As a filmmaker, shoot days often don’t unfold the way you expect. You do your best to roll with the punches. But afterwards, it can be hard to isolate your feelings about what happened in real life (outside the frame) – when you’re trying to assess what’s inside the frame.

This can leave you biased against a particular scene or interview before you even take a look at it in the edit room – and you end up dismissing footage that could actually form an important building block or turning point of your story.

Or vice versa. In which case you have a hard time letting go of footage that really doesn’t belong in your film.

As an editor, I’ve seen this footage bias do its sneaky story sabotage over and over again, whether I’m starting an edit from scratch or I come into an edit midway through the process in “edit makeover” mode.

In fact I’m amazed at how many times I’ve inherited a rough cut that just doesn’t seem to be working, only to uncover unused gems that become a central scene, or even the film’s opening: broll, scenes and soundbites that introduce a key narrative component, lend a rich new layer of tension or suspense, unlock a stubborn structural problem, or render a character more complex and multi-dimensional.

But for one reason or another, the director/editor hadn’t used this footage. Often, they hadn’t even considered using it. It was left languishing in a bin or on a hard drive somewhere, just waiting for a stubborn editor like me to come along and resurface it.

So the trick for you, dear filmmaker editing your own film, is to constantly ask yourself if you’re remaining as objective as possible about your footage. One technique is to revisit your “footage well” at certain edit milestones, like after you finish a rough cut. Comb through everything again – and I mean everything – especially footage you’ve already dismissed. You might be surprised to discover new connections, depth, and relevance.

An example of footage bias at work

First let me share with you an example of footage bias at work so you can see what I mean.

For Sale: The American Dream” is a 25 minute documentary I cut for Al Jazeera Fault Lines back in 2012 about the foreclosure crisis in the US.

Now check out this scene from the film, a foreclosed house auction starting at 3:37. A bunch of so-called “vulture investors” had turned out to bid on foreclosed properties that the banks wanted to unload. Sounds like good visuals for a film about the foreclosure crisis, right?

The funny thing is, when the director sat with me at the start of the edit, he told me I could probably just ignore this footage. He was sure there wasn’t anything there, because in real life the scene didn’t unfold the way he had expected it to.

For starters I think he was disappointed by the ho-hum look of the place. It was shot on the steps of a municipal building. Maybe he had a preconceived notion of what an auction should look like, and this wasn’t it. He had also expected way more people to show up. On top of that, the people they met were hard to engage. Plus he remembered several boring hours of waiting around with nothing happening.

Put all of that together and he was afraid that on screen the scene was going to come across as lifeless and lame. What happened beyond the frame coalesced to bias him against the footage before he even took a look at it.

Well I’m really stubborn, and so I took a look at the scene, and I really liked what I saw. First, I thought that I could alleviate the director’s concern about the scene appearing empty, because the camerawoman had shot tight on the action. That allowed me to focus the edit on individual characters and downplay the fact that there wasn’t a big crowd.

And sure, while it wasn’t a packed auction house like we’re used to seeing – there were maybe a dozen people total, with most of the “auctions” involving only two or three people plus the auctioneer loosely huddled together – I was immediately drawn in to the interactions. It was fascinating in its procedural detail.

It’s especially easy to dismiss footage whose main strength is compelling audio if the visuals are less than spectacular. If I hadn’t paid close, objective attention, I might have missed the scene’s creative audio potential. The auctioneer’s percussive and quick-paced announcing (“Trusty sale number TWO ZERO ONE ONE, ZERO ONE ONE…”) became the central spine around which I built the scene, pairing his voice’s curiously engaging, almost hyponotic rhythm with a quirky, semi-glitchy music track to carry the scene along.

I think a lot of director-editors may also lose sight of the positive effect of time compression – meaning that what transpired over two boring hours actually becomes quite interesting once you cut it down to just 90 seconds of flavorful bits. All the lived hours of ho-hum fall away, and you’re actually left with a scene that illustrates a pivotal point.

How to do your own footage audit

Indeed a large part of my work as an editor, whether working from scratch or coming on board to edit doctor a film midway, is simply digging into the raw footage and taking a fresh inventory of everything that was shot – and I mean EVERYTHING – searching for good unused nuggets.

Rather than think of it as “back to the drawing board,” I call it a footage audit. And in fact, the stage right after finishing a rough cut or fine cut is often a good time to do one.

Still it may sound counter-intuitive. Maybe it even feels like a set-up. I mean, the ability to be brutally decisive is crucial when it comes to editing. Without decisiveness, it’s impossible to whittle down 100 hours of footage into just 30, 60 or 90 minutes. Indecision is how you end up with 9 hour rough cuts. Right?

So what about when you’re editing your own film and you don’t have the benefit of working with a separate editor, who can judge the footage solely on its merits, uninfluenced by what happened IRL? How do you become aware of and root out unconscious footage bias then?

Without some kind of magic pill to help you get to that eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, you’re going to need a system to help you evaluate all your footage in a fresh light – to help you look objectively at what’s happening within the frame in order to overcome any unnecessary bias.

The answer is to do an inventory of ALL your raw material. Leave no stone unturned here.

Now that you have your film on its legs, take stock of everything again, without judging. The whole point here is to not judge. But merely inventory. What are scenes that you had previously discounted or filed away as not relevant? Just write them down. It may be that now, with your edit starting to gel, you can consider them in a new light, in a new context. Ask yourself why you dismissed them in the first place.

In the process you will likely find new connections that you may have not seen before. Your film’s style may have started to take shape; you’re feeling more confident in the film’s pacing too, and will have a better sense of how a scene that you’d previously discounted could be compressed. You have a better grasp at this point of what your film’s thematic focus and its main narrative elements are, and so may be better able to recognize the value of a single thread lying dormant in some footage that you’d previously dismissed wholesale. A scene that you had previously dismissed as too quiet may now sit in perfect relief to other, more chaotic scenes.

Remember that the meaning of your footage is constantly shifting as the film itself starts to take shape. Before editing, your footage primarily makes sense in the chronological context of the shoot (this scene was shot on day 1, that one on day 2, etc). But as the edit progresses, the meaning of one scene or soundbite to another becomes increasingly randomized, taken out of chronological context and bestowed with new meaning only in the context of the edit. It’s like a growing child that slowly starts to assert its own needs and independence from you as the parent – so you need to constantly re-evaluate and re-assess your footage as your film grows.

About the author 

Leslie Atkins

Leslie Atkins is a documentary editor and scrappy story sage who wants to save filmmakers from unnecessary agony when they edit on their own. She is lost in translation somewhere near the intersection of visual storytelling, online entrepreneurship, and motherhood. Or geographically speaking, in her adopted home of Mexico City.

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