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Here’s What I Learned at Sundance Documentary Edit & Story Lab

Here's What I Learned at Sundance Documentary Edit & Story Lab

Indiewire recently invited filmmaker Jesse Moss, whose feature documentary “The Overnighters” premiered at Sunday earlier this year, to chronicle his experience participating in this year’s Sundance Documentary Edit & Story Lab as a creative advisor. Following is Moss’ report from the lab.

Having just concluded my own, arduous year-long edit of a feature documentary, “The Overnighters” — which premiered at Sundance in January — and traumatized by too many late nights, system crashes, and crappy take-out meals, I had been enjoying my time away from the edit room.
But in June I had an opportunity to spend a week at the Sundance Documentary Edit & Story Lab as a creative advisor. Held high in Provo Canyon, Utah, the lab brings together a small group of advisors and four Sundance grant-supported documentaries and their filmmaking teams for a series of work-in-progress screenings, editorial discussions and advisor presentations.

The lab process is both structured and fluid – akin to the documentary filmmaking process itself. There was a schedule, but it proved adaptable to real world considerations.

Our goal was to help guide these teams (directors and editors) through a thicket of storytelling challenges, by providing editorial input, inspiration, and hard-won advice. The lab provides filmmakers the opportunity to address these challenges and respond to our feedback through hands-on editing in cozy but well-appointed editing trailers.

READ MORE: Hope and Desperation Abound in Jesse Moss’ “The Overnighters”

But the lab isn’t just a place; it’s more like a living, breathing organism. Despite having been to the lab previously, I found myself wholly unprepared for the intensity of the week. The projects were complicated and challenging, reflecting years of work, struggle and in some cases grave personal risk on the part of the filmmakers. My fellow advisors – who I only knew by reputation – seemed to possess a daunting combination of experience, insight and humility.

I spent the first day in an altitude induced daze, but quickly found my footing, grateful for the dexterity and compassion with which the lab staff shepherded us all through the experience.

It was an invigorating way to step back into the edit room, and left me feeling just a little hungry to start my new project.

Yet, I couldn’t help but view the unique structure of the Sundance Documentary Edit & Story Lab through the prism of my own recent experience with “The Overnighters” – a project that did not have the benefit of the Lab.  What can we learn from the lab and adapt to our own edit room, and our own editorial and creative process?
Deadlines & Bold Strokes

The terrifying finality of picture lock has a way of bringing absolute order to chaos. I suspect we’ve all marveled at the ways in which our film seems to improve exponentially as our deadline closes in. Few of us can sustain this level of intensity in the edit room. The lab functions so well because it brings this intensity to the process earlier rather than later by imposing hard deadlines on lab participants. 

Filmmaking teams begin the week by presenting their entire rough-cut. But they don’t spend the week re-cutting the film. Instead, they choose a smaller section of the film to tackle, often in a way that reflects a new approach to the main character, to the overall structure, or the filmmaking voice. On the final full day of the lab, each team screened their re-cut (or, in some cases, entirely new) sequence for all lab participants. While it was not a requirement, all the teams chose to focus on the first 15-20 minutes of their films.

The edit room grind has a way of locking us into incremental improvements that mark measurable progress, but sometimes make it harder to experiment in bolder, more radical ways.  It was truly remarkable to see what lab participants could accomplish in a little less than a week, based on a willingness to entertain some critical feedback and revisit the dailies.

Whether they ultimately embrace or reject these changes, I believe that they all benefitted from the space, encouragement and the deadline obligations to experiment in bold strokes.

READ MORE: Sundance Institute Reveals This Year’s Eight Documentary Edit and Story Labs Projects


Documentary filmmaking can be a isolating.  When “The Overnighters” finally premiered in January, five years after my last feature documentary, I felt a bit like a naked mole rat creeping into the bright sunlight.  Of course, we can’t bask in the sunlight forever, but do we have to spend so much time underground?

The Lab is one of the few opportunities that filmmakers have to come together in person, for a sustained period of time, outside of a festival context. For that reason, the time feels precious, stolen even, from the normal rhythms and responsibilities of everyday life and filmmaking.

It’s also nice to see that the Sundance Doc Film Program has launched a relatively new initiative: the fellows program at the Sundance Film Festival, a five-day program for fund-supported projects held during the festival in January. Other festivals, like True/False, have also recognized the value of building and sustaining community by inviting filmmakers without new films to return to the festival, introduce new work by other filmmakers, moderate Q&A and participate in a shared experience. These structured opportunities for filmmakers in mid-process (or recovery) are extremely valuable. Jury service has been one traditional form of community involvement, but Sundance and True False have shown there are different ways to sustain and grow the documentary community.

Watch Movies

When I’m making a film, my available bandwidth fluctuates. There are long stretches of time where I am unable or unwilling to watch other films, particularly documentaries. And there are other periods where I can’t seem to watch enough.

Invariably, when I’m ready to receive it, the exposure to other work and other filmmakers is inspiring. It’s sometimes nice to be reminded that we work within a community, with a strong tradition. And whether we choose or embrace or reject it, it has a lot to offer us. 

The lab brings this experience to life in an exciting way by inviting all of the creative advisors to give formal ninety-minute presentations in the Sundance Institute screening room.

These were highly personal and wide ranging talks, with numerous film clips,  covering a vast range of subjects, including the specifics of scene construction, filmmaker ethics, and the fruits and frustrations of creative relationships.  I don’t normally get stage fright, but I was nervous about presenting. But so were my peers. When Jon Else stood up and talked about failure (among other things), I breathed a big sigh of relief. It made us all seem a lot more human, and set the tone for the week.

