Mary Lampson speaks at the Art of Editing Lunch. © 2019 Sundance Institute | Dan Campbell

Mary Lampson speaks at the Art of Editing Lunch. © 2019 Sundance Institute | Dan Campbell

"We have extraordinary power and a great responsibility."

At the Sundance Film Festival last month, veteran documentary editor Mary Lampson (Harlan County, USA, The Bad Kids, A Lion in the House) presented a keynote highlighting the role of an editor and her journey through the ranks of the industry during the Sundance Institute and the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship’s Art of Editing Reception.

Here is a transcript of her moving and insightful speech.


The Cove. Courtesy of the Oceanic Preservation Society.

The Cove. Courtesy of the Oceanic Preservation Society.

In the latest installment of POV's Enter the Edit series, editor Geoffrey Richman tells editor and 2017 Schmeer Fellow Leigh Johnson that "...getting lost is part of the process. It’s a roller coaster of euphoria and frustration, coming up with solutions and then seeing why they don’t work." Geoff (MurderballSickoThe Cove) is equally adept at working in fiction as he is in documentary. In this column, he talks about joys and challenges of working in both.

Leigh: As both a documentary and narrative editor, you’ve mentioned that narrative films tend to try to be more like documentaries and vice versa. Can you talk about that?

Geoff: The first cut of each is when they’re most like what you think of as fiction or documentary. The scripted films feel very scripted, and the documentaries feel very unstructured and informational. And over the course of the edit, I find that you’re pushing them in the opposite direction. So the narrative films get to feel less scripted and staged, documentaries get to feel more and more structured and narrative. The first cut on a documentary doesn’t necessarily even feel like a movie. It can take a few rounds of editing before it even gets to the point where it feels like a bad rough cut of a movie.

Leigh: The most obvious difference between narrative and documentary editing is that narrative films start with a written screenplay whereas documentaries are “written” through extensive experimentation in the edit. But I imagine there’s an immense amount of experimentation and rewriting in a narrative edit as well.

Geoff: Definitely. There are obviously more constraints on a narrative film. But the most fun I’ve had on narratives is when the edit felt similarly open to experimentation as on a documentary.

On Peter and Vandy, which was a love story told out of order, the scenes could go in pretty much any order. So there was a lot of trial and error to find the right way through the story. And we could use snippets of scenes from later in the film, or from deleted scenes, at any point to help with the edit.

On Sleepwalk With Me, it seemed like a straightforward edit at the start, but we ended up doing lots of fun experimenting. The screenplay was based on Mike Birbiglia’s story that had been previously performed on stage, written, and edited many times, with a lot of the same funny jokes. But when we presented rough cuts of the film version to people, they weren’t laughing. It took a little while to figure this out, but the story is kind of tragic, his sleepwalking problem, his relationship problem. The difference when Mike would tell the story on stage or on the radio is that you understood inherently that he’s telling you a story that happened in the past and he’s okay now, so it’s okay to laugh about it. You know how comedy is tragedy plus time? The film lost the time element. It was really interesting and totally surprising. So we experimented with different ways for Mike to talk to camera, from the future, and him driving in his car talking to camera ended up becoming the throughline of the film, placing the rest of the story in the past. The early cuts were also missing a lot of his performance material, so Mike shot a bunch of actual performances at different comedy clubs, plus b-roll of him on the road, writing notes, that kind of thing. With all these new ingredients in play, which could be used anywhere in the film like on a documentary, it gave us a lot more freedom to experiment with scenes and structure.

Read on...


This is the third (!!!) edition of the POV Blog's Enter the Edit series exploring the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editors.

Which Way Is The Front Line From Here: The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington . Photo credit: HBO

Which Way Is The Front Line From Here: The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington. Photo credit: HBO

Maya Mumma most recently edited O.J.: Made in America, which has won numerous awards including an Emmy for Outstanding Editing, an ACE Eddie Award, and the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Her other editing credits include the Emmy nominated film Which Way Is The Front Line From Here: The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington and the Peabody Award winning Mr. Dynamite, The Rise of James Brown. She is a mentor to editor Leigh Johnson through the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship this year.

Leigh: Your award-winning edit team for O.J.: Made in America was you and two other editors. On a film nearly eight hours long, how did you all work together in the edit? I’m curious about that process.

Maya: When the project started, director Ezra Edelman knew that it needed multiple editors. He hired Bret Granato first, who he’d worked with before, and I came on right afterward. We knew we had a massive story to tell from day one. Ezra’s process is to start with interview selects, so he had put all his selects together in a document that was about 150 pages long. I think it was over 12 hours strung out in a sequence. I spent the first few days watching it through in the edit room.

What Bret and I did first was each take on some sections that we already had a good amount of interview and archival material for. We were looking at both O.J.’s history and the history of race relations in Los Angeles, and seeing how those different stories interacted was important to start to figure out. Bret took the Buffalo Bills section of the film early on and I got the L.A. riots section up and going, in addition to a few other sections.

After about a month or so in to the edit, we realized we needed to take on bigger parts of the storytelling. You can only edit pods for so long, because you can easily end up having a film where you’re just trying to stick a bunch of things together. So we divided the story, and the murder seemed like a very logical place to split it. I took pre-murder and Bret took post. But after a few months, we just weren’t getting to the post-trial part of the story, so a third editor, Ben Sozanski, was hired. There are so many things that happen post-trial, and for Ben to be able to focus and narrow it down while we were in the weeds of our own sections was incredible. Ben was also able to fill in some of the storytelling earlier in the film as we moved toward a rough cut.

