We are living in a great era for documentary films and television made possible by the tools we use. No film exemplifies that more than this year’s Tribecca Film Festival winner for the Best Documentary Feature, The War Tapes. Filmed by citizen soldiers from the New Hampshire National Guard deployed in Iraq, The War Tapes is the first war movie filmed by the soldiers themselves.
The concept started with director Deborah Scranton, an experienced journalist and New Hampshire native. Scranton was offered the opportunity to go to Iraq as an embedded filmmaker. Instead, she pitched the idea that this story could be told best by the soldiers themselves; so in early 2004, she proposed the idea to the troops at Ft. Dix, New Jersey and ended up with ten volunteers. In the end, The War Tapes is told through the eyes of three soldiers, Sgt. Zack Bazzi (a Lebanese-American college student), Sgt. Steve Pink (a carpenter) and Spc. Mike Moriarty (a father of two, moved by the events of Sept. 11). Additional filming by Duncan Domey and Brandon Wilkins rounded out the coverage. All served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as part of Charlie Company, 172nd Infantry (Mountain) Regiment, based at LSA Anaconda in the deadly Sunni Triangle. They lived through 1200 combat operations and 250 direct enemy engagements.
The filmmaking team
Scranton and executive producer Chuck Lacy brought the idea to Robert May (The Fog of War) at the Sundance Producers Conference. He was excited by the idea of the soldiers filming the story and agreed to produce this film under his SenArt Films banner. May had worked with Steve James (producer/director and editor of Hoop Dreams) on James’ film Stevie and convinced him to co-produce and edit The War Tapes. James quickly realized that no single editor could adequately tackle this project and brought Leslie Simmer from Chicago’s Kartemquin Films into the mix as the second editor. Kartemquin is an award-winning documentary production company, having produced such projects as The New Americans series for PBS. They agreed to “loan” Simmer and room for one of The War Tapes’ two Avid edit suites to the project. Rounding out the core post team was Aaron Wickenden, who served as associate editor and post production supervisor, and Adam Singer, co-producer.
On the production side, Scranton equipped the soldiers with Sony one-chip consumer MiniDV camcorders, tripods, microphones, various lenses and piles of DV tape. Directing from afar, Scranton was in communication with her “crew” in Iraq through the internet, using e-mail and instant messaging. The guardsmen uploaded QuickTime movies of recent footage and situations to discuss and Scranton would suggest ways to improve the coverage. According to Scranton, “The experience was a mesh of interplays of present, future, perspective and reverberating memories. We filmed events in real time. We conducted interviews 24 hours later. These interviews were followed by more interviews months after the incidents. This became a mutual journey.” Throughout the year of production, the troops filmed 800 hours of DV footage.
Back home, the filmmaking team shot an additional 200 hours of tape documenting the impact on the families during the deployment, as well as after the soldiers’ return home. Since the filmmakers wanted all the footage to look consistent, stateside coverage was shot with Sony DVCAM and Panasonic DV camcorders, rather than HD or Digital Betacam.
The challenge of abundance
How do you turn 1,000 hours of tape into a 97 minute film? I discussed The War Tapes with Steve James, Leslie Simmer and Aaron Wickenden, three of the film’s Chicago-based editorial team. Steve pointed out that, “This wouldn’t have been possible without a group of really smart loggers. It’s totally impractical for one person to personally scrutinize this much footage, so the first round of viewing was Deborah and then our team of loggers. Much of the footage was taped through the windshield driving in Humvees and this wouldn’t be very interesting. Then someone would have an off-camera comment, which was pretty good. Our loggers would be looking for such discoveries and make a note of the timecode for us to take a closer look.” The logs and transcripts were posted on a .Mac account so that everyone on the team, including the director and producers, could access the information and see if something warranted additional attention. Aaron and Adam provided the next line of review as footage was loaded to the hard drives. Aaron explained, “When it came time to digitize, I would capture all the selected footage to be used onto several FireWire drives at Avid’s 15:1 resolution. I was able to get all of the raw footage on one 500GB and one 250GB FireWire drive [note: about 190 hours of raw footage]. I would clone these and ‘sneakernet’ the drives to Steve and Leslie. We had one Avid at Kartemquin for Leslie and one at Steve’s house in Oak Park [Illinois].”
