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Friday, 18 November 2011 12:14

The Evolution of On-Location Editing

Written by  Valentina I. Valentini
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Documentary editors are essentially writers, but instead of writing a script in preproduction, they’ll write a story in strict collaboration with a director during post. However, when an editor works in the field during production, the story can become tighter, more streamlined and more accurately told.

“It’s an honor and an opportunity to edit on location,” explains Langdon Page, a documentary editor who recently worked on HBO’s Koran by Heart in Cairo and is currently finishing The Strange History of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. “It puts me on the ground; it makes me an active participant in acquiring the footage that I have to work with. It’s also incredibly helpful for me to know what is going on outside the viewfinder, even if I don’t have that to work with. I get a sense of the feeling of a situation — the more ethereal things you don’t see when you are just handed the footage.” Page has edited a few documentaries while on location, including Director Abel Ferrara’s Chelsea on the Rocks, which Page edited on the third floor of New York City’s Chelsea Hotel, and the Discovery TV movie Ultimate Guide: Iceman, which was shot and edited in Rome.

For Koran by Heart, directed by Greg Barker, Page worked in a Cairo hotel room using Avid with Media Composer 5 on an Apple MacBook. He packed only the Mac, the software and hard drives and acquired the peripherals from a local supplier in Cairo. “You think it’d be easy to get a monitor from a local vendor and just plug it in,” recalls Page, “but even with taking over three monitor adaptors for the MacBook, none of them worked. To find the equivalent of an Apple store in Cairo with the correct adaptor in the middle of Ramadan is quite the three-day challenge.”
Documentary Editor Lillian Benson finds her career shifting toward more mobile and more global collaboration, and she’s taking steps to be prepared. “This year, I purchased a laptop and loaded it with Avid and Final Cut Pro 7 software for just this purpose,” explains Benson. “Having these programs on a laptop is revolutionary. I started editing on Avid in 1995 when the drives were like big shoe boxes and the systems cost $40,000.”

Editors don’t often get the opportunity to go on location with documentary productions, simply due to budgetary or logistical concerns. When Page is brought on location during production, it’s mostly because the director and the filming were based somewhere other than Los Angeles. “On Koran by Heart, HBO sort of mandated it,” Page says. “We didn’t know what the film was in terms of a storyline [which is often the case on a documentary], but on an event film where you can’t go back and get pickup [shots] you need to make sure you get what you need when you’re there. I wasn’t necessarily cutting sequences. It was more about being able to visualize which sequences I would need based on the footage shot and being able to give that feedback to Greg immediately.”

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