Twelfth Night mini-doc: how forming a story in advance aids editing on deadline

Over the holidays and into January I spent parts of four weeks working on what became a mini-documentary about a 40-year run for a local theatrical performance coming to an end. Here’s how I put together the video while meeting family holiday obligations and my deadline.

Every winter that I’ve worked at The Day, I’ve read our coverage of the Chorus of Westerly‘s Celebration of Twelfth Night and thought “that would make a good video story.” And every year, I put it off because family obligations over the holidays have prevented me from dedicating the appropriate amount of time to the story.

Twelfth Night is a massive undertaking that mostly takes place in the two weeks following Christmas. In simple terms, it is a holiday pageant backed by a huge chorus and a live band. But really it’s so much more than a pageant or musical theater. I had always thought about a documentary project that shows all the work that takes place over such a short period of time. I didn’t want to shortchange the story by going to a single rehearsal and doing a few brief interviews.

Well, I put off the story year after year, and the chorus announced that this year, the 40th Twelfth Night, would also be the last. So much for waiting until next year. Besides that fact that I might not get another chance to shoot this story, the added emotional impact this performance being the last made the story even more interesting.

As with every year, I had vacation time planned and family to visit, so scheduling would be a challenge. I could have done this as a daily story – shoot b-roll at one of the rehearsals and get sound bites from a few key people – open with a quote about how it’s sad that this is the final year, a bit of voice over explaining what Twelfth Night is, quotes about why they decided to make this the last one and what they are looking forward to in the future – cover it with a few sequences of the rehearsal – shoot edit and publish in one day. I didn’t want to go this route because I would be leaving so many things out.

I had two big scheduling challenges to deal with: I would be in Vermont for a week visiting family, and the print story that this video would be paired with would be published Friday morning as a preview of the performances on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I would have a good amount of time to shoot rehearsals, but would only get one chance to see the performance with full costume and lighting – the Thursday night dress rehearsal. I figured at least half of the final product needed to look like actual performance, so that would leave me with a lot of editing to do between 9:30 p.m. Thursday and 5:00 a.m. Friday.

The best way to save time would be to get the interviews done in advance, and establish my storyline before doing the majority of the shooting. A college friend who produces documentaries for public television once told me that his company gets the outline for their entire 60 minute program down on paper before they shoot their first interview. This helped me tremendously. I watched a DVD of a past Twelfth Night with a co-worker who is involved with the chorus. She gave me a crash course in the show’s many traditions. Each year there is a new plot, but certain characters and elements are included in every performance. We zeroed in the “Now have good day” speech by Father Christmas, a moment near the end of the show combines a sense of closure with a feeling of optimism looking forward to next year’s performance. As Jill, my co-worker put it: every year you know that Father Christmas will be back, except after this year he won’t. I locked in on this moment for the opening and ending of the video.

So how did I go from an idea to a published video? Here was my workflow:
-Make a list of all the unique and interesting things about Twelfth Night
-Make a list of potential interview subjects
-Informal phone interview with the Executive Director to get background information
-Get a schedule of auditions, stage construction, costume fittings, rehearsals, etc.
-Write an outline of what I imagine the final story will look like
-Create a list of questions that follow the above outline

I had a list of about a dozen potential interviews, but I only got to about half of them due to timing. Still, once I did a preliminary edit, I had about 33 minutes of good material – way too much for what I imagined as being about a ten minute video. As I was editing this down I had two major problems: I was cutting quotes that I really liked, and I was missing a few key pieces. The cutting thing is a good problem to have. A former co-worker calls this killing your babies. It streamlines the piece and forces you to think critically. The other problem was one I could easily fix with voiceover, but that didn’t fit the aesthetic I was going for. As I conducted the interviews, each time I refined the way I asked the questions in order to get complete thoughts from the subjects that would flow with the rest of the quotes I used. I had the entire interview track edited before the final conversation with the actor who played Father Christmas. I was fortunate that he gave me great responses that fit perfectly.

Going into the Thursday night dress rehearsal, I had many smaller sequences edited, but had big holes that needed to filled with shots from the actual performance. I had seen a run-through on Tuesday and had a copy of the script, so I had a list of specific shots I wanted to get. The run-through had also demonstrated how bad the sound in the hall was, so I set up Father Christmas with a wireless mic. I used two cameras, so I would have wide and tight shots to cut between. I could have used an assistant or two to operate other cameras, but such are the limitations of the solo video journalist.

The preparation paid off, as I was located right where I needed to be for the final speech by Father Christmas. Naturally, there would be one more hurdle. Right after the speech, a bell rings twelve times. Usually this takes place off stage, and I had been trying to figure out how I could be in two places at once. I found out from the director that this year the bell would be on stage for the first time ever. The problem was that the executive director wanted to keep this a secret until the performance. The bell was not actually rung during the early rehearsals, and I found out just before the dress rehearsal that the bell would ring in the dark. I had already built the ending of the video around the ringing of the bell, so I had to scramble to get some shots of the bell after the show so I would have some visual representation.

I was back to the office by 10 p.m. and still had several hours of editing to get to the finished product. I only managed a few hours sleep before getting back to work Friday, but I felt it appropriate that I put in the work to create a video piece that reflected the passion and the long hours of the producers of Twelfth Night.

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