Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with Ken Burns’ doc editor Craig Mellish, ACE

Documentary editing is an art form that requires tremendous patience, skill and imagination. Eisenstein’s theories about the juxtaposition of images are constantly on display in documentary film. Director David Mamet said, “This is good filmmaking: to juxtapose images.” That is the essence of editing, of course, but in particular, documentary editing.

This series has done interviews with documentary editors Andy Grieve and Steve Audette, ACE. To profile another documentary film editor I thought, “Well, everybody knows the work of Ken Burns, but who is HIS editor?”
24065580764_c66b8decc7_kThat led me to Craig Mellish, ACE. Craig – with almost 20 years at Ken Burns’ company, Florentine Films is actually one of the junior guys at the company. Craig was nominated for two Primetime Emmys for Best Sound Editing – Nonfiction Programming. He has worked on many of the seminal documentary films Ken Burns and his team have produced, including “The National Parks,” “Lewis & Clark,” “The Dust Bowl” (for which he was nominated for an EDDIE for Best Documentary Editing-TV), “The Tenth Inning” (two part update to the 1994 series “Baseball) and a film on the Gettysburg Address called, “The Address.”

Mellish is also an accomplished photographer. All photos in this article are by him and used with his permission.

HULLFISH: What are you working on, right now?

MELLISH: At the moment I am doing the finishing work on a ten part series on the Vietnam War; I edited two and a half of the ten episodes. I’m just starting an eight part series on the history of Country Music; I will also edit two episodes of that series.

HULLFISH: Country Music, that’s one that I wouldn’t have figured that Ken Burns would tackle.

MELLISH: Our producer is Dayton Duncan who produced and wrote the National Parks, Mark Twain, and Lewis & Clark: Country music is one of his passions and he usually brings those kinds of films to Ken. But it ties in. We also did the history of Jazz. So, here’s a series on another American art form.

HULLFISH:  Let’s talk about the process: documentaries are done in very different ways: either shooting stuff verite and trying to turn it all into something in the edit suite or something that’s heavily scripted before you even go out shoot anything. What’s the process on most of these Ken Burns documentaries that you’ve worked on?

roosevelt timeline by mellish
Avid timeline for National Parks

MELLISH: When we begin a project we’ll have a general understanding of what stories we’re going to be covering in terms of the subject. Maybe there’s an outline. So we just go out and begin gathering material: archival photographs and footage, if it exists, maybe a bunch of period appropriate music and, in the case of a series like the National Parks, live footage. Most of the time this process is done well before we have a script. Even the interviews are shot beforehand.

I started working on the Parks series in April of 2003 as a producer out on the road – either scouting the parks a few days ahead of the film crew arriving, or scouting the locations for us to come back to at a later time and shoot. I’d also poke around some of the Park’s archives to get a sense of what they had. I might meet up with and sort of “pre-screen” some of the people we’d later interview on camera. We didn’t start editing on that project till 2006. So there was a three year lead-up to editing and we shot the majority of our footage during that time with the exception of aerials which we laid in late because of their cost. As I said, we typically don’t shoot to the script. But there were exceptions when we were going to do our versions of recreations for things like a couple of “campfire scenes” that were going to be in the series that we needed to prepare for. But generally we went out and shot beautiful scenes and then serendipity or divine intervention makes it seem like it was the perfect shot for that moment.

Florentine Films cinematographer Buddy Squires filming a rainbow at the Grand Canyon

We also start Day One with the music that’s going to be in the film. So it sort of grows organically with the cut and becomes integral. We don’t have temp music necessarily, like other projects will, and score at the end. A lot of people comment on our music and I think that’s probably the reason why: it’s there from the beginning and the scenes are shaped with it.

HULLFISH: Got it. That’s one of those things that I wanted to talk about a little bit. I was thinking some of those pieces were composed and performed for the documentary. Or do they start out as a pre-recorded piece that you guys decide to re-record? Or is it always the exact piece of music that starts from the beginning and goes all the way through?

