COUP 53

The last century is littered with examples of European powers and the United States attempting to mold foreign governments in their own direction. In some cases, the view at the time may have seemed like these efforts would yield positive results. In others, self-interest or oil was the driving force. We have only to point to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 (think Lawrence of Arabia) to see the unintended consequences these policies have had in the middle east over the past 100+ years, including current politics.

In 1953, Britain’s spy agency MI6 and the United States’ CIA orchestrated a military coup in Iran that replaced the democratic prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, with the absolute monarchy headed by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Although the CIA has acknowledged its involvement, MI6 never has. Filmmaker Taghi Amirani, an Iranian-British citizen, set out to tell the true story of the coup, known as Operation Ajax. Five years ago he elicited the help of noted film editor, Walter Murch. What was originally envisioned as a six month edit turned into a four yearlong odyssey of discovery and filmmaking that has become the feature documentary COUP 53.

COUP 53 was heavily researched by Amirani and leans on End of Empire, a documentary series produced by Britain’s Granada TV. That production started in 1983 and culminated in its UK broadcast in May of 1985. While this yielded plenty of interviews with first-hand accounts to pull from, one key omission was an interview with Norman Darbyshire, the MI6 Chief of Station for Iran. Darbyshire was the chief architect of the coup – the proverbial smoking gun. Yet he was inexplicably cut out of the final version of End of Empire, along with others’ references to him.

Amirani and Murch pulled back the filmmaking curtain as part of COUP 53. We discover along with Amirani the missing Darbyshire interview transcript, which adds an air of a whodunit to the film. Ultimately what sets COUP 53 apart was the good fortune to get Ralph Fiennes to portray Norman Darbyshire in that pivotal 1983 interview.

COUP 53 premiered last year at the Telluride Film Festival and then played other festivals until coronavirus closed such events down. In spite of rave reviews and packed screenings, the filmmakers thus far have failed to secure distribution. Most likely the usual distributors and streaming channels deem the subject matter to be politically toxic. Whatever the reason, the filmmakers opted to self-distribute, including a virtual cinema event with 100 cinemas on August 19th, the 67th anniversary of the coup.

Walter Murch is certainly no stranger to readers. Despite a long filmography, including working with documentary material, COUP 53 is only his second documentary feature film. (Particle Fever was the first.) This film posed another challenge for Murch, who is known for his willingness to try out different editing platforms. This was the first outing with Adobe Premiere Pro CC, his fifth major editing system. I had a chance to catch up with Walter Murch over the web from his home in London the day before the virtual cinema event. We discussed COUP 53, documentaries, and working with Premiere Pro.

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[Oliver Peters] You and I have emailed back-and-forth on the progress of this film for the past few years. It’s great to see it done. How long have you been working on this film?

[Walter Murch] We had to stop a number of times, because we ran out of money. That’s absolutely typical for this type of privately-financed documentary without a script. If you push together all of the time that I was actually standing at the table editing, it’s probably two years and nine months. Particle Fever – the documentary about the Higgs Boson – took longer than that.

My first day on the job was in June of 2015 and here we are talking about it in August of 2020. In between, I was teaching at the National Film School and at the London Film School. My wife is English and we have this place in London, so I’ve been here the whole time. Plus I have a contract for another book, which is a follow-on to In the Blink of an Eye. So that’s what occupies me when my scissors are in hiding.

[OP] Let’s start with Norman Darbyshire, who is key to the storyline. That’s still a bit of an enigma. He’s no longer alive, so we can’t ask him now. Did he originally want to give the 1983 interview and MI6 came in and said ‘no’ – or did he just have second thoughts? Or was it always supposed to be an off the record interview?

[WM] We don’t know. He had been forced into early retirement by the Thatcher government in 1979, so I think there was a little chip on his shoulder regarding his treatment. The full 14-page transcript has just been released by the National Security Archives in Washington, DC, including the excised material that the producers of the film were thinking about putting into the film.

If they didn’t shoot the material, why did they cut up the transcript as if it were going to be a production script? There was other circumstantial evidence that we weren’t able to include in the film that was pretty indicative that yes, they did shoot film. Reading between the lines, I would say that there was a version of the film where Norman Darbyshire was in it – probably not named as such – because that’s a sensitive topic. Sometime between the summer of 1983 and 1985 he was removed and other people were filmed to fill in the gaps. We know that for a fact.

[OP] As COUP 53 shows, the original interview cameraman clearly thought it was a good interview, but the researcher acts like maybe someone got to management and told them they couldn’t include this.

[WM] That makes sense given what we know about how secret services work. What I still don’t understand is why then was the Darbyshire transcript leaked to The Observer newspaper in 1985. A huge article was published the day before the program went out with all of this detail about Norman Darbyshire – not his name, but his words. And Stephen Meade – his CIA counterpart – who is named. Then when the program ran, there was nothing of him in it. So there was a huge discontinuity between what was published on Sunday and what people saw on Monday. And yet, there was no follow-up. There was nothing in the paper the next week, saying we made a mistake or anything.

I think eventually we will find out. A lot of the people are still alive. Donald Trelford, the editor of The Observer, who is still alive, wrote something a week ago in a local paper about what he thought happened. Alison [Rooper] – the original research assistant – said in a letter to The Observer that these are Norman Darbyshire’s words, and “I did the interview with him and this transcript is that interview.”

[OP] Please tell me a bit about working with the discovered footage from End of Empire.

[WM] End of Empire was a huge, fourteen-episode project that was produced over a three or four year period. It’s dealing with the social identity of Britain as an empire and how it’s over. The producer, Brian Lapping, gave all of the outtakes to the British Film Institute. It was a breakthrough to discover that they have all of this stuff. We petitioned the Institute and sure enough they had it. We were rubbing our hands together thinking that maybe Darbyshire’s interview was in there. But, of all of the interviews, that’s the one that’s not there.

Part of our deal with the BFI was that we would digitize this 16mm material for them. They had reconstituted everything. If there was a section that was used in the film, they replaced it with a reprint from the original film, so that you had the ability to not see any blank spots. Although there was a quality shift when you are looking at something used in the film, because it’s generations away from the original 16mm reversal film.

For instance, Stephen Meade’s interview is not in the 1985 film. Once Darbyshire was taken out, Meade was also taken out. Because it’s 16mm we can still see the grease pencil marks and splices for the sections that they wanted to use. When Meade talks about Darbyshire, he calls him Norman and when Darbyshire talks about Meade he calls him Stephen. So they’re a kind of double act, which is how they are in our film. Except that Darbyshire is Ralph Fiennes and Stephen Meade – who has also passed on – appears through his actual 1983 interview.

[OP] Between the old and new material, there was a ton of footage. Please explain your workflow for shaping this into a story.

[WM] Taghi is an inveterate shooter of everything. He started filming in 2014 and had accumulated about 40 hours by the time I joined in the following year. All of the scenes where you see him cutting transcripts up and sliding them together – that’s all happening as he was doing it. It’s not recreated at all. The moment he discovered the Darbyshire transcript is the actual instance it happened. By the end, when we added it all up, it was 532 hours of material.

Forgetting all of the creative aspects, how do you keep track of 532 hours of stuff? It’s a challenge. I used my Filemaker Pro database that I’ve been using since the mid-1980s on The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Every film, I rewrite the software slightly to customize it for the film I’m on. I took frame-grabs of all the material so I had stacks and stacks of stills for every set-up.

By 2017 we’d assembled enough material to start on a structure. Using my cards, we spent about two weeks sitting and thinking ‘we could begin here and go there, and this is really good.’ Each time we’d do that, I’d write a little card. We had a stack of cards and started putting them up on the wall and moving them around. We finally had two blackboards of these colored cards with a start, middle, and end. Darbyshire wasn’t there yet. There was a big card with an X on it – the mysterious X. ‘We’re going to find something on this film that nobody has found before.’ That X was just there off to the side looking at us with an accusing glare. And sure enough that X became Norman Darbyshire.

