It’s always a pleasure for me when Art of the Cut focuses on a documentary editor. The role of the documentary editor in shaping the content – and really writing the documentary in post – is a great way to demonstrate that storytelling is at the heart of every editor’s DNA.
David Tillman has a lengthy filmography of national documentaries. Many of them have followed a style of using found audio as the backbone to tell some fascinating stories. Tillman’s past documentaries have included National Geographic Explorer: Taking Down the Mob, MLK: The Assassination Tapes, 9/11: The Heartland Tapes, and The Lost Tapes: Pearl Harbor. In this interview, we focus on two specific documentaries, Diana: In Her Own Words (now available on Netflix) and Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes.
The discussion is also a fascinating discussion of the use of FCP-X to craft the narrative and find the story. To follow Tillman on Twitter: @davidtillman. To follow me on Twitter: @stevehullfish.
Diana: In Her Own Words: Trailer
HULLFISH: Tell me about Diana: In Her Own Words.
TILLMAN: To give a little background about how the project came to be: I had edited a documentary for filmmaker Tom Jennings and his company 1895 Films in 2016 called Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes. It aired on National Geographic Channel for the 30th anniversary of the disaster. In that film, we used a unique storytelling style where we attempt to tell the story using only archival materials from the time. Unlike other historical documentaries, we don’t rely on voiceover narration and we don’t rely on shooting new interviews with people to help tell the story. We try to find rare news reports from the time to give it as fresh a feel as possible to try and transport you back in time, as if you are experiencing history as it happened.
After that project, we were looking to do more films in the same style and were able to obtain audio tapes of secretly recorded interviews made by Princess Diana with a friend of hers in 1991. Diana made the recordings for British journalist Andrew Morton and those tapes became the source material for a book called Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words that was published in 1992. So by way of gaining access to those rare audio recordings, much of which had never been heard by anyone, we set out to try to tell the definitive story of Princess Diana, using her own voice to narrate the film.
HULLFISH: How did you start building that? Just with a bed of her audio to begin with?
TILLMAN: The first thing I did was just listen to all the tapes straight through. There were about six hours of audio and I wanted to start by just listening to them in the purest form possible. And I was immediately struck by Diana’s personality. There was a candid, colloquial quality to the interactions she had with the friend that interviewed her that seemed at odds with what I knew about her and what I had seen of how she behaved in public. It really was intoxicating to listen to her voice, and listen to her laugh, and tell stories. It really humanized her beyond what I had expected. Immediately, I felt a huge responsibility to live up to her legacy in helping to tell her story. I became a bit obsessed with doing my part to make sure we got this film right. No one else had ever had access to these tapes in the way we did, and it felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity to tell her story in this way.
As I listened through all the audio, I followed along in a transcript and highlighted parts of the interview that I thought were particularly strong—which was of course about half of it. Way more than we could ever include in the film. There were some parts that were very narrative where she told an anecdote or about a particular event, but other parts of the interviews were much more conversational, and sort of question and answer. Early on we decided that it made sense to use the interviewer’s voice in the film, because it’s interesting to hear their rapport and also hear what he’s asking her. But that did change the storytelling structure a bit, because we had to account for and explain the interview process itself from the beginning, instead of simply relying on her voice as a traditional narrator.
Going from listening to actually starting to edit a film using raw audio as the primary source material was daunting at first. How do you put visuals to something like a casual interview when you are relying solely on archival material from the time to tell the story? How would the interplay between her audio recordings and new reports work? It was important for me to figure that out as soon as possible. That’s something I do on most projects I work on — even before I’m ready to move forward with editing the entire film, usually before I’ve even viewed all the material, I want to start cutting a scene that I know will have a place in the finished product and try and find a semblance of the pacing and the style. It gets my creative juices flowing to cut a scene really early on without necessarily having the whole story mapped out. And it removes a mental block.
The first scene I edited in the film was a story Diana tells in the recordings about the first public appearance she made after becoming Prince Charles’ fiancee. I loved the way the interviewer set up the story when he asked her, “Do you remember what your first ever memory was?” And she answers, “in this life?” It was such a great lead into the scene.
