Mo Stoebe currently works as freelance editor of both documentaries and narrative films in Los Angeles. He got his start in the industry as motion designer and animator for commercials and music videos, but his love for film eventually brought him to editing long-form content. He’s completed five documentaries and a feature and loves learning something new about the art of editing every day.
Art of the Cut discusses one of his latest project, the documentary Kedi which has received praise form many fronts. It is currently available on Netflix.
HULLFISH: While there are English subtitles, the language spoken in this documentary is Turkish.
STOEBE: Yes, and my Turkish is very bad.
HULLFISH: I’ve edited in other languages myself, Spanish mostly, and I don’t speak much Spanish. But I feel that you can get a sense of the rhythm of the language. I don’t speak Turkish, but I always felt like the rhythm of the language as you edited it was good.
STOEBE: I am from Austria and grew up bilingual as my mother is originally from the Netherlands so I’ve always been interested in different language. In the case of Kedi, the producers had the forty or so interviews and many verité scenes they had captured fully translated and transcribed. That meant that I was able to see the words that were said transcribed as subtitles as well as their English translations in the frame. I tried to string out interview portions I thought were relevant in this way. Of course there was quite a bit of fine-tuning and adjustment required by Ceyda Torun, who is the director of the film and fluent in Turkish.
HULLFISH: So are you saying the actual video files had translations on them?
STOEBE: Yes we had a small army of people going through all of the interviews, and verité scenes, translating and transcribing them. So I would have a subtitle of the transcription of what was being said. And then underneath it a translation of that same text. So I could pinpoint which sentence means what and make selects that way.
HULLFISH: So, it wasn’t just on a text file.
STOEBE: We did have text files but we also had it was on screen which I thought was very useful to be able to get a sense of what was said and see the expression on the subjects face during the interview. There were also quite a few verite scenes that were translated and transcribed in the same way. It must have been about fifty or so hours total which was a considerable amount of work in the overall scope of the post production process.
HULLFISH: And was that something that your Assistant Editors handled?
STOEBE: Yes, that was one of the technical issues to figure out before we could get started with editing. The producers had decided to use a software called InqScribe. It lets you timecode the translation and transcription and turn the finished document into an XML which places the text back into the timeline at the correct positions.
HULLFISH: I’ve used Inqscribe in the past. It’s nice because it allows you to type and control the playback of the media without jumping between two programs, like QuickTime Player to control playback. It makes it very fast and there are shortcuts for jumping backwards 8 seconds, which is a perfect amount when transcribing. Now, for many of these interviews, I’m using a software called Speed Scriber. It actually does the transcription for you and then every word in transcription is linked to the audio so if you look at the reading and decide “That isn’t the right word.” you can click on the word and actually hear it to type the correct word.
STOEBE: Oh, that’s fantastic. I’ll have to look that up!
HULLFISH: So you were saying you cut in Final Cut Pro 7?
HULLFISH: Was that your last project on FCP7 before switching to Premiere?
STOEBE: It was the last project in Final Cut 7. I was a big fan of FCP7 and had gotten so used to it that I could really just kind of forget about the software aspect and just focus on editing. When I moved to Premiere about two years ago it took a few months to adjust. I have to admit I still think FCP7 was a fantastic editing system and I miss how fast certain tasks were compared to Premiere. But at this stage I have gotten very comfortable with Premiere.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about temp music. There are extended portions which I think are absolutely lovely where there’s no dialogue at all.
STOEBE: The temp music was split up into three different bins. The first was a bin of several temp music pieces from Kira Fontana, the composer on the project to get a sense what certain parts would feel like. The second was a bin of Jazz and World Music. I had come across a jazz musician called Lloyd Miller during the editing process and I fell in love with his work so it was mostly his tracks in that bin. He is a very interesting musician and scholar who plays Middle Eastern instruments in a jazz tradition, he can play about a hundred of them. One of his tracks on the album titled ‘Oriental Jazz’ felt perfect for Kedi, especially as an introduction to the cat called Psycho which pivots from being poetic and observational into showing the badass nature of the cat.
The third bin contained mostly Turkish pop tracks from the 70s and 80s. The director Ceyda had very specific ideas on how and where to use those tracks as the lyrics complement the story at points.
HULLFISH: I want to talk about the structure of the movie and – I could be wrong about this but – it seemed like to me that the structure was kind of you followed one specific cat for a while and told that one cat’s story and then there was kind of a general cat section and then another specific cat’s story.
