I first met Paula Heredia when she was the featured speaker on documentary film editing at a Master Editor’s Retreat in 1996. Even then her resume was impressive. Arguably her most famous editing work was on the documentary, “Unzipped.” But she has edited dozens and dozens of films, especially for HBO and Discovery Channel. Some of these include The Weight of the Nation, Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, In Memoriam: New York City and The Vagina Monologues.
I interviewed Paula recently about her upcoming film, “Toucan Nation” which will premiere August 24th on Animal Planet.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about your new movie “Toucan Nation?”
HEREDIA: “Toucan Nation,” is the story of a toucan in Costa Rica that was abused and lost half of his beak from an animal abuser who chopped it off. When I heard this story about a year and a half ago I was actually outraged. It was a story that went all around the world. A group of scientist and technicians from Costa Rica and the US designed a prostheses for the bird which was printed with 3D technology. The film follows how the bird gets better. It follows the scientist designing and printing and operating the beak on the toucan and also follows the popular movement in Costa Rica of activists and the legislators and the president himself who are trying to change the law that protects animals in Costa Rica. I’m very excited that we are bringing this story to Animal Planet.
HULLFISH: You are editing it and also producing it and directing this one?
HEREDIA: I am producing, directing and editing.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about how you’re organizing this in post. I am in the middle of editing a documentary right now. What are you doing to the organization of the material that is helping you find what you need to tell a story?
HEREDIA: I shot for over 8 months and I ended up with at least 500 hours of material. That’s very common in the kind of films that I make or edit and so organization is key to organize my own thoughts and being able to find things fast. I use different tools for editing but my favorite tool is Avid. I still find Avid to be much more friendly for lengthy projects. We shot with different cameras. That material was converted into Avid files. Offline drives are prepared for me because I work in multiple locations: New York; Suchitoto, El Salvador; and Costa Rica. My postproduction supervisor, Rob Burgos, at Full Circle Post keeps one off-line drive and all drives with original media. When I am abroad, Rob can get my sequences via email and match them for outputs. In terms of the project organization, I open master folders where there are bins related to each shooting day, organized as the cards were originally shot.
HULLFISH: I’m interested in bin organization, you said one of the first ways you organize a bin is to divide the cards themselves. So in what other ways do you organize the bins? By scene, or story ideas, or by topics, or…? HEREDIA: Usually I am shooting a story that would have scenes shot on different days. So for example: the scene of Grecia (the toucan) eating. We might have shot this at different times. So all of that material that comes from different days goes to a folder that’s called “Grecia eating” and I make sequences for each scene, so my first step with all of the material is to go through a process of first selects, which are sequences that are just the best of the material in a clean way, and then I do my second selects, which is a sequence that is a little more formed: I treat that material as if the whole film was that scene – so you can play it, you can feel it. Those sequences become my basket when I begin editing. For me, all of that is part of the organization process. By the time I start editing, I know the potential of each of the scenes and the topics that have emerged and that can best be conveyed with that particular scene. So when I start building a story I begin grabbing from those sequences. Not everything comes in, but I don’t lose the essence of the scene because I’ve already treated the material as if the whole film was that scene.
HULLFISH: With those selects you are building the larger sequence from those selects reels and coming up with a bridge between those sequences? Or just trying to figure which sequence goes into another? Or is everything chronological?
HEREDIA: No. When you have those sequences pre-built, now you need to think about the story you want to tell. Each film is different and unique. Sometimes you want to do it chronologically, sometimes you want to start from the middle and move backwards. Then you have to use those scenes that have been cleaned, organized and pre-cut, and apply it to what the idea for the film is. There’s no formula for that. You have to apply it to the specific concept and idea you have for telling that particular story.
