What It Takes to Edit a Sundance-Caliber Documentary
The Sundance Film Festival is the place for some of the best documentaries in the world -- and we spoke to three editors with films in Competition on how they arrived at their incredible process.
Pulled from conversations about documentary films they have in competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, here are some solid perspectives on the art of editing documentaries, which as one editor is so bold to mention below, is where the story happens. Stay tuned for more conversations about these filmmakers and films in our continuing Sundance coverage throughout the festival!
Why edit? You start with a love of cinema
Robin Blotnick (The Hand That Feeds) was the editor and writer of U.S. Documentary Competition film Knock Down the House, a film that follows four women, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as they run for office in an effort to topple incumbents in Congress. Blotnick began editing as early as 1998, and while he also takes on other filmmaker roles, cutting a film appeals to him for it's creative possibilities in the edit bay.
Robin Blotnick: I guess you could say started working on film when I was a kid. I got really into making my own movies on a camcorder, probably around 11 years old. I've always been really drawn to storytelling and crafting stories. I think editing is just the part that always impacts me the most because you have control. I just love the power the editor has over how it all comes together. I also am not as comfortable with the performance art involved with shooting and production, where you have to be your absolute best the first time you do it. I like being able to mess up and start over and scrap things and and try new angles. Editing allows for that, so that's kind of what pushed me in the editing direction...I edited to pay the bills for many years. I edited home movies for people, things like that. So editing is something that comes naturally to me, and something I really enjoy doing. It can be a bit of a slog sometimes, but it's worth it in the end for sure.
A still from Knock Down The House by Rachel Lears, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Rachel Lears.
"I just love the power the editor has over how it all comes together."
Amy Foote (The Work) who was one of two editors on U.S. Documentary Competition film Hail Satan? her love of documentaries came early. When given the choice between pursuing producer or editing, the fact that she didn't like being on the phone compounded the realization that the editing created an immensely satisfying creative state of being, she was on her way.
Amy Foote: I didn't go to film school or anything. I started being really into documentary film in high school. Because we had a really good video rental place in my neighborhood. I remember watching documentaries in the theater and, at the end of them, feeling so moved, and thinking, “Wow, wouldn't it be great to be a part of something like this?” I had started doing an unpaid internship on a film with a director named Jennifer Fox, and she and the editor of that film, Nils Pagh Andersen, who did The Act of Killing, both kind of took me under their wing and decided to mentor me...Once I started getting a taste for it, I was hooked. I just loved the feeling of getting into the flow of something, losing a sense of time and place, and not ever getting up. I just thought, “Wow, this is a great state of being. I would love to get paid for this.” I got my first film, and the rest is history.
For Aaron Wickenden (Generation Wealth, Won't You Be My Neighbor) the other editor on U.S. Documentary Competition film Hail Satan? it all began with a perfectly normal obsession with becoming Stanley Kubrick. But while photography proved the channel to filmmaking for Kubrick, for Wickenden it was the power of editing.
Aaron Wickenden: For me, I was really enamored with Stanley Kubrick when I was a teenager, and I thought however he got to be him, I should just model myself the same way. Which was sort of foolish, but I tried. I learned, when I was in high school, that he spent a good part of his early career as a still photographer...I went to school at the University of Arizona, for photography...And when I graduated from college, I entered into this world like, “Okay, I'm gonna be a cinematographer now, and follow that path to being a director.” But I realized pretty quickly that there were a lot of people who actually spent the time to become great cinematographers, and they were far ahead of me in terms of actually devoting themselves to that craft.
So I started interning at this company, Kartemquin Films in Chicago, and even though there were no opportunities at the moment for people who wanted to be behind the camera, or assist in the field, there were a lot of opportunities for people who were willing to sit in the middle of the night and put subtitles on added sequences...And I kind of realized at that point, one) that I loved documentary, but then two) that this is where the real storytelling craft was happening in documentary film. I remember when I was in school, there was this thing I had heard, that in fiction, films are made three times, once when they're written, once when they're shot, and once when they're edited. But I realized that in documentary, it really just happens once, and it happens in the editing room. If I can be so bold and say that.
A still from Hail Satan? by Penny Lane, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Naiti Gmez.
"...this is where the real storytelling craft was happening in documentary film."
Play around with the tools of the trade
Blotnick: What I'm using right now I'm on an iMac 5K retina. It's kinda souped up for editing and I'm using Adobe Premiere Pro which I started learning to use a couple years ago and I like it a lot. If you’re starting out editing feature films and feature documentaries, I would really stress doing a lot of the editing outside of computers. Remember that you can do a lot with things like theme cards.
Foote: We were in two different states. He was working in Chicago, and I was in Brooklyn. So we did share a space together for, what, maybe a week total, and a couple days, here and there. We cut on Premiere, and we communicated by Slack throughout the day, and posted cuts on Frame.io.
Wickenden: We would post these cuts on Frame.io, of our scenes, and everybody would just throw in with ideas, and debate certain feelings about cuts, and that was a real delight. I think Penny created an environment where we felt safe as editors to share our opinions, and at times it felt like the best of all collaborations, where you're in a small band. As if you're all making a record together.
Parting advice: get a mentor, find collaborators, and do not waste your one wild life
Here's a short snippet from each editor on their best piece of advice.
Foote: Find a mentor, and attach yourself to them.
Wickenden: I feel like the most crucial thing that's been steering me in all of this kind of wild career, is just choosing things that resonate with me on a deep, personal level.
Blotnick: Keep your eyes open for people you can work with -- and it doesn't have to be the same person forever like me and Rachel [Lears, director of Knock Down the House]. You don't have to marry them and have a kid together! But find people you can really be inspired by and share a common vision with, and your films will be so much better.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Featured header image of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a still from 'Knock Down the House' an official selection of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.