“Spermworld”: Exploring the Wild West of Online Baby Making

This post originally appeared on the Adobe blog on June 19th, 2024.

Directed by Lance Oppenheim, FX’s Spermworld is a documentary film that explores the new wild west of baby making, underscoring how fantasies about partnership and parenthood shape our deepest desires. The film provides a portrait of the search for human connection in an increasingly alienating world.

The post-production process was crucial to shaping the film’s unique narrative and visual style. We spoke with Daniel Garber, the editor, writer, and co-producer of the Emmy-contending documentary, about how the team navigated this process. From initial edits to final touches, a variety of tools were integral in bringing this story to life. Among these tools were Adobe Premiere Pro, Adobe After Effects and Frame.io, which enabled seamless collaboration and an efficient workflow. Daniel Garber and his co-editor, Emily Yue, leveraged these tools to tackle the complexities of documentary editing, ensuring the film’s cohesive final product.

Spermworld is now available to stream on Hulu. Continue reading to learn how these tools played a pivotal role in the creation of the documentary.

How and where did you first learn to edit?

My first exposure to editing was when I picked up my dad’s Hi8 video camera in middle school and cut together silly little videos using Windows MovieMaker. In high school, as I grew more ambitious with my short films and web series, I upgraded to an early version of Premiere Pro and spent a lot of time after school and during breaks discovering how small changes to the edit could have huge impacts on the viewing experience. In college, I got a chance to shoot and edit a few films on 16mm—a rare experience that taught me about the importance of being able to visualize changes and anticipate their effects before painstakingly making a cut.

How do you begin a project/set up your workspace?

My physical setup is pretty simple: an M1 Max MacBook Pro, an ultra wide monitor that displays the NLE and a smaller, color-calibrated monitor for playback, an audio interface, and a keyboard and ergonomic mouse. Within the project, the setup always has to respond to the nature of the film—and narrative and documentary projects often call for very different organizational structures – but in either case, it requires a lot of foresight.

On Spermworld, my co-editor, Emily Yue, had a huge role in setting us up for success. We used Productions in Premiere Pro on a shared server in our office and created a project for each of our many shoots. For a documentary like Spermworld that has mountains of footage, doing the extra legwork at the beginning can make all the difference when you’re trying to find footage months later. We auto-transcribed our interviews in Premiere Pro, extensively used markers to annotate our footage, and created redundant organizational schemes to make it easy to find a piece of footage in multiple ways.

Tell us about a favorite scene or moment from this project and why it stands out to you.

In a documentary full of amazing scenes, it’s hard to pick just one, but one that comes to mind is when Ari, the most prolific sperm donor we follow in the film, goes on a road trip to visit a bunch of children he helped conceive. He’s an anomaly in the donor community, both because of how prolific he is (over 150 kids and counting) and how involved he tries to be in the lives of his donor children. In this sequence, you begin to see just how much of a financial and emotional burden he’s created for himself by trying to stay in touch with his ever-expanding family. As Ari is run ragged by his self-imposed sense of obligation to these families, we also get glimpses into the many types of people who circulate through Spermworld.

This section was a huge feat of editing for Emily and me, as it condenses an enormous amount of footage from disparate shoots into one dramatically and thematically coherent sequence. I find it emblematic of the unusual tone that our director, Lance Oppenheim, was after — soulful, sensitive, darkly funny, and strange.

What were some specific post-production challenges you faced that were unique to your project? How did you go about solving them?

Filmmakers often struggle to represent the internet in ways that feel both authentic to the way we interact with our digital devices and aesthetically consistent with the rest of the film. In a film that takes place partially in Facebook groups and follows relationships that begin through digital messages, we had to tackle this challenge head-on. Emily and I deployed a couple of different techniques in concert.

First, we did some world-building by playing a few online conversations as literal text-on-screen, showing a simplified digital interface that evokes social media while paring it down to its essential story relevance. Second, we created a few sequences where our characters read their digital messages aloud, essentially taking their chat history as a script for dialogue. Visually, these sections have either drifting, cross-dissolve-laden montages that intercut the participants’ lives, or split-screen images that convey their attempts to connect online despite their separate physical lives. These techniques really shaped the film’s overall style.

One of the unique challenges, and pleasures, of working on Spermworld was that Lance was still shooting while we were editing the film. At times, his shoots in other parts of the country would coincide with edit deadlines, which meant we needed to solicit feedback remotely. Frame.io was crucial for these periods.

