Creating an award-winning documentary with Media Composer and a laptop
The Calabria family of Massachusetts has a traditional rite of passage at age 13—they call it the “coming of age adventure.” Older brother Kyle, now 18, explored caves in Belize for his adventure. Elevenyear- old Maya plans on riding horses in Ireland when she turns 13. But when Nicolai Calabria reached his coming of age, his ambition was impressive—to climb the world’s highest freestanding mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro.
Nico’s trek was planned as a fundraiser for the Free Wheelchair Mission, which provides wheelchairs to the disabled poor in 75 countries around the world including Tanzania. Nico said that he wanted to use the climb to help “people with disabilities who have more needs than I do.” That’s a remarkable statement for any young boy—and all the more so for Nico, who was born with one leg. Alyson Roth, Development Manager from Free Wheelchair Mission worked closely with the family and their fundraising project. “We are extremely proud of the accomplishment that Nicolai achieved. He proved to others two things: no matter what your challenge is, it can be overcome with the right mindset, dedication, and determination, and second, having a philanthropic heart for others makes a difference in people’s lives who have no other alternative.”
Media Composer has been my vehicle for some time,”... “No other software gives you the efficiency or the depth of resources. Sure, films get made with other software, but if you’re an editor, you need all the tools you can get your hands on.
Doing a Lot with Little
A true labor of love, Audette, who is a senior editor for the PBS series Frontline and editor for NOVA, spent nights and weekends editing the project using Avid® Media Composer® on his MacBook Pro. An external SATA hard disk and a second LCD monitor completed his spartan “guerilla TV” setup.
Most of the 15-minute film is based around Carl Calabria’s footage, interspersed with equally dramatic shots of Mount Kilimanjaro’s breathtaking raw beauty. “Because I work at NOVA, I was able to pull up some big cinematic beauty shots of Kilimanjaro to augment Carl’s footage,” Audette explains about the added shots. “We also got a couple of clips from the Free Wheelchair Mission showing some of the people who’d benefitted from their programs, and I taped a follow-up interview with Nico.”
The collective source material Audette pulled together comprised a variety of different file formats, including Calabria’s AVCHD footage, file captures from Audette’s HDV footage, and HDCAM material from the WGBH’s NOVA archives. But that didn’t slow down the production time. “I just imported everything into Media Composer, and transcoded all the different formats to DNx145,” he says. “I was able to keep the whole project on a single 250 GB drive.”
Using the Right Tools
A long-time Avid user, Audette says that Media Composer is ideally suited for the unique challenges of documentary filmmaking. “In a documentary—more than in a traditional Hollywood-type film—the story is really created in the editing room. You go out and gather your material, but you really don’t know what the whole story is until you sit down and start cutting picture and sound together. That’s when you start slowly sculpting the story out of the chaos of life.”
And that, he says, is when Media Composer becomes his most important tool. “One of the things a good editor can do is to make something out of nothing—to find nuggets in what otherwise might be discarded material, and build whole scenes out of that footage. Media Composer enables me to look at my material under a microscope—or at 30,000 feet—and gives me control over every aspect of what I want to do.”
“Media Composer has been my vehicle for some time,” he continues. “No other software gives you the efficiency or the depth of resources. Sure, films get made with other software, but if you’re an editor, you need all the tools you can get your hands on.”
Audette points to the ScriptSync® option for Media Composer as the indispensable tool in this project. “Nico’s not a trained actor, but I wanted it to be his story, rather than add another narrator’s voice, so I had to work with the raw footage we had. There were times where I wanted him to end a sentence at a certain point. I used ScriptSync to search out the same word with a period instead of a comma, and use it to end that sentence naturally. There’s just nothing else out there that has that capability.”
Sometimes it’s the subtle touches that make a difference, and Media Composer facilitated those aspects as well. “In a few scenes I used the Resize function to push in [the framing] on Nico while he’s speaking,” says Audette. “It’s a really effective way to make the conversation more intimate. Being able to have that in a bin and just drag and drop it when I need it makes it much more efficient.”
Even after the editing portion of the project left Audette’s laptop, the workflow remained entirely Avid. “With so many different types of source material, I wanted to make sure it all worked together visually,” he explains. “I brought the final edits to Frontline Outpost and spent a few days working with Mike Amundson on color correction using a Symphony Nitris DX system.”
All audio post production was completed within Pro Tools|HD®. “We digitized the original interview with Nico, and added some of the natural sound from the AVCHD footage,” Audette explains. “I added a few sound effects from some online libraries, and my friend John Lowe wrote some music for the piece. I imported all the audio as AIFF files and delivered OMF files to audio post. It was such a smooth workflow. Media Composer and Pro Tools work hand in hand.”
From Obscurity to Renown
Once he completed the film, Audette faced the challenge of getting it seen. “Because it’s a short film, we didn’t have the option of doing traditional screenings,” he says. “We had to get creative and think of other ways to get it out there. So I entered [the film] into about 40 film festivals over the course of a year. We got into some, but not all—there’s a lot of competition for some [festivals’ acceptance]. Even making it into the American Pavilion at Cannes was more than I could have even imagined. When they announced that we’d won [for Best Short Documentary in the American Pavilion’s Emerging Filmmakers Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival], I honestly couldn’t believe it. We were up against 400 other films. It’s humbling, because this is such a great venue. We’ve seen so many amazing films here, and just to be a part of it is overwhelming.”
For Audette, the award is even more auspicious, since Nico’s Challenge is his first film as a filmmaker. “I’ve been editing films for other people for years, but this was the first film I’d actually made myself. Having done Nico, it’s really awakened the artist in me. Instead of only working on other people’s films, I’m now making my own. It’s inspired me to look inside myself and find something I’d been holding back.”
Of course, the ultimate goal of the film was to raise awareness, and the Cannes Film Festival award has helped further that cause. “We are grateful for the dedication of the Calabria family and Steve Audette for helping bring awareness to those in need of wheelchairs in developing countries,” said FWM’s Alyson Roth. “The money that has been raised due to Nicolai’s efforts has been well over 2,000 wheelchairs.”
“Everyone involved in the project donated their time and talents, and any recognition the Free Wheelchair Mission gets from this film really goes hand in hand with my using Media Composer,” says Audette. “The fluidity with which I could create—and get the most out of the story—could only have been done with Media Composer. [It’s] my critical partner in creativity, [and] capable of implementing my vision. With Media Composer, I always feel I have the tools to tell the story.”
Challenge:To tell the story of a young boy’s courageous coming of age adventure, using limited resources even more limited budget.
Solution:A lean but powerful editing suite using a Macbook Pro and Media Composer.
Workflow:2.66 GHz 17-inch MacBook ProCore 2
Duo running Media Composer for editing; Symphony Nitris DX for color correction; Pro Tools for audio post.
Products Used:Media Composer
Symphony Nitris DX