Cutting Unbranded - part 1 / by Scott Chestnut

Unbranded is the story of four guys from Texas A&M who adopt 14 wild horses, (mustangs) and ride them 3000 miles from Mexico to Canada through public land in the West.   It took 5.5 months to do the ride and ten months to cut the film.   A few people, who sorta understand what a doc editor does have asked me about the process, so I thought I would shed a little light here.

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Before they left on their trip, the horses had to be shawed (get shoes).  It was a hot day in Texas.  And it's no small feat to shoe 14 unpredictable mustangs.  The Farrier (horse shoe applicator) was a 68 year old record holder who had put shoes on thousands of horses, even a buffalo, but he was sweating profusely and looking pale.   Ben Masters, the leader of the four riders, was worried.  He was worried the Farrier would have a heart attack and it wouldn't be a very good way to kick off a journey of 3000 miles.   A new guy with a camera was filling in that day to shoot the proceedings for the documentary.  When the Farrier collapsed clutching his chest,  the camera guy turned off his camera. 

 "Wait" I said.  "He did what?"

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The producer, Dennis Aig, asked me if I would be interested in working on the film while the ride was still in progress.  Dennis and I had worked closely together on a couple of projects in the past and I enjoyed working with him.   He's the kind of guy who will be there with you at 4am checking outputs when you have a deadline to ship a cut - not home in bed like most producers.

He showed me the Kickstarter trailer and also some of assemblies of sections of the trip that Phil Baribeau had cut.   The footage was great and it seemed like it could be a cool doc but I had a mixed reaction at first.  I thought making a doc about a big ride on mustangs to raise awareness of the plight of wild horses would be a good hook for a film - as long as it didn't turn out to be just a travelog.  I didn't think a chronicle of a long ride by itself would be that interesting for 90 minutes.  I also told Dennis after seeing Phil's clips that the ride seemed to be a lot of stress on some poor horses for the sake of what could be interpreted as just a frat boy lark, and might be a turn off for an audience, that is, if the wild horse issue wasn't prominent and the mission of the ride wasn't front and center.  And it seemed to me the real journalistic truth of the wild horse issue, not just the cliche or the myth, would have to be a part, maybe a big part of the film, to give it a level of social significance that IMHO docs need to have.  But at that point they were just trying to get to the border and nothing was planned.  No one involved in the project was a journalist as far as I knew (I'm not ) and I wondered who would take that role.  I didn't want to navigate that by myself but it looked like they were thinking that I would do it.  That worried me.

Mustang n. A stray horse commonly thought to have descended from Spanish horses.  Origin: From Spanish mestengo, a horse without a home.

A few days later I met Ben Masters, on the street outside the Unbranded office in Bozeman when he was on a break from the trail.   Ben was the guy who dreamed up the trip.  I called him out by name and he was a little surprised since he didn't know me.  He said he probably should get used to people recognizing him on the street and I liked him right away.  Based on the footage I had seen, I already admired his respect for the land and his concern for the horses.

A few months later, after the ride was finished and Will Springstead had finished syncing the dailies and Paul Quigley had finished logging, I started to work on the film.  Paul and Will both did an amazing job setting up the projects for me even though both had only graduated from film school a couple of months earlier.  The syncing took a heap of time but it was essential.  The audio is one of the unsung heroes of the film.  You can hear what people are saying. 

Paul had started out logging dailies in Final Cut 7.  At the time there was no money for Avid and none of us knew if Premiere could handle the amount of footage that was coming in and since I'd already done several films using FCP 7, I suggested staying with it.  Korey Kaszmarek and Phil were shooting so much footage on the trail that one project couldn't handle all the clips and ultimately Unbranded dailies took up 17 or 18 different FCP 7 project files.  I'm not sure how much footage there was.  Dennis always says 500 hours.   Whatever it was, it was a lot.

Before I started in earnest, I asked Phil and Korey to assemble the trips they shot so we could watch them as a team.  Between the two, they put together a long assembly - 13 hours worth.  It took the team, Phil, Dennis, Korey, Paul, Will, Vanessa and me,  a couple of days to watch the assembly and though it probably seemed like a crazy exercise it was a huge help for me - and I'm grateful everyone was up for it.   It was mind numbingly long but it revealed a lot.  The willingness to do the assembly is emblematic of the tone Dennis and Phil set for the post of the film.  Almost no request was too great.  Phil basically handed it off to me to do what I would do and he stayed available to make sure nothing got in the way of the process.  Even though it was a heap of material to go through and a real puzzle at times, the respect for the editorial process and the whatever-it-takes-attitude was a life saver. Still, on some levels, it was a real slog.  I had hoped the assemblies would help me cut the film, that I could cherry pick and build something from them, but I never looked at them again.  Sadly there is no short cut: I had to start the process of looking through everything.  With digital it seems like they never turn off the cameras and I've been told by producers on some projects that the assistant could watch everything and pull selects for me so I wouldn't have to do it myself.  But it doesn't work that way.  Editing is a process of deciding what to use but those decisions are based on deciding what to make out of what you have and what you might need.  I didn't really want to sit through 100 hours of GoPro footage of a horse's butt going up a trail.  But what if something happened in that footage that I could use or could give me an idea that would help the film?  I had to look at what we had.  Luckily Phil had been an editor so he understood the process and wasn't standing around looking at his watch, as in, what's taking so long?