MELLISH: In many cases it’s a pre-recorded piece. Films like Vietnam, The Tenth Inning or The Address all have contemporary music in them to help set the time frame of a scene for the viewer. And then sometimes we’ll take a recorded track and expand upon it. I think the main theme of the National Parks series is a song called “Sligo Creek” that we found from a guy named Al Petteway. And we might want to use that song throughout the 6 episodes of the show. So instead of simply repeating it, which we also do, we have a great musician that we go to a lot: Bobby Horton, and we’ll have him do 10, 15, 20 versions of it with different instrumentations and different tempos and moods. Dayton knows quite a bit about music so he’ll find an old, traditional song he likes and then get Bobby or Jacqueline Schwab or David Cieri, who both do our piano pieces, to record the song, again different moods, different tempos, and then we’ll use them as themes throughout the project, across all the episodes.

empty edit suite by Mellish
Mellish’s Avid setup for National Parks

HULLFISH: You mention the idea of a theme. Do you try to theme a specific story or character with specific piece of music?

MELLISH: Sometimes. Most likely a character. On a film like our series “The Roosevelts,” the three Roosevelts, Franklin, Eleanor and Theodore, would each have a song, in various forms that would have become a sort of theme over time. I mean we wouldn’t have something recorded as “Franklin’s Theme.” But a song might develop into something like that. To let the viewer know– now we’re back in an FDR scene. Or to use as an echo back to him after he’s left the story.

HULLFISH: Just like a dramatic film would have a theme for a character or story line.

MELLISH: Yeah. Just recently on the Vietnam series, I came into the editing late and one of the episodes that preceded mine had already had a pass or two and the team had settled on using the music of a particular artist for one of the characters that our episodes shared, a fact unbeknownst to me, so I cut the scenes using different artists and music and then I had to redo them to be consistent and have them be better connected.

7184151694_1222b245f7_kHULLFISH: So the process starts early on with music. What’s the rest of the post-process like?

MELLISH: Well by the time we’re ready to start editing a project we’ve had a team out searching for and locating both the still photographs as well as the archival film that we’ll be using. They’ve probably been at it for a year or more by that time. In the case of National Parks we had something like a three year lead up. Mostly so we could film at all the parks without killing ourselves with travel, but also to be able to film in all different seasons. After we’ve collected the footage we’ll log it and then load it into Avid. The stills we organize into a FileMaker database that we can search by keyword or date or whatever and hope we strike gold.

HULLFISH: And how does the FileMaker database correlate to what’s in the Avid bins. I’m assuming you’re editing in Avid?

MELLISH: Yes, we edit in Avid. Again, when we start, the Avid bins are loaded with the footage and the music that all the editors can access. The stills we individually access from a bigger server.

HULLFISH: So you’re editing away and you say, “I need a shot of John Muir on a horseback” and you type something in FileMaker. It comes up with a list of shots and then you take your favorite still into After Effects or something?

macosxplugin (1)
Screen capture of the plug-in version of MovingPicture from Stage Tools. (image from StageTools’ website)

MELLISH: A program called MovingPicture.

HULLFISH: I know MovingPicture. As a plug-in inside of the Avid?

MELLISH: No we use it as an external program.

HULLFISH: I think you can use it both ways.

MELLISH: I time out the moves in Avid first and then frame them up and then animate them in Moving Picture. Then import the quicktime it spits out.

HULLFISH: So really the effect that people call a Ken Burns effect should be a Craig Mellish effect?

MELLISH: In some cases, yeah… But you didn’t hear that from me.

HULLFISH: It drives me crazy that people call that a “Ken Burns effect” but I won’t ask you to comment. Talk to me about how much of the archive material is in your head or are you relying much more on FileMaker?

Mellish Devils Tower
Devil’s Tower National Monument

MELLISH: Obviously the people who collected the material are going to know it the most intimately. On Vietnam we had around 12,000 images to deal with – and I forget the number on “Parks,” but it was probably similar, if not more. That’s a lot to look through. I remember on the Dust Bowl, many times, searching for “farmer” but that would also bring up “farm.” A search might come up with 900 choices. But I might just go through all 900 just so that I can familiarize myself with what there is and make note of certain shots for later use somewhere else.

HULLFISH: How are you looking at 900 shots?

MELLISH: In the Filemaker database.

HULLFISH: So they bring stills into FileMaker as a thumbnail?

MELLISH: A thumbnail and all the data, descriptions, source and all that kind of information.