We would screen sections together periodically and we were constantly checking in with each other about how things were going and ideas we were having. There were a few scenes that got passed back and forth, like the Buffalo Bills section. Bret had put so much into that, it was important that he took it to the very end even though it ended up being in my section. Ben cut the very opening of the film, the parole hearing. I love that within the first hour of the film you’re seeing all of us represented in some way.

Read on...


Schmeer Fellow Leigh Johnson's first entry for the POV Blog's Enter the Edit series has been published. It’s a rollicking interview with Penelope Falk, the award-winning doc editor of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Maidentrip, and Step. She’s also one of Leigh’s Karen Schmeer Fellowship mentors. They discuss Penny’s own mentors, why it’s okay to be wrong, the importance of figuring out thematic principles of the film you’re working on, and much more!

Penny on how to use notes from rough cut screenings: "I love feedback sessions, to me it’s a tool of our trade. But when people watch films, they tend to give solutions, like “here’s what you need to do.” But they don’t know what you’re dealing with. So listen to people’s problems, never their solutions."

Step - Fox Searchlight Pictures

Step - Fox Searchlight Pictures

Leigh: I thought I could get meta and talk to you about mentorship. You’ve told me about some people who have been mentor type figures in your own career, and I’m curious about how that happened for you.

Penny: I love editors. One of the reasons I became an editor is that I was in a job where a lot of editors came through, and I thought they were smart, engaged and curious. I wanted to be just like them. And I was right, it’s a great world that I love being a part of. We’re oddly not competitive, we all help each other get work, and it’s just something organic that happens. So I found three people who became my mentors – Toby Shimin, Jonathan Oppenheim, and Jay Freund – who helped me, and still help me, figure out how to navigate the doc world.

Jay would say things to me and I would actually run home and write them down. Like, “there’s no such thing as a cutaway.” I went home and wrote that down. Because I didn’t know anything about editing! “Every shot has to resolve the last and set up the next.” And another thing, I fight to this day about this with directors: “A scene can only be about one thing.” That is so important. Not that a scene can’t be complicated, have nuance, have layers of complexity, but it should just be about one thing.

Read on...


The POV documentary blog has published an entry by Colin Nusbaum musing on the two Contemplating the Cut editing panels we co-hosted with Sundance Institute earlier this year:

Marshall Curry and Lindsay Utz. © 2017 Sundance Institute | Photo by Ryan Kobane

Marshall Curry and Lindsay Utz. © 2017 Sundance Institute | Photo by Ryan Kobane

The task of the documentary editor can sound like folklore, even to someone who takes it on. There is very rarely any script, and with digital cameras, often a mountain of footage. Editors retreat to dark rooms, alone with whirring hard drives, hoping to be responsive to the material, to collaborate, sometimes to clash, to daydream and to creatively play until there is something to show for it. It is because the process is always unique that it remains so mysterious and strange to talk about with much specificity. Nonetheless, there are few treasured opportunities that give documentary editors the chance to gather and share experiences and perspectives on the process.

On Saturday April 1, the Sundance Documentary Film Program and the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship hosted the third annual Contemplating the Cut series. I was fortunate to attend the event, which is described as a candid conversation exploring the art and craft of editing nonfiction features. For many of us, it’s an incredibly insightful experience to learn from our peers. Equally as important, it is a necessary reminder that we are not alone in the artistic undertaking.

The day was broken into two panels with a formidable group of editors:

Ashley Clark, Maya Mumma, Mary Lampson and Joseph Krings. © 2017 Sundance Institute | Photo by Ryan Kobane

Ashley Clark, Maya Mumma, Mary Lampson and Joseph Krings. © 2017 Sundance Institute | Photo by Ryan Kobane

Panel 1 – History In the Making: Creative Use of Archival Footage (Read full transcript here)
Editors examine creative approaches to editing with archival footage.
Panelists: Joseph Krings (Supermensch), Mary Lampson (Queen of Versailles), Maya Mumma (O.J.: Made in America)
Moderated by writer/film programmer Ashley Clark (BFI, Film Comment)

Panel 2 – Craft Conversations (Read full transcript here)
Editors share insights about their process, deconstructing approaches to vérité and interview-based films.
Panelists: Chyld King (The Fog of War) and Lindsay Utz (Quest)
Moderated by director/editor Marshall Curry (Street Fight)

Often times, while I am editing a film, I will utilize old fashioned sticky notes posted along the edges of my computer monitors. The notes function as little reminders about some aspect of the project I am working on at the time. They might urge me to work with material a certain way (e.g. “Consider the Interviews as Behavior!”), organize my understanding of subject in the film in a particular fashion (“Don’t Get Bogged Down in the Science Explanations!”), or even remind me of what I believe to be the essential foundation of the film that I am excavating (“It is about his loss of innocence!”).

While attending the 2017 Contemplating the Cut, I was scribbling down notes and helpful tidbits from my talented editor peers. Looking back at those notes, I realize that they might make sticky note reminders for future films. So below are a few of the insights that I want to borrow from my peers, and hopefully some of these can be useful for editors and their collaborators on future documentary edits...

Read on...