It’s Diana’s first public appearance, and she wears a black dress that’s fairly revealing, and it becomes a big story in the tabloids and in the news, because for one thing, Royals never wore black in public unless they were in mourning. We also happened to have a great news report about it, and a ton of photos that were taken that night. So it was a natural place to start, because not only was it an important scene in terms of her transition into the public eye, but we had great materials to kind of visually tell it.
What was great about starting to work on that first scene was that since we were working with Bleeding Fingers Custom Music Shop, score producer Russell Emanuel and composer Jasha Klebe, who had also worked with us on the Challenger film, they sent us music ideas very early on, and I was able to include one of those early music ideas in the very first scene. Jasha has such great instincts and from the very beginning was able to kind of capture the tone and the feel we were hoping for with the music.
As I was working on cutting the Black Dress scene, I remember the director Tom asking me, “Is it going to work?” When I cut in Jasha’s music and paced it out, I knew it would. Creating that first scene and showing it to the researchers, assistant editors and story producers was also important because it gave everyone a reference point in terms of what kind of archive we needed to find and how it would function in the film.
HULLFISH: What was the biggest challenge in editing this film?
TILLMAN: Probably the biggest challenge was that we had six hours of audio to draw from, but no visuals that were shot to go with it. And since we were relying on archival materials from the time, we needed our researchers to find everything they possibly could, catalogue it and then respond to “wish list” requests along the way.
I actually edited this using Final Cut X, which I learned a few years ago on another job and I came to really appreciate how FCPX could be used to organize any project in its own way.
One of the huge advantages of FCPX over other non-linear editing software is the way you can use metadata to cross-reference material. And the more material you have that you need to access at any given moment, the more that becomes incredibly useful. We were able to use some of FCPX’s strengths to our advantage from the very beginning. As we collected archival material we came up with a file-naming convention that put certain key information in the file names themselves that then enabled us to create Smart Collections that would essentially catch certain files in them. For instance one of the things we always put in the file name of an archival clip was the date that photo was taken, or the date that news report was made. That extra step took time for our researchers, but it made finding relevant clips incredibly easy, no matter where I was working in the chronology of the film.
HULLFISH: Is a smart collection more like a bin of individual clips, or is it more like a selects reel of stuff in a timeline?
TILLMAN: They can really be used in a myriad of ways. Smart Collections are completely customizable and give you the chance to collect media in any number of ways. They essentially act as bins, but can be used to collect individual clips in any categorization you can imagine. So I use them to collect all my current cuts, I sometimes use them to collect selects, or to quickly access material from one archival footage source, or sometimes even to isolate just new material that has been imported into the edit in since the last cut.
Our story took place over a long time period that spanned Diana’s childhood all the way to her death in 1997. So the film takes place over more than fifteen years, and during that period Diana was probably the most photographed person in the world. I think we had something like 10,000 stills in the archival materials we had collected. So much of what we were doing from a research perspective was trying to match items from within the chronology. “Here is footage we have from this day. Do we have photos from this day?” We wanted use the audio recordings with the archival images to create the feel of different scenes, so it was really important to be able to easily access the mass amount of archival footage and photos we had and quickly find things from certain dates.
HULLFISH: And were those researchers working strictly outside of FCP X? And then when you brought in those files you were just basically using the filename as the only metadata? Or is there some other way for them to provide that data to you inside of FCPX?
TILLMAN: We had some researchers that were essentially downloading digital files and re-naming them and adding them to a master spreadsheet. And then those files would go to an assistant editor who would add metadata in Final Cut Pro and then we had a story producer as well, who would also be adding more metadata and organizing from more of a story perspective. But again, just by simply including certain information in the file name itself be it a date, or certain predetermined words or phrases, I would then use the Smart Collections to create custom bins based on file type and search terms.