MELLISH: And then I page through it and find the shot I’m looking for. Sometimes I’ll narrow the search, I don’t want to search through hundreds of images to find just one because of time or whatever. But usually I don’t mind going through a bunch. I’m actually a frustrated photographer so I like looking through these great old photos anyways.

HULLFISH: Talk to me about the organization inside of Avid. Describe for me the Avid project window and how you have it organized.

MELLISH: Well, in general we copy over the folder structure from the previous film and then tailor it fit the project we’re working on. Usually at the top it’s “Rough Cuts.” There are four editors working on our “Vietnam” series so we have one main folder of rough cuts and then within that there are 10 subfolders for each episode. Within that, for me, would be bins for my cuts – past and present, stills, sound effects, motion effects, lifts, music I might be playing with that’s not part of the main library, that kind of stuff.

burns in camera mellish
Ken Burns on camera with Mellish as DP.

From there it goes to interviews, which are the full interviews and then broken down into our select bins. We probably interviewed a hundred people for this project. And again, in the case of “Vietnam,” those full interviews are then broken down into English interviews and Vietnamese interviews. Then we have a narration folder with bins for both Ken’s temp stuff – he’s our scratch narrator – and then our final narration tracks. Then we’ll have a voiceover bin for our voices, then subfolders for selects and for all takes. Then we have a bin of ScriptSync scripts.

HULLFISH: So, ScriptSync is very useful for searching a transcript for a word or phrase and being able to jump to the exact point in the script to the video itself. Steve Audette is a big proponent of ScriptSync and has some great video tutorials about how it works for those who might not understand the concept.

MELLISH: Yes, we just mixed one of my episodes for Vietnam and for a particular interview we were wondering “Did he say the word ‘fire’ anywhere else?” Because, in this instance, the talking head is running the word together with the next word but we’re looking for a way to cleanly end the sentence.

HULLFISH: Right, so are you just do a search for ‘fire’ with a period at the end.

sound work by Mellish
Dialog editing National Parks

MELLISH: Exactly. It’s really helpful for that. As a dialogue editor on some of our films I can say it’s unbelievably helpful. Then we have a music bin which has all our soundtrack stuff from the various sources of music we’re using. Sometimes broken down by artist or year. Next come folders and bins for stock footage. In this case, broken down into many individual subject bins. Like with the stills, I spend most of my time searching the wider, All Footage bins so I get a bigger picture of what we have. A search for “Marines, Combat 1967” might give me stuff for the scene I’m working on, but also clips from other locations during the war that I can use later. It’s good to know, “ok this stuff is here.” Then, we have a live footage folder and bins. On “Vietnam” it’s down near the bottom because we didn’t have a whole lot, but on “National Parks,” it’s more up towards the top. Then it breaks down into sound effects and the rest is just sort of technical: tones and titles, bars and things like that.

HULLFISH: Talk to me a little about the process of how are you breaking down these episodes into more workable chunks. Do you split it into stories or story segments similar to breaking a dramatic film into scenes or reels?

MELLISH: Well, usually we have a script that we follow just like any dramatic film. It’s made up of what I’ll call, chapters, which relate to the interstitial titles that Ken’s films are known for. And then each chapter will have multiple scenes with in it.

HULLFISH: How much of the script structure the way it is first written remains in the final doc as it is aired? Why did you decide to move this to here and move that to there? Why decide to eliminate a whole section? Why are some of these decisions being made in the structure and storytelling?

Mellish Signing
Mellish autographing “The Address” poster.

MELLISH: I’d say in the end, structurally speaking, the script stays pretty much as it was originally written. But the narration is constantly tweaked, right up to the very end. During editing we’ll drop things like talking heads in favor of narration because we can make the point clearer that way. Once or twice we’ll rejigger stuff. Recently on “Vietnam” in one of my episodes we had 2 Vietnamese stories separated by 30 minutes and we decided, near the end of editing, to put them back to back because they were subtly connected to each other. And they would have been fine where they were but now they really work together as a piece. I guess we try and do the majority of the big changes before we get to the editing. For our next series, “Country Music,” we just did what we call our blind assembly. Dayton Duncan has written eight episodes for this project and some, not all, are four to four and a half hours long. We’re not going to fully edit a four hour episode because we know it’s never going to be that long, so we’ll watch the blind assemblies once or twice. We cut those down close to two hours or so. We don’t lose the stories necessarily but we tighten things considerably. Or sometimes we split one big episode into two.

