The Sundance Film Festival is frequently a showcase for the independent film spirit, where new technologies meet up with energetic ways to tell unique stories. Director/editor Paul Rachman brings that into focus with his documentary, “American Hardcore”. Rachman – one of the original five founders of Slamdance and a veteran director of nearly 150 music videos – set out to put those principles into practice as he chronicled the hardcore American underground punk movement. This film was inspired by Steven Blush’s book, “American Hardcore: A Tribal History”. Rachman documents the punk music scene from 1980 to 1986 through interviews with such icon bands as Black Flag, Minor Threat and the Circle Jerks.
Rachman started this project in 2001 and it has taken four years to get it to Sundance. By the end of filming, he had accumulated 120 hours of interviews as well another hundred or so hours of stock footage. Rachman told me, “This is a largely untold story. Typically bands like the New York Dolls are considered to be the start of American punk rock in the early 1970’s, but Hardcore Punk started later. The punk music scene in the early 1980’s was really about a bunch of kids, who were operating outside of the established music industry. Way before the rise of the internet, they were figuring out how to market themselves, to get gigs and to expose people to their music. Today it doesn’t seem far-fetched for a band to get its music direct to the people, but these punkers were really the beginning of the do-it-yourself attitude that has motivated many of today’s groups.”
To tell this story, Rachman spent a lot of time on the road and production had to be as portable as possible. All of the footage was shot with standard 30FPS interlaced DV or DVCAM camcorders. Rachman continued, “I really didn’t want to mess with 24p or HD on this film. The bands themselves have a certain energy in their independent approach to music, so I didn’t want to introduce any production elements that would stifle the energy on screen. It would have been disingenuous in a way, so the look I got with regular DV cameras seemed to translate that energy best. In addition, I used a lot of footage, which the bands had shot themselves as kids. This came in all types of formats, but a lot of it was old VHS – even some recorded in the six-hour mode! So overall, staying with interlaced footage gave me the best match to these stock images.”
The need to stay light and mobile also translated itself to post. The entire movie was edited on Rachman’s 1GHz Apple PowerBook using Avid Xpress Pro nonlinear editing software. During the course of this four-year-long adventure, Xpress Pro became the mainstay editorial tool that enabled impromptu cutting in apartments, hotel rooms and so on. Numerous FireWire drives were used for the media, so it was easy to toss the “edit suite” into a backpack and continue at the next location. Paul Rachman is no stranger to post, having started out after Boston University on an A/B roll linear system and then moving on to become a staff editor at New York’s Windsor Video (now defunct). At Windsor, he was introduced to early nonlinear editing on a Montage system and later moved to Avid Media Composers. Rachman made the transition to directing music videos and has kept his feet in both the directing and editing camps ever since.
“I was blown away when I first saw the Avid Xpress Pro software running on my laptop. Here was the software that I really loved to use – right at my fingertips. I was now free from having to book Avid edit time at a large post house, because all the tools that I was used to, were right there on the screen. I started with version 4.3 and upgraded to 4.6, but stopped there, because I didn’t want to get too carried away with updates in the middle of such a large project.” With a background as an editor, Rachman knew that organization was the key, and relied heavily on the software’s tools. “Media consolidation was a big issue for me. I would log all the footage from the interviews and then digitize the tapes. Next, I’d cut together a ‘selects’ sequence for each person consisting of all their best comments. As the FireWire drives would fill up, I used the Xpress Pro Consolidate Media function to move the shortened media files for these selected comments to a new drive. By doing this, I was able to isolate the essence of their interviews onto less drive space, which let me be more efficient; but I didn’t erase the drives with the complete media. Instead, I still kept and stored the original drives, in case I had to go back to a comment that wasn’t in the ‘selects’ sequence. In addition, there were a lot of notes that were taken during the interviews. Avid has a bin view called the Script view, which allows additional space that the editor can use to enter comments, notes, descriptions, etc. This became very helpful to our workflow and let us avoid the need for a complete transcript of all the interviews.”
The first assembly of the film was around four hours, consisting of just interview elements assembled in a way to best tell the story without the use of a narrator. This was cut down to about two-and-one-half hours before Rachman started to weave in music, stock footage and b-roll shots. Once the cut was locked at 98 minutes, it was time to get “American Hardcore” ready for Sundance. Although shot and offline edited on DV, Rachman wanted to give it the best possible look during finishing. As a veteran music video director, Rachman had an established relationship with Sony Music’s New York post facility. Rachman booked Avid Symphony online edit time to conform his project as uncompressed media.
“I had cut this on Avid Xpress Pro, so moving the project files to Symphony was a breeze. It’s all Avid and everything comes across, so I just had to batch capture the footage from the tapes into the Symphony. In fact, my graphics designer gave me files in both DV and uncompressed versions. During the Symphony sessions, I simply had to link to the uncompressed files by the same name and the graphics popped right up. Symphony has great color-correction features, which I used on this pass of the film; but color correction is a real skill. I consider this a festival version, so when we get the master ready for a true film-out, I’ll work with a colorist for a second pass at color grading the film.” Rachman mastered the film to Digital Betacam, which in turn was converted through a Teranex format converter to Sony HDCAM for Sundance. The audio editing, sweetening and mix was handled at Sound One. “Sound was as easy as picture. All I had to do was export an OMF file from the Symphony. That was burned to a DVD-R for Sound One to import into a Pro Tools system, used for the sound edit and mix.”
I asked Paul Rachman if he had any advice for young filmmakers. “Organization! I worked with a massive amount of material and the only way to do this for four years without any hiccups is to have a solid plan. I come from a linear editing background, so organization is in my nature. I used Avid, because that was very intuitive to me and I didn’t have to think about how to run the software. In addition, I know it’s rock solid in a project of this size and complexity. If you’re a new filmmaker and don’t know how to work out these details, then it is imperative that you find an experienced editor. Ask their advice before you start shooting, so that you have a roadmap that works.”
As we wrapped up the conversation, Paul Rachman was already planning out the DVD releases. All the extra interview footage that’s still saved on those FireWire drives will make dandy outtakes that become the DVD extras. Like the punk bands that are its subject, “American Hardcore” has resisted the mainstream filmmaking approach to tell a unique and compelling American story.
Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)