Adventures in editing

New York: how the past prepared us for the future of disease

The perfect graffiti to frame immigration

As a self-taught filmmaker, one thing has occurred to me time and again — there seems to be a vacuum of information regarding the creative process of editing; from taking the rushes and converting them into a narrative journey for the viewer.

There’s an abundance of camera reviews, tech sites, spec sites, software gripes and how-tos for almost everything to do with filmmaking. Except the edit itself. Not since I read Fine Cuts have I come across a meaty dissection of the editing process.

So that’s what this is about; for the films I make that feel like they deserve a little unpicking, explanation or behind the scenes, this is where I’m going to nerd out and explain the journey from initial brief to final film. And if you’re a non-fiction filmmaker, or any kind of filmmaker for that matter, you might get something out of it. If you do, let me know as it’d be good to know I’m not just typing into the wind.

Why ‘adventures’? Because the beginning of every film feels like an adventure. Like some fearless, some might say ‘naive’, explorer bounding off with a camera, in the world of documentary, one can never quite guarantee what the location, interview, weather or supporting shots will throw up. It’s akin to going on holiday by showing up at the airport and choosing a flight at random.

So lets start with the brief.

Contagious Cities

This project was for the Wellcome Trust, a fantastic organisation spanning the worlds of science and the humanities. In Contagious Cities, the aim was to stimulate conversations across the world about how we live today and how that impacts epidemic preparedness — the means by which a country prepares for any potential contagious disease outbreak.

Working with Project Leader, the indefatiguable Danielle Olsen, and the outstanding Abbie Doran, we met to discuss the filmic needs of the project.

While the project itself spans five cities, my task was to visit two of these, New York and Hong Kong, to create a sub five minute film suitable to the needs of the project. The films were to be screened within the Wellcome Trust, online and potentially in museums within each of the host countries.

Strong initial guidance from Danielle was that each of these films should weigh heavily on how past outbreaks of disease have informed the country’s present day approach to epidemic preparedness. Other words and themes that came out as we spoke were ideas of human movement, migration and disease.

As I listened, two other images came to mind, the vitality of water as a means by which humans move around the world and also how we tend to congregate close to water for hydration and feeding. Then the idea of blood came to mind, the medium by which life is carried throughout our being but also the potential carrier of infection, once it’s managed to break through the skin.

Another key piece of information I like to get hold of at this early stage is how they’d like the film to ‘feel’ — to give it an emotional tag. Are we talking pacey and energetic, cool and hip or something else entirely. This question can throw some people off but Danielle paused a moment and came back to me with, ‘poetic’, which I loved.

The idea of poetic filmmaking is one I adore and, within a documentary context is a bit like being let off the reigns — rather than being too literal and thinking, ‘I must get shots of x and y’, the mind opens up to unexpected juxtapositions both when out filming and in the edit.

I’ve written about the actual filming trips to the two locations, which you can see here, so for now, let’s keep it to the actual edit.

The Opening

Times are indicated at the start of each paragraph, when necessary, in minutes:seconds.

The film starts with a branded text card to outlay to a viewer the work that New York’s Tenement Museum is doing to understand what it was like in the past to live with infectious disease.

00:07 This cuts to seagulls flying. The idea being to quickly start with a beautiful image evocative of flight, travel, before cutting to a wide panormaic shot of New York city itself.

In the background we hear Dr Mary Bassett (MB) discuss the ‘transit hub’ nature of this remarkable city. We cut to MB long enough to give a viewer her title card but this is one of the few times we’ll see MB, as I prefer to avoid talking heads unless it feels like it adds weight or poignancy to what the interviewee is saying.

This was not an advertorial for New York; by deliberately avoiding the usual suspects, the Flat Iron building, Empire State, etc., I wanted to ground the film in the people living, working and moving through the city. Did I get shots of all of the major landmarks? You bet I did, as all it takes is one influential person in a screening to make a comment and suddenly you may need to add those sorts of shots. But I was careful to avoid including them, or reference to them in any of the edits.

As MB continues to expound of the global nature of the city, we see shots to reinforce the idea of transit and a global feel. First cutting to a seascape, including a seagull flying — this was to bridge the earlier bird sequence and bring a feeling of continuity to what we’re now seeing. We see boats, helicopters, people moving around this grand city — there’s movement everywhere.

