The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

df0615_panthers_3_smDocumentaries covering subject matter that happens within a generation usually divides the audience between those who personally lived through the time period and those who’ve only read about it in history books. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is one such film. If you are over 50, you are aware of the media coverage of the Black Panther Party and certainly have opinions and possibly misconceptions of who they were. If you are under 50, then you may have learned about them in history class, if which case, you may only know them by myth and legend. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson (The American Experience, Freedom Summer, Wounded Knee, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple) seeks to go beyond what you think you know with this new Sundance Film Festival documentary entry.

I spoke with the film’s editor, Aljernon Tunsil, as he was putting the finishing touches on the film to get it ready for Sundance presentation. Tunsil has worked his way up from assistant editor to editor and discussed the evolution in roles. “I started in a production company office, initially helping the assistant editor,” he says. “Over a period of seven or eight years, I worked my way up from assistant to a full-time editor. Along the way, I’ve had a number of mentors and learned to cut on both [Apple] Final Cut Pro and [Avid] Media Composer. These mentors were instrumental in my learning how to tell a story. I worked on a short with Stanley [Nelson] and that started our relationship of working together on films. I view my role as the ‘first audience’ for the film. The producer or director knows the story they want to make, but the editor helps to make sense of it for someone who doesn’t intimately know the material. My key job is to make sure that the narrative makes senses and that no one gets lost.”

df0615_panthers_2_smThe Black Panthers is told through a series of interviews (about 40 total subjects). Although a few notables, like Kathleen Cleaver, are featured, the chronicle of the rise and fall of the Panthers is largely told by lesser known party members, as well as FBI informants and police officers active in the events. The total post-production period took about 40 to 50 weeks. Tunsil explains, “Firelight Films (the production company) is very good at researching characters and finding old subjects for the interviews. They supplied me with a couple of hundred hours of footage. That’s a challenge to organize so that you know what you have. My process is to first watch all of that with the filmmakers and then to assemble the best of the interviews and best of the archival footage. Typically it takes six to ten weeks to get there and then another four to six weeks to get to a rough cut.”

Tunsil continues, “The typical working arrangement with Stanley is that he’ll take a day to review any changes I’ve made and then give me notes for any adjustments. As we were putting the film together, Stanley was still recording more interviews to fill in the gaps – trying to tie the story together without the need for a narrator. After that, it’s the usual process of streamlining the film. We could have made a ten-hour film, but, of course, not all of the stories would fit into the final two-hour version.”

df0615_panthers_5_smLike many documentary film editors, Tunsil prefers having interview transcripts, but acknowledged they don’t tell the whole story. He says, “One example is in the interview with former Panther member Wayne Pharr. He describes the police raid on the LA headquarters of the party and the ensuing shootout. When asked how he felt, he talks about his feeling of freedom, even though the event surrounding him was horrific. That feeling clearly comes across in the emotion on his face, which transcends the mere words in the transcript. You get to hear the story from the heart – not just the facts. Stories are what makes a documentary like this.”

As with many films about the 1960s and 1970s, The Black Panthers weaves into its fabric the music of the era. Tunsil says, “About 60% of the film was composed by Tom Phillips, but we also had about seven or eight period songs, like ‘Express Yourself’, which we used under [former Panther member] Bobby Seale’s run for mayor of Oakland. I used other pieces from Tom’s library as temp music, which we then gave to him for the feel. He’d compose something similar – or different, but in a better direction.”

df0615_panthers_6_smTunsil is a fervent Avid Media Composer editor, which he used for The Black Panthers. He explains, “I worked with Rebecca Sherwood as my associate editor and we were both using Media Composer version 7. We used a Facilis Terrablock for shared storage, but this was primarily used to transfer media between us, as we both had our own external drives with a mirrored set of media files. All the media was at the DNxHD 175 resolution. I like Avid’s special features such as PhraseFind, but overall, I feel that Media Composer is just better at letting me organize material than is Final Cut. I love Avid as an editing system, because it’s the most stable and makes the work easy. Editing is best when there’s a rhythm to the workflow and Media Composer is good for that. As for the stills, I did temporary moves with the Avid pan-and-zoom plug-in, but did the final moves in [Adobe] After Effects.”

df0615_panthers_1_smFor a documentary editor, part of the experience are the things you personally learn. Tunsil reflects, “I like the way Stanley and Firelight handle these stories. They don’t just tell it from the standpoint of the giants of history, but more from the point-of-view of the rank-and-file people. He’s trying to show the full dimension of the Panthers instead of the myth and iconography. It’s telling the history of the real people, which humanizes them. That’s a more down-to-earth, honest experience. For instance, I never knew that they had a communal living arrangement. By having the average members tell their stories, it makes it so much richer. Another example is the Fred Hampton story. He was the leader of the Chicago chapter of the party who was killed in a police shootout; but, there was no evidence of gunfire from inside the building that he was in. That’s a powerful scene, which resonates. One part of the film that I think is particularly well done is the explanation of how the party declined due to a split between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. This was in part as a result of an internal misinformation campaign instigated by the FBI within the Panthers.”

