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Being an Assistant Editor on a Sundance Documentary: Julie Hwang on "The Game Changers"

Before the lush celebrity gift suites, the sold-out Q&A sessions, and the long lines of frozen but eager cinephiles trying to grab the hottest ticket in Park City, a movie was made -- and it was hard work. And behind the producers and directors and actors who led the charge, a "below-the-line" crew of anywhere from tens to hundreds of craftspeople worked to bring filmmakers' visions to life. They're the post production engineers, the editors, the camera operators, or the composers whose names are in the credits but not the numerous story pitches to Sundance press outlets like the COW. Union or non-union, aspiring or veteran, these individuals spent weeks of their life behind the scenes dedicated to telling a story. And in my 2018 COW Sundance Film Festival coverage, I'm telling their stories.


Like many of the connections made at Sundance, I met Julie Hwang in a flash during an Avid mixer on Main Street, introduced by a mutual friend. Between the purple lights, free beanies, and blaring music, we could barely hear each other — but when I saw she had served as an assistant editor on her first Sundance documentary feature, I insisted we trade cards and follow up soon after the fest. (Then I ran off into the night to interview Barbie down the street.)

And I’m so glad I did because Julie is rad.

Julie Hwang came into editing in a roundabout way. Her background is technical: she went to MIT and was an electrical engineer at Texas Instruments in Texas where she designed HDMI switches for ten years! “If you ever switched inputs on your HDMI TV, there's a good chance one of the chips I worked on made that possible.”

Once she left engineering, Julie took a Final Cut Pro class and some other production-oriented classes around Dallas, worked on a low budget feature in various roles, and then found herself moving to Silicon Valley along with her partner when he was transferred. After a couple years of freebies and Indies, she decided to fully commit to post production.

“I finally got into post-production, oddly enough, via production. I was working as a PA and assistant travel coordinator on a pretty big travel-based reality competition show. I got to travel to a bunch of different cities, and it felt a little like running away with the circus. Ultimately, I wanted to find something more stable and in post-production back in the Bay Area. Luckily, one of the producers on the show recommended me to a post production supervisor she knew in the Bay Area, and that's how I finally got my first job working with Avid. I started out as a logger and I didn't really have any Avid experience at all. It was my first time working in a real TV post-production environment and I just loved it and knew that's where I wanted to be.”

Julie served as assistant editor on The Game Changers, a documentary that features athletes, soldiers, scientist and cultural icons working together to change the way we eat and live and shift toward a plant-based diet. The documentary was directed by Louie Psihoyos and executive produced by James Cameron, and debuted at Sundance to a sold out audience.

Outside The Ray Theater where The Game Changers premiered.

Creative COW: Why did you originally choose to go into engineering, and what made you shift into film? Was it a life-long passion you put aside to pursue engineering?

Julie Hwang: I've had a love of movies and a fascination with the film industry since a pretty young age, but I grew up as a first generation Asian American whose parents were both engineers. The film/TV industry was something that wasn't really known to my family and also seemed like a risky and impractical pursuit to them. It was something I could never give up completely though. Even at MIT, I took film and media classes, which I definitely enjoyed more than my engineering classes.

Back in Dallas, I became heavily involved in the film festival community there and even helped run the Asian Film Festival of Dallas for a few years. Those experiences brought me in contact with actual filmmakers and other people working in the industry, which made the idea of working in the industry much less abstract. I also want to mention Justin Lin's success at Sundance back in 2002 with Better Luck Tomorrow. Seeing someone with a similar background to my own break out in the movie industry like he did was huge.

Deciding to make the break still took a while, but my final turning point came when I realized I didn't want to retire from my working life at 55 or 65 as an engineer, and that's what was going to happen if I didn't leave.

Engineering and post production are two industries that are notoriously unwelcoming to women. There’s copious research that shows parallels between both industries’ lack of ability to retain, develop, and promote women properly. What has been your experience going from one to the other? Do the two technical roles share similarities, or are things quite different?

Both industries definitely require similar skill sets and I think my engineering background has served me quite well. It's all about trade-offs and working with the resources you have to get things done.

One thing I saw a lot in my engineering career was the drive to make processes more efficient and squeeze more performance out of existing systems and that's a mentality with which I approach the technical side of my work as an assistant editor. Especially in television, where schedules are so tight, it's important to do everything you can to get the editors working as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

I think I was pretty lucky in my engineering career to have worked at a large corporation that had a lot of programs and systems in place to help promote and develop women. Going from a company that had thousands of employees to companies that had less than 50, sometimes less than 5 employees was a big adjustment. Also, so much of our industry is word of mouth and you often find yourself on short assignments. There's a lot more hustle involved. I had to learn to really speak up more for myself and put myself out there in order to make an impression or find new opportunities.

