Casimir Nozkowski: The challenges of editing a foreign-language doc

This English-speaking editor took on the Japanese-language in The Shining Star of Losers Everywhere.

By Kristine Pregot

I had the opportunity to reconnect with director, writer, producer and editor Casimir Nozkowski twice this year — first at Sundance and again at SXSW. Nozkowski edited the short documentary The Shining Star of Losers Everywhere, which played at both festivals this year, and recently aired as part of ESPN Films’ 30 For 30 series.

The short is a unique story about a Japanese racehorse named Haru Urara, who became a nationally celebrated hero and symbol of perseverance while enduring one of the biggest losing streaks in racehorse history.

Casimir Nozkowski

Nozkowski and I used to spend a lot of time together in the hallways of 11 Penn Plaza in NYC where he was a writer/producer for AMC and IFC promos, while I managed the post production of FUSE Networks. So it was great catching up with him and interviewing him about his work on this piece.

The Shining Star of Losers Everywhere is such a sweet little documentary. How did you get involved with the project?
Mickey Duzyj, the doc’s director and animator, asked me to edit it. Mickey pitched me the story of Haru Urara — a Japanese racehorse that lost all its races — and told me he wanted to make a documentary about her story and use animation to take it to the next level. I said, “Hell, yeah, let’s do that.”

As a former Yankee fan, I had grown weary of celebrating only the winningest winners, and I loved the idea of examining a “loser’s” experience — how the horse was still noble and still tried hard and this helped people identify with her.

Have you worked with the director before on other projects?
I cut his first film, The Perfect 18, which was nominated for an Emmy and also a Webby for editing. It was about a professional putt-putt player named Rick Baird who shot a perfect 18 —a.k.a. 18 hole-in-ones — in a tournament. Rick and his fellow golfers walked us through each hole. It was also mostly animated, which is a great weapon for an editor. Anytime you’re lacking a transition or some b-roll, you can put in a request for some animation and voilà, smooth sailing. Mickey’s animation is fantastic.

Getting back to Shining Star, how do you edit a film that was completely spoken in Japanese? How did that work with your edit workflow?
I’d actually never cut a film in a language other than English, and that made this film one of the hardest editing jobs I’ve ever had. But it was also a challenge I was excited to take on… and I had a lot of great support.

First of all, Mickey and Mona Panchal (the film’s producer) found this transcription software called InqScribe that was essential to our process. It allowed our primary translators Yurina Ko and Jin Yoshikawa to screen the interviews, plug in timecode to each line and then create a file in InqScribe that I could bring into Adobe Premiere (our editing software) and use to generate synced up subtitles! I actually couldn’t believe how well it worked. They did a great job on the translation, but I couldn’t believe the subtitles landed so seamlessly in the right spots, more or less, in our interview sequences. You’d have to go in and reformat them and do a little polishing but basically it was all right there.

Having said that, subtitles were still going to take up a huge amount of time, and that was something I had to get used to. I had to spend a bunch of days getting everything ready to evaluate it, so next time I’ll know to consider a bit more time on the prep end when working in a foreign language. On the plus side, once they’re in, you can quickly scan sequences because you don’t have to listen to audio each time; you can see the subtitles and plug them into pods or assemblies pretty quickly once you get a good rhythm going.

What did you learn from editing the project?
I learned a lot about Kochi, a small city in Japan. And I learned a lot about horse racing. And I learned a lot about Haru Urara — an incredible horse, now retired from racing and hopefully not too upset about never winning. I just learned a ton about editing a foreign language documentary. As I describe above, it was challenging. But I’m very proud of the end results. And our subjects were great — very generous with their answers and reflections.

Also, this was my first time really editing in Premiere. I had done a few small projects with Premiere, but this was the first beast I edited on it, so there was a lot of learning in that process. But it was great. I never had to render anything, I combined a lot of media formats in one timeline and really felt great about it. Still, I had to learn a few moves because before this I was primarily a Final Cut editor, but now that I’ve come out the other side post-Shining Star, I’m pretty high on Premiere.

The illustration and design were such a beautiful way to help tell the story. Can you explain how this was conceptualized?
Mickey Duzyj could speak a bit more to this, but the plan all along was to rely heavily on his art as a way to cover a subject where there might not be as much archival or the kind of archival we wanted.

There was footage shot of Haru — the horse — especially in her biggest race where she’s ridden by the great jockey Yutaka Take. We did use that footage to ground the story a bit, but that footage is also shot in a kind of medium, flat way that covers the whole race. We wanted to be able to look at the fans in the stands, the horses racing from different angles — we wanted to look into Haru’s eyes and speculate on how she felt. That’s the beauty of animation, especially Mickey’s incredibly elegant, emotive drawings — it lets you step further into a scene and evoke the feeling and stakes of these races. It lets you take what you know about Haru and tease out her character and personality.

Plus, for races where there was no footage (which was the great majority) we could use Mickey’s art to show scenes where we knew what happened, but didn’t know exactly what they looked like. Like when the prime minister comments on Haru. Or her legend causing a boom in merchandise sales. Or one of the times when Haru came in third place! She didn’t always lose spectacularly. She actually came close to winning a few times, and I’m glad we got to show that in the film.

What was your biggest challenge in the post process for you? The language issue?
I’m so used to working in English and being able to work a little editing magic on interviews where you’re not changing what someone’s saying but you’re able to kind of speed them up or help them say something more efficiently. With our subjects speaking Japanese, and the sentence structures being a bit different, I was often just guessing on which words I did or didn’t need to make a succinct point. I was often wrong. Doh! But luckily our translators were really with us throughout the process and kept us in the clear.

Nice Shoes was very happy to collaborate with you on your new short doc, IDAC. Can you tell our readers about this short?
I wrote and directed a short documentary that’s a very strange little story. Officially, it’s about a mysterious relative and her parallel life to mine and how and why I never met this relative — even though we were in close proximity to each other for over a decade. But really, it’s an examination of figuring something out and how sometimes figuring something out can happen in a flash of understanding or slowly dawn on you over years. That is to say, it’s a documentary about a very un-cinematic thing — a feeling — which I tried to make in a very cinematic, visual way. I like movies like that.

This is not a comparison, but it’s why I love movies like The Social Network, an incredibly cinematic, thrilling movie that’s actually about a website launching. Again, not a comparison to my movie, which is five minutes long and about a cool cousin of mine. I’m just saying I like subjects that aren’t immediately cinematic when you think of them. Nice Shoes did the color on IDAC, which looks phenomenal. I hadn’t been sure I’d do a color grade for it but then it got into Hot Docs and I’m so glad I worked with you and Phil Choe — he’s a genius colorist (who works on FilmLight Baselight). Phil really made it pop off the screen in my opinion.

What is next for you, personally?
I have a documentary crew called the Internets Celebrities and we just launched a website for our docu-series The Food Warriors, where we take the A train in New York City and get off at every stop and ask people where the best place to eat is. The website is thefoodwarriors.com. I directed the episodes and co-created the series with the hosts, Dallas Penn and Rafi Kam (who programmed the website) and a bunch of wonderful people (Bryan Galatis, Jesse Brown, Humu Yansane, Aaron S. Brown, to name just a few).

I’m also working on developing a fictional feature film and some new shorts, which will ultimately wind up at casimirnozkowski.com And last but not least, I’m on the board of Rooftop Films and we’re about to celebrate our 20th anniversary this summer in New York City. It’s going to rock. Come see some movies!

Kristine Pregot is a senior producer at New York City-based Nice Shoes.


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