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The Farrier's son was pumping on his dad's chest but the old guy looked pretty well gone to Ben.  The ranch was miles from the nearest town.  Somebody yelled to call in a helicopter.  Tom Glover, one of the riders, ran to the ranch house and found a defibrillator hung on the wall.  He brought it out, tore open the Farrier's shirt and zapped him back to life.   He was still breathing when the helicopter arrived.

 - "Dramatic stuff.  Pull it up.  Let's watch it."

- "It was never shot." Paul replied. "Shoeing the horses was covered but once the Farrier went into cardiac arrest the camera guy put down his camera."

- "Are you telling me, at the start of a 3000 mile trek on wild horses, the subject of a feature documentary, a guy has a heart attack and the riders save his life and someone is there with a camera but he doesn't shoot it?"

- "Right..."

- "How is that possible?"

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Phil and Korey would switch off during the tip every 12-20 days.  There would be cards to ship back to the office and batteries to charge and since Korey and Phil not only had to shoot, they had to take care of their horse and do all the things the other riders had to do, they really needed a break, so they would switch places.  As a result the dailies came in in chunks and that's how the FCP 7 projects were built.  We called them trips; trip 1, trip 2, etc.  I started cutting the film with the last section of the trip, trip 15 where they traveled through Glacier Park toward the Canadian border.  I started there because on most films I've worked the ending gets the least amount of work but needs the most.  I thought if I started there, I would have a clearer sense of where I was heading and also, the last part of the film would have the most time to marinate in my head while I was cutting the rest.  I watched every frame and made a selects sequence as I went.  Then I did a cut.  That cut was 15 minutes long.  Too long.  I did some math in my head and since there were 15 trips, I figured for a 105 minute film each trip would have to be about 7 minutes.  And that was just the travel part, that didn't include the documentary about the plight of the mustang for which there was no material anyway.  And there was still about 460 hours of horse back riding to watch.   Of course I knew we would have to drop some sections of the journey but I thought everything had to have its day in court so to speak so I wanted to cut everything with some kind of eye on the real time constraints.

Pulling selects is a focused activity.  Most people think you just veg out with a bowl of chips perched an your stomach like Homer Simpson.  But it's not.  You have to watch for stuff you can use and be thinking about what you can create.  You have to watch for ways to communicate tension and look for interesting or funny juxtaposition and ways to quickly convey new ideas - set them up and pay them off.  You're looking for anything that isn't obvious.  I think most editors would agree that it's a bit unjust that no one has any idea what an editor actually has to do to make a piece work, i.e. Not Be Boring.  But see, no one cares.  When people watch a cut which is working, they assume it was conceived that way by the director.  And sometimes that's the case.  But even then they have no idea that the reason the ideas flow and the emotions connect with the audience is because someone cut it the right way.  It even sounds stupid here.

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I went back to the beginning and cut the horse shoeing scene, then for the part I didn't have (cardiac arrest and triage) I cut title cards describing the shots I wanted that would show the guys saving the Farrier's life.  I added music and at the end of the scene,  I added a stock shot of a helicopter flying away and a voice-over of Ben saying something about a bad omen.  It seemed to work.  And I thought it was a good way to add a sense of danger or impending doom to the ride.

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After my cut of the arrival at the border, I wanted to cut an open for the film so I could set a tone for myself to follow. I like to have some kind of stylistic color in the back of my head to help me make choices.  But I couldn't do it.  First, I felt like it needed to be about the horses in captivity but I had no material along those lines and second, I didn't know that much about the issue.  I wanted the audience to feel there was a pressing issue that needed to be solved at the beginning - an inciting incident if you will - which is story telling 101 and the right thing to do - but it was a head scratcher.  It kept me up at nights.  How was I to add the facts of the damn horse issue to the film?  One of the producers shot some material of a rancher in Nevada and some interviews in DC but the cinematography was so-so (Phil and Korey weren't involved) and I wasn't excited about using it.  I kept telling Phil and Dennis that I needed material of a round-up and the horses in government holding and some well shot interviews but they wanted to be sure about what to get.  So it was 7 months before they shot any more stuff to address the issue.  Not having a feel for how to integrate the issue drove me sorta crazy.  Ben tells people I lost my mind cutting the film.  That's why.

Nonetheless, before shooting anything pertaining to the horse issue,  Phil and Ben decided to go to Texas to shoot some wrap up interviews with the riders and to shoot a reenactment of the Farrier's heart attack.  Maybe they were bothered by my title cards describing the scene.   Anyway, they brought back some fairly unrevealing interviews but they also brought back an amazing Oscar quality reenactment of the heart attack.  

Too bad we couldn't use it.  

To be continued.... 

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