Made in Frame: Julie Cohen and Frank Marshall Create Timely New Documentaries
Who doesn’t love a great documentary? They’re educational, entertaining, and leave us feeling some combination of smarter, inspired, more empathetic, and better informed. Sometimes they even help bring about change.
It’s why we feel privileged to have interviewed the filmmakers behind two docs that screened at the prestigious Tribeca Festival. Every Body, by Julie Cohen (Emmy-winning producer and Oscar nominee for RBG, which she directed alongside Betsy West) is a story that focuses on three intersex individuals and the movement they’re leading to change the way intersex people are regarded and medically treated. Rather chronicles the extraordinary life and work of legendary newsman Dan Rather directed by Frank Marshall, a legend in his own right. But it also examines the issues of truth in news broadcasting and the contemporary media’s role in what (and how) news is framed and presented.
The two films have a lot in common: both made by lauded filmmakers, both about important topics, both incorporating extensive archival footage—and both relying on Frame.io to help them through their production and post.
Like many recent documentaries—including Navalny, this year’s Oscar winner—Every Body chose Adobe Premiere Pro for their film. The Rather team chose Avid. Both editors use both platforms, so what influenced their decision? In this installment of Made in Frame we’ll take a look at each film, their creative choices, and how Frame.io fit into both workflows.
A storied career
After spending eight years at Dateline NBC, multi-award winning producer and director Julie Cohen has gone on to document the lives of some of the most inspiring figures of the 20th century. From Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Gabby Giffords and Pauli Murray (among the biographical docs she’s directed with West), Julie knows how to tell a powerful story that captivates an audience.
Every Body traces its origin story to Julie’s years at Dateline NBC. “I actually have gone back to NBC throughout my whole independent doc career to do consulting work to supplement the sometimes challenging income issues that befall pretty much all documentary filmmakers,” she explains. “And I had a great relationship with my friends at NBC—either freelance-producing pieces for Dateline or, in this case, doing development work for them. In 2018 they were moving into wanting to make some full documentary features, so they hired me for basically a part-time gig over a summer, looking through the Dateline archive and coming up with some stories that I thought might make really cool films or series.”
The “mind-blowing” story that caught Julie’s attention was that of David Reimer, an identical twin who was born male. After a botched circumcision, Dr. John Money, then considered the leading authority on gender and sexual identity, advised Reimer’s parents that the baby could simply be raised female, because gender identification could be taught and conditioned. It will come as no surprise that the story ended unhappily.
Both Reimer and Money were deceased, but Julie kept digging. She learned of Money’s role in creating the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic, where doctors performed “corrective” surgeries on numerous babies and minors who had been born intersex—meaning they possessed both X and Y chromosomes but their physical characteristics made it difficult to definitively state a gender assignment of male on their birth certificates.
The result was that physicians often took it upon themselves to advise how the babies’ genders should be assigned, depending on whether they seemed more functionally male or female. These medically recommended surgeries, performed on children well before they were able to give consent to undergo them, led to generations of intersex individuals who experienced mutilations, gender dysphoria, ostracization, and emotional crises.
As Julie continued her research, she discovered the burgeoning intersex rights movement, which helped her define the subject of this film. “There is so much going on today and yet it’s an under-covered news story,” she says.
The three people at the center of the film—River Gallo, Saifa Wall, and Alicia Roth Weigel—are vocal advocates for change. All have been subjected to the archaic treatments that have been recommended by medical “experts” for decades. And all give us incredible insights into their experience and how much better we can do in terms of how we view intersex people and when (or if) medical intervention is appropriate.
Speeding up the process
As is the case with so many documentaries, making them requires extreme passion and tenacity. The production schedule for Every Body spanned more than four years. “I was making some other films during that period, which was actually helpful because there was a two-year development period that I spent trying to figure out what the current-day story was and who the right people would be to tell it, and also figuring out who would fund it and how it would work,” Julie says. “From the time we started shooting, it was a year and a half till it was finished. That’s less crazy long, but there were about three years of slowly developing it.”
The film deftly blends the archival footage—the story of David Reimar and Dr. Money—into the present-day story and Julie gives credit to archival producers who, she says, “have to be willing to do a lot of work.” In this case, Bridgette Webb was the lead archival producer, and Julie also had help from an additional researcher and the team at NBC News.