In a documentary, there are often so many ways to tackle a note — the lack of a script and overabundance of footage leaves you with a huge range of options — and often, each one has pros and cons. From our editing room in Brooklyn, Emily and I would offer a few different suggestions of how a scene might be cut or how a note could be addressed. Version stacking made it possible to send a single link to Lance and have him quickly compare multiple versions of the same scene or excerpt so he could offer some guidance as soon as he had a break in shooting.

What Adobe tools did you use on this project and why did you originally choose them? Were there any other third party tools that helped enhance your workflow?

Ever since Premiere Pro introduced Productions, it’s been rock-solid, and my go-to editing software. Emily and I had previously worked on How to Blow Up a Pipeline together, and we deployed a lot of the same tools and workflows on Spermworld. I rely heavily on Notion for both outlining and taking time-coded notes while watching the footage, and we used the third-party Markerbox plugin to bring our notes spreadsheets into Premiere Pro as markers.

Because some of Spermworld’s sequences occur online, we took advantage of Adobe’s tight software integration. Emily used After Effects to create Motion Graphics templates that we used in Premiere Pro throughout the edit, and our title designer, Teddy Blanks, used After Effects to put the finishing touches on all of those graphics. Our additional graphics artist, Elena Lee Gold, made our initial mockups in After Effects. Adobe software was also helpful with audio editing, which helped us clean up really difficult sound recordings. We occasionally relied on Adobe Audition and Adobe Enhance Speech online (before its integration into Premiere Pro).

If you could share one tip about Premiere Pro, what would it be?

Embrace the Remix tool when temping out music. When you’re trying to audition a few different options for music in one place, or you’ll need to go back to the composer to ask for more timing changes — sometimes getting very granular in the music edit isn’t the best use of time right off the bat. It’s not a replacement for music editing, but the Remix tool is a huge time-saver.

How did you use Frame.io during the editing process?

We often used the Frame.io panel in Premiere Pro to export cuts for review, and one of the most helpful features was being able to export markers as comments in Frame.io. Sometimes, Emily and I would have questions about decisions we had made, or we would want to flag moments where we had addressed a note. Comments helped guide Lance or our producers toward those specific spots, which streamlined the note-giving process and helped focus feedback on the things we most needed input on. It was a much more efficient use of everyone’s time.

Frame.io also became a great file transfer and hosting platform for us during the finishing stages of the film. Emily used Frame.io Transfer to deliver materials to our VFX vendor, title designer, and composer, Ari Balouzian. In turn, Harbor used Frame.io to send us confidence-check exports that we could review and comment on. The editorial department becomes a kind of air traffic control tower during the finishing process, and on this project, Frame.io was the airport every department was routed through.

How did you navigate the unique challenges of incorporating VFX into a documentary, and how did Frame.io assist?

It’s rare in a documentary to have VFX at all, but Dana Berry and Rick Lancaster contributed some stylistic flourishes with VFX toward the end of the film that really helped elevate the ending — though I won’t spoil too much. Tonally, this was a fine needle to thread – we wanted it to be a fantastical break from documentary reality, while also remaining subtle enough to feel organic to the film as a whole. That resulted in tons of back-and-forth, fine-tuning size, movement, motion blur, etc.

Similarly, in a film with a ton of cross-dissolves, we often needed to tweak things in the DI to get the exact right flow of one image into another, and fortunately, our post-house Harbor was very patient with us in this process. Frame.io facilitated this process of dialing in the film’s visuals, and we leaned on tools like the ability to draw on individual frames to communicate clearly with our vendors while getting granular with our feedback.

Who is your creative inspiration and why?

On Spermworld, Lance and I took a lot of inspiration from Jim Jarmusch’s films, especially Paterson and Broken Flowers. The pacing and tone of these films informed the way I approached our footage, and the existential undertones of his work also resonated with the themes we were hoping to explore in our film.

What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to face in your career and how did you overcome it? What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers or content creators?

There have been times when I’ve been working long hours, getting completely immersed in the material, and I’ve felt as if I had no distance or perspective. Notes began to feel totally impossible to address, and, early in my career, I felt like that was evidence of my own deficiencies as an editor. In fact, I think part of the job is acknowledging your own limits — knowing when to step away from the keyboard and being willing to draw on other collaborators for guidance. Editors are sometimes valorized for “saving” movies, but that can sometimes create undue pressure on editors to behave like lone geniuses rather than the team players we need to be.

Share a photo of where you work. What’s your favorite thing about your workspace and why?

Ergonomics is important! I have a motorized sit/stand desk, comfy chair, mat, adjustable monitor arms, and vertical mouse, which keeps me feeling good, even on long days.

Michelle Gallina

Michelle Gallina is senior product marketing manager, Creative Cloud: After Effects and Character Animator at Adobe.

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