Director Davis Guggenheim and Editor Dan Swietlik on Footage From Super 8 to HDCAM and Back Again

Talk about your multi-format projects — An Inconvenient Truth has so many visual personalities it's dizzying. The core of the film is Al Gore's traveling presentation on global warming, which was captured during a four-camera HDCAM shoot. That throughline is broken up with short interstitial documentary pieces dealing with Gore's life off the lecture circuit (including that whole President-of-the-United-States thing a few years back) that were shot by director Davis Guggenheim on a panoply of different formats, from Super 8 and 16mm to HDV and MiniDV. We asked Guggenheim and editor Dan Swietlik to talk about pulling the project together.
Davis Guggenheim
Davis Guggenheim made films as an assistant to his father, documentarian Charles Guggenheim, before moving to Los Angeles in 1989, where he started a career that would include director duties on NYPD Blue, ER, 24, Alias, The Shield, and Deadwood as well as the Peabody-winning documentary The First Year. Last year, he was approached by producers Laurie David and Lawrence Bender, who convinced him that his next project should be Al Gore’s traveling presentation on global warming. The bulk of the film was shot on 4:4:4 HDCAM, but Guggenheim employed a variety of film and video formats to tell a more personal story about Al Gore. We asked him how it all came together.

F&V: The film just went into [relatively] wide release this weekend.

DG: Yeah, we’re almost at $2 million, which is unbelievable to me. I couldn’t imagine it.

F&V: Have you spent any time watching it with paying audiences?

DG: Yes. It’s been really fun. I do a lot of television, so you never get to see real audiences watch stuff. Also I’ve made documentaries and I get to go to a lot of screenings where people come because you invite them. But this is people showing up and spending money to go see a film about global warming. It’s blowing my mind ‘ and it makes me very hopeful that maybe the issue is becoming accepted and people are actually taking action.

F&V: When I was at Sundance, I didn’t see this because I was put off by the idea that it was a filmed lecture. And then when it opened commercially, I was surprised at how engrossing and absorbing and visually beautiful it is.

DG: When Laurie David and Lawrence Bender pitched it to me. I spent the first couple hours trying to talk them out of it – for the same reasons, probably, that you didn’t go see it at Sundance. I thought, a film about a slide show? A filmed lecture? I don’t get it. And then I saw his slide show. The information in it is so powerful, and we all just felt like, what if we could give people a front-row seat to this? And it’s been a really challenging but great experience to translate it.

F&V: How early was the structure apparent to you? The presentation itself is interrupted by little documentary segments – and I guess you shot those before you photographed the full-on presentation.

DG: No, most of it was shot after. Some of it was before. And I didn’t know how these personal films, the personal narrative, would cut in. I was changing it up until days before Sundance. But the one thing I knew after I saw Gore’s slideshow was that I had to find a way to tell the personal story, his quest to get the story out, and to describe in a filmic way why he’s so driven. It was sort of hit or miss, how to do that.

F&V: During those segments, I felt it became a personal film in terms of the filmmaker, too. We learn something about how you viewed him and what you had learned being with him through this process.

DG: You know, when we approached him to ask him to do this movie, he didn’t really see why I wanted to do that. He didn’t see why that was relevant. I think it’s true with any film that you need to hook into a person, but it’s doubly true with a film about global warming. Global warming is such an urgent subject, but it’s hard to hold and to touch. It’s so abstract, and so everywhere, but you can’t touch it. We had to find a vehicle to tell the story, and he’s so fascinating. Like he says in the movie, he’s been trying to tell the story for 30 years and he feels like he failed. I thought there was something really interesting in that.

F&V: What formats did you use to shoot the personal segments?

DG: The question is what didn’t we use. There’s 35mm and 16mm. A lot of the stuff on the farm I just shot myself on 8mm film. We used four Sony F950 HDCAMs for the presentation. We shot three different kinds of prosumer HD, both 30 and 24. There’s MiniDV, there’s 3200 black-and-white stills, there’s digital stills, some of them emailed on the day they were taken from as far off as Greenland. There was three or four different types of animation. One of the animators is from New Zealand and emailed me his work. There’s JPEG stuff. Some of the animation was derived on Al’s computer, on his Keynote. A lot of his graphs we redesigned, but when we did this rear-screen projection ‘ which is another whole thing, a 90-foot wide screen rear projection, with this fusion technology to stitch two images together – the only thing we didn’t use was charcoal drawings. I don’t know what else we could have used. Some of our footage, like some of the stuff from Katrina, was this news feed. And the only source was VHS tape.

