Contemplating the Cut: The Art and Craft of Nonfiction Editing

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"Contemplating the Cut" in Los Angeles. © 2018 Sundance Institute | Nick Sammons

On Saturday, May 12, in Los Angeles, Sundance Institute and the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship partnered for the fourth year in a row to bring together documentary filmmakers to discuss the art and craft of nonfiction editing.

I return time and again to Jonathan Oppenheim’s brilliant keynote, delivered at the first event four years ago, which Sundance Institute’s Kristin Feeley referenced this year in her opening remarks. She highlighted Oppenheim’s distinction between two models for the role of the editor: the “artistic model” and the “industrial model.” In the first model, the job of the editor “is to absorb the subject of the film through the footage, to live and breathe with the material, making it his or her own, and, ultimately, to emerge with a vision for the possibilities (and impossibilities) of the film.” The problem, he noted, is that the artistic model “tends to be implicit, the view that ‘dare not speak its name.’ My sense is that it is often experienced by the editor but rarely asserted.”

If the artistic model is implicit, the “industrial model” is quite explicit. It is defined by unrealistic deadlines and long hours. It entails keeping the producer(s) happy and serving as the director’s employee, not his or her collaborator. Oppenheim ends with this call to action:

"The artistic model can be dragged out of its cave into the daylight and embraced. It should be, because it reflects the real creative inner life of an editor. So it is healthy to embrace it and to stand behind the weight of one’s own artistic process. The tension between the two models is inevitable, but my feeling is that it should be an explicit and conscious tension rather than an implicit and suppressed tension. The tension should be seen and owned, for the life of everyone involved, and in order to better support the fragile process of creating art out of real life."

This now-yearly gathering does exactly what Jonathan called upon us to do four years ago: be open about what nonfiction editors do, and acknowledge how extensive their contributions are.

Beginnings

This year’s event included two panels. The first panel, Part I: Beginnings, with Jeff Malmberg (Won't You Be My Neighbor?), Alex O'Flinn (The Rider), and Kim Roberts (Unrest), with moderator Claudia Puig, focused on breaking down examples of opening sequences. Roberts, Malmberg, and O’Flinn showed clips of opening sequences they had worked on, including rough and final versions.

The takeaway of this conversation was that what is so difficult about beginnings is how much we have to accomplish within a matter of minutes. Editors must establish the film’s “language,” and establish it clearly and quickly, with no standard template for doing so. “There isn’t one way to open a movie,” Roberts said. Malmberg added, “People will accept almost any language, [but] you better establish it and better establish it early… it’s amazing what an audience will accept, as long as they know that you’re gonna’ go there.” O’Flinn chimed in, “How are we setting ourselves up in the best position for the rest of the film?”

Alex O'Flinn and Jeff Malmberg. © 2018 Sundance Institute | Nick Sammons

As every feature documentary editor has likely experienced, it’s usually the simplest open that ends up working the best. But arriving at “simple” is never simple. In Robert’s case she had a bin of 32 different opens on Food, Inc., and for Malmberg on Marwencol, it entailed reworking the open again and again until he found the perfect combination of “thought and heart.”

The fact that audiences can tolerate very little information at the beginning of the film complicates the task of constructing beginnings. Roberts added that a producer once told her about an idea he calls ‘the arc of tolerance,’ which refers to how much information audiences can tolerate at different parts of the film. At the beginning of a film, “you can tolerate almost no information,” she said. “In the middle, you can tolerate the most. And at the end, you no longer have patience for it.” Effective beginnings, in other words, establish the “flavor” of the film, as Malmberg put it. They convey the mood but keep information minimal.

When O’Flinn discussed The Rider opening, I was particularly drawn to the discussion of the sound design. He talked about how he had a version that was grounded in a piece of music, and when his director suggested losing the music, it freaked him out. His solution was to play with the sound to make up for the loss of the music, which was ultimately more effective: “We really amped up the sound design in the rough edit to kind of let it just be about the sound design for that opening, and it really works well because I think it creates the sense that the horse is this magical beast or something like that. It’s like this is a powerful animal… when you have music it kind of got you off the hook… it kind of gave you a way out.”