Steve James served as the lead editor, sharing duties with Leslie Simmer. As Steve puts it, “We took the divide-and-conquer approach, splitting up scenes according to what best matched our own personal approach – action, narrative, etc. At the beginning, I didn’t think this would take a year, but you’d have a scene that was pretty good and then the next week new tapes would come in that had something even better. So we always had to be willing to go back and revisit scenes to improve the story.” After six months they had a first cut that was about three hours long and the film went through twelve “official” rough cuts and six fine cuts. Steve adds, “Even though the finished length is 97 minutes, that version includes about fifteen minutes that weren’t in the three hour version.”
I was curious how the military took to a story this honest. The company commander in Iraq, Major Ray Valas, and the New Hampshire National Guard Public Affairs Officer, Major Greg Heilshorn (an ex-journalist himself), had an opportunity to review the footage. Leslie added, “We owe Major Heilshorn a debt of gratitude, because he was brave enough to trust the filmmakers’ judgment to make a film that was fair and honest to the soldiers. Regardless of personal political beliefs about the war, we all wanted this to be the soldiers’ story and we had to be true to that goal. In the end, making the film was unquestionably a group effort. Everyone involved in post production had creative input that made a significant impact on the final cut.”
The film approach to DV
The War Tapes was edited entirely on two Avid Xpress DV systems, but the film followed some rather unique steps to get into its final form. The online editing was handled at i-cubed, a Chicago post facility. Rather than use a standard online edit system, i-cubed used a Nucoda Film Master workstation, which they use for digital intermediate film finishing. Colorist Mike Matusek explained the steps to me. “We captured the tapes into the Film Master – based on the Avid’s EDL – where the video is stored as uncompressed DPX files in RGB color space. The output of this conformed sequence was recorded to Digibeta and then de-interlaced in real-time using a Teranex imageConvert system. Then we brought that video back into Film Master for color correction and to reformat the 4×3 video into anamorphic 16×9. Most of the footage was natively 4×3, so we reformatted by changing the aspect, framing, and cropping shots to fit the 16×9 aspect ratio. This is best done if you de-interlace the image first. For the final deliverables we produced an NTSC anamorphic 16×9 master, and after an upconvert with Film Master, a 1080i HD-D5 master was created. We are now in the process of getting the HD master ready for a film-out for theatrical distribution, which means we will further convert the 30fps frame-rate to 24fps for film. The frame rate conversion is done with different software filters that are chosen based on a scene’s motion. Some shots, like fast camera pans, will have to be custom-tweaked to minimize the strobing inherent in these conversions to 24fps.”
SenArt Films also chose an experienced film mixing facility for the sound. Aaron continued, “We chose Dig It in New York for the mix, which has a Dolby-certified mix stage. Since a lot of the audio came from the on-camera mics, the obvious concern was the noise from generators, wind in the gun turrets and the Humvee engines. Dig It struck the right balance between cleaning this up without attempting to make it too sterile. We sent them twelve to fifteen tracks from the rough cut plus about eight additional tracks of wild sound using Avid’s OMF output. Minimal foley was required for the final mix, so nearly everything you hear is the audio recorded in the field.”
Steve James comes from a film background and made the switch to Avid years ago. “I’m not computer-savvy. In fact I cut Hoop Dreams on a VHS cuts-only system. When I transitioned to Avid I was a bit nervous. I took to it easily, because it just works the way an editor thinks.” Leslie adds that, “Avids were designed by editors for editors. I can’t think of a better system for managing such a large amount of footage.” Aaron is younger and from a different point-of-view. “I actually learned editing first on Apple’s Final Cut Pro, so I had to teach myself the Avid interface when I started working with Kartemquin. I was really impressed with how well everything worked on the two systems we had set up. These were all Apple PowerMac G5s and the Avid Xpress DV software was super stable. We never had a major crash. When it came time to travel to the mix, I took along the FireWire drives with the media and my Apple iBook – on which I’d installed Xpress DV. This way, if I had to check anything, I had the material right at my fingertips. It was all very fluid and this way of working is extremely exciting.” The War Tapes is a brilliant example of how modern low cost hardware, software-based editorial tools and the internet can be a means of bringing very personal stories to the screen. More information about the film is available online at www.thewartapes.com.
Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)