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

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