At the end of 2017 I just buckled my seat belt and started assembling it all. I had a single timeline of all of the talking heads of our experts. It would swing from one person to another, which would set up a dialogue among themselves – each answering the other one’s question or commenting on a previous answer. Then a new question would be asked and we’d do the same thing. That was 4 1/2 hours long. Then I did all of the same thing for all of the archival material, arranging it chronologically. Where was the most interesting footage and the highest quality version of that? That was almost 4 hours long. Then I did the same thing with all of the Iranian interviews, and when I got it, all of the End of Empire material.

We had four, 4-hour timelines, each of them self-consistent. Putting on my Persian hat, I thought, ‘I’m weaving a rug!’ It was like weaving threads. I’d follow the talking heads for a while and then dive into some archive. From that into an Iranian interview and then some End of Empire material. Then back into some talking heads and a bit of Taghi doing some research. It took me about five months to do that work and it produced an 8 1/2 hour timeline.

We looked at that in June of 2018. What were we going to do with that? Is it a multi-part series? It could be, but Netflix didn’t show any interest. We were operating on a shoe string, which meant that the time was running out and we wanted to get it out there. So we decided to go for a feature-length film. It was right about that time that Ralph Fiennes agreed to be in the film. Once he agreed, that acted like a condenser. If you have Ralph Fiennes, things tend to gravitate around that performance. We filmed his scenes in October of 2018. I had roughed it out using the words of another actor who came in and read for us, along with stills of Ralph Fiennes as M. What an irony! Here’s a guy playing a real MI6 agent who overthrew a whole country, who plays M, the head of MI6, who dispatches James Bond to kill malefactors!

Ralph was recorded in an hour and a half in four takes at the Savoy Hotel – the location of the original 1983 interviews. At the time, he was acting in Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra every evening. So he came in the late morning and had breakfast. By 1:30-ish we were set-up. We prayed for the right weather outside – not too sunny and not rainy. It was perfect. He came and had a little dialogue with the original cameraman about what Darbyshire was like. Then he sat down and entered the zone – a fascinating thing to see. There was a little grooming touch-up to knock off the shine and off we went.

Once we shot Ralph, we were a couple of months away from recording the music and then final color timing and the mix. We were done with a finished, showable version in March of 2019. It was shown to investors in San Francisco and at the TED conference in Vancouver. We got the usual kind of preview feedback and dove back in and squeezed another 20 minutes or so out of the film, which got it to its present length of just under two hours.

[OP] You have a lot of actual stills and some footage from 1953, but as with most historical documentaries, you also have re-enactments. Another unique touch was the paint effect used to treat these re-enactments to differentiate them stylistically from the interviews and archival footage.

[WM] As you know, 1953 is 50+ years before the invention of the smart phone. When coups like this happen today you get thousands of points-of-view. Everyone is photographing everything. That wasn’t the case in 1953. On the final day of the coup, there’s no cinematic material – only some stills. But we have the testimony of Mossadegh’s bodyguard on one side and the son of the general who replaced Mossadegh on the other, plus other people as well. That’s interesting up to a point, but it’s in a foreign language with subtitles, so we decided to go the animation path.

This particular technique was something Taghi’s brother suggested and we thought it was a great idea. It gets us out of the uncanny valley, in the sense that you know you’re not looking at reality and yet it’s visceral. The idea is that we are looking at what is going on in the head of the person telling us these stories. So it’s intentionally impressionistic. We were lucky to find Martyn Pick, the animator who does this kind of stuff. He’s Mr. Oil Paint Animation in London. He storyboarded it with us and did a couple of days of filming with soldiers doing the fight. Then he used that as the base for his rotoscoping.

[OP] Quite a few of the first-hand Iranian interviews are in Persian with subtitles. How did you tackle those?

[WM] I speak French and Italian, but not Persian. I knew I could do it, but it was a question of the time frame. So our workflow was that Taghi and I would screen the Iranian language dailies. He would point out the important points and I would take notes. Then Taghi would do a first pass on his workstation to get rid of the chaff. That’s what he would give to the translators. We would hire graduate students. Fateme Ahmadi, one of the associate producers on the film, is Iranian and she would also do translation. Anyone that was available would work on the additional workstation and add subtitling. That would then come to me and I would use that as raw material.

To cut my teeth on this, I tried using the interview with Hamid Admadi, the Iranian historical expert that was recorded in Berlin. Without translating it, I tried to cut it solely on body language and tonality. I just dove in and imagined, if he is saying ‘that’ then I’m thinking ‘this.’ I was kind of like the way they say people with aphasia are. They don’t understand the words, but they understand the mood. To amuse myself, I put subtitles on it, pretending that I knew what he was saying. I showed it to Taghi and he laughed, but said that in terms of the continuity of the Persian, it made perfect sense. The continuity of the dialogue and moods didn’t have any jumps for a Persian speaker. That was a way to tune myself into the rhythms of the Persian language. That’s almost half of what editing is – picking up the rhythm of how people say things – which is almost as important or even sometimes more important than the words they are using.

[OP] I noticed in the credits that you had three associate editors on the project.  Please tell me a bit about their involvement.

[WM] Dan [Farrell] worked on the film through the first three months and then a bit on the second section. He got a job offer to edit a whole film himself, which he absolutely should do. Zoe [Davis] came in to fill in for him and then after a while also had to leave. Evie [Evelyn Franks] came along and she was with us for the rest of the time. They all did a fantastic job, but Evie was on it the longest and was involved in all of the finishing of the film. She’s is still involved, handling all of the media material that we are sending out.

[OP] You are also known for your work as a sound designer and re-recording mixer, but I noticed someone else handled that for this film. What was you sound role on COUP 53?

[WM] I was busy in the cutting room, so I didn’t handle the final mix. But I was the music editor for the film, as well as the picture editor. Composer Robert Miller recorded the music in New York and sent a rough mixdown of his tracks. I would lay that onto my Premiere Pro sequence, rubber-banding the levels to the dialogue.

When he finally sent over the instrument stems – about 22 of them – I copied and pasted the levels from the mixdown onto each of those stems and then tweaked the individual levels to get the best out of every instrument. I made certain decisions about whether or not to use an instrument in the mix. So in a sense, I did mix the music on the film, because when it was delivered to Boom Post in London, where we completed the mix, all of the shaping that a music mixer does was already taken care of. It was a one-person mix and so Martin [Jensen] at Boom only had to get a good level for the music against the dialogue, place it in a 5.1 environment with the right equalization, and shape that up and down slightly. But he didn’t have to get into any of the stems.

[OP] I’d love to hear your thoughts on working with Premiere Pro over these several years. You’ve mentioned a number of workstations and additional personnel, so I would assume you had devised some type of a collaborative workflow. That is something that’s been an evolution for Adobe over this same time frame.

[WM] We had about 60TB of shared storage. Taghi, Evie Franks, and I each had workstations. Plus there was fourth station for people doing translations. The collaborative workflow was clunky at the beginning. The idea of shared spaces was not what it is now and not what I was used to from Avid, but I was willing to go with it.

Adobe introduced the basics of a more fluid shared workspace in early 2018 I think, and that began a six months’ rough ride, because there were a lot of bugs that came along  with that deep software shift. One of them was what I came to call ‘shrapnel.’ When I imported a cut from another workstation into my workstation, the software wouldn’t recognize all the related media clips, which were already there. So these duplicate files would be imported again, which I nicknamed ‘shrapnel.’ I created a bin just to stuff these clips in, because you couldn’t delete them without causing other problems.

Those bugs went away in the late summer of 2018. The ‘shrapnel’ disappeared along with other miscellaneous problems – and the back-and-forth between systems became very transparent. Things can always be improved, but from a hands-on point-of-view, I was very happy with how everything worked from August or September of 2018 through to the completion of the film.

We thought we might stay with Premiere Pro for the color timing, which is very good. But DaVinci Resolve was the system for the colorist that we wanted to get. We had to make some adjustments to go to Resolve and back to Premiere Pro. There were a couple of extra hurdles, but it all worked and there were no kludges. Same for the sound. The export for Pro Tools was very transparent.

