When Andy Grieve and David Brodie stepped up to the stage of the NOKIA Theater LA LIVE in September to receive the Creative Arts Emmy Award for “Outstanding Short Form Picture Editing”, they knew their accomplishment was part of a much greater effort.
They were honored for a short film called “Survivors,” a highlight of the “Stand Up 2 Cancer” fund-raising special the year before. The special featured 50 of the most renowned personalities in TV, film, sports and music. It was considered so significant it was broadcast simultaneously and commercial-free in primetime on NBC, ABC, and CBS to 170 countries, a landmark in American broadcasting. The show raised more than $100 million for cancer research.
Although only one element of the mosaic that comprised the “Stand Up 2 Cancer” special, “Survivors” was an experience everyone whose family has been touched by this dreaded disease can identify with. If you didn’t see it, or want a refresher, it is available on the SU2C Web site at standup2cancer.org.
Containing standup interviews of dozens of cancer survivors and patient advocates, the film was shot by director Errol Morris against a stark black background using a single Sony F23 camera. “Survivors” is comprised of about 44 cuts, many containing internal sub-edits, expressing the multifaceted impact cancer has upon its victims and those they love.
TALKING ABOUT CANCER
Director Morris was able to elicit a tone of unbiased honesty from their statements by using a device he developed called the “Interrotron,” which projected his face on a teleprompter screen in front of the camera so the speakers got the sense they were making direct eye-to-eye contact with him.
In addition to the sincerity of its on-camera participants, part of “Survivor’s” impact comes from the powerful dramatic arc editors Grieve and Brodie gave to it, made all the more remarkable by the fact the word “cancer” is never mentioned.
The piece enters the subject sideways, with the first witness saying, “It was a slight drizzle out...” leading to “…the doctor called and then the skies just opened up.” Then, accompanied by a sensitive piano theme composed by John Kusiak, in a series of straight, but gentle edits, people relate when they heard the news, how they reacted to it, and how others reacted to them.
It’s noteworthy that tearful emotion only breaks out at :59 when a bald-headed man grits his teeth saying, “It’s hard to accept when it happens to you…” and it even includes touches of humor such as a woman asking at 1:12 “… Am I going to have to start smoking marijuana?” The piece ends with a survivor reflecting at 1:51, “Well, I changed that day… for better” before putting her palms together in a bow of gratitude.
Editor Grieve worked previously with director Morris, most recently on his feature film “Standard Operating Procedure” about the notorious Abu Ghraib photographs. Grieve was called from his home base in Brooklyn, N.Y. to Santa Monica, Calif.’s Rock Paper Scissors post-production facility, originally to work the 20 hours of interviews shot in three days into an eight-minute version of “Survivors” using Apple Final Cut Pro 6.05 NLEs.
“Laura Ziskin, the producer of ‘Stand Up 2 Cancer’ loved the piece,” Grieve said, “but simply didn’t have time for it in her rundown. So we had to cut it to three minutes for the show.”
The three-minute version won Grieve and Brodie the Emmy award. But the whole eight-minute original can be found on iTunes as a free download in a search under “Errol Morris.”
EDITING DISBELIEF TO ACCEPTANCE
As with any creative collaboration, both Grieve and Brodie are reluctant to claim credit for their individual editorial contributions. But Grieve does recall that the opening “drizzle” comment had struck him as a worthy candidate to open the piece right from the beginning.
“We wanted to follow the course of human reactions from disbelief to acceptance by showing the way different people take the news,” he said. “Errol is very precise about how he wants people’s language to sound, so we often used jump cuts to give their statements continuity while at the same time repositioning their image on the screen. Thanks to the completely black background behind them, we could shift the subjects left or right to show we were not trying to hide the jump in their dialog. It gives the cumulative effect of the segment a sense of honesty.”
Clip from the film "Survivors" features Linda Mayer. Brodie, staff editor at Rock Paper Scissors, had been involved in viewing dailies, pulling selected moments from the beginning. He was called in to lend an objective eye to repurposing the eight minutes of “Survivors” into the three-minute version needed for the telecast.
“I had already cut some TV commercials with Errol, but ‘Survivors’ was a very moving experience,” Brodie recalls. In fact, he said it was one of the more personally engaging projects he has ever worked on. “Errol shuttled back and forth between my edit bay and Andy’s to give us his input while we played with his ideas,” Brodie said. “Although there are several celebrities included on screen, we intentionally edited ‘Survivors’ without emphasizing their notoriety. But one of our most effective cuts involved MTV DJ Carson Daly who recalls having received the crucial phone call from his doctor just minutes before he had to go on the air live to spin a Britney Spears’ song.”
As Brodie describes it, the editing process was very nonlinear.
“That let us give the sequence an illogical logic, allowing the flow of ideas to create their own context,” he said. “For example, we cut from a young woman describing how she just held out the phone and screamed out ‘Mom!’ to an elderly woman who simply recalled telling ‘my daughter.’ The editorial connection between these two women linked by a common experience had played out in my mind very early.” The emotional impact of the shots overarched their conceptual continuity when editing “Survivor.”
“We had a blueprint in our mind of how we wanted to construct the sequence,” Brodie explained, “but everything was so compelling it sort of had its own theme that drove itself forward. Errol, Andy and I tried many different alternatives along the way, but always kept our desired end in sight.”
That’s why this Emmy for editing has meaning far beyond itself. As this disease seems to touch everyone in some way, please consider going to www.standup2cancer.org to make a contribution.
Jay Ankeney is a freelance editor and post-production consultant based in Los Angeles. Write him at 220 39th St. (upper), Manhattan Beach, Calif. 90266 or atJayAnkeney@mac.com.