Editing a Doc Sample Reel

This spring we’ll be editing a sample reel for A Paradise Lost, a documentary in progress by Laurie Sumiye.

I often get approached to help people edit sample reels for documentary films in progress, usually to show potential funders as part of a grant application. Editing sample reels is very different than editing a film trailer, where the film is at the fine cut stage, if not already completed, and so you clearly know what the film is about. Editing a sample reel is also different than cutting a crowdsourcing video for a platform like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo or GoFundMe, where there is usually a direct on-camera appeal from the filmmaker included.

Editing a sample reel is often the very first editing that’s being done on a project, and hence the first time that editor and director are conceiving how the material that’s been filmed should be presented to the audience. Making those first 2-3 edits in the first sequence on a blank timeline are often the most demanding edits I will make.

So there is an exercise I will often assign to the director to create an easier starting point, which I call “Best 25 Things.” Before we meet to screen footage and begin editing, I will ask the director to put together a rough sequence of their favorite 25 things that they have in their material for their film. It can be a single shot that they think is stunningly beautiful, or a particularly moving interview soundbite, an amazing piece of archival film footage or a “I can’t believe we got this on film” moment of cinema vérité footage. I want to see the best 25 things in the pile of footage so far. And so the director and I will begin screening the best of the best footage, and then frame the sample reel around those best moments.

It might seem obvious to show potential funders your very best material, yet filmmakers at the sample reel stage are often drowning in footage and research and facts. They “can’t see the forest for the trees.” The process of selecting the best 25 things forces them to break out of the narrative and look at their footage in a completely different way, letting go of issues like story chronology, or how difficult it was to get a particular shot or anything but the raw emotional quality of the material on screen.

Beginning the sample reel edit by screening the best 25 things also allows me as editor to hit the ground running. Usually at this stage there’s very limited time and money, and the director and I are expected to create a sample that captures the essence of the story and creates excitement for the project in just a few days. I don’t really have time to look at all the footage, so I’m relying on the director’s knowledge of the material, and trusting that the essential truth of the story can be conveyed with many of the best 25 things. As I watch the best 25 things with the director, I am prompted to ask her questions: “Do you have more footage like this?” “What does he mean when he says that?” “What happened in the scene after the part that you showed me?” Then we will likely screen a bit more footage beyond the best 25. In the conversation that takes place, the director and I begin to develop a plan, possibly even a rough script, for how we will edit the sample reel.

In the next blog, I will list five tips for editing a successful documentary sample reel. If you’ve had great success with a sample reel and want to share a tip, I would love to hear from you.

Documentary editor with a heart of gold. Seasoned PBS documentary editor, writer, producer and story consultant, specializing in social issue films with a bent towards changing the world.

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