But it was Julie herself who screened through the historical footage of anything that was available about Dr. Money. It’s one of the places where Frame.io became such an essential part of her workflow. “I screen all interview footage on Frame.io, usually at 1.75 speed for efficiency. For verité footage, I often scrub through each clip right from the thumbnail, to remind myself of the best parts of the shoot (since generally I was there), and then I go into the good sections and screen from that point. Both the scrubbing on the thumbnail feature and the ability to speed up and slow down footage are super helpful and save me a ton of time,” she says.
When you’re working on documentaries, that can mean a lot. Editor Kelly Kendrick estimates that they were working with approximately 80 hours of original verité and interview footage, and approximately 60 hours of archival.
Julie says, “Basically all interview and verité footage we shot and all archival we were considering was uploaded to Frame.io with burned in timecode as a first step. If we filmed a scene or interview with more than one camera, the AE would often sync them up and put all cameras in the same Frame.io clip, and then the team organized the clips into bins before I screened them.”
As many filmmakers know, there’s a lot of discovery that goes into crafting the final film, especially in documentaries. In this case, Julie describes how much her vision of the story changed. “Truthfully, the percentage of the story that was modern day versus historical really shifted over time. My initial conception was that the historic story would be something like 40 percent of it. My thought from the start was that we’ll get to know these [present-day] people and then we’ll hear the historic story, and then we’ll get into their activism and follow them as they fight this fight that they’re so committed to,” she says. “But what was going on in the current day was so interesting and these people were so engaging that their part of the story grew and grew, and the historical part became shorter and shorter.”
As it turned out, the historical footage that the team used ultimately came from only three or four sources. “The thing that people don’t really understand about archival research is it’s not that you’re necessarily using a lot of things, but you have to look through so many things to find the gems,” Julie says. In fact, there was one particular interview with Dr. Money that the team wove through the whole first act of the film to set up the back story.
When Julie asked Kelly to edit the film, she let him choose which NLE he’d prefer to use. “I chose Premiere Pro because of the way I like to work,” he says. “I get very messy on a timeline when first assembling scenes. I like shuffling things around like a jigsaw puzzle and experimenting with order and shot choice randomly, trying to discover something unexpected. I find that it is much easier to do that in Premiere and, in general for me, everything is faster. I love having multiple timelines open as well, especially when working with reels of selects from different parts of the film.”
The feature that Kelly most appreciates in Premiere is Extend Edit. “It’s so fast and simple and perfect,” he says. “It is very good for getting music to land exactly where you want it, to get rid of flash frames, or to close a gap. It does it all!”
Kelly also found Frame.io essential to their workflow. “Now that almost everything is done remotely, Frame.io became the easiest way to share edits in progress without sharing full Premiere projects. The ability to add time-coded notes, and to be able to organize cuts into folders over time makes it so easy to get quick feedback, and keep track of progress,” he says.
The team continued to use Frame.io during the fine-cut process. “We use Frame.io for graphics, composed music, and the online edit process with our post team. In each case we put a cut of the full film on Frame.io with multiple people weighing in using the notes feature. It’s a great way to keep track of pending issues and make sure we’re all talking about the same graphic or music cue because it’s tied directly to the film,” Julie adds.
Challenges yield rewards
Tight budgets. Scheduling issues. A global pandemic. Those were just a few of the challenges Julie and the team bumped up against over the years. Yet those limitations can yield creative rewards.
Julie calculates they had 13 shoots ranging from one to three days each that spanned the continental US: New Jersey, Texas, Los Angeles. One of the main interviewees, Saifa Wall, is from the Bronx and studying for his PhD in Manchester, England. Julie had originally planned to go to England, but when Saifa told her that there was an art gallery in Berlin in which some artistic nude photos of him would be part of a show focused on intersex people, she instead ended up traveling to Berlin with him. The shoot was a logistical nightmare: taking place during the height of COVID, needing to hire a local crew, filming over Easter weekend. But Julie’s tenacity paid off. It’s one of the most illuminating and moving sequences in the film—one of so very many.
Some of the fine touches to appreciate surround the choice of music. Kelly states that Julie wanted to use gender-flipped covers of popular pop and rock tunes along with an original score composed by Amanda Yamate. “Finding the perfect songs with meaningful lyrics that have an important connection to the scenes was a challenge. To blend verité scenes and dialogue with those lyrics as the scenes were evolving during the edit was another layer,” he says.
