EditFest NY 2012 – The Documentary Edit

By Chris Portal

As a continuation to the Day 1 recap of Manhattan Edit Workshop’s EditFest NY, Day 2 started off with The Documentary Edit: Non-Fiction vs. The Truth. Moderated by David Zieff, a panel of 4 documentary editors discussed their process of “writing with images”. Each started off sharing a scene from a film they edited, along with anecdotes from having worked on the film, and words of wisdom they had to share from their personal experience…

Panelsists : Lewis Erskine, Arielle Amsalem, David Zieff, David Tedeschi, and Lindsay Utz


  • Lewis Erskine
    • The typical approach to the start of editing has been to start with chronology because it’s a cliché. The reason it’s a cliché is because it’s worked for a long time. However, you need to start with what hits you most. Respond to what you react to.
    • You also need to screen, screen, screen, and screen again. Roll away from the Avid, let go of the mouse, and force yourself to watch the cut the whole way through without stopping to tweak. Experience it as a whole. Only then might you see the relationship of something 75 mins into the film, with something that was 10 mins in.
    • The clip from Freedom Riders shown was 1 of about 50 versions of the opening sequence, trying to find what would work. Was ready to quit but ultimately was one of the best jobs he’s had
  • Lindsay Utz
    • The first rough cut for “Bully” was 6 hours long. Lindsay intentionally cuts everything really fat to see what you have, what is there, and what is worth pursuing.
    • For example, leading into the town hall scene, a family had a major 3 min interaction in the car. Tried to keep that in, but ultimately, the film didn’t have time to sustain it. Instead, all the dialogue was removed, and it became a silent, quiet sequence in the film that served as a beautiful transition for what was to come.
  • David Zieff
    • Last thing I ever start is the beginning. Cut what’s most favorite first. Pick scenes you’re excited about, and then work onwards to what works together, and then finally on to the more trickier and difficult
    • You’ve got to watch all 700 hours of footage while drawing selects from it. That is the first and only time you are going to “see” the film for the first time.
  • Arielle Amsalem
    • Spent about 4-5 months editing sequences together for the “By The People: The Election of Barack Obama” doc, ending up with 1 – 1.5 hour of string outs before we started to assemble anything together
    • Found you needed 4 or 5 sequences assembled before you could start to identify any relationships between them.


  • Arielle Amsalem
    • The structure kept changing. Segments were coming and going depending what the sequence of events was that was occurring. In reality, the final structure was delayed to as late as possible depending how the election appeared like it was going to end
    • There were probably about 2000 versions of the opening scene, but ultimately, the final opening wasn’t chosen until Obama won the election
  • Lindsay Utz
    • With “Bully”, it was hard to put a little bow on the film’s end. Tried to untie the bow as much as possible. Couldn’t really end with any big conclusions since bullying is still an ongoing issue, so we wanted it to be a little open ended to invite audiences to think what needed to be done next. It was a call to action for the audience.



  • David Zieff
    • Have often experienced that magical moment where you or the director will find something you just have to use, only to start sweating trying to figure out how to use it. The personal attitude now is to not sweat it out and just believe the time and place will reveal itself for you to put it in…
  • Arielle Amsalem
    • …And if it doesn’t reveal itself, you can just tell the director it’ll make a great DVD extra!!
  • Lindsay Utz
    • A great scene doesn’t make a great film. If it’s not speaking to the rest, you need to let it go.



  • Lewis Erskine
    • It’s the relationship with the director that requires the most management
    • Connected with Stanley Nelson, the director of “Freedom Riders”. We were friends and the relationship came naturally. With Ken Burns jazz series though, we weren’t friends. We did not collaborate. I just had to find a way through it.
  • David Tedeschi
    • Scorsese has a strong sense of story, but he didn’t know what shape exactly For “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” was going to be. We started out with a lot of music and a lot of talking. I started doing transcendental meditations; he started doing them too.
    • Scorsese is very focused on how something starts, and how it ends. The end can’t be too abrupt. It’s like music, you need to feel its going to end before it ends.
  • Lindsay Utz
    • Directors have relationships with everybody, but you as an editor don’t. When I saw Alex, the main subject of “Bully”, at a screening, I ran up to him because I felt like I knew him. He was taken aback completely because he didn’t know me. He had never met me, despite me having spent so many months with him.
    • Directors see what is just outside the scene, and they will bring that baggage to the table. By not being on set, you don’t get to see what happened outside the footage. You have the advantage of not bringing that to the table.
    • As an editor, you’re thinking of story and economy of shots, while the director at times is thinking how they’re going to answer to someone else, answer to the person they interviewed, or someone who is expecting to be in the film. They need to answer to those other relationships. As an editor, you don’t want to have those relationships


  • David Zieff
    • We’re confronted with these moments where as an editor you become the judge. It’s an enhanced reality you create.
  • Lindsay Utz
    • The “Bully” scene with Alex getting picked on at the street corner is the scene that caused all the MPAA controversy. There was a lot of banter in the raw footage that was shot. In going through it though, we wanted to create a sense of isolation for Alex by removing most of the banter.
    • The bus ride where he is threatened was very hard to edit. It’s not in the final cut, but there was additional banter that made Alex much less empathetic than what you feel with the final version. Alex was a little provocative in his banter that as an audience you don’t get to see or hear.
    • What truth do you choose to present in service of the larger narrative? By making certain decisions, you are projecting your own kind of feelings. What you choose to highlight, ends up creating the story.
  • Arielle Amsalem
    • The same is with archival footage. When you don’t have the actual footage, you sometimes have to end up using footage from a different time frame or context to illustrate something factual you otherwise would have been unable to illustrate.