df0615_panthers_4_smThroughout the process, the filmmakers ran a number of test screenings with diverse audiences, including industry professionals and non-professionals, people who knew the history and people who didn’t. Results from these screenings enabled Nelson and Tunsil to refine the film. To complete the film’s finishing, Firelight used New York editorial facility Framerunner. Tunsil continues, “Framerunner is doing the online using an Avid Symphony. To get ready, we simply consolidated the media to a single drive and then brought it there. They are handling all color correction, improving moves on stills and up-converting the standard definition archival footage.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Particle Fever

df_pf_1Filmmaking isn’t rocket science, but sometimes they are kissing cousins. Such is the case of the documentary Particle Fever, where the credentials of both producer David Kaplan and director Mark Levinson include a Doctorate in particle physics. Levinson has been involved in filmmaking for 28 years, starting after his graduation from Berkeley, when he found the job prospects for physics in a slump. Instead he turned to his second passion – films. Levinson worked as an ADR specialist on such films as The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain, and The Rainmaker. While working on those films, he built up a friendship with noted film editor Walter Murch (The Conversation, Julia, Apocalypse Now, K-19: The Widowmaker). In addition, Levinson was writing screenplays and directing some of his own independent films (Prisoner of Time). This ultimately led him to combine his two interests and pursue Particle Fever, a documentary about the research, construction and goals of building the Large Hadron Collider.

When it came time to put the polish on his documentary, Mark Levinson tapped Walter Murch as the editor. Murch explained, “I was originally only going to be on the film for three months, because I was scheduled to work on another production after that. I started in March 2012, but the story kept changing with each breaking news item from the collider. And my other project went away, so in the end, I worked on the film for 15 months and just finished the mix a few weeks ago [June 2013].” At the start of the documentary project, the outcome of the research from the Large Hadron Collider was unknown. In fact, it wasn’t until later during the edit, that the scientists achieved a major success with the confirmation of the discovery of the Higgs boson as an elementary particle in July 2012. This impacted science, but also the documentary in a major way.

Finding the story arc

df_pf_6Particle Fever is the first feature-length documentary that Walter Murch has edited, although archival and documentary footage has been part of a number of his films. He’d cut some films for the USIA early in his career and has advised and mixed a number of documentaries, including Crumb, about the controversial cartoonist Robert Crumb. Murch is fond of discussing the role of the editor as a participatory writer of the film in how he crafts the story through pictures and sound. Nowhere is this more true than in documentaries. According to Murch, “Particle Fever had a natural story arc by the nature of the events themselves. The machine [the Large Hadron Collider] provided the spine. It was turned on in 2008 and nine days later partly exploded, because a helium relief valve wasn’t strong enough. It was shut down for a year of repairs. When it was turned on again, it was only at half power and many of the scientists feared this was inadequate for any major discoveries. Nevertheless, even at half power, the precision was good enough to see the evidence that they needed. The film covers this journey from hope to disaster to recovery and triumph.”

Due to the cost of constructing large particle accelerators, a project like the Large Hadron Collider is a once-in-a-generation event. It is a seminal moment in science akin to the Manhattan Project or the moon launch. In this case, 10,000 scientists from 100 countries were involved in the goal of recreating the conditions just after the Big Bang and finding the Higgs boson, often nicknamed “the God particle”. Murch explained the production process, “Mark and David picked a number of scientists to follow and we told the story through their eyes without a narrator. They were equipped with small consumer cameras to self-record intermittent video blogs, which augmented the formal interviews. Initially Mark was following about a dozen scientists, but this was eventually narrowed down to the six that are featured in the film. The central creative challenge was to balance the events while getting to know the people and their roles. We also had to present enough science to understand what is at stake without overwhelming the audience. These six turned out to be the best at that and could convey their passion in a very charismatic and understandable way with a minimum of jargon.”

Murch continued, “Our initial cut was two-and-a-half hours, which was ultimately reduced to 99 minutes. We got there by cutting some people, but also some of the ‘side shoots’ or alternate research options that were explored. For example, there was a flurry of excitement related to what was thought to be discoveries of particles of ‘dark matter’ at a Minnesota facility. This covered about 20 minutes of the film, but in the final version there’s only a small trace of that material.”

