Sally FryerBy Sally Fryer

If I am truly honest as an editor, even an experienced one, I have to admit that at the beginning of every single project – be it a half hour, or a feature length doco – I am nervous about the film that will emerge. I always hope that it will be a ‘good’ film at least, and like to think that there is in the rushes a ‘great’ film to be found.

Directors and producers will have an idea for a film, they will write synopses and treatments and endeavour to raise the finance – without which the film will not happen. They will write shooting scripts and lists of questions for interviewees, and finally go out on the shoot and return with the rushes. The thing about editing documentaries that I love is that despite all of the intricate research, planning and organisation that goes into pre-production and shooting, in good documentary film-making the film itself emerges or is ‘found’ in the ACTUAL footage that comes back into the cutting room.

The director Ian Darling and I had worked together on two previous films. During both of those edits (Alone Across Australia and Woodstock for Capitalists) we had established a very comfortable and productive way of working together. Most importantly we had developed a really good friendship and trust in one another’s judgement. The relationship between director and editor is often a strangely intimate one – you can after all be in a small room together for 8 hours a day – and Ian and I would often enjoy heated creative discussions/disagreements from which each film always benefited.

I had also worked with the director of photography Simon Smith beforehand and knew his work well. I was entirely confident that whatever footage came back was likely to be impressive stuff. One of the best things about being an experienced as opposed to novice editor is that you are far more likely to be given wonderful images to work with.

In the Company of Actors had 4 main shoots:

  1. Sydney at the start of rehearsals.
  2. New York when rehearsals transferred there.
  3. A performance and interview shoot in New York once the Season had started.
  4. Final shoot back in Sydney.

I was lucky to have 2 great assistants who digitised (the process of getting the ‘rushes’ – raw unedited footage – into the computer) and carefully logged all of the footage for me. 120 hours of HDV material in total. Ian Darling, the director, had a second (smaller) HDV camera on the shoot which was vital given the constraints of filming (see later).

Once ‘in’ the computer, my job as an editor was then to watch all of the footage – every frame – because it was from somewhere within all of those hours of camerawork that the film would be created.

One never goes into an edit suite ‘blind’. That is, the director will have an initial plan for the way they hope the film will turn out and they will have discussed this at length with the cameraman (before and during the shoot) and the editor. What has always fascinated me is that just as each camera person will bring back different footage, were you to give the same set of rushes to two different editors the resulting films would no doubt be very different. It is in the combination of the footage itself, and the way in which the director and editor work together in the cutting room, that the final version of the film materializes. A good director will talk to their editor at length, review some or all of the footage together and then give their editor the chance to do their job, which is to BEGIN to find and organize the story. Editing is after all about storytelling – finding the best way to tell the story you wish to tell or that is present within the footage.

With a documentary like In the Company of Actors – which is not entirely an observational documentary but has formal interviews too – Ian and I listened to the interviews separately with transcripts in hand, and then came together to discuss the best answers, the order in which those answers might be organized, subject headings, etc etc. Sometimes a director’s memory of a good answer may not actually come across in the same way to someone who wasn’t present at the interview itself. Sometimes an answer that the director thought was ‘OK’ at the time, might on re-listening sound fantastic.

Ian and I made an initial decision to cut the documentary chronologically ie to start with day one of rehearsal in Sydney and end with Opening Night in New York. This may seem an obvious choice but there were other choices we might have made, for example:

  • to start with Opening Night and show how the cast and crew got to this stage.
  • to somehow tell the story in 4 acts, mirroring the play.
  • to focus on one or two individuals only and tell their stories at length.

From the very first discussions, when the film was just an idea, Ian had wanted above all to show ‘process’ — just who is involved in putting on great theatre and how that team works together.

Whilst Ian was away filming rehearsals in New York I was able to watch all of the Sydney rehearsal footage and familiarise myself with the characters in the documentary and the play itself which I had not read before starting the edit.