[OP] A lot of what you’ve written and lectured about is the rhythm of editing – particularly dramatic films. How does that equate to a documentary?

[WM] Once you have the initial assembly – ours was 8 hours, Apocalypse Now was 6 hours, Cold Mountain was 5 1/2 hours – the jobs are not that different. You see that it’s too long by a lot. What can we get rid of? How can we condense it to make it more understandable, more emotional, clarify it, and get a rhythmic pulse to the whole film?

My approach is not to make a distinction at that point. You are dealing with facts and have to pay attention to the journalistic integrity of the film. On a fiction film you have to pay attention to the integrity of the story, so it’s similar. Getting to that point, however, is highly different, because the editor of an unscripted documentary is writing the story. You are an author of the film. What an author does is stare at a blank piece of paper and say, ‘what am I going to begin with?’ That is part of the process. I’m not writing words, necessarily, but I am writing. The adjectives and nouns and verbs that I use are the shots and sounds available to me.

I would occasionally compare the process for cutting an individual scene to churning butter. You take a bunch of milk – the dailies – and you put them into a churn – Premiere Pro – and you start agitating it. Could this go with that? No. Could this go with that? Maybe. Could this go? Yes! You start globbing things together and out of that butter churning process you’ve eventually got a big ball of butter in the churn and a lot of whey – buttermilk. In other words, the outtakes.

That’s essentially how I work. This is potentially a scene. Let me see what kind of scene it will turn into. You get a scene and then another and another. That’s when I go to the card system to see what order I can put these scenes in. That’s like writing a script. You’re not writing symbols on paper, you are taking real images and sound and grappling with them as if they are words themselves.

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Whether you are a student of history, filmmaking, or just love documentaries, COUP 53 is definitely worth the watch. It’s a study in how real secret services work. Along the way, the viewer is also exposed to the filmmaking process of discovery that goes into every well-crafted documentary.

Images from COUP 53 courtesy of Amirani Media and Adobe.

(Click on any image for an enlarged view.)

You can learn more about the film at COUP53.com.

For more, check out these interviews at Art of the Cut, CineMontage, and Forbes.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Free Solo

Every now and then a documentary comes along that simply blows away the fictional super-hero feats of action films. Free Solo is a testament to the breathtaking challenges real life can offer. This documentary chronicles the first free solo climb (no ropes) by Alex Honnold of El Capitan’s 3,000-feet-high sheer rock face. This was the first and so far only successful free solo climb of the mountain.

Free Solo was produced by the filmmaking team of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who is renowned as both an action-adventure cinematographer/photographer and mountaineer. Free Solo was produced in partnership with National Geographic Documentary Films and has garnered numerous awards, including OSCAR and BAFTA awards for best documentary, as well as an ACE award for its editor Bob Eisenhardt, ACE. Free Solo enjoyed IMAX and regular theatrical distribution and can now be seen on the National Geographic Television streaming service.

Bob Eisenhardt is a well-known documentary film editor with over 60 films to his credit. Along with his ACE award for Free Solo, Eisenhardt is currently an editing nominee in this year’s EMMY Awards for his work in cutting the documentary. I recently had a chance to speak with Bob Eisenhardt and what follows is that conversation.

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[OP] You have a long history in the New York documentary film scene. Please tell me a bit about your background.

[BE] I’ve done a lot of different kinds of films. The majority is cinema vérité work, but some films use a lot of archival footage and some are interview-driven. I’ve worked on numerous films with the Maysles, Barbara Kopple, Matt Tyrnauer, a couple of Alex Gibney’s films – and I often did more than one film with people. I also teach in the documentary program at the New York Film Academy, which is interesting and challenging. It’s really critiquing their thesis projects and discussing some general editing principles. I went to architecture school. Architectural design is taught by critique, so I understand that way of teaching.

[OP] It’s interesting that you studied architecture. I know that a lot of editors come from a musical background or are amateur musicians and that influences their approach to cutting. How do you think architecture affects your editing style?

[BE] They say architecture is frozen music, so that’s how I was taught to design. I’m very much into structure – thinking about the structure of the film and solving problems. Architecture is basically problem solving and that’s what editing is, too. How do I best tell this story with these materials that I have or a little bit of other material that I can get? What is the essence of that and how do I go about it?

[OP] What led to you working on Free Solo?

[BE] This is the second film I’ve made with Chai and Jimmy. The first was Meru. So we had some experience together and it’s the second film about climbing. I did learn about the challenges of climbing the first time and was familiar with the process – what the climbing involved and how you use the ropes. 

Meru was very successful, so we immediately began discussing Free Solo. But the filming took about a year-and-a-half. That was partly due to accidents and injuries Alex had. It went into a second season and then a third season of climbing and you just have to follow along. That’s what documentaries are all about. You hitch your wagon to this person and you have to go where they take you. And so, it became a much longer project than initially thought. I began editing six months before Alex made the final climb. At that point they had been filming for about a year. So I came on in January and he made the climb in June – at which point I was well into the process of editing.

[OP] There’s a point in Free Solo, where Alex had started the ascent once and then stopped, because he wasn’t feeling good about it. Then it was unclear whether or not he would even attempt it again. Was that the six-month point when you joined the production?

[BE] Yes, that’s it. It’s very much the climbers’ philosophy that you have to feel it, or you don’t do it. That’s very true of free soloing. We wanted him to signal the action, “This is what I plan to do.” And he wouldn’t do it – ever – because that’s against the mentality of climbing. “If I feel it, I may do it. Otherwise, not.” It’s great for climbing, but not so good for film production.

[OP] Unlike any other film project, failure in this case would have meant Alex’s death. In that event you would have had a completely different film. That was touched on in the film, but what was the behind-the-scenes thinking about the possibility of such as catastrophe? Any Plan B?

[BE] In these vérité documentaries you never know what’s going to happen, but this is an extreme example. He was either going to do it and succeed, decide he wasn’t going to do it, or die trying, and that’s quite a range. So we didn’t know what film we were making when I started editing. We were going to go with the idea of him succeeding and then we’d reconsider if something else happened. That was our mentality, although in the back of our minds we knew this could be quite different.

When they started, it wasn’t with the intention of making this film. Jimmy knew Alex for 10 years. They were old friends and had done a lot of filming together. He thought Alex would be a great subject for a documentary. That’s what they proposed to Nat Geo – just a portrait of Alex – and Alex said, “If you are going to do that, then I’ve got to do something worthwhile. I’m going to try to free solo El Cap.” He told that to Chai while Jimmy wasn’t there. Chai is not a climber and she thought, “Great, that sounds like it will be a good film.” Jimmy completely freaked out when he found out, because he knew what it meant.

It’s an outrageous concept even to climbers. They actually backed off and had to reconsider whether this was something they wanted to get involved in. Do you really want to see your friend jeopardize his life for this? Would the filming add additional pressure on Alex? They had to deal with this even before they started shooting, which is why that was part of the film. I felt it was a very important idea to get across. Alex is taciturn, so you needed ways to understand him and what he was doing. The crew as a character really helped us do that. They were people Alex could interact with and the audience could identify with.

The other element that I felt was very important, was Sanni [McCandless, Alex Honnold’s girlfriend], who suddenly came onto the scene after the filming began. This felt like a very important way to get to know Alex. It also became another challenge for Alex – whether he would be able not only to climb this mountain, but whether he would be able to have a relationship with this woman. And aren’t those two diametrically opposed? Being able to open yourself up emotionally to someone, but also control your emotions enough to be able to hang by your fingertips 2,000 feet in the air on the side of a cliff.

[OP] Sanni definitely added a lot of humanity to him. Before the climb they discuss the possibility of his falling to his death and Alex’s point of view is that’s OK. “If I die, I die.” I’m not sure he really believed that deep inside. Or did he?

