'Waiting for Superman'
December 7, 2010

'Waiting for Superman'

HOLLYWOOD — Producer Lesley Chilcott and writer/director Davis Guggenheim, the powers behind the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth (climate change) as well as It Might Get Loud (awesome guitar players), take on the American educational system in their latest, Waiting for Superman.

How is it that Americans can be so high in confidence but so low in test scores? When did the educational system stop being about the kids and turn into a political arena? These are just a couple of the many questions asked in this powerful new documentary, which was shot entirely in HD, and makes you question how in the world things got this bad?

Waiting for Superman follows five families from Harlem, the Bronx, East LA, Washington, DC, and Redwood City, CA, along with some education reformers who are doing their best to right this ship. There was a ton of footage and multiple formats used. 

Here, Chilcott (pictured with Davis Guggenheim below) walks us through the production and post process.

POST: What did you shoot the film on and did you employ a lot of stock footage?

LESLEY CHILCOTT: “We shot all HD, and the majority of the movie is original footage, although we did use about 20 minutes of stock and historical footage. We talk about some things in the history of education and have some montages helping explain how our school system got to be such a mess. Our original stuff was shot on the Panasonic Varicam and two Sony EX3s, so all HD ranging from 720p to 1080p. We actually chose to shoot a lot on the classic Varicam, which is tape-based and 720p.”

POST: Why did you go this route?

CHILCOTT: “We chose it for its look, and it’s a favorite of our cinematographer Erich Roland, who has developed his own settings. We were very lucky to have many wonderful cinematographers work with us, but Erich Roland and Bob Richman shot the majority of the film.

“Also, we knew, or hoped, the movie would end up in theaters, and we found from working on other projects that the classic Varicam is really beautiful and easy to run around with, and it films out nicely. We used the two Sony EX3s as second cameras or when we were literally running down the street after someone, covering the lotteries in the film, and when we were in smaller places. It’s an amazing camera.”

POST: How did you go about gathering the stock images you needed?

CHILCOTT: “Things are so much easier now with You Tube as your preliminary search source (laughs). There is a part in the film where we talk about where Americans are internationally in terms of education. We are 21 out of 30 in science and 25 out of 30 countries in math. There is this other study that shows that out of eight developed countries, we are last in math, but when asked about how confident we are in our math skills, we are number one. So we started looking for stock footage of crazy stunts, and sure enough we found our best stuff on YouTube as well as from a couple of movies and other sources.

“We had a full-time clip researcher, Shannon Costello, and our outside expert, Deborah Ricketts, who did a lot of pulls and requests from the networks and the archives, but I think this is the first time YouTube was used as ground zero for things.

“Our assistant editor, Michael Azevedo, and our associate producer, Michael Birtel, even got in on the game. We emailed whoever posted the clip, tracked down the sources and licensed it. The best clip is a home video of a stunt that was posted on YouTube, and through many, many emails, Shannon tracked down the owner and the person who shot it.”

POST: Is there any animation in the film?

CHILCOTT: “We used a heavy amount of animation and stats and charts and graphs because there are a lot of concepts that are difficult to explain visually. One great moment in the film is when we explain how our education system got to be such a mess. We have the school boards of education and we have money coming in from the local level, the state level and the federal level, and all of these buildings and systems and groups that were created to help with everything, and then one day we had so many systems trying to help that we choked the system. Too many competing and entrenched interests that got us to a crisis point, and that’s a difficult thing to explain.  We have a two-minute animation to show how that came to be.”

POST: Who did the animation?

CHILCOTT: “We have this amazing animator named Sean Donnelly who runs Brooklyn’s Awesome and Modest. He did almost all of our charts and animations along with his small team of ubertalents. The animations are the backbone of the film and bring everything together. The rest of the film involves following these amazing reformers and five families that are desperately trying to get into the only good school that is available to them. The animation weaves us in and out of the personal stories we are following. Sean has such a simple style that is used to communicate complex subjects and boil them down to their essence.”

POST: What did he use in terms of tools?

CHILCOTT: “He created the animations in Photoshop and put them together in After Effects, but he used real paper textures on cycles to give things a more organic feel. For the more complex shots, like the proficiency maps of how well students are performing by state, he used Maya so we could have dynamic 3D moves, but kept the same paper textures and line drawn animation to give it the same organic feel.”

POST: Can you talk a bit about the post?

