ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

On the Outset of Editing —

Editing in earnest began on the GET LAMP project over the weekend.

There’s still a tiny set of interviews left to do, as well as a continually open door to a couple of people who said no to change their minds. But with roughly 80 interviews done, totaling 100 hours, I think we can make a movie here.

When I started out on the BBS Documentary I didn’t know its length or involvement and by the time I was editing I didn’t know much about the process other than blind faith I’d make something worthwhile from it. This time around I know the length, involvement and the process, and I also have this weblog. So I figured I’d give you some on-the-outset thoughts about editing, should some aspiring filmmaker or other person who deals in putting together pieces of stuff want my opinion on the whole thing.

The process of making a documentary film, at least as I go about it, doesn’t jibe much with the approach of making movies, or fictional ones. You don’t really have a script, but instead have a thing you wish to make the movie about. Maybe that thing is an event, maybe a person. You might even have some ideas of what you think will be in the final work. But you don’t know know, like one who knows that tomorrow we’re going to have the lead actor punch out his rival and get into a sports car and drive off. With a scripted film, everything is at least set in drying concrete with some mixups happening later as logic or opportunity intrudes.

I also count “reality television” as fictional television, even though you’re using amateurs or doing a “what will happen” vibe to what is an event where it is all basically on rails. Sure, you might not know that a member in the second team would have a crying jag and you might not know the happy reaction of the family to the new look of the rebuilt home, but you can pretty much leave a bunch of little buckets in place so that your editors can assemble the rough outline before anything’s been shot. Television is fake. Fake fake fake, and that’s the way it is.

I went into GET LAMP knowing it would cover text adventures, and it certainly does that. I had a list of stuff that most people would reasonably expect to see in a documentary about text adventures: Infocom, Adventure, Scott Adams, “Modern” IF, Zork. If you browse cases where news of this documentary got out, a lot of people kind of hit those touchpoints in reaction. So, text adventures, short list, got it.

As I studied the subject, however, I got more into the idea of how it was less about Games than Writers. To write interactive fiction, to think that way and to approach that method of making a written work, is very unique to this subject. A videogame documentary, one covering the history of computer games or one lauding the latest trends in gaming industries will not generally focus on the idea of the writing process, just the output. I don’t mean they won’t include the programmers/creators, but that they won’t talk to those creators about where their ideas come from or how they think of their audience or how they think of their work being manipulated by the players. So I definitely added that.

In doing that I expanded my interview roster to people who were involved in interactive fiction in all its forms; so I got the creator of Choose Your Own Adventure books. I got one of the US Poet Laureates, Robert Pinsky, to weigh in on the time he made a text adventure. There’s an interview with a creator of interactive comic books. There’s a couple straight-on writer types who dabbled in interactive fiction long ago but went the linear route. And there’s people who ran MUDs (and in two cases, created MUD and TinyMUD, respectively).

What is your special sauce, the business types say. What distinguishes you from a hundred other people doing the same thing? Why will people remember how you do stuff, as opposed to everyone else. My special sauce is a crazy-wide cast net, where I bring in people who seem completely unconnected to the subject but are connected quite closely indeed.

Before I move on, I have to stress something, and that’s that my methodology of editing is a product of the present. It utilizes digital non-linear editing, and a host of computer hardware and storage that is unrealistic for someone to have done even a decade ago. None of my movie has ever touched a negative. Only 40 minutes of the 100 hours even saw videotape. Pretty much all of it went from a plug-in card with chips in it to a bank of disk drives and ultimately DVD-ROMs for longer-term storage/backup. To compare how I did this documentary to, say, Hoop Dreams and neglect the fact that Hoop Dreams utilized Betacam videotape and no hard drives for film storage, really does them a disservice. Not only did a film like that amaze and astound, but it’s a galaxy away from where I’m sitting. I would not have one hundreth of the opportunity I do now to approach this subject without these advancements and the way I did things would cost hundreds of thousands instead of merely thousands.

When you’re interviewing people, you have a series of questions you want to ask, some pre-written and some not. It’s universally thought that going entirely off a set of pre-formatted questions is bad, but going completely off-list is bad too. I have a number of questions I ask that are very easy to answer, followed by questions that are not so easy or which I construct on the fly while listening to the answers. I recently did an interview with a subject where I started to ask questions as if he was a programmer, but I had this spontaneous realization that he was better answering questions about writing than programming so I concentrated almost entirely on writing. I didn’t know where I was going to end up beforehand, or at least, I didn’t really know until I sat down.

The interviews for GET LAMP are a lot shorter than they were for BBS Documentary, mostly because the subject is more directed but also because I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with the process. I don’t need to make every single person give the same statement, or say the same things, when it’s obvious I’ll only be able to use a couple in a final work. I conducted an interview last year at a friend’s house, using his living room as a location, and when I was finished and saw the subject off, my friend said “Was he no good?” and I said “No, he answered everything I needed.” and the reason for this confusion was because I’d interviewed my buddy for over two hours for his sit-down and here I was doing an interview in about 25 minutes. But I only needed 25 minutes to get what I needed this time.

