Editing a Short Doc? How Long Should It Take?

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.

Now if you're at the stage of editing your short documentary, you are probably wondering how long you should expect it to take. And how to know when you're getting off-track.

I had a great conversation in May 2020 with Monica Wise, an independent documentary filmmaker and videojournalist who, amidst all the COVID chaos, was celebrating the release of her first festival film, Lupita.

The short documentary Lupita

She was already accomplished at editing 5 to 10 minute videojournalism pieces, but this was her first time making the leap to editing a short independent documentary.

I really appreciated how candidly she spoke about the difficult post process.

Including just how long it took her to edit her film.

 

How long should it take?

Lupita is only 20 minutes long. And yet the editing took well over half a year. Maybe almost nine months.

For an experienced “preditor” (producer/editor, i.e. the same person editing and writing the script), it would typically take two, maybe three months to edit a 20-minute observational documentary (aka verité). Four to six weeks if it’s two people (an editor and script writer) working together.

I didn’t ask Monica for an exact figure, but here’s what I know: I had watched a cut of Lupita about a year before, in May 2019, and Monica says that was somewhere around version twenty. So Monica and her editor had already been at it for a while.

For months after that, they kept going through version after version after version and still never arriving at a structure that really worked.

 

Endless restructuring

“I would dabble in making another script. We would sit down and play with the cards and move this here and say, ‘OK, this should work.’ And then we would see it and were like, ‘there’s still not a through-line,’” Monica said.

Can you relate?

The problem wasn’t the building materials; she had beautiful footage and an incredible subject.

Instead, the issue was something that I think a lot of filmmakers go through when they first make the jump from editing mini-docs or videojournalism type pieces, to editing short films:

They were moving furniture around hoping to make the house work when the architecture and foundation still had flaws.

On a shorter film, that approach can work. But once you get up around the 20 minute mark, a less-than-sound blueprint – or no blueprint at all – will probably derail you.

“I would be like, “’OK, try moving this back… OK, what if we cut this? What if we give this more breathing room?’ And every time I was not sure.

“And then a few times I said in the edit room I felt like we were getting somewhere. And then I would watch it and still I felt like, ‘Why do I hate this film?’”

A portrait of documentary filmmaker Monica Wise

And so Monica and her editor were stuck in a neverending cycle – reordering scenes, essentially shuffling the deck, to see if they’d finally cracked the structural puzzle – only to find that they weren’t getting any closer.

“I was starting to play with moving the scenes around by myself. But that also became too overwhelming and I was like, ‘I need fresh eyes.’ I got a little bit more funding at the end and I was like, ‘this is a message that it can be saved by a new vision and new ideas.’

 

Finally, a solution

With festival deadlines bearing down, Monica finally finished the edit in December 2019. She hired a new editor, Mar Jardiel, who completely recut the film in a two week sprint.

“I just put it in her hands and I was like, ‘please fix this. I’m exhausted.’”

And the new editor did fix the film: it got into Ambulante 2020, Mexico’s touring documentary film festival. It was also an official selection of the 2020 Guadalajara International Film Festival. For English-speaking audiences, it’s slated to be released on The Guardian Documentaries.

View the updated screenings list here.

Film still from Lupita: Que retiemble la tierra

Film still from Lupita: Que retiemble la tierra by Mónica Wise Robles


I think it’s safe to say that Monica feels hugely grateful to her final editor, not to mention everyone on her team.

But it hurts thinking about all those months of wheel-spinning and wasted effort.

 

The mash-up paradox

“The final cut is totally different. There are only a few scenes that are a little bit shorter… that were taken from that rough cut to the final cut.” In the final tally, Monica estimates that the new editor only carried over “maybe five percent” of the edit.

She described the final structure as a blend of footage made into montages – “all shaken up basically, but in a way that has a clearer narrative thread.”

And therein lies a super important clue about how to crack a film’s structural code. It’s something that experienced editors have figured out, though often only after years of struggling, and eventually building the confidence to break the rules: that the solution can in fact lie in shuffling the deck – but in a different way than what might feel intuitive.

The clearest path through your story is often not chronological.

 

Closing the confidence gap

When you get down to it, great editors are renegades. They break rules all the time. They aren’t afraid to bend elements or try them in an unexpected context to give them new meaning. And they’re always on the look-out for new possibilities to make the film better, even if it means gently subverting the director’s intentions. (Imagine how that plays out if you’re editing your own film!)

If you're thinking, Hang onI haven't been editing that long. I haven't learned the rules yet, let alone built the confidence to break them. And that process often takes years. Is there any way to make that process any faster? 

There is. Click here to see how I can help.


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About the author 

Leslie Atkins

Leslie Atkins is a documentary editor and story consultant 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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