Shoot For The Cut


Series Producer Francisco Aliwalas prepares for another fast turn ….

Cliff Etzel makes a very cogent point in his response to the LIFE magazine blog:

Person experience story: A former Dept head of the Photo dept at a newspaper in the late 80’s chewed me out pretty good when I shot five rolls of film on a freelance assignment for the paper when it could have been done in two – he said I should have edited in the camera and come away with all I needed (he was right) – that has stuck with me ever since. I shot less and came back with more after that point (I was eventually hired by that newspaper).

Cliff is absolutely right.

In the days when television journalists shot in film, they were careful about what they shot. Each mag had to be processed in the lab. Film was expensive. Processing took time.

The advent of videotape brought with it a curse.

“Tape is cheap” we used to say. “Shoot a lot to give the editor choices”.

That was the economic reality, at least of tape. You could run the camera all day and spend only a pittance. You were sure to not to miss anything because you ‘got’ everything.

When we did the first TRAUMA series for TLC, it was not unusual to shoot 300 or 400 hours of tape. We simply dumped them on the editors desk and pretty much said, ‘its in there somewhere.. go find it’.

This, of course, makes no sense. It leads to sloppy shooting and expensive productions because when you get back, it takes a lot of time to spool through all that stuff in real time.

Francisco Aliwalas, (pictured above) is busy this week packing up the gear for another season of 5Takes. This time we are taking the team to Latin America. And as usual, we will turn each broadcast hour in 6 days.

We are able to do that because we take the edits with us on the road. The entire show is edited on Mac laptops on FCP, and we edit while we are shooting. Thus we start editing as soon as we start shooting. This, after all, is the entire point of nonlinear. You can be anywhere in the timeline you want at any time. (How many of us sit down at an Avid and still start the editing process at the beginning of the piece and grind to the end in a linear fashion? Makes no sense).

Editing in the field as you shoot has lots of advantages. It lets the whole creative team watch as the hour is built in front of them, while the hour is being made. Everyone can very clearly see what the hour will look like, where it is going and what is needed to make it work. It is not longer a mysterious process that goes on for weeks in a dark room long after the shooting is over.

Working in this way not only cuts costs by an enormous amount, it also gives you enormous control over the actual production. You end up, in a very very disciplined way, shooting for the cut.

What we have noticed over the past two years that we have been doing this is that the shooting ratios drop precipitously as well as we share everything with the whole team. Everyone understands exactly what is needed. In 5Takes, we generally shoot 30 tapes to create a complete hour. Now, that’s not 30 hours of material. That’ s just 30 tapes. Sometimes those tapes don’t have more than a few minutes of material on them. But all of it is essential.

When we do interviews now, we screen the rough cut of a scene on the laptop for the interview subject, then let them comment on what they ultimately will be laying VO over. It is all very tight.

All this leads to a much more disciplined approach to the whole production process, and of course, a big cut in costs. Our whole production cycle is only 6 days long.

Yesterday, we were on the phone with a production company who wanted to pick our brains on how this worked. We spent an hour with them. They told us that they produced half hours for cable and generally took 4-6 weeks just to edit the half hour. When we hung up the phone we all stared at each other. 6 weeks to cut a half hour? Unbelievable! What do they do with their time?


5 responses to “Shoot For The Cut

  1. They post on other comment boards about how you’re not making real TV.

  2. Looks real to me. Just turn it on (and drive up my ratings).

  3. Question to Safran:

    What is real TV?

  4. First off – thanks for quoting me Michael. I had no intentions of being right, just wanting to pass along what I have learned in my experiences as a shooter.

    Everything you stated in this post is dead on IMO, Michael.

    I truly believe in the almost zen philosophy of less is more. The VJ paradigm fits that quite well . The number of outstanding images from shooters like David Alan Harvey, William Albert Allard, Sebastio Salgado – all shooting with a couple of Leica Rangefinders and maybe 3 lenses and kodachrome produced some of the best reportage images for their time (I still have Bill Allard’s ‘The Photographic Essay” on my shelf). The old idea of shoot tape because it’s cheap lessens the profession and diminishes the craft. Shoot less, but shoot exceptional footage – it makes for a better experience shooting and editing.

    I truly believe in this shift towards the VJ model. People like Dirck Halstead, Michael Rosenblum, Pete Liebengood and David Dunkley Gyimah to name a few, are totally helping to change the face of video news and short form doc/entertainment acquisition & programming with a learning emphasis.

    Mr. PF Bently of Platypus fame!!! Have been meaning to email both you and Dirck since chatting with Peter Howe earlier this year (He suggested I talk with either one of you – Peter published a photo essay I did in Outakes in 1992 after my attending Eddie Adams workshop).

  5. Pingback: Edit before you press record | News Videographer

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