Join Ashley Kennedy for an in-depth discussion in this video Interview with Steve Audette, 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, twenty 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. All right, 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 at Frontline please. - Well, it's a 22 year career, Editor at Frontline and I've probably had something like 50 some odd documentary credits, all kinds of genre. Verite, narrated, avant garde, the whole works. 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've seen you speak, and have seen many of your documentaries, and I think it's very clear that you love what you do. You know, just invite us in to that world. What is that like on a day to day basis, and year to year? - Well, you know, it's kind of I'd say it's 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. But it's wonderful because I'm given the opportunity to play with so much media, and given the flexibility at this point, there is 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, you know, 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 an 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, I know then that 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 course of the day.
I mean, 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 create, you do create them in many different ways, in 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 sometimes, if we're lucky, the DP's, and the discussion is, okay, 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 a book that was published by the Senate on their efforts to do enhanced 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 then sit around and ponder like, 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 member's 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? You know, 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 certain pages come up and then they come forward to the screen, present themselves, and go back, and go away. I mean that's, you know, 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 paintings are so heavy and dramatic, and so omnipresent in the room. When you're with one, it just overwhelms you. And this is sort of like the NSA. That we are able to use that image system, the golds, the blues, the reds, and kind of work it in to 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 see here, (laughs) we have, I mean you are, your soundscapes are tremendous and I know you have strong feelings about sound. - 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 sound, the track, and that sound design that goes in to it. Because sound is really, ultimately, the only 3D element, the only truly 3D element of any film. There 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, and so there's this, I believe, this ability if it's done well and if the sound design is done well you can bring the subconscious from the couch, across a room, beyond the screen, and in to the world of your film. And that's what this, it's only sound that does that translation in to 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, and that, I call music the lady in the red dress from The Matrix, you know it adds drama to your scene, but that's also bad news because 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 is 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 basically it starts with, it used to start with me doing everything, but now with the cost and the timeline, production making shorter and shorter our usual 12 weeks got cut down to 10, now they're down to six, and they're probably soon down to five, so I work with an assistant editor all the time now.
And we work tag team, he works on another 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 in to the media composer through AMA, consolidated down on to the drive at four to one standard def.
Like, I find four to one standard def clean enough so I can see details that I need, but it also 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 just the number of pixels After Effects has to deal with is much less. Those are then translated up to HD later. But basically, then all the interviews are transcribed. Those transcriptions come in to the media composer as scripts. The media is then placed on those scripts and sunc, currently using ScriptSync, so once those scripts are synced with the media and the text, I will have a whole section of, I'll have a folder for B-roll, we'll have a folder for stock footage, the B-roll is 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? - 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.
It's sort of our 24, seven news cycle that allows us to have all these people with opinions based on no experience. They're reacting in the moment. And you get that, and so if you can weave those little phrases together you're able to kind of 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, the interviewer will talk. And, I'll just say one other thing, is that 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 to 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. This is sort of some scratch narration 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 kind of look at what the landscape is. We then play that back and say that bite stinks, it comes out, that bites 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, it just all happens, boom, boom, boom, boom, about that fast. And so we shrink that five six pages down to two or three, and then we start working on, we say, okay so what's our image system for this scene? And we know because 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 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. So, then I don't do too much to the shots at that point, I then jump really strongly in to 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 in to that, and then 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-evasive, 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 everyone watches television on their 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 put in a drone a little bit, just to kind of fill that space, again to try to get a 3D environment of audio that will succumb the viewer in to the film. So, anyway, so at the end of the day we get maybe two, three minutes cut, if we're lucky we get five. And we make a QuickTime, send that out to 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 twenty changes, and then we start up on a new script, and start that process, and it happens for five weeks, well four and a 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, we would then take those considerations in to effect, it's fact checked, double fact checked.
And then we go in to the sort of finishing process. Which I don't, 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, you know, very polished. You know, you have a, you don't really, truly have anyone look at what you would call a rough cut. You really, really polish that out.