POV is kicking off their third edition of Enter the Edit, a series exploring the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editors. Their brand-new guide will be 2017 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Leigh Johnson. They spoke with Johnson just before she was announced as the 2017 fellow. She will be presented with the award at the SXSW Film Awards Night on Tuesday, March 14.

Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus. Photo Credit: Madeleine Sackler/Dogwoof.

Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus. Photo Credit: Madeleine Sackler/Dogwoof.

POV: What’s your workflow when you’re starting on a new film?

Johnson: For me, it’s depended on the film. One of the things I love is how each film is its own unique world with its own quirks and challenges. I’ve worked in situations where the screening process took months of watching and discussing the footage at length with the director before we could begin meaningfully wrapping our heads around story. And I’ve had experiences where the broad strokes seemed clear from the beginning, and it was possible to dive into rough cutting scenes for a specific character or section of the film right away. On one project I actually rough cut dailies as they came in throughout production, which helped guide shooting.

No matter how the screening process goes though, I like being very hands-on in organizing the footage. I’ve had experiences where I’ve discovered weeks later that I wasn’t watching all of the footage for a particular scene or event because heads and tails of shots or interstitial moments had been overlooked. While this is actually kind of exciting when it happens because it means there are new possibilities all of a sudden, I try to avoid this by creating a library of sequences right away where every clip exists in its raw uncut form. Then my notes are what create a more detailed map within that sequence. The footage that seems uncategorizable or interstitial at first often yields the best surprises, so it seems good to treat it all equally at first.

I’ve found that staying open to ideas like this is probably the most important thing — whether they come from the footage, from the director, or from myself. I write down and keep track of these ideas religiously, even when they don’t seem any good at first! Every project I’ve worked on has eventually landed me in a completely different place than where I expected when we started out, and this kind of slow collection of breadcrumbs is what makes the process so fun.

Read on...


Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr in  BEST OF ENEMIES , a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr in BEST OF ENEMIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

This is the fifth (and last!) in a series of posts on POV’s Documentary Blog about the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editing with our guide, 2016 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Eileen Meyer. Catch up on earlier conversations with Meyer.

Coffee. Meditation. Mentorship. Slow-cooking. Aaron Wickenden, ACE (Best of EnemiesThe Trials of Muhammad Ali, Finding Vivian Maier, The Interrupters) talks about those things and more in his fascinating conversation with Eileen Meyer (current KSFEF Fellow, co-editor of Best of Enemies) as part of her blog series at PBS's POV website.

Aaron says, "The goal of all films I love is to use these collected relics to transport the audience towards feelings of immediacy and intimacy with the subject. We want to evoke for the viewer the same feeling you have when you’re in the midst of a deep discussion with your best friend."

Read on...


This is the fourth in a series of posts on POV’s Documentary Blog about the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editing. Our guide is 2016 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Eileen Meyer. Catch up on earlier conversations with Meyer.

2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved. HE NAMED ME MALALA: Malala Yousafzai in Birmingham, England. Dec 16, 2013

2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved. HE NAMED ME MALALA: Malala Yousafzai in Birmingham, England. Dec 16, 2013

Greg Finton, ACE, has worked for over 25 years in documentary, television and film. He began a collaboration with director Davis Guggenheim in 2000 with the documentary short Teach. Greg has also edited the films He Named Me Malala (2015, Oscar short list, ACE Eddie and Emmy Award nominee), Waiting for “Superman” (2010, Oscar short list, ACE Eddie Award nominee), It Might Get LoudTeach (2013), and A Mother’s Promise: Barack Obama Bio Film (2008). He has also had notable collaboration with director RJ Cutler, editing such projects as The World According to Dick Cheney (2013), which he co-directed with Cutler, the TV series American High (2000), Black, White, and 30 Days (with Morgan Spurlock, 2005-08). His most recent film with director Marina Zenovich, Fantastic Lies, aired as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series this past March.

Eileen Meyer: To start at the beginning, how did you become an editor?

Greg Finton: Like many people who enter the film business, I wanted to be a director when I first came to Los Angeles out of film school. I was so naive I didn’t really know how to go about it. I thought if you want to be a director, then probably the best place to start would be as an assistant director. I managed to get hired as a 2nd AD on a low budget film the first day my phone was installed in my new apartment. That first job led to another, and then another, and the next thing I knew I had been working as an AD for about a year. Even though I was well on my way to reaching my required days to get into the DGA [Directors Guild of America], the position really wasn’t something I ever embraced. One day while I was on the set, I overheard a grip talking about his cousin who was an editor and how he might work as his apprentice. It was like a lightbulb went off in my head. I had loved editing when I was in film school – why not give that a try?

Read on...


This is the third in a series of posts on POV’s Documentary Blog about the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editing. Our guide is 2016 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow.

Pedro Kos, one of Meyer’s mentors, is an award-winning editor and director known for his character-driven films. This past June, he was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His credits include two Oscar-nominated documentaries (The Square and Waste Land), The Crash Reel and The Island President. In this conversation, Meyer and Kos discuss the nature of the director/editor relationship and what happens when you have to be both at the same time.

Eileen Meyer: Tell me about the film you’re working on now and what the process of co-directing and editing simultaneously has been like for you?

Pedro Kos: It has been a very long journey on this one, it’s been by far the longest edit I’ve actually been involved with — a year and four months. Which for me is really long.

