Trying Not To Drown Alive With David Blaine

The millions of viewers who watched David Blaine: Drowned Alive saw the planet's most well-known magician attempt to break the world's breath-holding record. But viewed from behind the scenes, this highly rated ABC HD broadcast reveals the harrowing but successful execution of another daring stunt, as a TV special about a magic man inspired an almost magical transformation for the New York City post house that edited it.

Founded in 2003 by CEO/partner Bill Gross and partner/editors Jeff Cahn, Rich Rosenbaum, Oren Sarch and Chip Smith, multimedia production/post facility Convergence ( is housed in the wide-open spaces of a former architect's studio on Fifth Avenue. It's the perfect venue for the imaginative combination of visual, audio and interactive media services that its founders have been honing, but none of them could have imagined how the editing of Drowned Alive would push and expand their envelope. When Convergence was awarded the high-profile job in March 2006, three months before the show's May 8th airdate, the ultimate result would be a migration to a new computer platform, a dramatic change in workflow logistics, and the literally overnight addition and mastery of HD services.

"The experience of cutting Drowned Alive was incredible," said Sarch. "It was the most grueling schedule and toughest job we have ever worked on, without a doubt. But when we were editing the show, it was exhilarating."

Drowned Alive was planned as a major expansion of Blaine's persona, showing not only the grueling week he would spend submerged in a clear plastic bubble in NYC's Lincoln Center before attempting to hold his breath for a record-breaking nine minutes, but the months of intense physical and mental preparation that came before. Although Convergence's editors had deep experience cutting :30 spots and feature films, Drowned Alive was one of the first long-format broadcast projects that the facility had been awarded. Producer Jay Cannold had known Sarch and made the initial connection, but the final selling point was Sarch's experience editing the 1998 indie classic π, which was written and directed by Blaine's friend Darren Aronofsky.

Before editing Drowned Alive, Convergence had been cutting only in SD and on Macs, relying on three Avid Meridian systems, one Avid Adrenaline and multiple Avid Xpress Pro laptop systems, and finishing any HD jobs out-of-house. For bigger jobs, the workflow typically involved double-digitization of the media on Avid and FireWire hard drives which would enable one of Convergence's six editors to start cutting the project alone on an Avid XPress Pro laptop, and then port the edited project onto the Meridians or Adrenaline to work with clients.

As soon as the job of creating a large batch of segments for both the ABC live showing and the subsequent European broadcast of Drowned Alive began, however, all of that would change, with Convergence shifting immediately to a more collaborative editing system. "We were initially expecting a little over 30 hours of footage to create the roll-ins for a one-hour show," says Gross. "At first it was supposed to be 17 three-minute segments, but as we got closer, it turned out they wanted us to cut dozens of shorter vignettes that would then be assembled into longer segments to be rolled in live."

"With the amount of footage they were going to be shooting, I knew we needed an Avid Unity media network system," Sarch added, "With three editors expected to be working on the project, to digitize everything three times was out of the question--we'd never make it. When we made that decision, we also realized that we would have to switch over to PCs, which none of us were accustomed to, because at the time Macs were not handling Unity as well as PCs."

Other, more complex procedural questions regarding HD and SD formats were looming as Convergence dug in to begin cutting the footage of Blaine's preparations for his stunt, much of which was shot on Canon's XL-H1 HDV camcorder. "We committed to cutting in SD at Convergence," Sarch recalls, "and we decided the two ways to finish would be either to bring in an Avid HD system here and finish in-house, or go out-of-house. We didn't have much hands-on experience with HD and didn't want to find ourselves against the wall, close to air, with a technical glitch, so I was leaning towards the latter option. But Cannold, who had done a lot of work on high-pressure shows like Survivor, said it wouldn't work out-of-house and that it would be important to keep it in-house."

Footage was building up quickly however, into a mountain of free-flowing material that would soon exceed 200 hours of tape. With his team's plates already packed, Sarch made a command decision to do the HD online outside, forming a three-stage plan where Convergence would send approved segments to the highly regarded NYC visual FX house Guava for the HD conform. Guava's sister facility, Nice Shoes, would then color correct the HD generics and finally send them back to Guava for the addition of transitions and graphics.