In any field or occupation, I think it's important to stand up for yourself and let your ideas be heard. I still have trouble doing that sometimes, and I will admit, I've found myself more willing to speak up in situations where the crew has been predominantly women. Let me just say, I've been in a few situations where I've felt my ideas were dismissed, ignored, or just put down, and none of those situations involved a female producer, director, or editor.

I think one of the best ways to bring about positive change for women in any field is to seek out and work with people you respect and who value your contributions in return, male or female.

Bryant Jennings in The Game Changers.

Tell me about The Game Changers. How did you get involved on the film, and what was your role? How long did you work on the film?

The Game Changers is a feature length documentary that follows elite special forces trainer and former UFC fighter James Wilks as he discovers the performance, health, and environmental impacts of a plant-based diet. It was directed by Louis Psihoyos, who won an Oscar for The Cove, and executive produced by James Cameron and Suzy Amis Cameron.  One of the writers was Mark Monroe (Icarus) and the film was edited by Dan Swietlik, ACE (An Inconvenient Truth, Sicko, Fed Up) and Stephanie Mechura (The Price of Sex, Frontline). It was really a dream team of documentary film making and it was an amazing experience to be able to be in the edit rooms with Dan and Stephanie.

I was brought onto the project back in February of last year because they made a decision change NLE's from Premiere to Avid and needed Bay Area Avid assistants to help transfer the project. I ended up staying on through the rest of the post production process. I was able to do some string-outs and editing, but my primary duties were to manage our massive project and the media and assets.

I feel really lucky to have been brought onto the film, not only because of the caliber of the filmmakers involved, but it's probably the first project I've been involved with that I felt could have a positive impact on the world.

Outside Park City's Egyptian Theater

What was the most challenging aspect of The Game Changers for you as an assistant editor? How did you meet that challenge?

The amount of material we had was enormous. This is easily the largest project I've worked on, in terms of hours of footage and the number of subjects involved. Over 100 subjects were interviewed. In addition to that, we had hours of verite and also a huge amount of archival footage and graphics. From a creative standpoint, condensing and refining all that material into a coherent 90 minute film was a huge challenge by itself, but we also had a lot of logistical issues to deal with.

We had producers, writers, and graphics artists spread all over the world and our editor Stephanie was also working remotely for part of the time. It was vital to have the project well organized and with a good naming convention for each different type of media so we could find things quickly or new material could be found logically. We made heavy use of Google Drive both for sharing scripts, exports, and even Avid bins quickly.

As I mentioned earlier, I had been brought on to help move the project from Premiere to Avid. It was a decision that delayed the start of the edit by about 6 weeks, since we essentially had to rebuild and re-sync everything from scratch, but in the end it probably saved us months.

The ability for multiple members of the team to be working in the same project at the same time was absolutely essential and Scriptsync was just a brilliant way for us to quickly go through all the material we had and to assemble edits. I'm also not sure that we would have been able to keep everything in one project with Premiere. Avid handled our gargantuan project like a champ.

Is this your first trip to Sundance with a film? What has that experience been like?

Yes! This was my first trip with a film. I had come to Sundance before, just as a festival goer, but this was definitely a more exciting experience. At the premiere, I finally got to meet several of our documentary subjects in person which was kind of strange and also nerve wracking, since none of them had seen the film yet. It was a great relief that all the athletes and scientists were happy with the film and how they were portrayed.

Many of your credits are on reality and documentary projects. What are you working toward in the future?

I enjoy the challenge of reality and documentary work where you're essentially finding the story in the edit, but I do hope to be able to move more into narrative work. Part of my desire to shift is just because that's a whole area of post production that I'm unfamiliar with and I want to gain that knowledge. In narrative work you also have a larger number of disciplines coming together to create and drive the story, and it would be exciting to be a part of that.

The Game Changers.

What’s next on the horizon for you? Do you have another project lined up?

There's still a little more work to be done on The Game Changers post-Sundance. We finished the Sundance cut of the film only a few days before its festival premiere so it doesn't feel like that project has really wrapped yet. After that, I'm looking at some other TV documentary work, and I think it's time to start going down to LA more.

What advice do you have for people who might be considering shifting careers into post production?

Always be willing to work hard and learn as much as you can. Be patient but never complacent. If you're not sure about the switch, ask yourself where you want to be at the end of your career. If you can live with the track that you're on, that's great. If you can't, then you need to do what you can to switch.

Posted by: Kylee Peña on Feb 19, 2018 at 12:30:27 am Sundance, the game changers, assistant editor, editing, vegan

Sundance Impressions: Snow and “The Sentence”

The threat (or promise, depending on your outlook) of snow delivered today in full force. So much so that I was taken off guard and missed an early screening due to basically being buried in a snow drift. I was born and raised in the midwest, and I started driving at age 16 with a very light front wheel drive vehicle in the dead of winter in a rural area. But it turns out once you live in LA for like, a minute, your natural instincts begin to disappear and you struggle to remain upright.

