Sunday, October 25, 2009

Working With an Editor

This article appears in the Fall Issue of Filmmaker Magazine
by Roberto Quezada-Dardon

Most DIY filmmakers aspire to work with a full crew at some point in their careers, if only once. What a luxury, what a statement of having arrived, to employ a location manager, a production designer, a camera department ( ! ). And are there people, really?, whose only job is to coordinate vehicles? To wrangle actors? Keep the movie on schedule? Oh, yes.

One of the last reins for a DIY director to let go of, though, is the editing. Thanks to the personal computer revolution and software like I-Movie that arrives installed from the factory, most directors (as well as craft services, grips, juicers, and everyone in the camera department) have also been editors at some time or another in their brief careers. How you see, how you imagine a process you’ve filmed unfolding in your mind’s eye, is very subjective. When to cut to an insert, when to go to a reverse shot, the very order of shots— no two people would necessarily cut a scene the same way. Having someone else cut your vision, especially those times when it will be someone you’ve never worked with before, seems counter-intuitive if not downright scary. So what are the upsides of working with an experienced editor?

A couple of the editors I spoke to brought up the issue of how much and how often the technology used for editing changes. It is the editor’s sole job to work with these tools and if he or she is very experienced, they’ve cut many films in the time that most directors have worked on one or two. Peter Teschner (Definitely, Maybe; Borat; Private Parts), who is working with Nanette Burstein, a director very accustomed to editing her own projects, points out that from the advent of sound in filmmaking until the introduction of computers, movies have always been made the same way, “but now it’s just incredible how it changes all the time, especially at the audio end and in the dubbing stages…every movie’s a little different.” Alan Edward Bell, editor of (500) Days of Summer, is keen on the benefits of specialization and experience that editors bring to the process: “Editors build performances and shape story in very subtle ways, most of the techniques and instincts we use to do this were developed over many years in the industry.” Working with someone who has confronted hundreds of the special challenges that come up in the editing stages of filmmaking is bound to save a production time and it will help find eloquent solutions to some of the problems. On Summer Bell encountered a situation where a scene was too long and nobody wanted to lose the really interesting shot that was also the source of the problem: “It started as a tilt up off of a couch which then pushed up into a bedroom where Tom and Summer are on the bed talking. The actors did a lot of add libbing during the slow tilt up and push in. The real discussion didn't start until about 15 seconds into the move. 15 seconds can be a very long time if it's not serving the story or a character in a meaningful way for the film. So I took the couch and cut it out of the frame then enlarged it slightly and masked out the section above it so that i could then alter the timing of the shot in invisible way. I essentially cut out all the fat but was able to keep the same move the DP and Director designed when the composed the shot. I do things like that to support the movie in an invisible way on a regular basis. It's because I can see the footage in a different way and I have tools and experience to do that sort of work quickly and effectively.”

Kate Williams, who has worked several times with Fred Schepisi, Steve Buscemi, and who cut Frozen River for Courtney Hunt, downplays the importance of being on top of technological developments (that’s what assistants are for) in favor of years and years of experience developing character and shaping performances in the editing room. For her, being able to tell a story and the freshness of the point of view an editor brings to this aspect of the project are key. Regardless of what the director’s original intent was, say at the writing or casting stages of the process, there is a good chance that what’s in the can may not reflect this. Finding the material to get it back to this original vision, or developing it into a different but more interesting statement, can be very difficult for the director after a grueling shoot or after having gotten too intimate with the footage to have the necessary distance. Editing on Frozen River began long after principal photography was over. According to Williams, “At first Courtney [Hunt] was worried that it wouldn’t cut together because of the short shooting schedule, and I said to her, ‘I like the speed with which you did it and the roughness of it is what I love about it.’ In the end I didn’t cut around anything that seemed clumsy. At one point I remember saying, ‘it doesn’t matter if the camera jiggles or a head’s slightly cut off, let’s just cut for story and character…’ and that’s what we did. They did a good job with what they did get [in principal photography] and the result was a very fresh look.”

The wonderful thing to remember about digital editing is that it is non-destructive. Everything editors do on their own can be undone and done over by the director after shooting is over. Teschner describes the back and forth process this way: “It’s me saying, ‘I really think we should try another take because this is not working,’ and the director trusting me enough to say, ‘alright, let’s try it.’ It’s not like we’re going to cut the negative tomorrow, it’s just experimenting, that’s what the editing process is…you can have an editor work for several months, look at what he’s done, think, ‘oh man,’ but no harm done because you haven’t destroyed anything.”

