Contemplating the Cut is co-presented by: Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program & the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship. Contemplating the Cut 2017 took place Saturday, April 1, 2017 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.

Panel 2: Craft Conversations
Editors: Lindsay Utz (Quest, Bully) and Chyld King (Containment, The Fog of War) share insights with moderator Marshall Curry (director/editor, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, Street Fight) about their process, deconstructing approaches to vérité and interview-based films.

Marshall Curry:
This is going to be a great panel. I didn’t know either Chyld or Lindsay before we met in preparation for this panel, but they are both incredible editors whose work I had admired even before I got to know them. First, I’ll bring up Chyld King:. The film that he’s going be talking about mostly today is Containment, which he was also a co-producer on. He’s edited on a lot of other films, including Fog of War with Errol Morris. Next is Lindsay Utz:. She has edited Bully, In Country and Quest which is the film that we’ll mostly be talking about today. We’d love for you, the audience, to feel like this is a conversation and to just jump in as you have questions. Let’s start with you, Chyld. Containment is a really tricky and complicated film. It uses several different types of materials: interviews, archival and animation. Tell us a little bit about the film and what the challenge was with it.

Chyld King:
Sure. Hi everyone. And I’d like to reiterate that if you guys have questions or ideas, I’d love to hear them while you have them. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, was the only operating deep underground nuclear repository in the world, as of the time we made the film. It just reopened after an accident. I think it’s still the only one that’s open. And to get their license from the Environmental Protection Agency, they had to come up with a design and marketing plan for how to build something on the surface of the site after it was closed that would warn people into the very far future – 10,000 years, which is 300 generations. And because this was a government project, they had to take it very seriously. They went to Sandia National Labs and hired basically everyone they could think of: archaeologists, science fiction writers, people who had worked on communication with aliens, to try to figure out what the future could be like 10,000 years from now. And, therefore, how could we communicate; how could we prevent penetration into the site? So that seemed more interesting to me.

We began the film with a kind of dual idea. We have these two places: we had Carlsbad, New Mexico where this site is, and then we had the distant future of this location and how we might imagine it. And the notion was to try from the beginning to make an ‘idea’ film that conveys a feeling. And the feeling that we were trying to get at was taking a look at humans when faced with a necessary, but impossible task – the containing of deadly materials for the unlimited future. So what I’m going to show here is a very early cut of the beginning of the film, and then I’m going to show a later, final version of the beginning. What I want to talk about is the challenges we faced, and the way we found the film through the editing process. And in fact, the identity of the film changed, although we kept hold of that kind of central idea or feeling that we were chasing after. So, with that, let’s play the old clip.

Containment clip plays

Chyld King:
So it started out with a very small scale. There were two elements that we were trying to balance between: this notion of an imaginary future. And I think for me this is something that I find really interesting in making documentary films, which is how do you represent the imaginary or the imagined in the space of a documentary? And so the animations we used were an actual proposed design for what they could put on top of the site after it was buried there. One of the teams proposed that you could do markers that had no information. It was a purely emotional reaction that you would see these spikes, and you would know somehow this was a bad area. So we use that kind of imagery repeatedly through the film. But, we ran into trouble almost immediately with this approach, because we hadn’t quite anticipated the kind of gravitational pull of nuclear as a subject matter. We tried hard to balance the different points of view: people in the community and how they thought about this against the notion that this is not a question about should we pursue nuclear power. This is about the many tons of highly radioactive waste from the weapons program in the ‘50s that exists now and has no destination. So there’s a problem we have to solve. Whether we decide to keep making that problem is secondary. But when we were working towards this, we just couldn’t quite get away from this, “Is nuclear good or is nuclear bad?” question. In the rough cut screenings, that’s the only question people could see.

So we decided to give a little more context to the questions that we were really interested in. Like, what about timeframe? We’re limited in our ability to imagine how long this material will last. We humans think 25 years is a long time and three generations is about as far as we can imagine in our own families going forward or backwards. And 300 years is an impossibly long time, so we wanted to capture some of that scale. We were trying to convey all these really invisible things: time over vast quantities. This invisible radiation that could kill you, but you can’t see it. There’s no way to detect it, right? There’s nothing. And what we were getting stuck on was, ‘Is it a good idea that they put this site in Carlsbad?’ To approach that, there were two things that happened. And one was something that we did by choice – we decided, or realized, that we had present and future descriptions of the same location. And we thought maybe what we need to do is broaden that out and add a past element. So we added this third location at the Savannah River Site on the east coast in North Carolina. That’s where they made over 50 percent of the plutonium used in all the hydrogen bombs of the nuclear war. It was a 300 square mile piece of property that the Department of Energy took by eminent domain away from the people who lived there. And now it’s seriously contaminated. So we thought telling a little bit of the story about what this stuff was, where it came from and where it is now would help us to balance out the pro/con argument.