- Absolutely, 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, I've worked with the best executive producers there is on the planet. 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 in to 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 looking at bites, is the bite too long? Is the bite on target, or stuff like that. But once it gets in to a scene, never show it until it's cut. Never. - In that whole process that you talked about. What excites you the most? What's you favorite part? And what is the most challenging part? My favorite part is probably finding that first shot that begins a scene, and building the audio fugue that goes underneath it.
I would say that's probably my favorite part. And finding unique sound design elements that fit in to the scene that may be abstract. That may not be, for example I'm constantly enamored with this idea of a distant siren. A siren off in the distance, it's passing a few streets away. I find it adds a little bit of drama to a scene, an urgency without being overly impactful and affecting the scene itself. Another one of my favorites is dog barks. If you have a poignant pause in a scene, you're just kind of due for just as a pacing thing, sometimes a distant dog barking adds a little bit of, or even a bird chirp, or a duck quack, or all these little sounds help bring the space alive.
I like doing things like that. The most challenging thing, I have to say is trying to work with stock footage. Because frequently stock footage is not raw material. It's very often pre-cut scenes. Cut for another venue, or another, in a scene that had another purpose. And frequently, the shots are either too short, or too flat, there's not enough interest in the shot.
So that can be very tricky, and that's really where the fine art of editing comes in is taking that material that is not pristine and still eking out by digging in and finding stuff. Just as an example, we were doing a show Being Mortal with Atul Gawande, and, which is a great Frontline, and it was all shot in the hospital except for a few scenes that were shot in people's homes, and there was just this one scene that just wasn't working and the shots weren't there, and it was only when I said, "okay, we're stopping now, I'm gonna look "at all the raw footage again, "we're gonna go right through it from the beginning." Then I find that I had missed, a clip was in the wrong bin.
That there was another whole scene of these people which totally saved the scene, totally saved the day. That's the kind of discipline it takes to say it's gotta be here. The story is in the footage, if this scene's not working it's because I haven't got the right footage, or I'm trying to impose some story on to this footage. We've got to go back to the footage and see what's really there, then we'll know what our story is. - When you are coming up with the visuals that use things like stock footage, and archival and that sort of thing, if you don't have it, I know you also you have the ability to send your shooter out to get what you need.
So, is that kind of how it works? You work with what you have first, and then ask for what you need later? - It's very expensive to send shooters out so, generally speaking, there's I think, I'm gonna get this number wrong, but it's approximately 20 days of shooting for a documentary. - Uh-huh. - And so those are budgeted very tightly, because a lot of those are interviews. They'll do three or four interviews a day in a hotel room with a suite, very similar to this actually. So, I generally speaking, unless it's an emergency, won't send the shooter back out. What I will do sometimes is decide, okay, we gotta re-frame this, and maybe what we should do is say let's make this about a character instead of a place.
Who's the character in the story we have here. Okay, let's get a photograph of him, or her, and manipulate that photo, and we'll do ths as a photo sequence, and try to find a way to create the drama in that. So that's really what I do if I can't, if I really can't find it in the stock footage, we'll say forget this, not happening. Either get me a good guilty building, 'cause over twenty years there's a lot of good guilty buildings at Frontline. Or, let's make this about a character and let's get those photos in there. We run Bridge, Adobe Bridge all the time and that's just always on the monitor and the producer and everybody can just scroll down and look for stuff, and things are constantly being added to it, so that's how we would do that I would think.
- Because you make so many films about events that are currently happening, or have just recently happened, what are the challenges and ramifications in working with such hot, current material that people have such controversial feelings about often? - Well, here's the thing. Whenever I'm cutting a film, whatever the film is. I'm sort of like the CIA, I take morality out of the picture. I'm there to, as an editor, I'm there to collaborate with the directors, and producers, and reporters of the film I'm working on, so I try, I completely try to be agnostic about my feelings on any subject that we're cutting.