Being able to have footage cut simultaneously with principal photography is another benefit of working with an editor. Nothing says “not-a-DIY-film” like a firm delivery date and loans that have to get paid back quickly. An assembly of the whole film ready for the director to begin her cut will help to get that film done in time for festival deadlines or the distributor’s itchy fingers. But even if deadlines or accruing interest is not a concern, having another set of eyes looking at footage daily, and better yet, cut footage daily, certainly should be. Being informed of technical problems with what’s been shot or about missing shots while a crew is still shooting on the set that’s being edited is invaluable.

It is ironic that during B.C. filmmaking (Before Computers) when it was such a hassle to get film processed and synced up everyday for dailies, directors and DPs would forsake sleep to see rushes every single day. Now, when it is so much easier to get the footage screened and cut, especially if it’s being shot digitally to begin with, all of the editors I spoke to say that many of these people won’t even watch dailies weekly! This is probably because with HD monitors on the set, or shooting with cameras such as the Red One, what you see on-set can be very close to if not exactly what you will get at the very end of the post process. On a recent visit to a movie being shot on a Genesis camera with a state-of-the-art video village, I stupidly praised what I thought was DVD footage shot the previous day. The whole tent turned from the 31” HD monitor to give me an incredulous look. It was live action of a scene being rehearsed 50 yards away. But it looked so polished.

Teschner says that dailies every morning used to be the main interface between him and directors. Now, he says, although not ideal, they mainly text each other. There have been times when Nat Sanders has had to work with even less communication than that: “To be honest, I really haven't done that much conversing with my directors during production. For the most part, I'll just act like a detective and in looking at the footage, use clues (like things they're emphasizing from take to take, things they tossed out after the first take or two, et cetera) to figure out their intentions for each scene. And that's something that's actually worked out really well so far - my directors have always been pleasantly surprised at how close my first cuts have been to their visions for the film. And there's a lot to be said for being totally objective from the shoot, only seeing and knowing what's playing in that monitor, and being able to give a fresh take on the best form for the footage.”

Perhaps a good lead for narrative filmmakers is to follow how it’s done on some reality television shows. John Bloomgarden who edits for shows on Biography, Discovery, and for National Geographic remembers a time not too long ago when producers and directors had to come in and sit in the editing room to view everything that had been shot. The live and back and forth between editors and the people shooting the material was nearly a daily occurrence. “Now you rarely have to stop work for screenings anymore. The [cut and un-cut] material is uploaded to computers everyday and then downloaded to make DVDs for the producers to take home, look at it, and give comments later.”

Another unfortunate digital casualty is sometimes the script supervisor. The thinking on many low-budget indies is that it will somehow save money and that, because of playback, continuity is something that someone with nothing else to do will catch before the next take. But good notes from the set, regardless of who takes them, are also the responsibility of the script supervisor and they will save time and money in the editing room. Even if the director is cutting the film himself, it will save him the anxiety of trying to remember that perfect take months later when he’s editing. Having one person whose primary responsibility it is to remind the director of this and take notes is the best way to accomplish this. When shooting 35mm film, it is obvious that circled takes are a necessary effort because of the expense incurred if every take is printed. Most of the editors I spoke to felt that newer directors accustomed to shooting digital video bristle at the thought of having to work with circled takes even when what they’re shooting is film. But whether film or digital video, once a production has hired someone to edit its film that will not be on the set during shooting, circled takes or at least very good script notes is going to be a much more efficient way to work. It’s unrealistic to think that an editor will have the time (or the mental stamina) to watch scores of nearly identical takes over and over and be able to guess which one the director had in mind to use. Well, maybe just inhumane. Bloomgarden, who has also worked on narrative films notes that “the greatest difference between film and digital video is the proliferation of material. You just get so much more material thrown at you…Anyone trying to work on a reasonable post-production budget who doesn’t circle takes with direction as to why they were circled— well, the extra amount of time it takes under those circumstances is dramatic. You need guidelines, to look at those takes first and if they have problems, then you can go to the other takes to solve those problems.” Script notes or, at the very least, circled takes might be a new way to work for many new directors, but one that at some point they will really have to get good at to stay on time and on budget.

