This is the second in a series of posts on POV’s Documentary Blog about the regrettably underappreciated process and craft of documentary editors. Our guide is Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellow Colin Nusbaum. Read the first conversation with Nusbaum.

Working as an assistant editor on documentaries can get a bad rap, but it’s the kind of apprenticeship scarcely found these days in other crafts in the film industry. Like many editors, Nusbaum, whose recent credits include Tough Love and The Sheik and I, started out as an assistant editor on documentaries such as 16 AcresBorn to Fly and Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman — ingesting film, labeling sequences and watching countless hours of raw footage. We asked him about getting the most out of time spent in the editing room as an assistant.

What are the responsibilities of an assistant editor? Do they vary from job to job, or are they very well defined?

Colin Nusbaum. Photo by Tanya Braganti.

Colin Nusbaum. Photo: Tanya Braganti

Each film is going to be very different. I’ve rarely ever replicated the exact process as an assistant, but always took it upon myself to carefully consider what might work best given the technicalities and goals for each film. Naturally, that also meant that if an editor was already set to work on the film that I would check in with him or her about organizational preferences.

Ideally, during the production phase of a documentary, or before the principle editing began, I wanted to establish the organizational structure for the footage. That is, figure out how the footage going to be imported and arranged in the edit. Some questions I’d want to answer:

  • Does it need to be transcoded?
  • Is there going to be an offline edit or will we edit in full-resolution online material?
  • Are we backing up footage on separate hard drives as we shoot?
  • Does picture need to be synced with separately recorded audio?
  • Do multiple camera angles need to be synced?
  • How are the filenames going to be recorded?
  • What other metadata should I include with the clips?
  • Should the footage be put into bins or dropped onto long sequences?
  • Are clips going to be further broken down into sub clips?
  • What is going to be the codec of the editing timelines?

Some films have many more variables and obstacles in this very first organizational stage, but it was always incredibly important to think about all of these questions carefully before someone began the edit. Many documentaries may not seek the help of an assistant until a lot of footage is already on hard drives, but if possible I would always try to meet with filmmakers early on in order to discuss this process. Otherwise you would be playing catch-up to get everything organized, and potentially correcting mistakes already made. All-in-all, the essential thing to remember is that establishing a clear organizational pattern and structure at the outset always saves a lot of time and headache later.

A second set of duties for assistant editors happens more fluidly at the beginning of the edit and concurrent with editing that is going on. This is where assistant editing is often more interesting and more content related. If a documentary film is largely driven by talking-head interviews, it is going to be a very different process then if it is a narrative driven vérité film, a character study, or a experimental audio-visual piece.

The responsibilities of an assistant editor during the edit are all about organizing, categorizing — and in accordance with the specifics film. In many cases, I will have footage originally organized by production date (when it was filmed), then by character, and then by some ideas or themes, which may have been determined by the film’s director or editor. As the edit continues, those pertinent themes are often revised, and you may again be pulling footage based on a new direction or shape of the film.

In some cases, assistant editors are given the opportunity to make selections of raw footage, or rough edits of dailies for the director or editor to review. When I was an assistant it often took some time for an editor to trust an assistant to do this kind of work, but it also gave you the chance to begin to try your hand at considering the footage vis-a-vis the film’s story.

The best assistants not only gather and organize material to make it available, but do so in a way that creates a useful palette — one that highlights what you think might be interesting or useful to the edit, which including many options, scenes or moments.

What’s the best way to get started or trained as an assistant editor?

There are probably a lot of ways to get trained as an assistant editor now. In many ways, it’s probably easier because you don’t really have to know about celluloid film, or tape formats, or extremely expensive edit software. I think the best ways to make sure you are prepared is by trying your best to be obsessively organized, and by knowing the editing software backwards and forwards. Neither of these are easy tasks, but both are pretty mandatory. Of course, you will keep learning about organization and software as you encounter problems along the way, but you should start with confidence.

Beyond that, for practical advice, I think you have to approach editors or directors who are making artful and powerful films. Assistant editing work, like a lot of the industry, often comes through word-of-mouth recommendation, so you have to sort of stick your foot in the door at the beginning. Nonetheless, there are a lot of good documentaries that are made on small budgets, and so that often means that assistant editors are not always there as films begin shooting. Aspiring assistants could consider volunteering their time to organize footage as it is being shot. In the best case scenario, once that film is closer to beginning the edit, you are already in the perfect position to begin as the paid assistant.

How do you stay organized as an assistant editor?