I was really proud of my snow boots though. Obviously I am not A Winter Sports Person (TM) so I didn’t own boots until last week. Breaking them in here was a risk and it seems to have paid off.

The Egyptian Theater

I read a few articles about preparing to come to Park City, but none of them really prepared me for the extent to which I would be both hot and cold simultaneously all the time. I am thankful I packed a lens cloth in my winter coat pocket to deal with the fogged lenses at every turn. But despite all my whining, it really is nice to play in some snow and be among the film people in such a nice city. (Everyone who lives here and volunteers at the festival is so.nice.)

Main Street

I made a detour off Main Street to spend some time having brunch with Endcrawl at midday. Their service basically makes making end credits easy. I’m a really big fan of the entire idea of Endcrawl, in part because I’ve made credits that suck, and in part because it’s so accessible that indie filmmakers can and do use it. A third of the features in Sundance this year used Endcrawl, which is bananas. I talked to John “Pliny” Eremic briefly over mimosas and scones and asked him: why are end credits so damn hard?

He told me this: "You’re juggling hundreds, sometimes thousands of names. There are a lot of politics involved. There are endless revisions. There’s behind the scenes wrangling with who’s in and who’s out and fixing all the typos and all that. The process for that used to be email chains and it was very 1997. You only want to scroll at certain speeds that don’t jitter, judder, stutter, shimmer, shake — whatever you want to call it. That makes the runtime difficult.”

Yeah, that was also my experience.

Cocktails with Endcrawl

Later on, after tea with a DP (sharing that conversation soon) and coffee with an editor (that one too), I was thinking about the thing I realized makes Sundance really special for me. It isn’t just going to see a lot of movies, or going to see new movies. It’s experiencing movies alongside the filmmakers that made them, and celebrating that along with them. If you’ve ever made a short or a feature or any other expression of creativity and debuted it to a crowd of strangers in a theater or room of any size, you know the nervous excitement just before your art is unveiled. At Sundance, that feeling is on steroids.

Atticus Tea House

Which leads me to The Sentence.

The film is drawn from hundreds of hours of footage shot by director Rudy Valdez, as he tells the story of the incarceration of his sister Cindy and the aftermath of her 15 year sentence for conspiracy charges related to drug crimes her boyfriend committed before he was murdered. Cindy wasn’t involved in drugs. She made some poor decisions with who she spent time with, and she didn’t disclose her boyfriend’s crimes to the police at any point. But it’s clear in the film she is nothing but a kind person who wants to take care of her family.

And originally, the state agreed and threw out the case. But six years later, just six months before the statute of limitations would run out, she was convicted of her boyfriend’s crimes and given the mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years just months after giving birth to her third daughter. From that point, Rudy copes with his sister’s situation, and turns from bystander to director to activist behind the camera over the course of nine years of her story.

From the opening scene of the film, the stakes are made clear: Cindy is taken from her family and all the little moments a young mom gets with her babies — first days of school, funny little games, silly faces, fighting — is taken away from her. The through line of the film is in the heart of her daughters on screen, being interviewed by Rudy as they play in their rooms or sit on their beds. Children are honest, and their perspectives are gut-wrenching. Even more gut-wrenchingly, we’re placed in the shoes of Cindy as we watch the three girls grow up on camera. The oldest, Autumn, begins the film is an adorable 5 year old. By the end she’s a teenager, and the visual of her growing face and the subtle deepening of her voice is heartbreaking.

Rudy describes himself as feeling he’s taken the “coward’s way out”, which I think is a sentiment to which a lot of us who cope with difficulties by documenting our lives in full can relate. But Rudy is the driving force of trying to change his sister’s fate, staying the course as a family is ripped apart by unchanging mandatory minimums and “the girlfriend problem”. And we learn Cindy is far from alone in her struggles as a mom ripped away from a healthy, productive family.

The film is intimate, often filling the frame with the subjects’ faces. Personal moments play out but never exploit. Everyone is just so earnest, trying their best. And Cindy never stops trying to keep the family together, consoling her siblings and parents and children at times over the phone, reminding them that she’s okay, interrupted periodically by an automated voice interjecting that the call is coming from a federal prison.

It was challenging and well-edited, an important story that has real world implications not just for Cindy and her family, but for many thousands of other families. It was a personal film, and I was glad to share the experience of seeing it on the big screen with Rudy.

But then the film ended, and the entire family I had just lived 9 years with over 90 minutes emerged from the audience and stood in front of us.

