Join Ashley Kennedy for an in-depth discussion in this video Getting to know Steve's process and workflow, part of Conversations in Video Editing.
- Hi, I'm Ashley Kennedy. Welcome to our first installment of our series, "Conversations in Video Editing." I was fortunate enough to chat with Steve Audette, 20 year veteran editor and current documentary editor at PBS Frontline. We'll be talking all about Steve's unique philosophies and how he tells real stories in interesting ways. And after we learn about his process, he'll treat us to a shot-by-shot scene analysis from his recent film "Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA." Alright, let's get on with the interview.
Steve, thanks so much for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself as an editor of Frontline, please? - Well it's a 22 year career, editor of Frontline, and I've probably have something like 50 some-odd documentary credits. All kinds of genre, verite , narrated, avant garde, the whole works. And so basically I cut two or three docs a year, amazingly, and it has given me a lot of experience in the narrative form, and how to tell a story within documentary.
- I have seen you speak, and have seen many of your documentaries and I think its very clear that you love what you do. Invite us into that world, what is that like on a day-to-day basis, and year to year (laughs)? - Well, you know, it's kind of I'd say paradise except for the subject matter generally tends to be sort of downer, you know what I'm saying? It's like no good news comes out of Frontline (laughs) But it's wonderful because I'm given the opportunity to play with so much media, and given the flexibility at this point there's so much trust between Frontline and myself and the producers I work with, that they let me go and kind of work the media to reach its maximum potential.
That, even if I'm doing something that they may feel is sort of controversial or different than they're expecting, there's a level of trust there, so that I can go in and really maximize the drama of any particular scene. And I think of cutting as painting or sculpture, really, I don't see it that much differently than any other art form. It's just media. If you have sort of the journalistic integrity of Frontline, and you have the journalistic sort of support of the staff of Frontline, the editorial staff of Frontline, That gives, I know then I'm standing on good ground, so that gives me tremendous flexibility and latitude to really play with the footage and make things happen, whether that means compositing images on top of each other, whether that means creating these things which I call audio fugues, which are sort of a compilation of sound effects and audio news headlines that create sort of the Greek chorus of the day.
I mean I'm just, I have unlimited opportunities with the media, once we get the journalism set, and that's a lot of fun. - So you have all of these building blocks and you can, you do create them in many different ways and many different styles from documentary to documentary. Can you talk a little bit about the process of arriving at a particular look and style and feeling, as you go from one film to the next? - Yes, we meet usually before the edit starts with the directors and producers, and even the, sometimes if we're lucky, the DPs.
And the discussion is, "Okay, this is..." you know, we get debriefed on what the subject matter is "And this is what we're going to do." For example, I'm working on a story right now about the CIA, and the, a book that was published by the Senate on their efforts to enhance interrogation techniques, a.k.a. maybe torture, depends who you ask. Anyway, so once we get debriefed on sort of what the story is, we are then sit around and ponder what are our image systems? How are we going to portray the characters in the film so that it's very clear to the viewer who is on which team? This is not thumb on the scale stuff, this is clearly trying to help the viewer who's distracted by so many things in their lives be very clear about which team is playing on, which member is playing on which team and what their sort of hierarchy is in that team.
For example, we decided on the CIA story to make the book a character itself. Well, how do you do that? How do you introduce it? Does it have a voice? What's the certain look of stuff? And so we just talk about all those things, and we do some mock ups, and eventually we have this beautiful sort of, it turned out to be not paper, it turned out to be electronic, it turned out to be coming from a computer. So you have this kind of file system that comes through, and then certain pages come up, and then they come forward to the screen and present themselves, and go back and go away. I mean, that's sort of high production value.
Happens only when you can spend time thinking about what the image system is. Sometimes we say, "Okay, we're gonna go with a Rothko look." Which we did for the NSA program. And that was basically the sense of Rothko panes are so heavy and dramatic, and so omnipresent in the room, when you're with one, it overwhelms you. And this is sort of like the NSA, that we are able to use that image system, the gold, the blues, the reds, and kind of work it into the pictures that we were doing and the photographs.
