Monday, June 7, 2010

Tension and Style: film editor's challenges

One of a documentary film editor's challenges is bridging the gap between the often sublime, nuanced story that unfolds as the crew shoots a scene, and what the camera and microphone succeed in capturing. The crew's goal is to shoot footage that will make those nuanced obvious and comprehensible to an audience. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don't. Nonetheless, it's up to the editor to tell the story as the director sees it, or work with the director in forming a new vision for the narrative. Editors often identify the presence, or lack, of dramatic material in raw footage as "what's there". 

Creating a documentary is fraught with a variety of tension and conflict that gets resolved (or not) via a complex interplay of personal, creative and practical negotiations among the various players. To begin with, in most every documentary, there is inherent tension among three versions of the story: 

1. The story that the director is trying to capture with the material. This story is usually based on the director's original concept for the film, but it often evolves and changes during shooting as the real life unfolds in unexpected ways

2. The story that the editor sees in screening what has been captured by the camera

3. The edited version of the story, which is the reconciliation between what the editor can structure from the material she's been given, and what the director wants to emphasize: themes, turning points, important exposition of the events or characters, or dramatic moments that will be entertaining and informative to an audience.

In addition to the tension among the different versions of the story, there is tension between truth and drama. While the editor goes about inventing the structure, she must keep the dramatic storyline alive, though she also may feel an ethical responsibility to portray events as they actually happened. In structuring the material, a documentary editor often works like a screenplay writer, charged with crafting the entire narrative and "finding the story" in what is often 100-plus hours of material. 

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