“We Cut Countless Versions of this Scene”: Editors Bing Liu and Joshua Altman on Minding the Gap
Joshua Altman cut his first Sundance-bound documentary in 2009 with We Live in Public. The film – Altman’s first as an editor of documentary features – went on to win the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at the festival. Since then, Altman has cut five more docs to premiere at Sundance: The Tillman Story (2010), Bones Brigade: an Autobiography (2012), We Are The Giant (2014) and, in 2018 alone, both Kailash and Minding The Gap. The latter film he cut with film’s director, Bing Liu. Liu himself appears in the film among a trio of friends who bond over skateboarding in their Rust Belt town. Below, Altman and Liu share their thoughts on the long, coffee-fueled process of editing Minding the Gap.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Liu: Out of necessity – both budgetary and creative. Creatively, I didn’t have a story structure to follow, so realizing the story in the edit to help inform what I would plan to shoot the next month or week or even day was essential in the way the story ended up being told. Budget-wise, aside from a small $2,500 grant that Kartemquin helped secure, I had no funding for the first four years of the project. When POV, ITVS and Sundance Institute came in with additional funding this past year, I was able to hire an editor to work alongside me. I had been cutting on my own in-between other projects for the previous couple of years and had a strong idea for what I was looking for, which wasn’t quite easy to gauge in one or two phone conversations. The prospect of handing off something I considered my baby (more like my toddler) was terrifying, especially having never worked with an editor before – so it was a months-long, deliberative process to find the right editor. I accidentally met Josh when he was assigned to me through a short project I had been hired to direct in L.A., and we hit it off right away. We had similar tastes and I appreciated his experience level. One day I asked him to take a look at my rough cut of Minding the Gap to, as I explained it, help us have a reference point for our work together on our other project. But in the back of my mind I was thinking, “Oh man, I hope he can come on as an editor to help me finish Minding the Gap.” Because he was committed to cutting another film that was gunning for Sundance, he at first only agreed to come on as a consulting editor. But luckily, we were able to find time in his schedule for him to come on full-time for a few months.
Altman: Like Bing said it was kind of happenstance. Or kismet depending on your view of the world. We linked up working on a totally separate film. Bing and I clicked fast. Having worked with many other filmmakers, I was amazed at how in-line our tastes were and how much we both wanted to tell the same kinds of stories. So at his request I watched a rough cut of Minding The Gap, the film he’d been working on for three years. I could see the bones of something special. The characters were complex and genuine, the story was unique and the world was both timely and timeless. But I also realized that Bing had invested so much time and passion into the film, as well as literally putting himself and his family in front of the camera, that I knew he could benefit from some perspective. When my schedule was conflicting with another film, I talked about finding him another editor but ultimately (and fortunately) we came up with an alternative plan where I consulted while he continued to edit and then I later came on to edit alongside him.
Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?
Liu: In hindsight, what I brought to Josh was a film that was wrestling with a complex tangle of themes and issues that needed a more trackable story. Josh told me he could see the skeleton of an amazing story within what I showed him and he began just by reading through transcripts, which I didn’t have many of, so it required our AE and transcription service to work in overdrive for a few weeks. I’m excited to hear what he has to say to this question.
