A friend of mine from high school is a documentary filmmaker and asked me a couple of months ago if I'd sign on as a producer when I offered some ideas on how he could deal with some of the problems he had been faced with in putting it together. The first thing I offered to do was produce a theatrical trailer for the film, which I did and has pulled in something north of 16k views in the few weeks since its release. It can be viewed here:
So I'm doing more than just cutting the trailer on this film now, I'm cutting the entire film.
We had hired a "professional editor" who has worked with Ken Burn's Florentine Films. While I was going to stick around to help with the edit on some level, the "pro" was going to do the rough cut and probably the first pass on the finish.
The "pro" editor burned 2 weeks just transcoding the footage so that it could be used in his Avid, which meant a total pain in the ass for us. We decided that the finished cut should be done in Premiere. He wanted to use something called "script sync" which helps you to use text search to find the exact entry point to dialog in an interview without having to watch, scrub through or use logs to determine where a given line of dialog is. This plan essentially failed for a number of reasons, and by the end of the six weeks he handed us back an almost completely unusable rough that cost us time and money. What was worse, you could tell that he had almost no emotional investment or effort into the story. Most of it was strung together based on notes we provided him with. He made virtually no attempt to craft anything in the way of a story.
I began picking at the edit in late August/early September. I managed to cut the first three sections of the film in pretty short order. We were on our way to a finished cut that we could review with a team.
We managed in late September to get a work in process screening of the 14 or so completed minutes we had of the film. We screened first at a small festival in Newburyport Mass. The theater of about 200 seats was completely packed - standing room only. The audience reactions during the screening were spot on what we were hoping them to be. More than one person in the audience who had been close to the story said that it made them cry. They laughed when we hoped they would as well which was nice.
In October, we screened at the New Hampshire Film Festival in a theater where a little less than half of the 900 seats were filled. This time, we added a new section to the mix for a total of three and a running time of over 25 minutes. Again, the reactions were simply amazing. The film looked incredible, and sounded good too.
We have been working with one of the authors on the book: We Are Market Basket, Dan Korschun for some time now.
Dan was interviewed for, and will appear heavily in our film. It's been amazing to see how perfectly the story we're telling reflects what he's written about, so it's been an amazing experience.
We've done a number of public speaking and promotional events with him including a one hour show on New Hampshire Public Radio.
Timeline of the segment I'm currently working on. I watched a video where Walter Murch discussed his work on his first feature documentary, Particle Fever, a film I've not watched yet. In that video however, I was relieved to find that the process that he followed for his first foray into feature docs is not that dissimilar to the one that Jay and I are using on Food Fight. His process is essentially that he and the director work on and build scenes together. The two watch what takes shape and find the story together, even though my guess is that Walter is for the most part in control of shaping the film. It's a very similar process Jay and I have coined, "tell, shape, refine."
I was trying to work out the other day exactly how much footage we have to work with on the project. Based on various sources I found to determine how much the roughly 9TB of footage I have translates to, I came up with about 150 hours give or take, and that varies depending on the codecs used. Given that about 1/3 of the footage was shot on DSLR which stores more on disk per hour due to the compression of the H264 codec, it's probably closer to 200 or more hours.
If this were shot on film, which weighs about one pound for every minute, assuming you're using 35mm stock, and assuming the lower 150 hour figure, that equates to about 4.5 tons of physical film we'd have to sort through and move around!
The cameras used to shoot the film were:
The very excellent criteria that Walter Murch uses when analyzing a cut:
Emotion: 51% Is it true to the emotion of the moment?
Story: 23% Does it advanced the story?
Rhythm: 10% Does it occur at a moment that is rhythmically interesting and “right”?
Eye-Trace: 7% Does it acknowledge eye-trace (the concern with the location and movement of the audience’s focus of interest within the frame?
Two-dimensional Plane of Screen: 5% Does it respect “planarity” (the grammar of three dimensions transposed by photography to two)?
Three-dimensional Space of Action: 4% Does it respect three-dimensional continuity of the actual space of where people are in the room and in relation to one another?
