Entering the Edit With Karen Schmeer Fellow Colin Nusbaum

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Over the next year on POV’s Documentary Blog, we’ll be exploring the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editors. Our guide will be Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Colin Nusbaum.

Colin Nusbaum. Photo by Tanya Braganti.

Colin Nusbaum. Photo: Tanya Braganti

Nusbaum has worked on HBO Documentaries’ Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, The Sheik and I and Born to Fly. Most recently, Nusbaum worked alongside Mary Manhardt (American Promise, Racing Dreams, American Teen) while editing Tough Lovethe new documentary from Stephanie Wang-Breal (Wo ai ni (I Love You) Mommy), which recently premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina.

As the 2014 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow, awarded to an emerging editor, he’ll be receiving a year of mentorship from veteran filmmakers, as well as the opportunity to participate in countless documentary events and screenings. Nusbaum’s three mentors – Jonathan Oppenheim (Paris is Burning, The Oath); David Teague (Cutie and the Boxer, E-TEAM) and Jean Tsien (Drivers Wanted, Please Vote for Me) – will provide the kind of education any doc editor finding their grounding dreams of.

We talked with Nusbaum soon after he was announced as the 2014 fellow at this year’s SXSW Film festival in Austin, Texas. He’s just getting started, so we asked him about getting starting a new documentary project.

POV: What’s your workflow when you’re starting on a new film?

Colin Nusbaum: I want to understand first what the intention of the director is. A director’s intention can be to say something specific, to ask a question, to explore a topic or a theme. Then my goal is to embody that, but it’s also my job to differentiate myself from the director by being vigilantly sensitive to the material and footage that I’m given.

I usually start out by asking the director what footage they think is the most on target with what they’re trying to do. They know — because they were there for all the shoots — that something really big happened in the narrative on this day or that day. Maybe it was what they imagined to be the turning point or climax or the initial problem of the story – and I know I want to watch that footage first.

I consider which aspects are running or weaving themselves throughout – whether it’s ideas or characters or feelings – and organize those things in my head before I can even put a word to what they things are. That was something I learned when working as an archival researcher – I was getting requests for footage from editors, discussing how they were going to be using these elements, how they were going to fit into their edits – so I think on a technical level, that was incredibly useful.

Sometimes I think about my grandmother when I’m working on a film. If I was telling my grandmother a story about someone, she might have trouble being empathetic towards it, whereas if I’m allowing her to, for a little while, live in someone’s story, I’m really making it an immersive experience. Then, people can’t help but be empathetic.

One of my mentors, Jonathan Oppenheim (Paris is Burning, The Oath, Streetwise), compares documentaries to dreams: You are taken out of yourself and put in someone else’s world. Dreams aren’t necessarily relaying information to you, but you’re immersed in them for a short period of time and you can’t help but be sensitive to them. That’s what I strive to do when I tell stories.

A selection of films edited by 2014 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Colin Nusbaum: Tough Love, Born to Fly, The Sheik and I and Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman

A selection of films edited by 2014 Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Colin Nusbaum: Tough Love, Born to Fly, The Sheik and I and Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman

POV: Do you have any specific goals for yourself for the Fellowship? Anything you really want to walk away from it with?

Colin Nusbaum: I want to expand my documentary community – I’ve already been going to a lot of Stranger Than Fiction screenings in the past month or two, more than I have before, and I’m just recognizing how great and hard-working so many of these documentarians are. I really like collaboration, that’s part of the job that I’m really attracted to.

When Mary Manhardt came on to Tough Love, it was enlightening to be working next to her, showing each other scenes as we were editing them. I was getting feedback from her and she was asking my opinion on things she was cutting, and we were talking about ways we could fit them in and change the order of the scenes and really fine tuning the edit.

I recognized how great it would be to do that consistently – to work on films that you really love and be involved with that storytelling, editorial part where you’re really collaborating, remaking and fine-tuning the story.

Awarded annually, the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship was created in 2010 to honor the memory of gifted editor Karen Schmeer. This year’s application deadline will be in the fall.

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Emma Dessau
Emma Dessau
Emma Dessau is a Web Producer at POV Digital. She is also a producer of the digital documentary Folk to Folk. Prior to POV, Emma worked at Emerson College's Engagement Game Lab. She holds a Bachelors degree in journalism from Boston University.