Sifting to find the nuggets

df_pf_2As in most documentaries, the post team faced a multitude of formats and a wealth of material, including standard definition video recorded in 2007, the HDV files from the scientists’ “webcams” and Panasonic HD media from the interviews. In addition, there was a lot of PAL footage from the media libraries at CERN, the European particle accelerator. During the production, news coverage focused on the theoretical, though statistically unlikely, possibility that the Large Hadron Collider might have been capable of producing a black hole. This yielded even more source material to sift through. In total, the production team generated 300 hours of content and an additional 700 hours were available from CERN and the various news pieces produced about the collider.

Murch is known for his detailed editor’s codebook for scenes and dailies that he maintains for every film in a Filemaker Pro database. Particle Fever required a more streamlined approach. Murch came in at what initially appeared to be the end of the process after Mona Davis (Fresh, Advise & Consent) had worked on the film. Murch said, “I started the process later into the production, so I didn’t initially use my Filemaker database. Mark was both the director and my assistant editor, so for the first few months I was guided by his knowledge of the material. We maintained two mirrored workstations with Final Cut Pro 7 and Mark would ingest any new material and add his markers for clips to investigate. When these bins were copied to my station, I could use them as a guide of where to start looking for possible material.”

Mapping the sound

df_pf_4The post team operated out of Gigantic Studios in New York, which enabled an interactive workflow between Murch and sound designer Tom Paul (on staff at Gigantic) and with composer Robert Miller. Walter Murch’s editorial style involves building up a lot of temporary sound effects and score elements during the rough cut phase and then, piece-by-piece, replacing those with finished elements as he receives them. His FCP sequence on Particle Fever had 42 audio tracks of dialogue, temp sound effects and music elements. This sort of interaction among the editor, sound designer and composer worked well with a small post team all located in New York City. By the time the cut was locked in May, Miller had delivered about an hour of original score for the film and supplied Murch with seven stereo instrumentation stems for that score to give him the most versatility in mixing.

Murch and Paul mixed the film on Gigantic’s Pro Tools ICON system. Murch offered this post trick, “When I received the final score elements from Robert, I would load them into Final Cut and then was able to copy-and-paste volume keyframes I had added to Robert’s temp music onto the final stems, ducking under dialogue or emphasizing certain dynamics of the music. This information was then automatically transferred to the Pro Tools system as part of the OMF output. Although we’d still adjust levels in the mix, embedding these volume shifts gave us a better starting point. We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. In the end, the final mix took four days. Long days!”

df_pf_3Gigantic Post offered the advantage of an on-site screening room, which enabled the producers to have numerous in-progress screenings for both scientific and industry professionals, as well as normal interested viewers. Murch explained, “It was important to get the science right, but also to make it understandable to the layman. I have more than a passing interest in the subject, but both Mark and David have Ph.D.s in particle physics, so if I ever had a question about something, all I had to do was turn around and ask. We held about 20 screenings over the course of a year and the scientists who attended our test screenings felt that the physics was accurate. But, what they also particularly liked was that the film really conveys the passion and experience of what it’s like to work in this field.” Final Frame Post, also in New York, handled the film’s grading and digital intermediate mastering.

Graphic enhancements

df_pf_5To help illustrate the science, the producers tapped MK12, a design and animation studio, which had worked on such films as The Kite Runner and Quantum of Solace. Some of the ways in which they expressed ideas graphically throughout the film could loosely be described as a cross between A Beautiful Mind and Carl Sagan’s PBS Cosmos series. Murch described one example, “For instance, we see Nima (one of our theorists) walking across the campus of the Institute for Advanced Study while we hear his voice-over. As he talks, formulas start to swirl all around him. Then the grass transforms into a carpet of number-particles, which then transform into an expanding universe into which Nima disappears. Eventually, this scene resolves and Nima emerges, returning on campus and walking into a building, the problematic formulas falling to the ground as he goes through the door.”

Although this was Walter Murch’s first feature documentary, his approach wasn’t fundamentally different from how he works on a dramatic film. He said, “Even on a scripted film, I try to look at the material without investing it with intention. I like to view dailies with the fresh-eyed sense of ‘Oh, where did this come from? Let’s see where this will take the story’.  That’s also from working so many years with Francis [Ford Coppola], who often shoots in a documentary style. The wedding scene in The Godfather, for instance; or the Union Square conversation in The Conversation; or any of the action scenes in Apocalypse Now all exemplify that. They are ongoing events, with their own internal momentum, which are captured by multiple cameras. I really enjoyed working on this film, because there were developments and announcements during the post which significantly affected the direction of the story and ultimately the ending. This made for a real roller coaster ride!”

Particle Fever premiered at Doc/Fest Sheffield on June 14th, and won the Audience Award (split with Act of Killing). It is currently in negotiations for distribution.

NOTE: The film will open in New York on Ma5, 2014. In October 2013Peter W. Higgs – who theorized about the boson particle named after him – was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, together with Francois Englert. For more on Walter Murch’s thoughts about editing, click here.