The subjects and crew from The Sentence

Seeing a narrative feature followed by a Q&A with the cast and crew is a special experience. Experiencing such a vulnerable story with the subjects themselves is on another level.

And that’s really what solidified in my head what makes Sundance worth doing as a film lover.

Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jan 21, 2018 at 5:08:26 am Sundance, post production

Bringing Cinema to a Computer Screen: Cutting "Search" for Sundance

Before the lush celebrity gift suites, the sold-out Q&A sessions, and the long lines of frozen but eager cinephiles trying to grab the hottest ticket in Park City, a movie was made -- and it was hard work. And behind the producers and directors and actors who led the charge, a "below-the-line" crew of anywhere from tens to hundreds of craftspeople worked to bring filmmakers' visions to life. They're the post production engineers, the editors, the camera operators, or the composers whose names are in the credits but not the numerous story pitches to Sundance press outlets like the COW. Union or non-union, aspiring or veteran, these individuals spent weeks of their life behind the scenes dedicated to telling a story. And in my 2018 COW Sundance Film Festival coverage, I'm telling their stories.

On the feature film Search which made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival this week, editors Nick Johnson and Will Merrick were tasked with some hefty new challenges: a film shot almost entirely on GoPro (with a little dash of iPhone and MiniDV) requiring thousands of layers of continuously rasterizing vector files -- which takes place entirely on a screen. Oh, and also Sundance deadlines.

John Cho in Search. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

Thriller Search, directed by Aneesh Chaganty and co-written by Aneesh and producer Sev Ohanian, isn't the first "screen" film -- that is, the first film to take place entirely on a computer screen. But Sev explains it is the first to bring a cinematic approach to the limited "screen" genre. "At first we were kind of hesitant about taking on this project because there was a skepticism we had about not wanting to make a movie that would feel or look like a gimmick. What we think makes Search a special movie, considering we have this crazy visual style on computer screens, is that we put the characters first. And even down to our opening sequence, which encapsulates 12 years of a family entirely from their home computer, the idea was to give audiences a cinematic, visceral experience no different than any kind of movie they'd see -- except that it happens on computer screens."

Aneesh Chaganty

Nick and Will's job? Will says it was "to figure out the execution of that, to make a movie told through computer screens that feels cinematic and not just what you feel when you sit at your computer screen."

Nick added that "as far as we know, I think we're one of the first if not the first "screen" films to cut and punch in [to a shot] which seems like such an obvious idea. Because we were doing that, it created all sorts of really challenging technical situations. That said, we think it creates a uniquely cinematic experience you haven't seen in any other "screen" movie."

This cinematic experience is difficult to fully explain, but once you see it you get it: they cut a movie on a screen just like a movie shot any other way. Close-ups, medium shots, and transitions, the full gamut of traditional storytelling language -- all with shots happening on some kind of screen. This seems obvious in retrospect, but trying to wrap your head around how it would actually look was difficult, even for the film's performers.

During the Q&A session following the Sundance world premiere, actor Debra Messing discussed how it was difficult to understand the script at first, with it being full of stage directions for a mouse and when or where someone would click a button. But then she saw Chaganty's Seeds and understood immediately that something new and special was taking place. This kind of movie needed the right team.

And the USC-driven team has reaped the rewards at the festival. Aside from the Sundance Audience Award for "Best of Next!" and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Prize (awarded to a film featuring science or technology as a major theme), producer Ohanian picked up the Sundance Institute and Amazon Studios Narrative Feature Film Producer Award, honoring his role as a bold creative producer in an independent space. Oh, and the film has also landed one of the biggest deals at the festival: it sold for $5 million to Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions.

Nick Johnson

And the creative and technical processes were not without major challenges. From figuring out the visual language of the film to sorting out numerous render issues (and diving deep into tech support to help support their need to push the technical limits of Creative Cloud software), Nick and Will had their work cut out for them. And it was to be expected: Will, Nick, Sev and director Aneesh all met during their time in film school at USC in Los Angeles.

Will Merrick

It was at USC that Aneesh established himself as an ambitious filmmaker, directing the wildly popular shot-entirely-on-Google-Glass tear-jerker Seeds, which Sev produced. Sev produced numerous indies, including Fruitvale Station. Sev and Aneesh became writing partners and tapped classmates Will and Nick, who had been working on music videos and features, to cut Search. Sev added that "when the movie was coming together, we knew it was going to be a very different film experience than what we had ever done or most people had done. We knew we needed to put together the best team of editors. This movie could not have been possible had we not had these two guys who not only had to edit this movie, but learn and teach themselves how to do this while they were doing it under insane deadlines."

Sev Ohanian

Creative COW: When you were working out the story in the writing process and pre-production, how much planning about the constraints of the screen medium did you put into post production? Did you plan it tightly, or leave room to figure it out in the edit?