The only thing that I'd add to this is does it tell you something about the characters or what motivates them? Which I suppose could be a part of 1 or 2.
Having guidelines like this I think are key to making sure that the narrative doesn't go off the rails within the context of a scene and that it remains visually interesting.
I mentioned in a previous thought, the method that we're using to cut the film is a process we've coined "tell, shape, refine". I'll try and explain that here.
With scripted film, you have a script that you can work from as an editor even before you get a frame of footage to work on. You can set up a board that describes the main scenes or even use the story boards to plan your edit in combination with the actual script. You may even be fortunate enough to have built some ideas on how things will look in your head even before you get the film.
With a documentary, the challenges are immense. Not only do you not have a script to work from initially, you may end up with a shooting ratio of something like 500:1 or 500 hours of video to paw through for every hour you cut.
Epic documentaries like those that you see on PBS or netflix for that matter with a known outcome can follow something very closely resembling a script, and the more well funded the project, the better the resources to do the research and build a script.
With this project, hundreds of hours were shot "in the moment". Jay had no idea of knowing what the outcome would be until the company either survived, was sold or went under.
Wrangling all of that footage, understanding its context and trying to come up with a way to tell the story before the Kickstarter supporters came after us with pitch forks and torches, proved extremely challenging.
What I suggested that we do in this case, because it's really just the two of us working on the edit, is a process that I referred to as "tell, shape, refine".
Since Jay has an encyclopedic knowledge of both the story and what he shot, I asked that he first define the major scenes and the themes they need to cover. His next task as director was to tell each scene by performing string outs of interview sound bytes in a timeline that I could ingest later. He then needs to go through the footage library and string out all of the footage that I might need to cover the interview/narrative portion of the story. Doing this, I'll end up with two timelines for each segment; one that contains all of the interview sound bites relevant to that scene, the other containing the b roll or coverage I may need.
These timeline string outs may be as long as an hour to two hours in length, but the idea is for him to just get me the best material to tell that part of the story and not concern himself with cleaning it up.
I then take these string outs and shape them into a scene that will get all of the major points across in a manner that reflects the voice we've decided to use for the film.
We then go back over the shaping that I've done and refine the sections together with him advising me on shot selection or adjusting interview talking points. The two of us work on it together until we're both satisfied with the narrative and coverage.
The process has worked amazingly well and now that we've hit our stride results in about 15 minutes of mostly completed film each week.
I finally got to watch the Walter Murch documentary "Particle Fever" over the weekend. I didn't watch all of it, but it's a fascinating doc. The thing that was really watching it for was to see how the master edits a doc. What I found was, it's not that dissimilar in terms of style points than what I've been doing. Someone with a more refined eye might beg to differ, but from where I sat, the techniques I've been using follow his teachings pretty well.
A great example is the way that he uses b roll to transition from one segment or concept to the next. I've known for a while about the concept of "pre rolling" a section or providing set up for it. What I mean by this is having four to five shots that set a mood and shift the viewer's attention away from what they've just watched into a new location, area or concept. This is something I've been doing with Food Fight all along, which was great to see. At some point I'll post an example of this from the film.
There are so many documentaries that you could do around this topic. I'm sure that we'll take heat for not covering this aspect or that aspect, but when we looked at all the amazing, incredibly rich footage that we had to work with, there was only one story to tell. That story quite simply is the story of the twenty five thousand associates and two million customers; the stakeholders in this incredible company who made this improbable story happen. I'm at a loss for words sometimes at the amount of amazing coverage of this saga I have at my disposal to tell this story. Just incredible...
Just got hold of critical internal emails and text conversations that happened with the team that actually architected the rebellion, and brought the company to its knees. We're using the same animation company that does work on Eldarion's explainer videos to do the graphical treatments of stuff like this. Combine this with the incredible footage library I have on virtually every aspect of the story, and the film just keeps getting richer and richer content wise.
For the visual look of the film, we've decided to go with a slightly desaturated look whenever we cut back to b roll that was shot during the actual event. The idea is to provide the viewer with a visual queue that they've gone back in time.