And then there is the opening of the movie, for which the team culled through hundreds of videos of gender-reveals—another particularly rewarding sequence for the filmmakers and viewers alike. Again, Frame.io played a role in helping them. “If you can’t look through everything, your creativity is hampered,” Julie says. “Depending on how much time you spend on it, you might end up picking the best 15 out of 100. But if you pick the best 15 out of 300, you’re going to do something better. So any system that works efficiently to let me see more is making me more creative. New tech often feels cumbersome, but I have found the system very intuitive and easy to navigate.”
The final result is a film in which everyone involved can feel a sense of pride—pun not intended, but it’s also no accident that the release of this film comes during Pride Month.
Kelly says, “I think this movie will speak to millions of intersex people around the world who have never had their story told, and the potential of that happening and what positive changes it could make for them—the prospect of that feels very rewarding.”
Beyond that, the film speaks to all people, because most of us have a hazy understanding (at best) of what the term intersex even means, and how we can better support non-binary individuals. The activists at the center of the film are creating change every day—by educating the parents of intersex children about letting them develop into their authentic selves before doctors perform surgical procedures. They’re helping change laws that dictate what bathroom a person should use, and changing the hearts and minds of those who would view intersex people as freaks or outcasts. And they’re creating an active and vibrant community of acceptance and support for all non-binary individuals to feel safe and seen.
Julie’s instincts about the importance of making this film have already been validated. “I think things are starting to change a bit,” she says. “I think they’re about to change a lot more.”
Every Body will be released theatrically by Focus Features on June 30.
Here’s a fun fact: when editor Joe Fenstermaker of Wavelength heard that we were covering Julie’s film along with his, he said, “In our early phases of planning the edit for Rather one of my points of reference was RBG. Like Rather, I thought RBG did an excellent job covering a long and nuanced life that also had a strong resurgence of interest in her final decade.”
Rather is about a lot more than “just” the iconic newsman, though. It’s an examination of the state of news broadcasting today, and explores the idea that mainstream news journalists have historically gone to dangerous lengths to discover and report facts. At least, that’s how it was in Rather’s day, and he’s paid the price for speaking truth to power both in the form of professional and physical attacks. He sums it up in this famous quote: “If you’re going to be in journalism and you want to be loved, you better get a dog.”
Freedom of movement
Speaking of dogs, another anecdote Joe shares is when he was onboarding an editor to the project. “Everything we had to watch and review was in Frame.io—all of our dailies, all of our interviews. I thought, this is great. We have a new editor starting and she doesn’t have access to Avid yet, but I could send her these Frame.io links and she can start watching things,” he recounts.
“She literally ended up on her walks with her dog, listening to them on her phone. So it was powerful that way, because you’re not going to go on a dog walk with an Avid.”
Rather, like Every Body, had its share of challenges. COVID, 60-plus years’ worth of archival footage, a widely distributed team. Director Frank Marshall is based in Santa Monica but was also frequently traveling. Joe is based in Pasadena, and producer Jenifer Westphal is in Philadelphia. Writer/researcher Dan Crane lives in the UK, in West Yorkshire, another editor was in Burbank, and there was their assistant editor who worked out of the Wavelength office in New York, where everything was housed on an Avid Nexis shared server. And, of course, there were a number of executive producers and other creative collaborators who used Frame.io to stay in sync.
“There was a vast web of people who obviously needed a tool like Frame.io to collaborate in real time. The time zones alone meant that real time is a sort of 24-hour cycle,” Joe says. “I’d post a cut at 1:00 am Pacific time, and Dan would just be waking up at 8:00 or 9:00 GMT to watch the cut and give notes. I’d be asleep, but by the time I woke up he’d have been through the cut and left comments in Frame.io.”
“With a team that geographically diffuse, obviously having a central place to be able to sit in a virtual room together and comment on, and react to, each other’s notes and ideas was really critical. I would say we used Frame more heavily on this project than on any other kind of long-form film that I’ve ever worked on.”
A complex story
But let’s get back to the film itself, because you can’t understate the massive amount of historical footage that exists from Dan Rather’s career. From the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of JFK to the Vietnam War and Watergate, Rather was quite literally on the front lines of some of the most significant moments in US history, bringing these stories into the lives and living rooms of tens of millions of people.
