How Pictures Lead the Story of Earth’s 4.6 Billion Year History in Documentary Film ‘Life’s Rocky Start’

By in Timeline Tuesday, Video Editing

I’ve been editing documentaries for 15 years now, and every one begins the same way. I stare at the bins and think ‘How am I going to turn all this into a timeline?’ Then I recall that I’ve done it before, open a new bin and name it ‘First Assemblies’. (I have no idea what I did for my first documentary).

Usually there’s a treatment, which I may skim. But for me, the pictures should lead the story, not narration or soundbites. So the First Assemblies are my starting point, the first baby steps toward the rough cut.

The First Assemblies are the building blocks of the film.

For Life’s Rocky Start, the first thing I cut was a scene where our main character, Bob Hazen, is in a bazaar in Morocco, and comes across a shop selling rocks. In those rocks he can see the 4.6 billion year history of Earth. It’s a great way to introduce our key theme.

In these early scenes, the director and I can begin to see the film. It’s a chance to get a sense of what is going to work, and what may not. We’ll then start to build out the script from the treatment, dropping in soundbites, rewriting and rearranging based on the First Assemblies.

The Rough Cut. There’s no prologue at this stage, so we’re about 15 mins over. There is some editing to do.

At this point, I put my head down and keep pushing forward. I don’t like to spend too much time going back over and shaping what I’ve cut so far. I want to see the rough cut so we can get the broad strokes right, and then begin shaping the film. The director, Doug Hamilton, likens it to brushing hair. The first brush is slow and meets a lot of resistance, but each subsequent brush gets smoother and smoother.

I treat hard drives like floppy disks, switching them into a trayless enclosure as I need them.

Life’s Rocky Start was shot 23.98p, so the rushes were transcoded to DNxHD 175X. Disk space is so cheap now I don’t edit with proxies. The media fits on a striped set of two 3TB drives @$90 each. I’m still cutting on a macpro tower, so these just slot straight into the MAC without an enclosure. I also have a Wiebetech trayless enclosure I use if I need to mount a drive from an old project.

Let’s hear it for timecode. Green Markers track what will happen in the conversion from 23.98p to 59.94i.

We deliver 59.94i, so as we’re approaching picture lock I’ll begin dropping in markers to account for the timecode shift from 23.98p to 59.94i. The ability to switch the master timecode between the two in the record monitor makes that a much easier step than in my FCP days.

Can you make the sky blue? Not in this case, but we can make it legal.

Life’s Rocky Start was shot on a C300 and an F5/F55. Both great cameras, though for me the F5/F55 is the camera to beat. They’re shot flat, so I start laying in rough color correction from the get-go. I use Baselight for Avid with the Tangent Tk+Kb panels, which has transformed my workflow.

Previously, I’d delete all the rough color correction before exporting to Resolve. Skipping this step and not having to do the roundtrip is a huge timesaver, and means I can spend the online finessing what’s already there, rather than rebuilding all the masks and keys from scratch. It also makes the picture lock far more malleable. I don’t share this readily with producers (you don’t want to encourage them), but we can continue re-editing even as we’re laying in final voiceover, onlining and color correcting. That’s particularly handy when the final narration comes in slower than the guide read.

The final timeline

The first scene I edited, with Hazen in the Moroccan bazaar, ended up on the cutting room floor. It became apparent very early on that it was taking us far too long (about 20mins) to set up our story and get things going. I used to mourn dropped sequences that I had labored so lovingly over, but now I see it differently. Something may look great on paper, but until you stand a film on its feet you can’t see the best way of telling the story. I used to think it was a waste of time editing sequences that didn’t make the cut. Now I see it as a critical part of the process of making a great film.

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I returned to the Avid fold after a foray into the Apple wilderness was brought to a tragic end with the release of FCPX. I’ve edited for NOVA and Frontline, and am currently wearing out the subcaps effect on The Life Equation, a feature-length documentary about global health.