The other thing is that while we were in the midst of cutting after our first shooting trip at the Savannah River Site, the Japanese earthquake and nuclear accident at Fukushima happened. That was a transformative moment in our filmmaking. We knew that this was a big deal for the world, of course, but also for our film. I’ve heard more than one documentary person end up saying, you know, “Bad for the world, good for the movie,” and that was sort of true in this case. We ended up sending a crew over to Japan to film in the contaminated areas and talk to the people who lived there.

So those two choices really inflected and changed the very nature of the film. And we stopped thinking of it being so much about nuclear waste per se, and flipped it around to being about the challenge of trying to keep something safe and contained over a very long time. When you walk about keeping something contained perfectly, you always raise the question: “For how long?” because, as humans, we’re just inherently limited. And that kind of limitation along with the hopelessly romantic notion that we have to try to do this anyway, was what we were hoping to get at. So I think with that, let’s look at the final version of the opening of the film, and talk about the integration of these other elements.

Containment clips play

Chyld King:
You can see there’s a lot of different kinds of elements built in, because we are aiming for a film that would build up from accretion. You would have pieces that added up to an emotional experience over the course of the whole, and perhaps it wouldn’t initially be entirely clear how they were joined. We wanted to keep a certain amount of surprise when we go to some places. Like in this one when we cut to the wide landscape, and you see the women overlooking the site. You don’t know exactly what that is, and we do return to it later. But, this is a way of imagining what it would be like in the far future. Or when we open, without explanation, with a woman exploring her old town that she had to abandon because of radioactive contamination. But we just let that ominous feeling linger, and one of the challenges for making this film was to bringing these different elements together in a way that had a natural shape and flow so it ended up building up to something.

One of the things that we ran into was that we ended up with these three locations: Japan, the Savannah River Site and the [whip?] site plus the future scenarios. Then, we had two different types of animation: both the computer graphics and the drawn animation, which is an imagined version of what the future is. We had to figure out how to keep all those pieces in play in a way that propelled you forward and added up to an emotional experience. That was what we were really seeking to get, and I feel like this beginning launched us much more firmly on that kind of exploration of these ideas.

Marshall Curry:
It kind of sets the vocabulary: “These are the pieces that we’re going to see over the course of this movie.” It introduces each of those threads and pieces, and does a lot with pacing. In the previous panel people were talking about the importance of pacing and creating the emotional resonance of a film, and I feel like the pacing of your opening goes a long way towards setting the audience’s expectation for the movie as a whole.

Chyld King:
I think that’s true. Every film has to teach its audience how to view it correctly. And we found that we had to overcome an expectation, because we would have people who would come in wondering, was it an environmental film or it was an anti-nuclear film? Or the anti-nuclear people didn’t think it was anti-nuclear enough, and the pro-nuclear people thought it was too anti-nuclear. So for people with those expectations, it was very unsatisfying. So we wanted to say from the beginning that it’s not going to be that kind of film; that that’s not what our ambitions are, and it won’t speak to everybody. Some of those people really want to see their kind of film, but I think it was able to get some people to step back and experience what the exploration was that we were seeking to do.

Marshall Curry:
And by having the opening set up in a certain way it sort of says, “If this movie is an advocacy film, it’s not a failing of the movie. It’s a choice of the of the filmmakers.”

Lindsay Utz:
And at what point did you figure out the opening?

Chyld King:
The beginning and the end are always the last. I mean aside from the middle, it’s really the hardest. [laughter] But yeah, that scenario where you see the women overlooking the site and discovering it — that was actually called “A Feminist World” — that was one of the first scenarios. We ended up never naming the scenario in the film, because somebody would get angry at every screening. Even if we just subtitled it what the designers had called it, but that was a very, very late addition to the opening and for me it does a lot of work. In preparation for this panel, I went back and looked at cuts that were not too far before this. I think you expect it’s going to go to live action, but instead it goes to another layer of abstraction. For me, I guess what I hoped it would be is a kind of confident, wrong footing for your audience, you know? That you expect something, but you don’t feel like you’re not in good hands even though you didn’t get what you expected.

Marshall Curry:
Thinking about that, how openings teach the audience what movie they’re going to watch – I think about To Be and To Have. The opening of that film I remember because I watched it when Mary Manhardt – who is here – was working with me on Racing Dreams. That’s about kids who want to become NASCAR drivers, and it’s plotty and full of cuts. But I went home and watched the opening of To Be and To Have, and – I don’t know if you can picture it – the opening of that movie is a turtle walking slowly across the floor. And I just remember turning it on and settling in, and the turtle is walking, and I’m like, “And… cut! And… cut!” But the shot just goes and goes and goes, and then finally your internal expectation of how it’s supposed to go says, “Wow, I give up. There’s just somebody else editing this movie and they’re going to do it how they’re going to do it. And I need to just let go and go on the ride that they’re taking me on.” And the movie is unbelievable that way, but it’s in part because they’ve trained me with that opening scene to settle down and just watch the movie that they were making.

Well Lindsay, let’s do your first clip. Maybe you want to set up the film.

