Editing long form documentaries can be a daunting task. Each new project brings it's own challenges. Sometimes it's the script. Sometimes it's the footage and archival material. Sometimes it's the format.
After more than 20 years of cutting docs, my latest project for Jupiter Entertainment is breaking new ground for me. I'm editing one show for two different clients.
My new series is a joint production for CNN Headline News in the U.S. and Sky Witness channel in the United Kingdom. It's 40 episodes of a true crime anthology. But it's really 80 episodes. Or maybe 120. Or, depending on your point of view, it might be 160. That's because each episode must be versioned for a U.S. audience, then versioned again for a British audience. Then another version for international sales.
The delivery requirements for the U.S. version call for a 6 act show that runs a total of 40 minutes. Each act must be at least 6 minutes long, but no more than 8 minutes. Except the final act, which must be between 5 and 7 minutes. Each act must start with a recap of the previous act and end with a "coming up" tease. Simple enough if you have any kind of documentary TV experience.
But then it gets complicated. The British delivery requires telling the same story, except it must be told in 4 acts that total 44 minutes and 24 seconds. Each act must be at least 7 minutes long, but no more than 15 minutes. And then there's the International version, which is a continuous program (no commercial breaks) that must be at least 44 minutes.
The workflow we've come up with begins with what we have dubbed the "Super Sequence". It's the entire show with all content for all versions cut in 6 acts, aiming for about 46 minutes.
Now that the show timing has been established, I next get to think about content. American audiences want to see fairly graphic depictions of the crimes and their aftermaths. The British are much more reserved. Often, the same scene must be cut differently for each audience. Too much blood in a crime scene photo is sure to get a note from Sky. Too many close ups in the re-enactment scenes will bring notes from CNN. Even the narration has to be tailored for each audience. A crime that happened on "August 25th, 2005" in the U.S. happened on "the Twenty Fifth of August, 2005" in Britain. The "attorney" we just identified in the US isn't an attorney at all the Britain. He's a "solicitor". Teases for CNN all start with the narrator saying "Coming up..." But Sky doesn't like to use those words and wants different narration for each tease.
After all that has been considered and the story has been told, we create a CNN rough cut and a Sky rough cut, each to be sent off for network notes. For the CNN cut, we have a script marked with "Snap Outs" (Kind of a reverse of the international "snap ins" common to US programs sold internationally.) The extra content must be removed and the cut smoothed out in terms of the music, timing and transitions. Once we get it down to around 40 minutes, off it goes for network notes.
At the same time, we create a Sky cut. This version will have a couple of instances where 2 shorter acts are combined into a single longer act. That gets us from 6 acts to 4. We have to remove the "coming up" teases and the recaps from these combined acts, and make sure they play smoothly without an obvious break. Once that's done, off it goes to London for their notes.
Oh, and did I mention that the same show has a different title in each country? That means different graphics packages for titles and bumpers. It's "Vengeance" in the U.S.; "Killer Lovers" in Britain.
Whew! Now I get to take a breath while I wait for network notes! (Not really, with 40 episodes to deliver, I'm not getting any breaks any time soon).
Once rough cut notes are back from the networks, one of the producers will take the two sets of notes and apply them to the Super Sequence. If there are 25 notes from the CNN execs and 15 notes from the Sky execs, that means I have 40 fixes to do, right? Wrong!! Because we now have 3 separate versions of the show and we want to keep them as similar as possible, I get to address each note 3 times. So that's 120 fixes. Then it's back to the networks for a second round of notes. Another round of fixes and we lock it. We start by adding in the final narration - both British and American. Two narrators read the same script and hopefully match the same pacing.
The online edit is also done in stages. First, the Super Sequence is onlined and mixed. Once that's done, I can take the online sequence and the mix stems from ProTools and re-cut them to match the locked offline versions of the CNN and Sky cuts. This saves the ProTools mixer from having to mix the same show 3 times. I give him the cut up stems, and he can just smooth out the cuts and marry it back to the onlined versions.
The final step in the process is creating a version for International sales. This is my favorite part. Take the Super Sequence, remove the bumpers and breaks to create a seamless cut and I'm done! As long as it's over 44 minutes, timing doesn't matter.
So far, we have completed seven of the forty episodes. The process is becoming more streamlined as we go and we're starting to recognize and anticipate the potential problems that will arise with two separate clients. It has been an interesting learning experience for all of us involved. And I think we have proved that, despite the old addage, you CAN serve two masters.