[BE] Alex is very purposeful and lives every day with intention. That’s what’s so intriguing. He knows any minute on the wall could be his last and he’s comfortable with that. He felt like he was going to succeed. He didn’t think he was going to fall. And if he didn’t feel that way he wasn’t going to do it. Seeing the whole thing through Sanni’s eyes allowed us as the audience to get closer to and identify with Alex. We call that moment the ‘Take me into consideration’ scene, which I felt was vitally important.

[OP] Did you have any audience screenings of the rough cuts? If so, how did that inform your editing choices?

[BE] We did do some screenings and it’s a tricky thing. Nat Geo was a great partner throughout. Most companies wouldn’t be able to deal with this going on for a year-and-a-half. It’s in Nat Geo’s DNA to fund exploration and make exploratory films. They were completely supportive, but they did decide they wanted to get into Sundance and we were a month from the deadline. We brought in three other editors (Keiko Deguchi, Jay Freund, and Brad Fuller) to jump in and try to make it. Even though we got an extension and we did a great job, we didn’t get in. The others left and I had another six months to work on the film and make it better. Because of all of this, the screenings were probably too early. The audience had trouble understanding Alex, understanding what he’s trying to do – so the first couple screenings were difficult.

We knew when we saw the initial climbing footage that the climb itself was going to be amazing. By the time we showed it to an audience, we were completely immune to any tension from the climb – I mean, we’d seen it 200 times. It was no longer as scary to us as it had been the first time we saw it. In editing you have to remember the initial reaction you had to the footage so that you can bring it to bear later on. It was a real struggle to make the rest of the story as strong as possible to keep you engaged, until we got to the climb. So we were pleasantly surprised to see that people were so involved and very tense during the climb. We had underestimated that.

We also figured that everyone would already know how this thing ends. It was well-publicized that he successfully climbed El Cap. The film had to be strong enough that people could forget they knew what happened. Although I’ve had people tell me they could not have watched the climb if they hadn’t known the outcome.

[OP] Did you end up emphasizing some aspects over others as a result of the screenings?

[BE] The main question to the audience is, “Do you understand what we are trying to say?” And then, “What do you think of him or her as a character?” That’s interesting information that you get from an audience. We really had to clarify what his goal was. He never says at the beginning, “I’m going to do this thing.” In fact, I couldn’t get him to say it after he did it. So it was difficult to set up his intention. And then it was also difficult to make clear what the steps were. Obviously we couldn’t cover the whole 3,000 feet of El Capitan, so they had to concentrate on certain areas.

We decided to cover five or six of the most critical pitches – sections of the climb – to concentrate on those and really cover them properly during the filming. These were challenging to explain and it took a lot of effort to make that clear. People ask, “How did you manage to cut the final climb – it was amazing.” Well, it worked because of the second act that explains what he is trying to do. We didn’t have to say anything in the third act. You just watch because you understand. 

When we started people didn’t understand what free soloing is. At first we were calling the film Solo. The nomenclature of climbing is confusing. Soloing is actually climbing with a rope, but only for protection. Then we’d have to explain what free soloing was as opposed to soloing. However, Hans Solo came along and stole our title, so it was much easier to call it Free Solo. Explaining the mentality of climbing, the history of climbing, the history of El Capitan, and then what exactly the steps were for him to accomplish what he was trying to do – all that took a long time to get right and a lot of that came out of good feedback from the audience.

Then, “Do you understand the character?” At one point we didn’t have enough of Sanni and then we had too much of Sanni. It became this love story and you forgot that he was going to climb. So the balancing was tricky.

[OP] Since you were editing before the final outcome and production was still in progress, did you have an opportunity to request more footage or that something in particular be filmed that you were missing in the edit?

[BE] That was the big advantage to starting the edit before the filming was done. I often end up coming into projects that are about 80-90% shot on average. So they have the ability to get pick-ups if people are alive or if the event can still be filmed in some way. This one was more ‘in progress.’ For instance, he practiced a specific move a lot for the most difficult pitch and I kept asking for more of that. We wanted to show how many times he practiced it in order to get the feel of it.

[OP] Let’s switch gears and talk about the technical side. Which edit system did you use to cut Free Solo?

[BE] We were using Avid Media Composer 8.8.5 with Nexis shared storage. Avid is my first choice for editing. I’ve done about four films on the old Final Cut – Meru being one of them – but, I much prefer Avid. I’ve often inherited projects that were started on something else, so you are stuck. On this one we knew going in that we would do it on Avid. Their ScriptSync feature is terrific. Any long discussions or sit-down interviews were transcribed. We could then word-search them, which was invaluable. My associate editor, Simona Ferrari, set up everything and was also there for the output.

[OP] Did you handle the finishing – color correction and sound post – in-house or go outside to another facility?

[BE] We up-rezzed in the office on [Blackmagic Design DaVinci] Resolve and then took that to Company 3 for finishing and color correction. Deborah Wallach did a great job sound editing and we mixed with Tommy Fleischman [Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street, BlacKkKlansman]. They shot this on about every camera, aspect ratio, and frame rate imaginable. But if they’re hanging 2,000 feet in the air and didn’t happen to hit the right button for the frame rate – you really can’t complain too much! So there was an incredible wide range and Simona managed to handle all that in the finishing. There wasn’t a lot of archival footage, but there were photos for the backstory of the family.

The other big graphic element was the mountain itself. We needed to be able to trace his route up the mountain and that took forever. It wasn’t just to show his climb, but also to connect the pitches that we had concentrated on, since there wasn’t much coverage between them. Making this graphic became very complicated. We tried one house and they couldn’t do it. Finally, Big Star, who was doing the other graphics – photomontages and titles – took this on. It was the very last thing done and was dropped in during the color correction session.

For the longest time in the screenings, the audience was watching a drawing that I had shot off of the cutting room wall and traced in red. It was pretty lame. For the screenings, it was a shot of the mountain and then I would dissolve through to get the line moving. After a while we had some decent in and out shots, but nothing in-between, except this temporary graphic that I created. 

[OP] I caught Free Solo on the plane to Las Vegas for NAB and it had me on the edge of my seat. I know the film was also released in IMAX, so I can only image what that experience was like.

[BE] The film wasn’t made for IMAX – that opportunity came up later. It’s a different film on IMAX. Although there is incredible high-angle photography, it’s an intimate story. So it worked well on a moderately big screen. But in IMAX it becomes a spectacle, because you can really see all those details in the high-angle shots. I have cut an IMAX film before and you do pace them different, because of the ability to look around. However, there wasn’t a different version of Free Solo made for IMAX – we didn’t have the freedom to do that. Of course, the whole film is largely handheld, so we did stabilize a few shots. IMAX merely used their algorithm to bump it up to their format. I was shocked – it was beautiful.

[OP] Let’s talk a bit about your process as an editor. For instance, music. Different editors approach music differently. Do you cut with temp music or wait until the very end to introduce the score?

[BE] Marco Beltrami [Fantastic Four, Logan, Velvet Buzzsaw] was our composer, but I use temp music from very early on. I assemble a huge library of scratch music – from other films or from the potential composers’ past films. I use that until we get the right feel for the music and that’s what we show to the composer. It gives us something to talk about. It’s much easier to say, “We like what the music is doing here, but it’s the wrong instrumentation.” Or, “This is the right instrument, but the wrong tempo.” It’s a baseline.

[OP] How do you tackle the footage at the very beginning? Do you create selects or Kem rolls or some other approach?

[BE] I create a road map to know where I’m going. I go through all the dailies and pull the stuff that I think might be useful. Everything from the good-looking shots to a taste of something that I may never use, but I want to remember. Then I screen selects reels. I try to do that with the director. Sometimes we can schedule that and sometimes not. On Free Solo there was over 700 hours of footage, so it’s hard to get your arms around that. By the time you get through looking at the 700th hour you’ve forgotten the first one. That’s why the selecting process is so important to me. The selects amount to maybe a third of the dailies footage. After screening the selects, I can start to see the story and how to tell it. 

I make index cards for every scene and storyboard the whole thing. By that I mean arrange the cards on a wall. They are color-coded for places, years, or characters. It allows me to stand back and see the flow of the film, to think about the structure, and the points that I have to hit. I basically cut to that. Of course, if it doesn’t work, I re-arrange the index cards (laugh).

