One bite at a time

… or, how to tackle large projects.

Anytime you start a complex, long-form project – whether it’s a feature film, documentary, TV show or corporate video – it can seem very overwhelming. With 30, 40, 80, over 100 hours of footage and more – where do you start? The answer is to start at the beginning. Like the response to the old question, “How do you eat an elephant?” – it is best handled “one bite at a time.”

Unlike many other editors, I’m not a big one for scripts and transcripts. I like to work with the material that’s in front of me and refer to the scripts or transcripts as needed. Don’t get me wrong – transcripts and tools like Avid’s ScriptSync can be great – but they aren’t for everyone and not always at your disposal. So let’s look at tools your editing software offers to make life easier and more organized.

Editing tools to the rescue

Nearly all NLEs offer productivity features to make it easier to organize your footage. Best known and utilized are markers and bin columns. Most NLEs offer certain preset columns, like scene and take, but generally you may add custom columns of your own. For example, with file-based footage like P2, I tend to leave the name “as is” and add my own descriptions in a comments or description column. Once you get the bin organized with the columns most useful to you, hide the other non-essential data columns and save that view as your custom bin view. Each NLE works a bit differently in this regard, but most have a similar feature.

No editor can avoid reviewing all the footage. Nor should they! Just because the script supervisor listed the last take of a shot as the “circle take” doesn’t mean that’s really the best performance. Maybe the first take was better for the start of the shot. If the scene cuts around to other footage, it’s quite likely that you may use the start of take one and the ending of the last take to capture the best performance. You won’t know this until you’ve loaded ALL the shots, reviewed ALL the shots and MADE NOTES. That’s where using multiple comments columns can be very helpful.

When I cut a feature film, I’ll note the director’s choices as well as my own, plus comments. That way, a few weeks later when someone wants to know why I used a different take, I can refer back to the notes in a column to indicate what about the other take struck me at that time as being better. Sometimes it’s obvious by comparing the two, but sometimes it isn’t. Know why you made the editing decisions you made.

An NLE is nothing more than a large database. As such, there are many built-in tools to help you sort, search and find the necessary shots. The most obvious is a finder-style column sort. Highlight the column header and sort by ascending or descending values. Most do a single-column sort, but Avid Media Composer actually does a two-column sort. So for example, Scene might be a “primary” sort field and Take might be the “secondary”. Another fine Media Composer bin feature is Custom Sift. Set the criteria for one or more columns and Custom Sift will display the matches and hide the rest. When cutting a feature, I’ll have a Selects column and indicate preferred takes with an “X”. By sifting for any “X” in the Selects column, the bin will only display the few preferred takes instead of all the takes. Switch back to an un-sifted view and the bin shows all clips again.

Most NLEs offer Find commands. In the case of Premiere Pro, the top of each bin window contains a search field. Type in a value for a Spotlight-style search and the resulting finds are displayed. Final Cut Pro offers a Find window that can search your entire project for specific criteria in one or more columns. The matching results will be displayed in a separate window. Of course, how much can be found clearly depends on the time you took at the beginning to enter metadata, comments and notes.

Editing strategy

When I edit an unscripted documentary, made up largely of interviews, the approach I take is like a sieve. Pour in a lot at the top and keep refining until the right content comes out at the bottom. In this type of production, the editor is, in effect, writing the story through the selection and juxtaposition of soundbites. It’s critical that you watch and listen to everything. If you have 60 hours of interviews, then there simply is no way around concentrating on what those people said in those 60 hours. You have to find the gems, string them together in a coherent fashion and make sense out of apparent chaos.

Step one. The three NLE tools I use at this point are custom columns (notes, comments, etc.), markers to identify the good statements and subclips. I don’t use all of these on every projects, but these are the first tools to use. For example, if I have an interview with a subject that covers an entire one-hour tape, I will typically ingest the complete one-hour tape as a single clip (timecode permitting) at a lower resolution, like DV25. In a column, I will describe the tape – subject and general topics mentioned. The next step is to review that clip, placing markers for good statements or creating a subclip for sections. Again, add notes, notes and more notes.

Step two is to start organizing each person’s comments. Edit a sequence of selected soundbites for each interview subject. At this point, I will include just about everything that seems moderately useful. Next, duplicate the sequences and start to whittle them done, keeping only the strongest statements. Since I’m working with a copy, I can always pull a clip from the longer sequence, if I decide to include a statement I had cut out. At the end of this process, I have a long and short sequence of selects for each subject.

Step three is to organize the sequences of people into new sequences by topic. As you’ve been listening to the comments, several themes will start to emerge. These may be predetermined – based on a set of questions that the interviewer was using – or it might come out of the natural on-camera discussion. Don’t get rid of your first set of selected sequences by person, in case you need to refer back to one of them. Depending on your NLE and style, build these by copy-and-pasting clips or by editing from one sequence into another.

When you are done, you will have a set of selected sequences for each topic, containing only the strongest soundbites from each person who discussed that matter. Naturally more than one person discussed the same topic and not everyone gave an equally strong, succinct or passionate response. So, you will need to drop some of the repeated answers in order to keep the best of the lot. As in the previous step, take a second pass at these sequences to whittle them down (keep both versions of course).

Step four is the point at which you can actually start building a show sequence with a story structure. Up to this point you have created at least four sets of selected sequences: interview selects (long and short) and topic selects (long and short). Build the story structure by rearranging your topic clips in a way that the comments start to create a natural narrative outlining the facts. Depending on the amount of material and whether or not you had any help from a story producer or similar person, it might be days, weeks or months before you have reached this point. Now it’s time to take your topic selects and assemble a story. Some of these topic sequences will be very long, but others will be too short to include in the story. Decide how many tangents to explore within your program. To tell the best story – even in a documentary – you need to consider character development and story arc, just as in a dramatic, scripted production.

From here on out, it’s a matter of continually refining the rough cut until you get a locked picture. By using the strongest statements, your cut may too heavily favor a small sample of your interview subjects. If that’s the case, you’ll need to revisit the earlier sequences (by person or topic) in order to swap out some of the people for others. This way the finished cut will better hold the viewers’ attention. Once again, it becomes very important to have added good notes to your bins, sequence markers and so on, in order for the search and find functions to be of use in making such changes.

As a sidebar, one interesting approach to all of this can be found at Assisted Editing. You’ve reviewed the clips and entered all the metadata, but you just have “editor’s block” and want some help getting started. Then it’s time for First Cuts to come to the rescue. By applying some artificial intelligence to the equation, the First Cuts application will generate any number of versions for you, based on assigned parameters like length, themes and so on. It’s not meant to replace the editor, but merely to automatically generate a good first assembly as a starting point from which to build. It’s also a great way to vary the story line, since it can be easy to start going down a single road, get tunnel vision and lose sight of other ways of editing the story.

I started out by saying that I tend not to rely on transcripts, but it’s in this final process where transcripts can be a great help. For me the process is one of reviewing and discarding, so how do you best handle the situation when the producer says, “I think someone else said this better. Where is it?” Most transcripts are typed with a timecode value noted every few paragraphs. A search in Word will let you find the statement. Then use the closest timecode value as a means by which to find that general area in the source footage.

If you are working with Avid ScriptSync, then this becomes a fairly instant process. It’s one of the reasons Avid editors who use that feature find it to be so essential.

It really doesn’t matter how you tackle a large project nor the specific tools that are best for you. The point is to be methodical and to make the best use of the tools at your disposal.

Click here for more documentary film editing tips.

©2010 Oliver Peters