Monday, November 26, 2018

Chiseling Out a Finished Documentary

Editing is hard work. Even if you’re editing a linear documentary—a film that flows as it happened—you still have to make difficult choices. Just because you follow a timeline doesn’t make the process any simpler. Well, maybe a little.

In the making of Who’s Protecting Our National Bird? I’ve had to balance three facets of the film simultaneously:

1. The building progression. This includes the warehouses directly in front of the nest and the Gateway Project surrounding the eagles’ feeding pond.

2. The eagles. People would be most interested in, I would assume, how our Manassas eagles fared with the construction. This would include roosting, nest building, mating, egg laying, egg hatching, feeding, and fledging. All these activities were met with some form of disturbance.

3. Our advocacy. Interwoven with the above were our advocacy steps. This would include documenting the eagles on video, interviewing concerned citizens, posting flyers, the City Council meeting, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the lawsuit, and corresponding with the City of Manassas, FWS, and VDGIF. The timing of these with the above is crucial in presenting an accurate picture of what transpired.

Filming with the super-zoom camera in the hatch.
So I went about weaving these three strings together as best I could over the past 16 months. I had a ton of footage to choose from. I was out filming at least 3-4 days a week so I’d have plenty of eagle shots, building shots, peoples’ reactions, and B-roll (nature, football games, downtown events, etc.). Even while editing I’ve had to keep the camera rolling in case the situation changed for the eagles. And it did for the 2018 breeding season.

But I also needed to take the viewer away from the immediate zone—the warehouses and the nest area—and provide a bit of “construction relief.” So within the documentary are pieces on eagle protection laws, eagle symbolism (which includes a tattoo parlor), Manassas itself, other eagle advocacy fights around the U.S., and a piece on lead poisoning.

A few days ago, after three months of making some important tweaks to the film—most notably how the separate pieces flow together—I gave the entire film another look. But this time I chose to keep the sound off. I know I’ll be rereading the entire narration again, and I didn’t want to listen to mismatched voiceover recorded at separate times with my voice sounding a bit different each time. It can be distracting. Luckily, I could hear the words in my head while watching. They sort of embed themselves in there.

Manassas Boy Scouts speak on behalf of the eagles.
One of my concerns was the number of times I faded down and up from black. This is typically reserved for important scene endings. For instance, the end of the City Council meeting. People get pretty passionate in that piece, and after four minutes I felt it best to slowly fade to black at the end. It then fades up to an eagle hopping around and picking up grass in a field, and the beginning of fall with wind gently blowing through colored leaves. This 20-second gap gives the viewer a moment to absorb one of the film’s climaxes, and allows for a passage of time. In other areas I changed some black fades to slow dissolves. There are even two white fades in the film.

The problem that still confronts me is what, if anything, I need to cut from the film. It currently clocks in at 1 hour 56 minutes, which is fine for DVD or online viewing. Most film festivals want a shorter version, like around 1 hour 35 minutes. So the challenge is removing 21 minutes while keeping the story in tact.

Two pieces, “Encroachment” and “The People Circus,” can be removed from the film without changing the story. However, they provide the best emotional drama of the film. Encroachment shows the effects of the development on other wildlife, and The People Circus emphatically showcases the effects of people on the eagles. That piece alone is seven minutes, though it also includes an offshoot to the Occoquan Wildlife Refuge and how those eagles are protected with barriers and signs. I guess I just talked myself out of removing that piece. It’s pretty important.

Lone adult watches the sunset before returning to the nest.
Last night I decided to score, from 1 to 5, each of the 47 pieces by two criteria: the importance of the piece to the overall story, and the emotional drama contained within the piece. Adding those two figures up gave me a few 6s and one 7 out of 10. So I will look closely at shortening or removing those pieces altogether.

Ultimately, the decision on what more to remove will come down to what initial viewers like and dislike the most. Until then I will hack away as much as I can—like using a fine chisel—and see how the story takes shape.

To watch the video trailer for this documentary and make a contribution, visit our GoFundMe page. We appreciate your support! Vic

Monday, June 4, 2018

Manassas Debacle Helps Save Florida Bald Eagles

Tonight an impassioned group of residents loaded with data addressed the Cape Coral City Council in an attempt to maintain the city's unique 1100-foot construction buffer for eagle nests. And they won. By a vote of 7-1, their city representatives voted NOT to change their ordinance to the federal guideline of 660 feet.

Last ten minutes and vote of the June 4, 2018 Cape Coral City Council Meeting

Cape Coral is not only the fastest growing city in the country right now, but they are also steadfast eagle lovers. Many spoke about how the eagles are a major draw to their community. And that draw brings in revenue. There are 10 nests in the city, with 7-8 nests currently active. One resident pointed out that there has been a decrease in the number of nests in surrounding cities that only adhere to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife guidelines.

As you may know, the City of Manassas not only allowed construction deep within the 660-foot buffer, as in five feet from the nesting tree, but they still have not put into place any eagle-specific signs on the warehouse or park property to protect the eagles from disturbing onlookers. In our upcoming documentary, Who's Protecting Our National Bird? you will see the egregious attempts by the city, the developers, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to circumvent protections for our eagles, and to be honest with the citizens. In one of many emails obtained by the Freedom of Information Act, City of Manassas Community Development Director Liz Via-Gossman chastises the warehouse developer, Pruitt Corporation, for clearing and grading before the recommended August 1 start date. But the message to the media and to the public by the city was that the land owner was following all local, state, and federal guidelines and permits. False.

Dead eagle located two miles from the Manassas eagle nest.
On the bright side, the ignorance of some of our Manassas representatives may have helped tonight's vote in Cape Coral. Last week I shared our film's trailer with the mayor of Cape Coral and their council members, along with other detailed information. In tonight's discussion Mayor Coviello brought up the need to consider the area surrounding the nest where the eagles feed, something I also mentioned in an email sent today. In the past, our eagles could dip down below the nest to pick up a squirrel or rabbit or snake. There are pictures of that before the warehouses were built. Now what they have below them is asphalt. That means they must travel farther for food, which puts them in jeopardy of getting hit by cars or trains. Just two miles from the nest we discovered a dead adult eagle along the tracks last December. The consequences of habitat loss are real.

If you would like to make a donation to our documentary so it can help other cities make the right choice when it comes to our National Bird, you can do so at Your name will be included within the credits. We appreciate your support!