The Key to Documentary Storytelling: Finding Remarkable Moments in Hours of Footage

By in Timeline Tuesday, Video Editing

Away-Game Baptism is a documentary program that tells the story of professional anglers who go fishing to places they haven’t visited before. During three days, their aim is to catch as many fish as possible. Fishing in an unfamiliar environment is a very difficult task and tests the ability of a professional angler. The target is different each time; from Japanese Sea bass, to squid and sole (flat fish). Apart from revealing technical know-how and tricks of the trade, this project also aspires to show the thoughts and emotions of professional anglers in their search for fish.

Because I have to handle a camera continuously over a prolonged period of time, the C100 is ideal for this project. The footage is shot in AVCHD, and AMA-linked in Media Composer. If there isn’t enough disk space available, I just create low resolution media. From there, I can easily replace the material on the timeline with AMA files later on, and transcode directly to high-resolution media files like DNxHD.

After three days of intensive shooting, we usually end up with 20-24 hours of footage. We also record about 20-30 minutes of B-roll after that. It takes about two weeks to get from a first cut (offline) to a final version (online) for one episode of Away-Game Baptism. During the last days we add graphics, subtitles, the narration manuscript, and the voice-over recording.

My personal editing method is to first gain an understanding of what events occur at which points in the raw footage, and then craft a storyboard. One of my favorite techniques is to start the episode immediately with an interesting scene. As an example, let’s take a scene that occurred toward the end of the second day of shooting, where our angler is having trouble finding fish and seems to have reached an impasse. In the lead-up to this scene, without being told what is going on, viewers are shown a moment where the angler experiences strong emotional reactions. The use of such ‘dramatic’ scenes so early in the episode draws viewers into the story.

In documentaries, important events occur out of the blue. You catch a fish when you do not expect it. Fishes don’t bite under orders. However, a TV show cannot be dramatic if everything is left to chance. There are times when expectations are not met, and when something suddenly occurs. A drama needs these processes. As an editor, I can freely scroll through the timeline to find remarkable moments and reorder them.

Editing can be used to emphasize events that weren’t noticed during filming, but are important factors for subsequent scenes. Placing the footage chronologically in the timeline is not enough; story elements are created by combining footage and graphics with a narrated script. Actually, documentary editing uses the same ‘plant and payoff’ methods as a screenplay for fiction.

In the episode Away-Game Baptism: Ohno Yuki in Ehime, I used an industrial plant in the opening titles background. Until the second half of the story, our angler travels far from the industrial area to look for fish. Eventually, the factory’s warm waste water becomes a key element to catch the most fish.

After creating a first  timeline with the most important footage ordered chronologically, I start tagging interesting parts with names and drop them into the Bin from the record window using Option (ALT) + drag and drop.

Then I build the episode from the selected sequences, based on my memos (Media Composer basic title elements I add to the subsequences). This is where the hard work really begins; creating an interesting and entertaining story arc. After the first rough cut, I usually end up with an episode of more than 80 minutes. Obviously I then cut down unnecessary scenes, but it happens that I even have to add parts that explain and support the storyline better. Finally, graphics, voice-over, music and subtitles are added to complete yet another episode of Away-Game Baptism.

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I'm a freelance video director and editor living in Kanagawa, Japan. During the last 6 years, I have been making documentary movies about fishing. "Away-Game Baptism" is the most rewarding work among them.