Editing a Robot Documentary – From 100 Hours to 82 Minutes [Part 2]

If you missed the first half, check out Part 1 on editing Bots High.

The first cut of Bots High that Andrew and I sat down to watch was extremely long, extremely rough, and Andrew and I both fell asleep at one point.

The main challenge with a documentary is it’s so malleable. You can easily reorder, cut, or add scenes, and radically change the story. There’s no script to go off of. There’s no re-shoots of stuff that was missed.

I’ve always had a basic outline for the film from before I started. Meet the teams, follow them as they build their robots, and end at the national competition. But which robot building teams do you show? Who are the main characters? Which story lines do you expand on? That was what we spent five months figuring out.

The beauty with non-linear editing (that’s pretty much any editing done on the computer) is you can try a lot of stuff, save it, try more stuff, and never worry about destroying old work.

There are about 50 different versions of the film. Originally the film started at the end, at the national competition, and then jumped to Mayhem in Miami six months earlier. It opened with an image that while I shot it I knew I wanted to try to open the film with it: Elizabeth in her dress walking down the sidewalk with her robot in tow. It pretty much sums up the entire film.

Elizabeth walks down the sidewalk, towing her robot Famous Last WordsBut alas, that was the only thing that was good with opening the film with the third act, and it didn’t work in the test screening we had. So you have to kill your darlings.

Another challenge is exposition. We were faced with the challenge of giving the audience enough information when they needed it, but not too much to confuse or overwhelm them.

I also suffered from the curse of knowledge, having hung out with everyone for nearly a year, which is why it was good to have Andrew around, but eventually he caught the curse too. We knew too much about the characters so when we watched a scene, it’s obviously clear to us what’s happening, but we needed to make sure that someone who knows nothing about anyone has enough information to follow along.

Traditionally in documentaries exposition is given through narration, usually a third person “Voice of God.” Think any Ken Burns film. But I wasn’t a big fan of that. I wanted the film to be mostly cinema verite with character interviews filling in the blanks.

After a lot of searching for sound bits and trying different edits, we achieved this, with a few title cards here and there.

It’s scary to lock picture. Like I said, it’s so easy to change anything, but now’s the official point when I say, “editing is officially done, no more changes.” Locking picture is important – you’re saying that the edit of the film will not change. This frame is at timecode 01:02:34:13 and will remain there. From this point forward, all the other work, such as titles, graphics, and sound and music, will be done working from the locked cut. If you start changing things, it could negate a lot of work done down the line.

But after debating every cut and shot one last time, I officially locked Bots High, a lean, entertaining 82 minute film. One step closer to a completed movie.