HULLFISH: Talk to me a little bit about that blind assembly that you’re talking about. Is it just a radio cut with no supporting visuals?

MELLISH: Yes, it’s just a radio cut. We screen with just the talking heads and the narration and any voices that there might be. We do it to save the poor editor from having to picture-cut a bunch of stuff that’s probably not going to make the final version.

HULLFISH: So, what should be a one-hour episode may start as a four-hour episode?

mix with burns by Mellish
Mixing National Parks Dayton Duncan, writer/producer, Dominic Tavella, mixer, Ken Burns.

MELLISH: We recently had some that went well over four hours.

HULLFISH: Wow. So you got it a 4 and a half hour long episode that you know that you’ve got to do to get down to 56 or 57 minutes?

MELLISH: No. We generally do 90 minute or two hour episodes. Sometimes longer.

HULLFISH: Okay 2 hours. So, a 4 hour radio cut has to down to 2 hours. What are some of the decision-making processes of watching that and deciding what is going to go? How do we make those determinations of what do we cut out?

MELLISH: I think a lot of times the scripts come in very heavily detailed. I’ve heard it referred to as “getting into the weeds.” So we trim the “weeds.” It’s usually great stuff but it’s maybe one note too many so they’ll save that more detailed information for the book.

HULLFISH: When push comes to shove and you have to cut half of the content, you gotta do something, right?

MELLISH: It seems crazy to say we cut out 2 hours of story to make it more manageable, but the bulk of that is that we’ll have 15 people telling the same story and we’re ultimately choosing the person or persons who tell that story best and removing the others. That’s where most of the trimming takes place.

HULLFISH: I completely understand, having cut documentaries myself that the choice of who to use is “Who tells it the most succinctly or who tells with the most passion?” What are the choices when you’ve got 6 people trying to tell the same story and you gotta get it down to one or two people? Who goes and who stays?

MELLISH: Exactly.

HULLFISH: Is there a philosophy to the storytelling that you do at Florentine Films? Is there a guiding principle that you ascribe to about making decisions?

Burns by Mellish
Ken Burns. (I wish I had an animated GIF of this slowly zooming in)

MELLISH: Ken, a lot of the time, refers to what we do as Emotional Archeology. One of the things I like about our stuff is that it’s not just a recitation of facts. The Vietnam War series is not just this battle happened here, this battle happened here. It’s the people who were involved in the battle and their stories: the people who are underneath the bombs that will be dropped. You’re getting the individual stories that tell the bigger story. For me that is always the main draw of our stuff.

HULLFISH: Emotional Archeology, I love that. I will be stealing that one. A lot of these docs are historical in nature where there are no audio or video records. How do you make the audio come alive or feel real?

MELLISH: In episode 2 of National Parks, there’s a story of Rudyard Kipling visiting Yellowstone in the 1870s or 1880s. Unfortunately there are no photographs of him there and all we have is his writing. So through the voice that we chose to read his work, the music – pieces chosen to help convey a sense of humor, or a sense of traveling or a sense of wonder – sound effects and the images I used, we hope to draw people in and let them experience the early days in the park the way Kipling did. To me, that’s one of the things I love about what we do. A lot of the time we are telling stories where there is no archival visual material. There were no photographs of Lewis and Clark when they were out crossing America but we were able to tell two very compelling episodes of that story using paintings and photos from other decades. That’s the big challenge on a lot of our stuff: a challenge I love trying to tackle.

bison Mellish
Bison take a drink from Soda Butte Creek – Lamar Valley – Yellowstone National Park

HULLFISH: Talk to me a little bit about that specific example of Rudyard Kipling going to the park and knowing that all you’ve got really is a letter or something.

MELLISH: They were articles that he wrote for newspapers back in Europe.

HULLFISH: So, you’ve got a story that he wrote. There is no audio, there is no video. So, you get a great person to read parts of the story, right?


