You don’t need to be a storytelling genius in order to avoid the most common documentary storytelling pitfalls. You just need to learn when to rely on intuition, and when to bring in reinforcements. In other words, a bit of formal documentary storytelling theory.

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  Whenever I’m asked how I made the leap from assistant editor to editor, one particular stunt comes to mind. I was working as an assistant editor at a production company, back in the days when we still had to capture footage from tapes. It was the mid 2000’s.

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The field of documentary filmmaking is amazingly international. Take my husband. He is Mexican. He works at one of the largest film archives in Latin America. And for a living, he fields inquiries from film producers in the US, UK and Europe, wanting to include a piece of Mexican culture in their TV program.

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Most aspiring documentary filmmakers go through the trial of making a short documentary – typically 20 to 30 minutes long – before committing to making their first feature-length film. Some find that they even prefer shorts to features. But it can take longer than you think to edit.

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It’s an inconvenient truth: knowing how to organize your footage for editing is an essential skill if you’re going to edit your documentary film all by yourself.  If you ignore this step, you risk later having to hand off your film to a rescue editor – who may have to start from scratch.

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Are you editing straight off of that portable field drive you used during your shoot? Stop right there and go buy yourself a dedicated edit hard drive. And an extra back-up hard drive while you’re at it, if you plan to keep taking your original drive out into the field with you.

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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.

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There are days when your brain is on auto-pilot and you just can’t muster any creativity or focus. But you still have to get some editing done. What to do?

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Back when I was a new, inexperienced editor, I learned about preparing for a screening the hard way.

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