Lindsay Utz:
Sure. The director Jon Olshefski filmed Quest for ten years. It’s a portrait of a family living in North Philadelphia, and it started as a photo project. They run a hip-hop studio out of the basement of their home, and he started documenting the guys that were rapping in the studio. Over time he just became really close with the family, and started shooting scenes with them. So the film material is all vérité . The finished film has interviews and voiceover which I’m going to talk about. But it sort of evolved over the years, and became something quite different than what Jon had initially set out to do.

So without giving too much away, I want to show a clip. And I really struggled with whether I wanted to show a “before” of the sequence because this was, aside from the end and the beginning and the middle, one of the most difficult sequences for me to crack in this edit. And a lot of my “befores” of this particular sequence are really hard for me to watch now, because I had explored a lot of really bad ideas. And at the time, you think, ‘Well maybe this could work, maybe this could work,’ but nothing was working, and I didn’t know how to make this turn in the film. And it took me a long time to figure out.

I’m not brave enough to show you my “befores,” but I’m going to show you the “after”. This comes about 30 minutes into the film. At this point we’ve started a lot of threads. This is a film with five characters: three main characters, two secondary characters. So, like all Act Ones, it’s just really hard to get that setup nailed. And in this case, there were a lot of storylines to set into motion, and a lot of characters to get the audience invested in before we hit on this particular narrative turn that takes the film in a different direction.

Quest clips play

Lindsay Utz:
I had a really hard time landing in that hospital room for a number of reasons. Jon had not shot with them in a while. Well, there were several challenges to setup before this. It was a tricky balance between slamming the audience into this dramatic turn in the film. I think when I tried to just drop in, it felt disorienting. It felt that I hadn’t built a bridge emotionally to get us up the mountain a little bit more; to plant some ideas in the viewer’s head before we take this turn. But on the other hand, if I did too much to allude to the idea that something bad was going to happen, it felt really heavy-handed and really disingenuous. And so ultimately after a lot of experimenting, I built what I call this “family montage,” this set of images that bring you in this circular motion that I think serves a number of functions. We had to set a number of stories into motion. In this case, their young son, William, has brain cancer. We’ve already seen him in the hospital. Price is struggling with addiction. There’s PJ, their young daughter. And then, of course, the mom and dad. So in a way, the montage helps bridge us emotionally into what is about to happen. Because without having some sort of emotional ramp, it felt really disorienting to just suddenly be in the hospital with PJ.

And I think the montage also serves to create a passage of time, which was important because Jon hadn’t shot with the family for a while before PJ was shot. So I had to age her to make landing at the hospital believable. The basketball scene that comes before the hospital scene was actually filmed after she was shot. So I had to cut around her left eye to not give that away. I needed this progression, this passage of time, to get us there.

I also had to figure out how to mark time. We start the clock in 2008 and say so onscreen, but beyond that there are no onscreen time stamps in the film, and what I really tried to do was find organic ways in the material to ground you and anchor you in time, and to create these temporal signposts that made you feel like you were moving forward through this family’s life. And of course, I was lucky to have a young girl that changes physically over the years. So that is obviously an indicator of the passage of time, but I also used news footage. The news is on the TV in the background of their house all the time, and, in this case, the Obama Sandy Hook speech anchors us a little bit to where we are in the story, but also drops the threat of the larger, broader context of violence and gun violence.

And then of course, the studio was one of the last things that we figured out how to weave into the story. Because our intention was always to build and develop the family story first. But then there was this other component which was the recording studio that Quest had. He opens his doors on Friday nights to let these young guys from the neighborhood come in, sing and rap. And it’s a really safe, creative space for these guys to do their thing. He’s a real leader in the community in that sense. So there’s a sound up in the studio. Somebody is rapping about violence. I was trying to find ways to drop in information, right? Because at one point, we had a cut where we never alluded to the violence in the neighborhood, and then when she got shot it was like, “What?” We realized you have to drop these clues along the way. And so ultimately, all of this is what I came up with to get the audience into the hospital.

Marshall Curry:
It does a great job of both – like you say, setting up the scene, but without letting us know that it’s coming.

Lindsay Utz:
Right.

Marshall Curry:
So when I got there, it feels like a gut punch. It has the emotional resonance of a gut punch, but it’s not a sucker punch where you thought you were watching some other movie, and the scene comes out of nowhere. The moment is of that world but it’s not what you expect.

Lindsay Utz:
Right. And you know, in terms of the montage, it’s funny because the thing I love about documentary editing is the limitation – there’s so much freedom in limitations. They force you to come up with these creative solutions for the problems you have. Our job is just a giant set of problems. For the montage, I was really happy to find a place for Jon’s observational footage. Jon shot everything. He shot Ma going to work,and it’s two hours of her wiping counters and interacting with women at the women’s shelter. And I found something so moving in watching their everyday lives. So in a way, the montage turned out well because I got to also use this imagery that I felt was really evocative and emotional, like the scenes with them tending to their son and Price struggling with his addiction. You feel for him, you know? So I think in a way it was an editing problem that created a nice, good solution.