Because I want to make sure that I'm an extension of their journalism. Without any thumbs on the scale or without any influence in that path. So personally, I totally have no dog in that fight. I try to make it as good as I can for that journalist. To support the journalism that he's done or she's done. But, I stay out of it, however, it's frequently gets tricky around large family conversations around Thanksgiving or something like that when you've done a show and, you know, people are on both sides, and they say, "what the heck are you doin' at Frontline?" You know, we did the show about NRA, and that's tricky no matter what side you're on.
You know, you have to frequently say, "hey look "we gave everybody a chance to talk. "Everybody had equal time," that's it, and you just go with it. But it can be, yeah. Some people think I am a wicked conservative, some people think I'm a wicked liberal. And it's just like, hey look, it's not me. (laughter) It's funny you should say it though, 'cause in the choice films we made, which are about the presidential runs, we actually do go down and measure how many minutes each character story is on screen. - Oh, okay. - And modify them to make sure it's equal.
But most films, it's just sort of the natural rhythm's of the narrative. - But what about your audience as far as the, I mean you say you have conversations with your peers and family, but obviously most of the people watching it are people you don't know, who are coming in to the topic because, because because they're probably interested in the topic. - Absolutely. I think that most people come to documentary because it's a subject they're already interested in. And they already know quite a good deal about it, if not everything. I actually think Frontline has a particularly well-educated audience per subject, per topic of film.
So, when you're making the film, you have to appreciate the fact, so you know, we use the term speak knowingly, speak to peers, because we're talking in the film to people who are invested in the subject already. Now, one of the tricky things about documentaries that last an hour long is a big subject like the NRA, or the CIA's torture plan, or the NSA's eavesdropping, is that that's very hard to tell in total, in 55 minutes.
I would say it's impossible. I would say it's impossible to tell in two hours. So, the trick is, how do you communicate to your audience that you are not going to touch on everything, and the way Frontline does it, is through a method called character driven narrative. And so, let's just say that the sphere of the NRA story is a certain size abstractly. And there are many points we won't be able to cover, but if we can figure out a way to tell a narrative through a character, then we are telling that person's story through this sphere, it's there trail through the sphere of the topic.
And so, I believe, people tend to be much more forgiving because it's not Frontline not mentioning things, it's this poor person who's going through on that trail didn't know the things that the viewer knew. And so it then becomes this, "wow, it's too bad," or "oh, if they only knew this," to the character. They become attached to the character. That person becomes the protagonist through this narrative. And engaging the audience once again. So that's sort of the, you know, broad stroke idea of how we do a big story in 55 minutes, or even if it's two hours.
- Well, and I think that that's not only a good strategy structurally, to fit your time sensitive needs, but it is absolutely the most engaging way to make a film. If you make a film about something so amorphous as gun control, it's gonna be very hard for your audience to focus and care and engage on the level that if you were able to really focus and engage and care about a character. - I think so too, I really do. I know that, you know, we make, it's tough.
You make the big financial films, you start talking about businesses, but businesses are not characters. It's very hard for an audience to identify with a business, or see their struggles. When Lehman Brothers fell, you felt bad or good, you felt indifferent, you kind of like, well shouldn't they have fallen? Or you, know, what's the deal? But you don't understand the implications of the human impact necessarily on a business. I will say, though the trickiest films to make films about, documentaries about, is the internet. Because the internet is, doesn't move. (laughter) It's static page on a screen, and it's very, very, I find that to be the most challenging films we've ever made, that have to do with the, and the NSA was one of those obviously.
So, it was very tricky. - So I'd actually like to get a little specific here. And look at one of your projects, specifically the one you've been referencing a little bit throughout, the one about the NRA. - Oh yeah, that's a good one. - So it's called Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA. And before we go in to looking at some scenes, talk about the process of arriving at the approach that you took with this particular film. Just from start to finish, how the idea came about, and how you were brought in, and what image systems you developed, and then structurally, how you laid it out.
- Well, there's a very interesting story about the Gunned Down actually that just comes to mind. Is that one of the things that made us so excited about this film is gun control is one of those very tricky films that's hard to approach, people have very strong feelings on both sides of that issue. So it was kind of a subject we were kind of keeping at bay until we could find a good way through it. And then we discovered, this interesting aspect which was, that the idea this sort of unique theory that there never will be gun control because there's this disconnect between the people who are affected by gun violence, and the people who are gun owners.
