How to edit a documentary by writing backwards
For the feature documentary Dare To Be Remarkable (watch it here), lead editor Roy Power had a lot of choices to make. After the filmmakers at Animus Studios documented the subject of the film, Alyssa Silva, for 3 years, Roy had the task of taking all that footage and stitching together Alyssa’s triumphant story of living with Spinal Muscular Atrophy.
Here, Roy sits down to talk about his process and how he wrote Dare To Be Remarkable backwards.
Writing backwards with editing is an interesting concept. What are some of the steps you take when you’re building a documentary style narrative from scratch?
It’s a process and you’re not always going to get it right at first. Dare To Be Remarkable had about 40 hours of footage to sort through. So you have to watch through the footage over and over again and make sure to categorize everything so you know where it is. That way you have an idea of what exists and you can understand where to start building the story.
You had a general idea of the story from Justin (Andrews) the director of the film. What are the most important things you need to know to get prepared to put together a documentary narrative?
It’s part knowing what the main story is and then it’s kind of a mix between what you want to have in the movie and what you think the audience will most enjoy. You have to pick and navigate through the footage and figure out the different storylines that exist. That’s what you’re organizing. So for this film, watching through all the interviews, there were a lot of common threads whether it’s people talking about Alyssa's health struggles or talking about social struggles or the science parts of SMA or Alyssa and her brother's relationship. So I think the first step really is to listen to a bunch of interviews, find common threads of what people are talking about or what’s most interesting to them and then use that as a starting point to figure out what might be the most interesting story to tell. Then you have to figure out how to weave them all together.
As a writer, because you have a story you want to tell, you've got to just kind of pick and choose when you start unveiling certain things. You almost do the same thing as an editor it sounds?
Pretty much. The difference is the material exists in its raw form but in a completely different order from where it’s going to end up. I think one of the best analogies I’ve read is that it's like putting together a 10000 piece puzzle without a picture to reference. So you have all these little pieces but you don't really know where they should go at first until you just keep watching through it, analyzing and figuring out which way to weave it all together.
Did you start editing the film while they were still shooting or were they done by the time you got a hold of the footage?
I'd say they had about 85-90 percent of what would eventually be there. They had been gathering footage for 2-3 years. As we were putting it together we realized there were a few parts that were a little unclear. We thought some transitions from one subject to another could have been more clearly stated. So you just go back and get it to plug in those missing spots.
What were some of the biggest challenges you had as far as putting all this stuff together and making it a cohesive story to tell?
I think the broadest challenge was just deciding what storylines to cut. And what to put the most focus on. As I kept going through all the footage I realized probably the most interesting part for me was the relationship between Alyssa and her brother Adam. I wanted to make that the anchor of the movie, have that start and end it, and tell the story through the eyes of her relationship with their brother. Then there's the more scientific stuff with SMA and the genes and the research and all that. That's just something I'm not really interested in as much as the personal story about family and resilience. Any time in my first cut where I'd move from an emotional moment with Alyssa and her brother to scientific talk about SMA it just stopped the movie. So I guess the hardest thing was having the will to basically get rid of an entire subject to make the film flow better and have a more concise tone.
It’s interesting that you talk about the will to get rid of something when you’re editing. Writers have to do it too. Do you ever fall in love with certain sound bites or pieces you put together that you just have a hard time letting go? How do you balance that out?
I don’t remember any specific sound bites but there are definitely scenes and ideas that I really liked and either had to cut down for the better of the movie or get rid of completely. The graduation scene I was really attached to for a long time. I just thought it was really well done. But in the end it was better to cut out a minute or two. It's tough if you put a lot of work into the style of one scene and change it. But in the end you can't just go scene by scene. You go with the whole picture of the finished product.
For people just starting out in editing, how do you start putting sound bites together? How do you start to write a story with sound bites?
I’m not thinking about the actual story. I think it's best to start with the most attention grabbing sound bite you have. So the first time you watch that footage just take note of what grabbed you the most. What was the clearest most interesting pull in. Instead of trying to think of what other people wanted to hear next, I’m thinking what do I want to hear next. And what do I want to hear after that given all these choices. So just be very subjective about your initial decisions, but always keep the audience in mind.
As far as music goes there’s very little in the film. But when the music plays it's very effective. How did you decide when to keep things quiet or build it up?
For the most part I consciously tried to not use a lot of music. If you look at the editing timeline there's probably 75-80 percent of the movie that doesn't have any music underneath it. I wanted the parts that do have music to stand out more and have their own emotional impact. If I had music under a whole bunch of interviews that didn't need it then it takes away from the impact of the scenes that are enhanced by it. I think that's important because music can take away from scenes as much as it can help. So you just have to be conscious of that. Now, if I could go back and re-edit it a year later, I’d use even less music.
The other thing I noticed about the film was that you're not always linear as far as the timeline. What made you decide to do that? Was it to get more emotional impact?
With what we were going for it just didn’t make sense to try and make it completely chronological - I mean, the very last shoot we did ended up being the first scene. There are two threads in the movie: a chronological one, and a general one. Chronologically, Alyssa is born, starts her greeting card business, goes to college, gets a job, and achieves success with her fundraiser. But that’s all very linear so to mix it up there are pads of more “general” things in between, like how Alyssa acts socially, how she struggles with sleeping patterns, and her relationship with her brother. Doing this helps to break the pattern and pace out events a little more naturally.
Is there any take away for the next time you edit a long form documentary? Is there anything you’d do differently in pre production or researching the story?
I would start off the same and just organize where everything is, what every sound bite is just to reference without having to scrub the raw footage. But while I was doing that, next time I would actually start constructing right away and just play with scenes. I’d throw clips in where I feel like they could be just on my first reaction and then see what that first crazy rough cut is going to look like while I was organizing everything. This way, I’m getting a head start while organizing and keeping record of my first instincts.
As an editor and filmmaker, what kind of impact do you hope a story like this can accomplish? What’s a successful documentary to you?
Of course with Dare To Be Remarkable we want to make a difference and raise money for SMA. But as a filmmaker I really wanted to make a feature length film that had an emotional impact, that’s story driven.
I grew attached to the story, Alyssa and her family as I was putting it together. So you hope people will get attached as well from what you have put together as a storyteller. The premiere was a great feeling. For me just watching people really holding back tears and seconds later you can hear them laugh at a joke. That’s what makes it a success for me as a filmmaker. I'm trying to create that balance of emotions. And if viewers enjoyed it and had several different emotions through the whole thing that’s the takeaway.Have a question or need consulting on post production?
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