I always find the watching of the rushes ie the very start of the editing process, the most exhausting by far. At this early stage I believe you have to try largely not to judge footage but to keep your mind constantly open to all of the possibilities it holds. There will always be obvious shots that didn’t work, moments where an interviewee makes mistakes, or a good idea for a particular shot that doesn’t pay off in it’s execution, but the editor must remain ‘open’ to all the rest of the footage.

A non -linear edit this case Final Cut Pro.allows me to easily organize material. The way I like to work, especially on such a ‘big’ project, is to cut much longer than necessary ‘rough’ sequences/selects of all interesting, useful shots that may make it into the final film. These sequences /selects are organized in such a way as to most efficiently be able to review footage relevant to a particular scene and to ‘find’ particular shots, moments, phrases etc during the course of a long edit. In the case of In the Company of Actors this meant about 180 initial sequences/selects which ranged from 17 seconds to 90 minutes in length.

The biggest challenge we faced in editing In the Company of Actors was how much of the story of the play Hedda Gabler itself to tell. We knew that some of our potential viewers would have seen the play themselves or a version of it, some would have studied or be studying it at school or Uni, and others would have no idea what Hedda Gabler was about. We wanted to try to hold the attention of all, and so needed to balance the need to explain the text for those who knew nothing about the play, whilst also being aware that for our purposes it was the process of putting on any play, the dynamics between cast and director, the involvement of creative and technical staff in the creation of theatre that was of most interest.

It did not take us long to realise that we wanted our film to be about what goes on behind the scenes when a play is being staged. It is notoriously difficult to film theatre for film and television — essentially because it is not an art form made for this medium but for presentation to a live audience. Therefore, all filming was concentrated on the lead up to the performance itself — our perspective was to be from the rehearsal room, not from the stalls but from backstage. We aimed to show a side of the theatre usually witnessed only by those intimately involved in the production.

It was crucial to show what goes on in the rehearsal room, but there were necessarily constraints whilst filming which had implications for both image and sound. Simon and Ian were allowed rare access to rehearsal rooms, and in order to be as invisible and non-disruptive as possible, they carefully planned all of their movements whilst rehearsals were in progress. Similarly, a boom operator was an impossibility and the actors could not wear radio mics. The sound recordist was able to set up directional microphones from a limited number of vantage points only. These necessary conditions for filming meant that rehearsal room footage was always shot from one of two angles (each camera shooting from a different viewpoint) and whilst there was movement within the frame and a choice of shot sizes, it was more ‘static’ than it might otherwise have been. Similarly, there were times when the shot/s looked fantastic but the quality of the sound was too poor to use.

Whilst I know that for the participants themselves a 5 week rehearsal can pass at the apparent speed of a rocket, I have to be honest and say that through the camera lens, the minute detail in which every movement is blocked out, every word analysed and every scene prepared can seem painfully slow – yet fascinating at the same time. In the edit suite we aimed to ‘cut’ the rehearsals so that the film’s audience experienced only the fascination.

Because of our wish to show the importance of what goes on behind scenes, we decided during the shooting phase that we would try using a split screen technique so that our audience would have the privilege of understanding the continuous ‘workings’ that go on backstage whilst the actors themselves were on stage in front of the live audience. As the film will show we ultimately used much less ‘split screen’ than we had planned and for different reasons:

  1. In the end we used only one front stage/backstage split because we found that instead of clarifying the ‘two sides’ of a performance, the split could be distracting and often left you not knowing which side to concentrate on.
  2. We used the two angles in one scene on Cate Blanchett and Aden Young in rehearsal because a) the theatre audience often ‘sees’ a very different play depending on where they are seated in the theatre and b) because we really felt that with the two angles you could ‘see’ Cate’s mind working over the minute details of emphasis and intonation surrounding just one word of the script. This level of detailed analysis went on throughout the rehearsal by all cast members.
  3. Where Robyn and Andrew talk over one another and ‘still manage to understand one another’ it was a small crazy idea we had, tried and which just worked.
  4. The actor/character split screens were used as part of our solution to making the film accessible even to those who didn’t know the play. We realised that our audience needed only a very basic understanding of the play and it’s characters in order to enjoy the documentary and decided on this set of split screens as the most efficient way of portraying this actor/character information.
  5. Using the split screens in the Kristian Fredrikson sequence seemed an ideal way of showing the detail of this fantastic designer’s drawings and their brilliant realisation by the costume department at the STC.