Sev Ohanian: We made the decision very early on to not make this film be an experiment. We wanted to avoid a situation where we would write and shoot the movie, and then figure it out in post. Our intention was that we would make a super-plan of what this film was going to look like before we ever shot anything. We wrote a really tight mystery thriller first. Seven weeks before we started principal photography with our actors John Cho and Debra Messing, we came up with this plan to start editing the movie first. So seven weeks before principal photography, Will and Nick were already editing an animatic of the movie.

The idea was that by the time we really started shooting the movie, we had screened that animatic version to our crew, and people had an idea of what we were trying to achieve. And most importantly, we could make sure the movie had artistic value. That was the idea of us planning and trying to avoid learning the movie in the edit -- so we could focus on the creative parts of the movie in post, not just the technical.

Nick Johnson: And the preparation even went earlier than seven weeks. When we first met with Aneesh, he described these meetings as "rehearsals with the editors". The script was already really incredible, and an unusual piece to read because of the format. Will and I went scene by scene with Aneesh just talking through mouse movements, how we would cover certain things, and what the acts were going to look like, so that by the time we started we could hit the ground running to make sure the animatic was done and ready to go before production started.

Aneesh, Will and Nick working together. Courtesy Sundance Institute

It's an interesting approach that you almost edited the movie backwards.

Nick: It was almost like making an animated film.

Was that difficult to wrap your minds around, editorially?

Will Merrick: Something that was weird was as an editor was that you never really start with a blank slate. On the first day when we came in, we had an empty timeline and had to start screen capping software. Nothing that made the final film was screencapped -- we animated all that later. But for [the animatic] we just sat down and started capturing Facebook, FaceTime, and Aneesh started taking pictures of his face. It really felt like we built it up from nothing.

Nick: Coming into it there weren't that many movies we were trying to emulate. There wasn't an existing template for what we were trying to do. Even in the "rehearsals" we had with Aneesh, I remember trying to understand like, okay what's the language? What are the rules of editing this? If we're in a close-up, can we cut to another close-up? Is it going to be disorienting? Because you're editing on a three dimensional plane. And it's not as obvious as you'd think. I remember early on thinking there'd be certain rules we needed to put in place because the audience would be disoriented. We ended up finding out this wasn't necessarily true.

Will: We broke pretty much every rule eventually.

Do you feel that people weren't as disoriented as you thought because they're so used to looking at screens and interacting with them?

Nick: I do think that's partly why. I also think it's because, at the end, we were just using traditional cinematic language. Audiences are used to those sorts of shots, that sort of editing. I think the thing we needed to get over was "so what, it takes place on a computer screen." We still had to treat it as a movie. We could have dissolves, we could cut from close-up to close-up. People are used to seeing that.

Nick and Will working together in Premiere Pro. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

Can you tell me about your technical workflow and how you worked together on that?

Will: We began by creating the animatic, but because we made it all layer by layer in Premiere, when the live action came in we would sit in the office and edit it into the animatic. That became our first editor assembly. From there we worked in Adobe Premiere -- we would build everything in a wide shot and put that in a nest, and we'd put the temp camera moves outside the nest. It made timing very hard. Every time we changed timing we'd have to go into the nest and move everything, come out of the nest, change the camera moves.

Nick: We had a transcode process to ProRes [for the live action footage] and kept all that [instead of conforming to camera originals]. [Search] was almost all shot on GoPros, so it's all H.264. We had an incredible assistant editor -- who posts a lot on Creative COW by the way, Angelo Lorenzo -- who did the transcoding.

Will: After all that was done, which was tedious and painstaking, we picture locked and sent the entire movie to After Effects where we replaced almost everything in the film with Illustrator files we made partially working with a VFX company called Neon Robotic, so everything would be infinitely scalable and we could make our real camera moves and punch ins.

Nick: The big thing we quickly learned, and we knew to some degree going in, was that we weren't able to screen record anything because we would need 16K monitors in order to capture that stuff. So almost everything you see in the movie, with the exception of the live action, has been drawn in Illustrator and animated in After Effects. We had to recreate, line for line, Facebook, iMessage, Finder windows -- and every click state would have "states" for when the mouse would click. And then we motion captured the mouse in everything. Everything you see is animated in After Effects.

Will: For color, we had all our live action footage within elements in the screen, sometimes more than one in a shot. And you can't color the screen itself because you'd mess up the white and black levels. We did color in After Effects, and we found this great colorist Zach Medow who does temp color on a lot of big movies. And because he does that, he knew how to work in After Effects, so he went in and used the Color Finesse Tool on all the live action element.

Nick: Which has to be one of the most tedious things a colorist could ever do.