Marshall Curry:
The other thing I like about this scene is that there’s a little bit of a misdirect on it, where you know that the brother is sick, and you even see a shot of him sick immediately before, and then you’re in the hospital, but you don’t know why. And we stay there, and we stay there, and we stay there without cutting to his sister. So you’re building this expectation that something’s happened to him, when really it’s the sister.

Lindsay Utz:
Right. Because earlier in the act, you see Will in the hospital. So there is this sense that it is going to be Will.

Marshall Curry:
And it’s something that you do a few times in the film, in different ways. There’s a shot early in the film, where the father is delivering newspapers, and there’s this interesting shot where he’s moving quickly through space. But you don’t know why or how. And then, about two shots later, you reveal with a wider shot that he’s jumping on and off of the back of a truck that has all the newspapers on it. You’ve created a question that, then, the next shot answers, which is such a satisfying way of constructing a scene – as opposed to answering the question that I haven’t asked yet, because that feels like a lecture. But, when you create the question and then do a reveal, that explains it; it’s very satisfying. And you do it also in the larger arc of the movie. For example, in a very early scene, we see her hands, and they’re scarred but nobody mentions it. It’s just a cutaway shot, and you wonder what happened to her hands. And then in another scene, you notice her hands again. But it’s not until later that she finally explains the fire.

Lindsay Utz:
It’s 50 minutes in–

Marshall Curry:
Yes, it’s much later than you’d expect. And again, it’s something that isn’t frustrating, but keeps you constantly wondering and engaged. And then when your question finally gets answered, it’s so satisfying. Not to keep adding examples, but there’s another one, where the little girl raps. They mentioned very early in the film that she could rap ever since she was little, but it’s not until the very end of the movie, when they play a child’s voice rapping and they never even explain what it is, but you just remember that they had mentioned it at the beginning.

Lindsay Utz:
For that, there is a track of PJ singing when she’s three years old. And I loved it. I loved the sound quality of it. I just thought it was so beautiful, and I didn’t know where to put it. And at the very end, he wasn’t actually listening to it in that scene. He was doing something else on the computer, but I just added it in the studio, and it looks like he’s remembering it.

Marshall Curry:
There’s such a temptation though when you are editing to have the person say that the girl recorded a rap, and then to hear the recording instantly after. Rather than wait until the end of the film and leave it ambiguous. But, your choice was so much better.

Lindsay Utz:
There’s a lot of those kinds of connections. But, that’s also the beauty of shooting a film for ten years because there are things that just happen again and again. My job, the way I saw it, was to watch the material really closely, and recognize these small details, because I think great stories are made there.

Marshall Curry:
Did you want to say something, Chyld?

Chyld King:
I wanted to say, I love your transition into this shooting scene. I find it incredibly powerful. But like you say, it’s like it’s a gut punch, but it’s not a jump scare, which it could have been, right? In the long shot where you sit at the beginning, and you’re trying to figure out where exactly you are, but you know it’s not good. For me, I really like the shots you put after the basketball scene. The montage of place in there. I mean, the first shot you cut to is the broken basketball net, so it gives you some sense that that things aren’t all okay. Could talk a little bit about what you did on the sound edit to the actual hospital room? Because for me, that worked really well.

Lindsay Utz:
Cool. Yeah. The basketball scene. PJ was actually walking home on a sunny Sunday afternoon and was hit by the stray bullet. And Ma was actually coming home from basketball. So, in a way, I was recreating that day before you knew what happened. I mean, when you hear that later, I think you think of those images. But on the actual cut, I wanted that cut to be jarring. I combed through the neighborhood sounds, and there’s a very distant sound of a guy yelling, and you can hear a scream. It would’ve been way over the top if it had been right up here in the foreground. It’s really distant, and it’s just enough to give it that punctuation, and I think it does it without being sensational.

Chyld King:
I love that moment because you’ve built these cuts that show you daily life is going on. Everything is–

Lindsay Utz:
Well, it’s funny because I’m so embarrassed about various versions of this that I’ve had to screen. But the truth is that you’ve got to screen with people, and you’ve got to hear what’s working and what’s not. And I remember somebody in a screening said, “Why don’t you just make the shooting the way shootings happen, out of the blue. Like nobody knows it’s coming.” So that sparked the idea of, “Okay well, kids are riding bikes, things are happening and then, boom!” And that just felt a lot better than having to use all this dark music leading up to it or suggest that something was going to happen, which just didn’t feel authentic.

Chyld King:
But, the amount of work you had to do to build up to not building up to it.

Lindsay Utz:
Exactly right.

Marshall Curry:
Lindsay, do you want to set up your next clip?

Lindsay Utz:
The next is a before and after. I wanted to talk a little bit about the play between interview voiceover and vérité footage, and some of the lessons I learned in the cutting of this film. I’m going to first show a “before” clip of a scene with William, the son with cancer, and when this happens, we’re deep in the second act. We haven’t seen him for a while and you know he’s still struggling. The first clip is going to be with voiceover under the scene, and then the second clip is going to be without voiceover.