Altman: My goal is the same on nearly every film: bring out the characters’ goals and track their narrative arcs. Initially, we broke out the three characters into singular stories to help. The transcripts were crucial because they allowed me get caught up with Bing. There was so much that he understood about his friends and his own story that wasn’t coming through on screen. On the other hand, the incredible vérité Bing captured was always potent, and that was something we were working consciously to preserve. But the audience needed to get inside the characters’ heads. So using the transcripts, I constructed rough paper outlines, and Bing started shaping the stories for the two central characters. We ran into more problems when we got to Bing’s own narrative. Neither of us liked the VO angle. And at one point I asked Bing how he felt about cutting himself out of the film entirely. Luckily we didn’t do that. Instead we decided to allow Bing’s own story to unfold like a puzzle, one he was piecing together along with the audience. This device allowed us to organically incorporate Bing into the film and keep the audience on their toes as they dove deeper into his narrative arc. Simultaneously, the whole film took on a sort of onion effect. We delicately worked to withhold information and reveal character insights and even the film’s emotional depth to create a constantly evolving film.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Liu: Josh introduced me to this amazing online tool called Realtime Board that is basically a digital whiteboard that’s screen-sharable. After Josh went through the transcripts, he arc-ed out all of the characters’ journeys on RT Board, and then I would go execute them into a story. One for Zack, one for Keire and one for me. It helped us shape each characters’ story into a journey to weave together later. Then, when Josh freed up and was able to come on full time, we rented an Airbnb in Venice, CA and set up shop on a kitchen table with our two laptops side by side. We would map out the story on digital white cards on RT Board, then split up the workload into reels, and be in our own little sides of the table with headphones on cutting our respective reels of the story we mapped out. Once in a while Josh would take off his headphones and ask me where a particular interview bite or vérité moment was or if I had something that would fit a particular mood. Other times I would have Josh come over and watch back a scene I’d cut to see how he felt about it. Then one of us would send the other our sequence and we’d stitch our reels together and watch it back on an HDMI TV that happened to be in the Airbnb. We’d go surfing, have a beer, then talk about it the next day and create a new layout of cards on RT Board and repeat the process. We did that for over two months in a whirlwind of take-out pizza, microwave dinners and iced coffee. I think we must’ve squeezed in like six feedback screenings over the course of that time – each one extremely integral to the process. Even before I started working with Josh, I had several feedback screenings at Kartemquin, Minding the Gap‘s production company; they offer an amazing works-in-progress screening series called KTQ Labs. After our two-month stint in L.A., when Josh had to go back to his other project and I flew back to Chicago, I could send him sequences for him to give notes on. Sometimes he’d find times during nights and weekends to do more work as well. Working on Premiere CC really helped us do this type of quick sequence sharing and laptop editing. At one point my flight got delayed and I set up my laptop, an external monitor and a hard drive at the airport and cut a couple scenes. Some of the other feedback screenings we did included IDA’s DocuClub in NY, a Sundance Institute screening in LA and a couple at Concordia Studio.
Altman: Yes, Realtime Board was crucial to our process. It allowed us to map the story out on paper, agree upon that map and then break up to execute. Then we’d watch down, say “Shit, that didn’t work, but that did,” and then move cards around on the board and attack the edit again. It was an intense two months of editing fueled by way too many nitro brew coffees, but like Bing said we were able to break it up with some surfing, beers, plus a tour-de-ramen. I find screenings are crucial to filmmaking. Sometimes it’s not even about what people say, it’s just the energy transmitted from watching it with others. There were multiple screenings where Bing and I walked out with the exact same thoughts about what we wanted to change just because we were able to get outside of our own heads, outside of the vacuum. That said, the notes we got along the way were also crucial. Too be honest, there were a few screenings where Bing and I were convinced somebody hated the film just because of their body language, and in the end all that person wanted to talk about was how much they loved the film and how such and such affected them. And within those conversations, we got insight on what areas we needed to focus on. We also handed out feedback forms at our screenings, which Bing and I took to the bar afterwards to dissect. Within this notes process I’ve found it’s best to look for the notes behind the notes – see where people’s thoughts coincide and unpack why they feel that way. All of this enabled us to carefully construct the unfolding narrative.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Altman: I started editing casting tapes for a reality TV company about a decade ago because I needed work out of film school and finding a job as a director seemed impossible. From there I worked long hours and pushed that company to hire me to cut some prime time reality TV. Yes, the good life. I did learn some important storytelling skills there because I had to construct very clear narratives, and because I also had to fabricate entire scenes. It was rewarding to see what I could pull off, but it simultaneously made me feel pretty darn gross inside. Luckily my wife, Allison, scored a gig working on a documentary about The Who where she befriended legendary editor Paul Crowder. I was later at a screening of one of Paul’s films when we started talking. I guess he liked my notes and what I had to say because he recommended me to cut another doc called We Live In Public. I had to convince the director Ondi Timoner to hire me by telling her if she didn’t like what I cut in the first week she could fire me without pay. Instead we spent months in the trenches and took We Live in Public took to Sundance where it won the Grand Jury Prize in ’09. Since then I cut several Sundance premieres: The Tillman Story, Bones Brigade: an Autobiography, We Are The Giant and most recently Kailash and Minding The Gap. As far as influences, every film I cut has influenced my style and allowed me to grow as a storyteller. Some of them showed me how to slow down and parse out information. Others have shown me how to tightly pack scenes in order to make action scenes where there isn’t one. I’m inspired by all kinds of other films so it’s hard to narrow down what has affected my work and how, but I will say most of my work in docs is influenced by devices, techniques and styles I see in narratives or read in works of fiction.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Liu: We used Adobe Premiere CC because I’d been cutting skate videos on Premiere since I was 15. I also knew Premiere was flexible with different file formats, not needing to transcode everything. Most importantly, Premiere was great to work with in remote situations or directly off a laptop.