A few years ago, I did a film about the Dixie Chicks [Shut Up & Sing] at the time they got into trouble for comments they had made about President Bush. We inherited half of the footage and shot half. The Dixie Chicks went on to produce a concert and an album based upon their feelings about the whole experience. It was kind of present and past, so there were basically two different colors to the cards. It was not cut in chronological order, so you could see very quickly whether you were in the past or the present just by looking at the wall. There were four editors working on Shut Up & Sing and we could look at the wall, discuss, and decide if the story was working or not. If we moved this block of cards, what would be the consequences of telling the story in a different order?

[OP] Were Jimmy or Chai very hands-on as directors during the edit – in the room with you every day at the end?

[BE] Chai and Jimmy are co-directors and so Jimmy tended to be more in the field and Chai more in the edit room. Since we had worked together before, we had built a common language and a trust. I would propose ideas to Chai and try them and she would take a look. My feeling is that the director is very close to it and not able to see the dailies with fresh eyes. I have the fresh perspective. I like to take advantage of that and let them step back a little. By the end, I’m the one that’s too close to it and they have a little distance if they pace themselves properly.

[OP] To wrap it up, what advice would you have for young editors tackling a documentary project like this?

[BE] Well, don’t climb El Cap – you probably won’t make it (laugh)! I always preach this to my students: I encourage them to make an outline and work towards it. You can make index cards like I do, you can make a Word document, a spreadsheet; but try to figure out what your intentions are and how you are going to use the material. Otherwise, you are just going to get lost. You may be cutting things that are lovely, but then don’t fit into the overall structure. That’s my big encouragement.

Sometimes with vérité projects there’s a written synopsis, but for Free Solo there was nothing on paper at the beginning. They went in with one idea and came out with a different film. You have to figure out what the story is and that’s all part of the editing process. This goes back to the Maysles’ approach. Go out and capture what happened and then figure out the story. The meaning is found in the cutting room.

Images courtesy of National Geographic and Bob Eisenhardt.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Rams

If you are a fan of the elegant, minimalist design of Apple products, then you have seen the influence of Dieter Rams. The renowned, German industrial designer, associated with functional and unobtrusive design, is known for the iconic consumer products he developed for Braun, as well as his Ten Principles for Good Design. Dieter Rams is the subject of Rams, a new documentary film by Gary Hustwit (Helvetica, Objectified, Urbanized).

This has been a labor of love for Hustwit and partially funded through a Kickstarter campaign. In a statement to the website Designboom, Huswit says, “This film is an opportunity to celebrate a designer whose work continues to impact us and preserve an important piece of design history. I’m also interested in exploring the role that manufactured objects play in our lives and, by extension, the relationship we have with the people who design them. We hope to dig deeper into Rams’ untold story – to try and understand a man of contradictions by design. I want the film to get past the legend of Dieter. I want it to get into his philosophy, process, inspirations, and even his regrets.” 

Hustwit has worked on the documentary for the past three years and premiered it in New York at the end of September. The film is currently on the road for a series of international premiere screenings until the end of the year. I recently had a conversation with Kayla Sklar, the young editor how had the opportunity to tackle this as her first feature film.

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[OP] Please give me a little background about how you got into editing and then became connected with this project.

[KS] I moved to New York in 2014 after college to pursue working in theater administration for non-profit, Off Broadway theater companies. But at 25, I had sort of a quarter-life crisis and realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do at all. I knew I had to make a career change. I had done some video editing in high school with [Apple] iMovie and in college with [Apple] Final Cut Pro 7 and had enjoyed that. So I enrolled at The Edit Center in Brooklyn. They have an immersive, six-week-long program where you learn the art of editing by working with actual footage from real projects. Indie filmmakers working in documentaries and narrative films, who don’t have a lot of money, can submit their film to The Edit Center. Two are chosen per semester. 12 to 16 students are given scenes and get to work with the director. They give us feedback and at the end, we present a finished rough cut. This process gives us a sense of how to edit.

I knew I could definitely teach myself [Adobe] Premiere Pro, and probably figure out Avid [Media Composer], but I wanted to know if I would even enjoy the process of working with a director. I took the course in 2016 thinking I would pursue narrative films, because it felt the most similar to the world I had come from. But I left the course with an interest in documentary editing. I liked the puzzle-solving aspect of it. It’s where my skillset best aligned.

Afterwards, I took a few assistant editing jobs and eventually started as an assistant editor with Film First, which is owned by Jessica Edwards and Gary Hustwit. That’s how I got connected with Gary. I was assisting on a number of his projects, including working with some of the Rams footage and doing a few rough assemblies for him. Then last year he asked me to be the editor of the film. So I started shifting my focus exclusively to Rams at the beginning of this year. Gary has been working on it since 2015 – shooting on and off for three years. It just premiered in late September, but we even shot some pick-ups in Germany as late as late August / early September.

[OP] So you were working solidly on the film for about nine months. At what point did you lock the cut?

[KS] (laugh) Even now we’re still tinkering. We get more feedback from the screenings and are learning what things are working and aren’t working. The story was locked four days before the New York premiere, but we’re making small changes to things.

[OP] Documentary editing can encompass a variety of structures – narrator-driven, a single subject, a collection of interviewees, etc. What approach did you take with Rams?

[KS] Most of the film is in Dieter Rams’ own words. Gary’s other films have a huge cast of characters. But Gary wanted to make this film different from that and more streamlined. His original concept was that it was going to be Dieter as the only interview footage and you might meet other characters in the verité. But Gary realized that wasn’t going to work, simply because Dieter is a very humble man and he wasn’t really talking about his impact on design. We knew that we needed to give the film a larger context. We needed to bring in other people to tell how influential he has been.

[OP] Obviously a documentary like this has no narrative script to follow. Understanding the interview subject’s answers is critical for the editor in order to build the story arc. I understand that much of the film is in a foreign language. So what was your workflow to edit the film?

[KS] Right. So, the vast majority of the film is in German and a little bit in Japanese, both with subtitles. Maybe 25% is in English, but we’re creating it primarily with an English-speaking audience in mind. I know pretty much no German, except words from Sound of Music and Cabaret. We had a great team of translators on this project, with German transcripts broken down by paragraph and translated into English. I had a two-column set-up with German on one side and English on the other. Before I joined the project, there was an assistant who input titles directly into Premiere – putting subtitles over the dailies with the legacy titler. That was the only way I would be able to even get a rough assembly or ‘radio edit’ of what we wanted.

When you edit an English-speaking documentary, you often splice together two parts of a longer sentence to form a complete and concise thought. But German grammar is really complicated. I don’t think I really grasped how much I was taking on when I first started tackling the project. So I would build a sentence that was pretty close from the transcripts. Thank God for Google Translate, because I would put in my constructed sentence and hope that it spit out something pretty close to what we were going for. And that’s how we did the first rough cut.

Then we had an incredible woman, Katharina Kruse-Ramey, come in. She is a native German speaker living here in New York. She came in for a full eight or nine hours and picked through the edit with a fine tooth comb. For instance, “You can’t use this verb tense with this noun.” That sort of thing. She was hugely helpful and this film wouldn’t have been able to happen without Katharina. We knew then that a German speaker could watch this film and it would make sense! We also had another native German speaker, Eugen Braeunig, who was our archival researcher. He was great for the last minute pick-ups that were shot, when we couldn’t go through the longer workflow.

[OP] I presume you received notes and comments back from Dieter Rams on the cut. What has his response been?

[KS] The film premiered at the Milano Design Film Festival a few weeks ago and Dieter came to that. It was his first time seeing the finished product. From what I’ve heard, he really liked it! As much as one can like seeing themselves on a large screen, I suppose. We had sent him a rough cut a few months ago and in true analytical fashion, the notes that we got back from him were just very specific technical details about dates and products and not about overall storytelling. He really was quite willing to give Gary complete control over the filmmaking process. There was a lot of trust between the two of them.

