In his Editing Master Class on Building Characters, presented by G-Technology, veteran editor David Teague described his techniques for developing characters in documentaries. The event was part of Points North Documentary Film Forum at the 11th Camden International Film Festival (CIFF), which ran September 17 – 20, 2015 in Camden, Rockport, and Rockland, Maine. 

Teague has taught editing and worked as an editing mentor with the IFP Documentary Labs and the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship but is best known for his work as an editor on E-Team, which was nominated for an Emmy and won an award at Sundance in 2014, and Cutie and the Boxer, also a Sundance winner in 2014 and an Oscar nominee.  For context, here's the E-Team trailer:

Stories from documentaries are often made in the edit room.

Editor David Teague leads Building Characters - Editing Master Class at Points North at CIFF.Editor David Teague leads Building Characters - Editing Master Class at Points North Documentary Forum at Camden International Film Festival.Credit: Spencer Worthley

Teague began the standing-room-only class with the reminder that stories from documentaries are often made in the edit room. Teague compared finished scenes from his films with prior, unused iterations of these scenes to show how he approached working with real people as characters and how he develops the characters in his films. Every editorial choice propels the plot and develops the character: “you, as the editor, make choices to develop certain aspects in the movie. You leave a lot of stuff out,” Teague told the audience. “Editing is messing up over and over until you get it right. But with each mistake you learn about the possibilities that exist in your story.” Below are takeaways from Teague’s talk about the creative choices editors make in their work.

You are responsible for creating a character out of a real person, and knowing the difference.

In a documentary, filmmakers are tasked with the unique responsibility of creating characters from real human beings. Teague emphasized the importance of the distinction between the movie character and the complexities of a real person. “There’s a moral honesty needed to represent someone who is real because he or she will be living with this as a movie,” said Teague.

The editor’s unique viewpoint is key.

“The more distinct the experience of the film is between the director and the editor, the better," said Teague. "For instance, I don't watch the footage in order, instead it's like a grab bag of scenes.” The editor’s unique personal perspective can add to the story. “It's helpful not to meet the real people until picture lock, so that you can be a good balance to your director. The director has an intimate relationship with the people (in the movie), who are different than the characters (on-screen), and so sees them as differently than you as the editor.” This emotional distance to the people in the movie that the editor has is an advantage in the process.

Find your story. Which character carries it?

As you look at the footage, identify who could be the protagonist — who changes in your story? Who could carry a story? In Cutie and the Boxer, a documentary about the 40-year marriage between Ushio Shinohara, a Japanese-born artist in Brooklyn who paints by bashing paint-soaked boxing gloves into huge canvases, and his wife Noriko, who becomes an artist of her own, director Zach Heinzerling shot footage for over five years:

A lot changed over the course of the shoot. According to Teague, during this 5-year shoot and the edit, Noriko the person began developing her own career and artistic works separate from Ushio. This gave her a story arc as Noriko the character and the film became her story. But “the balanced portrait of them as a couple that we edited at first helped us figure out where to go with the story,” said Teague.

Introduce your character, then introduce the complexities.

Based on his experience with editing the E-Team, Teague recommended that an editor first introduce your character; then introduce the complexities. E-Team is a documentary that follows four members of the Human Rights Watch E-Team (Emergencies Team), to document and report on human rights abuses, specifically in Syria and Libya. The documentary features their work, but also their personal lives and how they interact and support each other.

Teague described the problem that he had with the character of Anna when he first cut the film. “We knew she was a great, compelling character, but when we did a test screening of an early rough cut, some people didn’t connect with her. They didn't understand why she was doing the work she did and her humorous, personal moments felt at odds with the seriousness of her work.” Teague said that he realized that the film had not established Anna’s sense of justice and passion for documenting abuses. “We had taken it for granted. So we added a scene at the beginning of the film, where she talks about abuses having to stop. We see her motivation and fire. Adding that scene provided the crucial context that let the audience connect with her later in the film."

Source: David Teague

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