An editor's journey through the films that made America (or, how I stopped worrying and learned to love the B-Roll)
Quick, what's your favorite movie of all time?
The Godfather? The Wizard of Oz? Citizen Kane? How about Do The Right Thing? Eraserhead? This Is Spinal Tap? Star Wars (the version where, yes, Han shoots first)?
Now imagine…these films are gone. Lost forever.
Unthinkable? The truth is that celluloid film, the keeper of our dreams of the 20th century, is incredibly fragile. Even in this era of pristine digital formats and Blu-ray discs, the negatives and prints of most movies originated on film are in continuous danger of decay and loss.
Fortunately, thanks to the work of a small network of dedicated preservationists, scholars and true cinephiles, these films and many others will be viewable in their celluloid forms for generations to come.
I had the great pleasure of co-editing, co-writing and associate producing These Amazing Shadows, a documentary about the collection of the National Film Registry, which each year announces twenty-five new American films to be preserved for all time for their "historic, cultural and aesthetic value." Now in its twenty-second year, the Registry has nominated almost six hundred films to the permanent archive, spanning the history of American cinema from the first silent images to movies made as recently as a decade ago (a film must be at least ten years old to be nominated).
The documentary tracing this incredible collection has been a great journey, starting with the inspiration of co-directors Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton, who crossed the country interviewing directors, actors, scholars, fans -- and the now slightly less unsung heroes of film -- the preservationists and archivists of cinema.
OVER A COUPLE OF BEERS
My role in the film started, as most good gigs do, over a couple of beers. Kurt and Paul knew of my previous editorial work on films like Pat Creadon's Wordplay and I.O.U.S.A and Kirby Dick's Outrage, and they reached out to see if I'd like to hear the pitch. I was in the Bay Area shooting a segment of another documentary, and managed to fit in a meeting at a local brewpub that quickly devolved into complete film geek mania. The three of us went through our favorite movies, choice cinematic moments, and ideas on how to bring a meta-film about film to life. For inspiration, we finished the night by watching Errol Morris' ode to film fans, shown during the 2002 Oscars, which I had loaded on my iPhone for inspiration.
Errol Morris' ode to film fans from the 2002 Oscars
Our first priority when we started working was to collect the many interviews already shot, and plan a structure that could do full justice to the breadth and depth of one hundred years of American cinema. Although we knew this was nearly impossible in a ninety-odd minute film, we broke down big ideas into large subject areas we thought would be most interesting to focus on: the work of the preservationists, the origin of the Registry, the selection process, along with a range of film genres in the collection.
I often come on in mid-production as editor on feature documentaries, and I try to help plan shoots yet to come with directors to make the post process easier. I'm often able to help guide directors towards interviews and story paths that I can see will pay out in the editorial process, and as a shooter myself, I'm all about calling for the b-roll.
For Shadows, I used two planning tools: Omni Group Software's terrific OmniGraffle, which I used as a virtual index card board for mapping structure, along with (yes!) an actual corkboard with index cards! Having both systems allowed the directors and I to trade ideas remotely, and also work together in the room with real world pushpins for that old-school analog flow.
Top, Cleavon Little from Blazing Saddles,
middle, George Takei remembering the brutal truths of the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II captured in a home movie called Topaz,
and bottom, John Waters
Some of our best brainstorming sessions consisted of the three of us wandering around my edit studio clutching our favorite scene cards, furiously defending our precious turf until we all agreed on the must-haves. (Mine was Blazing Saddles as the pinnacle of American cinematic achievement).
We would gradually form the structure of the film both digitally and on cork, and decide on how to fill those sections out with further interviews. Included among the many luminaries that gave us their insights were Christopher Nolan, talking about the wonder of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner; Rob Reiner recounting the joy of discovering It's a Wonderful Life on a home 16mm projector; Amy Heckerling dreaming as a kid about making films when it seemed like only boys did those things; George Takei remembering the brutal truths of the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II captured in a home movie called Topaz (1945); and John Singleton revealing that he had a major role in pushing for Birth of a Nation to be included on the Registry, despite -- and because of -- its dark racial legacy.
