“In the Edit Room I Found My Voice”: Editor Helen Kearns on Inventing Tomorrow
Los Angeles-based editor Helen Kearns has cuts seven documentary projects since 2013. She recently served as the editor on Netflix’s The Keepers, the tennis doc Serena and The Music of Strangers, a feature on Yo-Yo Ma’s the Silk Road Ensemble. Her most recent project as editor is Inventing Tomorrow, a doc on the students competing at the world’s largest high school science competition. The film, from director Laura Nix (The Yes Men Are Revolting), screened in competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Kearns shares her thoughts below on what drew her to the project.
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?
Kearns: It was January 2017, and I was working as an editor on the Netflix series The Keepers, which was an intensely grim story examining a sex abuse ring at a Catholic high school and the murder of a nun teaching there. Meanwhile, on the national stage, President-elect Trump was preparing to take office, vowing to dismantle the most of the climate, health and other progressive initiatives that had taken so long to establish. Needless to say, I was in a dark place. Then I got an email from Laura Nix, who was looking for an editor on her upcoming documentary. She sent a sizzle reel that she shot at the previous year’s ISEF competition in Phoenix. Watching that reel, I bawled. Here were kids who were doing work that really had the potential to make big changes for the environment. Despite all the overwhelming evidence that our world is in peril, they were bubbling over with optimism for the future. I knew immediately that I had to work on this project.
I met with Laura and one of her producers, Diane Becker. We talked about our favorite films, influences, process, and everything else under the sun – and learned that we share similar tastes. When describing the goals for the film, Laura wanted to make a fundamentally vérité film, avoiding talking heads and downplaying the competition element. The prospect of making what I came to call a “non-competitive competition film” really intrigued me – to both lean into the genre and break the genre as we see fit.
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?
Kearns: At some point in our edit, Laura watched a scene I’d cut and said to me, “It’s great, but can we get more joy?” I stood up and wrote “MORE JOY” on our whiteboard: our guiding principle whenever we started straying off course in the edit. This is part of the reason we were trying to make a vérité film – to really spend time with these kids so that we can get across a sense of who they are in the world, and to observe their curiosity, optimism and love for life first hand – their joy. We knew that eventually we’d have to start bringing in the kids’ voices to help connect the dots, but we wanted to first see how much we could get away with before we started adding those voices. Laura’s approach was “once you start adding in voiceover, it’s much harder to take it out.” So our first assembly – our pure vérité film – was five and a half hours long.
From there we only had a few months until our deadline, so we brought in additional editors to help us manage cutting it down. I don’t know what we would’ve done without having all the help we did in the editing room. Figuring out the first half of the film, before the characters get to ISEF, was by far the biggest hurdle for us. How do we get into these characters’ lives, how do we endear them to the audience, how do reveal their respective sparks of passion and inspiration, all while trying to introduce their environmental challenges and explain some technical aspects of their science projects. It’s a lot to pack in and took many many hours of rearranging and recutting until we got it to a good place.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Kearns: I studied film in college at UNC-Chapel Hill and fell in love with editing in my experimental film class. I found that production was erratic and often misogynistic, but in the edit room I found my voice and could make the film come alive. When I moved to L.A., I had a couple years’ experience as an AE but hadn’t yet gotten any substantial work as an editor. I found a job at a boutique ad agency, where I wound up directing short-form branded documentary content. It only took a couple years of brutal client work there before I burned out and vowed to never work in the commercial business again. I started looking for a way to get back to editing, my first love. A colleague connected me with the director Ryan White, who was looking for an editor on his second feature doc, Good Ol’ Freda. Ryan had almost no budget, and I had almost no bona fide editing experience, so we made the perfect pair. On my old Final Cut 7, we edited the film for eight months from Ryan’s un-airconditioned living room, and took the film to SXSW in 2013. Ryan’s next film was The Case Against 8. Even though he wanted to keep me on his team, Ryan knew he’d need to find a slightly more experienced editor for such a big story. I was happy to take the backseat as assistant when I learned I’d be working with the world-class doc editor, Kate Amend. As far as influences go, I count Kate as my number one. Of course, I’ve watched lots of films and closely studied different approaches to editing – but nothing can compare to examining the editing sequence of an expert editor such as Kate. Just being in the room while she edited was a learning experience. Kate took me on as a mentee and has been extremely supportive of my career since then. I’ve continued to work with both Ryan and Kate whenever I can.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Kearns: Avid. Kate Amend only edits on Avid and that’s good enough for me.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Kearns: I think the most difficult scenes to cut are often the ones that are the most technically challenging. In this film, that was the awards ceremony. The ceremony itself was split over two days and lasted around eight hours in total. We were working with seven cameras and something like 20 tracks of audio, and none of it could be multi-grouped because three of the cameras were shooting at a different timecode for broadcast. The cameras were also floating – so not always following the same character. So we had this massive sync sequence with all the cameras stacked up that we were constantly combing through to find each shot. Just cutting a rough assembly was the hardest part and took several days. But once we had the scaffolding we could finally set to work shaping it into a dynamic, emotional scene. It feels silly to talk about difficult scenes for this film though. It was never so much a problem of a difficult scene so much as difficult structure. If “Act 1” qualifies as a scene, that was by far the toughest.
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?
Kearns: I think my original expectation for the film was that we would be casting these extraordinary, genius kids as our main characters. These shining young beacons of science who are way smarter than most other kids, and smarter than just about everybody else. But what I’ve come to learn and love about these kids is that they’re all totally normal. They make mistakes. They can be self-conscious, silly, distracted. They’re teenagers (although they’re still much smarter and more motivated than I was at their age). So in many ways they’re not necessarily smarter, they’re simply brave enough to ask questions and seek the answers. It doesn’t always take a brainiac, a special one-in-a-million genius to do something extraordinary and create change – and that’s what’s so special about them.