HULLFISH: What is your decision making as you’re trying to visualize that story.

yosemite by mellish
Yosemite Valley – El Capitan on the left – Yosemite National Park

MELLISH: You’re looking for what we call equivalents. Even though you’re not seeing Kipling in the park you want to use shots that give the viewer a sense of seeing things through his eyes. Two characters in his story are an old couple travelling in his group who are overwhelmed by what they are seeing. We were lucky to find many photos of men and women tourists in the park is those days who we’re able to pretend are the couple. I just saw the scene recently and I was kind of amazed at all the “perfect” photos we found for it.

HULLFISH: What is the typical timeline for doing post on one of these episodes? Talk to me about when you first start getting the footage in, and organizing it until it heads off for on-line?

MELLISH: I think the bigger series is probably around 2 years from first edit to locking and then sending it off to New York for sound cutting and mixing and the on-line. Smaller films like the one I just did prior to this, “The Address,” was done pretty quickly. It was turned around, I think, in less than a year. We finished on-lining & mixing in February of 2014 and it aired in April of that year. So, it depends on the project. Finishing Vietnam is pretty spread out. I just mixed one episode and next month, I’ll do the next one, but my final show is not until late summer. We locked in September or October of last year and since then we’ve put in the master footage and are dealing with that process.

2517825123_53678cabc9_oHULLFISH: Got it. So, even though the picture was locked sometime last year the archive folks actually have to track down and find the master quality footage of the licensed material and cut it over the “scratch” footage?

MELLISH: Exactly. The footage we use for our editing all have watermarks and burn in time-code on them so when we’re finished we have to get the Master. The same with the stills. We’re now getting in the hi-res version of those. And then my assistant, Rich Rubin, has to replicate in After Effects, all the moves on the high-res versions. Not just for me but for the whole series.

HULLFISH: Oh so, what you’re actually seeing on a broadcast is After Effects even though you use Moving Pictures for the rough cuts?


HULLFISH: Very interesting. Talk to me about allowing for breaths in pacing. If you are trying to cram 4 hours of story into a 2-hour episode you could just go wall-to-wall with information but instead there are these beautiful moments where you just say, “Let’s just pause. Let’s just feel.” Talk to me a little bit about the pacing and adding breaths and knowing when to do it and knowing how long they should be. A lot of that pacing is about giving yourself a moment to kind of process what you just heard of one story before moving on to the next one.

National Monument by Mellish
Mount Rushmore – South Dakota

MELLISH: Yeah. For example in “Vietnam” we have a character who is sort of the All-American kid who goes to Vietnam and wants to fight for his country. We follow him for two episodes and like many other young guys he is killed in battle. When that happens in our story it’s in the middle of the episode, so we have to figure out the proper amount time to let people catch their breath, because it is very emotional. You obviously just can’t roll on to the next story but you also can’t make it so long that you lose the thread of the film. So you have to find the balancing point of “Where have we mourned enough and when are we ready to move to the next story.”

HULLFISH: In the scene where Teddy Roosevelt goes to Yellowstone talk to me a little bit about trying to create a rhythm and musicality in the visuals of a documentary.

MELLISH: I like to get a nice balance myself. In some cases, we have an “embarrassment of riches.” Just a ton of great material. How do you use all that stuff? So I might do a montage to show it off. I love working with music so a montage is a great way to feature more of a song that will ultimately be pushed down below the narration. And sometimes those help lighten the mood. It just alleviates the darkness…

HULLFISH: …the gravitas…

MELLISH: Just shine a little light on the whole thing and lighten it up. I think the Roosevelt piece has some humor in it as well. Teddy Roosevelt is full of energy so you also want to come into a scene with him with something that mirrors that energy.

HULLFISH: One of those things that I think documentary editors struggle with is visualizing parts of the script. How do you know you have the right photo or piece of footage when you’ve got a thousand?

Burns DVDs by Mellish
Films Mellish has edited.

MELLISH: That’s the key, right? Your job is to decide that you have the right one. Sometimes I see people, editors that have several images stacked on top of each other and I’ll ask why. They say, “Well, it’s because I have all these alternatives.” And I’ll think, “There is no alternative, there’s just the one shot.” That’s how I feel. You are an editor. You have to make that choice. I feel confident that this is the best shot.

