Distilling the Life of the Man who Changed American Television into an Artful and Moving Portrait

By in Timeline Tuesday, Video Editing

How did a poor Jewish kid from Connecticut bring us Archie Bunker and become one of the most successful television producers of all time? His name is Norman Lear, and it’s an incredible story.  But if that name doesn’t sound familiar, perhaps his shows will: All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Maude, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. It’s a long list of iconic shows from a man who has had a long life, and is still doing his thing today at age 93.

So on to the other big question: how does a team of filmmakers distill this 93-year-old (and counting) life into an artful and moving portrait of the man who changed American television? The answer is somewhere in a sea of archive, verite, recreation, and newly shot interviews that goes hundreds of hours deep. Did I mention there is no script?

For an expansive documentary as complicated as this we needed the foundation of our project to be rock solid. We also needed a workflow that would lend itself to a project with so many asset types.


The first big challenge for us was archive.  By the end of the 8-month edit we were managing over 3,000 unique archival assets (still, video, and audio). So the idea from the beginning was to take advantage of custom bin columns in Media Composer to create a functioning, easily searchable database of the material in the Avid. The foundation of this database was a system of categories and keywords that allowed us to sift master bins easily to find the “needle in the haystack” clips we were searching for. But we also used other custom metadata such as the archive source, the year it was shot, rights information, quality information, whether a transcript was available, and (for Norman’s vast library of television shows) Season and Episode numbers to make the database incredibly granular. And because bin sifting in Avid is so robust, we could easily sift on multiple criteria to find what we needed (which happened a lot).

On the technical side we also managed the correct aspect ratios of our archive (most was 4:3, but varied in many cases) so we could easily make choices about when and when not to pan and scan in the offline. We also altered the source time codes (in AUX TC 1 column) for any clips that referenced a burn-in time code from an archive house, so that we could produce a proper EDL for ordering clips upon picture lock.

When the time came we produced a simple AAF and used a third party plugin called MusID to create excel reports of everything in the cut with all our metadata and timecodes included. Everything was built from the beginning to make everything at the end as easy as possible to manage.


Verite & Recreations

We had a year’s worth of verite shot of Norman in the “present day” shot mainly on Canon C300 in C-Log, as well as a choreographed series of recreations. Managing this media via AMA was easy and turning on a REC709 conversion for outputs was a couple of clicks. Selects were managed primarily on string outs and occasionally with markers.


Script sync got us through this project, as we had over 15 hrs of interviews with Norman alone, and a host of other subjects to cull from as well. We also took advantage of script sync for dozens of hours of archival interviews to give us as complete a word-searchable database as possible across many decades of material. Additionally, we script synced 19 hours of audio book recordings from Norman’s memoir, which was enormously helpful as reference VO for portions of the edit. We also used Phrase Find to isolate multiple tellings of stories that occurred in many different pieces of archive. We couldn’t have done the film without it.

It’s also worth noting that we began the film on version 7, but moved to version 8 early in the process so that we could take advantage of clip muting on the timeline. There is a lot of auditioning of ideas and shots in the edit room (and it all happens quickly). So clip muting made doing this quickly and non-destructively really easy to manage.

Ultimately, we finished our film free of any serious technical roadblocks, which for a project this big is a huge deal. We could not have done it on any other NLE platform, and it’s really a testament to the robustness and intelligence of Media Composer. We faced a lot of creative challenges with a ton of raw material. But creating a smart and flexible workflow from the beginning that satisfied both our creative and technical needs proved to be the difference maker for us to emerge on the other side of a complicated, lengthy, but successful, edit.

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I am a documentary feature film editor with wide ranging experience in the world of post production, including sound design, music editing, and post supervision. Recent credits include "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You" (opening night film 2016 Sundance Film Festival), and "Seeds of Time" (2015 Berlin Film Festival and 2014 SXSW Film Festival).