Since you might know what you actually need to find in the edit until you reach a certain point in the process, it is incredibly helpful to be able to make search and then save that search as a Smart Collection for future use. For example, we like to feature what is deemed to be “rare” material as much as possible in our documentaries, so by putting the word “rare” in the file name of anything our researchers deemed to be so, it was easy to create a Smart Collection to then catch all the material that had been marked as “rare.” Then taking it a step further, when I was working on a group of scenes about Diana’s engagement to Prince Charles, I include both the word “rare” and the word “engagement” in my Smart Collection to catch any of the files that included both of those words.
Another advantage to working with FCPX on film with this much archival material is that you can also use Filmstrip View or Clip Skimming to track down a lot of stuff visually. Sometimes we’d have a 60 minutes of raw video of Princess Diana greeting fans at a public event, and instead of simply watching or fast forwarding through it, I would review it by skimming through the file by dragging the mouse over it, or use Filmstrip view to scroll through it minute by minute. By doing this, I was able to mine this massive amount of archival material at breakneck speed to find the visual elements I needed. And when you are working on creating a scene and you’re not slowed down by trying to find what you need, that enables you to stay in your creative zone and get that much more done.
A big part of working on these archival-driven documentaries is finding those hidden gems. You don’t want to miss something. The worst feeling you can have is when you’re about to be locked and then you come across something that somehow you didn’t see earlier. So between the organizational capabilities and the way you can visually search for stuff a lot faster, it just lowers the chances that you’re kind of going to miss something within this massive amount of content.
HULLFISH: Do you selects reels at all?
TILLMAN: I sometimes make timelines specifically for selects, usually by act or story beat.
Beyond that I have assistant editors and story producers use Favorites in FCPX, but then go a step further have assistant editors and story producers denote any “can’t miss” type material with asterisks. Then I’m able to easily search for asterisks and create a Smart Collection to catch all those instances.
Then from there, normally my process is to cut a very long, extended version of an act. Diana was a ten act show, and ultimately the final version of Act 1 might wind up running fifteen to eighteen minutes. But my very first pass on Act 1 might run thirty or more minutes, with quite a bit of extra material that might sometimes be a bit repetitive, or where the soundbites run long. At that point it helps to look at that whole piece with the director, to get fresh eyes on it and get feedback to see what he really likes, what he doesn’t like, which version of the repetitious material is working better, what’s missing in terms of the overall storytelling. And then from there, it makes it much easier to cull that down to a more manageable length. It’s kind of like working with a block of marble and you’re constantly chipping away at it, chipping away until you have a sculpture.
HULLFISH: You got credit for writing this.
TILLMAN: Writing can sometimes be a relative term in a documentaries because obviously when you’re working with transcripts, in a sense you’re figuring out the order things should be said, and so in a sense you’re organizing and piecing together the story the way a writer would. I think it kind of blurs the line between editing and writing in a way. But actually there are also a few title cards in this film where there is written text to help transition from scene to scene. There’s a few at the beginning that try to set up the story in terms of the context of these interviews and the state of Princess Diana and Prince Charles’ marriage when the interviews were recorded. It was important that the audience knew they were hearing one side of the story — Diana’s side of the story. And we wanted to be really clear about the fact that there is another side to this story, but since the film is told with these recordings, we’re telling the story from her side.
HULLFISH: I’ve cut a few documentaries and it seems overwhelming to look at the amount of material you have to deal with. You do have to kind of break it down into scenes right?. Talk to me about breaking a huge project down and editable bites.
TILLMAN: It always is helpful to me to work from an outline even if that outline is obviously subject to change. Going into the edit with a roadmap in terms of where the story starts, where it’s going to end up, and knowing some of the major story beats along the way, makes a thing much easier. One thing I’ve noticed working on historical documentaries is there are often clear story beats that are almost pre-written for you. With Diana’s story obviously we were going to cover her courtship with Prince Charles, their engagement, the pre-wedding buildup, the wedding itself, the honeymoon, and the births of William and Harry. And these were all things that she talked about in the interviews. But I think what you start to learn when you’re editing documentaries is that you should play to your strengths in terms of the material you have. When you have an outline to work with and you start categorizing your materials by the story beats in your outline, you start to see which parts have the strongest material for and then sometimes I will try and edit those first. And sometimes organizing your story in this way will also help you to see what story beats you are lacking material for and you can increase your research efforts in that area.