00:27 MB has provided the modern context to our film but now we need to dive into the history of disease in New York city. And to do this we’re going to the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side. We cut to the Orchard Street sign, firmly grounding us in a location, which then jumps to a wonderful wide of the museum itself. Cutting from the close up to the wide feels satisfying.

This is where we meet one of the museum’s Directors, David Favaloro (DF), sitting squarely within the place he feels most comfortable and a location that (I felt) succeeded in evoking the history and vaguely haunted feel of the museum, a place echoing to the footsteps of previous lives.

In a repeat of the previous two shots, we then jump to a second street sign, this time building on the immigrant subject matter before revealing another epic shot of the museum, intended to show it as a grand, dominating space.

00:38 Here, we cut to a main corridor in the museum as DF explains the purpose of the museum — to use the stories of the people who lived here to explain what life was like. This shot lasts a long time, partly because it is beautfiful but more because it’s evocative of a different time. As the shot holds, the focus pulls, throwing the door out of focus, moving the viewer deeper into the building, further back in time — before cutting to archive photography.

00:52 The purpose of the museum is to help people grasp the role of immigration in American life, so here we cut back to the present, to a piece of graffiti I was delighted to find on the streets nearby, saying, ‘You’re here now what?’ Perfect, as it reinforces DF’s comments while offereing a direct challenge to the viewer.

00:58 DF begins the first of three brief stories he’ll tell about different families and different diseases that affected their lives; in this case, tuberculosis. There was a bar this family had run so it was here and in the spaces they relaxed that I’d gathered footage. The aim was to use the shots to try and build a sense of life, sympathy, intimate details of their possessions intertwined with archive imagery of what life was like for these two people in their present.

01:33 Cut to a sequence intended to be poetic, following on from mention of a person’s death, while encouraging the viewer to think of liquid, blood, movement and flow.

This sequence was shot in slow motion as I dripped fake blood (diluted to the right consistency) into a vase filled with water. Using a 100mm macro lens on a Canon C200, the vase had white paper placed behind it, then a light to the side to give good illumination. Then I repeatedly dripped my fake blood into the vase, occassionally capturing shots that felt good. This was then reversed in the edit to create a dreamy, otherworldly feel. Throughout both this and the Hong Kong film, it serves as a visual motif for the idea of life and contagion while linking the two films.

01:42 As MB discusses contemporary outbreaks of tuberculosis, we have a short sequence of archive material intercut with contemporary street scenes. The idea is to very deliberately bridge the past and present, acting to reinforce MB’s sentiment that you can never truly stop worrying about certain diseases.

01:54 DF starts to discuss the second family, one afflicted by Spanish Flu…

02:51 Following on from a brief sequence intended to create a sense of life and ‘readiness’ in New York, we return to the blood motif, this time mirroring the movement of steam/air on the street of New York — another potential route to infection.

03:00 We now hear DF’s final tale, featuring the lives of two men affected by AIDS and who lived in an apartment in the building from the 1960s onwards. Wherever possible, shots were used to create a sense of living here — sometimes it feels like it’s the viewer entering a room, other times it can feel like you’re holding the point of view of the previous inhabitants, as if peering through a ghost’s eyes.

03:49 As MB discusses the idea of people living in the shadows, I wanted to create a sense of ghosts living among us, lost lives. This is why we have the shot of the light, a slightly eery image which barely shows human movement — the type of ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ movement. This then cuts to the long, out of focus shot of a person leaving the museum. Clearly, we’re in the present day but we have no idea who this person is — we don’t need to because they symbolise every lost person MB is talking about.

04:02 We now see DF out in the streets, with jump cuts to highlight the range of people and cultures one finds in this city. It felt important to see DF outside the museum, to remind the viewer that all this work and research is to help contextualise the past and present, that one cannot exist without the other. I also liked the sense of dynamism seeing him walking around contained: this is a man who observes and thinks about ‘now’ through a historical lens, hence the jumps to archive.

04:22 It felt important to literally connect the past and present by bringing the two interviewees together. To show them interacting, learning from each other. The aim of this is to bring a cohesiveness to the film while helping reinforce the idea that the past informs the present and the future…

If you’ve got any comments or thoughts, feel free to reach out. I love what I do and never tire of talking about filmmaking.

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Barry J Gibb