Documentary Editing : Principles & Practice book cover
1st Edition

Documentary Editing
Principles & Practice

ISBN 9781138675735
Published December 18, 2017 by Routledge
262 Pages 100 B/W Illustrations

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Book Description

Documentary Editing offers clear and detailed strategies for tackling every stage of the documentary editing process, from organizing raw footage and building select reels to fine cutting and final export. Written by a Sundance award- winning documentary editor with a dozen features to his credit and containing examples from over 100 films, this book presents a step-by-step guide for how to turn seemingly shapeless footage into focused scenes, and how to craft a structure for a documentary of any length. The book contains insights and examples from seven of America’s top documentary editors, including Geoffrey Richman (The Cove, Sicko), Kate Amend (The Keepers, Into the Arms of Strangers), and Mary Lampson (Harlan County U.S.A.), and a companion website contains easy-to-follow video tutorials.

Written for both practitioners and enthusiasts, Documentary Editing offers unique and invaluable insights into the documentary editing process.

Table of Contents


Introduction: The Construction of Meaning in Documentaries

Principles of Documentary Editing

Your Documentary Editing Panel


Part I: Setting the Stage for a Successful Edit

Chapter 1: Planning Your Schedule

Documentary Schedules: How Many Weeks?

Chapter 2: Organizing Your Footage

File Organization on Your Hard Drives

Bringing The Files Into Your NLE

A Clean Window on Your Footage: The Feng Shui of File Structure

Documents You Will Need

Chapter 3: Everyday Work Practices

Work in Stages


The Vital Importance of Taking Breaks

Duplicate and Archive: Leaving a Trail of Breadcrumbs Behind You

Scraps Sequences & Alternate Shots

The Director/Editor Relationship: Working Together and Working Alone


Part II: Finding Patterns

Chapter 4: Viewing and Digesting

Chapter 5: Making Select Reels

Creating Source-Based Select Reels

Creating Topic-Based Select Reels

Chapter 6: Refining Select Reels

Drawing Initial Conclusions About Your Narrative From Your Select Reels

A Fork in the Road


Part IIIa: Constructing and Refining Scenes

Chapter 7: Evidentiary Editing: Building Interview-Based Scenes

Constructing the Framework: Anchor with Audio

Finding "Hinge Clips"

Stitch Together the Seams with Cutaways

Smoothing Edits

Chapter 8: Verité Editing: Building Observational Scenes

Build Up or Trim Down: Two Options for Finding "The Good Bits"

Invisible or Self-Referential?

Microbeats: Sculpting Human Behavior Onscreen

Body Language

Verité Cutaways

Workarounds for Insufficient Cutaway Material

Making Amalgam Scenes

Integrating Audio from Unrelated Scenes

Mixing Evidentiary and Verité Editing with the "Pop-in" Moment

Chapter 9: Building Montages

Media Montages


Part IIIb: Building the Rough Cut

Chapter 10: Choosing and Framing Footage

A Hierarchy of Experience

A Hierarchy of Intervention

The Limits of Verité

Chapter 11: The Fundamentals of Narrative

Text and Subtext


Chapter 12: Working with Narrative

The First Scene

The Beginning

The Middle



Creating Meaning Through Association and Juxtaposition

Alternative Approaches to Narrative

Chapter 13: Working with Details


Archival Material and Stock Shots


Graphics and Animations

Lower Thirds

Location Cards


Chapter 14: Working with Time

Marking Time







Part IV: The Refining Process

Chapter 15: Feedback

Evaluating the Work and Taking Direction

Why Hold a Rough Cut Screening?

Tips for a Successful Rough Cut Screening

Interpreting Notes

Chapter 16: Fine Cut to Final Cut and Beyond

Clarity Is King

Trimming Scenes Down

Cutting Scenes To Remove Redundancy

Cutting Scenes To Improve Narrative or Emotional Logic

Removing Unnecessary Pauses & Utterances

Inspecting and Improving Cutaways

Moving Backwards: Overcutting and How to Avoid It

Picture Lock and Beyond


Part V: Seeing It All Come Together: Analyses of Four Films

Chapter 17:Analyses of Two Feature Documentaries

My Kid Could Paint That

An Inconvenient Truth

Chapter 18: Analyses of Two Short Documentaries


Hotel 22



Appendix A: List of Films Cited

Appendix B: Case Studies of Schedules for Feature Documentaries

Appendix C: Documents You Will Need

View More



Jacob Bricca, ACE is an Associate Professor at the University of Arizona's School of Theatre, Film and Television, where he teaches classes on editing and documentary filmmaking. A member of the American Cinema Editors, he has edited over a dozen feature films, including the international theatrical hit Lost In La Mancha, the New Yorker Films theatrical release Con Artist, the Independent Lens Audience Award Winner Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew, and the Sundance Special Jury Prize winner The Bad Kids. His directing credits include Pure, which screened at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, and Finding Tatanka, which premiered at the 2014 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.


"Anyone involved in the intellectually-challenging and labor-intensive work of documentary editing will find this book an essential companion. Whether you are a novice editor or an experienced hand, Bricca's unwavering faith in the process of editing will guide you securely down the bumpy road to the finished film."

—Julie Sloane, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University

"Jacob Bricca’s Documentary Editing is a critical addition to the documentary filmmaker, editor, or professor’s collection. In fifteen years of filmmaking and teaching I have not come across such a straight-forward, cohesive, and useful manual for how to tackle that most daunting of challenges: editing the documentary film."

—Sally Rubin, Documentary Filmmaker, Editor; Professor, Chapman University

"The book finishes up with an analysis of four films, two feature length and two short. Along the way a multitude of other narrative documentaries are discussed and analyzed. Bricca's writing is clear and focused."

—Conrad J. Obregon

"Author, educator and film editor Jacob Bricca asks the question in the introduction to this how-to book on editing the documentary and then spends the next 240 pages providing a very satisfying answer. He clearly reminds us of the difference and relative ease of editing a narrative fiction film, in which ‘by and large, we already know the intention of every scene and the approximate purpose of every shot.’ Compare that to the twists and turns that often occur in the filming process of documentary, where the filmmaker may think they are making one film at the start, and by the end of filming, the meaning or purpose of the available footage is still debatable. It is a well-accepted truism that in documentary film practice ‘the story is created in the editing room.’

There is much to recommend in this book for teaching in film production classes, but as a writer I found that certain elements could be applied to my own editing in words, rather than pictures. Ultimately, Bricca unravels the complexity of editing, demystifying the art of storytelling in the process."

—Cynthia Close, Documentary Magazine, Fall 2018; "Reality Ink: The Zen of Editing: A Primer"

"Jacob has done a great service to aspiring documentary editors by demystifying the creative process. Ideas don’t come to an editor in a flash of inspiration. They come after hours of looking at footage, organizing clips and making connections. Jacob gives his students a process from which an insight or structure can emerge. He describes each step to show what should be happening in the little baby steps you make until the whole starts to form. The footage writes the script, and Jacob explains how to open the mind and heart to let it through."

—Bee Ottinger, CEO, SnapCuts and Former Head of National Avid User Group