With this particular film, there were certain key moments we had Diana commenting on, or narrating. So part of the research became matching up those moments with the footage, stills, newspaper headlines, and news reports that would supplement the audio recordings. And once we started to have two or three or four different pieces of supporting material then it would become a richer, more layered scene.
HULLFISH: Did you know all of those going into the edit or did they kind of develop?
TILLMAN: We had early outlines that broke down the story and included many of the major events. But certainly there was a lot of discoveries. One of them became one of the most powerful moments in the documentary — it’s a speech Diana gave where she steps down from the public eye and asks the press for privacy. She’s asking to be able to have some time to live her life. And of course that doesn’t happen, the paparazzi continues to follow her everywhere.
Beyond just discovering new story beats, one of the things that happened as we were making the film was that there were certain themes that began to develop and reveal themselves. One of those themes was that there was this juxtaposition between Diana’s public life and her private life. And while the news was reporting what she was doing, she would be smiling and the public had no idea what was actually going on in her head.
Once we started to actually juxtapose her words from the audio recordings with how her life was presented in the media we started to see that there was this huge disconnect. And drawing upon that theme, one thing I tried to do in editing the film was to give the viewer almost a voyeuristic media-eye view of her life. I used camera shutter sound effects a lot and tried to use stills where she would be looking at the camera, running from the camera. Hiding.
And that kind of presented itself as another motif. This is a person that’s constantly being photographed; constantly in the public eye; can’t escape. And you almost start to feel like you’re the one behind the camera.
HULLFISH: So, you cut together a bunch of individual scenes and then you eventually get it into — I’m assuming — a very long first cut.
TILLMAN: Very long. I think the first rough cut we turned in was about 130 minutes. And obviously, our first internal cut was even longer. There were some great stories she told that I really wanted to get into the film, but we simply couldn’t include everything. And as much as we wanted to use as much of these rare audio recordings of Diana as possible, we had to balance them with other elements as well. So we had some great stuff that we had to leave on the cutting room floor.
HULLFISH: I would think that some of the news reporting and radio archive stuff is helping you almost put narration into a piece that doesn’t have narration.
TILLMAN: Yes, it definitely can operate in that way. But there’s an authenticity to news reporting that plays differently than narration. It’s sometimes sensationalized but doesn’t feel nearly as editorialized as a narrator or interview subject re-telling the story years later. There’s an immediacy to it, which is great, and it also creates another layer by framing the story through the media lens.
I also love to use man-on-the-street interviews because it gives the audience a window into what the public thought of things. For example, there’s a part of the film where Diana talks about deciding what to name Prince William, and we were able to juxtapose her talking about that decision with an interview Prince Charles gives right after William’s birth where a reporter asks him the name and he responds, “Oh, we had a little argument about that.” And then we cut to some young girls on the street being interviewed about their opinion about the name William and they’re joking, calling him “King Bill.” So the other voices in the film served many purposes to supplement Diana’s words.
HULLFISH: How did you pace the story on a macro level?
TILLMAN: Pacing is one of the most important things to get right in any documentary. To really get it right at the macro level, I think you have to watch the film down beginning to end as many times as you can. That’s the best way to get a feel for how an audience is going to process the overall pace. You can get a feel for when things lag a bit, when scenes feel a little too quick, etc. And if I can, I try and sit on my couch and watch it on my TV, rather than watching it down sitting at my desk, watching at a computer. I think it’s a different viewing experience and as close as you might be to the work, you are able to see it with a little more distance.
The other part of creating the pacing on a macro level was developing a kind of a pattern. We never the film to go too long without hearing the audio recordings of Princess Diana, because once you start to hear them it’s almost addictive. You just want to hear her talk. At the same time you can’t have it play wall the wall. The way we peppered in the reporting and other voices, it was just enough to kind of give you a little respite from hearing her. Enough to juxtapose what the public saw, how she was being reported be the media. And then we would try to get back to her within a minute or two, and we never wanted to go more than a minute or two without the audience hearing her telling her own story so that over the course of the entire film makes you really feel like she is truly telling her own story.