And finally, an interesting look at Murch’s involvement in the Rolex Mentor Protege program.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

Documentary Editing Tips

Of the many projects I work on, documentaries and documentary-style productions are my favorite. I find these often more entertaining and certainly more enlightening than many dramatic features and shows. It’s hard to beat reality. Documentaries present challenges for the editor, but in no other form does the editor play more of a role in shaping the final outcome. Many of them truly typify an editor’s function as the “writer” through shot selection and construction.

Structure and style

There are different ways you can build a documentary, but in the end, the objective is to end up with a film that tells an engaging story in such a way that the audience comprehends it. Structurally a documentary tends to take one of these forms:

–       Interview sound bites completely tell the story

–       The “voice of God” narrator guides you through

–       The “slice of life” story, where the viewer is a hidden observer

–       Re-enactments of events through acted scenes or readings, a la The Civil War or The Blues

–       The filmmaker as a first person guide, such as Werner Herzog

Sometimes, the best approach is a combination of all of these. You may set out to have the complete story told only through assembled sound bites, yet the story is never fully fleshed out. There, pieces of scripted narration will help clarify the story and bind disparate elements and thoughts together.

Story arc and character

The persons on screen are real, but to the audience they are no less characters in a film than a role performed by a dramatic actor. As an editor, the way you select sound bites and put them together – and the order in which these are presented throughout the film – establish not only a story arc, but also perceived heroes and villains in the minds of the audience. Viewers want a film with a logical start, building tension and ultimate resolution. Even when there is no happy ending, the editor should strive to build a story that leaves the audience with some answers or conclusion.

Remember to balance out your characters. In many interview-based stories, the same questions are posed to the various interviewees as the interviews are conducted. This is helpful to the editor, because you can balance out the different on-camera appearances by mixing up whose response you choose to use. That way, the same subject isn’t always to go-to person and you aren’t heavy with any single person. Sometimes it’s best to have one person start a thought or a statement and then conclude with another, assuming the two segments are complementary.


This is one of the myths taught in some film and journalism schools. The truth is that almost every documentary (and often many news stories) are approached from the point-of-view and biases of the writer, producer, director and editor. You can try to portray all sides fairly, but the choice of who is interviewed or which bites are selected reflects an often subconscious bias of the person making that decision. It can also appear lopsided simply based on which subjects decided to participate.

Sometimes the effects are subtle and harmless, as in reality TV shows, where the aim is to tell the most entertaining story. In the other extreme, it can become borderline propaganda for the agenda of the filmmaker. I’m not telling you what type of film to make – just to be aware of the inevitable. If there’s a subjective point-of-view, then don’t try to hide it. Rather, make it clearly a personal statement so the audience isn’t tricked into believing the filmmakers gave a fair shake to all sides.

The art of the interview

 If your documentary tale is built out of interview clips, then a lot of your time as an editor will go into organizing the material and playing with story structure. That is, editing and re-arranging sound bites in a way to tell a complete story without the need for a narrator. Often this requires that you assemble sound bites in a way that’s quite different from the way they were recorded in linear time.

Enter the “Frankenbite”. That’s a term editors apply to two types of sound bite construction: a) splicing together parts of two or more sound bite snippets to create a new, concise statement; or b) editing a word or phrase from another part of the interview to get the right inflection, such as making a statement sound like the end of a sentence, when in fact the original part was really in mid-thought.

Personally I have no problem with any of this, but draw the line at dishonesty. It’s very important to listen to the interviews in their entirety and make sure that the elements you are splicing together aren’t taken out of context. You don’t want to create the impression that what is being said is the exact opposite of what the speaker meant to say. The point of this slicing is to collapse time and get the point across succinctly without presenting a full and possibly rambling answer. Be true to the intent and you’ll be fine.

Typically such edits are covered by cutaway shots to hide the jump cut, though some director stylistically prefer to show the jump cut that such edits produce. This can give a certain interesting rhythm to the cut that might not otherwise be there. It also clearly tells the audience that an edit was made. It’s a stylistic approach, so pick a path and stick with it.

The beauty of the HDSLR revolution brought about by Canon is that it’s easier (and cheaper) than ever to field two-camera shoots. This is especially useful for documentary interviews. Often directors will set up two 5D or 7D cameras – one facing the subject and the other at an angle. This gives the editor two camera angles to cut with and it’s often possible to assemble edited sound bites using cuts between the two cameras at these edit points. This lets you splice together thoughts and still appear like a live switch in a TV show – totally seamless without an obvious jump cut. I’ve been able to build short shows this way working 100% from the interviews without a single cutaway shot and still have the end result appear to the audience as completely contiguous and coherent.