People are often surprised when as an editor you tell them that you have, for example, 120 hours of footage to condense into one and a half hours of screen time. The average shooting ratio for documentaries is almost impossible to quote – when shooting on film it used to be 20:1 ie 20 hours of footage for one hour of finished film. The introduction of much cheaper tape stock has meant that shooting ratios have gone up considerably (because video cameras and tape stock are much less expensive than film cameras and film stock). More footage is not necessarily a good thing for many reasons and in some cases might mean that an editor doesn’t even have time to watch all of the footage gathered.

Of the 120 hours of footage only two scenes/sets of rushes ‘hit the cutting room floor’ entirely:

  1. Broadway : we had an amazing collection of shots from Broadway in New York, during daylight and at night. As an editor I was itching to use them (editors can become obsessed by ‘gorgeous’ shots), but we realised that they were not relevant. The STC’s production of Hedda Gabler received offers from Broadway but rejected those offers, choosing instead to accept an invitation from the Brooklyn Academy of Music with whom they already had a strong relationship, and where the production had a much stronger fit. (Sally “but can’t I just put them in anyway?” Ian “for the last time.NO”)
  2. An STC fundraiser at the Wharf : one of the earliest ‘finished’ sequences, shot just before their departure for New York, was a fundraising event at the Sydney Theatre Company to which all of the major sponsors were invited. Many of the guests were filmed at dusk, enjoying the hospitality of the theatre and Rob Brookman, the STC’s General Manager and Robyn Nevin spoke about the upcoming trip to New York. The actors too spoke of what going to New York meant to each of them. The sequence looked fantastic as it had been shot in the beautiful ‘golden hour ‘ of early evening and the STC’s resident jazz quartet provided an underlying sound track. On reflection however it was decided that this scene would not be included as, whilst a very important part of the STC’s overall fundraising activities, and an important task for the actors, it took us out of the film and away from the process a bit too much.

We filmed as much of the rehearsal footage as we could – both in Sydney and in New York, because we had such a rare opportunity to be present in such a sacred place. We hoped to show both the progression that each of the actors went through during their five weeks of re-rehearsal and we needed to capture the rehearsal of as many scenes as possible from the play itself. At the time of filming (pre-interview) we couldn’t know which aspects of the read through and rehearsal process would be discussed during interviews by the director, adaptor, actors and key crew members of the Hedda Gabler team.

Once in New York itself we had the opportunity to film the play’s performance, from front of stage, twice only — once close up during the technical rehearsal and once, using a locked off camera, during a performance. We filmed backstage during three performances also — having to cover both left and right of stage, because the stage manager is on the opposite side of the stage from the actors and communicates with them via radio with her assistant.

From the very outset we chose not to use a narrator to help us tell our story but to use placards sparingly where certain factual information needed to be conveyed. As always, these were written and rewritten and rewritten, subbed and then subbed again, until we were happy with them.

During most of the edit we used only the original music from the play (which we had recorded on tape during rehearsals or live performances). We were also lucky to be able to get ‘clean’ copies of the tracks used during the performance from the composer Alan John. We were always aware that some of this music which we had used temporarily during the edit (temp track) would ideally be changed/rewritten when we were closer to finishing. Once we had ‘locked’ picture we were able to give Alan a copy of the documentary, minus music, and he delivered a wonderful new score, which was lighter in mood and more celebratory than the music used in the play itself.

We hope and believe that In the Company of Actors tells a fascinating story clearly and concisely and that it’s audience will leave a screening knowing much more about the process of creating theatre than they did at the start.

As editor I also hope that the ‘editing’ itself is barely noticed and that despite the thousands of decisions made in the cutting room, that the audience is taken on an apparently seamless journey into the theatrical world.

Sally Fryer
In The Company of Actors
May 2007