But I think figuring out the pacing at a micro level was incredibly important in this film as well. It’s always important to disseminate information in such a way that viewers can process what they are seeing and hearing. So one challenge we faced was that in the audio recordings, Princess Diana speaks very quickly a lot of the time. It’s very conversational. She’s constantly rushing through what she is saying. So a big part of what I had to do was add in pauses in between some of her phrases and sentences. Allow it to breathe enough to allow the viewer to understand what she’d said and process it. That was a big part of getting the pacing right, and that was one thing the director, Tom, was very attuned to.
Also, the recordings weren’t always the clearest audio quality and to anyone who isn’t as familiar with a British accent, I think it takes you a little while to get used to the way she speaks. Another way we were able to allow the viewer to process what was being said was that we used a lot of still photos when the audio recordings being used — which I think also helped to enable to audience to process what is being said and sometimes read subtitles, without too much visual information to take in. Stills also can have the effect of creating a more subjective experience, and suddenly the look on Diana’s face in the photo would start to feel like it was eliciting the exact emotion she was describing in the audio recording.
HULLFISH: You’ve done a couple of these projects that are similar, using primarily archival audio and footage. Though each doc was obviously different, since they were based largely on archival audio or footage of an historic event, was there something you learned from each one that you were able to apply to the next one?
TILLMAN: I’ve come to look for similar things in archival footage. First, I always want to use the highest quality possible footage and photos whether it be new film scans of original film reels or high resolution photos. So I always look for the most gripping, arresting imagery, ideally at the highest possibly resolution. And I always try to use footage and audio recordings that make you feel like you’re there at that moment, in the room, experiencing history. In researching and finding footage for our documentary Challenger Disaster: Lost Tapes, which won an Emmy last year for Outstanding Research, we found some raw footage that was shot inside Concord High School, the school where teacher turned astronaut Christa McAuliffe taught, where her students were watching the launch live.
I chose to use part of the footage that some might have considered outtake. The camera operator had the camera pointed at his feet as he was re-positioning the camera. He almost trips on something, he tries to re-frame his shot and focus the camera. But by that clip in the film, it has the effect of bringing back the raw energy of being inside that room. When I watched that footage it gave me chills because it felt like I was transported back to 1986 for a few seconds. So I’m always looking for those kind of raw moments — that may have never even been intended to air — that make you feel like you’re watching something that no one has seen before.
HULLFISH: Thinking back to my own documentary experience, you were dealing with a lot of news footage and one of the challenges I remember is that you try to do anything not to make the news footage look like news because nobody wants to look at news footage.
TILLMAN: When you make research requests, some of the things that come back are cut news packages and we never really want to present those as they were edited at the time, so often we might only use the voiceover of that reporter and find our own visuals or sometimes we might only use some of the shots and mix them in with still photos to help give fresh visuals. Sometimes when I see a cut news package it makes me want to try and find the raw footage that the cameraman shot that day, because working with that raw footage enables you to create more of a verité style, so it doesn’t feel like you’re simply watching an old episode of the 10 o’clock news.
HULLFISH: With FCPX, how do you deal with assistant editors? There are some collaboration tools now, but you couldn’t collaborate when you were cutting it, right?
TILLMAN: Collaboration is one of the parts of FCPX that you have to have a little bit of a plan. But it isn’t necessarily that complicated. 1895 Films is working on a series called The Lost Tapes for Smithsonian Channel right now where we’re using this all-archival style without narration or interviews and the show is being edited exclusively in FCPX. Last season we did episodes on Pearl Harbor, the L.A. riots, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and the Son of Sam murders. The first episode of Season 2 just premiered on February 26, called The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X. It’s available for free right now on iTunes, YouTube and Smithsonian Channel’s website.