With the efforts of the last week, we're now at just over 80 minutes of mostly completed film. The pace seems to be quickening to a certain extent, mostly I think due to the fact that I've become extremely familiar with the entire footage library now. I now know exactly where to go for what I need if it can't be found in one of the string out timelines Jay has provided me with.
We now have a date for the first official screening of the film. It will be screened publicly for the first time on Saturday, February 27th at 7:00 PM at the Portsmouth Music Hall in Portsmouth NH.
The last ten days have been a little horrifying in terms of the work required to get the film done. 16 hour days have pretty much been the norm.
We're in the home stretch with only about two and a half full sequences to go before we'll have a cut that's complete enough to watch to see how it all fits together.
Doing the editing, musical direction, post production supervision as well as writing all of the narration copy has been more physically and emotionally draining than I ever imagined it would be. The advantage of it is that I'm really giving the film its voice on multiple levels.
My concern is the amount of rework that may be required once we start reviewing the film in its entirety. The sections seem really good and the flow is wonderful for a lot of it, but questions arose last week on how we keep the viewer oriented to the timeline of the story as we move through it. There are some non-sequential things happening, with minimal narration.
We made the decision to make sure we frame everything up front; where the story took place, how many weeks it was, we've got some things presented in animated timelines that at least show the progression of events that lead up to the bulk of the story. The other technique we're using are what I refer to as "way points" or little title text elements we drop in at the start of the scene to let you know the date of the event you're about to watch. The film doesn't jump around a lot, but it does enough where if you don't have these little cairns to show you where the path is, you could get lost.
I've had no less than three dreams in the past week where I'm an actual Market Basket employee, which I think scares me in a way that tells me I'm way too occupied with this.
The extreme level of concentration and emotional engagement required on this sometimes leaves me so drained at the end of the day, I can't remember falling asleep at night or even exactly when I got to bed. I can see the end on the horizon though for the current level of intense work, and I'm happy about that. As much as I love film, I don't see myself taking something like this on again in the near future - at least being responsible for so much of the film.
Tickets go on sale for the February screening this week. I'm both excited and scared as hell at the prospect of nearly a thousand people packing into a theater to see this for the first time. I am confident that the screening will be sold out - maybe even well in advance. There is that much anticipation. The nearly 600 kickstarter supporters alone are likely to consume a good chunk of the seats. The area stores in the seacoast alone could account for the balance of the tickets, that says nothing of the 200+ supporters we seem to have at the Market Basket home office in Tewksbury Mass. The media will almost certainly be there in force as well. It's easy to be excited and scared out of my mind all at once about this. While I'm not directing, I have a pretty major hand in bringing this thing to life and providing it with a voice. It wasn't at all how I imagined I'd get into the theater with a feature length film, but it is the story of a lifetime to get involved with, and I couldn't be happier to have a hand in it, but I was not prepared for how frightening so much of this can be at times. A lot is on the line....
Just once I think it would be cool to sit and watch someone work with film on a Steenbeck for a day.
The opening turned out to be pretty amazing. The first night, we sold 825 tickets which was the maximum for the theater we were in. It turned out to be the first time in the history of that theater that they had completely sold out for a movie. The second night which was a Sunday, we sold 560 tickets.
The crowd reactions both nights were just incredible. Granted, we were playing to a pretty biased crowd - most of the people both nights were either associates or customers who followed the drama throughout, but it was still extremely satisfying to know that we'd hit the right notes and emotions, and that people were reacting pretty much as we'd hoped they would.
We were accepted into the Boston International Film Festival on the basis of a partial cut.
I should probably be pretty pleased that the first feature I've ever worked on was accepted to the first festival it was submitted to on the basis of a partial cut. I really think that much of that has to do with the fact that this is a well known local story that will be playing to a hometown crowd. Still, I'm very excited to be a part of this festival and can't wait to see it screen before an audience again.
The film is running long by probably 15 or 20 minutes, so there's work to do in getting it ready for the next screening in Boston.
Thankfully, the hard work is done and what lies ahead is trivial by comparison.