But John Bloomgarden, who cut the documentary Farmingville concedes that the case with documentaries can be a little different. Here, having someone else with the mental stamina to be able to go through hours and hours of footage, often with no clear script to work from, can be incredibly helpful if not essential. Logging is important here too, but it is often occurring while loading footage up into the computer, a process that Bloomgarden prefers to do himself in order to get familiar with the material. “[On Farmingville] I was brought in once the material was shot. That was an enormous amount of material, close to 200 hours. And in that situation I was working with two people that were extremely dedicated to what they were doing and the story they were telling, but one of them was a first-time director. The challenge when you have this much material and uncertainty about what shape this material should finally take, and so much of the material was very good material, the challenge is paring it down, paring it back, and in some cases how to move beyond the director’s love of some of the material, and ultimately your own too. As an editor, at a certain point, you also run the risk of becoming attached to certain scenes that will be hard to let go of. Ultimately you have to be gentle in your relations with a director. The editor’s job in a situation like this is to bring the director along to the point where she or he can begin to understand the need for moving past certain parts of the material and letting some of it go.” The 83-minute documentary went on to get the Audience Award at Sundance.

This is a good segue to our last consideration, what to look for in an editor. The first time a director has to go through this rite of passage might be the most difficult. Nat Sanders (Humpday, The Freebie, Medicine for Melancholy) summed it up this way: “If you're doing a character piece, you'll want to find an editor who's really strong at crafting performances. If you're looking for something flashy from your editing, you'd want to look for an editor that can bring a lot of style to your film. But outside of that, I'd say the main traits to look for are whether someone is pleasant to be around (as you'll be spending a lot of time with them), seems intelligent, insightful, hard-working, agreeable to compromises and allowing themselves to be overruled, and, probably most importantly, is excited about your script.”

The rest of the editors I spoke to agreed that the most important criteria for choosing an editor has got to be personality. Peter Teschner puts it this way: “The process is like finding a roommate. Even at the beginning level, if an editor has a resume, if they’ve cut some movies before, you will probably have a sense that they know what they’re doing. So then what becomes the big issue is personality. A director is going to have to ask, can I spend 6 months in a room with this person?” He recalls once asking a director with whom he’d made many features why she chose him over another more experienced editor the first time they worked together. She replied that the other editor had been offered something to eat during the their initial interview and that the bearded gentleman had selected a yogurt. As he scooped it into his mouth a little bit of it dribbled down into the hair on his chin and he didn’t notice. As the interview progressed, it started to annoy her more and more until she realized there was no way she’d be able to spend any significant amount of time in close proximity with this guy.” He adds that after years of working together, he and director Betty Thomas were able to finish each other’s sentences: as good a sign as any of a good working relationship between a director and an editor.

As for Kate Williams, her first impression of Courtney Hunt was very positive: “At our first meeting she walked in and we talked about our mothers for four hours…I thought, this is going to work well because we can talk about character. I really did.” Apparently, the feeling was mutual.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Trailerpark: Student-Made Feature

This is an unedited version of an article appearing in the Fall Issue of Filmmaker Magazine.

By Roberto Quezada-Dardon

For nine years students in MDIA 419, a narrative video class at Ohio University, have made short films selected from twenty-five to thirty scripts that they have written. Teams are chosen, one per script, and over the course of two quarters, people work as producers, editors, cinematographers, etc. with a director who’s been chosen on the basis of his or her experience and performance on past shorts in other positions. Anywhere from sixty to 70 additional students are divided among each of the five various projects as grips, electricians, and P.A.s, and everybody working on the projects gets course credit. The course is taught by the associate professor who developed it, Frederick Lewis. This year he decided that all this energy would be focused on making just one movie— a full-length theatrical feature.

While still a student at Brown University, Lewis remembers falling in love with a book of short stories by Russell Banks called Trailerpark. Twenty-five years later, as a filmmaker screening his documentary at the Lake Placid Film Forum, Lewis finally got to meet Mr. Banks, the founder of the forum. Banks was particularly interested in the subject of the film, the artist Rockwell Kent, because of a character based on Kent he was developing for a novel. The Trailerpark characters and stories had made a lasting impression on Lewis, but when he met the writer, he couldn’t find the words to mention this as coolly as he would have liked to. Over the years, the two men stayed in touch via email after the forum.

Juniors and seniors in MDIA 419 write both an original short screenplay, and an adaptation from a published short story. In the past the course has produced short films based on stories by various published writers intrigued by this method of teaching digital film production, the most notable being Kurt Vonnegut and T.C. Boyle. But no one at Ohio University had ever attempted a feature length film as part of the undergrad curriculum. This is also uncommon at most major film schools. In fact, if Google, IMDb, and Youtube are reliable measures, “student film” seems to be synonymous with “short.”

