The Mole Agent

At times you have to remind yourself that you are watching a documentary and not actors in a fictional drama. I’m talking about The Mole Agent, one of the nominees for Best Documentary Feature in this year’s Academy Awards competition. What starts as film noir with a humorous slant evolves into a film essay on aging and loneliness.

Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi originally set out to document the work being done by private investigator Romulo Aitkin. The narrative became quite different, thanks to Romulo’s mole, Sergio Chamy. The charming, 83-year-old widower was hired to be the inside man to follow a case at a retirement home. Once on the inside, we see life from Sergio’s perspective.

The Mole Agent is a touching film about humanity, deftly told without the benefit of an all-knowing narrator or on-camera interviews. The thread that binds the film is often Sergio’s phoned reports to Romulo, but the film’s approach is largely cinema verite. Building that structure fell to Carolina Siraqyan, a Chile-based editor, whose main experience has been cutting short-form projects and commercials. I recently connected with Carolina over Zoom to discuss the post behind this Oscar contender.

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Please tell me how you got the chance to edit this film.

I met Maite years ago while giving a presentation about editing trailers for documentaries, which is a speciality of mine. She was finishing the The Grown-Ups and I’m Not From Here, a short documentary film. I ended up doing the trailers for both and we connected. She shared that she was developing The Mole Agent. I loved the mixture of film noir and observational documentary, so I asked to work on the film and ended up cutting it.

Did her original idea start with the current premise of the film or was the concept broader at that point?

Maite wanted to do a documentary about the workings of a private detective agency, since detectives are often only represented in fiction. She worked with Romulo for a few months and realized that investigations into retirement homes are quite common. She loved the idea for the film and started focusing on that aspect.

Romulo already had a mole that he used inside the homes on these cases, but the mole broke his hip. So Romulo placed a newspaper want ad for someone in his 80s who could work as his new mole on this case. A number of credible older men applied. Out of those applicants, Sergio was hired and turned out to be perfect for the film. He entered into the retirement home after some initial training, including how to discretely communicate with Romulo and how to use the spy cameras.

How was the director able to convince the home and the residents to be in the film?

The film crew had arrived a couple of weeks before Sergio. It was explained that they were doing a film on old age and would be focusing on any new residents in the home. So, the existing residents were already comfortable with the presence of the cameras before he arrived. Maite was very empathetic about where to place cameras so that they wouldn’t bother residents or interfere with what the staff was doing, even if that might not be the best location aesthetically.

Maite is very popular here. She’s written and directed a number of films about social issues and her point-of-view is very humble and very respectful. This is a good retirement home with nothing to hide, so both the staff and the residents were OK with filming. But to be clear, only people who consented appear in the film.

I understand that there were 300 hours of raw footage filmed for this documentary. How did you approach that?

The crew filmed for over three months. It’s actually more that 300 hours of footage, because of the spy cameras. Probably as much as 50 hours more. I couldn’t use a lot of that spy camera material, because Sergio would accidentally press record instead of pressing stop. The camera was in his pocket all the time, so I might have black for 20 minutes. [laugh] 

I starting on the project in January [2019] after it had been shot and the camera footage merged with the sound files. The native footage was shot with Sony cameras in their MXF format. The spy cameras generated H.264 files. To keep everything smooth, I was working with proxy files.

Essentially I started from zero on the edit. It took me two months to categorize the footage. I have an assistant, but I wanted to watch all of the material first. I like to add markers while I’m watching and then add text to those markers as I react to that footage. The first impression is very important for me.

We had a big magnetic blackboard and I placed magnetic cards on the wall for each of the different situations that I had edited. Then Maite came during the middle of March and we worked together like playing Tetris to structure the film. After that we shifted to Amsterdam for two months to work in a very focused way in order to refine the film’s structure. The first edition was completed in November and the final mix and color correction was done in December.

Did you have a particular method to create the structure of this documentary?

