Just like the first page of a novel, a series’ or episode’s opening 10 minutes acts like a door. If executed successfully, it will make viewers want to run through that entrance, not just walk through it. Those 600 seconds have to not only grab hold of a viewer, but they also have to set the tone of the entire piece. This year, 18 editors are nominated in the nonfiction program editing category for six unique documentary projects. But each agrees that whether it’s a one-off or a series, those first 10 minutes are crucial.
Editor Lindsay Utz mined footage from 2008 for the opening of the documentary about Chinese company Fuyao reopening a factory in Ohio. “Of course we should open in the past to give the audience context,” she says. From there, a title sequence rolled that served to sum up what the documentary would cover, and then a couple of scenes that switch tones from a somber job presentation to a lighter look at American culture. “Getting that humor in there at the beginning was really important to draw the audience in and give them permission to laugh and let them know that this film was not only going to explore difficult themes of globalization, but also be an entertaining culture clash ride,” she says.
A long lens shot of a 6.6 million-pound crawler transporter slowly and methodically carrying the Saturn V to a launch pad is the opening image of the docu about the 1969 NASA moon mission. Crafted from never-before-seen NASA 65mm footage and more than 11,000 hours of uncataloged audio recordings, by director-editor Todd Douglas Miller, the initial minutes immersed viewers. “I wanted audiences to feel like they are right there, standing on the corner of the road and watching that crawler.” Miller relied on math and music instead of narration and interviews for this immersion: “My music composer created a guide track for me that is usually just four chords in 3:4, 4:4 time. It helped to create a subconscious feeling that everything’s in a rhythm.”
Beastie Boys Story
(Apple TV Plus)
Editing together the film version of the Beastie Boys’ 2019 stage-show memoir was a “weird combination of a live [concert] edit, a narrative edit and a documentary edit,” says editor Jeff Buchanan. With the help of editor Zoe Schack, the beginning was put together with archival footage of the trio rapping “Paul Revere.” “‘Here’s a little story that I’ve got to tell,’ is just the perfect line for an opening of a movie,” says Buchanan. It then cuts to various audience members of the live show describing each band member. “The struggle of the film was that we never wanted to say what type of people [the Beastie Boys] were. So [having the audience say it] was a great way of getting the viewers at home teed up to their personalities.”
The Last Dance
Accessibility was the key word while editing the opening sequence of the 10-parter about the Chicago Bulls 1997-’98 season. “We wanted to orient the viewer, so that no matter who you are — sports fan or not — when you watch the open you not only get a sense of [Michael] Jordan’s trajectory, but also what the series is and is setting up to do,” says editor Chad Beck. By minute seven, Jordan as well as Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson have all been introduced. It’s also clear that the Bulls had won five championships in seven years and achieved worldwide fame. “We were telling the story of that season, while also telling the history of the Bulls,” Beck says.
Each episode of the six-part docuseries about the McDonald’s Monopoly cheating scandal had to have its own “emotional hook,” says editor Jody McVeigh-Schultz. Nominated for the third episode, McVeigh-Schultz’s team created a cold open with a chain-smoking mob wife talking about the case, followed by the title sequence. After that, viewers are introduced to the case of million-dollar winner Gloria Brown. “We never answered a cliffhanger within the first 10 minutes of the next episode,” says McVeigh-Schultz. “It was like, ‘Listen. We know you are coming back for the answer to the last episode’s cliffhanger, but here’s a time to hit you with the emotion core of the series.’”
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness
The opening 10 minutes of Episode 2 of the eight-parter about big cat owners is arguably the most shocking. A 911 call can be heard while Joe Exotic tightly bandages a zoo employee’s severed arm. Then Exotic informs customers that a tiger bit off a staffer’s arm and he can offer them a refund or a rain check. “The actual story beats of the series are pretty few and far between,” says editor Doug Abel. “So we got creative about ways to create entertaining tangents. Episode 2 was referred to internally as the ‘cult’ episode where you learn about that aspect of cat people. So to hear about a person whose [arm] is bitten off and then returns to work a week later felt like a good introduction to that idea.”