This film is about a group of pioneers in the global health movement who founded an organization called Partners in Health in the mid-eighties. They started a small little operation in rural central Haiti. From the small clinic they built in a squatter settlement in rural central Haiti, the work slowly began to grow, and their models and their methods slowly began to spread. Eventually, it began to have an enormous impact internationally.



This film posed a challenge because it’s a very interview-driven and archival based film. I’ve done archival based films before, but this one was different because it’s mostly driven by interviews, and both Kief [Davidson], my co-director, and I wanted to make it as intimate, personal, and as emotional a portrait as possible. It’s a film that spans over thirty years, is set in different countries, with a story that is very big and epic, and it could have veered towards being a very issue-driven film — so that’s why it was a long road. There was a lot of reworking and reframing sections to make it more personal and intimate.

Even though the general structure has pretty much stayed the same, the beginning and the end proved very difficult to get right.

Read on...



This is the second in a series of posts on POV’s Documentary Blog about the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editors. Our guide is Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Eileen Meyer.

food, inc., A film by robert kenner / magnolia pictures

food, inc., A film by robert kenner / magnolia pictures

I spoke with one my mentors, Kim Roberts, A.C.E., about her work in the social issue documentary realm. She has edited some of the most influential films of the last 10 years, including Food, Inc., Waiting For Superman, and The Hunting Ground, that have inspired me and many other filmmakers to explore the possibilities of documentary and social action. We discuss everything from how she started out working on these types of films to how she balances character, information, story, structure, objectivity and ethics standards.

As an emerging editor, I am specifically interested in how we can wisely choose the films we work on and how the conversation around documentary ethics informs that choice. Documentary filmmakers don’t really have a code book, as you do with careers in journalism, law, or medicine, and the unspoken expectation of ethical standards varies widely from person to person. In the midst of this topical and ongoing conversation in documentary circles, Kim gives us a sense of where her own barometer lies and how she navigates these difficult issues.

Meyer: What is your process in familiarizing yourself with the social issue of the documentary?

Kim Roberts: I pick documentaries that are about issues that I already care about, but have never studied in depth. I think it’s good not to know too much in the beginning, so that you know what questions the audience might have.

I often read a lot of articles or books about the subject as I go. I describe editing social issue documentaries as being perpetually in grad school, where you immerse yourself in one topic intensively, do tons of research, and then end up with a final product that you have to communicate clearly. The biggest challenge is how to simplify an issue so that it can fit in 90 minutes and be compelling.

Read on...



Check out Manhattan Edit Workshop's "15 Questions with Eileen Meyer" to find out what films have inspired her, what she does when she's stuck on a scene and more:

Manhattan Edit Workshop congratulates Eileen Meyer, winner of the 2016 Karen Schmeer Fellowship! Eileen completed the MEWShop Six-Week Workshop in the fall of 2011. We caught up with her to chat about her achievements since, including a Cinema Eye Honors "Outstanding Achievement in Editing" nomination for her latest film, Best of Enemies, a 2015 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize nominee.

1. Where did you grow up?
Durham, North Carolina.  

2. What kind of film education did you receive?
My first job at 15 was at a local, independent video store that was walking distance from my house.  The store catered more towards the new indy films that were coming out in the late 90s, so that was my first experience with films that inspired me to be a filmmaker, especially all of the Sundance films of that era.  Later in high school I worked nights and weekends at an arthouse movie theater in Chapel Hill, NC and got my second dose of inspiration. I attended Hampshire College in Amherst, MA from 2000-2004 and studied documentary film.  I lived in NY for a few years after college and worked for a small documentary production company.  I was able to explore all aspects of the field, but gravitated mostly towards editing and producing.  

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Today PBS' POV Documentary Blog is publishing "Entering the Edit with Karen Schmeer Fellow Eileen Meyer," an interview with Eileen about her process and her goals for the fellowship:

We’re kicking off the second edition of Enter the Edit, a series exploring the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editors. Our (new!) guide will be 2016 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Eileen Meyer. 

We spoke with Meyer just before she was announced as the 2016 fellow at this year’s SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas.

POV: What’s your workflow when you’re starting on a new film?

Best Of Enemies / Magnolia Pictures

Best Of Enemies / Magnolia Pictures

Eileen Meyer: My first step is organization. This entails watching all the footage, making notes, and coming up with a strategy for breaking down the material. I like to spend as much time watching and organizing as possible before I make a single cut so that once I start putting things together, I can really get into a flow. I want to know where everything is and how to find it quickly so that the technical process doesn’t interfere as much with the creative process.

Every project calls for it’s own organizational system, whether it’s mostly dailies, interviews, archival or a combination of many elements. I find that breaking down the project is the first step in creating the potential structure of the film, because you start to see where your characters, themes or ideas insect and overlap. You can start to see scenes that will work and others that won’t, and what the film is lacking visually or emotionally. Once I’ve got everything organized by subject and I’m starting to group ideas together, the massive amount of material starts to look a little less overwhelming.

As I’m watching, I’ll make note of the best moments. I have learned that it’s incredibly important to take those notes the very first time you watch the footage because you’ll never get the chance to see the it again for the first time. It’s your only opportunity to truly be in the audience’s shoes. The moments that have energy, make you laugh, or endear you to a character are best on a first impression – you can build the information later and around those special moments.

Read on...