Mine the unrehearsed responses. Naturally that depends on the talent of the interviewer and how much her or she can get out of the interviewee. The best interviewers will warm up their subject first, go through the pro forma questions and then circle back for more genuine answers, once the interviewee is less nervous with the process. This is usually where you’ll get the better responses, so often the first half of the recording tends to be less useful. If the interviewer asks at the end, “Is there anything else you’d like to add?” – that’s where you frequently get the best answers, especially if the subject is someone who is interviewed a lot. Those folks are used to giving stock answers to all the standard questions. If their answers can be more freeform, then you’ll tend to get more unique and thoughtful points-of-view.

Organizing non-timecoded source material

 Archival footage frequently used in documentaries comes from a variety of sources, such as old home movies (on various film formats), VHS tapes and more. Before you ever start editing from these, they should be transferred with the best possible quality to a mastering format, such as Digital Betacam (for NTSC or PAL), HDCAM/HDCAM-SR (for HD) or high-quality QuickTime files (DNxHD, ProRes or uncompressed).

The point is to get these to a format, which can be organized and tracked through stages of the edit. This usually means some format that allows timecode, reel numbers or other file name coding to make it easy to find if the project takes years to complete. Remember that timecode and a 4-digit reel (or source) number lets you find any single frame within 10,000 hours of footage. To make this material easier to use during the offline editing stage of the project, you may elect to make low-cost/low-res copies for editing. For example, DVCAM if on tape or ProRes Proxy or DNxHD 36 for files. Doing so means that timecode and source/reel info MUST correspond perfectly between the low-res and hi-res versions.

Your still photo strategy

 Photography and artwork are the visual lifeblood of documentaries that lack supporting film or video content. Ken Burns has elevated the technique of camera moves on still images to an art form. Clearly he’s a filmmaker known to the general public as much for this effect branded by Apple after his name, as his award-winning films. Yet, the technique clearly predates him and has gone by many terms over the years. A company I once worked for frequently called it “pictography”. Regardless of origin – the use of stills requires two elements: organization and motion.

There are numerous photo and still image organizing and manipulation applications, including Adobe Lightroom, Bridge, Apple iPhoto and Aperture. Each of these provides a method to catalog, rate and sort the photos. You’ll need the application with a good manipulation toolset to properly crop, color correction and/or fix damaged images. Lightroom is my personal preference, but they all get the job done.

Moves on stills can be accomplished in several ways: animated moves in software, a computer-assisted, motion control camera stand or simply a human operator doing real cameras moves. Often the last method is the simplest, fastest and best looking. If that’s your choice, print large versions of the stills, put them on an easel and set up a video camera. Then record a variety of moves at different speeds, which will become source “video” for your edit session.

Another popular method is to separate components of the image into Photoshop layers. Then bring these into After Effects and design perspective moves in which the foreground elements move or grow at a different rate than the background layer. This method was popularized in The Kid Stays in the Picture. The trick to pulling this off successfully is that the Photoshop artist must fill in the background layer to replace the portion cut out for the foreground person or object. Otherwise you see a repeated section of the foreground image or possibly the cut-out area.

Edit system organization

 There are plenty of tools at your disposal, regardless of whether you prefer Avid, FCP 7, FCP X or something else. If this project takes several years with several editors and a potpourri of formats, then Media Composer is a good bet; however, Final Cut also has its share of fans among documentary editors. Make liberal use of subclips and markers to keep yourself straight. Tools like Boris Soundbite (formerly Get) and Avid ScriptSync and PhraseFind are essential to the editors who embrace them.

I tend to not use transcripts as the basis for my edits. Nevertheless, having an electronic and/or paper transcript of interviews available to you (with general timecode locations) makes it easy to find alternatives. That can be as simple as having a copy open in Word on the same computer and using the Find function. My point is that modern tools make it very easy to tackle a wealth of content without getting buried by the footage.

The value of the finishing process

 I feel that even more so than on dramatic features, documentaries benefit for high-quality finishing services. These range from simple online editing to format conversion to color grading. Since original sources often vary so widely in quality, it’s important to get the polish that a trained online/finishing editor and/or colorist can provide. Same for audio. Use the services of talented sound designers, editors and mixers to bring the mix up a notch. Nothing screams “bad”, like a substandard soundtrack, no matter how striking the images are.


It is important for the editor is to keep track of the sources and usage for stock images and music. These aren’t free. Many documentary producers seem to feel they can “sweet-talk” the rights holder into donating content out of a sense of interest or altruism. That’s almost never successful. So understand the licensing issues and be wary of using images and music – even on a temporary basis – that you know will be hard to clear or too expensive to purchase.