I feel that every film is different and you have to think a lot about how you are going to face each movie. In this film I had two certainties, the beginning – Romulo training Sergio – and the ending – what Sergio’s thoughts were. The rest is all emotion. That’s the spine. I have to analyze the emotion to converge to the conflict. First, there’s the humor and then the evolution to the sadness and loneliness. That’s how I approached the material – by the emotion.

I color-coded the magnetic cards for different emotions. For example, pink was for the funny scenes. When Maite was there, the cards provided the big picture showing all the situations. We could look and decide if a certain order worked or not.

What sort of changes to the film came out of the review stage?

This is a very international film with co-producers in the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Chile. We would share cuts with them to get helpful feedback. It let us make the movie more universal, because we had the input of many professionals from different parts of the world. 

When we arrived in Amsterdam the first cut of the film was about three hours long. Originally the first part was 30 minutes long and that was cut down to 10 minutes. When we watched the longer cut, we felt that we were losing interest in the investigation; however, the relationship that Sergio was establishing with the women was wonderful. All the women are in love with him. It starts like film noir, but with humor.  So we focused on the relationships and edited the investigation parts into shorter humorous segments that were interspersed throughout the film.

The reality was incredible and definitely nothing was scripted. But some of the co-producers commented that various scenes in the film didn’t feel real to them. So, we considered those opinions as we were tightening the film.

You edited this film with Adobe Premiere Pro. How do you like using it and why was it the right tool for this film?

I started on film with Moviola and then edited on U-matic, which I hated. I moved to Avid, because it was the first application we had. Then I moved to Final Cut Pro; but after FCP7 died, I switched to Premiere Pro. I love it and am very comfortable with how the timeline works. The program leaves you a lot of freedom as to how and where you put your material. You have control – none of that magnetic stuff that forces you to do something by default.

Premiere Pro was great for this documentary. If a program shuts down unexpectedly, it’s very frustrating, because the creative process stops. I didn’t have any problems even though everything was in one, large project. I did occasionally clean up the project to get rid of stuff I wasn’t using, so it wasn’t too heavy. But Premiere allowed me to work very fluidly, which is crucial.

You completed the The Mole Agent at the end of 2019. That’s prior to the “work from home” remote editing reality that most of the world has lived through during this past year. What would be different if you had worked on the film a year later?

The Mole Agent was completed in time for Sundance in January of 2020. Fortunately we were able to work without lockdowns. I’ve worked a lot remotely during this past year and it’s difficult. You get accustomed to it, but there is something missing. You don’t get the same feeling looking through a [web] camera as being together in the room. Something in the creative communication is lost in the technology. If the movie had been edited like this [communicating through Zoom] – and considering the mood during the lockdowns and how that affects your perception of the material – then it really would be a different film.

Any final thoughts about your experience editing this film?

I had previously worked sporadically on films, but have spent most of my career in the advertising industry. A few years ago I decided that I wanted to work full-time on long-form films. Then this project came to me. So I was very open during the process to all of the notes and comments. I understood the process, of course, but because I had worked so much in advertising, I now had to put this new information into practice. I learned a lot!

The Mole Agent is a very touching film. It’s different – very innovative. It’s an incredible movie for people who have seen the film. It affects the conscience and they take action. I feel very glad to have worked on this film.

This article also appears at postPerspective.

©2021 Oliver Peters

Thoughts on Apple’s Spring Event

The Apple Event has come and gone and proceeded largely as expected. Yes, Air Tags, Apple TV improvements, and a purple iPhone 12. All ho-hum for me, but then I’m probably not the target market for those. More importantly, which new features or products benefit content creators?

24” M1 iMac

We now have the latest machine in the transition to Apple’s Arm-based SoC M1 processor – the new 24” M1 iMac. This is the same integrated chip used in the other M1 machines – the laptops and the Mac mini. Apple launched it with a bouquet of seven colors, harkening back to the original Bondi iMacs. Of course, the iMac itself is the natural descendant of the first Mac. Along with color options, there are color-coordinated accessories, including the mouse and a new round-edge keyboard with Touch ID.