STOEBE: That’s exactly how we approached it. The producers had identified about 35 cats and stories they considered capturing. At the beginning of the shoot that number was cut to 19. Out of those we edited about ten stories at the rough cut stage and seven made it into the final film. After we completed rough cuts for individual cat stories we tried to figure out out how they would sequence best and what would be the material linking various stories. We thought of a graphic approach using a ‘red thread’ type of device to link various neighborhoods and creating a journey that way. We considered animation. In the end we decided on aerial photography to give a stronger sense of the city as a character. The edit itself was very much like a sculpting process – we kept reducing the footage further and further trying to identify the core of each story. It’s not the fastest route towards a final result but for a partially observational film like Kedi it is the only way to do the material justice. The emotional peaks and valleys of the film were not very extreme which meant that attention to detail was even more essential. The only way to find brief but fun or charming moments is to go through all the material several times.
HULLFISH: Were you cutting while they were shooting?
STOEBE: Yes and no. The production team returned from Istanbul with about 180 hours of footage shot on various cameras. It was then all organized and transcoded to Apple ProRes HQ which was the format we edited in. Ceyda, the director had to take a break from visiting the editing room as her and her husband Charlie were having a baby daughter. It meant that I would have a good amount of time with the material to get familiar with each story. I used that period to create selects reels for each feature cat which we kept screening to find the core of each story. After that I began assembling rough cuts for each featured feline as well as string-outs of all the interviews. This whole process took about three months from start to finish. Once we had all our elements in place we began thinking about a structure for the overall film. It was a lot of trial and error. Over the following three months or so we worked on 33 different assemblies of these elements and built many, many versions of transitions between them. At this point we had also decided that we wanted to use aerials in addition to material from the random cats and Istanbul bins to connect the individual stories. So over a period of a few months we periodically received aerial footage and cut that into the film.
After the 33 assemblies resulted in a structure we liked, we spent another month or so until we locked picture. So it was a process that took about ten months in total.
HULLFISH: The thing I noticed was there was two cats in restaurant areas and those were very much separated and then there were two kind of artist stories and those were separated from each other and there were kind of let’s feed a million cats stories and those were separated.
STOEBE: (Laughter) Yes that’s very well observed. We knew that certain cats linked really well together but others could be moved around more or less freely. We had a few test screenings with friends and colleagues which also helped us decide on a final order. It became clear as we went on that the transition sections were a lot trickier to get right than the cat stories themselves. In hindsight, I think we spent almost more time working on the transition sections as we did on the cat narratives.
HULLFISH: And what was some of the feedback just from your feel of it, or the director’s or from screening audiences? What were some of the notes that affected that sequence?
STOEBE: For example the first cat – which was called ‘Yellow Shit’ during the edit because that’s what some of the people around her called her, mostly because she was stealing food from them all the time – used to appear at a later point in the film. Eventually we moved her to the front because she was just such a strong introduction to the city and the film in general. We also tightened some sections considerably to keep the film moving along.
HULLFISH: That’s a great example that a specific cat with a strong point of view leads off and that we need to pace our introduction of a lot of cats.
STOEBE: Please excuse my answers. English is not my first language. I always claim E.S.L. as my defense. (Laughter)
HULLFISH: Your English is excellent. You are Austrian?
STOEBE: I’m Austrian, yes.
HULLFISH: But you lived in London
STOEBE: Yes, I spent seven years in London, two years of those to follow a masters program in design and filmmaking. I love the city but eventually I think I wasn’t the right fit so moved back to Los Angeles where I had been living since I was a teenager.
HULLFISH: In your editing, you mixed it up quite a bit, but mostly you did not play the opening lines of a new speaker on the speaker in sync, on camera. You almost always wait sometimes 30 to 40 seconds before you actually see person speaking. Tell me a little bit about that.
STOEBE: The interviews were treated different than in other films, people were very much not the main characters and the interviews needed to feel like they were happening in the moment. Some of the people that speak are never shown on screen so the focus of the film is really on the city and the cats, and people are just on the sidelines. That is also we chose not to include lower thirds. This helps the audience to just kind of take in the atmosphere and stay in a more observational mode.
HULLFISH: One of the things I love is that you get a sense of the journey of these cats and a real story taking place. I’m guessing that the sense of journey or story had to be completely constructed. There is a cat in the restaurant that ends up kind of chasing a rat and I’m assuming the story had to be constructed from non-linear footage… out of sequence and non-chronological.
