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Process of Making a Historical Film / Case Study: A Midwife's Tale


Preproduction Production >Postproduction<

Assembly Cut
Rough Cut
Fine Cut
Picture Lock

Sound & Voices
Foleys & ADR
The Mix

  Editing the Picture:

A film's staff shrinks when production is complete. Although a large cast and crew may have been required to capture the images and sounds needed for the film, when editing begins, a handful of people work in a darkened room, to shape the footage into a film.


  Assembling the Footage


The first step for an editor is to screen all of the footage--and then assemble the best shots for each scene in order. The outcome, called an "assembly cut," typically does not play well, and lasts about twice as long the finished film. But it includes most of the material that will make it into the finished film (along with a lot that will be cut or shaved). At first, editor Susi Korda took about a week just looking at all of the footage in the editing room (getting familiar with her raw materials). She then pieced together the assembly cut, sticking closely to the script.




Getting to the Rough Cut



Editors talk about "discovering the film" in the editing room. Editors aim to realize the story line and the thematic intentions of the writer and director. But good editors often find unforeseen solutions and effective juxtapositions that surprise (and delight) the writer and director. After editor Susi Korda screened the assembly cut with Dick Rogers (the director), me (the writer/producer), and Laurel Ulrich, we discussed what did and didn't work. The assembly cut was emotionally flat, and we talked about different ways to reshape the overall film--and individual scenes. Laurel spoke about the thematic elements that were essential to her. And Dick and I drew story graphs again, thinking through possible solutions. Susi began the process of whittling down the assembly cut. Quite a few scenes hit the proverbial "cutting room floor," and others were restructured. The film began to take shape. Another editor, Bill Anderson, was brought in. And after three months, the combined hard work of Korda and Anderson led to the film's "rough cut." The film's final shape and structure were in place. But the film was still rough, and about 15 minutes too long.



  Tightening the Film to a Fine Cut

After a rough cut, the incremental effect of many small editorial decisions can be strikingly dramatic. The emotional impact of a film can be radically altered by subtle changes in the film's rhythm and pacing, by small alterations in the way shots are juxtaposed, and by slight, but important changes in the interplay of sound and image. Dick and I gathered different sample audiences to react to several versions of the rough cut. We also screened the film for the senior staff of The American Experience, the PBS series which would broadcast the film. After finding out what these varied viewers found boring, intriguing, confusing, redundant, etc., editor Bill Anderson made thousands of adjustments. He worked to make the individual scenes play dramatically. And he struggled with the choice of voiceovers and their placement. With too much of Laurel's voice, the film became a dull illustrated lecture. But if too much of her voice was deleted, the film became little more than a wash of beautiful images. It was a delicate balancing act. After several months, Bill reached the "fine cut," when the film was working and was close to its desired length, but needed a final polish. With a few more weeks of tweaking, we finally locked the picture.



  Locking the Picture


When the picture editing is finalized, it's a "picture lock." On A Midwife's Tale, small but critical changes in both the images and the wording and placing of voiceovers were made up until the last minute. It was then time to complete the sound track of the film: the music, voices, and other sounds that belong in the world of the film, matching them to the locked picture--frame by frame.



  Music Composition


The emotional impact of a scene is heavily influenced by its music. Watching the same scene with different types of music is a simple but very instructive experience. Depending upon the music used, a shot of someone walking up the stairs, for example, can be made to feel hopeful, menacing, or even triumphant.

Early on, the decision was made to use music sparingly, taking advantage of tunes and instrumentation that belong in Martha Ballard's world. During my research phase, I sought out the advice of several experts who know about 18th-century American religious music and popular music. They recommended a wide range of tunes and songs, and some were written into the script, performed or sung by the film's actors: a lullaby, a religious fugue, two drinking songs, and a marching tune.

The film's composer, Todd Boekelheide, used the lullaby and chose several other 18th-century tunes when composing music for the film. He scored what he wrote for period instruments that would have been in Hallowell (baroque string and wind instruments), but did not slavishly replicate the sounds of music Martha might have heard. To strengthen the film's interplay between the 18th and 20th centuries, and to reinforce the idea that the film is Laurel Ulrich's and the filmmakers' reconstruction of the past, Todd sometimes took period tunes and period instruments in decidedly modern harmonic directions.




Final Sound Editing and Mixing

  Sound Effects and Voices


Sound editors work with huge libraries of commercially available recorded sounds--libraries in which one can find not one, but hundreds of different cricket or fly sounds to choose from, for example. Some sound editors also like creating and recording their own sound effects. Most of the sound effects in A Midwife's Tale were natural sounds of rural animals, insects, wind, rain, etc. The sound editors also spent a lot of time improving the sound of the voiceovers for both Laurel Ulrich and Martha Ballard.



  Foleys and ADR

Learn more about
Film Sound Design
and Theory

A Foley studio is a soundproof room with a remarkably eclectic collection of fabrics, household objects, pieces of metal, small floor patches of different materials (wood, stone, gravel, sand, etc.), and hundreds of other objects used to make and record sounds to enhance whatever sound was recorded on the film set: clothes rustling, footsteps, pouring water, objects being placed on tables, etc. Foley artists precisely match the sounds they make in the studio with the locked cut which is projected on a screen while they work. For example, they match their footsteps with the footsteps on the screen while walking on the patch of studio floor that has the right kind of surface (gravel or dirt or wood). Or they create the sound of cloth rustling to match the exact movements (and type of cloth) of a character moving (sitting, standing, running, etc.) in the film.

ADR (additional dialogue recording) is dialogue added to a locked cut-- recorded in such a way that it will precisely match the picture. Sometimes dialogue is added because the dialogue recorded on the set was not clear enough. Off-screen dialogue, crowd noises, and other voices are also added as ADR.



  The Mix

Sound editors arrive at a sound mix with their many different types of sounds (music, sound effects, voices, Foleys, etc.) separated out on multiple sound tracks--dozens of them. During the sound mix, which can take as long as several weeks for a complicated film, these tracks are combined and levels are all adjusted to make the film's final sound tracks.



  Reaching the film's many audiences: publicity and distribution


A film producer's job is not finished when the film is completed. The producer must launch the finished film into the world, spreading the word, and finding the best distributor for the film. In the case of A Midwife's Tale, we had multiple audiences to reach: professional historians and history buffs, healers and midwives, people interested in the history of medicine, senior citizens, fans of the book, and people who want to know more about women's lives in the past. Screenings were held with all of these audiences. And the film received coverage nationwide in newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV.

A Midwife's Tale premiered at Harvard University's Carpenter Center on February 27, 1997. And its March 1997 premiere in Maine was a weekend-long event of screenings, dinners, and seminars hosted by the Maine Humanities Council. A Midwife's Tale was shown at film festivals in San Francisco, Vancouver, Chicago, Washington DC, the Hamptons NY, Colorado Springs, St. Louis MO, Palm Springs CA, Northampton MA, and elsewhere. On January 19, 1998 it was broadcast as the opening show of the tenth season of the PBS series THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. It is now available through PBS Video (for personal and educational copies) -- and is used by schools, universities, health and community groups around the world.




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