Blindsided – Case Study of Editing a Documentary

Walter Murch has explained film editing as part plumbing, part performance and part writing. Plumbing is understanding the workflow. Performance is the inherent feeling of knowing where to make the best cut to establish pace and rhythm, much the same as a musician. The third component – the film editor as writer – is most true when cutting documentaries. In dramatic films, the editor helps shape the story and often ends up with a film that is radically different from the script; but, in documentaries, the editor commonly creates that script through the process of juxtaposing images and sounds.


A few years ago I began the cut of Blindsided, which chronicles the story of teenager Jared Hara’s struggle with going blind (from Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neoropathy) and the emotional turmoil of the family during that initial period. A false start by another editor resulted in the project coming to me. By then, the production was complete with footage already transcribed and digitized. Nothing had actually been cut yet, so I was able to start with a clean slate. Some documentaries take years to shoot, but the bulk of this footage was recorded during three weeks in the midst of Florida’s series of hurricane encounters during the fall of 2004.


The footage consisted predominantly of on-camera interviews with friends, doctors and family taped with a Sony F900 high-def camera. Other content included a fishing trip to Canada, Jared at school, a hurricane relief concert performance by the band Shinedown and coverage of Jared and two friends tubing from Ft. Lauderdale to the Bahamas in 4-5 foot seas. In total, about 50-60 hours of 24p HD content. The Bahamas trip was the original impetus for this production, as the Haras had hoped to attract attention to this medical disorder. It also provided an important diversion for Jared to help take his mind off of the reality of permanently going blind.


To aid in the production, the Haras brought in Talia Osteen – a family friend and then USC film student – as the director. The project quickly morphed from simple coverage of the event into a full-blown documentary film with an eye towards a Sundance submission. As the concept grew, so did the production, which added Digibeta helicopter aerials to the tube crossing, as well as Panasonic DVX-100 “B-Unit” camcorders and multi-track audio recording to the Shinedown concert. Talia had wrapped with school and was moving on to her first film career job, so when I joined the team in mid-2005, it was sans writer or director.


Where to begin?


Cutting Blindsided fit well into an approach I use with most unscripted projects. The first thing you have to do is review the footage, listen to all the interviews and start culling the useable from the useless. I tend not to work from transcripts, because I like to work with the footage that’s in front of me. Some editors swear by transcriptions and software like Avid’s ScriptSync, but I often find that “paper edits” don’t work well. The resulting dialogue edits simply sound odd, because the spoken inflections don’t match. However, transcripts do prove to be useful later on, when the producer or director ask for alternate sound bites. They can quickly find the dialogue on paper or in a Word document and locate the closest timecode (part of the transcription). Then it’s simple to call up the right clip in your NLE for a preview.


I’ll make editorial decisions about key sound bites for each person (presumably their best statements) and edit these into a “selects” sequence. Next, I’ll copy-and-paste appropriate segments from each person into new topic-related sequences. Then I duplicate those sequences and start cutting them down. For example, if three people talk about the same subject in the same way, I’ll pick the best of the three and eliminate the other two. I now have a grouping of all the relevant sound bites, but can always step back to an earlier version to restore a comment I might have cut. So, like eating an elephant, you start one bite at a time!


The story arc


At this point, a story structure – or arc – starts to emerge. In Blindsided, that arc covered the disease and the two-year-long degradation of Jared’s eyesight, then the downward spiral of the family – finally leading to how they have coped with the situation. This sounds clean and concise, but there were several messy parts. One of our challenges was to weave in what might really be considered as too many stories and “events”. For example, the Haras are Jewish, but their best friends are Muslim. This is tied to the friendship of the two sons who met as junior hockey players. Friendship was a key ingredient to the larger story.