Quest clips play

Lindsay Utz:
As you can see, the scene is plastered with talking. And it just wasn’t working for me, because I felt like it was robbing the vérité of all the texture and emotion that was in the images. It was competing too much with what he’s actually saying, that it’s been hard on everybody. Of course it’s been hard on everybody. When you’re working with voiceover and interviews, I often find myself saying really obvious things under images that are saying the exact same things. So what I ended up doing all the way until the end of this film was removing talking and removing talking where I didn’t need talking. About the talking, somebody said this once, and it always stayed with me: it’s scaffolding, and you need it for a while as you’re building your images and emotion. The scaffolding gives you ideas for how you want to cut it. But then, once you’ve done the hard work of the images telling the story, you can pull the scaffolding away, and the building doesn’t fall down. I think that was a lesson I learned throughout this film. The final cut has a lot less talking than previous versions of it. The second clip I’ll show is the scene as it is in the film.

Quest clips play

Lindsay Utz:
I included that last bit of the scene with the rain because I also wanted to talk about the importance of the scene order. What comes before William at the stadium is a really explosive fight between Quest and Price, the character who’s struggling with addiction. Then, what comes afterward, is the roof is leaking, and then PJ is getting fitted for her eye at the ocularist’s office. It’s like, they’re in the shit on every front, right? And it just felt so much better to me to have that scene play in vérité without all the talking, so you could really feel the textures of the scene in the rain, and listen to the garbage bags and the people yelling in the background. And I thought that it brought that scene alive in a more powerful way. We ended up using the voiceover that was in the first clip in the actual beginning of the film to set up William, because it was really nice what he was saying, but it just was better placed earlier in the film.

Marshall Curry:
The version of scaffolding that we talk about in the edit room a lot is that it’s like a Jenga game where you’re like pulling out the pieces, and, eventually, you pull one out, and it falls dow,n and you know you’ve gone too far. So then you undo that last removal.

Lindsay Utz:
I always tend to overdo it. And then, I ask, “Why am I doing that?” You have to pull it back and then see, so it’s a dance.

Marshall Curry:
In the previous panel, there was a little bit of talk about testing a cut, and the challenge, when you’re editing, of bringing too much information into the viewing a cut. Do you guys want to talk a little bit about how you approach testing something to see whether what you’re hoping to be conveyed is actually being conveyed?

Chyld King:
I think it’s the most important thing you can do once you get to a certain point where you think you know what you have, right?

Lindsay Utz:
But, it’s also the most horrifying feeling.

Chyld King:
It’s awful. But, after it’s over, it feels so good.

Lindsay Utz:
It does, but it’s so painful.

Marshall Curry:
Well, it depends on how the test goes. I don’t think it usually feels so good when it’s over.

Chyld King:
Even when you have a terrible screening, if you get good feedback–

Marshall Curry:
If you get good feedback, yeah that’s–

Lindsay Utz:
Even if you just get one good note, it’s worth it.

Chyld King:
When I used to work with Errol Morris, he would say that when someone has a problem with something, you should always listen to that, but you shouldn’t always assume that they’re right about what it is that was bothering them. If there’s something bothering them, it’s really important to pay attention to that, and see why you think that might be true, but it’s often not for the reason they give.

Lindsay Utz:
But then there’s always somebody who tries to come up with a solution for you and you’re like, “Okay, I don’t know what I’m gonna do with that, but I think you’re right.” You listen for the problems.

Chyld King:
For me, one of the big questions–especially with a film like Containment because it’s so synthetic, it’s so constructed–is, “At what level do you evaluate whether it’s working?” You start working on these scenes in modules, and you build them out and then you watch those and think, “This seems to be working,” and then, “This seems to be working,” which is sort of like your Jenga analysis. You build them up and then each individual piece seems fine. Right? And then you put these things together and you play it and it’s like, “It’s not there. There’s no movie there.” And then you have to figure out, “Well where is the problem?” And for me, the core of the experience is this moment of self interrogation while you’re watching something, to see your own reactions, asking, “Where does it go wrong for you?” Somehow, being in the room with other people amplifies that.

Lindsay Utz:
Totally, yeah.

Marshall Curry:
I’m sure everybody who’s in this room has been in a session like this. Does anybody have thoughts, comments, or suggestions for managing those test screenings and getting information that’s actually useful from them?

Mary Lampson: (from the audience)
This must sound a little weird, but I actually think when something is good, you have to interrogate yourself and figure out why it’s good. What’s the difference between something that you can see is bad or somebody told you was bad? And why is that bad and why is this good? I actually only just started thinking or doing that recently. It’s like, “Why is it good, all of this? What’s the difference?” It was a little revelation for me recently, to not just interrogate the bad, but also actually analyze after you congratulate yourself on being so good. Take that analytical side of your brain, and analyze why.

