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'He made me kill my darlings': inside the dark art of the documentary editor

When you edit someone's documentary there are two crucial phases: The first is when you listen critically to a draft of the work for the first time, and the second is when you give the doc maker your feedback. Veteran radio producer Neil Sandell takes us through the role of the editor.
Neil Sandell is an award-winning documentary maker and a former senior producer at CBC Radio in Toronto.

When you edit someone's documentary there are two crucial phases. The first is when you listen critically to a draft of the work for the first time. This is solitary and cerebral. 

The second phase is when you give the doc maker your feedback. You praise what works. You ask them to change what doesn't. Your laundry list may include thoughts about structure, sound design, or character development. It may be big picture or small detail. But almost always it involves cuts. And when you ask them to dump a passage they love – kill a darling – it can get tense.

"Do you know how hard it was to get that clip?" 

"I spent hours mixing that montage."

"That was an exclusive interview. It took months to set up." 

"Who are you to be demanding changes, anyway?" 

You have heard it all before, but you listen. You listen because they need to vent before they can let go. You listen because once in a while, they will persuade you. You listen, but you also recall what a snowy haired veteran told you when you were starting out: "Just because you got the helicopter shot doesn't mean you have to use the helicopter shot."

You steel your resolve. Their darling must die. But how do you persuade them?

What not to do:

  1. 1. If you have the final say-so, don't use it unless you have to. Imposing your authority unnecessarily will lead to resentment and stifle creativity. 
  2. 2. Never say "this won't hurt a bit." You have made documentaries. You know that killing your darling always hurts. Be understanding.
  3. 3. If you have a laundry list of changes, know which ones are the most important. You don't have to win every argument. Choose the hill you die on.

What to do:

  1. 1. Critique the work, not the person. Remember, when you are on the receiving end, it's hard not to feel judged. The last thing you want is for the maker to get more defensive.
  2. 2. Make your feedback specific. Explain a change in terms of what it will achieve. For example the cut will simplify the documentary, and make it more powerful. Think through your reasons in advance and be clear.
  3. 3. Ask the maker to at least try the change. Sometimes hearing is believing.
  4. 4. If your program has a broadcast and web version, offer the possibility of keeping the darling in the longer version. It's a pro tip from veteran Julia Barton. She was editor at PRI's The World and most recently, on Malcolm Gladwell's podcast, Revisionist History
  5. 5. Most importantly, appeal to their self interest. In fact, understanding this is really the key to any negotiation. 

In February 2015 the BBC asked me to record an essay by the Swedish novelist Henning Mankell. I met him at his winter home in Antibes. The essay sounded an early warning on the migrant crisis. It was a plea for Europe not to turn its back on refugees. A number of boats from Africa had recently capsized off the coast of Italy. Mankell juxtaposed those images with the idle super yachts anchored safely in Antibes harbour. It was devastating writing, but at fifteen minutes, a long piece to read aloud. 

We recorded the first take. It was passable. I asked him for a second read. He refused.

Air, a Neil Sandell documentary

Neil Sandell is a guy who, a while back, made a big change in his life. Uncluttered it. At least, that's what he thought. Now he is in Nice, France — looking both forward at his life ahead and back at lives lived. Listen to the documentary →

He was weary and sick, in the last months of his life as it turned out. I could have let it pass. But I said, "I know this is exhausting. And of course you don't have to do this again if you don't want to. But you worked on this until 3:00 a.m. to make it great. It would be a shame if you couldn't spare a few more minutes to make it sound as good as it can be. It deserves your best."

There was a dark silence.

"I don't want to. But you are right."

We took a break. He nailed it on the second take.

So what changed his mind? Mankell was a bestselling author, and wealthy. He hadn't said yes to the BBC for the money. What he wanted was to be listened to, especially on this subject. It was in his self interest to make his plea as compelling as possible. Intuitively, I had appealed to what he cared about. It was no accident that making it sound great was what I cared about too.

In making documentaries, the power balance between the editor and the maker changes from project to project. One of you will have more experience, more credibility, or more authority. What never changes is this: Your job as editor is to make the documentary as good as it can be. That is your North Star.

The maker will get the public credit no matter how large your contribution. You accept this. No worries. You still earn the quiet respect of your peers. But here's the thing. By helping the doc maker succeed, you have laid down a foundation of trust. They may welcome your feedback next time. They may even murder their darlings without a peep. 

Of course, it all depends on your getting the feedback right. That takes us back to the first crucial task: listening critically.

Notes from Neil Sandell during the editing process.

Seeing the forest for the trees: vetting a radio documentary

When you edit a documentary you're listening to a work in progress. It may be at an early stage. It may be near completion. What you listen for will depend on the stage. Nevertheless, there are priorities.

  1. 1. Clarity. Does it make sense to me? What parts confuse me?
  2. 2. Storytelling. Do I want to keep listening? How well do elements such as sound, narration, and scenes support the storytelling?  
  3. 3. Economy. Is every element essential?  
  4. 4. Integrity. Are the voices authentic? Is the work truthful, ethical, legal?
  5. 5. Meaning. Is there a payoff — a larger insight or an emotional truth?
  6. 6. Fine tuning. How well does the doc employ mood, pacing, sound design, and surprise?