Although the handoff to Guava/Nice Shoes was a smart system and run professionally by all involved, it was one of many parts of Convergence's plan that would eventually be overwhelmed by the unique demands of the project. The editorial team in early April included Convergence's Sarch, Will Barton and Gary Greco along with Blaine's in-house editor Joe Singer, and they soon found themselves in the middle of differing, but equally passionate, creative directions from David Blaine on one side, and ABC on the other.

As they edited, Convergence not only had to referee between the camps' different storytelling approaches, but adapt to the constant requests for modifications that came with the territory of a network long-form broadcast special. "In the commercial world, there's a set deadline where the offline is approved at a certain date, it's rare that there are further changes once you get to the online," says editor Gary Greco. "Even if there are changes later on, you're only dealing with 30 or 60 seconds so it's manageable. When you're dealing with a two hour show and changes are being made right up until air, it becomes a little unwieldy."

With a month to go and footage continuing to pour in, Gross suggested bringing in another Convergence big gun: partner/editor Rich Rosenbaum, who rearranged his schedule of commercial edits to contribute his own deep experience to the project.

Rosenbaum's presence would prove to be the addition that turned the tide. His first assignment started on a Friday night, looking to make visual sense of an awesome scene where Blaine swims in a tank with 26 full-length sharks. "In the shark piece, David was trying to learn to control his mind and breathing by putting himself in a stressful situation," Rosenbaum explains. "I felt the only way to get at it was to understand what really motivated this man. Fortunately for me, Oren and Executive Producer Shelley Ross had recorded four or five hours of David talking free form, articulating in new ways the reasons why he did what he did with his magic.

"So I lit some candles and spent the evening going through the footage by myself, and pieced together what I thought was a psychological makeup of David Blaine, making a soundtrack from his musings on how we're all made up of water and become part of the Earth's cycle that way. This was David not in a lion's den, but a shark's den. From there, it became a very personal journey."

Inspired by the footage, Rosenbaum created the shark piece in one nonstop session that stretched from Friday evening to Saturday afternoon. The overnighter--the first of many--would prove to be pivotal, however, not only garnering the first unequivocal thumbs-up from all camps, but also giving the Convergence team a clear direction to take their storytelling in.

Most importantly, it provided a clear link to the visual style desired by Blaine, who was increasingly present in the Convergence facilities as the airdate drew closer, and would prove to be an unusually articulate star talent when it came to his expectations from Avid editing. "Just as an example, if David's doing a magic 'effect,' he doesn't want any edits at all from the time the effect starts until it's over. He doesn't want anyone to think he's manipulating things with the footage," says editor Will Barton, new to Convergence from the U.K. this year. "He also thinks it's important not just to shoot the magic but to get the reaction of the people. It's a tremendous amount of responsibility on the part of the cameraperson."

"We would get multiple takes because the cameraman didn't get everything in one shot," Rosenbaum adds. "That's one of the reasons why they threw so much footage at us. So it was almost like a Zen thing, to 'edit without editing'--meaning no visual manipulation while still timing things correctly and structuring the story, all while working in a very artful way."

Rosenbaum points to Sarch's work on one particularly astounding segment as an example, where Blaine demonstrates his ability to tie his shoes without touching them to a group of school kids. "Oren showed the magic of the children's reaction and picked wonderful music that exhibited their internal wonder. After the trick was completed, he showed the trick again in slow motion, so you could actually see what happened. So not only did Oren not hide it, he handled it almost like a sports event, where you're examining the skier and how they did the last jump."

Even in the midst of his own difficult preparations, Blaine took notice of what Convergence was contributing to the presentation of his riskiest stunt yet. "I make my living by confronting and going through the fear that imprisons our minds, by trying what everyone thinks is impossible and defying the low odds for success," Blaine said. "My stunts are a way for me to challenge the unknown and accomplish the impossible. The people at Convergence were behind me every step of the way. They were part of my support structure, and they proved that an impossible schedule and impossible creative demands could be met and surpassed. Their creative 'magic' and enormous energy and fortitude helped me do the impossible, and I thank them for their tireless efforts."

With the May 8th airdate just weeks away, Convergence was in a rhythm with their Avid Unity system and newfound PC proficiency. As the editorial group continued to grow, Convergence took advantage of their large space to add edit bays as needed, developing a unique team editing approach that Rosenbaum compares at turns to an army, jazz band and symphony orchestra. "We were all working on Unity and, out of necessity, collaborating on each other's segments," he notes. "I had never witnessed editing on that level, where we were actually riffing off of one another, calling out to each other across the room as a segment unfolded."