Chyld King:
Do you broaden that? I mean, would you ask the viewers about things they liked?

Mary Lampson:
Yeah I do. If a viewer says, “Oh I really liked that,” then I say, “Can you tell me why? What was it about it that you liked?” But, you know that thing, when you’re all alone in the cutting room, and all of a sudden something comes together, like an accident? And you perk right up. Ooh. Why? What is it about that that makes you perk up?

Chyld King:
Don’t you think there’s a funny kind of translation going on though? For me at least, it’s such an intuitive experience, that’s such an emotional reaction–

Mary Lampson:
Yeah, but I’m saying after that, then you have to switch, and figure out why. It’s that weird left right brain thing that’s part of the process.

Marshall Curry:
Before making documentaries, I worked for a number of years at an internet company doing web design. And, when we would test the interfaces of web sites, we had a similar situation. People would say, “Oh, that button should be red,” and we’d have to say, “Okay, don’t tell me about your solution . Tell me what the problem is.” And the problem was that they weren’t seeing the button, and it’s an important button. So someone might think, “Oh, it could be three dimensional; it could be big; it could be red; it could be flashing.” There are lots of different ways of dealing with the problem of not seeing the important button. And, with editing, it’s the same. For example, is the scene feeling abrupt because we didn’t know there was gun violence in the town, or is it feeling abrupt because we needed a breath, or because of the music or what? So, trying to put our fingers on the reasons why people feel the negative feeling that they feel is, I think, a lot of the challenge. And it’s also why I think it’s also important to have test screenings with small groups of people instead of a room full of people. Nothing against rooms full of people. [laughter]

Chyld King:
We hope you’ll be filling out your note cards.

Marshall Curry:
Chyld, you want to set up your next clip?

Chyld King:
Sure. It’s actually a good segue because I have this problem – I feel like every time I start a film, I don’t know what a film is. It’s like I don’t have a general case that I can apply to the thing that I’m doing, and I have to find it in the thing, and then, at some point, you do work on these little problems. And then, at some point, I see I’m on the right track, and it becomes a film. Now, it’s a bad film, but it’s going, and it has a thing that it didn’t have before.

Marshall Curry:
Not just footage anymore. Now it’s like–

Lindsay Utz:
For me, it’s usually six months in, and then I’m like, “Oh, maybe there’s something here.”

Chyld King:
Yeah. The months for me right before that are like, “What am I doing? I have no idea.”

Lindsay Utz:
Total panic, but then you can’t tell the director that you’re totally panicked about it. “I don’t know if we have a film.” They do not want to hear that from you.

Chyld King:
“I don’t understand what we’re doing here.” [laughter] So, I’m going to play one more clip from Containment and it’s from the end of the first act. It illustrates this issue, because this is a film that has no real narrative throughline; it doesn’t have any main characters. It’s not character-driven. If anything, the closest approximation to characters are landscapes. We have these places, and then, we have the landscape of the future. So it was a real challenge for me to figure out how to construct something that had a feeling of narrative or of emotional narrative out of these very disparate pieces.

Lindsay Utz:
And an invisible threat.

Chyld King:
Right, the threat is invisible. Time is invisible, and there’s no main character in it to follow.

Marshall Curry:
It may shock you to find out as well that Chyld’s current film is about black holes. So I don’t know if I’m detecting some sort of a pattern here, Chyld.

Chyld King:
Yeah, I seem to be doing wonky films about invisible things. So, this is a clip to show the way in which we would try to build shape out of juxtaposition and out of transition, and what we achieved from using the different textures of different kinds of material, and putting them next to each other. It’s hard, because I’m not sure this excerpt totally illustrates this, that we tried to give it shape and momentum, and build from that.

Containment clips play

Chyld King:
So, we’re bouncing back and forth, and we really wanted these different places and textures to speak to each other. The imaginary future, the present, the difficult present and the past. When I came across that archival footage where they actually had labeled their boxes “radioactive waste” so that they could bulldoze them into the earth where they still remain today, that was just amazing. I mean the world has changed, I hope, or maybe it hasn’t. But getting these pieces to play nicely together was really hard. We had this problem for a long time, with a lot of different cuts, and with different parts of cuts where it just felt like, “And then this, and then this, and then this, and then this.” And on every transition, it feels like that costs you. It costs you a viewer’s energy, and your energy wears out pretty fast.

Lindsay Utz:
It builds up over time, that frustration. And by the end of the film they’re mad.

Chyld King:
It’s like you’re cheese-grating them. You know, you don’t always want your transitions to be smooth, but they have to feel deliberate. I like this sequence, because it moves you from contemplating this past to seeing the present to imagining the future, and then back to this kind of hypothetical. And even the sort of blocky digital stuff on that last footage, I like the kind of variety of texture it brings. I wouldn’t want to do everything like that, but that represents to me a kind of archive of the recent past. Unfortunately, I think that’s a lot of what we’re going to be seeing. This is what our moment looks like, and just like people maybe weren’t so aware of how beautiful 16 was at the time, maybe we don’t know how beautiful macro blocking really is. [laughter].

