CONTEMPLATING THE CUT: TAKEAWAYS AND TIPS FOR DOCUMENTARY EDITORS

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...