HULLFISH: The doc I’m cutting now, we started in the middle, jumped back a little, jumped back a little more, jumped back a little more, then leapt back to the starting point. We later changed that to a much more streamlined version where we started in the middle (at a crucial moment) then jumped all the way back to the beginning of the story to show the events that led up to that moment, then showed how that moment affected the rest of the story. So there’re all kinds of structures for telling a story. Tell me about the particular structure for “Toucan Nation.” What worked best? And why did you settle on that structure?
HEREDIA: There are aspects of the toucan story that needed to be told in a chronological way because the story of the toucan is that he has a beak, then he doesn’t have a beak and then he has a beak again. So there is an aspect of the story that there’s no other way to tell other than chronologically. But when you build a structure for an audience that is having a complex experience, not just a one-stream story, then you bring in other elements. I start the film with the impact that this bird had in the country by mobilizing the citizens to ask for laws to protect animals. So the opening scene of the film is a demonstration – a very large demonstration in Costa Rica – asking for that. So that’s the beginning of the film. After that I cut back to what’s going on with the bird. I develop the stories of the scientists. I develop the story of all the challenges that they had to go through to figure out what to do and I’m going back and forth and taking a look at what’s going on with the bird. This is a process that took a year and a half. So there are a number of scenes that we could use to show that. People become more conscious about what’s going on and different actions are taken by the President and by Congress. At the end of the day I am weaving the different aspects of a story.
HULLFISH: A lot of this is how different information is revealed and parceled out to the audience.
HEREDIA: … and when.
HULLFISH: And when. So let’s talk about “when” a little bit. Concerning the stories or sub-stories or arcs that branch out from the central story: what decisions were made in determining the exact moment to branch away from the central story to tell a sub-story?
HEREDIA: I go back to my own experience. I am my own audience. I react to my edit based on when I feel that it’s time to go to another arc. That feeling is defined by some elements that are rational and other elements that are irrational. Rational reasons are related to “Oh, I haven’t seen the bird for a while. It’s time to know what’s going on there.” But there are also irrational and emotional needs, for example, “I am in a low moment and I need to bring this up.” Or I need to make the audience feel something else. When that moment needs to happen is something that I, as a director and editor, feel in my stomach. There are no formulas, you just go and capture a story, bring it to the editing room, organize it and prepare it and react to those scenes based on the story you want to tell and that feeling that you have in your stomach and your heart and your brain will tell you which way you should go.
HULLFISH: That sounds very musical to me. The idea of ebbing and flowing and low moments and trying to go brighter. That’s a very musical sense I think.
HEREDIA: You’re right, because it’s all about pacing. How long do you leave a scene playing or a storyline playing? Is it longer? Is it shorter? It’s all about rhythm. You find, sometimes, films that are good films but they are fat, because there was a moment in which you made your point and you gave me everything and you were too in love with something that you put in that doesn’t respond to the pacing that was needed.
HULLFISH: I don’t want to put you in an awkward position, but those decisions are easier to make when you are the director than when someone else is the director and falls in love with a certain moment and you as the editor know, “This is too long on this.” And even though this is a great moment it has to be cut, right?
HEREDIA: Certainly. When you are working as an editor with a director, a lot of the pacing, as in music or anything else that you do is about breathing. So there’s this arc and you’re breathing and you say, “I need to inhale now because I’ve already exhaled.” When you’re doing it by yourself you feel that and you don’t have to negotiate that. When you’re an editor working for a director, you need to have certain synchronicity in that kind of thing because it’s two people breathing, it’s two people thinking, it’s too people applying their brains and talents to one thing, so every time there’s more than one person in this process, there’s also a reality, but also a need… you need to synchronize yourself with someone else.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about that synchronization. That’s the heart of collaboration. How do you find yourself negotiating with the director between agreeing or disagreeing and coming to a compromise and feeling strong about your own personal decisions while also trying to serve the vision of the director?
