Arson Dogs: Editing a Web Series
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Kylee Peña : Arson Dogs: Editing a Web Series
If a thing happens and nobody writes about it, did it really happen? Of course the answer is no, which is why I'm writing a post about a project I finished editing in September. But there is some freshness to it: it's actually airing nationally(ish) this week. You could have seen it online this whole time, but there's something about a thing airing nationally(ish) that brings a new layer of legitimacy to it.
Editing a show filled with shots like this was okay.
One of my most complicated projects to date at Biscardi Creative Media (or anywhere, really) was started in July, right after the conclusion of the fourth season of the This American Land for PBS...so ya know, "okay good job, *shoves you out window*" basically. It was a web series called Arson Dogs, featuring beloved dog trainer Victoria Stilwell as she visited and learned from State Farm's arson dog training school in rural Maine.
Arson dogs are super-duper energetic dogs that are trained to go into a fire scene (after the fire is gone) and try to find accelerants like gasoline so samples can be taken and arsonists can be convicted at a higher rate. It's really hard to find this stuff in a fire scene since petroleum is found in everyday products, but the dogs seem to have no problem. In fact, a large part of the schooling is really training the eight handlers in the class to handle and read the dogs.
The training is based upon positive reinforcement, which aligns perfectly with Victoria's personal training mission too. But to make it difficult for her, the arson dogs' energy isn't curbed and they're never trained not to pull on their leads, so working with such dogs is much different for someone who typically deals with obedience.
This show had 6 black labs and 2 yellow labs and I still know this is Fresca.
BCM cut a trailer for the show before I started my edit, so I was vaguely familiar with where some things were. But once I actually began to look at everything for real, I had some concerns.
For one thing, there was a massive amount of footage. Like not just a lot of clips, but a lot of multiclips where conversations would last for over 45 minutes and cover two dozen topics between 10 people. And for another thing, almost ALL of the dogs were black labs. I'm not exactly sure why that was a concern, but I had a brief moment of panic about not being able to tell the dogs apart, like it really matters. (And by the way, at the end of this edit I could easily tell all the seemingly identical dogs apart.)
Victoria was the audience POV as she became a student again to learn new training techniques.
Victoria's team did some logging and organizing of the footage THANKFULLY which really allowed me to find my way around much more quickly than if I would have had to do all that myself. They handed off the Adobe Premiere Pro project with all the logged clips, and I duplicated it and started working within it after reconnecting all the media from a NAS. Everything was split up by day, and then put into bins based on major events or locations. Interviews were separated out and labeled, which helped me figure out who was who in a cast that included 8 handlers, 3 trainers, 1 spokesperson, and a lot of dogs. I spent the better part of a week watching almost everything and adding markers to the timeline with descriptions.
The Marker window was especially helpful in long multiclips.
Here's the thing that made it complicated for me though. I had a sort of outline. Maybe like twelve sentences? It was more of a suggestion based upon the experience the team had in the field. Like "maybe you can split the episodes up like this?" Or maybe not. It was up to me. If 20 three minute episodes was best, I would do that. Much fewer longer episodes? Do that. Okay.
While I was watching everything, I was trying to take notes about what story lines might emerge and what characters were best to focus on for each episode. With the school being fairly linear, and with the footage covering the first three days and the last two days of the five week schooling process, I had a basic structure to work from. But besides "second day of school", what was it really about? And how much sponsor information do you sprinkle in? When?
Victoria's team logged and organized the 4000 clips in the project.
These weren't on a tight turnaround necessarily, but I knew once I started delivering, they would be due on a weekly basis. And I was doing all the color correction, sound and graphics myself. I wanted to get to the edit as quickly as I could, so I decided to just start making harsh decisions as quickly as possible. As I watched and placed markers, I made notes in a text file about sequences that would work in each episode. It became an ever-changing living document where I constantly moved segments around, shuffled them within an episode, or pushed them back to another episode.
I'm really weird about outlines. I find it difficult to write things without an outline of some kind. When I edit unscripted stuff, I'll write down a quick roadmap of where I think I want to go. It's impossible for me to start doing anything until I have a scribbly little list that I'll never look at again.
My favorite dog (yes favorite), Sadie, after investigating a fire scene with Victoria.
I was thankful to have a basic understanding of a higher level of finishing audio within Premiere, too. So many microphone sources, many of them with wind or underneath a scarf. I'm not an amazing sound mixer by any means, but a little compression and EQ was going a long way for me. Color correction was done with Red Giant's Colorista II, which is about a million lightyears better than the 3-way color corrector inside Premiere. I had minimal issues with Premiere Pro (2013), except for autosave becoming really slow toward the end...and the occasional export not exporting correctly for no particularly good reason.
I built the minimal motion-y graphics inside Premiere (2013) so I could react to feedback more quickly.
