During research about a Scot who took shocking photographs of soldiers killed on the battlefields of the US Civil War, Paisley-born director Andy Twaddle discovered they came from the same town and had even lived on the same street!
When I interviewed Andy in mid-May this year, he was in the edit phase of his documentary about 19th century photographer Alexander Gardner, working alongside a craft editor to transform his rough cut into a thing of beauty.
His director credits include documentary films about WWII, Scots commandos and special forces and Scottish music and entertainment, with accordionist Phil Cunningham and 70s TV icon Stanley Baxter.
The many docs Andy’s made have taken him around the world, on his own and with crew, on fleeting visits and extended road trips, to the planet’s most famous cities and remotest corners.
This is what Andy does: he’s assigned a project according to his skills, interests or availability, he works through the pre-production stages (set out below), then sets off to shoot the footage, then returns to base for the post-production phase.
It sounds pretty straightforward, but it’s a job which couldn’t be done without the assistance of many others who all play a vital role in bringing a documentary project to conclusion.
In this podcast, Andy talks through the process he goes through to produce the best story he can possibly tell. There are plenty of other documentary filmmakers who work in different ways, but Andy sets out the most common steps.
There’s usually some overlap between the edit phase of his current project and the early research phase of his next project. Andy can exploit this by reading around his subject if his current project is going according to plan.
He is provided with a 2-3 page idea treatment, that he will refer to frequently to guide him on the story he will ultimately tell. The project will also usually be assigned a researcher, and that person may have special skills, eg. military history, if the project requires it.
A pile of reading is often required to bone-up on the subject. As much of a history fan as Andy is, there are plenty of subjects about which he knows nothing. For example, he expects to make a feature about Roman Scotland and also a documentary(s) that will tie in with the 100th anniversary of the First World War in 2014.
A production manager (also called a production coordinator) will be assigned in this pre-production phase of the project. This is the person Andy says ‘makes everything work’.
The production manager will work on scheduling contributors and travel arrangements, booking crew, location permissions, logistics, insurance, equipment specs etc.
During the research stage Andy will begin to work up what he calls a ‘block-out’. By the end of the pre-production phase this block-out will become a sort of master document setting out how the story will be told, by whom and in what setting.
The project’s executive producer will examine this document to get a handle on the stories being told and the way Andy is planning to treat them.
And at the same time as this is being developed, research will be underway to find contributors, source archive material such as photographs, music and so on.
There can be as much as eight weeks of pre-production before any filming is done on the project.
Filming is planned out carefully and kept to a minimum. It costs a lot of money to have crew out on the road. The budget for each project will be assigned carefully to all parts of the production.
This is where the work of the production manager really pays off. Their experience and knowledge can predict most, and many unpredictable, obstacles.
The block-out has become a film script supplemented by Andy’s daily shooting notes. He briefs the camera and sound operators beforehand regarding each location, set up and the content he expects to get.
The interview content and shots required by the script are grabbed first, before any other shots – often the footage that makes the documentary look fantastic.
The video footage is brought back to base, increasingly in file-based, data memory card format, where it is ingested into the BBC’s hard drives.
Andy prefers to make his own rough cut from the project footage and will work at an Avid workstation for two weeks, selecting clips according to his block out script and notes, and taking into account any unexpected changes to the story. This step will help him focus the story and save time with the craft editor.
He expects to produce a rough cut of about 75 minutes in duration for a 60 minute doc. He then takes that to the craft editor with whom he works closely for the next five weeks.
That 75 minute rough cut will gradually be whittled down to the specified duration for a 1 hour transmission slot. That may be 58’30 minutes in duration.
The craft edit stage involves sitting side-by-side in an edit suite, working through the rough cut, tidying, improving, advising, discussing and experimenting with alternative shots. The editor brings his/her visual storytelling expertise to bear on the project and improve it.
More than half way through this edit stage, the executive editor will be brought in to view the developing feature, to check its progress.
Some projects go more smoothly than others. Andy views the executive producer’s input as vital to getting the best product possible.
There may be other executive producers, depending on the finance of the project, for example, who will probably have input on the developing story.
The colour grade is the next stage. Craft editors at Andy’s BBC base in Aberdeen can do this or it may be sent to Glasgow or a base in England.
The audio mix is the stage when the soundtrack consisting of voiceover, FX, music and interviews will be sweetened to give the viewer the best sounding audio experience.
Thanks to Andy for giving up his time, especially in the middle of his edit.
How does your workflow differ from this? Do you prefer the pace of the documentaries from the 1970s? Got a comment to make about the relationship between director and craft editor? Drop me a line or leave a comment. Feedback really is appreciated.