Will: He had no real time playback whatsoever. He had to watch a reference and go back to color. Once he was done with that, we made an export from After Effects and put that through Da Vinci Resolve to put some extra vignetting and blurring in, and a little bit of contrast on the final film itself.

Nick: We tried for a long time to figure out how to get just the live action footage into Resolve. The reason we didn't is because we had so many layers, and layers upon layers. And sometimes the Finder window would cross in front of a piece of live action, and sometimes it would go behind. There was no good way to isolate that and then slot it back in. The online process would have been really difficult. A lot of this movie and its technical processes, I remember thinking "there's gotta be a better way to do this." But we exhausted every possibility and eventually it was like I guess we'll do it this way.

Behind the scenes, John Cho in Search. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

How did the constraint of the "screen" play to your advantage as editors?

Nick: For one, the most obvious thing is that unlike a normal movie where you have to live with how the footage is, we could rearrange anything. It's an animated movie, so if a certain action is taking too long, we could just create a button on a page and have it happen instantly. Cutting a "screen" movie gives you the advantage of making changes.

Will: It's a bit more first-person than a normal movie, which allows me to convey more things like the production design of the character's desktop through deeper character traits that are hard to convey through dialogue.

Nick: That was really fun too. There's a performance aspect to the mouse. You're constantly in the character's head. A lot of the mouse performances, you're performing as the main character. That was really fun, to almost be acting.

Because on the screen you can show the hesitation of the mouse, or something like that?

Nick: Exactly, that was one of the most fun parts of the movie for sure.

This film uses the technology inherent in our daily lives to tell a story. What does it say about the role technology has to play in our lives?

Will: There's a lot of films or like Black Mirror, warning us about technology and I think this film does that but it's also an affirmation about technology. Technology is good AND bad, it shows both sides.

Nick: In creating the movie, our intention was always to be as true to real life as possible. It was always the idea to be as true to our experience interacting n the internet as possible. Whether or not you read into the commentary, you think yeah this feels real and true to my experience. We were always careful to not be too heavy handed on any sort commentary.

You're featured in the "NEXT" section at Sundance, which is described as a set of films "distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling." Do you have thoughts about where else storytelling is going?

Nick: There are so many possibilities.

Will: Virtual reality is really interesting.

Nick: VR is one of the most exciting things to me. I do think there are some really interesting things you can do with "screen reality" movies too.

Will: I think the Lytro cameras will also change everything, at least about how movies are made. I think you'll start to see in the screen element, as the gimmick is worn out, there will be movies that incorporate screen scenes or moments, like how you see text bubbles popping up now. So if you have a live action movie and one scene is more conveniently told through a computer screen, maybe it'll just be told that way. Who knows where it'll go from there.

Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jan 20, 2018 at 7:59:18 am Sundance, post production, search, next, premiere pro

Being a Post PA on a Sundance Indie Feature

Before the lush celebrity gift suites, the sold-out Q&A sessions, and the long lines of frozen but eager cinephiles trying to grab the hottest ticket in Park City, a movie was made -- and it was hard work. And behind the producers and directors and actors who led the charge, a "below-the-line" crew of anywhere from tens to hundreds of craftspeople worked to bring filmmakers' visions to life. They're the post production engineers, the editors, the camera operators, or the composers whose names are in the credits but not the numerous story pitches to Sundance press outlets like the COW. Union or non-union, aspiring or veteran, these individuals spent weeks of their life behind the scenes dedicated to telling a story. And in my 2018 COW Sundance Film Festival coverage, I'm telling their stories.


A lot of assumptions are made about post production assistants, or "post PAs": that they simply fetch lunch, sort M&Ms by color, or other "small" tasks dolled out at the whim of a producer. But Briana Kay Stodden's career so far has been anything but minor. After jumping from rural Illinois to New York City, she has served as post PA on some of the most talked-about shows and movies of 2017 and 2018: Oscar contenderMudbound, Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It, Golden Globe winner The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel -- and now making its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this week, Private Life directed by Tamara Jenkins.

Briana graduated from Southern Illinois University with a BA in Cinema Studies and spent her college years working in news. Upon graduation, her partner Eric was offered a job at Light Iron in New York. They moved together, without so much as a quick visit to NYC before the relocation. "There was a lot of uncertainty in those first few months and being unemployed was scary for me but I had a few projects I did from home that kept my bills paid."

Briana Kay Stodden

Those side hustles involved producing an educational video series about working in post for the City of New York and mixing short films from her home studio: key aspects of her success as a PA in the competitive post production industry of New York. "I'm so grateful for my time as a Post PA because it helped me understand all of the different jobs available in post. Because of this, I was able to learn about myself and what I like and don't like. When I started my first Post PA job I was CERTAIN I wanted to be an editor -- but through my side projects, I discovered post sound is what really makes me want to get out bed in the morning.