HEREDIA: When you are an editor working for a director, you are there to use your talent for someone else’s vision. It’s not your vision. It’s putting your talent in use to make that vision happen. So that’s a very clear role as an editor. You might feel very strong about telling the story this way or telling this part of the story and the other person might be wrong about not doing it, but at the end of the day, it’s not your film. It’s the film of this person you’re working for. So you need to feel very comfortable about sharing your talent and putting it in function to someone else’s vision. You are there to give the director your best advice and your best direction, because you are directing the editorial process but you are not directing the film. You are helping the director go through a process that’s going to help him or her make a film.
HULLFISH: I agree with that, and that was beautifully spoken. But how do you negotiate when you have a strong feeling and you think the director should listen to you, but you also know that it’s their movie? Maybe you don’t think that they’re thinking about the audience, or you think they’re being indulgent? How do you go about presenting that to the director?
HEREDIA: It depends on the relationship that you have with the director. A lot of what editors do is psychology. How you communicate and how you handle your relationships depends on the person you are dealing with. That’s the art of being a communicator sitting in the editor’s chair.
HULLFISH: On many of your films or on “Toucan Nation” do you do screenings for test audiences? And what do you discover in those screenings?
HEREDIA: Screenings are actually quite interesting because sometimes you do a screening just to see the film yourself. When you see it with other people, you see it in a very different way. When it’s a formal screening you cannot touch the computer and stop and say, “let me change this.” So sometimes screenings are just for that. You oblige yourself to have an experience looking at the film from beginning to end and you always learn something about it. That moment when you cringe or you are bored or where there are moments where you don’t want the scene to end tells you a lot. There are very few people I’ve encountered who are right when they describe a problem in a scene or in a film and they can tell you actually what the problem is. Usually, someone who comes and screens a film will be sophisticated enough to know that there is an issue and they will try to describe it. My experience is that it’s not exactly what they are saying that is correct but they are pointing out something that they THINK the problem is and they might be right, but often it’s not what they describe that’s wrong – it’s something else. Most of the time they can’t articulate exactly what’s wrong, but it’s good to know that something is wrong. That’s useful.
HULLFISH: What’s your personal philosophy about editing or producing documentaries? I just interviewed Craig Mellish, who is an editor for Ken Burns, and he told me that the philosophy of Burns’ documentary company is that they are “emotional archaeologists.”
HEREDIA: When I take up the challenge of a picture it is because I am convinced I can communicate something that I feel. When I tell a story as the director, I have gone through an experience in the research and shooting that I can translate. That’s the only obligation that I feel: “that I went to this place and I lived, felt and learned something.” And if I can translate that with the footage that I have, with the way I edit it and share it with you, that’s the only goal that I put to myself.
HULLFISH: When you’re editing, for example on “Toucan Nation,” what was it that you felt about the story at the beginning that you felt that you needed to carry through the process of shooting and editing.
HEREDIA: A number of things. First of all it has to be a topic that touches your heart. Animal abuse is something that touches my heart, so what drives me is my fire for telling a larger story through the smaller story of this toucan. In the case of this film experience while I was documenting this story I experienced how brave the toucan was, surviving and being as intelligent and happy as he is. That’s something to learn from. The activists and their perseverance trying to make change for the good of animals and all of us. The scientists who have taken a topic that they don’t know anything about but they are being moved by this fire that is moving me and they figured out how to design and build a prosthetic beak for a toucan. So if I can convey that passion and emotion in my films, everything else just happens by itself.
HULLFISH: A long time ago when I heard you speak, you talked about editing a documentary and knowing that you were missing some critical element in the editing room and sending the director back out to get it. That’s one of the strengths of a producer or director who has edited: you know the elements or the ingredients that you need in post to tell your story.
HEREDIA: It’s very important that you do two things: involve your editor at the earliest stage that you can, including involving the editor before you start shooting, and the other thing is to edit while you shoot so that you discover the things that would be great to have. You also definitely have to leave some time and budget at the end for pickups. Because as you begin sculpting this – it’s kind of sculpture what you’re doing with elements coming in from different places. In documentaries, where you are discovering the stories and how you’re going to tell it with the material that you have – this clay that the footage becomes – and as you begin building this sculpture, you will know that the structure needs something to support an arm that you already have, but you don’t know how you’re going to link it to the body.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about finding these moments. How are you cataloging them? You said you do a selects reels. Are you making them of everything?