[OP] Did you cut the film to temp music from the beginning or add music later? I understand that the prolific electronic musician and composer, Brian Eno (The Lego Batman Movie, T2 Trainspotting, The Simpsons), created the soundtrack. What was that like?

[KS] The structure of this film has more breathing room than a lot of docs might have. We really thought about the fact that we needed to give viewers a break from reading subtitles. We didn’t want to go more than ten minutes of reading at a time. So we purposely built in moments for the audience to digest and reflect on all that information. And that’s where Brian’s music was hugely important for us.

We actually didn’t start really editing the film until we had gotten the music back from Brian. I’ve been told that he doesn’t ever score to picture. We sent him some raw footage and he came back with about 16 songs that were inspired by the footage. When you have that gorgeous Brian Eno music, you know that you’re going to have moments where you can just sit back and enjoy the sheer beauty of the moment. Once we had the music in, everything just clicked into place.

[OP] The editor is integral to creating the story structure of a documentary, more so than narrative films – almost as if they are another writer. Tell me a bit about the structure for Rams.

[KS] This film is really not structured the way you would probably structure a normal doc. As I said earlier, we very purposefully put reading breaks in, either through English scenes or with Eno’s music. We had no interest in telling this story linearly. We jump back and forth. One plot line is the chronology of Dieter’s career. Then there’s this other, perhaps more important story, which is Dieter today.  His thoughts on the current state of design and the world. He’s still very active in giving talks and lectures. There’s a company called Vitsoe that makes a lot of his products and he travels to London to give input on their designs. That was the second half of the story and those are interspersed.

[OP] I presume you went outside for finishing services – sound, color correction, and so on. But did the subtitles take on any extra complexity, since they were such an important visual element?

[KS] There are three components to the post. We did an audio mix at one post house; there was a color correction pass at another; and we also had an animation studio – Trollbäck – working with us. There is a section in the film that we knew had to be visually very different and had to convey information in a different way than we had done in any other part of the film. So we gave Trollbäck that five-minute-long sequence. And they also did our opening titles.

We had thought about a stylistic treatment to the subtitles. There were two fonts that Trollbäck had used in their animation. Our initial intent was to use that in our subtitles. We did use one of those treatments in our titles and product credits. For the subtitles, we spent days trying out different looks. Are we going to shadow it or are we using outlines? What point font? What’s the kerning on it? There was going to be so much reading that we knew we had to do the titles thoughtfully. At the end of the day, we knew Helvetica was going to be the easiest (laugh)! We had tried the outline, but some of the internal space in the letters, like an ‘o’ or an ‘e’, looked closed off. We ended up going with a drop shadow. Dieter’s home is almost completely white, so there’s a lot of white space in the film. We used shadows, which looked a little softer, but still quite readable. Those were all built in Premiere’s legacy title tool.

[OP] You are in New York, which is a big Avid Media Composer town. So what was the thought process in deciding to cut this film in Adobe Premiere Pro?

[KS] When I came on-board, the project was already in Premiere. At that point I had been using Avid quite a lot since leaving The Edit Center, which teaches their editing course in Avid. I had taught myself Premiere and I might have tried to transfer the project to Avid, but there was already so much done in terms of the dailies with the subtitles. The thought of going back and spending maybe 50 hours worth of manual subtitling that didn’t migrate over correctly just seemed like a total nightmare. And I was happy to use Premiere. Had I started the project from scratch, I might have used Avid, because it’s the tool that I felt fastest on. Premiere was perfectly fine for the film that we were doing. Plus, if there were days when Gary wanted to tinker around in the project and look at things, he’s much more familiar with Premiere than he is with Avid. He also knows the other Adobe tools, so it made more sense to continue with the same family of creative products that he already knew and used.

Maybe it’s this way with the tool you learn first, but I really like Avid and I feel that I’m faster with it than with Premiere. It’s just the way my brain likes to edit things. But I would be totally happy to edit in Premiere again, if that’s what worked best for a project and what the director wanted. It was great that we didn’t have to transcode our archival footage, because of how Premiere can handle media. Definitely that was helpful, because we had some mixed frame rates and resolutions.

[OP] A closing question. This is your first feature film and with such an influential subjective. What impact did it have on you?

[KS] Dieter has Ten Principles for Good Design. He built them to talk about product design and as a way for him to judge how a product ideally should be made. I had these principles taped to my wall by my desk. His products are very streamlined, elegant, and clean. The framework should be neutral enough that they can convey what the intention was without bells-and-whistles. He wasn’t interested in adding a feature that was unnecessary. I really wanted to evoke those principles with the editing. Had the film been cluttered with extraneous information, or was self-aggrandizing, I think when we revealed the principles to the audience, they would have thought, “Wait a minute, this film isn’t doing that!” We felt that the structure of the film had to serve his principles well, wherever appropriate.

His final principle is ‘Good Design is as Little Design as Possible.’ We joked that ‘Good Filmmaking is as Little Filmmaking as Possible.’ We wanted the audience to be able to draw their own conclusions about Dieter’s work and how that translates into their daily lives. A viewer could walk away knowing what we were trying to accomplish without someone having to tell them what we were trying to accomplish.

There were times when I really didn’t know if I could do it. Being 26 and editing a feature film was daunting. Looking at those principles kept me focused on what the meat of the film’s structure should be. That made me realize how lucky we are to have had a designer who really took the time to think about principles that can be applied to a million different subjects. At one of these screenings someone came up to us, who had become a UI designer for software, in part, because of Dieter. He told us, “I read Dieter’s principles in a book and I realized these can be applied to how people interact with software.” They can be applied to a million different things and we certainly applied it to the edit.

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Gary Hustwit will tour Rams internationally and in various US cities through December. After that time it will be available in digital form through Film First.

Click here to learn more about Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles for Good Design.

©2018 Oliver Peters

Wild Wild Country

Sometimes real life is far stranger than fiction. Such is the tale of the Rajneeshees – disciples of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh – who moved to Wasco County, Oregon in the 1980s. Their goal was to establish a self-contained, sustainable, utopian community of spiritual followers, but the story quickly took a dark turn. Conflicts with the local Oregon community escalated, including the first and single, largest bioterror attack in the United States, when a group of followers poisoned 751 guests at ten local restaurants through intentional salmonella contamination. 

Additional criminal activities included attempted murder, conspiracy to assassinate the U. S. Attorney for the District of Oregon, arson, and wiretapping. The community was largely controlled by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s personal secretary, Sheela Silverman (Ma Anand Sheela), who served 29 months in federal prison on related charges. She moved to Switzerland upon her release. Although the Rajneeshpuram community is no more and its namesake is now deceased, the community of followers lives on as the Osho International Foundation. This slice of history has now been chronicled in the six-part Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country, directed by Chapman and Maclain Way.

Documentaries are truly an editor’s medium. More so than any other cinematic genre, the final draft of the script is written in the cutting room. I recently interviewed Wild Wild Country’s editor, Neil Meiklejohn, about putting this fascinating tale together.

Treasure in the archives

Neil Meiklejohn explains, “I had worked with the directors before to help them get The Battered Bastards of Baseball ready for Sundance. That is also an Oregon story. While doing their research at the Oregon Historical Society, the archivist turned them on to this story and the footage available. The 1980s was an interesting time in local broadcast news, because that was a transition from film to video. Often stories were shot on film and then transferred to videotape for editing and airing. Many times stations would simply erase the tape after broadcast and reuse the stock. The film would be destroyed. But in this case, the local stations realized that they had something of value and held onto the footage. Eventually it was donated to the historical society.”

“The Rajneeshees on the ranch were also very proud of what they were doing – farming and building a utopian city – so, they would constantly invite visitors and media organizations onto the ranch. They also had their own film crews documenting this, although we didn’t have as much access to that material. Ultimately, we accumulated approximately 300 hours of archival media in all manner of formats, including Beta-SP videotape, ripped DVDs, and the internet. It also came in different frame rates, since some of the sources were international. On top of the archival footage, the Ways also recorded another 100 hours of new interviews with many of the principals involved on both sides of this story. That was RED Dragon 6K footage, shot in two-camera, multi-cam set-ups. So, pretty much every combination you can think of went into this series. We just embraced the aesthetic defects and differences – creating an interesting visual texture.”