So still thinking just a little big for a second, the idea was that victims of gun violence, and people who are affected like all of us by the horror events of gun violence are we move on to the other things that we're interested in. But gun owners don't. That's gun owners are their thing. So they have the advantage right from the word go. So even if there was some compromise that could be made, it's very hard politically to get that done, basically impossible politically. There is no political will. So, we said, okay, well that's a cool idea.
Now how do we say that? How do we tell that story? And we realized that we had this amazing sort of moment with Gabby Giffords, Congressman Gabby Giffords, and her experience. A gun owner herself. And the recipient of some severe gun violence. And so we said, okay, let's take the story through her perspective at least to begin with, let's set the stage with her, and kind of say, okay so what happens, what happens with this kind of scene? And that was very telling.
So we created that whole open sequence which I guess we're gonna watch here, really with the intent of bringing Gabby Giffords as a story through the whole thing, but it turned out not to be the case. And we can talk about that after we watch a little bit if you want. - I would, I would like to watch the first scene and the last scene, or almost the last scene for that reason. So if you would drive, and put us in full screen here. Let's take a look. - Okay.
- In Tuscon it was a beautiful crisp, clear blue sky with a few puffy white clouds. It was the perfect January morning. - 40 year old Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was about to meet constituents at an outdoor shopping center. I went to thank her for her being kind of a blue dog Democrat and really working for the people and not for the lobbyists. - Her first person she met with was a young man that was in the Army Reserve.
She took some pictures with him. That was the last picture taken of her before she was shot. (gunshot) He shot Gabby from about three feet away. Right in the middle of the left side of her forehead. He had a nine millimeter Glock in his hand, and a 33 round magazine in it. - There was a bang, and then a slight pause, and then a continuous bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. (gunshots) - Emptied the magazine in 15 seconds.
There were 33 wounds from 33 bullets. So it looks like every bullet hit a person. - I could see him advancing quickly. I'm thinking, "I wonder what it's gonna feel like. "How bad it's gonna hurt if he shoots me." - The killer tried to reload. He dropped the high capacity magazine, was tackled, and dropped the gun.
- I'm not able to get the gun, 'cause it's too far away, but I am able to get the magazine that he's pulling out of his pocket. - There were 19 victims gunned down. 13 were rushed to area hospitals. Six were dead. Congresswoman Giffords was in critical condition. - When I got to the hospital, she was just recovering from surgery.
And you know, at one point that evening, I remember you know one tear coming down her eye. It was just one bloody red tear. I think that kind of said it all. - The tragic shootings in Arizona are bringing the national debate over gun control. - Saturday's attack is now putting gun laws under a magnifying glass. - Once again, a familiar response. A public call for the federal government to just do something. Something about guns. - Guns, those damn things.
- Here you have, you know, one of the Democrats own in Congress being struck down. A shooting which showed the effect of weak gun laws. - As we wait for the latest medical update, President Obama is - At the White House, initially there was sort of a wait and see, and I think a lot of it rested on you know, to what extent was the president going to be willing to take this up. - Breaking news, we've just learned that President Obama will be going to Tuscon on Wednesday. - This just in the president - In the wake of the shooting, the president was facing a political crisis on an issue most politicians try to avoid.
- President Obama will deliver what some have called one of the most important speeches of his presidency. - Obama on a mission to comfort and rally - Please welcome the President of the United States, Barack Obama. (applause) - If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. - People who wanted to do something about guns listened carefully.
- The president was enormously compassionate, he was enormously eloquent, but he did everything in his power to avoid using the word gun in the wake of that shooting. - We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another that's entirely up to us. - The silence was deafening, his gun control ardent supporters were irate. The degree of fury over this really can't be captured in words, but he was never gonna do it.