Altman: Honestly, I used Premiere because Bing had already chosen it. I had no option. Having said that, Premiere was invaluable as it enabled us to work both remotely and on the fly, with minimal set up. Outside of the two months we were holed up in an Airbnb, Bing was living in Chicago and I was in L.A. Premiere allowed us to sync up quickly by adding new files to a shared dropbox folder, without having to re-import or wrestle with transferring MXFs. Ultimately, Premiere is like the renegade filmmaker’s software. You can edit at a kitchen table or the airport. Hell, you could probably edit in the bathroom. Point is the software makes it so you can focus on making a film rather than importing one. In fact, Bing didn’t even have an assistant editor when I first came on. The files were all organized and synced by Bing himself. We then had an amazing assist (thank you, Carlos!) come on and organize the project so I could find stuff as quickly as Bing.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Liu: My first few attempts at working my mom’s interview into the film often left more questions than answers. When Josh came on and was able to give me perspective, he cut the scene that’s in the film I think first or second try. Really knocked it out of the park. He really took the time to understand my relationship with my family and mother, especially. At one point when we toyed with voiceover, he interviewed me and it felt like a therapy session; we had a long hug afterwards.
Altman: I don’t know how Bing was able to tackle any of the scenes with himself or his family members. For him those scenes were far more challenging than they were for me. Personally, the most challenging scene was in the intercut montage at the film’s climax. Prior to intercutting these scenes we had multiple planes landing one after the other, completely stalling our climax. Then we had a screening where Davis Guggenheim said, “Be great if you could make all those somehow happen at once.” I sat up that night thinking how to pull that off and after getting high and watching an episode of Bloodline I wrote Bing a late night email. The next day, I was blown away at Bing’s first pass. But we didn’t stop there. We cut countless versions of this scene. Bing cut a few. I cut a few. We cut a few together. It was challenging to interweave all these storylines, keeping them from feeling resolved, working to have them play off of each other. We continued to tweak this scene up until picture lock. Perhaps a little after as well. Who knows, maybe we’ll keep tweaking. But I love how the scene turned out.
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?
Liu: Maybe this isn’t the right place for this answer, but the music and sound design were very important to both Josh and I. We took a long time picking the temp tracks to cut with and changed them out all the time. Nathan Halpern had a very tough job with the score but he came through with his own interpretation of what we needed, and I’m super psyched on how it turned out. Similarly, Jim LeBrecht, our sound mixer, had a tough job in that I wanted to leave in so many of the sounds that usually sound mixers clean up. Because we had this meta-level layer of the camera as a proxy for the filmmaker, we had an opportunity for the sound design to be rough around the edges and unpolished in ways that unpeeled the onion of the story. And because of how far the artifice of the filmmaking goes (you might understand what I’m talking about after seeing the film), I felt like we had the legitimacy to be able to also go overpolished at times. So it was a lot of fun working with Jim.
Altman: We didn’t use visual effects until after we had picture locked, but our motion graphics artist/title designer Jesse did an incredible job using After Effects to help bring photos to life and add some touches of glitch to invoke the ’90s era of childhood where our characters came of age.
Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?
Liu: I’ll probably have more and more realizations to come. I’m the type to take in new information and brood on it for a long time, so I’m not quite sure how to articulate it all yet, but it’s been a complete mind-shift for me, this whole process.
Altman: Initially, I was longing for answers – looking for the film to answer Bing’s journey to understand the abuse he suffered. But the film (like life) is full of complexities that offer insight without firm answers.