Make sure that you have an adequate system for tracking and reporting the use of stock material, so that it can be properly bought and cleared when the film is being finished. During the rough cut, stock footage and images will usually be low-res versions with a “burn-in” or watermark. When the time comes to purchase the final high-res images, most companies require that you request the exact range of the material used based on timecode. That material will be provided as files or on tape, but there’s no guarantee that the timecode will match. Be prepared to eye-match each shot if that’s the case.

©2011 Oliver Peters

Markers are your friend

If you cut long-form projects, then markers in Apple Final Cut Pro or locators in Avid Media Composer are an essential tool. This is one of the subtle yet workflow-changing improvements Apple made in FCP7. The developers added the ripple feature to markers, which allows timeline markers to stay pegged with the relevant clip on the timeline as you insert of delete other clips. It’s a feature that had been in Media Composer since the beginning of locators, but was a welcome change to Final Cut.

In case you’ve never used markers in Final Cut Pro (come on, really?), you can add them to places on the timeline and add text for each marker. The text is displayed when you park on the frame where the marker was placed. You can also use difference colored markers for different purposes. Markers can also be assigned as chapter, compression or scoring markers and given a duration. A marker list can be exported as a tab delimited text document, which will open in most word processors or spreadsheet applications. This list will indicate comments, type, duration, color and timecode. Marker lists may be helpful as a reference for interviews in the absence of an actual transcript. Or they may be used to document notes for editorial changes.

I use markers a lot in unscripted projects made up of lengthy interviews. I’ll place all of a subject’s clips on a timeline and then listen to the comments. At each place where they start a new answer or train of thought, I’ll add a marker and enter text. This is usually a short synopsis, phrase or some key words for the sound bite at that point. I tend to use a single color for my timeline markers, but if the interviewee says something exceptional or profound or with more emotion than the rest, then I’ll use a different marker color. This way I can quickly scan the timeline and find the points with the preferred sound bites.

When done, I have a timeline full of markers. Right-clicking on the timeline’s timecode ruler bar brings up a contextual menu with all the marker text for that sequence. Click on any entry in this pop-up menu and you’ll jump to that location on the timeline. This menu is also a great way to quickly scan through all the comments when you start to feel that you may be leaving something important out in your refined cut.

Furthermore, the Find command (cmd-F) for the sequence lets you search by names and markers. Looking for a word you know you typed into a marker? Simply use Find in the sequence and it will take you to that spot. Of course, the more information you typed at the time, the better of a resource this becomes.

Once I’ve gone through this process, I will leave that sequence untouched. Instead, I’ll duplicate it and continue editing on that new sequence or I will copy-and-paste from that sequence to another. The point is to leave this first record intact, so that when you need to find a specific comment at a later stage in the edit, you can always refer back to this original timeline with all the markers and marker text.

©2011 Oliver Peters

Get – Dialogue Search for Final Cut Pro

AV3 Software’s Get application was one of the highlights at last year’s NAB. Based on the same Nexidia search engine as Avid’s ScriptSync, Get brings dialogue-based search capabilities to Apple Final Cut Pro and eventually other editing applications. (In fact, Avid has recently introduced PhraseFind, which is Nexidia’s implementation of the same technology within the Media Composer 5.5 application.)

Get functions as a standalone application, so its usefulness extends beyond the needs of an editor. For instance, story editors, loggers and news reporters can benefit from Get as a way to research and organize interviews and other dialogue-based media files.

How Get differs

To properly understand Get, you have to first understand how the Avid and Adobe technologies work. Both Get and Avid ScriptSync are based on Nexidia’s patented phonetic search engine. In a simplified explanation, the Nexidia engine analyzes the waveform of phonetic syllables and compares these to its library of known phonetics for specific languages. Because it is based on phonetics, an exact spelling match isn’t critical as long as the misspelled word sounds the same. If you spell “cool” as “kool”, the result will be the same.

Avid ScriptSync requires the editor to first import a written script or transcript. Ingested dailies are then analyzed for sound and matched against sections of the script. The software matches key words and interpolates the in-between sections, when it can’t make an exact word match. Through this process, it is possible to click on a word in the written script (within the Avid bin) and locate the corresponding portion of the media file. ScriptSync does not work on media files outside of the Avid Media Composer project.

Adobe’s speech-to-text translation uses exactly the opposite process. It is based on speech recognition technology and attempts to properly interpret spoken words and correctly translate those into written text. Since it doesn’t start with an existing script and there’s no interpolation of words from a known reference, it falls to the analysis engine to correctly translate spoken words into text from the audio track. This frequently leads to a high degree of error, because of the “guesses” the software is making. These must later be manually reconciled or adjusted. In addition, Adobe stores the translated text as part of the media file’s metadata, as it travels through Premiere Pro and/or Soundbooth.