Briana is moving up and out of the post PA role and into a 2nd assistant editor role at a documentary company where she hopes to return to her journalistic roots. But before she goes, she's got some great insight about the role of the post PA: how to succeed, how to be a good person, and how to think of yourself as anything but small.

Private Life, Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Creative COW: How did you get into your first post PA job?

Briana Stodden: When I moved to New York, all of my previous work experience had been in news but I was eager to work in film. Finding a job here was extremely difficult at first because I was applying for post jobs but I didn't understand why I wasn't getting any callbacks. I had almost completely given up on trying to get a job in post and I started to look for jobs in news. 

Then one night, Eric came home and said an editor at Light Iron was needing some help organizing her edit room. I thought it would be a fun project to get me out of the apartment which was still full of unpacked boxes. Plus, I needed to get away from an inbox that continued to taunt me with no job offers. Little did I know, the editor turned out to be the amazing Susan E. Morse and what started out as a couple of weeks worth of helping her to set up her edit room turned in to my first official Post PA job. 

How do you continue to find jobs?

All of my Post PA jobs since have come by recommendations from assistant editors or post supervisors that I have worked with on various films. At first, I didn't know many people in the post industry but going to post gatherings such as those hosted by the Blue Collar Post Collective (BCPC) really helped me make friends and learn more about how the industry works. Some days, I still can't believe that this small-town Midwesterner has worked on shows like, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel with director Amy Sherman-Palladino or Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It.

However, working as a Post PA on Private Life was one of the most fun and educational environments I've experienced in the industry thus far. I had already worked with the editor Brian A. Kates on the pilot for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel so I had an idea of his workflow.

However, what I really enjoyed observing were the interactions between him and the director Tamara Jenkins. He also edited her previous film The Savages so from day one of watching them work, I was seeing two old friends collaborate to tell a beautiful story and it was everything you imagine filmmaking should be. No matter how difficult or challenging the workday might have become, it was always a good day because I was working with good and kind people and that is what really matters. 

Director Tamara Jenkins, Courtesy of Sundance Institute

What's a typical day for a post PA like? How can someone shine as a great PA?

It seems a lot of people think Post PAs just order lunch -- and on some days I admit ordering the lunch was so time-consuming it seemed that was all I got done that day. However, the Post PA's job is much more than that if you are willing to learn and do the work. 

If you get the chance to start a Post PA job while the film is still in production, you might get to help the assistant editor set up the editing room. I've found it really helps to get to know the post facility staff in the building where you work so can reach out to them when you have questions. I also like to walk around the neighborhood and learn where some great lunch, coffee, and drugstore options are so I can suggest them when they are needed. And I will already have some takeout menus collected. 

Additionally, if your assistant editor requires you to fill out the post crew's time cards or summarize the petty cash expenses throughout the job, it helps to get to know the production's accounting department. I've learned every film does things a little differently, so you can't assume that the paperwork procedures from one job to the next will be the same. The accountants love it when you ask questions early on and avoid simple mistakes later. (You should also show that you appreciate them by writing legibly on all paperwork and by bringing them donuts.) 

While the film is still shooting there is a lot of paperwork that has to be organized such as camera reports, editor's logs, and lined script pages. Every editor and assistant editor will have a different way of doing things so it's important to ask questions and revise your workflow as they require. 

During the director's cut, things start to slow down a little, but this is a great time to observe and learn from your assistant editor if they are able to show you some of their workflow. However, be respectful of their time and make sure you aren't distracting them while they are providing support for the editor or the director. 

Between paperwork, running errands, or ordering lunch, I found it was a good time to practice tutorials online or read up on developments in the industry. It's easy to forget sometimes but these film jobs usually only last about 6-8 months, and as a Post PA you have access to incredibly smart and talented people. Depending on the editing room setup, you might only get small windows of opportunity to ask questions or interact with the editor, assistant editor, or the director, so you want to be knowledgeable and prepared to take advantage of those moments. 

For example, I like to make lists of questions to ask should I get the chance. Those questions could be about something technical or something like, "On this film so far, what edit are you most proud of?" These kinds of questions open up a dialogue, and you will learn more from the stories around the lunch table than you ever will from surfing your Facebook or watching YouTube videos, so always be ready. You might not get all of your questions answered and that is okay, just stay engaged.

Are there any odd tasks you've had to do as a PA?

Every job is unique and every post crew has different needs. It's important to find joy in any task even if it seems small and unimportant. Overall, the Post PA is there to help keep the editing room running smoothly and do whatever is needed to keep the editor, director, and the AE focusing on the film's creation. 

