By Randi Altman
This week’s #PostChat, the weekly post production conversation on Twitter, featured veteran documentary cutter Steve Audette. He has been editing for 20 years, with about 50 documentary credits to his resume, including ones for Nova and Nova Science Now, Evolution, the short doc Nico’s Challenge (which he wrote, produced and directed) and the feature-length offering that he wrote, directed and edited for his own Mezzotint Films, The Conviction of Officer Winfield. The chat was moderated by Jesse Averna (@dr0id).
Currently, Audette is senior documentary editor for Frontline. His Twitter handle is @stevecutsdocs.
What have been his favorite projects to cut? “My passion for politics and science keeps the United States of Secrets at the top of the list,” he says. “Followed by the presidential election docs and Fabric of the Cosmos work I did for Nova.”
While he loves editing them, he calls documentaries “monsters. People often say that because they can cut well, they can cut documentary. I surely said that before I got to cut my first doc. The truth is, it’s different,” he explains. “I’d say almost all other genres of cutting are for the purpose of building a selective narrative developed by the script, the client or the producer. In documentary, the story is always and only found in the footage, not in the mission of the production. In documentary, one may think one knows what the story should be, but only when the media is crafted out of the chaos of the footage acquired, does the story become clear. This is unique, I think, to the documentary. It is a very different approach than other narrative storytelling, especially if you consider we work with shooting ratios of 200:1. Honestly, it took me five years cutting one doc a year to even get adequate at it. I am only now, 20 years later, able to articulate an understanding of the form, and I am still learning.”
One thing to remember, he says, is “the monster of documentary narrative likes never to be forgotten. Once you manage to get the head and body to lay down as a story, the tail end keeps wagging with destruction in its wake. Then, once the tail is in a row, the head often wakes with evil intent to destroy the film. Juggling that and the audio design, the pictures and the animations make documentary a monster — and doc editors are monster slayers.”
While Audette acknowledges that docs are tough, he believes the technical challenges for a doc editor are the same for any editor. “As are the personal skills needed to work with a variety of producers and directors,” he says. “I think the biggest difference might be the scope of the timeline I work with. When cutting a doc, I have to be able to see the whole monster as I cut — all the time. Pulling out scenes to cut takes me out of the flow of the narrative. It’s like taking a section of a mural out to paint separately. Same with the content. A doc editor must know the subject. He or she must jump into the mud and wrestle the content and get meaning of each cut, maybe even more than the producer or director.”
In terms of tools, Audette is quick to point out that it doesn’t matter what system someone uses or the operating system it runs on. Storytelling is storytelling, he says. “However, I am passionate about my gear as any craftsman might be, and I believe it to be the best option. So, I cut on a Mac-based Media Composer and I use Adobe After Effects and the Adobe Creative Suite. We mix in Avid Pro Tools and finish with Avid Symphony and DaVinci color correction. For scripts we currently use Final Draft, and are currently testing Adobe Story. I like Google Docs and Apple Pages for their collaboration features (thus Adobe Story), but they do not have the natural script formatting that we use. That formatting is critical at the end of the process when we are trying to get the film to time. The script is printed and the scenes identified and measured for time by their length. The doc is the doc in whole. Also, it is key to know both your editing software and Adobe Creative Cloud.”
Here is the transcript from Audette’s #PostChat: https://storify.com/EditorLiam/postchat-frontline-us-of-secrets-w-steve-audette. Big thanks to Liam Johnson for this.
And check out #PostChat each Wednesday evening, 6pm PST/9pm EST, and take part in the conversation.