Collectively, the advisors have worked on some of the greatest documentaries of the last forty years, and it was pure catnip to the assembled group to see clips from these films. For fellows who spent hours in the editing trailers, these presentations were a welcome reprieve, an inspiring series of graduate level workshops, and something of an equalizer. By asking advisors to take some creative risks of their own, in discussing and analyzing their own work, including successes and failures, we became closer as a group.

Subvert the Hierarchy

One of the interesting aspects of the lab is the way it seeks to flatten the hierarchical structure. Lab fellows included veterans of the world stage and first time filmmakers. Advisors were similarly diverse in age and experience.

Advisors are also encouraged to return as fellows, and fellows are asked to serve as advisors. When I discovered I would be advising a filmmaker who’d previously advised me, I was a little thrown.  But he took the reversal in stride.

Most of us would agree its wise to invite our smartest, most talented filmmaker friends to critique our rough cuts. But it’s beneficial to open up that process to others with less experience and different backgrounds.

Some of the best editorial input I received was from my intern. He’d proved himself capable and eager, but I didn’t have confidence in his editorial judgment until I decided – at the last minute – to include him in a rough-cut screening. His notes were extremely valuable, and inspired me to share the rough cut with students in two undergraduate film classes I was teaching.

It was a casual reminder that we’re never too wise to need good advice, or never too inexperienced to offer it.

READ MORE: Drafthouse Acquires Sundance Award-Winning Doc “The Overnighters”

Show it on a Movie Screen

Years ago, when I worked for a filmmaker in New York, I was asked to hand deliver a package to Woody Allen’s private screening room on the Upper East Side. It was tucked away in the lobby of a building on Park Avenue, and needless to say, very nice. Most of us don’t have that luxury. Fortunately, Sundance does.

The Screening Room at the Lab is beautiful – a perfect balance of size and intimacy. For lab fellows screening their rough-cuts, it’s one of the great benefits of the experience.

Projection and sound are absolutely perfect, and the projectionists are incredibly helpful. Nothing beats putting your movie up on the big screen when you want to appreciate its cinematic potential and spot its flaws.

Because of budgetary constraints, most of us settle for the small screen, but I consider the big screen rough-cut screening to be essential, even when funds are scarce. I spent $500 to rent a big screen for my single “Overnighters” rough-cut screening. There were only eight people in the audience, but it was well worth it.

Notes are Good, Conversation is Better

Note-giving is an art form. Most of us aren’t born knowing how to do it well, but we get better with practice. It’s easy to give good notes badly, or at least, ensure they’re not well received, or promptly ignored.

At the Lab, my initial approach to feedback was a holdover from my recent experience in the edit room, finishing “The Overnighters.” I watched the cuts and offered specific, detailed notes – like a “punch list” you’d hand a contractor or your own editor. In retrospect, it was a little rigid.

Fortunately, I was paired with a legendary documentary editor.  His approach was also quite specific, but in a less prescriptive way. I felt like I was attending a master-class on note-giving, and I took notes.

The next day, I decided to pull back and approach the dialogue in a more conversational way. Meeting with filmmaking teams, I focused on aspects of the projects that I was genuinely curious about: camera coverage, the complicated subject-filmmaker relationship, underlying themes. Filmmakers who had seemed a little wary, opened up. I became more of a confidante, and less of an “advisor.” I felt like I was getting to know these filmmakers better, and by extension, gaining a greater understanding of these stories and the choices filmmakers were making.

It was a reminder that editorial feedback can come in many useful forms. Because of the way rough-cut screenings are typically scheduled (last-minute) and organized (many people), they often generate a deluge of specific notes that tend to a) confirm what we already suspect or b) dislodge us from a stubbornly-held position. It seems rare that we have an opportunity to have a longer conversation with one or two people that touch on the deeper under-currents of the film.    
I’m still struck by some of the very profound insights about the story and main character of “The Overnighters” that eluded us until nearly the very end of the editorial process. I wonder if they would have remained as elusive if I’d had more of an opportunity to engage in this kind of open-ended, in-depth conversation about the film with people outside my filmmaking team.

The Assistant Editor

One of the great disadvantages of the typical under-funded independent feature documentary is that you can’t afford to pay your editor to screen all the dailies. Transcripts are often incomplete. And, even if you shot every frame of the film, you just can’t remember everything.

Enter the assistant editor.  When we were approaching the finish line and close to locking picture on “The Overnighters,” I promoted my intern to assistant editor and frequently sent him on special assignment to dig into the dailies in search of Dead Sea Scroll-like fragments.

The Sundance Lab recognizes the value that assistant editors bring to this arduous process and the virtues of professional development by creating a special fellowship for assistant editors. Four are invited to the lab and paired with the individual filmmaking teams.

This was not only a great professional opportunity for them; it was an incredibly valuable level of support for the filmmakers– some of whom had never had this resource. The assistants provided tech support, media management and organization advice, and an extra set of hands when deadlines loomed. Importantly, they also participated many of the editorial discussions – which is too infrequently the case in many “real world” edit rooms where assistants work in a separate room, on a workstation, or work off-hours. Burdened by technical responsibilities, and without more exposure to the creative process, its harder and harder for assistants to make the leap to full fledged editor.

Good assistants are not a luxury; they’re a necessity.

Edit at Altitude

Ok, its not possible for most of us who work at sea level, but the mountain air is invigorating, and it’s nice to step out of the edit room and hike up to a waterfall when you need a break.

So until I make it back to Provo Canyon, the least I can do is be mindful of the aspects of the lab experience I can introduce in my own edit room.

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