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Creating an Emotional Arc in editing: An Editing lesson from Niels Pagh Andersen

Creating an Emotional Arc in editing: An Editing lesson from Niels Pagh Andersen

March, 18 - 2020

Editing holds one of the most important roles in Documentary Filmmaking. It is the stage where we finally would see the story crafted in the filmmaker’s head put into place. It is because of this editors hold such a critical role in filmmaking. But how do you edit a documentary, an art of filmmaking that depicts reality?

As said by our previous editing lab mentor Niels Pagh Andersen , an editor’s job is not to reproduce reality but re-interpret reality. “It is only when we are re-interpreting reality, something happens.” (StoryDoc) What differs Documentary and News is that News, with some factual bias exceptions, relies on facts to give information, whereas Documentary takes these facts and information, crafts it into a storyline, and tells the story back in the interpretation of the filmmaker in the style that they have chosen that is fitting to the narrative.

Niels Pagh Andersen is an award-winning editor who has cut more than 250 films in different categories. One of his famous editing works is the Act of Killing and The Look of Silence directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. The critically acclaimed films have won over 44 international awards and both acquired a nomination from the Oscars. Niels Pagh Andersen has been giving masterclasses and lectures in institutions, festivals and more around the world and has also been a mentor for our Docs By The Sea program in the past.

And so to help you with your edits, we have compiled a summary of the lessons we got from Niels Pagh Andersen in his masterclasses that you can also access online here.

Establish a strong relationship with your director

It’s important to also know who your director is as a person, not just their film. To help the director to achieve their vision, the editor needs to know the director’s personal core and develop an emotional understanding. There needs to be a mutual trust to the point where the editor can challenge the directors by asking them important questions to have their points across in the story

The importance of the first shot

The first shot of the character or the film is everything. The first time we see a character, it should intrigue the audience to want to know more about the character.

Find the language of the film before editing the opening of the film

“I never start by editing the opening,” said Andersen in a masterclass. His reasoning is because when we haven’t seen how the whole film will play out, how do you know how to open the film? Filmmakers need to find a language that would give the confrontations another dimension focused on humanity by testing different elements together in the storytelling.

Andersen often chooses a scene that is not too complicated to start with. Sometimes it is fantastic to start with the ending, so you know what to lead it up to. Although it is important to know that there are different ways to approach every material.

Tell one thing at a time

Often filmmakers choose characters that are in a crisis that forces them to change to make good stories. However, the reality is that a lot of times characters don’t change that much unless they are forced to. Then what do you do?

Hold back information. A lot of films tend to tell too much as editors don’t use the power of each information which causes the audience to feel that nothing has changed. Minimize the amount of information, just give specific information needed for the audience to feel the emotional experience. We often tend to rush to the juicy stuff while editing, which becomes a problem in the presentation.

Focus on the subtext

In films, we are talking to the emotions. Film is an emotional stream. This is why subtext is so important. How we are saying something makes a more significant difference than what we’re actually saying. The job of an editor is to put 2 different images together in such a way to create emotion and the audience will make their own story. Far too often we are emphasizing the plot tradition too much that we are forgetting about the storytelling that is happening in the head of our audience.

Treat tension like music

When we are set on the universe, we need tension. It comes from questioning the information we gave in the beginning, resulting in a conflict. Tension should be treated like music—less than literature, where we have an emotional curve that builds up and falls.

In creating these tensions, do not use shots of cutaways if it does not hold up any role in the emotional storytelling. Every shot should contribute to the mood you are trying to give in the scene.

It is however also important for filmmakers to remember that the act of interpreting reality does not only start in editing but also during the shoot from the framing of the cameras, the angles chosen, etc. However, it is the job of the editor to wrap all the elements up to create the story up to a bigger level that tells the emotional arc of the characters.

Andersen, Niels P. “The Art of Editing Docs.” StoryDoc Workshop. StoryDoc Workshop, 2010, Athens, Greece,
Andersen, Niels P. “Emotional Dramaturgy.” Ex Oriente Film 2019 workshop. Masterclass by Niels Pagh Andersen: Emotional Dramaturgy, 23 Oct. 2019, Jihlava, Czechia,