HULLFISH: I interviewed Lee Smith who edited “Spectre” and I talked to Lee about making selects reels and he said he does selects reels for action but he never does selects reels for performance because he feels like it’s his job to know what the right performance is so, why should he have multiple choices of performance when he should look at them and say “This is the best.”

MELLISH: Yeah, that’s what I feel. I’m not going to stack three or four shots on top of each other because this is the shot and it’s my job to decide that this is the shot. Ken can’t look through the 15,000 shots so he has to trust that his editors are providing him with the perfect shot for that moment.

HULLFISH: What is the issue when you get that choice wrong?

MELLISH: It’s usually that I’m reading things one way and Ken’s reading it another way.

HULLFISH: Can you give me an example of reading a script or moment incorrectly? How does that misinterpretation happen?

MELLISH: Well I can’t recall anything off the top of my head. When you have 250 or so still photographs in your cut and you only have to change a small handful for whatever reason you try not to dwell on the failures. But just the other day I was showing (producer/writer) some people my first pass on a particular scene in Country Music and one of them had a reaction to a shot that would be typical of the misreadings that we sometimes have. As the song begins I start by pulling out from a detail of a radio that ultimately reveals a couple laying on blanket listening to that radio. The narration says, “So & so’s next hit came from an unlikely source.” Now I’m looking mosty at featuring the radio as a means of A: Starting a new scene and B: letting the music play for a while. The other person is seeing the two people and hearing the narration say, “…from an unlikely source.” And they’re thinking, “Are they unlikely source?”

screening by Mellish
Screening Vietnam with director, Ken Burns, editor Paul Barnes, apprentice editor Alex Cucchi, writer, Geoffrey C. Ward, editor, Erik Ewers, editor, Tricia Ready, producer, Sarah Botstein, associate producer David Schmidt.

HULLFISH: This photo shows a HUGE number of people in your edit suite for a screening. Talk to me about receiving notes on a cut of a film and how you deal with them. Practically speaking, are you writing stuff down? Are you’re putting a locator in the timeline? Is someone taking notes?

MELLISH: That was a screening of one of my Vietnam episodes. Usually everybody in the house tries to watch each episode. So, there are writers and producers and some of the editors in there. The other editors are respectful of each other’s cuts but we’ll pull each other aside and offer suggestions. Everybody’s opinion is listened to and Ken will write all of them down. After we take comments from everyone we then retire to another room where we sit around the table and go page by page through the script, what we call “going into the trenches.” On Vietnam, Ken will have his notes, co-director Lynn Novick will have hers and so on. A lot of the time the changes are writing changes which I have no control over. But other times it’s “Let’s get a new photo here, or let’s change this piece of music. Open up the space here, close it down there. I’ll write those notes in my script in red. We don’t have the cut during this time but I’ll I know where the changes go. I don’t have a giant two hour cut, I work in reels.

HULLFISH: True 20 minute film reels?

baseball by Mellish
Mellish’s Photo of the Day the day when he learned he’d be editing “The Tenth Inning” – the follow-up to the original Burns baseball series

MELLISH: When I first started at Florentine Films we were still cutting on film so I try and keep them between 20 and 25 minutes. It helps me mentally too: knowing that I don’t have to go for two hours straight.

HULLFISH: The notes thing is very interesting to me. Any specifics on how much you push back? Or is that not the job of the editor at Florentine? How do you deal with notes as an editor?

MELLISH: Well, we (laughs) We push back. We push back because we get really passionate about it. We live with these things constantly and they’re our babies. Sometimes you fall in love with the material too much. It has to be this shot or this piece of music. And that’s it. It’s easy to lose sight of what really needs to be done sometimes. But they listen, everybody listens. I certainly feel that we all have an equal say, though obviously Ken and the senior producers are the deciding voices. But you can convince them to change their minds if you sell it well enough.

HULLFISH: You made a choice for a reason and I think that the producer then values the passion that you bring to defending that decision and sometimes they just have to understand your reason.

MELLISH: Exactly. In the end it’s a collaboration. That’s what makes it a better film.
HULLFISH: I saw that you got nominated for an Emmy for some of your audio editing. What exactly do you think contributed to being nominated for that? It’s basically editing together sound bites and music. What was extraordinary about that?