So it's all kinds of stuff, including sound and everything else. - Well, can you expand on sound, 'cause I, I mean I see here (laughs) we have, - Yeah, yeah. - I mean, your soundscapes are tremendous and I know you have strong feelings about sound. - Yes. I really think that the foundation of all, sort of, your experience with any kind of television program or even film, is based on the soundtrack. And that sound design that goes into it. Because sound is really ultimately the only 3D element, the only truly 3D element of any film. They can be sort of pseudo-3D by glasses or other means, but the screen itself is flat.
What happens with sound is it enters the room and creates an environment that affects you, on both sides of you, so there's this, I believe, this ability, if it's done well, for the, and if the sound design is done well, you can bring the subconscious from the couch across the room, beyond the screen and into the world of your film. And that's what this, and it's only sound that does that translation into the thing. The pictures are always gonna be very, very sort of flat, and analyzed.
It's the audio that gives you that emotional element. Including music, which I have very strong feelings about, as well, in that I call music the lady in the red dress, from The Matrix. It adds drama to your scene, but that's also bad news 'cause it adds drama to your scene. And you shouldn't rely on the music being the source of that drama. It should be the story itself, the audio's there to help support the drama, not represent the drama. - So, when you are arriving at an approach for a particular film, and you have the look down that you are gonna go for, you have all the building blocks and you're starting to collect all of the assets, can you just give us a sense of your workflow through the entire post process, please? - Yeah, I mean it basically starts with, it used to start with me doing everything, but now it, the cost and the timeline, production going, making shorter and shorter, our usual 12-week got cut down to 10, now they're down to 6, and they're probably soon be 5.
So I work with an assistant editor all the time now. And we work tag team, he works on anothe room we're connected via ISIS to the same media storage, so he's frequently ingesting media that I'm gonna be needing in the future. This is primarily stock footage bought from vendors that has been researched by the editorial team of the production group. But basically the idea is the story is decided on, the research is done, the reporting is done, then they go out and do the interviews. Those interviews are then brought back, brought into the media composer through AMA, consolidated down into, onto the drive at 4:1 standard def.
I find 4:1 standard def clean enough so I can see details that I need, but it's also, it doesn't take up that much room. It also makes any After Effects work I do much faster 'cause you're working in standard def versus HD, and just the number of pixels After Effects has to deal with is much less. Those are then translated up to HD later. - Right. - But basically then all the interviews are transcribed, those transcriptions come into the media composer as scripts. They are, the media is then placed on those scripts and sunk, currently using ScriptSync. So once the scripts are synced with their media and the text, I will, we'll have a whole section of, we'll have a folder for B roll, we'll have a folder for stock footage, the B roll's usually shot by the DP, the stock footage is usually acquired from other sources, we have our interview transcripts, we have other films that we've made on the same subject, also transcribed and put in there with clips, so we can get access to that.
We have a sound effects folder, we have a graphics folder, titles folder, lower thirds folder, those being two different things for me. Titles aren't necessarily lower thirds, titles are titles, they're whatever you need. You know, "Picture to Come." Then there's my favorite folder, which is what I call the Audio Headlines folder. And what that is is basically a series of, a series of bins that contain news reports of a particular subject that is relevant to our film. And why I like these is because I weave them together.
May I speak of this? Is... - Yes, absolutely. - What I like about them is I weave them together in a way that they kind of illustrate in their sort of breathy news anchorman way the condition of the day, the condition of the time that we're trying to describe, that the narration and the sound bites are speaking to. And so I look at them as sort of the Greek chorus of the current age, that sort of our 24/7 news cycle that allows us to have all these people with opinions based on no experience, they're just, they're reacting to, in the moment.
And you get that, and so if you can weave those little phrases together, you're able to create a sort of sense of the time and the mood of the nation, if it's a political film, before an event happens. And then the narration will kick in, and then the speaker will, the interviewer will talk. And I'll just say one other thing, is that is Frontline is very big on first-person witnesses. Most of the people we interview are people who were there at the event when it took place. It's not experts, it's not that we don't have experts, but experts are rare in Frontline film.
