you've never given a second thought to the country of Laos, that might change after you read this. 

The Issue

I've recently stumbled upon a massive and tragic event in American history that most Americans don't actually know about. During the Vietnam War (specifically 1964 to 1973) the United States bombed Laos - a lot. In fact, they bombed Laos more than any other country has been bombed in the history of the world. They bombed Laos more heavily than Syria, Japan, Iraq, Germany, Afghanistan, France, and Israel. They killed thousands and thousands of innocent Lao civilians (98% of the people killed by bombs were civilians). And you haven't heard about this, because it was a covert war done in top secret.  

And if that wasn't bad enough, 30% of the bombs that were dropped, never detonated. They're still littered around the beautiful country of Laos - waiting to explode. Every year, hundreds of unsuspecting Lao civilians accidentally step or strike a bomb and are killed or maimed. 

Laos didn't ask for this - they didn't asked to be carpet bombed for 9 years straight. And they certainly don't deserve to continue living in fear forty years later. 

This is a photo I took during a demonstration UXO Lao did for us in the Xieng Khouang Province. All the land behind them is ridden with 40 year old, active, cluster bombs. This all women team goes out and detonates bombs every day. 

This is a photo I took during a demonstration UXO Lao did for us in the Xieng Khouang Province. All the land behind them is ridden with 40 year old, active, cluster bombs. This all women team goes out and detonates bombs every day. 

Ok, So What?

So what? War is ugly. The US has done a lot of bad things.

"Our healthcare system is a mess! We have Trump for president! Our debt is unfathomable and our country is full of racists!"

Okay, so the United States isn't perfect. This isn't new information, our nation is one of the youngest empires in the world. We are the great experiment. But that doesn't mean we can't try to redeem ourselves to Laos.

Laos didn't receive some occasional bombs here and there because of it's unfortunate neighbor during the Vietnam War. Laos was deliberately carpet bombed for nine years under three United States presidents. This was intentional and it was brutal--and the war goes on for them them every single day. 

There are organizations in Laos like UXO Lao and MAG International that are dedicated to finding, detonating and destroying these bombs on a daily basis. They risk their lives to make Laos a safer place. However, in the past 40 years, they've only destroyed less than 1% of the bombs (to put it in perspective). 

This is horrible! So what do you want me to do, Erin!?

Start by telling your friends. The United States spent more money in 10 days of bombing Laos than they've donated in total to the recovery in the past 40 years. It may seem easy to blame the US government for this lack of resolve--but politicians are followers, not leaders. They haven't done anything about Laos because we haven't asked them to. Quite frankly, relatively no one even knows this happened. I visited Laos with my family on vacation a few years ago and didn't find out about this war until a few months ago! 

So that's why I am making a documentary. I'm committed to making a high quality, well told, truthful, and comprehensive account of the secret war in Laos.

I need your support. Help me spread the word about Laos--don't allow this story to get further swept under the rug. 

To donate to my documentary (tax deductible too!), please visit my Indiegogo fundraiser campaign.

Have Venmo? I also accept Venmo donations - @erinmcgoff.

Thank you so much for your support!



Why Everyone Should Study Martial Arts

I'm 6 weeks into a beginner, one credit martial arts course at American University.  

I spend the hour leading up to my first class obsessively reminding my roommate that I'm taking a martial arts class. 

"Just putting on my sneakers for my martial arts class" I say, not knowing yet that I wouldn't even need sneakers. 

There are a lot of electives in college. Classes like "The History of Drugs, Sex and Rock n Roll" and "The Psychology of Dating" are attractive to many. But a Beginner's Martial Arts? Not everyone's first choice.

So how did a 21-year-old-maryland-born-sorority-girl-film-major end up in a dojo? I'm a curious person. I do what I want. And what I wanted to do this semester was learn the art of martial fighting. 

I had zero interest in martial arts until I started watching a tv show that featured very specific styles of ancient Chinese martial arts. Then it started talking about chi and chakras and other words that are fun to say. Then I started to research it more and more and because fascinated. I thought it was so interesting how the body, soul and mind could be improved so drastically by the ancient practice of martial fighting. 

Growing up with four older brothers, I had to learn how to stand my ground at a young age.

I learned that 1. long nails are vital for self-defense and 2. everyone has a ticklish spot. 

Even though I didn't realize it until now, my childhood actually consisted quite a bit of martial arts. I attended my older brother's karate lessons and would try to follow along while my mom waited with the other parents (mom you should have seen I was a prodigy then why didn't you push me harder). I spent many hours watching my brothers play Final Fantasy and K.O. on Play Station.  When I picture myself as a child, I see a young girl with sticks in her hair and mud on her face crouching in my creek plotting out my next big move in the neighborhood pine cone war. I remember sitting in the basement watching my brother James do knuckle pushups and he would show me the machete he kept in his closet (he's a really peaceful guy I promise). I'm just now starting to realize it sounds like I had quite the violence-filled childhood for a sweet suburban family of 8, but don't worry. My brothers would always "turn down the gore setting" on Grand Theft Auto when I came downstairs to watch them play. We weren't barbarians! 

ANYWAY, despite my half-baked warrior princess of the Maryland bamboo forests childhood, I'd never been into fighting. Anyone who knows me knows I prefer to live my life conflict-free, I'm a mediator. I'm not going to even pretend to act like I know even the basics of Martial Arts, I really don't, I'm such a newbie. But in the 6 weeks I've been learning, it's transformed my life in ways that are hard to describe. 

Taking a Martial Arts course will be the most humbling yet most empowering thing you'll ever do. This didn't sink in until we received our uniforms, the "gi". I wasn't ready for the gi. Up until this point, my fellow pupils and I were just wearing work out clothes to class. But one day we walk in and they hand us our uniforms. We all trade in our Nike and Under Armour apparel for the fresh, stiff, pearly white gis. They teach us how to properly tie a belt (which I'm still practicing).

Look here's a picture of me in mine!!!!!! Pretty sure they had to order one made for a 5th grade boy for me!!!!!!!!!! Mirror pix 4 lyfe. 

I'm ashamed to say, that my first thought was, "oh wow, I have to walk through my college gym wearing this?!" My fresh white gi and pearly white belt weren't exactly the coolest thing to be seen in. Which is stupid of me to even think, because gis are a sacred uniform and should be worn with pride. But being a white belt means I'm a beginner, and beginners aren't cool. I know they say an expert in anything was once a beginner, but I forgot how humbling being a beginner at something actually is.

Moral of the story? Seize the day. Take your martial arts class, whatever that is to you.

Do something you're interested in, create room to discover new passions. Do something unusual! Sling shot yourself out of your warm, fuzzy comfort zone. 

Martial Arts is great because it challenges me to keep myself healthy (mentally and physically), teaches me self-defense and a specific set of skills. If putting "orange belt in Korean Tae Kwon Do" on my resume is wrong I don't wanna be right. Just kidding. Maybe. 




P.S. Shout out to my roommates for smiling and nodding as I show them what I learned in class. I know you don't care, but the smiling and nodding makes me feel loved and special.