MELLISH: I think probably a combination of the music we used and the sound effects we added were what did it. I can’t imagine it was my dialogue editing.

HULLFISH: What were the sound effects? How do you make these old photographs and 16mm film that probably didn’t have any kind of sound – How do you make that stuff come alive for people?

MELLISH: In Vietnam, for instance, if it was a battle, I’d throw in gunshots, bullets whizzing by, explosions, men yelling and things like that. I try to throw in some sweeteners and help set the place. Or I’ll use them as transitions. Maybe it’s just a jet roaring by. Things like that to get us into the next scene. Explosions on the cut – a helicopter taking off. Those kinds of things that help give the scene some depth. But for me it’s just a template for the sound editors to get a sense of what I’m going for. After we’ve picture-locked they get a hold of things and really bring it to life.

HULLFISH: What sells a performance for you? With many of these Ken Burns documentaries, I think of these great celebrity or character actor readings of letters. What’s selling those things for you?

Burns voice over by Mellish
Ken Burns reading the scratch narration for “Jackie Robinson.”

MELLISH: I think the key to our stuff is the direction that Ken will give. He says. “Let the words do the work. The feeling is already there, you just need to speak the words, The emotion is in what’s being said you don’t need to act it out. You need to understand what you’re reading and respect it but you don’t need to perform it.”

HULLFISH: David Mamet wrote a book called, “On Directing” (recommended in another documentary editor interview with Steve Audette) and he says that all the best stuff is uninflected. You don’t need to add the emotion, the emotion is there, you just need to deliver it and the writing and the editing will provide the inflection.

MELLISH: Exactly. And you can tell a voice actor that understands what they’re reading and gets it. You can hear it immediately in determining which performance you go to with.

HULLFISH: Do you find yourself needing to sculpt that performance at all? Either speeding it up or slowing it down – putting in the breaths…

MELLISH: Yeah. We do that for sure, we pace it out for dramatic effect. For example, in “Vietnam” a character is writing letters back home, talking about feeling down. It’s a darker period. He’s not as gung-ho as he was. So, you want to draw that out with the music and let it flow into it his pauses and let it swell here and there and add to the whole emotional power of the scene.

HULLFISH: Can you think of any difficulties of cutting?

MELLISH: They’re more like challenges than difficulties, I’d say. For me, finding the “perfect” piece of music is always a challenge. That’s one of my main focuses and if I don’t have the right piece, I’ll just cut the scene without it and come back. It could take me weeks to find the right song. Though it certainly happens, I don’t like to feel like I settled for something. Also figuring out where the music should end. Another would be deciding not only on the perfect shot but in many cases what that shot is going to be. Getting in and out of scenes. Those are the main difficulties. Just like every other editor I imagine.

HULLFISH: Getting in and out of scenes is a difficulty for many editors. That’s a struggle that you’re always trying to figure out. Is it the same thing for a documentary, deciding what shot are you trying to come in on?

edit suite by Mellish
Ken Burns and editor Paul Barnes locking an episode of National Parks.

MELLISH: Sometimes you see a shot and you think, this is the perfect starting shot. It really sets the table. Even when using still photographs for a scene I still want to have an establishing shot. And then same with an ending shot. Chances are it might be on screen a little longer because you’re resolving the music or fading out and you want that image to have maximum impact. The search for the perfect photograph is one of the most enjoyable parts of the process for me. But unlike the music, which I can sometimes leave out until I’m happy with a tune, the images need to go in. So sometimes you have to live with shots that you may not love. Maybe it’s too illustrative or too on-the-nose. It’s not conveying the mood that you’re looking for but it’s all you have at the moment so accept it. But I’ll always be looking. I think, “If I get the chance I’m going to get rid of this shot. It doesn’t do what I want it to do. It’s just lying there, not doing anything for me.” So it’s never over for me. I mean I was told in my first editing class that “Films are never finished, they are just abandoned.”

HULLFISH: The executive on the first feature film I worked on had that phrase pinned on his door. Talk to me about not being too “on the nose” and giving an audience a chance to read their own thoughts into an image or have a chance to wonder what an image means.