Balancing both sides of the story

“Documentaries are an editor’s time to shine,” continues Meiklejohn. “We started by wanting to tell the story of the battle between the cult and the local community without picking sides. This really meant that each scene had to be edited twice. Once from each perspective. Then those two would be combined to show both sides as point-counterpoint. Originally we thought about jumping around in time. But, it quickly became apparent that the best way to tell the story was as a linear progression, so that viewers could see why people did what they did. We avoided getting tricky.”

“In order to determine a structure to our episodes, we first decided the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ for each and then the story points to hit within. Once that was established, we could look for ‘extra gold’ that might be added to an episode. We would share edits with our executive producers and Netflix. On a large research-based project like this, their input was crucial to making sure that the story had clarity.”

Managing the post production

Meiklejohn normally works as an editor at LA post facility Rock Paper Scissors. For Wild Wild Country, he spent ten months in 2017 at an ad hoc cutting room located at the offices of the film’s executive producers, Jay and Mark Duplass. His set-up included Apple iMacs running Adobe Creative Cloud software, connected to an Avid ISIS shared storage network. Premiere Pro was the editing tool of choice.

Meiklejohn says, “The crew was largely the directors and myself. Assistant editors helped at the front end to get all of the media organized and loaded, and then again when it came time to export files for final mastering. They also helped to take my temp motion graphics – done in Premiere – and then polish them in After Effects. These were then linked back into the timeline using Dynamic Link between Premiere and After Effects. Chapman and Maclain [Way] were very hands-on throughout, including scanning in stills and prepping them in Photoshop for the edit. We would discuss each new segment to sort out the best direction the story was taking and to help set the tone for each scene.”

“Premiere Pro was the ideal tool for this project, because we had so many different formats to deal with. It dealt well with the mess. All of the archival footage was imported and used natively – no transcoding. The 6K RED interview footage was transcoded to ProRes for the ‘offline’ editing phase. A lot of temp mixing and color correction was done within Premiere, because we always wanted the rough cuts to look smooth with all of the different archival footage. Nothing should be jarring. For the ‘online’ edit, the assistants would relink to the full-resolution RED raw files. The archival footage was already linked at its native resolution, because I had been cutting with that all along. Then the Premiere sequences were exported as DPX image sequences with notched EDLs and sent to E-Film, where color correction was handled by Mitch Paulson. Unbridled Sound handled the sound design and mix – and then Encore handled mastering and 1080p deliverables.”

Working with 400 hours of material and six hour-long episodes in Premiere might be a concern for some, but it was flawless for Meiklejohn. He continues, “We worked the whole series as one large project, so that at any given time, we could go back to scenes from an earlier episode and review and compare. The archival material was organized by topic and story order, with corresponding ‘selects’ sequences. As the project became bigger, I would pare it down by deleting unnecessary sequences and saving a newer, updated version. So, no real issue by keeping everything in a single project.”

As with any real-life event, where many of the people involved are still alive, opinions will vary as to how balanced the storytelling is. Former Rajneeshees have both praised and criticized the focus of the story. Meiklejohn says, “Sheela is one of our main interview subjects and in many ways, she is both the hero and the villain of this story. So, it was interesting to see how well she has been received on social media and in the public screenings we’ve done.”

Wild Wild Country shares a pointed look into one of the most bizarre clashes in the past few decades. Meiklejohn says, “Our creative process was really focused on the standoff between these two groups and the big inflection points. I tried to let the raw emotions that you see in these interviews come through and linger a bit on-screen to help inform the events that were unfolding. The story is sensational in and of itself, and I didn’t want to distract from that.”

For more information, check out Steve Hullfish’s interview at Art of the Cut.

Originally written for CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2018 Oliver Peters

The On Camera Interview

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Many projects are based on first person accounts using the technique of the on camera interview. This approach is used in documentaries, news specials, corporate image presentations, training, commercials, and more. I’ve edited a lot of these, especially for commercials, where a satisfied customer might give a testimonial that gets cut into a five-ish minute piece for the web or a DVD and then various commercial lengths (:10, :15, :30, :60, 2 min.). The production approach and editing techniques are no different in this application than if you are working on a documentary.

The interviewer

The interview is going to be no better than the quality of the interviewer asking the off camera (and unheard) questions. Asking good questions in the right manner will yield successful results. Obviously the interviewer needs to be friendly enough to establish a rapport with the subject. People get nervous on camera, so the interviewer needs to get them relaxed. Then they can comfortably answer the questions and tell the story in their own words. The interviewer should structure the questions in a way that the totality of the responses tells a story. Think in terms of story arc and strive to elicit good beginning and ending statements.

df4115_iview_2Some key points to remember. First, make sure you get the person to rephrase the question as part of their answer, since the audience won’t hear the interviewer. This makes their answer a self-contained statement. Second, let them talk. Don’t interject or jump on the end of the answer, since this will make editing more difficult.

Sometimes in a commercial situation, you have a client or consultant on set, who wants to make sure the interviewee hits all the marketing copy points. Before you get started, you’ll need to have an understanding with the client that the interviewee’s answers will often have to be less than perfect. The interviewees aren’t experienced spokespersons. The more you press them to phrase the answer in the exact way that fits the marketing points or to correctly name a complex product or service in every response, the more stilted their speaking style will become. Remember, you are going for naturalness, honesty and emotion.

The basics

df4115_iview_1As you design the interview set, think of it as staging a portrait. Be mindful of the background, the lighting, and the framing. Depending on the subject matter, you may want a matching background. For example, a doctor’s interview might look best in a lab or in the medical office with complex surgical gear in the background. An interview with an average person is going to look more natural in a neutral environment, like their living room.

You will want to separate the interview subject from the background and this can be achieved through lighting, lens selection, and color scheme. For example, a blonde woman in a peach-colored dress will stand out quite nicely against a darker blue-green background. A lot of folks like the shallow depth-of-field and bokeh effect achieved by a full-frame Canon 5D camera with the right lens. This is a great look, but you can achieve it with most other cameras and lenses, too. In most cases, your video will be seen in the 16:9 HD format, so an off-center framing is desirable. If the person is looking camera left, then they should be on the right side of the frame. Looking camera right, then they should be on the left side.df4115_iview_7

Don’t forget something as basic as the type of chair they are sitting in. You don’t want a chair that rocks, rolls, leans back, or swivels. Some interviews take a long time and subjects that have a tendency to move around in a chair become very distracting – not to mention noisy – in the interview, if that chair moves with them. And of course, make sure the chair itself doesn’t creak.

Camera position

df4115_iview_3The most common interview design you see is where the subject is looking slightly off camera, as they are interacting with the interviewer who sitting to the left or the right of the camera. You do not want to instruct them to look into the camera lens while you are sitting next to the camera, because most people will dart between the interviewer and the camera when they try to attempt this. It’s unnatural.

The one caveat is that if the camera and interviewer are far enough away from the interview subject – and the interviewer is also the camera operator – then it will appear as if the interviewee is actually looking into the lens. That’s because the interviewer and the camera are so close to each other. When the subject addresses the interviewer, he or she appears to be looking at the lens when in fact the interviewee is really just looking at the interviewer.

df4115_iview_16If you want them looking straight into the lens, then one solution is to set up a system whereby the subject can naturally interact with the lens. This is the style documentarian Errol Morris has used in a rig that he dubbed the Interrotron. Essentially it’s a system of two teleprompters. The interviewer and subject can be in the same studio, although separated in distance – or even in other rooms. The two-way mirror of the teleprompter is projecting each person to the other. While looking directly at the interviewer in the teleprompter’s mirror, the interviewee is actually looking directly in the lens. This feels natural, because they are still looking right at the person.