And then there's John Waters, who...well, you have to see the film. He's John Waters.
Paul and Kurt were a great directing team, trading interview duties and each shaping the focus of the film. One of their key subjects turned out to be Head Nitrate Film Manager George Willeman, part of the team of archivists at the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpepper, Virginia, where much of the National Film Registry is securely stored under ideal preservation conditions. George is not only a fount of film knowledge, but also a very funny guy, and has a great sense of poetry about the memories he stands guard over.
When you see These Amazing Shadows, you'll understand where our title comes from as you hear George reflect on the wonder he still has for the collection and his work. He's rooted for several films over the years, but the one he championed that is now forever preserved in the Registry is Let's All Go to the Lobby, the famous pre-show ad for snacks and soda that leaves a permanent ear worm in anyone who hears its jingle.
George toured our crew through the nitrate vaults of the Packard campus, where thousands of reels of gorgeous but extremely volatile nitrate negative and prints are stored (there's a brief shot of the actual cans containing Citizen Kane in the doc!). Nitrate made a great film stock for the early days of film production, with the one serious drawback that it was as flammable as primer cord if handled incorrectly. Dozens of people perished over the years in nitrate film fires (see Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds for a practical use of nitrate's bad side), and many early classics were lost to the flames.
At the same time, the studios often didn't see any reason to keep films after their theatrical life had ended...why would people want to see those old things again, they reasoned. Whole catalogs were trashed, buried, lost, and even dumped into the ocean off the Santa Monica pier, in that case by direct studio orders. As we sadly note in our film, over fifty percent of all films made before 1950 are gone…and nearly eighty-five percent of the silent era is lost forever.
Some of the amazing shadows in Citizen Kane
The choices of the Registry board (made up of scholars and film professionals from across the range of cinema) were easy in the early years -- as one board member puts it, "Citizen Kane, Citizen Kane, Citizen Kane!" -- but became much more diverse as the mission statement of the Registry was read as a wider mandate. Besides the "sprocket worn classics" of Hollywood, the board began to include rare silent films, documentaries, experimental and avant-garde films, and even instructional shorts and home movies.
The most infamous of these is a short reel of silent 8mm film that captured an image in Dallas in 1963 that still burns in our memories today…the Zapruder film of the assasination of President John F. Kennedy.
THE GREAT CREATIVE CHALLENGE
The great creative challenge of working on the documentary was building chapters based on big themes of films...genres and themes including science fiction and fantasy, animation, comedy, and ideas about how America has grown and dealt with issues including race, women's' rights, war, propaganda and changing sexual mores.
Top, Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face (1933) and below,
Debbie Reynolds as Kathy in Singin' in the Rain
One of my favorite sections of the film reveals the secrets of the infamous censored classic Baby Face from 1933, in which Barbara Stanwyck unleashes her raging desires on the big city. The original film was very frank about a woman's sexual power and independence, until censors trimmed out most of the edgy content just after the film's release. Years later, it was our hero George Willeman who discovered the only remaining unedited print, and brought it back into the world for all to see.
Best line in the film: Stanwyck is asked during a job interview if she has any experience, and with a perfect roll of her eyes, she replies, "Plenty!"
At one point, Kurt and Paul deputized me to field direct an interview for the film while they were off shooting back east, and it stands out as one of my favorite memories from the production. I went winding up a Los Angeles canyon road to the wooded compound of Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds, where she met me and our camera person for a short interview about her love of film and her incredible collection of memorabilia (which included a fairly well known pair of ruby slippers).
I've always loved Singin' in the Rain, and this was a special moment for the classic film nerd in me. That her daughter Carrie Fisher's house was just up the hill added an extra bit of Hollywood intrigue to the day's shoot. Together, mother and daughter have appeared in four films now on the Registry!
STRUCTURAL AND FINE CUT EDITING
Along with the great work of my co-editor Alex Calleros, we finished most of our primary structural and fine cut editing by the late September deadline for the Sundance Film Festival, and crossed our fingers as we submitted the cut for judging. We were very fortunate to have the talents of Peter Golub as our composer, and we were able to temp score the film with his previous soundtracks to give a sense of the emotion of the final music to come.
