Sundance 2020: The Importance Of Editing In “Boys State”

Editor Jeff Gilbert, ACE working at the edit bay in Adobe Premiere Pro on the documentary, “Boys State”

With the Sundance Film Festival 2020 opening today, we decided to take a closer look at the “Boys State” screening in the U.S. Documentary Competition, a work that promises to be a political, coming-of-age film examining the well being of the American democracy. The documentary covers an unusual trial: The gathering of a thousand 17-year-old boys in Texas who band together to build a representative government from the ground up. Produced and directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, “Boy’s State” hones in on the story of four boys of diverse background as they attempt to establish a governor. 

I talked with Film Editor Jeff Gilbert, ACE, who, along with Connor Hall, assistant film editor, commenced work on the project just over a year ago. Gilbert talked about the role of being a film editor: “The challenge became finding the central storyline and telling it in a succinct narrative,” Gilbert says.

“The vastness of the story needed to be overcome,” says Gilbert, “Having an election and a lot of legislative material added different contextual levels to the film, which was great. But we also needed to reveal the characters of these boys. As a result, the process became sharpening and defining the right turning points in the story to get to know these boys, and to have a better understanding of their political motivations.”

Steven Garza appears in “Boys State” by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Thorsten Thielow.

Gilbert believes an extended editing period helped capture this. “Everyone put their heads together and decided to slow down the editing process to tease out the best footage,” he explains.

“Although the film covers a campaign election, and one that drives the central storyline forward, we still felt that there needed to be more,” says Gilbert. “We all wanted to make a film that spoke to larger themes. There are scenes and moments in there that don’t necessarily drive the main plot forward, but they are meaningful in a larger way. It was finding the balance between scenes revealing elevated discussions of policy, and those revealing character. During the edit, we took the time to find out where every little bit belongs…”

The film was shot in just seven days, with cinematographers Thorsten Thielow and Wolfgang Hel using Canon EOS C300 Mark II and ARRI AMIRA equipment. Matching these formats was not an issue in post. “The AMIRA was used for all of the interviews, so it came in a different resolution compared to the C300, but technically it all worked out seamlessly,” Gilbert says.

Jeff Gilbert, ACE

Audio played a key role in this movies as well.

“Music is an important part of the process, and it’s the same with sound design,” Gilbert explains, saying that “Boy’s State” was cut with temp music offline. “I like to build up the environment as much as I can, then when we go to the mix, it’s a matter of sweetening and enhancing, and composers get a sense of tone and pace, and something to help them find their own voice in the work.”

Discussing the notion that editing is an invisible art, one that is not necessarily “seen” by the audience engrossed in any given film, Gilbert feels that: “You can’t have a successful movie without good editing…but, to your point, it’s tricky to pin down exactly what makes editing good. But you sure know when it’s not. I definitely struggle at times to articulate exactly what’s good or bad.”

The timeline and preview panels in Adobe Premiere Pro for the film “Boys State.”

When I questioned Gilbert about knowing when a scene or sequence is finished, he says that there is much to consider. “I think you know a scene is working well when it is serving the overall story, and not just serving itself,” he says. “There are always the ‘babies’ you have to kill which, in isolation, are great scenes… but they just don’t drive the story forward. A lot of it is about instinct, about taste and trust. It’s a collaborative art: It’s when everyone agrees.”

Gilbert says that the directors provided the right leadership for the project.

“Jesse and Amanda’s curiosity led the way during the whole editing process,” says Gilbert, on working alongside the director/producer team. “Our tastes aligned well, and we had a solid cut ready for Sundance this year, so it really paid off…. They always find interesting characters in worlds that are very specific. There is meaning and resonance to this film in particular. They brought me into a world that I didn’t know, or wouldn’t necessarily ever know, a film that reveals the microcosm of youth within the larger political climate of America today.”

Amanda McBaine, director of Boys State, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Jesse Moss.
Jesse Moss, director of “Boys State”, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Amanda McBaine.