This could mean running to the store for cold medicine, special ordering Red Vines to make the director feel more at home, or assisting the post supervisor. Sometimes this extra effort seems thankless, but it will be noticed by the people who are watching and those are often the people who will ask you to do more work with them in the future. 

Did any of these out of the ordinary tasks come into play during Private Life?

I'm really proud of my work on Private Life but I felt especially useful to the director during one of the film's early screenings. Before the film was locked, Tamara expressed how helpful it would be if we could record the laughter in the theater during the screening to know if certain moments in the film were getting the reactions that she had intended. Thanks to my interest in sound mixing and to my previous work on personal film projects, I had my own field recording kit. Not only was I able to record the laughter from the screening, but I also captured the Q&A afterward and she was able to reference it as she finished the film.

What kind of challenges have you had to overcome as a PA?

An interesting challenge I had to overcome as a PA was learning how to read the room. Every job is different, and when tensions are high and deadlines are approaching it's hard to know how you can be useful. Your assistant editor or post supervisor can be your best allies during these moments, and it is best to ask what is expected of you if you are not sure. It might be the most helpful thing to just stand back, observe, and be ready when you are called upon.

What do you think are some of the most important assets a PA has?

In my opinion, being organized, dependable, and enthusiastic about your work are requirements for all jobs. But the most important asset for a PA is a great personality. In post, you have to work in small, cluttered offices for several hours a day. It's important for the editing room atmosphere to stay positive and kind. 

You and everyone around you are working hard, and sometimes you may want to vent your frustrations but resist that feeling if you can. Remember that talking negatively about someone might feel like friendship and trust-building, but you can't make a real connection that way. Your number one goal as a PA should be to leave a lasting, positive, and trustworthy impression on your co-workers. Besides, they will be the ones you run in to at all the post holiday gatherings.

What's some advice you have for people who are maybe about to get their first post PA gig?

Don't give up. When I go to post gatherings like the BCPC meet-ups, I often meet people who were just like me and trying desperately to get a job in the editing room but can't seem to get their foot in the door. 

What helped me finally break through this barrier was an overhaul on my résumé. When I got out of college I had what I thought was a perfect résumé: organized, easy to read, and full of all the editing related jobs that I had done. 

However, a wonderful AE took the time to show me ways to improve my résumé and showcase the duties specific to what a Post PA is required to do. It's a good idea to highlight your future career goals in a cover letter, but the people who are doing the hiring want to know that YOU know what your role is and that you will be focused on supporting the editing room without doing any actual editing. And don't worry, you will get your moment to shine and showcase your other skills after the job has started.  

Briana's home workspace.

What is the path upward in post production for a PA, and how can other people in the cutting room help PAs with that ascension?

Two words... Side. Hustle. The post industry is a little broken right now in that there aren't very many opportunities in the editing room for Post PAs to get actual editing experience which is needed to further their careers. All of my actual editing, AE, and audio experience have come from small non-union jobs that I've picked up in addition to working as a Post PA. These opportunities have come from other AEs with whom I've expressed my desire to learn, and they have graciously let me help out on their side hustles and gigs. While you are building your reputation and skills, focus on what you can do for other people who have more experience. Don't come to them with an attitude of "What can you teach me?" but rather "How can I help you?" This will make all the difference.

Two more words... Speak. Up. On Private Life we were all at lunch one day and the director asked me what my career goals were. I admitted that I was grateful for what I had learned working in edit rooms, but I have discovered I am more interested in post sound. She and Brian (the editor) got excited hearing this and then offered to let me come and sit in at the mix stage. It was incredible watching the film come together like that. In between the mixing sessions I was able to ask the sound engineers questions about their workflow which I have now applied to my home mixing sessions. I am so lucky that Tamara and Brian are the type of people who would invest in my interests like that. I will never forget their kindness. 

As you move on from your time spent as a PA, what final advice do you leave behind for future PAs?

If there is one thing I would like other aspiring Post PAs to know it's what you do matters. I am lucky to have worked with some incredibly kind and generous people. But some days it can be overwhelming when your job entails minding all the little things and it seems everyone around you is doing all the big things. 

Some people may knowingly or unknowingly make you feel small while you are doing the small things but remember you are enough. You deserve to be in the room. 

You won't learn everything you need to know from one job. Moving up in the industry will take time and this is YOUR time to determine what path you want to take. Choosing a different path than the one you thought you wanted does not mean you have failed, it's just part of the process. 

While I was interviewing foley artist Joanna Fang for the post educational video series that I produced last year, she inspired me by saying, "This industry asks you to be very good at a specific task. So go out there, find that task and don't be afraid if you fail." That's what I am striving to do. To summarize: I want to encourage you to be kind, work hard, and keep going.

Focusing on post-production, from editing and motion graphics to personal experiences and the psychology of being an editor.


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