Working on this series, everyone from the researchers to the assistant editors to the story producers were able to easily learn how to use FCPX to help add metadata as needed. At any time someone could be working independently off their own external hard drive or off a server, add metadata to any given piece of media and simply export an XML file of that individual piece of media, or group of media contained in an Event named with that day’s date. I would then import the XML, relink it to the media on my end, and instantly I would have a new version of that clip or those clips with the information that the researcher, assistant editor or story producer added.
Similarly, if they were to create a stringout of a scene and export an XML of their timeline I could just then import that XML to bring it into the edit. So we are not collaborating in the sense that we can have the same project open at the same time, but essentially they can have a duplicate of what I have on their machine and by sending XML files back and forth we’re able to easily collaborate in that way.
One of the only pitfalls that I found with this workflow is that essentially, by importing something — if I already had it — it would potentially create a duplicate of that clip in my Library. Personally, that doesn’t really bother me that much. I can delete the old one or just have a few duplicates. But there are ways around that as well with a third party application called MergeX that will combine the metadata and delete duplicates clips.
I’ve found that where Final Cut Pro X might have lacked features in certain areas, especially a couple years ago, it is also very open source and there are many developers that create third party tools or applications to fill any given need there might be. There is a third party tool I use called X2Pro that enables you to export an AAF for ProTools, there’s one called Producer’s Best Friend that enables you to convert an XML into a spreadsheet to track all the footage you have in your timeline. There’s one called Lumberjack that enables you marry a transcript to a particular clip. There’s another third party application called Subvert that turns transcripts into subtitles. So I think one of the exciting things about FCPX is that there is this whole ecosystem out there that is ready to create the necessary tools to accomplish what the pro community deems a need as soon as that need presents itself.
HULLFISH: What are some of the other reasons you feel Final Cut Pro X helps from a storytelling perspective?
TILLMAN: I think the way you can customize the overall organization of your Library gives anyone the abilities to work in ways they never really imagined were possible. Most editors are used to the software they have been using and when you first try FCPX it can be really difficult for your brain to think about it in a new way at first. But I think if you open yourself up to the possibilities that FCPX gives you, it can really streamline your editing process.
Another thing that is pretty simple, that you often completely forget about when you’re editing with FCPX, is that it is constantly saving in the background. I’ve been using it for two and a half years. I’ve never lost more than three minutes of work due to a crash. People have a really hard trusting it at first and want to back everything up constantly, but eventually you learn to trust that it actually works.
I did a project on Premiere Pro earlier this year where I was having frequent crashes and so I had Autosave set to every five minutes because I was getting so frustrated with losing my work each time. But then my frustration was further exacerbated by the fact that every time Autosave would start, I would have sit there and wait and it would completely interrupt my thought process and what I was doing. For me, so much of editing is getting into that creative flow. And once I’m there it’s like almost entered a zone and can accomplish a lot. So the fewer things that get in the way of that, the better.
Many people immediately reject the Magnetic Timeline because they just can’t get used to the idea of it after working with track-based NLE’s. At first I felt the same way. It definitely takes a couple weeks to get used to, but I can’t explain how freeing it is not to have to worry about keeping 16 or more tracks of audio in sync whenever you insert new material into a timeline. This shifts focus away from the technical side of using a NLE and allows you to spend more of your brainpower on storytelling. In the end, that is bound to result in better work.
HULLFISH: Do you think FCPX’s organization tools help more with a documentary project than say a narrative film?
TILLMAN: Every NLE has its strengths. Most narrative films are a bit more predictable in the sense that there is a script, every scene is shot according to the script and it’s a bit more structured in terms of assembling it into a finished film.
One of the things I love about documentary editing is I feel like there actually is a lot of freedom, a lot of room for creativity. Documentaries are often more like a kind of like a puzzle that you’re putting together where you’re assembling a film out of existing pieces but you’re not quite sure anything is going to go at first. There are a lot more decisions to make in a way about what pieces of media to use, how to use them, when you use them, for how long. And using FCPX to organize all your media is a huge help in terms of finding those pieces on the fly and inserting them into your timeline.
HULLFISH: Dave, great speaking with you. This was really enlightening. I appreciate shedding light on your really interesting process and approach.
TILLMAN: Happy to be part of the series!
To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish
The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.