MELLISH: In our film on the Dust Bowl I had a scene where one of our talking heads, who was a child during those times, was telling the story of a time her father and some men had to put down their cattle herd because they had no way to feed them. I had a shot of a man who appeared to be shooting a cow that I could have used but instead we used a shot of a small child hanging on to a barbed wire fence and looking sad as if it were our interviewee. And I think it made the scene much more powerful to see it, in a sense through the eyes of a child.

HULLFISH: Tell me about how you allow the viewer to inhabit a photograph?”

MELLISH: Sometimes you just want to build up to a moment. God is in the details, right? You can show details of a bigger shot and then boom, you deliver the wide. Reveal what you want. I feel with films we are more willing to stick with an image. To really linger on it. Sometimes in other documentaries to me it feels like someone said, “We’ve got 5 shots shots for this moment. Let’s see them all. “ And I’m thinking, “Hold on!”

HULLFISH: And there’s a sense of not always doing the same thing the same way…

Mellish Episode Four Locked
Notes written when Episode 4 of Vietnam locked

MELLISH: I don’t want to make the same film each time. Editing-wise I don’t want to fall into: “Here’s a new scene. I start with this, then music starts, then I bring in the voice…” I’m trying to find a different way. Hopefully, I’m not repeating myself. I’m running into that with this “Country Music” show. It’s about the music so, we want to hear the music but I don’t want to start every scene where I open with the song playing and then do a little montage.

HULLFISH: Yeah, you need some variety.

MELLISH: You’re always constantly thinking, how am I going to do this and how am I going to make it better? One thing that I did differently in “Vietnam” and I’m probably not going to do it so much on “Country Music” is that I left the talking heads, on screen, not saying anything for long periods of time. When they were thinking about their answers. For some reason, it really works. You’re really drawn in during their pauses.

HULLFISH: You could have cut it tighter but it revealed something emotionally

MELLISH: Yes. I was trying to decide why that was. I think it was because they weren’t being didactic or searching for the “right” answer. They were experiencing the story again after 50 years and you could see that in their eyes, that it was coming back to them. For me, in those moments, the pauses were really effective, whereas in other instances it’s more like “Maybe they’re spinning their wheels. Tighten it up. Let’s help them get to the point. Let’s move this along.”

HULLFISH: That sounds like that Emotional Archeology, you were talking about. Do you have any specific scenes that are posted somewhere or that you could provide that you’d like to discuss the editing of? What was challenging about cutting it? What really sold a cut? Why certain choices were made to help tell the story better or provide that “Emotional Archaeology?

2196927888_e6f9b5eb45_oHULLFISH: When I was looking checking your flickr account there are a lot of drum photos. Are you a drummer?

MELLISH: I am a frustrated drummer, yes.

HULLFISH: Is there any other kind? (laughs) I think that there are a lot of musician editors, don’t you? Do you think there is a correlation?

MELLISH: Maybe. At least one of my colleagues is a guitar player and several people in the company are musicians as well. Sometimes when I edit I have a tendency to conduct what’s happening on screen. I hope nobody’s watching me.

HULLFISH: I do exactly the same thing! When someone speaks I will conduct them into the next sound bite: “That’s the moment we have to have the guy speak … right there!” with a downbeat, like a conductor.

MELLISH: Right. I’ll dissolve between shots with a wipe of my hand across and I’ll raise my hand to start the move on the incoming shot.

HULLFISH: (Laughing) I might have to ask one of your coworkers, “Can you videotape Craig secretly for me?” (laughing)

MELLISH: Catch him performing his concerto in there.

HULLFISH: Kinda like in Disney’s “Magician’s Apprentice,” right? Mickey’s pointing at the things and the buckets and brooms are going everywhere. I love it. Well thank you so much for an entertaining and informative interview.

MELLISH: Thank you, Steve. I’m not sure how you found me toiling away up here in our little town in New Hampshire but I appreciate your doing so and I’ve really enjoyed talking about editing with you.

To read more interviews in this series, please visit THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish for more interviews that are coming from the editors of some of the biggest movies and TV shows.


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Steve Hullfish has been producing and editing award-winning television since the mid-1980s. He has written six books, and edited four theatrical feature films (including two Number One New Movies in the US). He has lectured…

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Ra-ey Saleh

Another great IV Steve.