Shortlisted for the 2021 Academy Awards for Feature Documentary, Boys State follows a thousand Texas high school seniors as they gather for an annual week-long program to build a mock state government from the ground up. The film gives the audience an inside look at the inner workings of the race and captures the journey of a few select teens running for governor as tensions build. The story paints a vivid picture of division and democracy.
Editor Jeff Gilbert, ACE, received the Best Edited Feature Award at DocNYC 2020 and was nominated for the 2021 IDA Documentary Award as well as the Cinema Eye Honors Award for Best Editing, all honoring his compelling work on Boys State. We talked to Jeff about why Premiere Pro was the right choice to edit the film, his favorite scenes, and the value he finds in his workspace.
How and where did you first learn to edit?
I taught myself how to edit on a 16mm flatbed machine way back when working on my own short films. I refined my skills and learned nonlinear systems in graduate film school at NYU. From there I started working professionally as a (terrible) assistant editor and eventually migrated over to editing itself. I imagine the producers I worked for just wanted to replace me as an AE and were kind enough to let me take a whack at the editing side of things, which was a much better fit.
How do you begin a project/set up your workspace?
I’m meticulous about setting up my project and workspace both because it is a critical part of the process—setting the foundation so that the work can eventually become intuitive and fluid—and because it helps me manage my anxiety. At the start of any feature documentary, the amount of footage is overwhelming. Setting up an orderly file structure and bins with dailies broken down into event or scene string outs allows me some sense of control in what seems like an insurmountable task. It’s the first step in a long journey.
Tell us about a favorite scene or moment from this project and why it stands out to you.
My favorite moment in Boys State is near the middle of the film where Robert, a forward barreling young man running for governor reveals a deep secret about his approach to campaigning. I don’t want to spoil the moment, but the story turns ever so importantly in his arc and toward a deeper meaning. In one critical moment the film becomes a deeper inquiry about integrity in politics and the electoral process at large.
Finding the right place to reveal this important twist was fun to balance.
'Boys State'Credit: Apple TV+
What were some specific post-production challenges you faced that were unique to your project? How did you go about solving them?
With the directors in San Francisco and myself and my assistant editor, Connor Hall, in remote locations across Los Angeles, the scattered workflow presented significant challenges. It was difficult to share my project and pass sequences back and forth like I’m used to and required some creative problem solving on Connor’s part.
Using remote desktop and Team Viewer solutions helped a lot but the remote workflow was tricky on this film mostly because we weren’t set up for it from the jump.
What Adobe tools did you use on this project and why did you originally choose them?
In addition to Premiere Pro, Connor, our assistant editor, is skilled at Photoshop and After Effects. We leaned on him heavily to do pre-vis composites and stabilization shots throughout the process and he turned to both of these tools extensively to great effect. Having the ability on our team to try things out before passing them on to a higher-end finishing team was really an asset.
Why were they the best choice for this project?
As mentioned above, the freedom to try out composites or scrub unwanted elements from a frame was a nice luxury to have, just to test if our ideas were even possible. Using Photoshop and After Effects gave us a good sense of what was possible.
What do you like about Premiere Pro, and/or any of the other tools you used?
I like Premiere Pro’s interface a lot. I love how tactile the timeline is and appreciate how easy it is to make adjustments within any given clip and on the timeline itself. I also think the markers are a great tool. I use markers extensively to log my footage and love how easy they are to manipulate and edit on the fly.
Credit: Jeff Gilbert
What’s your hidden gem/favorite workflow hack in Adobe Creative Cloud?
Premiere does a great job with creating multicam sequences and patching audio. The ability to drag a sync map into the source monitor and end up with a multi-clip was a great workflow for us on Boys State because we had up to seven cameras filming at a time in some circumstances.
Who is your creative inspiration and why?
I pull creative inspiration from all facets of life—be it music, movies, food… I don’t have a touchstone source per se but try and stay tuned to what I’m responding to on any given project. Lately, I’ve been turning to Abbas Kiarostami and Michael Ritchie films and listening to a lot of Destroyer as well as Anderson Paak. I don’t know how they correlate, but I trust it all seeps its way into my work indirectly in ways I can’t put a finger on.
What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to face in your career and how did you overcome it? What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers or content creators?
I’ve been lucky to steer clear of tough moments that are story-worthy (though I’ve heard more than I care to know from several editors!). I feel like the toughest junction is always at the beginning of a project. Without fail, I’m overwhelmed and convinced that this will be the one project that proves I’m incapable of figuring out the story.
I say this to aspiring editors to be helpful (the moral of the story is that I always find a way to figure it out). When the process ahead seems completely out of reach, just grab onto something. Make an edit, tackle a small problem, jot down a thought—take an actionable step forward and the creative engine will sputter to a start.
From there, lean into the momentum and have faith. Good old blind faith!
Share a photo of where you work. What’s your favorite thing about your workspace and why?
This is a photo of my edit room.
Credit: Jeff GilbertI’m spoiled. It has huge windows, tons of room, an empty couch behind me, and a nice-sized playback monitor which allows me to step back from the computer and watch scenes from an audience member’s perspective.
I also love having an adjustable desk. Being able to take breaks from sitting down keeps the blood flowing and makes all the time in front of monitors that much more bearable.
Boys State is currently streaming on Apple TV+.