Cutting it Up Down Under — Alex Fitzwater Edits Outback Adventure Series “Unleashed”

By in Timeline Tuesday, Video Editing

“Unleashed” is an outback adventure series that follows 2 good mates, Jase & Simon, as they push as far and as hard as they can into the Australian bush. Along the way they catch up with old friends, meet new ones and come face to face with some of Australia’s wildest creatures. From choppers to quad bikes, tinnies to swampers, the lads use whatever vehicles they have in an attempt to reach their goal by the end of each episode. Sometimes they make it, and other times they just have a bloody good time trying.

I came to “Unleashed” initially to help out with the first episode. This was a new venture for Jase & Simon. They have a sponsored show on daytime TV, but “Unleashed” was made for an online subscriber-based audience. Appealing to fans, but also interesting enough that it could cross over to an international audience. The EP showed me a pitch video of the first 3 episodes, we talked over some ideas and then they gave me the footage. So I took the drives back to my home suite and… went for a walk.

Before I go on, I should explain that when I edit I like to spend as much time as possible not editing (please don’t tell my employers that!). While Avid and other NLE’s have incredible tools and allow you endless possibilities, I’ve found that enjoyable, constructive editing is more a creative mental process, than a technical one (for me anyway). The technical part of editing can be reduced down to “In, Out, Cut” (obviously A LOT more to it than that, but you get my drift). However, the creative part is where the magic happens. And for me that is best done away from the software. So whenever I can, I get out for a walk or a ride or a swim to think out my approach. It’s also the only time I’ll see daylight and breathe fresh air for the next 6 months so I take it when I can get it!

I like to think of the audience, find a reference point or two and go from there. The fans love it when the boys come up with inventive ways to get through the bush (ziplining ATV’s across rivers for example). As Jase & Simon also embody the classic Aussie ‘She’ll be right mate’ approach to everything, they often push their vehicles to the point of destruction, or find themselves in dangerous waters – literally, waters infested with large crocodiles! Clearly the vehicles and the hard-to-reach destinations are also a big part of the show. So my starting reference point became Crocodile Dundee meets Ice Road Truckers.

It might seem strange to do this in post once the narrative has already been decided but I find it really helps me get a feel for not only the edit, but the editing process. It also allows me to be an editor in the truest sense. Rather than just accept what the initial premise of the project is and make the footage fit, I find that once it’s in post, it has often substantially shifted from its starting point. Taking a fresh approach allows me to see what works and what doesn’t, what will stay and what will go. I do this serving the story as best I can. It also gives me hints for the sonic palette, the grade and how to present the characters. (Using this method on another project, I once arrived at the conclusion that we needed to cut the presenter out of the show. I had an amazing director who actually agreed when I explained to her my reasoning, and it did in fact work a lot better. The host wasn’t over the moon, and neither were the network, but hey it’s all about the story in my world.)

So once I have that creative road map it’s time to sit down at the Avid and cut.

And cut.

And cut some more.

15 hour timeline 🙁

Ah, Epsiode 1. I really don’t like cutting Episode 1 of anything. It’s like trying to chisel a masterpiece out of granite while everyone watches. But I stick to that creative road map and let the technical part of my brain take over and finally I have something I can take back to the EP for feedback. A few more rounds of this and we lock down a style for the show. Part reality, part ob-doc and a whole lot of outback madness.

The program was shot on a variety of cameras, from RED & DJI drones to F5, 5D & mounted GoPros. The rushes had all been synced by another editor, who had laid them up on timelines according to day and ‘scene’, giving me interview, aerial and the main action timelines. Each episode had around 8-10 of these sequences. Based on time of day TC, they could be up to 5 hours long.

At any time up to 6 cameras could be rolling but rather than being multicam, each timeline track had its own camera. It was actually quite helpful to do it this way as the cameras would all record at different times. Being able to see start and end points for all clips on the timeline was great. Source/Record toggle is a godsend for this.

By the way did you know that the collective noun for editors is a ‘Godsend’? You do now 😉 (For producers, it is a “Flap”.)

With “Unleashed”, as I’m working alone most of the time I like to watch the post interviews first. I find these give me the most distilled version of events as well as an indication of the dramatic high points of the episode. I edit out the questions, then put a locator on each answer so that I can use Media Composer’s marker window to jump to any relevant grab very quickly. I hate searching for that one thing I know they said but not sure when or where, so this is a timesaver.

While viewing the rushes, I’ll make mental notes on the relationship dynamics, start thinking about what could be cut out and keep an eye and ear out for surprising moments, revealing comments or anything else that might help add dimension to the narrative.

I always start at the beginning (it’s a very good place to start). I take the first raw sequence and trim it, concentrating on the words and angles until it’s a complete sequence that flows, shows the challenge the characters face and explains how they get through it. Then the next sequence, and the next until they are all done.

I’ll take out any sequences that are slow or not adding anything to the episode at this stage and subsequence them for later use (marketing for Facebook videos, bonus content, Instagram videos, etc…) Then I lay in the interview grabs, which allows me to shorten the sequences even more. If I don’t have a grab, I’ll leave space for some VO, maybe writing down some ideas for specific parts. I’m also imagining the music and SFX that will go underneath as it helps me to pace everything.

Finally after a couple of weeks trimming everything down, requests for help on “Avid Editors of Facebook” and lots of coffee I have a workable edit.

1 hour timeline 🙂

Time to face the music.

I used to start with music, but now I don’t put it in until the end. I found that I would miss a lot of things that the music would compensate for. By having nothing but words and action, it makes my edits tighter and more cohesive. I now edit the music to fit the scene. I also just like to change my workflow sometimes to force me to think differently (but not my keyboard layout, don’t mess with that. It hasn’t changed since DV Xpress.)

Now it’s time for a viewing where we discuss pacing, style and how we will write the VO. Once I’ve tidied up the edit, the script is written, the VO artist sends us his audio (sometimes from a studio while he’s on holiday in France!) and I lay that in. It goes to a mix through Pro Tools, comes back for a grade (currently Avid, but trying out Resolve) and then gets uploaded and sent out for DVD duping. The show goes out once a month, for a total of 10 episodes a year.

Final timeline with music, ready for grade 😀

And that’s how I edit “Unleashed”. It’s been really well received so far and we are about to start cutting season 2. Apparently they went through 2 choppers, a monster truck and set an ATV on fire. And that’s just episode 1.

Might be time to take another walk before I settle in for the long haul!

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I started cutting music videos on my dad’s tape-to-tape setup at 12 years old in an old French farmhouse. 24 years later, the the technology has come a long way, but the fascination with telling stories has stayed the same. I’ve been lucky to have had a varied career, that has taken me to amazing places and brought me into contact with incredibly talented people.