On Saturday, April 18, the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship hosted a half-day of panel discussions with a gathering of documentary film editors, directors, and producers to discuss the art of editing. The goal of the day and future events is to shine a light on the role of the editor in the filmmaking process, build community, and celebrate an under-explored and often misunderstood collaboration between director and editor. Panelists included editors Toby Shimin (How to Dance in Ohio), Nels Bangerter (Let the Fire Burn), Mona Davis (Running from Crazy), Colin Nusbaum (Tough Love), and Mary Manhardt (American Promise) and moderators Tom Roston (Doc Soup) and Doug Block (112 Weddings). The day began with a Keynote from Jonathan Oppenheim (Paris is Burning, The Oath) included here:



The name of this series of Sundance/KSFEF events is The Art of Editing. And as a way of entering into the spirit of this panel, I want to talk about the particular uniqueness of the role of the editor on a nonfiction film and some of the implicit tensions this role creates.

An editor is brought in to work on a long form documentary. The editor initially brings distance, the outsider’s eye, to the screening of the director’s footage. But ultimately, the editor’s job 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. If the editor isn’t doing this, the editor won’t be able to do his or her job, which is to find and write the narrative of the film using the words and moving images of the subject. Whatever the particular shape of the ensuing collaboration, the editor’s artistic process is critically important to the creation of the film.

So, in the end, the editor is hired to be an artist.

Read on...


The fifth in a series of posts on POV’s Documentary Blog about the regrettably under-appreciated process and craft of documentary editing with fellow Colin Nusbaum:

In the past year, Nusbaum has edited Tough Love (to broadcast on July 6, 2015 on POV), Florence, Arizona, and The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano, set to premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

As Nusbaum’s year as Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow comes to a close, he and one of his mentors, Jonathan Oppenheim – whose credits include Laura Poitras’s The Oath (POV 2010), Stephen Maing’s High Tech, Low Life (POV 2013) and Jennie Livingston’s iconic documentary Paris Is Burning – discuss the editing process with a year’s worth of conversations about the art of editing behind them.

Colin Nusbaum: How do you think about editing documentary film and what informs your process while you’re working?

                                                            Abu Jandal, the subject of Poitras’s film The Oath

Jonathan Oppenheim: In a documentary, pieces are collected, extremely partial fragments of reality. In fact, they’re very strange pieces because everyone in these fragments of reality is aware that they’re being filmed. It’s a very interesting kind of medium to work with. It’s an extraordinary medium to be able to manipulate fragment and to find what your own intention is in relation to it.

One of the practical struggles of trying to make a non-fiction film into art is that it’s not necessarily understood that you’re writing from footage and fragments. I’ve said that you have to think of a non-fiction editing schedule as if you were writing seven drafts of a fiction screenplay. You have to add that kind of timeframe. Seven was just a convenient number, but you can easily replace that with 60. It’s chaotic. You didn’t write a screenplay, you didn’t shoot the coverage, you’re not directing actors – it’s another animal.

Some editors actually edit during the screening process. I don’t. I prefer a pure state of absorptive, passive torment because I feel like I get a deeper relationship to what I feel about it. I also believe that documentary editing is not just a writing process, but also in fact an expression of my feelings about life, my vision of life expressed through the lens of a subject.

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The fourth in a series of posts on POV’s Documentary Blog about the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editing with fellow Colin Nusbaum:


Colin Nusbaum: Stephanie [Wang-Breal] and the crew had been filming with Hannah’s story in New York for a good two years before I even really started [editing]. So it was nice for me to have the opportunity to be on the film while they were still doing some of the shooting with Patrick in Seattle. I don’t know if you’ve had that experience, Mary — for me it was really great to be able to have some input into what’s important as far as what they were shooting and how they were doing it.

Mary Manhardt: Generally, because I do tend to come in late on films, I don’t get that experience. Because I come in late, it tends to be that we’re filling in gaps. But it’s really interesting that you say that — did you feel like it was helpful for you, having looked at the Hannah part, which had been shot much earlier? Did that give you thoughts and opinions on how they should shoot Patrick’s part?

Colin Nusbaum: When we were shooting the Seattle story, we sort of knew those more crucial turning points or larger scenes in [Hannah's] story, so I was definitely looking out for those and what they might be in Patrick’s story. There were conversations about what were the most important things to shoot. I think in the end we had so much less footage in Seattle because we knew some of those signs. We knew what some of the more important moments might be, and we were able to be more audacious.

Read on...


In his third post for POV's Documentary Blog, 2014 Fellow Colin Nusbaum has a fascinating interview with Niels Pagh Andersen, editor of "The Act of Killing":


Colin Nusbaum: The Act of Killing looks at evil so closely. Looking at a character like Anwar, your main subject of the film, as the face of that evil, I am curious how you dealt with the needs of the audience, and their willingness to watch a person who is the embodiment of that.

Niels Pagh Andersen: Before I came on, Joshua [Oppenheimer, director of The Act of Killing] was sitting in London for almost a year with two junior editors, so I got around 35 hours of edited scenes, but without structure, and we had to recut the scenes. That’s where we built Anwar as the main character. We were re-editing the scenes from his point of view. It wasn’t just what everyone was doing, it was how does that affect Anwar.

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On today's POV Blog, 2014 Fellow Colin Nusbaum is interviewed about the role of the assistant editor:

What are the responsibilities of an assistant editor? Do they vary from job to job, or are they very well defined?