It’s like Spotlight for words

Get operates as a standalone application and is therefore independent of any written script or transcript. Think of it as a Spotlight-style search tool that is optimized for speech. Get can be installed for various languages and currently supports US English, UK English and Latin American Spanish. For now, Final Cut Pro is the only supported NLE, although Get can be used without FCP, as well.

Once the application has been installed, the first step is to index the media files that are to be analyzed in any Get dialogue search. This can be one or more folders or drives containing QuickTime-wrapped media files. For example, if you are using it to work on a single documentary project, then you might only choose to index that project’s media folder within the FCP Capture Scratch location.

On the other hand, if you’d like indexing across multiple projects, you might opt to index a complete media drive or array. Search locations can be established as Watched Folders, so newly added media is automatically indexed. Content already added to an FCP project can also be indexed. In my testing, several hours of media files only required a few minutes to index, so that step is quite fast. During this process, Get analyzes the dialogue within the audio tracks of these media files and stores a look-up table used for subsequent searches.

Performing searches

After the initial indexing is completed, the rest of it is pretty simple. Typically you perform searches within Get’s user interface. Results will be grouped using various criteria, but normally Get will group search results according to a confidence indication. Search results that are listed as Very Confident will generally always match the search word or phrase, whereas Less Confident might not. One way to dial in search results is to use the Score Threshold pulldown menu. For example, if you search for a term and select a Score > 95 value, Get will return far fewer successful results than if you use a value of Score > 55. Lowering the score will achieve more total results, but also less accuracy.

Targeting the search correctly will improve results. For example, “1900” is the same as “nineteen hundred”, not “one thousand nine hundred”. Acronyms, like “RCA”, need to be spelled with capital letters. To receive more refined results, you can combine searches by adding fields for Boolean-style searches. For instance, a search for media files that contain the terms “family” AND “fortified”. Furthermore, additional attributes can be selected, which may be Finder-level metadata, like creation dates – or from an FCP project, like master comments. This becomes very useful in news and reality TV productions.

Get includes a media player, so any matching files displayed in the results pane can be played directly from within Get. The player displays the file attributes, plus timecode and timeline markers that indicate the location of each dialogue match. If there are multiple matches within a single media file, then there will be a marker for each spot within the file where the word or phrase was spoken. This lets an editor or producer easily preview and save search results without engaging any other software. Since a search will typically return numerous media files, it becomes a quick way to compare several similar shots.

Export to FCP

Get’s Export routine is used to bring clips into a Final Cut Pro project. Individual clips or a group of clips can be exported from the Get interface into any existing FCP project. Get has the ability to access the project, so either clips can be sent directly into existing bins or new FCP project bins containing these search results can be created and exported right from within Get. When you return to the FCP project, the appropriate folder and clips will have been added. Each clip will also contain markers to identify the location of the search term. In addition, Get lets you export only markers, in the case where you are analyzing clips already in FCP.

I performed testing with an existing series of corporate videos produced about a family-owned Australian winery. The original audio was recorded on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Some audio was rather low and, of course, everyone spoke with an Australian accent. Get delivered good results using the US English installation, in spite of these challenges. Even specific Australian words, like less-common town names, were easily found. Without question, I’d have to say Get definitely works as advertised.

One unconventional way to use Get’s capabilities is to sync multi-camera shots, in the absence of slates or matching timecode. I hadn’t even considered this until the folks at AV3 Software mentioned that some of their clients were using Get in this manner. A dialogue search would place markers at matching words, based on each camera’s audio track. Once inside Final Cut, these markers would then provide the basis for synchronizing the media files from the different cameras against each other, using matching dialogue as the common reference point.

Whether or not AV3 Software’s Get is the right tool for you depends on your project. It doesn’t replace the need for creating transcripts and it won’t edit a production for you. On the other hand, if you need to quickly locate the places a speaker uttered certain words or phrases within hours of interview footage or news coverage, then there simply is no faster tool available to the Final Cut Pro editor.

Last but not least, Get is available on a rental basis, too. So if you need these features for just a single documentary project, you’re covered!

Written for Videography magazine (NewBay Media LLC).

©2011 Oliver Peters

Case studies in film editing

Last update : January 18, 2014

NOTE: This post has been changed into a page on the top header, called “Film Stories”. Further updates will be made on that page.

I’ve had the good fortune, thanks to my work with Videography and Digital Video magazine, to interview an inspiring collection of some of the best film editors in the world. You can click on the “filmmakers” category on the side panel to access these stories, but I’ve aggregated them here for easy access here.

These interviews cover a wide range of feature film styles. The interviewees were gracious enough to share their experiences with creative challenges and how they leveraged editing technology to get the job done. For those keeping a tally, Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut Pro are well-represented, along with “cameos” by Lightworks. Even Adobe’s tools make several appearances. Although I don’t consider myself in the same league as most of these luminaries, I’ve included a few projects of mine, which happen to fit nicely into the world of indie filmmaking.