Another secret weapon that Sarch decided to take advantage of as the deadline loomed was Clear, Convergence's content research, clearance and licensing division headed by producer Giovanna Righini. "Clear was instrumental in a number of segments, obtaining and licensing footage that we needed as well as jumping in a couple of times to help out with music clearances," Sarch notes. "Having them on the premises was a huge advantage during such a crazy schedule. With Giovanna on the case, it was just one less thing that we had to worry about."

Convergence's work on Drowned Alive had already proven to be a trial-by-fire for long-format broadcast projects. All along the way, the company was handling the additional challenge of total immersion in HD, managing obstacles that would have been daunting to even the most seasoned HD editorial house.

Among the challenges that came with the production was that its ubiquitous Canon XL-H1's 24f resolution format was strictly proprietary, with no other device currently available to play back footage shot on it but the camcorder itself. To solve the problem, Jeff Hedberg, director of operations for Convergence, rented another Canon XL-H1 to use as a deck for dubbing all the footage to Panasonic's DVCPRO HD. "The DVCPRO HD outputs an SD signal as well," Hedberg explains, "so were able to use that and load it right into our Avid Adrenaline. Then, when it came time to finalize, we could go back to the same tapes and load it in HD. The DVCPRO decks are very flexible and allowed us to do what we needed to do, including converting to ABC's 720p format on playback."

On the Thursday before the Drowned Alive Monday airdate, the network requested additional teasers and promos, putting Convergence--which now had six editors working around the clock--into mission-critical stage. To reduce online turnaround times for the remaining last-minute segments (showing Blaine living underwater 24/7 in the sphere in Lincoln Center) to an absolute minimum, Sarch made a daring decision: complete the HD online in-house.

It was a risky gamble, but one that would pay off. By Friday afternoon Hedberg had rented and installed an HD Avid Symphony Nitris system at Convergence--all Sarch, Rosbenbaum and his colleagues had to do now was learn how to use it. The Convergence group handled the situation by maintaining an even keel and making full use of all the resources available to them, ranging from rental house MPE's technical support specialists to studious use of the software's online documentation. "New issues kept coming up," says Greco. "As we started to load the 720p footage Friday night, frame rate issues kept coming up. Then, as we tried to batch import the mixes, we had other issues. But by the time we got on the phone with the techs, we had usually solved the problem, which is a credit to Avid--it's a very solid and robust system."

Around lunchtime on Monday, May 8th, just hours before Blaine's record-breaking attempt would go live to the world, Convergence completed their own amazing feat. "From the Nitris system, every time we completed a segment, we would output it to DVCPRO HD and send it to the ABC production truck at Lincoln Center--we sent the last tape to them at 1:30 p.m. on Monday," Sarch reports. "The final thing we had to do was the music cue sheet, which I handed to the producer literally 30 minutes before air. Then I went home and watched the show with my wife and kids."

Sarch, along with nearly 8.3 million other households, would witness Blaine come close but fail in his valiant attempt, needing to be pulled from the tank after about seven and a half minutes. For Convergence, however, the victory cigar would have to wait: a two-week deadline now loomed to turn the show around for European broadcast, which would entail more editorial magic.

With the outcome of the attempt now known, Sarch developed a fresh storyline that eliminated 90% of the live broadcast's footage and began with Blaine's dramatic exit from Lincoln Center, now presenting the rest of the story as a flashback. Meanwhile, Blaine, still physically and mentally drained, returned to Convergence a mere two days after the stunt to record hours of fresh VO and oversee editing of all the new segments.

Working a final marathon session of four days and nights straight, Convergence met the European deadline, and, final edit completed, emerged prepared to handle projects of the highest intensity in any format. Employing flexible approaches to workflow, technical adaptability and a fearless attitude, Convergence realized it had laid the perfect foundation for the triumph of David Blaine: Drowned Alive.

"When we started Convergence, our philosophy was one where not only the mediums of commercials, TV, film and the Internet converge, but also our individual talents and energies could converge in a team effort," says Bill Gross. "With Drowned Alive, there was a feeling of camaraderie we'd never experienced before. It came from working on each other's cuts all night in waves, all towards a unified goal: make the whole world stop to watch David Blaine hold his breath."

David Weiss is a broadcast technology writer based in New York City.