F&V: Wouldn’t it have been easier on you to shoot everything in HDV, for example, or everything in 16?

DG: Yes, it would have been a lot easier to use one format, but there wasn’t one format. Each format has its own feel and texture and touch. For the storytelling of what Gore’s memory was like of growing up on the farm, some of this 8mm stuff that I shot is very impressionistic. And for some of his memories of his son’s accident, these grainy black-and-white stills were very impressionistic and have a feel that contrasted very beautifully with the crisp hi-def HD that we shot. Every format was used to its best potential. Some of the footage of Katrina has this blown-out video, where the chroma is just blasted, and it looks real muddy, but that too has its own kind of powerful, impactful feeling. If it all looked like one format, I don’t think it would have had the same impact. And part of the power is cutting from Gore on stage with this crisp, hard data to more impressionistic memory stuff.

A lot of interviews I did with him were just sound – just me and a sound recordist with a microphone on DAT. That allowed me to interview him for a very long time without worrying about burning film. That has its effect because it’s very intimate and you don’t stop every 10 minutes to change film and therefore you don’t lose that intimacy. One interview we did, about the 2000 election, was in his hotel room in Santa Monica. We started in the late afternoon with the sun streaming in through the windows. The interview was so intense and lasted so long, that by the end of the interview – it’s in the movie, where he talks about what a terrible blow it was, the supreme court decision against him – we looked up and the sun had gone down and we were in this dark, dark hotel room, because nobody had turned on the lights. We had just gone through this very powerful experience. And if there had been a film crew there with lights and cameras we would never have gone to this dark, deep place.

F&V: Gore was involved with the editing of the film, too.

DG: Yes. There was a sort of understanding that when it came to the science and the data, which he had spent 30 years assembling and building this beautifully constructed argument for why global warming is real, that he would have a strong say in how that was communicated. And he was the only person in the room who was qualified to do that. We would have these long discussions about what needed to be cut. I made long arguments about ‘ there’s a point where when he gives it live it works, but when it’s on film the audience suffers from not having him in the room and they suffer from information fatigue. The sense was for the other stuff, the narrative, personal stuff, that was more my domain and he would have to let us do what we needed to do.

F&V: I was wondering whether it was ever awkward, or if he wished you wouldn’t use something or go to a certain place.

DG: There were some heated discussions, but it was always very respectful. In a strange way, this film had to have a shared authorship. He is very much the author of the science part of this thing, and I am very much the author of how to tell his narrative, his personal story.

F&V: Did he get any kind of screen credit?

DG: No.

F&V: Did you consider it?

DG: I think we all understood that it was important that the filmmakers be the filmmakers and the political rock star be the political rock star. We consulted very closely, but with Laurie David and Lawrence Bender and two wonderful editors, he understood these were real filmmakers making this thing.

F&V: Did you run into any technical problems in post?

DG: Yeah. There were a lot of formatting issues. This new JVC camera [the HD-GY100U] is fantastic. We shot a scene with these Chinese scientists, and it was fascinating. Because it was such a discreet meeting and happened so quickly, and done very secretly, I shot one side of the meeting with 16mm and the other side with this JVC 24p camera. It’s in the film and they intercut without a bump. You don’t know the difference. That’s very exciting ‘ but the camera was so new that we had real trouble finding a way to actually reformat the tapes and get them into the Avid because it’s a special type of 24p. I love that camera. To be able to bring a camera in my bag and be alone on an airplane at three in the morning – where somebody would tell you turn it off but everyone’s asleep – and be able to shoot this stuff of Al working at 3 a.m. on a plane flying over the North Pole to go to China, that’s pretty incredible. But it was a big job for the editing assistants. They were always scratching their heads trying to figure out how to put it all together.

We also used one of the new Sony 30-frame HDV cameras. That stuff of him driving up to his farm was shot in 30-frame, and that had its own formatting issues. We had flickering that had to be figured out. It was less each individual format than it was [managing] so many different types of formats.