I hope you will take the time to revisit these articles and pick up some tips that might benefit your own personal style. Enjoy!

The Wolf of Wall Street

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Featured in the post – Thelma Schoonmaker, Scott Brock

American Hustle

Directed by David O. Russell

Featured in the post – Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten

Inside Llewyn Davis

Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Featured in the post – Katie McQuerrey

Particle Fever

Directed by Mark Levinson

Featured in the post – Walter Murch

The East

Directed by Zal Batmanglij

Featured in the post – Andrew Weisblum and Bill Pankow

The Hobbit

Directed by Peter Jackson

Featured in the post – Jabez Olssen

Phil Spector

Directed by David Mamet

Featured in the post – Barbara Tulliver

Zero Dark Thirty

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Featured in the post – Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg

Cloud Atlas

Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer

Featued in the post – Alexander Berner


Directed by Rian Johnson

Featured in the post – Ryan Thudhope

Hemingway & Gellhorn

Directed by Philip Kaufman

Featured in the post – Walter Murch

The Bourne Legacy

Directed by Tony Gilroy

Featured in the post – John Gilroy

Moonrise Kingdom

Directed by Wes Anderson

Featured in the post – Andrew Weisblum

The Descendants

Directed by Alexander Payne

Featured in the post – Kevin Tent, Mindy Elliott

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Directed by David Fincher

Featured in the post – Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter, Tyler Nelson


Directed by Martin Scorsese

Featured in the post – Rob Legato, Thelma Schoonmaker

My Fair Lidy

Directed by Ralph Clemente

Featured in the post – Oliver Peters

Higher Ground

Directed by Vera Farmiga

Featured in the post – Colleen Sharp, Jeremy Newmark

127 Hours

Directed by Danny Boyle

Featured in the post – Jon Harris, Tamsin Jeffrey

The Social Network

Directed by David Fincher

Featured in the post – Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter, Michael Cioni, Tyler Nelson

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Directed by Don Hahn

Featured in the post – Vartan Nazarian, John Ryan, Ellen Keneshea

Casino Jack (documentary)

Directed by Alex Gibney

Featured in the post – Allison Ellwood


Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Featured in the post – Walter Murch

Scare Zone

Directed by Jon Binkowski

Featured in the post – Oliver Peters

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Directed by David Fincher

Featured in the post – Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter

Blindsided (documentary)

Directed by Talia Osteen

Featured in the post – Oliver Peters

Encounters at the End of the World

Directed by Werner Herzog

Featured in the post – Brian Hutchings

The Dark Knight

Directed by Chris Nolan

Featured in the post – Lee Smith

Shine A Light

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Featured in the post – David Tedeschi, Rob Legato

Sweeney Todd

Directed by Tim Burton

featured in the post – Chris Lebenzon

Runnin’ Down A Dream

directed by Peter Bogdanovich

Featured in the post – Mary Ann McClure

No Country For Old Men

Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Featured in the post – Ethan and Joel Coen

Youth Without Youth

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Featured in the post – Walter Murch, Sean Cullen

In the Valley of Elah

Directed by Paul Haggis

Featured in the post – Jo Francis

The Bourne Ultimatum

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Featured in the post – Chris Rouse

Charlie Bartlett

Directed by Jon Poll

Featured in the post – Jon Poll


Directed by Brad Bird

Featured in the post – Darren Holmes

The Closer (TNT television)

Featured in the post – Eli Nilsen

Hot Fuzz

Directed by Edgar Wright

Featured in the post – Chris Dickens

Death To The Tinman

Directed byRay Tintori

Featured in the post – Ray Tintori, Par Parekh

Year of the Dog

Directed by Mike White

Featured in the post – Dody Dorn


Directed by David Fincher

Featured in the post – Angus Wall

The War Tapes

Directed by Deborah Scranton

Featured in the post – Steve James

Waist Deep

Directed by Vondie Curtis Hall

Featured in the post – Teri Shropshire


Directed by Paul Haggis

Featured in the post – Hughes Winborne

American Hardcore

Directed by Paul Rachman

Featured in the post – Paul Rachman

The Way Back Home

Directed by Reza Badiyi

Featured in the post – Oliver Peters


Directed by Sam Mendes

Featured in the post – Walter Murch, Sean Cullen

Chasing Ghosts

Directed by Kyle Jackson

Featured in the post – Kyle Jackson

The Aviator

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Featured in the post – Ron Ames, Rob Legato

Articles originally written for Videography and Digital Video magazines (NewBay Media LLC)

©2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 Oliver Peters

One bite at a time

… or, how to tackle large projects.

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

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

Editing tools to the rescue

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

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

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

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

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

Editing strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for more documentary film editing tips.

©2010 Oliver Peters