Lindsay Utz:
I like the way you paced her interview. She’s very serious in tone, but the way you handled the comic timing of it was really nice.

Chyld King:
She’s very acerbic. I really had to figure out how to make the transitions work, and do it over an entire feature length movie, which was really hard—it was hard for me anyway. Because you not only need to have the pieces work, but also the pieces have to connect and work next to each other. And then, you have to have variety of tone and pace so that there are peaks and valleys in the experience. So we knocked down a lot of Jenga houses before we either deluded ourselves into thinking it was working or gave up.

Marshall Curry:
Lindsay, do you want to set up the last clip?

Lindsay Utz:
Sure. Because Chyld talked about openings, I thought that I would show the ending of Quest. It’s the last couple of scenes through the first part of the title sequence.

Quest clips play

Lindsay Utz:
Yeah, so openings are hard, endings are hard. When you’ve spent, in this case, eight years with a family, I don’t know how you say goodbye, you know?

For a long time the scene with PJ putting her eye in brought us out. And then there was this kind of sad – not sad, but sort of serious, piano, and it didn’t feel right, because I felt I wanted something quiet. But then, I also wanted a sense of “they’re taking us out of the film” you know? Price takes us out of the film. PJ takes us out of the film with the music. The first shot of the film is PJ knocking at the window. So seeing her drumming in the end feels really satisfying to build these connections over the years. I talked about temporal signposts earlier, and here we have Ma just talking to Will on the phone, “Did you vote today?” Again, it helps with this framing of the eight years and the two elections. It just felt right to me. And the black and white photos… Jon started this project as a photographer, and he had so many beautiful photographs from very early on. I wanted a home for them, and it seemed like a nice way to leave the film by showing those, because it gives you this sense of history and an epic quality, like we were just witness to eight years in the lives of this incredible family.

Marshall Curry:
Sort of a sweep to it. It’s like a fade out at the end of a great song as opposed to just ending the song.

Audience Member One:
You alluded to them already, but when I watched the film, I was really struck by these beautiful bookends. And I was curious about the the drumming. How did that evolve? It was so satisfying to feel, ‘Oh my god she was this tiny little kid drumming on the window sill and here she is.’

Lindsay Utz:
Well it’s funny, when I first started the project, and I saw the shot of her drumming on the window, my first thought was, ‘That’s the opening shot of the film.’ And then, of course, it wasn’t the opening shot for a very, very, very long time until eventually it was again. But, it’s interesting how you have that instinct. Jon’s an amazing director with an amazing vision. He was seeing these threads, so he set up that shot with her playing the drums at the end. She played a lot of songs that day, and one of which she very briefly played was that Price song. The shot of Price singing is a different day. But I married them, because I can do that! [laughter] And it felt nice to have everybody there performing for us. I have a real allergy to tying up a story too neatly, you know? Like when a film has like a giant bow on every story at the end. But, you want a sense of closure without it feeling like closure. So I felt like this section reinforced all the themes of the film: the healing, the love, family, resilience. And Jon and I always said this isn’t a victim story. I mean this family goes through so much, but this is not a story about victimhood; it’s a story about resilience. I wanted you to leave the theater with that feeling.

Audience Member Two:
This is a fairly abstract question, but it’s something I kind of think about a lot when starting a film or I’m in a rough cut phase. Sometimes I’m like, ‘I care about this but how will I get other people to care about this?’ I just wonder if that’s something that you think about?

Chyld King:
Definitely. For me, I have to find a way to care about it. If there’s a scene that rings emotionally for me, that’s where I’ll start. I try to put that together, because that’s how I find out how I really feel about it, and then I can refine it and build off of there. That’s the best way to get me to feel it.

Lindsay Utz:
Yeah I agree. And when you’re screening early on, there’s just something, you know it. You feel it. And if you see something that moves you, you feel it. You mark it. You remember it. And, eventually, all the good bits end up in the film.

Marshall Curry:
It just happens. Every single one. [laughter]

Lindsay Utz:
I think you have to care. You have to care, as an editor.

Marshall Curry:
And you have to build it into your opening. I mean you really have to build it.

Audience Member Two:
My question is for Chyld about making documentaries that aren’t character-driven. It seems like there’s such an emphasis on making character-driven documentaries that it’s often easier to find an audience when they are. Arguably, it might be easier to edit them when they are. And so, I was just curious about some lessons you’ve learned in that process. And what it’s like when you don’t have characters to latch onto.

Chyld King:
I don’t think they’re easier to make. I think movies are just hard to make, whatever kind you’re making. But, I will say that making esoteric, non-character-driven movies is not a great choice in the marketplace. There’s not a huge appetite for them at the moment.

Audience Member Three:
At what point in each of these films did you guys got involved, and how long was your editing process?