Interviews consist of me asking questions and people answering them on-camera. Sometimes a person is the type who you mention “what do you think of computers” and you get a 15 minute monologue (with lots of great bits), and other times they’re the type of person who is completely unsure what to say and need prompting or discussion. Just like you might not be able to describe much of what was on the walls in your elementary schoolroom, so does someone “famous” for something or “an expert” in something not necessarily remember the level of detail a question entails. So there’s a lot of recording of me telling stories, jokes, references, or pulling something from what I picked up to bring out the memories. Fishing expeditions, they call it. A lot of waiting and a lot of dead time, but that’s fine; it’s just bits after all. At the end of this recording, we might have a 40 minute interview with 30 minutes of the subject talking. So we’re already down from the 100 hour figure.

I go through these interviews and pick out the subjects. If a person describes playing Adventure, that’s a subject that won’t end up relating to Infocom. If a person talks about writing a modern IF game, that doesn’t overlap with tales of working on microcomputers of the 1980s, unless they specifically compare them.

So basically, I end up with a pile of clips. I have descriptions of the clips, with all the subjects touched in them, and then I store them all together by theme. Sometimes the theme is obvious and other times not so obvious. And naturally, I have to keep going, in my mind, a few of the not-quite-in-theme clips and how they might be used down the line. If I have someone saying things were one way and another clip of someone disagreeing, specifically, with that person, I kind of keep that link in my head for a while. Another example is where I have a recording of someone getting a look on their face that might be a useful reaction shot to something, and that sort of ethereal, fragile component could be overlooked as editing progresses.

Eventually, though, I am facing a timeline. This timeline will eventually be the movie or a bonus feature or other self-contained set of shots. This is where I will spend the most time editing.

Film Editing is, after all, the changing of an untouched recorded reality and manipulating it to some end. In my case, the end is primarily clarity and correlation, but there’s probably some other themes as well. Entertainment? Emotion? In any event, I want the final composition to reflect, in some way, the actual story or event that I am calling the film’s subject.

As I flip through dozens of clips about a subject, say, the creating of a modern text adventure, I will have any statements made by anyone about the subject in my folder. Some of it will be the opinion of people who don’t actually do the thing being talked about. Other bits will be the people actually creating them. Some of it will be people who once made text adventures with their thoughts on current authors following in their footsteps. I start assembling these in groups on the timeline.

At this point, the film I’m putting together has two attributes. It is boring, and it is nonsensical. To watch it at this point would make most people think I was the worst filmmaker ever. Endless swaths of people saying the same thing, statements that don’t match up to anything, even clips that aren’t really related to the subject being covered. And it’s actually even more intensive than that; the clips that I do clump together betray themselves as having only a tiny, tiny piece that could ever really end up in the flick. I relate this to trying to determine if you should make a new kitchen, and so you rebuild a replica of your entire home, down to the carpets and furniture, replace the kitchen on it, and then, if you like the kitchen, burn this entire house replica down and go back to the real house and make a kitchen.

I will have flown to a person’s town, rented a car, hauled equipment, set up in their home (an appointment months or years in the making), interview them for an hour, go home, and then look at the hour and pull out 5 minutes. And then use 30 seconds of that five minutes. It is very much like gold panning, the way I do it.

The digital way of doing things makes my job very easy, though. If I “discard” footage, even cut a clip to ribbons, I can make it all come back again. I yank things in all directions, and can even say to myself “I need a few more seconds of this person breathing” or “I cut off the scene too late” and by pulling a little lever, it all comes back. No assistants running down to the vaults, no sweating the rental time for the suite, no trying to remember which reel and number I pulled this stuff from; it’s all just right there. I’m therefore more fearless in my cuts, more quick to try ten different ways, and more likely, down the road, to completely shake things up.

Everything I initially put together, probably even including the first cut, will be changed for the final. Since I shot in HD I have things like color correction, sound sweetening, and codec translation to worry about, but that’s actually the final polish. I’m talking about realizing it makes no sense to have someone discuss this side subject, or to give someone more screen time than I did because I like their voice. The cut of the BBS Documentary episode “Make it Pay” was one hour and five minutes when I beta premiered it. The final cut was about 43 minutes. There’s a lot of changes that will happen.

This movie will be good or it will not be good, but it will be mine and the choices I make over the next few months will be radical. Just because I know this is the case doesn’t mean I can’t do the foundation work properly. Stuff that might never be used, words that might never see the final cut…. it’s all part of this process.

More on this as it comes to me.

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One Comment

  1. Jiro says:

    I’ll always remember this game where you had to type “go window” to get up to a window, and I spent weeks to figure out how to get down….

    Of course “go window” again…