“These historical events serve as case studies of what it means to have a free and fair and actively engaged fourth estate, and how essential that is to the function of democracy,” Joe says. “And that is such a relevant and contemporary subject. But because of the state that our politics and media are in at this point, you have to go back and look at historical examples in order to see how the present moment is a uniquely problematic era. And then one person, one journalist, had the unusual good fortune or bad luck, depending on how you want to frame it, of living through all of it.”
In terms of telling the story, the filmmakers had to carefully select the moments that would best exemplify who Dan Rather was as both a person and a journalist. And that’s complicated. Because it’s clear that he’s fearless in both capacities.
“We had a mountain of archives that we needed to organize,” Joe says. “Dan Crane, our writer, was a core collaborator. He has a journalism background and had read all of Rather’s biographies so he could create an extensive outline in prose. He was able to take that broad knowledge of the landscape in which he existed, that encyclopedic knowledge of Dan Rather, and create story stringouts.”
The right workflow
The production timeline for this film was extensive, as well. Joe explains, “The film had been in various phases of production for five years.”
“As you can imagine, it’s a really archive-heavy doc that was very much shaped in the edit,” Taylor says. They’d originally shot about 50 percent of the interviews before Joe was at the helm, and then realized that they needed supplemental interviews to properly finish the film according to the story they were shaping. Andy Cohen, Samantha Bee, Soledad O’Brien, and Ronan Farrow, are among those who contextualize Rather’s legacy and enduring influence.
And then there are the interviews with Rather himself, who remains an active soothsayer and influencer with 2.6 million Twitter followers, many of whom were born long after his 24-year stint as the CBS News anchor. Still as sharp, fearless, and motivated as he was 70 years ago, a new generation relies on him to provide clarity in the midst of a muddied media climate.
Joe honed his documentary chops with other acclaimed directors like Alex Gibney and Morgan Neville, and cut those long-form projects on Avid. “I come from an old-school approach and that’s Avid,” he says.
“I think there is definitely a case to be made for preference. The thing that I find most useful in terms of Avid—and this is to say nothing about the kind of creative timeline editing, but more about the project management aspect of a non-linear editing system—is that Avid is so predictable. It doesn’t have the bells and whistles that Premiere Pro has, the great integration with After Effects. I’ve cut two films in Premiere and probably the rest of my IMDb has all been Avid, but the thing I love about working in Premiere is you can go into Photoshop, change a lower third and then hit save, and there it is.”
“Versus in Avid I have to explore—this is a TIFF and is it the right resolution? And everything that I have to import, I have to make sure that alpha channels are checked. And now I need to do it over because the placement isn’t right because I couldn’t live preview it and it takes forever to just do one lower third because you misspelled somebody’s name and Premiere can do that instantly,” Joe explains. In fact, Joe also states that their GFX company, Spiltt, used After Effects to create the graphic treatments,including the opening title sequence.
“I definitely have a respect and understanding for how powerful a tool Premiere is and that’s why we use it on our shorter form content,” he says. “But ScriptSync in Avid in particular are really powerful and useful tools. I had a 40-hour long archive stringout on just the JFK assassination and a five-hour long timeline, and I just know how Avid is going to behave. I’ve been using Avid for a long time and the user interface hasn’t changed.”
And there was Frame.io. “Going back to the beginning, I sent everything to Dan Crane to watch and review through Frame.io,” he says, and then references the editor listening to interviews while walking her dog. “She could pull out her phone and make comments, and I downloaded them and put them in as markers in Avid. Similarly, maybe I just want to sit on my couch and watch six hours of interviews, so I used Frame.io for that, too. It was very helpful to be able to download those text files and import them directly into Avid. I’m a huge fan of that feature and would love to make use of that on future projects, as well.”
But in terms of this project, Joe mostly just appreciated the ability to work creatively with a widely distributed team of incredibly talented and committed people. “I feel like so often people have the creative vision but they don’t have the right infrastructure or tools to follow through. You need the right people and the right tools to make the creative vision happen.”
Documentary filmmaking is something filmmakers do for love, not for money. They do it because they are passionate about a particular story and want to share those insights and knowledge with those of us who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them. Likewise, we at Frame.io feel so grateful to them for sharing these important films with the world—and for sharing their insights into how they use our product with us and our readers.