STOEBE: There is a bit of construction in that but not too much. It’s mostly compressing time and showing something that happened ten times only once. The scene in the sewer that you see in the film is pretty much how things actually happened. One thing I certainly learned about cats during the editing of this film is that they patiently sit around and wait a lot. And observe…or just relax. Then they act quickly… before you know it everything is over again. I’m sure this is quite obvious to anyone who has ever edited nature documentaries but it was new to me.
HULLFISH: There are also other really nice sequences of cats going some place where you get the impression that the cat has this idea to do something then sets off with the camera crew in tow.
STOEBE: That’s pretty much what they did. One of my favorite cat stories is that of Gamsiz, the black and white male cat hanging out at the bakery that fights the ginger cat. He did have this elaborate route which he would embark on multiple times every day. He would climb up on a tree, jump to a ledge and up to a balcony and try to get into an apartment where he would frequently be fed. It took the director and her crew quite a bit of time to figure out where he was going and how he was getting where he did. Once they knew the route they were able to capture events from multiple cameras.
I also think that some of the cats took a liking to the camera and literally performed for it.
HULLFISH: Got it. Talk to me about organizing your footage and what were some of the ways you organized it. I was thinking it would be organized per cat…
STOEBE: That’s exactly right: per cat.
HULLFISH: Then random cats and then you also probably have all this atmospheric footage of the city and then the interviews?
STOEBE: Exactly you are pretty much saying the way I named the bins! We had one bin for the individual ‘star’ cats and then a bin for random cats. Additionally, we had a folder for city shots and a folder for all the slow motion footage which was filmed on the Red Camera. The the organization was pretty much: City, random cats, and individual stories as well as interviews.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about the decisions of when to have music come in and when to stop it and what to play “dry.”
STOEBE: Basically we were trying to have a signature piece of music to introduce the feature cats and selected a mix of jazz and Turkish hits from the 70s and 80s.
HULLFISH: As a non-Turkish person I liked those, too. I called it “pop” music. I was going to ask you about the pop music.
STOEBE: Yes, it’s Turkish pop from the 70s (laughter) which I really fell in love with too. The lyrics relate to what is happening on screen as well, which is something you will only get if you’re a Turkish speaker unfortunately, because we decided not to translate the lyrics. But to answer your question, yes we very much tried consciously to let the sound of the city come to the foreground at times. For example during the section with the cat at the waterfront restaurant, we wanted create an interaction between the cat and the fishermen through sound. The cat was listening to the sound of fish being gutted which sparks her interest and kicks her into action.
HULLFISH: There is a section about a cat in one of the shopping bazaars and the cat, you almost think it’s dead for a while then you find out it’s just sick. Then you follow that with a sequence in a cemetery. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
STOEBE: They were interviewing this man who was caring for all the cats who live in a neighborhood market. While they were interviewing him, a friend of his came up with a kitten who had been attacked by an older feline and he stopped the interview and rushed this poor little fellow to the vet. We actually don’t know if it lived or died or what happened with it. That was one story. In addition to that, we had a couple of interviews which contained portions that deal with loss. First, a very interesting woman who was basically a kind of hoarder of all kinds of decorations and artifacts. She also hoarded mostly injured or sick cats and she talked about her difficulty dealing with death, not being able to let go of something and the pain and longing it caused. Her interview was very philosophical and kind of pensive. Second, we had an interview with a well known local comic artist who talked about growing up with cats and what it would teach him about death and about loss because the cats would get run over or just die and that was a way of for him to be able to come to terms with that. His energy on screen was very different from the other two, he was very funny and witty. So as we went about sculpting the footage down this sequence materialized: market drama to melancholic woman to quirky artist. This sequence allowed us to bring a balanced approach to a topic like death and loss. I think these sort of discoveries in the editing room are what I like most about working on documentary films. It’s like a puzzle finally coming together and when it falls into place it presents a new image, a new story that you couldn’t really have planned out at the start or thought up while shooting.
HULLFISH: There are also a couple of really nice moments where you really were able to develop some conflict. Especially cats that didn’t like each other or fought and then there was a cat that had a little box where it was keeping kittens. It was protecting its kittens and another cat came up and the momma cat was worried about it, so I liked some of those conflict moments. Talk about creating a conflict with cats.
STOEBE: You probably have heard cats fight but I had never seen what actually happens. There is a lot of screaming and lengthy posturing involved with very short bursts of action. Here again we had to condense time drastically. Some of the conflicts you see played out over a number of days. We had a lot of really great material for the scene at the warehouse so it was possible to illustrate the POV of a cat entering a warehouse through a gap beneath the door and sneaking up to another cat with her kittens. Trying to capture the POV of cats roaming the city, cinematographers Charlie Wupperman and Alp Korfali developed what they called a “cat-cam” which was a rig that allowed them to move the camera close to the ground. They had also experimented with cameras mounted on RC cars, but it wasn’t as effective as the handheld rig because it scared the felines.