CHILCOTT: “We started post immediately, from even before we shot the first day. Unlike the others documentaries I’ve produced, we shot 72 days, which is a lot. Part of that had to do with the fact that we were actually following these kids and their families throughout their school year. Our editor and assistant editor started digitizing and logging right away. Our assistant editor Michael Azevedo became adept at After Effects and temped in some of our animations using Keynote, which we used on An Inconvenient Truth. We started doing temp charts and graphs on Keynote (our researcher Ryan Gallagher would source the facts, then Michael Azevedo would create them) then turned them over to Sean Donnelly for animation.”

POST: What editing system did you use?

CHILCOTT: “We did everything on Avid Media Composer 4.0, and we had three systems — one for the editor, one for the assistant and another for stock footage searches and logging. We finished the film in the spring and actually started on another version of the software and were completely paranoid about upgrading — we were working on this for two and a half years, but we realized we had to do it. We did it system by system with everything backed up and spent a whole weekend upgrading it.  There were absolutely no problems.
“One of the challenges of the edit was we actually started following more families and more reformers and had to whittle it down as our story unfolded. We all made an agreement never to count the actual hours of footage because we didn’t want to know. We upgraded to 4.0 halfway through the film, and as we were finishing 5 came out, but we weren’t going to change at that point.”

POST: Who were the editors on the film?

CHILCOTT: “The main editor was the wonderful Greg Finton, and he was on the project from beginning to end shaping the story. We also had the amazing editors Kim Roberts and Jay Cassidy editing later in the project as well. It took the talents of all three to complete this very complicated subject.”

POST: So you had a ton of footage, how did you get it down to what you needed?

CHILCOTT: “With the families we were following, we went through that footage and edited it as we were shooting. We did something interesting —  until we heard we were going to Sundance, we kept the movie as two separate movies. Our editing room had three walls covered with tiny little colored index cards that had whole ideas on them or names of the kids we were following or names of the amazing reformers. One Davis called ‘The Folly of the Adults,’ explaining what has happened over the years as we have devolved into fighting about issues amongst adults and many times the kids are not put in first position. That was film one,  and was about an hour-and-a-half long.

“The other film was also an hour-and-a- half, and that was the story of the five kids and their families that we were following.  Those were kept as separate movies right up until December — we were going to Sundance in January. We had the challenge of all three editors very bravely combining the two movies into one. It was a very challenging way to edit but very productive in the end because we found natural jumping off points.”

POST: Did the editors work alone and show you different versions along the way?

CHILCOTT: “We did a lot of shooting then editing, shooting then editing. It really was simultaneous because as we were following these kids as they were applying to get into schools — schools that didn’t have enough spaces. We would shoot for a while and we knew we had downtime until the next event came up, so Davis Guggenheim and I would be back in the office in Santa Monica working with the editors. For the first year it was just Greg Finton and Michael Azevedo.”

POST: Where did you do the finishing and how much did you touch the look of the film in post production?

CHILCOTT: “We did all our finishing at Company 3 and we did it the way we did on It Might Get Loud. For this, we colored in film space with Stephen Nakamura. The only thing we did differently this time is we did all the conforming in-house, at Jay Cassidy’s suggestion, which was fantastic for us because we could rent the equipment that we needed but we could do it on nights and weekends.

“Mike Azevedo did it all. We took everything on a drive to Company 3 and we conformed the entire movie with the exceptions of special sections that had Flame or other effects work they were doing for us, and they would just drop that into our conform. We did the film-out at EFilm and did our prints at Deluxe, and home video at DDM.”

POST: Where do you do your audio post?

CHILCOTT: “The incredible Skip Lievsay,  along with Joel Dougherty, designed and mixed at Warner Bros, and all of our narration was done at Margarita Mix as well as our temp voiceover sessions.”

POST: Knowing what you do now, if you had to do this again, would you change anything?

CHILCOTT: “I don’t’ think so. The only thing I was ever nervous about was the upgrade process, and I would definitely take on the conform ourselves. The reason being the conform makes sense to do internally when you have a project like ours with so many different formats. It would be one thing if we consistently shot only our main camera, which was tape-based with DVCPRO tapes, but we would shoot with the card system in the Sony EX3s and edit those at full resolution. We would lower the tape-based stuff to 14:1 or whatever made sense at the time, but if you have 20 minutes of stock footage that might be on DVD, QuickTimes, VHS, HDCAM, HDSR, Digi Beta, it could be really expensive to conform out of house. It made a lot more sense for us to digitize at full resolution our DVCPRO tapes and drop it in ourselves and then let Company 3 know what was missing.”