The trip to Canada, the tubing trip and the concert were events – tangents to the main theme. At the Shinedown concert, Jared appeared on stage with the band, playing guitar on one number in front of an audience of about 6,000 people. This provided an uplifting ending, but it, too, was an event. So editorially, I had to balance these moments – which added a nice level of production value – with the real meat of the story, told largely in less visually-interesting interviews. The concert created a natural ending, but we wanted to be careful not to have it be too long or too triumphant. We didn’t want the viewer to forget the rest of the story and just focus on the end. Furthermore, this story has no happy “Hollywood” ending. The reality is that Jared is blind for the rest of his life.


Letting the story tell itself


My inclination was to have the interview sound bites tell the story without the use of a “voice of God” narrator. In crafting unscripted films, you first edit a “radio cut” – concentrating on making the sound work without worrying about visual coverage. Think radio play! In other words – Is there a complete story? At the beginning, I didn’t think I could avoid some narration and planned on bringing in a script writer to add narrative bridges between segments – essentially treating the story like chapters in a book. By the end of my two-hour-long first cut, Talia and producer David Coleman stepped back into the picture and helped refine the story. We tightened and rearranged segments and sound bites to eliminate the need for any announcer. This structure had been Talia’s vision from the start and I was glad to succeed in that goal. Talia worked with us for a few weeks and then David and I continued with further refinements. Sundance didn’t pick up Blindsided, which gave us time to screen the film for some informal focus group audiences. Their feedback helped to guide our revisions.


Blindness from Leber’s is genetically passed down on the maternal side, so Mark (Jared’s dad) irrationally blamed his wife Ellen (Jared’s mother). These feelings brought the family to the brink of dissolution. Mark had been brutally honest during the on-camera interviews about his emotions at that time and their impact on the rest of the family. He wanted to keep as much of this in the finished film to show the reality of what people go through when confronted by such a family tragedy. It’s an important part of what is in essence a grieving process that families have to pass through. The Haras stayed together, so the point was to show that you can regain a somewhat normal, yet different life by working through this. However, some of our audience feedback indicated a strong negative reaction to Mark’s honesty – so much so, that it tainted their opinion of the show.


The second issue was a bit harder to deal with. In an effort to involve Jared in activities that would help him cope and maintain a passion for life, the Haras engaged in “projects”, like the tubing trip, the fishing trip and helping Jared discover a talent for playing guitar. A small percentage of the focus audiences made comments like, “I’d trade my eyesight for the life this kid’s having.” Obviously these people didn’t get it, yet it was something we needed to address editorially. These two issues guided us in toning down some areas of the cut and accentuating others.


Adding the spice


Even with the wealth of original footage, I still needed more video, especially to cover sound bite edits within the interviews. Family photos and home videos helped flesh out the story and punctuate poignant moments. These included digital stills, scanned photos and nearly every video format imaginable, including VHS, Mini-DV, DVD and Mini-DVD-RAM. I even asked the second unit DP to spend a day with his own HDV camcorder at the Hara’s home to shoot cutaway shots around the house.


The first online edit took place in mid-2006. Since I’d used Apple Final Cut Pro for the offline edit, I uprezzed the footage in FCP, as well. The principal HD footage was 23.98fps, but the offline editing had been done from DVCAM copies, so the project was 29.97fps. The chances of this documentary going to 35mm film were slight, so we decided on a 1080i HD finish at 29.97fps. This maintained the quality of the interlaced SD footage, which would inevitably get softer if de-interlaced and converted to 24p. I especially wanted to keep the maximum quality of the dramatic aerials of the boys on an inner tube crossing to the Bahamas with extremely choppy water. All SD footage was upconverted to HD using a Teranex Mini, so even the DVX concert shots cut well against the angles from the F900. It took about a week and a half to uprez and color grade the show in FCP.


Blindsided went on to a series of successful film festival appearances. We made a few further trims in 2007 and then again in 2008, when Blindsided was accepted by HBO Family for airing on both the HBO Family channel and the main HBO channel. I don’t believe editors should get a writing credit for this kind of project. In my mind, it’s all part of earning the title of film editor. On the other hand, Blindsided provides the perfect example of how a “script” is created simply through the language of editing.


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Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine and NewBay Media, L.L.C.