HEREDIA: I don’t do the kinds of selects reels that you’re talking about. I cut the scene. You hope that when the director is shooting that every frame has an intention. Why the director focused on that corner of the room and not in the other corner? There is an intention. So you try to understand the intention of the scene and you have communication with the director to capture that information and intent and you try to translate it with the footage that you have into a scene. And you can look at that long scene as if it was a film. That is where you find the moments. The moments reveal themselves and you play with them. By the time you go to the next stage and you are building the film itself, you know where the moments are. You don’t have to go and look for them in the raw footage. They are already playing for you in those scenes.
HULLFISH: Are most of the projects that you work on more verite?
HEREDIA: No. In a few of the big, big projects that I’ve done, “The Weight of the Nation,” and “Alzheimers” for HBO, or “Sleepless in America” for National Geographic which are very large projects with a lot of very smart people who usually only talk to those within their own fields or to other scientists. Those films are very heavy on content, but also have scenes that are verite or kind of verite.
HULLFISH: From an editing standpoint where do you begin? It sounds like you always start with a scene.
HEREDIA: But you must also remain true to the footage. I remember in “Unzipped” – you remember that film?
HULLFISH: Yup. I believe you screened that for us at the first Avid Master Editor’s workshop in 1996.
HERIDIA: When I had the interview with the director, a few of my colleagues had already interviewed for it and they told me “there’s nothing in there… the footage is all over the place… the camera moves around like crazy… everything is out of focus… what can anybody do with that?” But when I interviewed with the director I understood him and I realized that the craziness of the way that the film was shot was very unintentional, but I could see how that footage could represent the craziness in the brain and the way the director saw life – saw the story itself. The director and the designer, Isaac Mizrahi, were breaking up from a long relationship and all of that was part of that emotional state of the footage. If you look at the footage rationally, it doesn’t make any sense. There’s nothing there. But if you look at the footage and say, “I believe that the director has an intention and I understand that intention then I can take that footage and organize it and bring out of that footage the best that is the vision of what that film is. As an editor you have to start by believing that there is something in the footage and that you can bring it out. That’s a process of cleaning the weeds out of something. And when it’s clean and you play it, you can see it better. When you are doing a documentary with more formal interviews I take those interviews and the director takes those interviews and we mark selects on paper or digital. We begin codifying the selects. Those selects are subclipped and those subclips go into a bin that has columns which will get the codes. So when I am searching for a code, I can sift and bring to my timeline everybody that talks about anything I need. I can immediately see everything that I have in terms of content, besides verite. So when I’m building my next stage of that scene, I can begin weaving both elements.
HULLFISH: Tell us about the codification of the subclips you talked about.
HEREDIA: For example, in “Toucan Nation” we have an interview of someone and we would codify the soundbites as “popular movement, the law, the beak, technology, philosophy.” Those are kind of general topics, codes, but in a paragraph that’s talking about technology, they might also talk about 3D printing, so I make another code. Eventually you begin merging and simplifying the codification. Usually it starts a little loose and then it gets a little tighter and that’s where the assistant editor plays a great role of cleaning up the codification. But in terms of the director and the editor codifying, we try to be disciplined and as clear as possible and then as the process continues, you keep cleaning the codes. But if you have a subclip and you have four or five columns – code 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and I make the selects and I have put two or three codes, I can just add them in those columns. Then on the side I have a list of all of the codes that we have assigned.
HULLFISH: I use an almost identical methodology. But it’s somewhat tricky when you are first trying to identify those codes, because unless you shot the footage, you don’t know necessarily what all of the topics or subjects or ideas are going to be. Talk to me about sound design.