It's mostly the people who were there, thinking seriously about what happened, and then, in addition to that, news reporters who were covering that specific subject. So the news reporters change, depending on what the film is about. If it's about fiscal cliff, it's one set of reporters. If it's about the presidency, it's a different set of reporters. 'Cause whoever reports on that topic. So all that goes together, and then the next thing that happens is the producer will walk in day one with a five to six page script. "It's flat, I mean it's fat, "and it needs to be thought of more concisely, "but these are all the bites that we're thinking about, "and this is sort of some scratch narration that I wrote "that makes some sense of all these bites." We just quickly assemble that, very, very flat, just narration, sound bite, narration, sound bite.
No sound design, nothing. Just to kinda look at what the landscape is. We then play that back and say "That bite stinks, it comes out." "That bite's too long, cut it here." "Oh, flip that bite around because I realize "he made sense, he figured out what he wanted to say late, "let's put that up top, "and then we'll put the other part second." Stuff like that. "That narration is too long." "Take out that narration, we don't need it, "the person just said it." Things like this. Just all happen boom, boom, boom, boom. 'Bout that fast. And so we shrink that five, six pages down to two or three, and then we start working on, we say, "Okay, what's our image system "for this scene?" We know it 'cause we've already discussed it we start sketching out some shots.
Every scene begins with a shot that is indicative of the scene to come. So I'm always looking for that shot that's gonna be something that demonstrates the mood or image or feeling or expression of the scene to be. Once I have that shot, I lock that one in. That also dictates, frequently, what the pace of the shots to come are because if it's a fast shot like a police car running by, then that's not gonna be something, you're not gonna have slow steady shots after that. If it's a shot of a guilty building, like the Capitol, that's gonna change the nature of the shots that follow.
Or the FBI, for example. Then, I don't do too much of the shots at that point, I then jump really strongly into the audio. I start with a sound fugue, maybe, that might introduce the scene. And then I might separate the narration a little bit so the sound fugue works into that. And then build, start putting some pictures on top of that, then I go back to the sound to fill in the ambiance of that space. And then I go to the music library and find some appropriate, sort of non-invasive, non-dramatic, but sort of supportive sound.
One of the things about music is most people watch television these days on pretty good speaker systems. Not everybody watches television on a laptop. So you have to, when you're designing a documentary, fill the full bandwidth that a good set, or a good sound system is capable of. And so that's why, even if I don't care for music, I'll just put in a drone a little bit, just to kind of fill in that space, again to try and get a 3D environment of audio that will succumb the viewer into the film. Anyway, so the end of the day we got maybe two or three minutes cut, if we're lucky we got five, and we make a QuickTIme, send that out the producer, he goes home, has dinner, after dinner he looks at it, makes notes, and the next day we go back to that five minutes, polish it up a little more, usually what we call the 20 changes, and then we start up on a new sript and start that process.
And it happens for the five weeks. Well, four and half weeks. And then we have a rough cut, we show the cut to the executives, they say what they like or don't like, and then that is then changed in, we are then, take those considerations into into effect. It's fact-checked. Double fact-checked. And then we go into the sort of finishing process. Which I don't take, other than sit in the mix, I don't really take any part in that. - And I know that you have strong opinions about what you deliver to whoever's viewing it to be, I mean you just mentioned it, very finished, very polished.
You have a, you don't really truly have anyone look at what you would call a rough cut, - No. - You've really, really polished that out. - Absolutely. - Why is that? - I feel very strongly about this. Whenever there is something in a rough cut that is ambiguous to that viewer, let's say an executive. And I've worked with the best executive producers there is on the planet. It's a, I honor them, they're great. But when I leave a black hole in a scene, they're intelligent, smart people.
They're gonna, in their mind, fill in something there. I'm not sure that whatever they choose to fill into that black hole is gonna be as good as someone who has worked in the scene and knows what's available, or knows what would be the maximum, what would be the best shot. 'Cause they're working in the abstract, and I'm working with the practical. So I always fine cut, always fine cut. Always fine cut. Even if I'm showing it to my producer, I fine cut. Except for that first assembly where we're just - Right. - looking at bites. Is the bite too long? - Right. - Is the bite on target? Stuff like that.
But once it gets into a scene, never show it until it's cut. Never.