Trusting the image

After discussing openings, the conversation evolved into a back-and-forth about other challenges in the edit room. O’Flinn brought up what he called “the weird hypocrisy of filmmaking.” We work in a visual medium, but the walls of our edit studios are plastered with notecards that reduce incredibly complex visual phenomena into simple (non-visual) phrases. “You walk into a cutting room [and you see] all these cards. You know, you’re like, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ Like, Jeff has emotional reaction to his divorce..’ You’re like, ‘Okay, well, how are we seeing that? For me,” he added, “I have actually gravitated away from the note cards because they stress me out.”

Being deep in my own edit at the moment, and because my studio currently looks like a hurricane of 4x6s, this sentiment resonated. The cards serve a real function at the beginning of the edit – like a to-do list. And then at a certain point I stop looking at them, because it really becomes about “how you get in and out of the scenes,” as O’Flinn put it. And then I’ll often return to them for structuring once I’ve had the space to explore the more intangible poetics of the material.

Malmberg added, “It’s like everybody’s salvation and everybody’s anchor, and yet at the same time, if you’re not careful can kind of be your downfall.”

The notecard discussion resonated with me because it gets to the heart of something I think that we, as editors, can help push in our own edit rooms: emphasizing the visual storytelling instead of whatever ‘action’ is on the card. O’Flinn added that “elevat[ing] the visual language of a documentary” is how to energize the director. “Yes, we can get that in a talking head, but is there a better way? And the sky’s the limit, really… The director has normally been with that project for a couple years, so they’re, kind of, tired in a way. And I feel like my job – I’m not a technical wizard on the software or anything like that. But I just try to be like, ‘Look, I’m gonna’ make you excited about your film again.’”

Trusting the image is at the heart of what we do. And trusting the image often requires us to pull back on VO and let the images speak for themselves. Roberts recalled putting voiceover in a scene from Lost Boys of Sudan that didn’t need it: “[As] soon as we pulled out all that voiceover, you got everything he was saying, and so much more powerfully because you let the audience do the work.”

A lot of editors I know talk about this idea of ‘scaffolding’ – we use interviews to build ideas with images over them and then realize we don’t need all that talking. When I’m asked to give notes on films I find myself echoing that idea over and over again: you do not need the VO, take it out. It’s a tough one because we’re all guilty of doing it, and I’m constantly having to keep myself in check and remind myself to trust the image.

Notecards on the wall and VO over the images, then, are both essential to build the scaffolding, but like any scaffolding, when the structure can stand on its own, the scaffolding has to come down.

The editor’s job is not just to edit

So what does an editor do? According to O’Flinn, “You are a department head. That’s your job. The editing is part of your job but it’s not your whole job. Your job is to shepherd and make sure the vision of the film is continuous from the beginning, to the color correction, to the mix. You’re managing a department… and that includes politics and conversations, and it’s not just being in front of the computer, you know, those 10 hours a day. We have five people telling us five different versions of the film and you have to figure out how to convince everyone that this is the version of the film that’s gonna be, and get everyone on board with that.”

Malmberg added, “We all know that it’s ultimately the director’s call, but to have that kind of collaboration and suggestion… it’s great when directors respond to that and I think they primarily respond when they feel comfortable that you’re gonna’ both support and challenge them.”

The biggest laugh of the panel may have come when O’Flinn shared an amazing nugget of honesty when he quoted the actor Bradley Whitford as saying, “If I’m truthful, my process is this: When a director or anyone gives me a note, my first reaction is, ‘Fuck you.’ And then my second reaction is, ‘I suck.’ And then my third reaction is, ‘Just tell me what you want me to do’.”

Directing the Edit

The second panel, Part II: Craft Conversations: Directing the Edit, with Kate Amend (The Keepers), Erin Casper (Risk), Greg Finton (Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind), and moderator Pedro Kos (Bending the Arc), shared insights on the challenges of navigating the personal and professional in a changing production landscape.