Each film is going to be very different. I’ve rarely ever replicated the exact process as an assistant, but always took it upon myself to carefully consider what might work best given the technicalities and goals for each film. Naturally, that also meant that if an editor was already set to work on the film that I would check in with him or her about organizational preferences.

Read on...


By Colin Nusbaum, 2014 Fellow

Colin with his mentors: David Teague, Jean Tsien, A.C.E., & Jonathan Oppenheim

I think I inherited a skepticism and penchant for realism from my father. He liked to watch sports games, and when I was little, I liked to watch them with him. We were not deterred that our favorite teams from Detroit didn’t win very often because the journey of a game was enough entertainment. We would watch movies together too—mostly Hollywood hits or whatever reruns were on cable. At the time though, the fiction movies I saw didn’t do much to convince me that the actors playing roles were involved in situations that I should really care about or believe in. I had a difficult time investing in characters and stories that I understood to be fantasy, and so the entertainment seemed a bit flat.

It wasn’t until much later, just before my graduation from college, that I developed a voracious appetite for documentary films. For me, documentary appeared as a different animal. I found the films to be sincere in their exploration of ideas, people, struggle, truth, memory, and human experience. I recognized the captivating beauty of a well crafted nonfiction story—where the outcomes are unsure but always true, real in their complexity, and challenging the audience to consider life outside the screen in a new context—imbued with the narratives of the film.

And so, I began my pursuit of the documentary form from the other side—where the stories are being lived, captured, explored, and ultimately built in the edit room. In my early days, I worked as a production assistant on Liz Garbus’s film Bobby Fischer Against the World, and that was the last film that Karen Schmeer was able to edit. Karen and I never met, but the quality of her work and the spirit of her character are not lost on me as I begin my own career as a documentary editor. Her films were among the ones I watched over and over, as I fell in love with the artistry and the form.

The talented editor Mary Manhardt said to me recently that, unlike journalism, delivering information is not what documentary does best. In fact, documentary can offer something that is both more subtle and lasting through the words, actions or simply the look on a person’s face. I understand these as the moments when documentaries become films, cinema, and stories worth telling.

This year, I am being given the incredible opportunity to represent the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship as their sole fellow. I am completely honored and entirely humbled to do it, and I cannot thank everyone who is extending this unique opportunity to me enough. I’m especially grateful to benefit from the mentorship of three stellar editors through the year in Jonathan Oppenheim, David Teague, and Jean Tsien. Most of all, I aim to take full advantage of the many opportunities to learn, grow, and work, as inspired by Karen’s example. Over the past couple weeks, I have heard a lot of poignant stories from friends of Karen. She was clearly an amazing woman. And it strikes me that she may have been an amazing editor not only because of her because of her artistic skill, devotion and intention, but also because of her attentiveness and compassion—her willingness to meet people where they are, and bring the best out, in films and in life.


By Jim Hession, 2013 Fellow


Scary. Soiled. Scandalous. And basically shitty. This is how history not-so fondly remembers New York City of the 1970s. Drug use was rampant all across town; employment was not. Crime rates soared; faith in America’s greatest city plummeted. Bryant Park was referred to as “Needle Park,” and the 6 Train was appropriately termed “Mugger’s Express,” a place where armed bandits were known to have jumped turnstiles in a quest to rob hapless straphangers for free. Sorry kids, “Dave and Busters” and “TGI Fridays” were most definitely not the names of wholesome corporate establishments residing in Times Square, although such monikers likely echo those of the pimps and prostitutes (respectively) who once worked its corners. And when the financially devastated city teetered on bankruptcy in 1975, the nation’s president famously told New York to “drop dead.”

At the same time, on the opposite side of the country, the quaint town of Hollywood was suffering from its own version of social turmoil, as the mighty studio structure, which had long reigned supreme over American cinema for nearly four decades, started to crack. Existing on the heels of the 1960s Revolution(s) and operating amidst the economic recession of the ’70s, classical Hollywood studios and their traditional products never really stood a chance in America’s new era. Consequently, the late ’60s and ’70s marked the emergence of a new wave in cinema history, one in which a breed of young, fresh and relevant filmmakers broke free from the conventional modes of cinematic storytelling and started making movies that were, well, very different than the ones that mass audiences had grown accustomed to. Their films were a little more real, a little grittier, and a lot less comforting. Think: not-Casablanca and more-Taxi Driver (or, Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider, A Clockwork Orange, Deliverance, The Godfather, American Graffiti, Badlands,The Exorcist, Lenny, Chinatown, Apocalypse Now …).


It should come as no surprise to anyone, therefore, that out of the muck and mire that plagued New York City sprang glorious contributions to this new cinematic renaissance. Of the directors who rose to prominence in the 1970s, many were New Yorkers, including Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Arthur Penn, Brian De Palma, and Bob Fosse. Not too shabby.

And for sure, the individual successes of New York’s directors were due in no small part to the bourgeoning community of cinematographers, sound mixers and editors who were beginning to take root in Manhattan. This specialized community was very talented. It was very small. And most of all, it was centralized. In fact, most every major motion picture that came out of New York at the time passed through one of three physical locations in and around Times Square: the old Studebaker Building at 1600 Broadway, the famed Brill Building at 1619 Broadway, or around the corner at 254 West 54th Street (the same building that housed the famed nightclub Studio 54). In the 1970s, New York City became a hub of innovative filmmaking. A tiny hub. But a significant one, nonetheless.