This is the first in what is presumably a line of several new iMacs. It’s targeted at consumers; however, the M1 Macs have proven to be more than capable enough for editing, especially with Apple Final Cut Pro. This model has a 24” screen and is 11.5mm thick. That’s only slightly thicker than the 12.9” iPad Pro! It replaces the former 21” model. With slimmer bezels you get 4.5K Retina resolution in similar screen real estate to the older model. There’s an upgraded audio system (mics, speakers, and Dolby Atmos support) and a 1080p camera. According to Apple, the M1 iMac will also drive an external 6K Pro Display XDR.

I reviewed the M1 Mac mini, which has similar specs, so I would expect similar performance to that of the mini. There are two chip configurations with 8GB RAM or 16GB RAM as an option. Storage goes up to 2TB. Ports are slim with only two USB-4 (USB-C style plug) and two USB/Thunderbolt ports. USB-A ports are gone, so expect to buy adapters and/or a dock, especially if you use thumb drives or license dongles. One point to note is that this new iMac only supports 1GbE Ethernet, same as the M1 mini when it first launched. However, since then, Apple has quietly added a 10GbE option to the mini’s custom options.

An interesting design choice is the return of the puck-like power adapter. This enables a magnetic power plug, a la the older MagSafe plugs. Ethernet connects to the adapter, instead of the back of the iMac. Personally, I feel this is a poor design choice. I had to deal with those on Apple displays over the years and have been more than happy not to have them on the Intel iMacs. I’d rather see a slightly thicker iMac design without the adapter. Although, many do like this design, because the ultra-slim design has a cool factor. I can also appreciate that Apple designers wanted to get rid of the bump at the back of the iMac. It just seems to me that there might have been a middle ground that didn’t require the puck and would be equally as stunning. Either way, it’s certainly not a showstopper.

These new iMacs become available in the second half of May, but special configurations have not yet been listed on the pricing page. If predictions are correct, then later this year Apple will likely release a more powerful iMac, featuring the next iteration of M-series chip. M1X, M2, other name – who knows? Obviously this will include a larger screen (27”, 30”, 32”?), but given the additional of XDR technology to the iPad Pro, one now has to wonder whether such an iMac would also include an XDR screen. Since the iMac color scheme no longer includes space gray, will the more advanced iMac be offered in space gray? And would such a model be called iMac Pro again or maybe iMac XDR? All just speculation at this point.

iPad Pro

The iPad Pro’s A-series processor has now been upgraded to an M1 chip. Since these were already cousins, it’s not really clear to me what the performance difference will be. Apple speaks of huge gains in performance, but it’s not clear what those comparisons are based on. There are a number of enhancements, like 5G and the 12MP ultra wide camera, but I’ll focus on two production-related upgrades.

The iPad Pro does now support Thunderbolt connectivity, enabled by the M1. However, it may or may not work in the same way as connecting a a drive to a Mac. But you will be able to connect it to an external display like the XDR. You can run some iPadOS apps on a Mac with Big Sur, but I doubt that you’ll be able to run a macOS app on an iPad Pro. That may be a limitation of the more stripped-down iPadOS. It could also be because of the different design choices that have to be made for touch versus keyboard/mouse interaction.

The big improvement is in the 12.9” iPad Pro, which gains a new Liquid Retina XDR display. It’s based on the same technology as the Pro Display XDR, which should result in stunning images on a tablet. It will offer 1,000 nits of full-screen brightness and 1,600 nits of peak brightness. This will be interesting for location productions if DPs adopt the iPad Pro as a device to proof shots and create looks.

A final point to note is that Apple has successfully introduced a processor architecture that scales from tablet to desktop with the same chip. Gone are the Intel Core i3 through i9 configurations. Obviously, more powerful Macs will require more powerful chip versions; but, we’ll have to see whether these future configuration options become as varied as with Intel or AMD. I’m sure that will become clearer by the end of 2021. All in all the Spring event had some nice, new products along with some incremental updates. Let’s see how this Apple Silicon transition continues to shape up.

©2021 Oliver Peters