- Washington insiders say his advisers told him the political cost was too great to take on the nation's most powerful lobby, the National Rifle Association. - It was an extraordinary moment, and an extraordinary commentary on the advantage that the NRA enjoys and the tilt toward the side of the debate that says there is simply nothing more to be done about regulating the civilian ownership of guns.
The issue is off the table. - Without lifting a finger, the National Rifle Association had demonstrated its' power. - They are the best equipped, most feared special interest group on Capitol Hill. They are sort of the gold standard in how to do lobbying work in Washington. - So initially, what we want to do, I wanted to do a sense of flying in so that we got a sense of place. And the audio that underneath describes the date, the time, the environment that this all took place, this event, this beginning thing.
And then we kind of meet her, and again, she's in a still form because I like, I feel like people can focus on the still and get to see the person as opposed to action if they're moving. Patricia is a first person witness, which is just ideal because it puts you in there. And her husband tells the story of this photograph of this man. You get to really see her in the photo. Now, here's where things get interesting for me. This.
This is the introduction of an image system which is, we're using because we had a lot of sound in this film. - Powerful sound. - Powerful sound, but I didn't want to show, I didn't want to do a reenactment in the sense of there's a gun comes in to the screen and fires off. Plus which, there's all different kinds of guns were used, most of them were nine millimeter in this film. Al lot of them were rifles, and so we just didn't want to have all this stuff, all this gear and kind of do sort of some abstract reenactment. So we were pondering it, and the assistant editor and I, I came up with the idea of a waveform, and the assistant editor and I designed this look.
We showed it to the producers, and they said yes, this will work. So this is the first time you see it. And all it is is a gunshot. It's just to put the idea of this image on stage. Where it is really used is during the 911 calls, the nine one one calls. Because, and in places like that, because you want to try to, well how do you show, the audio is very important and critical to what's going on during a nine one one call, but at the same time, what do you see? There's not tape recorders, there's no spinning wheels anymore.
It's a digital file, and that digital file has a digital aspect to it. So we tried to create some of that, but still maintain a kind of familiar analog look to it so it was both digital and familiar in the analog way. So that was the first sort of thing we did. - It's even more visual than a gun shooting really because you are seeing these like bursts of shape and then it's taking over the screen, and then you see it happen 33 times in a row. - That's correct. - It's overwhelming, you're just like, wow that's a lot of shooting.
(chuckles) - Yeah, now this is very interesting, 'cause what we did here, is we decided that there are a lot of people who don't have guns. - Yeah. - I personally don't have a gun. So the idea of holding a gun, or looking at a gun, I don't know what it looks like so again, I said what we might want to do is show the gun in a way that is, shows the component parts and how complicated they are. They're not a simple sort of, you know a phaser out of Star Wars. They're a complicated machine that are made up of many parts that are, that require some knowledge of.
And so that's why we created these schematics as a way of saying well, let's blow these up, let's do these exploding graphics and again, the version I made was much more 2D. I gave it over to the assistant editor, he made it into, Elliot Choi is an excellent assistant editor, please don't take him from me. And he made these beautiful, beautiful animations for 'em. - Oh wow. - Yeah, no they're just fantastic. - So, what's interesting though, is the next I love this line where she sits there and says, you know (mumbles) but these are, what we wanted to do with this image, and that was the whole reason for creating this, was, what's it like to be in an environment where someone fires off 33 rounds? What's that feel like? You're in a place, and there are 33 rounds going off, what does that, I mean even just the counting of them is impressive.
So we said this is the medium that we're gonna do it. The spikes will be a counting system for that counting of the gunshots. And I think it was very effective. - It was. - Now, we originally had 'em all one after another, and we separated them somewhat. This is definitely what I would call a reenactment because no one was there recording the event. We just know that there were 33 rounds. We know that there was chaos. And we know that people were screaming. This is all from reported events. We know the kind of space that the gunshots were done in so we knew the kind of sound we were looking for, and we constructed this.