Taking a break from the symposium: Manhattan Edit Workshop's Jason Banke & Josh Apter, Fellow Jim Hession, and KSFEF's Rachel Shuman and Garret Savage.

Taking a break from the symposium: Manhattan Edit Workshop's Jason Banke & Josh Apter, Fellow Jim Hession, and KSFEF's Rachel Shuman and Garret Savage.

All of this historic backstory brings me to a recent panel discussion that I was lucky enough to attend thanks to the generosity and support of the Manhattan Edit Workshop, which hosted a day-long symposium entitled, "Inside the Cutting Room: Sight, Sound and Story." The event was chock-full of inspiring and insightful seminars, and a fabulous summary of the day’s happenings can be found here. In short, all of it was awesome! 

But the discussion that most captivated me was the day’s keynote event, which was moderated by film historian Bobbie O’Steen and included legendary editors Alan Heim, A.C.E.Jerry Greenberg, A.C.E.Susan Morse, A.C.E., and Bill Pankow, A.C.E. Wow! The panel was fittingly called, ”NY Legends of the ’70s: Master Editors Discuss Their Work From This Revolutionary Era in American Cinema.”

I am a relatively young editor who belongs to one of the first generations of film editors that, ironically, has never been contractually obligated to even touch a piece of physical celluloid film. Thanks to computers and the software applications Avid and Final Cut Pro, I have never known what it feels like to actually cut and connect the A-Side of a piece of film to the B-Side of a piece of film while using my God-given fingers (and a razor blade, I suppose). In discussing my own work, I frequently talk about “making cuts,” but in reality, I’ve never actually cut a physical piece of film. Never. Ever. Not once.

And so, I struggle to aptly express my genuine euphoria for the opportunity to have heard from the panel’s Editing Greats, all of whom laboriously spliced and cut actual film on the old Moviolas and Flatbed editing machines, collectively creating the very cinematic works that were seminally influential in my own personal love affair with the art of filmmaking. Additionally, as someone who was born on the island of Manhattan in January of 1981, I could not help but feel that these editors somehow represent a period in New York City’s illustrious history that I never had the chance to experience firsthand. As the title of the program states, the esteemed panelists are, indeed, living “NY Legends” who once discovered hope within the borders of a city that didn’t have enough of it.

Without any more further ado, here are seven of my favorite clips from the discussion:


In this clip, Jerry opens up the talk with a couple of priceless zingers that immediately win over the crowd. Two noteworthy facts: 1. the panel discussion was held mere days after the NSA internet surveillance story had first hit the headlines, and 2. Jerry obviously got a kick out of being referred to as a “Legend.”


Before going on to edit such classics as The French ConnectionKramer vs. Kramer and Apocalypse Now, Jerry worked as an assistant for the legendary editor Dede Allen (Bonnie and Clyde,Slaughterhouse-FiveDog Day AfternoonThe Breakfast Club). Here, Jerry reminisces about his first day on the job in Dede’s cutting room at 1600 Broadway. The Studebaker Building has since been torn down and predictably replaced by upscale condominiums.


Attention all over-worked, under-utilized assistant editors: no matter what the task, there is always a chance to show off the genius that lurks behind your embarrassing paycheck. In this story, Susan remembers how she first caught the eye of Dede Allen (yes, the same Dede that Jerry worked for) while filling in as a production assistant for a director on a low-budget PBS production that was being cut at 254 West 54th Street. Shortly after the recounted incident, Susan went on to edit Woody Allen’s Manhattan, which was nominated for two Academy Awards.


Fair warning: there’s another Dede Allen mention coming up. No wonder that she’s remembered as being such a remarkable editor and wonderful human being! When viewing this clip, it is important to keep in mind that Bill and Jerry went on to become co-editors and fellow collaborators on films such as  Scarface and The Untouchables. And again, the two close friends are sitting directly next to each other.


Here, Alan discovers the beauty that can be found in “the movement of food.” Spoken like a true editor …


Ok, the following clip demands a decent amount of set-up and explanation. But trust me, it’s worth it. Alan edited a film called, All That Jazz. For his efforts, he was awarded with an Academy Award for Best Editing in 1979. Bob Fosse, who Alan considers to be a dear friend and long-time collaborator, directed the film. The main character of All That Jazz is named Joe Gideon, a troubled theatre director who also doubles as a Hollywood movie director. By all accounts, the character is closely based on the life of the film’s director, Bob Fosse. So far, so good? One more thing: Alan (the editor on the panel) also made a cameo appearance in the film as an actor. He played the role of (you guessed it) a film editor. Enjoy.


One word: community.

As I walked home from this remarkable discussion to my apartment located on the west side of midtown Manhattan (mere blocks from the site of so many of the stories that I had just heard), I was most struck by the fact that none of the famed editors on the panel had seemed particularly interested in discussing the practice of actual editing, per se. Certainly, I reckoned, all of them possess profoundly relevant techniques and approaches and theories and philosophies concerning filmmaking’s most unsung craft. They are legends, after all!

jonnie walker.jpeg

But what is clear to me is that the things that ended up mattering the most to these long-time film editors have little to do with specific editorial decisions and the thinking behind them; instead, these four masters are much more inclined to recall the personal relationships that they forged over the course of creating their many films while also reflecting upon how their respective professional endeavors ended up enriching their own personal lives. In other words, it’s not about the specific edits. It’s about the environment in which the edits stemmed from. And what they collectively resulted in.