F&V: Did you look to other documentaries for inspiration?

DG: I tried to find other films like this, that I could use as a reference or as a guide, or that I could steal from. And I couldn’t. It’s such a strange kind of narrative. But I have my favorites. I’m a huge Errol Morris fan. I really think he’s changed the language of documentaries. And then my father made documentaries, and what he did was sort of personalizing movies with these very intimate interviews. He also interviewed people using just sound only, and you get these very intimate, personalized narratives. Above all, he was my biggest influence. I used a lot of what he used to do. He was my mentor. He was my teacher.

Dan Swietlik
Dan Swietlik, founder of Cut + Run/LA, was one of three editors on An Inconvenient Truth (along with Cut + Run’s Javier Alvarez and independent editor Jay Cassidy). We asked him about his cutting strategy for the unconventional documentary, and about devising a workflow that could handle every format director Davis Guggenheim threw at him.

F&V: How did you get involved and how much of its final form had been decided at that point?

DS: Nothing had been decided. I was cutting stuff before we even shot Al’s presentation. In July, when this project was given the go-ahead by Al and Laurie David and Lawrence Bender, Davis, working with producer Lesley Chilcott, would follow Al around as he gave his presentation from city to city. They would meet him and hang out with him for a day or two while he gave the presentation, interview him in hotel rooms, get some behind-the-scenes stuff of him working. And then they’d spend another couple days on his farm in Tennessee or his office in Nashville. They went with him to China for him to give his presentation there. From July to September, they were shooting stuff that was to be turned into the “filmlets.” At the end of September, we did the two days of shooting his presentation in front of a live audience with four HD cameras.

F&V: Did you end up with more footage than was eventually cut in? What was your strategy like?

DS: We treated the filmlets like standalone pieces, and they kind of got categorized into topics that David had Al talk about, or places Davis followed Al to. They were designed to follow an arc of what might have introduced Al to this topic, things that happened in his life that might have been motivation for trying to be a guardian or a shepherd of the planet, and the ups and downs of his life – obviously the 2000 election is a big piece in there. And then these little filmlets were placed in his presentation so they both unfolded in a way that worked hand in hand. His presentation follows a bit of an arc – the intro to the topic, the evidence that it’s real, the possible consequences if we don’t do anything about it, and then right when everybody’s ready to hang their head in despair, he offers some hope and some suggestions of what we can do about it.

F&V: Were the "filmlet" sections shot on film?

DS: Davis shot every acquisition format known to man. He shot Super 8, HDV, 16mm, 35 …

F&V: All of those in one segment?

DS: Oh, sure. We were intercutting HDV and 16mm left and right.

F&V: Was it a big workflow challenge?

DS: It was a huge challenge. We were working on Avid systems. We developed a workflow where everything should go to 24p HDCAM 4:4:4, knowing that the presentation [shot on HDCAM] was sort of our base for the format we were using. All of the 16mm and Super 8 and HDV would get transferred to that before we started cutting it. We had a lot of trial and error in the HDV conversion processes. Jay and I and Xavier and the assistants were constantly having discussions about how to develop a workaround when we came up against a problem. A lot of it was almost voodoo.

F&V: Through all this you had a Sundance deadline.

DS: For two weeks, if we missed an hour during one session it was all over.

F&V: Did you ever just hit a brick wall with some piece of footage and have to abandon it?

DS: No. Our last resort was just to pull it into After Effects and spit it back out onto HDCAM. That became the thing we knew would work, but it was time-consuming. It was only for those last few shots that we just couldn’t make work any other way. We used After Effects extensively for a lot of the stills and graphics that Al has in his presentation. We’d pull them in and do moves to them and then output those to HDCAM. It was, needless to say, a real learning experience. This whole HD workflow is still just theory.

F&V: HDV was conceived as a consumer format – but it turned out there was a real need for it in the professional space.

DS: The stuff looks awesome with the right camera. We were doing dialogue pieces of Al talking to some people and Davis only had one 16mm camera there so he would shoot HDV for a complementary angle, and we would intercut them seamlessly. If anything, the HDV tended to have less grain. And the highlights were slightly different. Still not the same highlights you get with film – but damn close.