July 12, 2015
Exclusive

How to Cut 10 Hours of Footage Down to a Finely-Tuned 3 Minute Film

Contra - The Craft of Sound
What do film editing and guitar building have in common? More than you might think.

Last month, NFS readers were introduced to Contra, a UK video production company that specializes in bringing gorgeous narrative styling to corporate projects. In that first article, we shared a film about Glitch, a young girl who became homeless at the age of 16, but eventually found her voice in spoken word poetry with a little help from a UK nonprofit called XLP. That article detailed the entire process of bringing Glitch's story to life, from a hasty run and gun production on the RED DRAGON to an edit that was done in 6K RAW. 

Now our friends at Contra are back at it, this time with a brand new piece about an extremely talented young luthier named Alex Bishop. The new film follows Bishop through the six month process of building an exquisite gypsy jazz guitar from scratch. In that time, the Contra production team shot upwards of 10 hours of footage, which editor Will Hammond cut down into a finely-tuned three-minute film. His process for doing so – strangely enough – mirrors the process of building a guitar. It's slow, methodical, and the beauty lies in the details.

As mentioned above, the production of this piece took 6 months, resulting in 10 hours worth of footage, which then had to be cut down to three minutes for the finished piece. For many aspiring editors, this would be nerve-wracking. How do you take that much footage, cut away more than 99% of it, and be assured that what you're left with is as good as it can possibly be? Will Hammond, Contra's editor, describes his process for doing exactly that.

He describes the rushes like being the raw materials for the guitar. You start with solid pieces of exotic tone wood – California Claro Walnut and European Spruce in this case – and then you slowly, methodically start shaving away little bits at a time. You know the finished product exists in those raw materials, and it's your job to slow down, examine what you have, and figure out the plan of action for getting from point A to point B.

Contra - The Craft of Sound

My first tip would be don’t cut too much too soon. It may sound counterintuitive with the 200:1 shooting ratio I had to contend with, but it’s impossible to know immediately how the final film will look, and discounting too much footage at the start limits the number of ways the film can come together. On this film I did 5 passes, cutting the footage down from 10 hours to 7, 7 hours to 2, 2 hours to 30 mins, 30 mins to 10, and 10 mins to 5 until I arrived at rough cut. While this methodical approach can be time-consuming, it allows you to really get to know the footage and the film comes together much more organically, which I think results in a better end product.

Contra - The Craft of Sound

Next, Will describes how the process of editing a documentary mirrors guitar building in that you never quite know what you have until the project is finished. You always start with a blueprint, a script, and a solid idea of what you're trying to accomplish, but inevitably throughout the process, your raw materials will speak to you and surprise you, leading you in new directions that deviate from the original plan. As an editor (and a luthier) it's your job to pay attention to what those raw materials are telling you, and to change course as necessary in order to craft the best possible product.

Contra - The Craft of Sound

During filming Alex would often mention that guitars wouldn’t end up quite how he’d envisioned them due to the grain and knots in the wood forcing him to shape it differently and the same can be said for film. It’s very rare that a film ends up 100% identical to the original idea, particularly with documentary as the story can shift both during and after filming so being able to work with footage in an open and flexible way is a trait that all good editors need to have.

For example on this project we had a couple of hours of interviews with Alex and had originally intended for the film to feature a lot more voice-over. However after the first cut we soon realised that too much VO meant you didn’t listen to the music. Whilst music usually plays a supporting role to the narrative, on this project it was critical that the visuals, voice-over, and music all shared top billing and the audience got the chance to appreciate them all equally. By stripping back the interview to its bare essentials and allowing the music to breathe, we were able to tell the story more effectively.

Lastly, Will talks about something that you've probably been told at every single step along your own personal filmmaking journey: it's all about story. Sure, you can utilize the flashiest editing techniques out there, but if those techniques don't add to the story – or even worse, they distract from it – then you've failed at your job as an editor. It's much like the guitar building process. The guitar can be more beautiful than any other guitar ever made, but if it sounds bad and plays terribly, then it's frankly a bit pointless.