Pedro Kos and Kate Amend. © 2018 Sundance Institute | Nick Sammons

Pedro Kos moderated this second panel, and if you haven’t read his moving keynote speech from this year’s Art of Editing Reception at the Sundance Film Festival, read it now. It’s an honest indictment of the dangers of the “industrial model” of editing: chiefly, editor burnout. He offers these words of wisdom in a letter to Pedro “the director” (his debut feature Bending the Arc premiered at Sundance in 2017) from Pedro “the editor”:

… And so, Pedro, I leave you with this hope. I dream of a world where all editors can have a life outside the cutting room and live, laugh, and love. Because in order to tell human stories properly, you need to take part in the human experience fully and be first and foremost experts in the human condition. If you can do your part to help make that world a reality, then you will be the kind of director that editors can truly call a creative partner and collaborator. Especially an editor like yourself.

I was thrilled that this second panel took the time to focus on what it means to take care of yourself as an editor, how to set boundaries, who to work with, and when to say “no” to a project. As Pedro started out, “I think the reason why we are here, and why we chose this career, is for the artistry rather than for the industrial model.”

Who to work with and when to say no

How does an editor know who to work with? For Kate Amend, “The filmmaker’s footage has to speak to me. There’s been a couple times where I’ve just hit it off with someone and said, ‘Okay, I’ll cut your film,’ without seeing anything. But usually I need to watch something and be drawn to it, and also have a good sense that this person is going to be fun to work with, or challenging, or creative to work with. I just assume that there’s a film there and that we’re going to find it together.”

Pedro posed a question about unrealistic expectations that laid out a scenario with which every editor is familiar: “Let’s say come July you have a great project but they come to you [saying], ‘Okay, let’s make the Sundance deadline. There’s 700 hours of material. Um, you know, 50+ interviews, all this vérité footage.’” Greg Finton answered with a relevant analogy: “I’ve always been given those kind of requests in schedules. [For example], ‘You’ve got three months to do this and can you do it?’ It’s like, ‘I know how long it takes me to run from here to the corner and back. It’s gonna take me ten minutes to do that…’ ‘Well, can you do it in five?’ It’s, like, ‘No, I cannot do it in five. It’s gonna take me ten minutes to run to that corner and back’.” So, I guess I’m lucky enough at the point in my career now where I can just say, ‘That’s not possible, and if you really want to do that, you’re going to sacrifice your film, and maybe you should look for somebody else to do that with.”

Kate followed up by saying, “I always appreciate it when a director will say, ‘We want to make the best film possible, so let’s not worry about those kinds of deadlines’. And anybody who’s wise enough to recognize that, I think, is worth seriously considering.”

Balance

We all know editing is a major demand on one’s time, but it can also be an assault on one’s body. Editors swap stories all the time about how they keep physically active during the marathon of an edit, especially in the final stretch. Amend revealed she has a swimming pool right outside her editing room (!). Casper admitted to powerlifting. Finton skateboards every Wednesday night.

Greg Finton and Erin Casper. © 2018 Sundance Institute | Nick Sammons

Early on in her career, Casper received some wise advice: “You need to be your own mother. You really need to insist on taking care of yourself.” She realized this means she can’t “wait to live my life in between films.” She now insists on creating “space for myself within this process to sustain me outside.”

It takes experiencing complete and utter burnout after finishing a film to realize that you can’t do that to yourself over and over. It’s not sustainable, and if we don’t take care of ourselves we won’t be able to continue doing this work. And therefore, it falls not only to us but to the people we work for and the people that fund them to create an atmosphere of true, sustainable support for the craft (and the humans that perform it).

Towards the end of the discussion Finton recalled an earlier moment from the end of Panel 1 where Kim Roberts said, “It’s okay to leave work at 6:00. That’s what I would say.”

The whole room applauded.

Lead photo:

"Contemplating the Cut" in Los Angeles. © 2018 Sundance Institute | Nick Sammons