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Editing for Features and Docs

By Karen Moltenbrey

When editing a feature film, the cutter can often feel as if he or she is assembling a puzzle, putting together a plethora of pieces, from the acting, to the lighting, to the production design, and turning those raw elements into a cohesive, comprehensive story. With so much material to sort through, so many shots to select from and so many choices to be made overall, the final cut indeed is reflective of these many choices made by the editor over a significant period of time.

Here, we examine the unique workflow of two editors, one who worked on a drama with an up-and-coming director, and another who cut a documentary with a director who is very well known throughout the film world.

Clemency
The feature film Clemency will be released at the end of the year, but already it commanded attention at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and beyond, taking home the Grand Jury Prize. The drama, directed by Chinonye Chukwu, stars Alfre Woodard as prison warden Bernadine Williams, who’s preparing for the execution of another inmate and struggling with the emotional toll that task has taken on her. The film was edited by Phyllis Housen.

As is often the case, while cutting Clemency, the editing style evolved organically from the story being told. “That happens all the time, unless it’s a very specific genre piece, like a thriller or horror film,” Housen says. For this film, she describes the style as “deliberate.” “There is no racing through the day. We feel the time pass. In prison, time stretches and changes, and we wanted to recreate that feeling of time. Often you don’t know if it’s night or day,” she says.

Also, the director wanted the film to feel as though the audience was there, living inside the prison. “So, there is a lot of repetition. We visit and revisit some of the routines of daily life like the prisoners do,” Housen adds.

Phyllis Housen

According to Housen, the film looks at what it is like for the warden to have a day-to-day relationship with the inmates on the ward as well as what happens when the warden, ultimately and occasionally, has to perform an execution. “By creating the routine of daily life, we would get to know how the prisoners live and experience that through them,” she explains.

The focus in the film turns to one prisoner in particular, Anthony Woods, a convicted felon on death row. “You get attached to these people, and to him,” Housen points out.

For instance, there is a good deal of walking in the movie, as the camera follows the warden while she sets out from her office and through the prison hallways, passing prisoners all the way to the death row ward, which is separated from everything and everyone — even the general population of prisoners. “You feel that length and distance as she is walking. You get a sense of how far away — literally and figuratively — the death row prisoners are,” Housen explains.

Housen (Cargo, the I, Witness TV documentary series and much more) cut the film at Tunnel in Santa Monica, California, using Adobe Premiere Pro, after having migrated from Apple Final Cut Pro years back. She says she finds the Adobe platform very intuitive.

In terms of her workflow, Housen believes it is fairly consistent across all projects. She receives dailies that are transcoded from raw footage, an assistant organizes all the footage for her, then she starts putting scenes together, maybe one or two days after principal photography begins so there is some footage to work with. “I am thinking of the footage as if I am building a house, with the scenes as the bricks,” she says. “So, I might get footage from, say, scenes 12, 84 and 105 on the first day, and I start lightly sketching those scenes out. I watch the dailies to get a feeling of what the scenes might eventually become. It takes longer than it sounds! And then the next day, four more scenes might come in, and the day after, seven. You’re always getting a bit behind the eight ball during dailies, but you sketch as best you can.”

Once Housen begins building out the scenes, she starts creating what she calls “reels,” an assembly of the film in 20-minute segments — a habit from the days of working with film in the predigital age. “Once you create your reels, then you end up, when they are done shooting, with a rather long, but not paced, assembly of the film that serves as a blueprint,” she says. “When post begins, we roll up our sleeves and start at Scene 1 and dig in.”

Housen finds that on an independent film, there isn’t a lot of time to interact with the director while the film is being shot, and this held true for Clemency; but once they got to the cutting room, “we were there every day together, all day, attached at the hip,” she says.

Clemency was the first time Housen had the opportunity to work with Chukwu. “She’s a very bold director, and there are some very bold choices in this film,” Housen says. She points out that some liberties were taken in terms of pacing and editing style, especially toward the end of the film, which she believes really pays off. However, Housen stops short of revealing too much about the scenes prior to the film’s release.

“It is a very heavy film, a difficult film,” Housen continues. “It’s thought-provoking. For such a heavy movie, we had a light time making it. We laughed a lot and enjoyed the process very much. I was just so pleased with [Chukwu’s] vision. She is a young and up-and-coming filmmaker. I think we are going to continue hearing a lot about her.”