Contra - The Craft of Sound

Hopefully from watching the film you get an idea of how unique Alex’s guitars are; from the fanned frets to the Kandinsky-esque inlay work but at the end of the day what matters to him most is how it sounds. Similarly in filmmaking, the story should be the main focus. Although it sounds obvious and is something you hear all the time, you’d be surprised how often this salient point gets overlooked. I’m ashamed to say I’ve been guilty of this many times. Following this rule on The Craft of Sound was particularly punishing as there were so many beautiful shots. Knowing three minutes was our limit something had to be chopped; the clips which didn’t further the story, no matter how good they looked, were the victims.

Everything above you’ve probably heard many times before but there’s a good reason for that; most well edited films will have followed these simple rules. So take your time getting to know what you have to work with, be open to change, and always keep reminding yourself why you’re making it. Three things I’m sure Alex would agree with. 

Contra - The Craft of Sound
Contra - The Craft of Sound

So there you have it. If you've got any questions for Will and the Contra team, don't hesitate to ask. 

Your Comment

18 Comments

Beautiful. I can attest to the "pass" method. I find it helps avoid getting caught up in the details when you're supposed to be trimming fat. Helps make the tough, story driven vs cool shot, decisions easier since your focus is on the, start to finish, length / bigger picture.

July 12, 2015 at 11:22PM

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abfsc
10

Absolutely agree. I am just about to finish a project of following monks living in a +1000 years old monastery (a Unesco World Heritage place) for MORE THAN ONE YEAR. As main criteria was NOT to use them as props or actors to meet a specific director's view, but to show them as how they really are, I ended up with MORE THAN 100 HOURS OF FOOTAGE. I had to make a 90 min, a 15 min, and a 4 min. movie from it.
99% of the project was filmed and edited ALONE. You can bet that I understand the patience of editing, as it took more than 6 months:-)
Here is the 4 min. "trailer", available with English subtitles soon: https://vimeo.com/130765545

July 13, 2015 at 2:10PM, Edited July 13, 2:10PM

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Miklos Terei
DOP/Cinematographer/Editor
104

You're a very talented filmmaker/editor. Wow! Beautiful. What did you shoot it on?

July 13, 2015 at 4:11PM

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Jeff Rivera
Filmmaker | Storyteller
799

Thank you Jeff! Was shot with Canon 5Dmk2 (goPro3+ for the drone shots).

July 14, 2015 at 2:22AM

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Miklos Terei
DOP/Cinematographer/Editor
104

Miklos? It wasn't shot on 5d. And I don't remember doing any drone shots! Haha...

July 14, 2015 at 3:48AM

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I am sorry, the conversation looked as it was asked from me:-)
Congratulations for your film, it is a beautiful piece!

July 14, 2015 at 7:20AM

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Miklos Terei
DOP/Cinematographer/Editor
104

Yes Miklos, I was asking you. I went to the trailer link you had. I was asking about your film.

July 14, 2015 at 7:34AM, Edited July 14, 7:34AM

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Jeff Rivera
Filmmaker | Storyteller
799

Glad to see that I am not completely stupid:-) But now I feel bad to have posted my work in a article about Contra. The main point was in my comment text, reinforcing the performance of the outstanting job they have done, as I was just going throught something similar - instead of self advertisement. Hat off, Team Contra!

July 14, 2015 at 9:45AM

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Miklos Terei
DOP/Cinematographer/Editor
104

Cheers Jeff, it was shot 6k WS raw on the Red Dragon. Glass was c-ne Primes with occasional use of macro focal reducers and Schnider Hollywood Blackmagic Promist .

Lighting was a combination of redheads, dedos, Felloni light panels and practicals.

Hope that helps!

John
DoP.

July 14, 2015 at 3:47AM

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That's plenty of footage for a 2 min 45 second piece. Good job sifting through it all, and the end result looks nice. To add more intrigue I wanted to see more tension: What problems does he encounter? What happens if the guitar isn't finished in time? What if he slips and ruins a vital detail? Where's the tension and what's at stake? What's the story? It isn't someone talking about how making a guitar is nice.