For me, an ambitious young editor still hoping to prove his worth, these truths are both pertinent and inspiring, because at the end of the day, I try my best to always remember that the opportunity to pursue a line of work that one genuinely loves is a luxury not afforded to most people. Consequently, if I am ever lucky enough to be able to bang out a respectable livelihood in this crazy business, I will forever consider myself to be an extremely fortunate human being. Alan, Jerry, Susan and Bill helped remind of this conviction.

And one day, I hope to have a story that is as symbolic and compelling as the one about Jerry discovering his “sign” out the window of Dede Allen’s cutting room. If not? I suppose that I’ll just have to settle for the joy of remembering his tale each time I throw back a glass of Johnnie Walker on the rocks.

Bottoms up! 


 By Jim Hession, 2013 Fellow

Lab Fellows (Photo credit: Jill Orschel, Courtesey of the Sundance Institute)

Lab Fellows (Photo credit: Jill Orschel, Courtesey of the Sundance Institute)

In the story that plays out in my own mind (and nobody else’s) I am an undercover secret agent whose misunderstood profession sends me to faraway, unfamiliar and often lonely places. Each of my missions has an objective, but the respective paths that lead to their successful completion are riddled with missteps, uncertainty and constant doubt. My job description isn’t always entirely clear to me, so I certainly don’t expect my family and loved-ones to truly understand what it is that I do for a living either. In fact, I embrace the inherent cloudiness of my chosen profession, as I feel that it facilitates a persona of mysteriousness that I would not otherwise possess. After all, being a secret agent is pretty cool even if the secret agent is not.

The "Rich Hill" Team: Jessica Dorfman (Lab Asst. Editor), Andrew, Tracy, Jim

The "Rich Hill" Team: Jessica Dorfman (Lab Asst. Editor), Andrew, Tracy, Jim

However, in the world that all of us fondly refer to as “reality,” I am a film editor. I live in an apartment building on the far west side of Manhattan with my beautiful wife, Mariela, our remarkable baby girl, Isabella Rose, and my venerable mother-in-law, Rosa. In other words, James Bond I am most definitely not. Like I said, I’m a film editor!

Anyway, back to being a secret agent…

I recently journeyed to the shadowy mountains of Sundance, Utah, where I was fortunate enough to partake in the Sundance Institute’s 2013 Documentary Edit and Story Labs. It was there that co-directors Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo brought along me and an unfinished roughcut of their documentary. The objective: to disappear into Robert Redford’s wooded lands for eight long days, workshop the film with some of the most respected and talented minds in the world of non-fiction filmmaking, and return home with a deeper, more evolved understanding of Rich Hill, the film that we are currently working on.

Andrew looks on as Jim problem-solves at his work station.

Andrew looks on as Jim problem-solves at his work station.

This year, The Labs invited a total of nine films and 22 fellows to attend the artists’ retreat, which spanned across two separate weeks. Rich Hill was invited to the second week, along with Yance Ford’s Strong Island, Chai Vasarhelyi’s An African Spring, and Anne de Mare and Kristen Kelly’s The Homestretch. A full list of this year’s films, fellows, and advisors can be found here.

Now, just to be clear, much of what goes on up in the mountains is shrouded in sworn secrecy. Nevertheless, I am allowed to note that there was a lot of talk about “edit trailers,” “river beers,” “quiet contemplation,” “mountain hikes,” “spiritual ceremonies,” and “The Owl.” But as a firm believer in the power of “movie magic” (and the protection of it), I wouldn’t dare discuss the specific conversations that revolved around the in-progress films that were brought to the workshop. As it turned out, attending The Lab was sort of a secret mission after all.

And yet, I feel obligated to stress that with the help of Director Cara Mertes, Kristin Feeley, John Cardellino and their entire staff, the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Edit and Story Labs have truly gave rise to a collection of programs that, first and foremost, lend needed support to the unique voices of independent filmmakers by way of creating and fostering a community that encourages all of us to struggle, fail, grapple and eventually succeed—together. This group dynamic is special. This group dynamic fuels creativity and encourages artistic risk-taking. And in the age of Skype, blazing-fast laptops, and work-from-home editors, it is increasingly rare.

I, for one, am beyond confident that all of the lucky films and fellows that were invited to attend this year’s Labs benefited greatly from the nutritive, communal support that was so generously provided. After all, I was fortunate enough to witness each documentary’s progress first hand. But much more importantly, the resulting films will eventually be sent out into the world for countless audiences around the globe to experience. And like all good stories, each documentary will deliver humanity minute ripples of creative thought that will begin to help us appreciate what it means to be human beings while simultaneously bringing us all a little bit closer to an understanding of each other in the process. The audiences will never know about the discussions that were had up in the mountains of Sundance, Utah. They will never have an understanding of the many creative decisions and re-decisions that were made in the edit room. And frankly, they shouldn’t need to be privy to any of this, because hopefully, the audience will just enjoy the damn movie. That’s the point!

And so, as I sit in my apartment in midtown Manhattan, my mind drifts back to my experience in the woods. Most of all, I take great solace in knowing that there is, in fact, a family of like-minded secret agents out there. And it was an honor to have met them.

Over and out.

Lab Fellows take a break in the mountains of Sundance.

Lab Fellows take a break in the mountains of Sundance.