Image above left, Co-editor Alex Calleros (left) and Doug Blush.
Above right, Peter Golub, leading a scoring session for Shadows at his studio.
As an editor, I enjoy the scoring phase of a project, both in the temp and final tracks, as much as any other aspect. Scenes and transitions that may work fairly well as just image and content become so much more cinematic if the right musical themes are at added, and Peter brought a sense of both quiet dignity and epic grandeur in all the right places. He was able to do a full orchestral final score for the film, which had its own classical album release in 2011. You can hear pieces of the score and buy the album on iTunes and Amazon.
For our motion graphics look and feel, we turned to the amazing Brian Oakes and his studio in New York, Brian Oakes Design, to create an organic, translucent celluloid universe that we could move around in, allowing us to transition from film to film and genre to genre.
Brian is a Zen master of After Effects and graphics design, and also often creates the posters and even the promotional buttons for the films we've worked on together -- in Shadows' case, a series of buttons with famous film quotes. My favorite button of all time reads "Get Your Stinking Paws off Me, You Damn Dirty Ape!"
Some of the trappings of Sundance
I was working on some finesse editing in November when the phone rang in my studio, and I heard Kurt's voice happily announce "We got into Sundance!"
I've had the Sundance call come in several times in years past, but this was especially sweet news for our crew of film lovers. After the whoops and cheers, we now had to go full throttle to complete the film for the festival, which was less than two months away.
My amazing co-editor Alex, who had worked on many of the segments in the film, now also became the superstar archivist, getting every clip from every classic film digitized into our main system via a continuous stream of DVDs, and even a couple of VHS tapes of a few out-of-print ancient bits.
Thanks to a provision of current copyright law that allows for the fair use of existing film clips in new films that educate or comment on the material, we were able to include dozens and dozens of moments from both well known epics and obscure gems.
Once we had a complete ProRes HQ "bake" of the movie from Final Cut Studio at my shop, Kurt, Paul and our very talented DP Frazer Bradshaw (who is also one of the proud parents in the film Babies) took the cut to Spy Post in San Francisco, where colorist Chris Martin was able to work with Frazer to give the interviews a classic, soft radiance. After yet another excellent audio mix from Larry Ellis at Max Post, the final elements were assembled in West Los Angeles by Matt Radecki at Different by Design, which has been a mecca for independent film and documentary finishing over the last several years.
THE SUNDANCE EXPERIENCE
George Willeman, the Nitrate Film Vault Manager for
The Library of Congress
Sundance was a great experience. We premiered to a sold-out theater in Park City, and had a Q & A session after the film with a panel that included George Willeman, who flew in from Virginia to celebrate with us. The crowd in Park City is always warm and welcoming, but this film had a special glow for the many cinephiles in the audiences.
Ultimately, my favorite screening of the five we did during the week was for an amazing crowd of high school students in Salt Lake City, who loved the film and asked some of the best questions I heard all week. We had a great time doing a film trivia contest during that one, awarding promo goodies and t-shirts to the winners. In the end, our crew victory dinner with Kurt, Paul, Alex, Peter, Frazer, George and our wonderful producer Christine O' Malley all on hand will always stand as my favorite moment of Sundance 2011.
Since Sundance, the film has played across the country, and has won a number of awards, including top prizes at the Louisville and Savannah film festivals. We were very lucky to be included in IFC's video-on-demand Sundance Selects series, and we've recently had a holiday showing on PBS as an episode of Independent Lens, the excellent documentary series from the Independent Television Service. The film has a beautiful DVD and Blu-ray release with a bonus short feature that expands the information about the search for lost classic films, and is also streaming now on Netflix.
We've all moved on to new projects, but even in the midst of our spinning hard drives and tiny chips full of HD images, we are all better off because of the people watching after the stories that we all dreamed together through the last century...these amazing shadows.
The crew in street mode on Vermont Avenue in the Los Feliz district, Los Angeles, in front of one of the neighborhood's notable sons, Leonardo DiCaprio. From left, co-editor Alex Calleros, producer Christin O'Malley, co-director Paul Mariano, and Doug Blush.
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