And originally we had it at 33, sort of measured. We said well let's, we should be very kind of somber here, and do boom, boom, boom. But A, we didn't feel organic, and B, it didn't allow people who were watching the film to sit there and look at the other person's response. and can you believe this, this is amazing, or God, this is hurting me. So we needed to put some pauses in there for people to react to it, right? - Considering your audience. - Right, so the idea is that's why there is some spaces in the shot fires, so that people can react to it, and it basically just goes.
- Well, it certainly seems more realistic. - Yeah. - I mean that's what would have happened. - Yeah, it feels organic and natural. Reenactments are very tricky things. I mean they should be. Reenactments are dangerous in that you don't want people to think that it is the thing. And so Frontline tries to keep all their reenactments very abstract so that there's a separation. This is not it, this is a reenactment of a moment to try to communicate what it was like to be there. So here's the nine one one call. And we use the same method because it is the other side of that horror.
Of the sound, of the clack, clack, clack of the bullets. And so we put it on there. But we kept the audio, and went to the helicopter scene. Here's some evidentiary material we try to key that when possible so that people know what it is. That this is not some guns we laid on a table. This is the evidence itself. And then the chaos ensues. And we just subtitle what was going on there to make it clear for everybody. And so now again, we jumped so.
There was not coverage, a lot of video coverage at the moment, but there were people taking stills. And so we decided, this is Gabby Giffords being pulled out of the scene. So we decided to go with that still image as a way of slowing things down a little bit in the chaos. And letting people sit on an image, and see what is it like to see a loved one of yours being dragged in to an ambulance and taken away. I think it was a very effective use of stills here. And anyway, so then, you know, you get her in the hospital and you just see how messed up she is and you start to feel for her, and you understand the outrage, why can't we do something? Can nothing be done? And you quickly see that the lobbyist group of the NRA is capable of influencing a national speech of the President of the United States.
And that's sort of an amazing event. You see the power of the NRA. - And even, before you were talking about the importance of character. We haven't actually heard from Gabby Giffords. We don't have any actual video footage of her. But we already care deeply about her because of everything that you've just mentioned. I mean she is not only a character but the character that is going to drive us through this narrative. We're several minutes in and it's set up.
- Yeah, so the idea is you would start with Gabby Giffords. Set up the problem. Realize that the president wasn't gonna do anything about it, and then go in to back story about wait, how did this all begin? Well, it began way back in the day with Columbine. And you go all the way through all these horrific events and you end up finally at Sandy Hook. And Sandy Hook is just, because these are children. These are first graders. It is, I'm getting chills just saying that phrase. It is just, it brought the level of the horror to such a personal level almost of every American.
So, people of Sandy Hook get together, and they say let's do something about it. And they're gonna try to put something on Capitol Hill, and this is sort of the fight at Capitol Hill, and one of the things that this team has in their back pocket, you'll see in the playing of this film. - Remember this T.V. ad? - And even went after Senator Manchin. - As your senator, I'll protect our second amendment rights. - That was Joe Manchin's commitment. - Now, Manchin is working with President Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Concerned? You should be.
- Senator Manchin was vilified by the NRA. It was almost like a personal vendetta. So, you know, they chewed up one of their own. It was stupid. Absolutely stupid. - The NRA activated its' playbook. Denouncing the legislation. Alerting its' members. And threatening lawmakers. - You can deal with anything that you know up front you're dealing with. I knew they were not gonna be supportive. I was fine with that.
I didn't know that thy would be in opposition as strong as they would, and come out as strong as they did. - But the Democrats had a secret weapon. And one day, she appeared on Capitol Hill. - The idea here is that you're trying, you start the film with Gabby Giffords as the, not the poster child but as the protagonist in a conflict. You start the film with Gabby Giffords as the protagonist in a conflict of two forces. These two forces are not good and evil.
These are two forces that have definitely their own opinions that are backed up by the lifestyle and the beliefs of their own families. So, but they're two forces that are diametrically opposed to each other. Gabby Giffords is at the center of it. So then the whole film plays out through that conflict of the two forces trying to find either common ground or supremacy. And then at the very end, she comes back as once again the protagonist in the battle for gun control, or some gun control.
