During the last couple of days, I helped a friend of mine from the final year of Media Production with re-editing her Final Media Project – a documentary about monastic life. I had previously seen an early draft of the film, and was already very curious and impressed with the scale and quality of the production. It was filmed on location, in multiple monasteries across Romania, and was funded by the European Parliament. Unlike most FMP projects I had seen (which were quite short), this is a 50-minute documentary, relying heavily on interviews, narration and subtitles – the whole film is in Romanian, but is intended for an English-speaking audience. What is more, the quality of the interviews, both technical and in terms of content, was very high – and the story is absolutely captivating. So after I had already seen the raw material, I was inspired and eager to help make the film good. I knew I could do it – I have an eye for details, have a good ear for sound, and I like to believe I can ‘feel’ when things need changing. What is more, I love supporting directors in their vision, and knew I could make a difference to the film.
Since the film was still being edited and we weren’t in the same town, we needed to collaborate remotely. Bidu, the Director, shared with me a low resolution video export and a subtitle file so I can start giving feedback. I was taking notes in a simple .txt file so it could be easily shared and read on different systems and devices, and was sending her my comments in parts – first, because she could work on my feedback from part 1 while I was working on part 2, and second because I didn’t know how much detail I should include so wanted to see if my part 1 comments were helpful. I was using timecode reference from the exported file, ordered the notes chronologically, and was putting in brackets if it was about audio, transitions, subtitles, etc. I wanted to make it easy for her to navigate and see where the big issues were and where I had ‘ideas for improvement’ that could be skipped if the time didn’t allow for them to be applied.
Since it was short before her deadline, and she had already received feedback on the story itself, I only made minor comments for one clip that I felt would fit somewhere else in the film. However, my main focus (and the area where I could make the most impact) was feedback on the editing techniques. The film was beautifully constructed, but had a problem with the clip transitions – so I focused on giving highly detailed comments on how each transition can be changed and improved. The main issue was cutting and fading too quickly, which meant there were no natural pauses and the pacing of the clips suffered as a result. So most of my comments were along the lines of ‘keep the clip longer before cutting, start the transition sooner, make it more gentle, fade for longer’. Another main area of my comments was the audio mix. The film was shot and recorded on multiple locations (both internal and external), with a mix of nature and household background noise (thankfully, no traffic, as it was filmed in monasteries in the mountains). Some of the interviews are layered with cutaway clips which have their own sound; the film also includes narration and a few music tracks, and this all needed mixing together in the same consistent style. Most transitions and fades needed improving, there were interview clips where the sound levels were too low, and cutaway clips where the sound levels were too high.
Some of the narration and interview sound was layered on a music bed, with the music levels being too high which made the speaker’s sound hard to comprehend. This is a common mistake while editing – the editor’s ear gets used to the content of the clips and the subjective feeling while editing is that It ‘sounds OK’, but the case is often that the music has been set with too high levels. What is more, music has a wider dynamic range and subjective ‘loudness’, while the human voice only uses a narrow frequency band, so voice appears quieter and harder to comprehend even though the visual preview of the waveforms in the editor might say the ‘levels’ are higher. In one of the recent projects I was editing I noticed I had to set the music levels with a –15 dB difference to the speaker’s sound in order for the voice to be clearly heard and the music to not distract the viewer.
A general tip given to sound editors over and over again is to take regular breaks from editing – not so much for the sake of health (although that is of course a valid reason too), but for the sake of the quality of the mix. As mentioned, the human ears have the ability to accommodate to certain sound levels and after a prolonged period of time we start to perceive things differently – especially while editing the same clip – but the viewer would be watching and listening with fresh ears and we need to cater for their perception.
We had an interesting argument about the subtitles that I feel is worth mentioning here. There were a few points in the film where the interviewee was saying 3 phrases, but only 1 and 3 were translated and subtitled, leaving a gap of dialogue with no subtitles. This, I felt, didn’t feel right as the viewer would think they are missing an important part of the story and can’t understand it because it’s not translated. Bidu’s argument was that this particular line was not relevant to the story so she wanted to leave it out. Which is an interesting point and I agreed with it, but still felt that there shouldn’t be a gap – so I suggested leaving the subtitles for phrase 1 longer on screen or starting the phrase 3 subtitles earlier – so the viewer didn’t feel ‘tricked’. Another point I made was for viewers who happen to speak both English and Romanian – so even though the translation might not be 100 % matching the exact words, I think it is crucial to convey the same meaning and mood, so that the film doesn’t lose credibility. I think for any film, especially documentary, you need the viewer’s trust so they can immerse themselves into the story – and anything that distracts them adds a shadow of doubt and distrust which has the potential to weaken the impact of the film.
In reflection, I feel I made a big and positive difference to the final look and feel of this film, and I enjoyed supporting a skilled and thoughtful director in her pursuit for quality. I improved my understanding on how a documentary narrative is constructed, both in terms of content and techniques. I also learned something about creative collaboration – when to insist on my comments, when to argue, when to keep quiet and leave it to the director to decide. I hope the film meets the audience it deserves, and I look forward to seeing it on a big screen.