Here's the other thing that complicated it for me: there really wasn't any established structure to the show. So while I was putting together the actual content for each episode, I was simultaneously considering how to package it together, and pulling clips for a title sequence. I ultimately decided on a fairly tried-and-true web series formula: a cold open with some kind of hook, a short catchy title sequence, the episode content, then a tease for the next week. There's nothing inherently difficult about any of this, I know. It's just thinking about it all at the same time was a little challenging at times.
I used a lot of Rampant Design light leaks for some quick transitions with minimal effort.
I held back the first two episodes (which were more of a two-parter for the first day of training, setting up the training and introducing the guys to their new dogs) until they were both entirely finished before I showed the clients. To my utter relief, they were totally thrilled with the style and structure.
So that's always a whew.
After that, I put my head down and tried to keep editing as quickly as I could to turn in episodes on a weekly basis for posting the following Tuesday. I had selects timelines with all the moments I wanted to use for each episode, so if I was skimming for something for episode 4 and I saw something I thought I'd probably want for episode 6, I'd take it and toss it in the other timeline. I was relying heavily on clip descriptions and markers for orientation within longer multiclips (rather than subclips) and I liked that method a lot.
Dogs are awesome.
From a story perspective, this is fascinating content any day. But a challenge I had was keeping the energy levels up for the viewer. The guys in the class were there for the long haul. And they were law enforcement officials, so it's not like they're going to be overly dramatic or bouncing off the walls with fear and excitement. So it took a little editing magic to keep things fast and exciting. Nothing tricky or fake, just condensing time and combining it with the best, most heartfelt moments, like you do. But man, there was a lot of sifting to find those.
Dogs are really awesome.
In the back of my mind through the editing process, I knew the ending was going to be a challenge. There was no footage of the actual certification process (and I'm not sure it would have been allowed), so I had to deal with a time jump from anticipating certification to a post-graduation celebration. There wouldn't be any moments where anyone found out on camera that they were official an arson dog handler, which is a bummer.
I didn't really have anything to use other than a celebratory dinner in a dimly lit room. But I did have one thing, possibly unintentionally: after certification, all the guys had official portraits taken in their dress uniforms and someone had left a camera to run on the scene. So I let music and heavy visuals drive the point home that they had passed and were celebrating. Did it work? I think so, especially considering what was given.
The handlers are all fire marshals and fire fighters throughout the country.
I edited eight episodes of the show (6 in the linear narrative and 2 training-related supplements, a little over an hour of show content) and I've seen endless positive comments on it which is gratifying considering trying to put together the whole package of the first two shows probably took about five years off my life expectancy. Not that it was the client that did that, no, they were great. It was self-inflicted. I love dogs and I wanted to do their show right, man.
The only bit of the show made in After Effects -- provided logo plus fire elements and smoke from Rampant Design.
Serving as my own producer on this made it kind of a new experience for me. I mean, I've cut plenty of unscripted stuff before and I've been a producer on that stuff. But the experience of working on so many episodes at once was...kind of new. I really enjoy the problem-solving side of editing, and a lot of this edit was just that, trying to make things work together that were almost working together.
Sinking into the actual craft of the thing was a little harder since I was never really entirely dedicated to one show, always trying to keep eyes open for bites that would be THE defining bite for a later episode. But I really enjoyed it.
I also learned some things about myself. Like every time I do a project like this, I have faith in my first judgment decision-making skills. If you can't go into a project with a whole huge mess of stuff to work with and make quick editorial and structural decisions, you can't hit deadlines. And you can't satisfy a client unless those gut instincts are usually right.
And my time management and estimation skills are pretty spot on. Eyeballing a project and estimating the time it takes? I'm not terrible at that. Any time I can add a little bit of faith in these kinds of abstract skills, I'm appreciative of the project.
As a cat person with a reputation, this dog's face makes me want a dog.
And you wanna know a confession? I miss all the dogs. ALL OF THEM. I can tell them apart by their little faces, and I miss hanging out with them. I would be their friend. I'm hoping for another season (which looks very promising!) so I can meet more dogs and be their friend too.
I also loved editing a project about something that really matters to people and animals. These dogs are generally considered to be undesirable because they're too energetic, and many of them were in line to be euthanized. Instead, they're working with law enforcement, in an atmosphere where their crazy energy is put to good use dramatically increasing the number of arson convictions. Dogs on the brink become heroes. I'm not crying you're crying.
Look at his vest, I can't even.
Which brings me back to my opening paragraph. You can meet these dogs (and humans) online. Or you can watch them at some point on DirecTV's DogTV channel, which is apparently 24/7 programming for dogs -- except for this week, which is human-related dog programming. Like Arson Dogs. (Newbie tip: If someone asks you to cut something exclusively for the web, keep your graphics title safe anyway. Because you never know when they'll say "actually, DogTV wants to air it.") They're doing a free preview of the channel for Thanksgiving week, maybe so your dog will get hooked and you can order the channel for them for Christmas!
Stills in this post are from Arson Dogs, copyright Victoria Stilwell Enterprises, except for my interface screenshots which copyright nobody.