Staying organized as an assistant editor is probably more like keeping a clean and organized room, apartment or house than anyone realizes. You have to start with a clear organizational structure, but then you have to stick to it, with persistence and diligence. Each new clip that comes in has to be labeled in exactly the same manner, and must include exactly the same information attached to that clip, and then be organized in best way. It never pays to skimp, or to become lazy over time to the point that only the first half of your footage is actually organized. It makes for a messy workspace.

What systems have you developed?

I liked to start with a simple system when I was an assistant. Original production footage is first ingested and with filenames that include the production date, listed with the year first so that it can be easily sorted alphanumerically. For example, a clip might begin with “20140530” for something shot on May 30th, 2014. The filename then might be followed by an underscore with details about what it is, followed by a clip number, which would indicate the order of the clips shot that day. If possible, I try to retain the original clip numbers from the footage coming from the camera card, depending on how it was shot, that way if ever necessary you can track back to the original material backed up from the camera card.

So given my system, if there was an interview shot on May 30, 2013, with Mayor Bill DeBlasio, and the interview had three distinct clips, they might look like the following: 20140530_DeBlasioINTV_001, 20140530_DeBlasioINTV_002 and 20140530_DeBlasioINTV_003.

Another thing that has been important for me to remember when I’m watching and organizing footage for select bins or sequences, is that a piece of footage is always more useful when it is categorized and can be found in more ways or places than one. Imagine an editor is cutting a scene that takes place between two characters in a hospital. If he or she wanted to open the scene with an exterior of that hospital, it would be ideal to be able to find that exterior shot in either a bin or sequence labelled “EXTs” for exteriors, or it may be in another bin/sequence with all the hospital footage, or it might even be in the bin/sequence which contains all the footage from that production day of the scene they are cutting. Ideally, the exterior shot should be in all these places, so that an editor can quickly and easily find what they are looking for, and sometimes stumble upon something else that might be useful. The worst case scenario for an assistant is to bury useful footage in places that is never seen and considered for the edit.

What is one thing that an assistant editor should always do?

I think assistant editors should feel comfortable to bring footage to the attention of the editor if they find it interesting or pertinent to something in the film. In many cases, the assistant editor is the first person who will actually see the footage back at the office, and in some cases, may be the only one who will see almost all of the footage. A good assistant editor pays attention constantly and grows to know the footage very well. In the best work environments, the director and editor will recognize the value that an assistant has in that manner.

What is one thing they should never do?

As an assistant you should not actually play with the editor’s sequences or cuts. When invited to do so, it can be great to make selects sequences, assemblies and rough edits, but there is nothing worse than an assistant who has their hands in the editor’s sequences for no reason.

How do you know when to give your opinions about an edit and when to stay in the background?

There is a time and place for everything. Notes about fine-tuning are unequivocally wrong when you are early in an edit, and structural notes are wrong when you are approaching picture lock. In my case when I was assisting, I always seemed to think of the analogy of the painter’s palette. If I felt an opinion or suggestion valuable, I wanted to feel comfortable as an assistant to offer that, and to forefront particular footage or a certain idea on the palette for the editor. But I was also very careful not to get attached to my opinion or suggestion being used in the edit or for the film. While an editor might “go to battle” with the director over a particular idea or edit for the movie, often times for the better, this is never really the role of an assistant editor. In that sense, an assistant editor rarely picks up the paintbrush after the colors are mixed on the palette.

What’s the most valuable skill or experience you’ve taken away from being an assistant editor, and how will that inform your work going forward?

I think that aside from being insanely organized, efficient, thoughtful and useful, an assistant editor should be a keen observer in order to learn as much as possible from an editor along the way. Every opportunity on a film, even while performing what you might think is the most menial task, is truly a chance to learn — the way an editor watches footage, makes selects in the timeline, or even asks for footage to be organized — all hints at how that editor thinks and works along the way. As an editor now, I use all those habits I picked up from editors when I’m thinking about the connections to be made within footage and across complex stories.

Awarded annually, the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship was created in 2010 to honor the memory of gifted editor Karen Schmeer. This year’s application deadline will be in the fall.

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Emma Dessau
Emma is the Senior Producer of POV Digital. Since joining POV in 2012, she has produced new media and interactive projects including Whiteness Project and the Emmy-nominated Empire. In addition to helping to launch new storytelling initiatives for the series, Emma leads digital production and online outreach for POV’s documentaries on PBS. She helped grow the POV Digital Lab (formerly POV Hackathon), which is now a signature POV event. Prior to her work at POV, Emma helped develop an interactive city and community planning game platform ‘Community Plan-It’ with Emerson College’s Engagement Game Lab. She has contributed to several alt-weeklies and online publications as a freelance videographer and writer, and co-produced two digital documentary projects, Folk to Folk and The Story Store.