Pavarotti
In the documentary Pavarotti, in limited release starting June 7, director Ron Howard tells the story of the opera legend Luciano Pavarotti through an assemblage of unique footage, concert performances and interviews. The film was edited by Paul Crowder, ACE.

Director Ron Howard and editor Paul Crowder take a selfie at the Pavarotti premiere.

As Crowder notes, it seemed logical to approach the story of Pavarotti in the format of an opera. His art and his life lent themselves to a natural three-act arc: The tenor starts his career as an opera singer and becomes successful. Then there is a period of self-doubt, followed by the meteoric success of The Three Tenors, his philanthropic period and then his marriage to a much younger woman. “You have these dramatic moments in his life story like you do in an opera, and we thought if we could use Pavarotti’s music and operas, that would tell the story, so we gave the documentary an operatic feel,” he says.

A musician himself, Crowder well understood this unique dimension to the documentary. Still, approaching the film in this way required careful navigation in the editing suite. “It’s not like editing pop music or something like that. You can’t just drop in and out of arias. They don’t come in four-bar sections or a middle-eight section,” he points out. “They’re all self-contained. Each section is its own thing. You have to select the moments when you can get in and out of them. Once you commit to them, you have to really commit to a degree, and it all becomes part of the style and approach of the editing.”

Crowder edited the film on an Avid system at his home studio. “I am an Avid Media Composer guy and will be to the day I die,” he says. “I was brought up on Avid, and that will always be my go-to choice.”

The biggest editing challenge on the documentary was dealing with the large mix of media and formats, as the film integrates footage from past concerts and interviews that took place all over the world at different points in time. In all, music was pulled from 22 different operas – not opera pieces, but different operas themselves. The footage was digitized in Avid using native frame rates “because Avid is so adept at dealing with multiple frame rates on a single timeline,” he says, noting that his assistant, Sierra Neal, was instrumental in keeping all the various media in check.

Nevertheless, dealing with various frame rate issues in the online was tough. Everyone has a way to do it, Crowder says, but “there is no definitive excellent way to go from standard def to HD.”

The mixed frame rates and formats also made it difficult to spot flaws in the imported footage: The overall transfer might look good, but there might be a frame or two that did not transfer well. “We kept spotting them throughout the online in the same clips we had already fixed, but then we’d find another flaw that we hadn’t seen,” Crowder says.

The film was built in pieces. The first section Crowder and writer Mark Monroe built pertained to Pavarotti’s children. “It was a leaping-off point for the film. We knew the girls were going to be in it and they would have something fun to say,” he says. He then worked forward from that point.

Crowder praises the research team at Pavarotti production company White Horse Pictures with assembling the tremendous amount of research and documentation for the film, organizing the various content and clips that made it easier for him and Neal to locate those with the best potential for particular scenes. “Still, it was essential to really look closely at everything and know where it was,” he adds, “Otherwise, you don’t know what you might miss.”

In fact, Crowder has something he calls his “hip pocket,” interesting material that hasn’t been placed yet. “It’s just a bin that contains material when I need something strong,” he says. On this project, footage of Pavarotti’s trip to the Amazon in 1995 is in that bin. And, they found an ideal place for it in the opening of the film.

“The film always talks to you, and sometimes you can’t find something you’re looking for but it’s staring you right in the face,” Crowder says. In this case, it was the Amazon footage. “It was vital that we hear Luciano’s voice at the opening of the film. If you don’t hear him sing, then there’s no point because it’s all about his voice. And everything we are going to tell you from that point on comes off the back of his voice.”

While he has worked on series as well as other kinds of projects, Crowder prefers films — documentaries, in particular. Series work, he says, can become a little too “factory-esque” for his taste — especially when there is a deadline and you are aware of what worked before, it can be come easy to get into a rhythm and possibly lose creative drive. “With a film, you lead audiences on an emotional journey, but you can take it to completion in one sitting, and not drag it out week after week,” Crowder says.

And, how did the editor feel working alongside famed director Ron Howard? Crowder says it was a fantastic experience, calling Howard very decisive and knowledgeable. “A wonderful and generous person to learn from. It was a great working relationship where we could discuss ideas honestly.”

Another bonus about this project: Crowder’s mom was an amateur opera singer, a soprano, while his grandfather was an amateur tenor. “I wanted to work on the film for my mom. She passed away, unfortunately, but she would have loved it.” Surely others will as well.


Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran writer/editor covering VFX and post production.


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