And she comes out wounded, damaged, forever permanently mentally disabled. And speaks to Congress, and her words were amazingly powerful. And let's go back and let's watch that if we can. - But the Democrats had a secret weapon. And one day, she appeared on Capitol Hill. Gabby Giffords.
Giffords had been pro gun. A proud owner of a Glock 17 handgun. - We must do something. It will be hard. But the time is now. You must act. Be bold, be courageous.
Americans are counting on you. Thank you. (ominous music) - It's decision day for new gun control legislation. - The first votes taken today on the gun safety legislation. - The members of the family in the gallery today as - With parents' of the victims looking on - Sitting in the gallery watching the vote, I was so anxious. And I genuinely thought we were gonna be okay.
I knew it'd be close. But I thought it would go through. - The votes of five key Senators would decide the matter. None of them would agree to talk to Frontline about their position. As the roll was called, the crucial votes were slipping away. - I remember sitting there kind of in a daze. And that's about all, I'm sorry that I have such a you know, I think my psyche was just kind of letting in little bits at a time.
It was just all so, such a whirlwind of craziness for me. - Also watching in the gallery Tuscon survivor Pat Maisch. - It went from being sad, to being mad. They're all down there in their good 'ol boy stance shaking hands, chatting. - On this vote, the amendment is not agreed to.
- People's lives aren't in the balance on this. And I just thought, they needed to be shamed. They should be ashamed of themselves. I stood up and said, "shame on you." - Shame on you. - There will be order in the Senate. - Because they needed to be shamed. Shame on them. Shame on me, if after what I've gotten to witness. I choose to be quiet. - I'm surprised that she was the only one actually, that burst out.
Because it was so intense and so charged. - Okay, so that was kind of the bookend of everything that we started with. Talk about your strategies in that, starting with - Well just as you go through the narrative of the various times in history, in American history where there has been a fight for gun control, we started with Gabby Giffords as sort of the protagonist of the experience of the horror of it.
And then we go in to a backstory about the history of it from Columbine up to the present. That brings us through Sandy Hook to this legislation that they're trying to get through. And, one of the weapons as they said in the film, one of the tools the Democrats had, was in fact, our original protagonist in the beginning. So she was coming back full circle. She was able to bring all that emotion from the beginning of the film back in to the narrative at the end of the film. Which is basically a policy vote.
Nothing happens, a bunch of guys saying yay or nay. But because she starts it off, those yay's and nay's become much more important. So she acts sort of as a standard bearer of one side's position, not the NRA's obviously. And she, and because we have introduced her so emotionally in the beginning when she comes back and you see how disabled she is, she truly does become sort of a statement in and of herself about the whole gun control movement.
From that point of view. We had it, we knew we were gonna do it, we cut it out of the film once for time because it's not relevant to the narrative that's happening, but once we cut it out, we realized it lost its emotional and became much more academic scene. So her, putting her back in there helped establish the emotional element of that moment. And then the rest plays out as history dictated. - What I think is the most emotional part of this film, even though that structurally was I think a very good decision in anchoring the viewer in what's going on at the end is the Sandy Hook scene.
- Yeah. - And if we could you know, take a look at that and discuss your strategies, particularly just the way that you're using the motif of the, what you already discussed, the image system of the waveform in that, and the photos. So let's take a look at that. - Sure. - And then - The only thing that I would like to say is that there's a method to the madness even here. - Yeah. - In that, before I start, I'll be really quick. In that what Sandy Hook represents is the final sort of conflict before any kind of resolution was about to happen, so it's at that moment that three quarters of the way through your film when you're really right at the meat of the matter.
Where the two forces are at their strongest, and then something happens that makes them really have to go to battle. And in this case, that was Sandy Hook, and this is the film. So we start off after a scene and come to this kind of this angelic moment just to calm everything down. Let's let the battle kind of settle down. And you kind of don't know what you're looking at. And then you kind of hear the phone ring and it comes in, and you know exactly what's gonna happen. You see the sign for confirmation. And your heart is dropping in your stomach and you hear the first phone call.