July 14, 2015 at 11:23AM, Edited July 14, 11:23AM

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I do not think every story needs tension. Observation and exposition of the way things are/work can be quite fascinating---for me anyway!

July 16, 2015 at 7:29PM

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How long did you take for each pass? I find myself attacking my footage in pieces. I try to sit and edit in a long stretch but often have to walk away. I would love to hear how you kept moving forward each day on the edit.

July 16, 2015 at 6:40PM

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Dan Herrick
Owner/Executive Producer
81

10 hours of footage for a 3-minute film - I think they should have planned this a little better. I mean, it was no mystery that was going to happen. That dude was going to build a guitar out of wood. He could have exactly described beforehand what he would be doing.
I am not criticizing the film, it is very good. Just as a cameraman myself I often feel like I am shooting a lot of unnecessary stuff, which can be really exhausting in some situations) that could be easily avoided with just a little more planning ahead. It's like they're saying to me well, just shoot everything from every possible angle, so we don't have to think about the project until it's in the editing room. And then we decide what 1% of your footage we will actually need for the movie.
It's not really a good feeling for a cameraman, although the results can be really good.

July 21, 2015 at 10:06AM

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Hi there,
yes if one writes the screen play in advance and then plan the shots right down to frames, yes then we can shoot a 3 minutes film with 10 minutes of actual footage. But in case of certain documentaries we have no control over the situation and land up shooting lots of extra footage. Because we do not know the moment we are shooting will be the only best moment of that particular event.
I was shooting for Hero Impulse - video review in summer 2014. We had 3 bikes and 3 stuntmen, 5 bikers and lots of users of Hero-Impulse. We planned to shoot the bike for its extreme performance. So we kept taking these bikes and bikers to such terrains which were not known to them. Even with the same bike, same place and same rider we got different kind of performance of the same act. And I learned one thing - when a biker gets a bike they get unplugged. I was not able to control these bikers. So we landed up shooting some 45 GB of footage with Sony Handycam, Nikon D7000, Hero Gopro 3 and Canon 600D. Along with this we had two cheap tripods, lav mics and Zoom H2n... that's it. It took me 2 months to edit sacrificing lots of good shots. The final movie is only 8minutes!! I still think we could shot some more good shots!!
You can see it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJtvTTr7vwo
But there are some very short movies for my client of say 30 second to 4 minute where every shot was thought out and shot. We did not need to shoot any thing more that 20%. Because in this case we were in control.

July 21, 2015 at 11:39AM

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Dibyendu Joardar
Director of Photography
612

I don't know the same post got up so many times. Sorry for that. Any solution to it?

July 21, 2015 at 11:39AM, Edited July 21, 11:44AM

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Dibyendu Joardar
Director of Photography
612

Yeah, 10 hours is a huge amount but when shooting doc, not promo or commercial, you kinda need to keep that camera rolling. In reality, the original plan had been to spend a couple of evenings picking out the key moments of a guitar being made, filming a whole bunch of different guitars and then cut it together to make it look like one guitar.

In reality, once we had spent a few evenings filming we became aware of how special and unique this actual guitar was going to be, with the fanned frets and amazing inlay so we decided to continue to film the building of the one guitar - which I think gave the film much more integrity.

I was also surprised that, even with the experienced Luthier, it isn't always an exact science or time frame so we just kinda let that camera roll!

So 6 evenings, filming up to 100fps... you can see where we ended up with 10 hours! But that's the cool thing about digital, ya just bin the stuff you don't need!

Thanks for all your thoughts, appreciate all your comments!

John (DP on this shoot...)

July 24, 2015 at 5:39AM

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Yeh, so let us keep rolling the camera during such eventful occasions and enjoy the shooting. Left out footage can be used somewhere else to do proper justifications to those shots. Good Luck to all of us...

August 1, 2015 at 12:00PM

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Dibyendu Joardar
Director of Photography
612

Yeh, so let us keep rolling the camera during such eventful occasions and enjoy the shooting. Left out footage can be used somewhere else to do proper justifications to those shots. Good Luck to all of us...

August 1, 2015 at 12:00PM, Edited August 1, 12:00PM

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Dibyendu Joardar
Director of Photography
612