Why are these priorities? Think of editing a successful documentary as a pyramid of good decisions – the maker's and the editor's. The higher the level, the more complex the decisions. Crucially, each level depends on the ones below it.

So, what do you listen for?

1. Clarity 

Radio is a linear medium, one moment flowing from the last. If you confuse a listener, they get distracted while they decode the problem. By the time they pay attention again, it may be too late. So be alert for:

  • Jargon
  • Poor audio
  • Unintelligible speech
  • Misplaced assumptions about what the listener knows
  • Too many numbers
  • Voices that sound the same
  • Digressions
  • Unclear relationships between characters. If a listener wonders, is that your mom, your wife, or your mistress, your documentary is in trouble. Also, maybe you.

A fix may be as simple as adding a signpost to the narration. (Serial is expert in this.)  But sometimes the focus itself is confusing. That's a bigger conversation with the doc maker.

2.  Storytelling 

  • What is at stake? Do I care about the story?
  • Is there a mystery to be solved or the search for an answer?
  • Do I want to know what happens next? The Irish documentary maker Ronan Kelly talks about owning the pause. If you stop your audio at any point, does the listener want to hear more?
  • Are the elements – sound, scenes, voice, narration, plot – in the right order? (Hint: you do not need to tell a story in chronological order.)
  • Does the storytelling exploit the strengths of radio such as intimacy, imagination, and reflection?
  • Does the story lean on the narrator to tell the story, rather than scenes and action? (You want the latter.)

3.  Economy

  • Does every scene, sound, character, clip, and narration propel the story forward? Cut what's not essential.

4. Integrity

  • Do the voices sound authentic and believable?
  • Is the work ethical, legal, and journalistically sound?
  • Be alert to issues of privacy, exploitation, confidentiality, and conflict of interest.
  • If you are unsure what to do, consult mentors, senior journalists, and lawyers.  Be cautious, but not timid.
  • Educate yourself.
  • A must read: Poynter's 10 Questions to Make Good Ethical Decisions.

Additional ethics, legal & journalism resources

CBC | Poynter InstituteNPRAccountable JournalismCJFE [libel]CAJ [ethics]CAJ [legal] 

5. Meaning

  • Does the doc reward the listener with an "aha" moment or a new insight?
  • To add depth, the single most useful question is "so what?" Absent a satisfying answer, have the doc maker record a key character reflecting on events and making sense of them.    

6.  Fine tuning: where art meets craft

  • Is the mood sustainable? For example, with disturbing material, does the documentary manage the intensity so as not to turn off listeners? Is the mood varied?
  • Is there surprise? tension? suspense?
  • Is the pacing right? Does the material have room to breathe?
  • Does the piece use sound and silence to engage the imagination?  
  • Does the storytelling leave the listener room to draw their own conclusions?
  • Does the sound design support the doc without overwhelming it?

Got all that?  It's a lot, but eventually it becomes intuitive.

The actual process of listening differs from editor to editor. I listen twice, the first time all the way through without stopping. I scribble only brief notes and time notations. This lets me stay attentive to the work.

Pro tip 

Always ask the maker, what do you want me to listen for? They may flag specific passages they're unsure about.

On the second pass, I stop and start. I replay problem passages to figure out what bothers me about them. I flesh out my notes, think about solutions, and then give my feedback.

Ideally, you have developed the story with the doc maker from the beginning. As they record their material, the story may evolve. That's okay. Avoid shoehorning material into a predetermined story. Doc making is a process of discovery, not paint by numbers.

Once there is a rough cut, I listen for structure. At this point the maker hasn't invested time in the mix or fine editing. That makes rearranging the furniture less fraught.     

I advise against vetting from a transcript with no audio. The way something is said – the emotion, the timbre of the voice, the intimacy, the pauses – is full of vital  information. Words on a page never capture it.  

Who does what?

You have given your feedback. You have asked for changes. As an all knowing editor, you may be tempted to make them yourself. Resist the impulse. Yes, you have to work within the bounds of your program or podcast. But it's important to respect the doc maker's vision. Their distinct voice has value to your program. Also, the maker knows the material better than you do. They are equipped to solve creative problems.

Finally, when you work with beginners, allow them to make mistakes and fix them. It is how they get better. If they struggle, if they ask for help, that's the teachable moment. Working with beginners can be trying and time consuming. It is an investment. It is also an act of good. One day the person you help may pay it forward.

About the author

Neil Sandell
Neil Sandell is a Canadian independent radio producer. Over his long career at CBC he worked on programs such as Prime TimeMorningsideAs It Happens, and Quirks & Quarks. For five years he was senior producer of the first-person documentary program, Outfront.   

Sandell has won more than a dozen international awards for his documentaries. In 2011, he was named the Atkinson Fellow in Public Policy, one of Canada's most prestigious journalism fellowships. Sandell has given radio workshops in Oslo, Amsterdam, Chicago, Nuuk (Greenland), and Kilfinane, Ireland. In 2015 he was a jury president at Prix Italia. He lives in Nice, France.

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