There are some very good reasons given for discouraging the practice at most film schools. There is the fear of permitting a student to set himself up for failure, or at least distraction from directing, due to the dimensions of such a project. Or the unfair advantage a student with access to finances would have over students who didn’t. Some schools, because they are providing equipment, editing rooms, tape, and in some cases, film stock and processing, claim ownership of all projects, thus creating a problem for students needing a return on their investment to pay for everything else. Even with most necessities donated, it’s difficult to get a polished feature in the can for under five digits. And what about the sheer drain on resources that a feature would cause a school trying to accommodate the projects of many students each semester?

These obstacles apparently did not exist in the School of Media Arts and Studies at Ohio University. First of all, there’s the course instructor himself. I’ve spoken to Frederick Lewis and, frankly, he’s kind of crazy— in a wonderfully contagious way. The possibility that such a venture might fail colossally simply never occurred to him. This fed into the element of surprise. No one was expecting a full-length feature to come out of an undergraduate video course. Lewis feels that it’s fortunate MDIA 419 is not a part of a traditional film school. It is in the School of Media Arts and Studies which mainly focuses on television studio production, documentary, post-production, and animation. Nor is Lewis’s class in narrative video required to graduate. Lewis believes that this relieves a lot of pressure because students get course credit for any job they do on a production, not just directing. Everyone that works on a project like this is committed to it in a way that they would not be if they were all directors just putting in their time on someone else’s project in turn for help on theirs.

One day, five years after meeting Russell Banks, Lewis brought up Trailerpark as a good example of source material for screenplay adaptations to a student in the course, Patrick Muhlberger. During this conversation, it occurred to Lewis that the various short stories in the book and all its disenfranchised characters might work as a full-length screenplay. When he said to Muhlberger that maybe they should try it, Muhlberger’s silent response was “yeah, right.” But Lewis was now on a mission.

Soon after, he emailed Banks and he explained to the twice-produced author (The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction) the concept of the class. Banks liked it and Lewis’s timing was perfect. HBO had just relinquished the rights to Trailerpark back to Banks. A couple of weeks later, Lewis and Banks had signed a simple, one paragraph letter of agreement allowing a movie to be made by MDIA 419 that could be shown only on the campus of Ohio University. No biggie. It was something Lewis had done many times before with published writers.

Lewis got Muhlberger a copy of Trailerpark and suggested he start selecting stories and characters that would all fit in one over arching story. It was a big job. Other students taking the course became involved with the project. Nick Knittel, Jeff Bowers, and Jonny Look all joined in the assignment to sort stories and characters into a single narrative. Lewis met with the students twice a month and read each draft of the script working with them on sequencing of scenes and improvements to the script.

After editing and condensing and adapting and writing for two quarters, what takes place over 60 years on the pages of Russell Banks’s book was condensed into a single year. The wheels of pre-production began to turn, and Lewis selected two directors to helm the project, Patrick Muhlberger and Jonny Look.

Each director worked with his own cinematographer, Andrew Poland, a senior in the Media Arts department, and John Veleta from the film school. Each D.P. had his own camera crew, but everyone else, the Production Designer Lauren Malizia and her department, Chief Lighting Technician Hank Wagenbach and all the grips and electricians, and the P.A.s, formed a single crew along with Conor Hogan as the coordinating producer.

Funding was raised by the students themselves and from many donors, as well as a very generous grant from the Ohio University Student Activities Commission. Andrew Poland managed to convince companies such as Mole-Richardson and Zacuto USA that this was not a typical student film and they were loaned all the grip, lighting, and camera equipment used on the project.

The scenes and story lines each director would be in charge of were agreed upon at the writing stage of production. Sets were built and dressed (including eight seventy-foot house trailers that were rented and transported to the side of a lake) and photography was accomplished in 32 days, mostly on weekends. The picture was edited during and after shooting by Ben Draher, and picture was locked four weeks after shooting wrapped. According to Jonny Look “Frederick gave Patrick and I complete creative control….He allowed us to be the final decision on set for all of our principal photography, which needed to happen, or else our role as directors may have been a bit confusing.”

Trailerpark premiered on campus at Ohio University and was then presented to the public at this year’s Lake Placid Film Forum. It was very well received. Russell Banks was present and in a taped interview said that the work of the filmmakers just blew him away. “They caught the mixture of comedy and tragedy which is really hard to do. The book has that mix and they caught that and I was very grateful for that….I just thought the level of professionalism was really extraordinary. REALLY extraordinary. I have never seen a student production of that quality in my life.” The distribution agreement he has with the school has been expanded so that the film can now be submitted to any and all of the film festivals Frederick Lewis has planned for it.