And we decide to give these a little bit of a Dutch angle because we wanted to differentiate them from the other ones, so we kind of said okay, let's work with this a little bit. Then we see the gun, and we see how complicated and how menacing it looks. And then here's the shots. And we decide at this point that we can go pretty much go straight ahead with all the shots. And these young children are the victims of all those peaks, and then part of one of the most amazing things in the nine one one calls is that you can actually hear the gun shooting in the background. And so we tried to maximize that.
And again, just humanizing the sound of that peak of a gunshot to a individual who was injured or killed. - I mean, and towards the end of this montage they literally come together as one. Pop, pop, pop, pop. - Right, exactly. - Which is - And we also want to make sure it was not just children. - Sure absolutely. - These brave woman who stepped forward to try to, and then this whole scene is all about the chaos of what happened afterwards. They weren't prepared for, in this part of the town for them to be able to, nothing like this should have happened in this part of the world, and so it was just chaos, and that montage is all about that.
This is one of the victim's parents. Of this young boy, and you know, we kind of tried to highlight the faces and kind of de-focus the backgrounds and the rest so it wasn't really about, the photos aren't really about a place they're really about a face. And so we kind of manipulated those photos slightly just to really focus on these faces, these children. We blurred the background and just focused on his face. And then the most emotional moment in the whole film is her line.
- This is a school, these are first grade kids. - And then my favorite scene. I couldn't leave this scene and go to President Obama doing his thing. I felt very strongly that you needed to have a moment of silence for the horror of this event. So I stuck in these last three shots at the end of this sequence primarily just to give pause and I just said I need a moment's pause after this incredibly emotional moment on her part where she lost her first grade old child.
And said okay, that horror that she's feeling on camera right now, was expressed, felt by many there, and so I just grabbed these three shots to kind of carry that through. Again, they're black and white. Again, we focused on just the faces. We de-focused the rest, kind of vignetted them. Just to make it say these are the people who went and had to live that day. And it's chilling, even now, just to watch. Because jumping to Barack Obama would have been too soon after that moment, and those extra shots just gave a little bit of pause before going back in to politics and policy.
And that's how it played out, and of course you can see this scene's amazing where Barack Obama cries on camera about the event. He has young children himself obviously. And it was terrifying. But that's what that scene is all about. It's about maximizing the raw emotional charge of living through the horror of losing a loved one of your own through the madness of gun violence.
I'm not trying to say that gun control will solve that. 'Cause in Adam Lanza's case all those guns were owned legally. He was just a man who had lost his mind, and I don't think you're ever gonna stop that. - You said before that structurally you felt it was important to bring that moment up at about three quarters of the way - Yeah. - through the film, and that's something you do a lot of the time? - Yeah, you want to try to build, you try and when you're cutting a film there's, I'm sure those who study film film studies will have a better names for it, but basically for me, every film has a beginning, middle, and end.
And right before you, so the beginning is sort of the you know, let's build the world that we know, let's learn about it. The middle the, let's expand to see why the relevance of this, what's the big picture idea, and how all of these complicated things kind of fill in. And then as you get towards the end, just before the end, you want some kind of conflict that culminates the entire message of the film. And for us it was Sandy Hook, and right there, and then the rest of the film is the, you know, culmination of that, the resolution of that moment.
I often call documentaries in story structure very much like a dragon. There's a head, it's sort of ornate, you kind of make it really fanciful with horns and teeth and eyes and colors and smoke, just to kind of get people interested in. Then there's the neck, which is kind of like the beginning of the tale, the beginning of the narrative. Then it goes in to the body which is the bulk of the story. And then right at the end there's a turn to the tail, and that's where these kind of moments have to happen. And the tail is the end of the film, where once again their are spikes. Once you build that structure out, very frequently you'll find that some of the things that you did at the beginning are affected by what you're doing at the end.
And as I say, the head of the dragon will turn around and look at you as you're trying to lay out the tale. And you have to go back and fix things. But it's all a process.