HULLFISH: With any documentary with animals you’ve gotta condense time and build a story from disjointed parts – especially with animals.
STOEBE: That’s absolutely true. There is a whole lot of scratching and cleaning and waiting. I think the challenge sometimes is to find key moments when the animal makes a decision to act a certain way. You kind of have to try to start thinking like the animal a bit.
HULLFISH: You ended up with seven “hero” cats in the movie that I saw. How many actual stories did you end up cutting together fairly completely? Just seven? Or more?
STOEBE: I edited ten full stories together and we ended up dropping three of them. There were also many short observational stories that are now part of the transitions.
HULLFISH: And how do you decide how to end it?
STOEBE: As with all documentaries I have worked on so far, editing an opening and an ending are by far the most difficult tasks and usually happen late in the process. It was the same with Kedi, we were struggling with the question for a while, how do we end this film. During one of our discussions about structure, the idea came up to re-visit each cat and take you back to each location and cat you have seen which is the approach we eventually took.
We also worked on various versions of an opening which was quite challenging. What did we want this film to be? Should it provide historical and scientific context about the relationship between people and felines in the region? Should we talk about politics, ruthless urban development and the Ghezi Park protests? We came to the conclusion to create an observational and visual poem interwoven with thoughts and stories about the evolving relationship between cats and humans in this ancient city. A tribute to these incredibly fascinating animals living in Istanbul and to leave politics and science largely out of it. I think once we had tackled the opening and especially the ending we really saw the full shape of the film and it began to make sense as a whole versus a collection of stories.
HULLFISH: I loved it. Was that wrap up with the boat and the final shot of the cat on the roof something that you found in what they had already shot, or something you requested that they go get?
STOEBE: The director and the cinematographer had done a couple of trips to Istanbul. The first was a scout to see what sort of stories they would be able to capture. The shot on the roof was captured during that first trip. I believe that they tried to find the cat again during the main production but that it had disappeared so it didn’t become a full story. As for the shot, it was perfect as it visually sums up the film: the cat overlooking its city at the end of a beautiful day.
HULLFISH: What’s your approach to putting these sections together from the raw footage?
STOEBE: I would have a bin of a specific part of town with random cats, and I would just lay out all the shots in the timeline in sequence and then make selects, pulling up the portions of shots that I like, keeping it in the timeline but just pulling up that little section one track higher. This would allow me to scroll through the entire timeline and the shots would stay in sync. I guess that could be considered somewhat old school but I always like that approach better than using markers. (laughter) After pulling up selects I could easily go back and see where I had chosen things and how long the shots were. I kind of created a star rating system by pulling better shots higher up. So for exmaple V1 would contain all the raw material, V2 one star material and V3 two star material which I considered best.
HULLFISH: That way stuff stays in chronological order no matter its rating.
STOEBE: Exactly. That’s especially important if the cat is moving somewhere, because you know what happened before or after, and also you can see where you chose the bit from and you can quickly go back to find things around there saving you from having to open multiple shots from the browser window.
HULLFISH: I also really loved the sound design.
STOEBE: Istanbul itself is full of amazing sound. We tried add in as many elements as possible during the edit to convey that. After we locked picture, sound designer Paul Hollman added more layers and details. Roaming through Istanbul one experiences this beautiful tapestry of sounds and I hope that we managed to transport some of that into the final film.
HULLFISH: Thank you so much for your time. I really enjoyed finding out more about this documentary.
STOEBE: Thank you so much for including me in your series of interviews. It’s been a pleasure to share a bit more information about how Kedi came together in the editing room.
The first 50 Art of the Cut interviews have been curated into a book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV editors.” The book is not merely a collection of interviews, but was edited into topics that read like a massive, virtual roundtable discussion of some of the most important topics to editors everywhere: storytelling, pacing, rhythm, collaboration with directors, approach to a scene and more. Oscar nominee, Dody Dorn, ACE, said of the book: “Congratulations on putting together such a wonderful book. I can see why so many editors enjoy talking with you. The depth and insightfulness of your questions makes the answers so much more interesting than the garden variety interview. It is truly a wonderful resource for anyone who is in love with or fascinated by the alchemy of editing.”
Thanks to Moviola’s Renard Beavers for transcribing this interview.