HEREDIA: Ohhhh! Yeah! Very important. I actually do a lot of design in my off-line process. I know that eventually a sound designer will come in and apply their art, but I want to make sure that I am building a good map of what I want and how I want things in terms of the kinds of sounds that I want and where those sounds should go. I build the concept but I don’t do the work of cleaning or EQing the sound or finding additional layers of ambience or sound effects. I build the layers related to dialogue, and production sound, obviously music and sometimes I might add a few effects that might be critical for the viewing experience so when I deliver the off-line project to my sound editor, they know exactly what I meant. This whole thing is about communication and it’s about the next person in this collective construction of a film knowing what the editor wants. That’s the same relationship that you as an editor have with the director. You are trying to construct something based on the communication and understanding that you have from the person who brought the idea and the footage to you.
HULLFISH: What about music? Do you use music while you’re cutting, or adding it later?
HEREDIA: I think a lot about editing as if I was preparing a meal. I don’t believe you make a potato and tomato soup and put the potato at the end, because it never mixes the way those two things should mix. So I work with music as I go. The way I work with composers – usually I work with composers – but sometimes I have to work with libraries of music. I build a bin of samples of the composer’s work. They provide me with a bunch of cues of their own music, either things I can use or things I cannot use (because they belong to other projects) but that will serve as templates.
HULLFISH: I know many of the films you do you don’t need to worry really about hitting an exact show time, but on Toucan Nation, this is broadcast in the US, so you need to hit a specific time, right?
HEREDIA: Don’t you hate that?
HULLFISH: So how do you negotiate that? Do you just tell the story you want to tell and now you have something that is an hour and 15 minutes or two hours and a half? Then comes the painful process of trimming it down.
HEREDIA: It’s an interesting challenge: how do you squeeze it to just get the essence? And sometimes, hopefully, if you do a good job, it makes it better because it obliges you to think harder on how not to lose the essence of the story as you have to trim it down. Sometimes it’s not good for the film, but sometimes you can make it good. It’s a challenge… I hate it, because I come from the culture of HBO where it doesn’t matter what length it is, but if you work for any other place – I’m working for Discovery now, but everybody that has commercials needs to have an exact time. (laughs) Not my favorite thing.
HULLFISH: I completely understand. Were there any specific decisions that you can remember about getting “Toucan Nation” down to time?
HEREDIA: I can’t remember. Maybe because I hate to remember the things I don’t like. But I don’t remember how I got to it except that it is like fine surgery. Sometimes it’s as easy as pulling a whole scene. But most of the time it’s not like that. You go to a scene and take one line here, 10 frames there. It’s just about trimming just a little so you don’t lose anything important. You just take fat and the fat might be very, very thin, but you keep shaping and shaping and shaping.
HULLFISH: Do you remember how long the first assembly of “Toucan Nation” was?
HEREDIA: It probably was an hour and a half.
HULLFISH: And had to get down to 42 minutes or something?
HEREDIA: I have a special relationship with my executive producer. I trust his creative instincts and I share my process with him. So when I do the first cut, I do it long intentionally because there are things that I want to show to him and I want it to become a conversation. There will be many things that will not be playing like they should, or are longer than they should be. But my intention is that he is aware of the material that I have, so that later I can go back to him and say, “Maybe I should bring back ‘x’ or ‘y’ material that he has seen in the first cut. So the first hour and a half version is not necessarily the version that I want to have. I have 500 hours so it’s a lot of different moments that you have to see to tell the story.
HULLFISH: What was the schedule of shooting this and editing this?
HEREDIA: My main photography happened through six months. Then the last eight months I probably did five more shoots. But the balance between shooting and editing shifted. The first six months was mostly shooting and some editing. Then the last months I switched to mostly editing and as I discovered things that I needed or new developments were happening, I would go back and continue shooting.
HULLFISH: I think that’s everything I have. Thank you so much for talking with me.
HEREDIA: Very good questions, Steve! Thank you for the opportunity.