Lindsay Utz:
Jon, the director, had early money from Cinereach. Just enough to cut a sample. So I cut a 15-minute sample for him, and then I moved on to another project. And then, when the money came through, we started editing again. There were some breaks, and we screened and took some time off. But, essentially, 11 months on the cut leading up to Sundance, and almost a month or two making final edits afterwards to create the theatrical release version.

Chyld King:
I was on Containment for a very long time. I’m also a co-producer on the movie, so I was part of it from the conception forward. So overall, it was more than four years, but I was with other projects in between that, strictly editing.

Audience Member Four:
I wondered with Containment at what point did you add the “future” animation? Was that something that you sort of had a concept for, and then hired an animator to achieve your vision?

Chyld King:
Two different types of animation are featured: there’s the computer animation, which are simulations of actual proposed designs for the sites. And then there’s the hand-drawn animations, which are based on actual scenarios from the government documents over what the future 10,000 years could hold. And, from the very beginning, we wanted to convey both of these ideas, and we thought that the best way to convey these imaginary futures was through animation. So, from the very beginning, we were in negotiations with animators, but it was actually a really hard process to find the correct tone. We worked with another animator first and his drawings were great, and we worked with him for months but they always had a kind of ironic tinge to them and we needed them to read straight. So we ended up having to go back and strip all the animation out and find another artist, Peter Kuper, who does a lot of graphic novel work. And he’s brilliant and he was able to help us envision these scenarios the way the scenario writers might have. That sounds like a preposterous thing to have to do, but if you’re tasked with protecting a 10,000-year future, what else are you going to do? You have to make up something, because the future is totally unknown to us. So we wanted to capture some of that earnestness. Any bit of irony really undid it, because we didn’t want it to seem funny, we wanted it to seem vital. Like, “You have to do this. We have all this nuclear waste, and it’s not good.” So yes, the animation was conceived from the very beginning.

Marshall Curry:
Chyld, in Containment there’s a minister, and he has a verbal tick in the way that he talks. He constantly says, “Okay, okay,” at the end of many sentences. And it was funny, because, when I was watching it, I was thinking to myself, ‘I wonder if I would have cut those out, or at least some of them out?’ and maybe you did cut some of them out, but there are still quite a few that are in there. And it led me to think about a larger question, which is when do you allow characters to do things that might be off-putting to the audience? In If A Tree Falls, a film I directed, there’s an interview that we did with a guy who is wearing this really kind of irritating hat, and when you see him in other scenes, he never has it. But every time that he appears with this hat you suddenly are thinking about this hat. And so I was torn between trying to decide whether to leave it, because he picked this hat and it tells you something about his character. And whether eliminating that scene would be distorting his character, or whether it just confused the construction of the film and it was distracting? And I wonder, as a larger question for people, how you balance telling somebody to take off that funny hat, or edit out some of the verbal tics that might be distracting, or how do you balance that?

Chyld King:
I personally want all my characters to be as weird as possible. [laughter] No, seriously, up to the point where it’s distracting. If it gets in the way, then it’s too much. And then you have to rein it in a little bit, but otherwise they’re just, especially for interview-driven stuff like this, they’re just talking heads. I really think you can access character through interview, but you have to allow it, and sometimes force it, to happen.

Audience Member Five:
Wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you know when you’re done, because you can keep screening, and people will have thoughts. But, at a certain point, you have to stop, besides just waiting for the budget to run out.

Lindsay Utz:
Or you get into a festival, and you just have to be done. But I didn’t feel done when we premiered at Sundance, and we opened the cut back up and made some changes after it… little stuff that bothered me. You know, not a big difference, but it never feels done. I don’t know. Never does.

Chyld King:
I totally agree. Watching the films, you feel all the things that you would change if you could open it back up. But, at some point, it’s done enough, right?

Lindsay Utz:
It’s done enough. Yeah, at some point, you just decide it’s done.

Chyld King:
It’s like you’re orbiting something, and you’re not getting any closer. So you may as well quit. When we premiered Secrecy at Sundance, we went back and added an entire new storyline.

Lindsay Utz:
What about you, Marshall? How do you feel about ending your films?

Marshall Curry:
Well I guess most, or all, of my films have an arc, a plot. I know, before I’m even starting to shoot, that it’s either going to end this way or that way. I find it hard to make movies. And so at least, with a build in narrative arc, that there is a floor below which hopefully I can’t fall through. But the question of when it’s polished is usually a financial question. When it’s fully, fully, fully finished.

Well, we’ve run out of time, so thank you everybody, for coming. And thank you Lindsay and Chyld for sharing your films and your wisdom.


Sound Recordist: Jay Arthur Sterrenberg
Transcriber: Brad Kimbrough
Copy Editor: Seth Trochtenberg

Read the transcript for Panel 1 here.

The Sundance Documentary Film Program supports non-fiction filmmakers worldwide in the production of cinematic documentaries on contemporary themes.

Awarded annually, the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship was created in 2010 to honor the memory of gifted editor Karen Schmeer.

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POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 300 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.