Most producers won’t go to that length, and in fact the emotion of speaking directly to the audience, may or may not be appropriate for your piece. Whether you use Morris’ solution or not, the single camera approach makes it harder to avoid jump cuts. Morris actually embraces and uses these, however, most producers and editors prefer to cover these in some way. Covering the edit with a b-roll shot is a common solution, but another is to “punch in” on the frame, by blowing up the shot digitally by 15-30% at the cut. Now the cut looks like you used a tighter lens. This is where 4K resolution cameras come in handy if you are finishing in 2K or HD.

df4115_iview_6With the advent of lower-cost cameras, like the various DSLR models, it’s quite common to produce these interviews as two camera shoots. Cameras may be positioned to the left or the right of the interviewer, as well as on either side. There really is no right or wrong approach. I’ve done a few where the A-camera is right next to the interviewer, but the B-camera is almost 90-degrees to the side. I’ve even seen it where the B-camera exposes the whole set, including the crew, the other camera, and the lights. This gives the other angle almost a voyeuristic quality. When two cameras are used, each should have a different framing, so a cut between the cameras doesn’t look like a jump cut. The A-camera might have a medium framing including most of the person’s torso and head, while the B-camera’s framing might be a tight close-up of their face.

While it’s nice to have two matched cameras and lens sets, this is not essential. For example, if you end up with two totally mismatched cameras out of necessity – like an Alexa and a GoPro or a C300 and an iPhone – make the best of it. Do something radical with the B-camera to give your piece a mixed media feel. For example, your A-camera could have a nice grade to it, but the B-camera could be black-and-white with pronounced film grain. Sometimes you just have to embrace these differences and call it a style!

Coverage

df4115_iview_4When you are there to get an interview, be mindful to also get additional b-roll footage for cutaway shots that the editor can use. Tools of the trade, the environment, the interview subject at work, etc. Some interviews are conducted in a manner other than sitting down. For example, a cheesemaker might take you through the storage room and show off different rounds of cheese. Such walking-talking interviews might make up the complete interview or they might be simple pieces used to punctuate a sit-down interview. Remember, that if you have the time, get as much coverage as you can!

Audio and sync

It’s best to use two microphones on all interviews – a lavaliere on the person and a shotgun mic just out of the camera frame. I usually prefer the sound of the shotgun, because it’s more open; but depending on how noisy the environment is, the lav may be the better channel to use. Recording both is good protection. Not all cameras have great sound systems, so you might consider using an external audio recorder. Make sure you patch each mic into separate channels of the camera and/or external recorder, so that they are NOT summed.

df4115_iview_8Wherever you record, make sure all sources receive audio. It would be ideal to feed the same mics to all cameras and recorders, but that’s not always possible. In that case, make sure that each camera is at least using an onboard camera mic. The reason to do this is for sync. The two best ways to establish sync is common timecode and a slate with a clapstick. Ideally both. Absent either of those, then some editing applications (as well as a tool like PluralEyes) can analysis the audio waveform and automatically sync clips based on matching sound. Worst case, the editor can manually sync clips be marking common aural or visual cues.

Depending on the camera model, you may have media cards that don’t span and automatically start a new clip every 4GB (about every 12 minutes with some formats). The interviewer should be mindful of these limits. If possible, all cameras should be started together and re-slated at the beginning of each new clip.

Editing workflow

df4115_iview_13Most popular nonlinear editing applications (NLE) include great features that make editing on camera interviews reasonably easy. To end up with a solid five minute piece, you’ll probably need about an hour of recorded interview material (per camera angle). When you cut out the interviewer’s questions, the little bit of chit chat at the beginning, and then repeats or false starts that an interviewee may have, then you are generally left with about thirty minutes of useable responses. That’s a 6:1 ratio.

The goal as an editor is to be a storyteller by the soundbites you select and the order into which you arrange them. The goal is to have the subject seamlessly tell their story without the aide of an on camera host or voice-over narrator. To aid the editing process use NLE tools like favorites, markers, and notes, along with human tools like written transcripts and your own notes to keep the project organized.

This is the standard order of things for me:

Sync sources and create multi-cam sequences or multi-cam clips depending on the NLE.

Pass 1 – create a sequence with all clips synced up and organized into a single timeline.

Pass 2 – clean up the interview and remove all interviewer questions.

Pass 3 – whittle down the responses into a sequence of selected answers.

Pass 4 – rearrange the soundbites to best tell the story.

Pass 5 – cut between cameras if this is a multi-camera production.

Pass 6 – clean up the final order by editing out extra words, pauses, and verbal gaffs.

Pass 7 – color correct clips, mix audio, add b-roll shots.

df4115_iview_9As I go through this process, I am focused on creating a good “radio cut” first. In other words, how does the story sound if you aren’t watching the picture. Once I’m happy with this, I can worry about color correction, b-roll, etc. When building a piece that includes multiple interviewees, you’ll need to pay attention to several other factors. These include getting a good mix of diversity – ethnic, gender, job classification. You might want to check with the client first as to whether each and every person interviewed needs to be used in the video. Clearly some people are going to be duds, so it’s best to know up front whether or not you’ll need to go through the effort to find a passable soundbite in those cases or not.

There are other concerns when re-ordering clips among multiple people. Arranging the order of clips so that you can cut between alternating left and right-framed shots makes the cutting flow better. Some interviewees comes across better than others, however, make sure not to lean totally on these responses. When you get multiple, similar responses, pick the best one, but if possible spread around who you pick in order to get the widest mix of respondents. As you tell the story, pay attention to how one soundbite might naturally lead into another – or how one person’s statement can complete another’s thoughts. It’s those serendipitous moments that you are looking for in Pass 4. It’s what should take the most creative time in your edit.

Philosophy of the cut

df4115_iview_11In any interview, the editor is making editorial selections that alter reality. Some broadcasters have guidelines at to what is and isn’t permissible, due to ethical concerns. The most common editorial technique in play is the “Frankenbite”. That’s where an edit is made to truncate a statement or combine two statements into one. Usually this is done because the answer went off into a tangent and that portion isn’t relevant. By removing the extraneous material and creating the “Frankenbite” you are actually staying true to the intent of the answer. For me, that’s the key. As long as your edit is honest and doesn’t twist the intent of what was said, then I personally don’t have a problem with doing it. That part of the art in all of this.

df4115_iview_10It’s for these reasons, though, that directors like Morris leave the jump cuts in. This lets the audience know an edit was made. Personally, I’d rather see a smooth piece without jump cuts and that’s where a two camera shoot is helpful. Cutting between two camera angles can make the edit feel seamless, even though the person’s expression or body position might not truly match on both sides of the cut. As long as the inflection is right, the audience will accept it. Occasionally I’ll use a dissolve, white flash or blur dissolve between sections, but most of the time I stick with cuts. The transitions seem like a crutch to me, so I use them only when there is a complete change of thought that I can’t bridge with an appropriate soundbite or b-roll shot.

df4115_iview_12The toughest interview edit tends to be when you want to clean things up, like a repeated word, a stutter, or the inevitable “ums” and “ahs”. Fixing these by cutting between cameras normally results in a short camera cut back and forth. At this point, the editing becomes a distraction. Sometimes you can cheat these jump cuts by staying on the same camera angle and using a short dissolve or one of the morphing transitions offered by Avid, Adobe, or MotionVFX (for FCPX). These vary in their success depending on how much a person has moved their body and head or changed expressions at the edit point. If their position is largely unchanged, the morph can look flawless. The more the change, the more awkward the resulting transition can be. The alternative is to cover the edit with a cutaway b-roll shot, but that’s often not desirable if this happens the first time we see the person. Sometimes you just have to live with it and leave these imperfections alone.

Telling the story through sight and sound is what an editor does. Working with on camera interviews is often the closest an editor comes to being the writer, as well. But remember that mixing and matching soundbites can present nearly infinite possibilities. Don’t get caught in the trap so many do of never finishing. Bring it to a point where the story is well-told and then move on. If the entire production is approached with some of these thoughts in mind, the end result can indeed be memorable.

©2015 Oliver Peters