Go behind the scenes with Adobe and co-director Pippa Ehrlich in this Oscar-winning documentary.
Netflix My octopus teacher, a nature documentary that captures the incredible friendship between a filmmaker and an octopus, delighted audiences around the world. The insightful and intriguing film brought people together in an unprecedented and uncertain time last year. The film has won several awards this season, including the Oscar for best documentary, the ACE Eddie Award for best edited documentary (feature) and the BAFTA award for best documentary.
Co-director and co-editor Pippa Ehrlich takes us behind the scenes of the breathtaking documentary and shares her journey to film.
How and where did you first learn to work?
I’ve been making films since I was at Rhodes University in South Africa. I specialize in documentary film. Back then, Premiere Pro wasn’t the most popular tool in the industry and many professionals were still using Final Cut or Avid, but for some reason our school decided to use it Premiere Pro and i’m so glad they did. Many of the early changes we made were short news, but for our last project we had to deliver a 24-minute documentary – even then it was clear that integrating various creative tools on one platform was invaluable.
How do you start a project / set up your workspace?
I have used Premiere Pro so long that I generally only stick to the standard editing workspace that has been set up and make sure that the program monitor is displayed in full screen mode. On this project we had to juggle a lot of hard drives, which became frustrating, so at some point we had to pack the project and relink the files later. Most of the editing was done at Craig [Foster, subject and producer] Attic so we didn’t have a lot of space to work. In my editing suite at home, I try to have almost nothing on my desk because it’s distracting, but I rely heavily on Post-its!
Tell us about a favorite scene or moment from this project and why you notice it.
It’s hard to pinpoint a particular scene. In the early part of the movie, I love the sequence that James Reed (my co-director) calls “User picture Scene. “This is the part of the story where Craig gets his purpose back and really begins to rediscover the marine forest – a feeling he had felt cut off from since childhood.
However, when I get back to editing I have to say that the scene that really stood out while editing was the sequence that covers the final stages of The octopus teacher‘s life. We always wanted to save three minutes a day, but this scene was so powerful that I think I ran through about ten minutes in one afternoon, and when I showed it to Craig and his wife, Swati, they were both moved to tears. The bittersweet moment when Craig watches the octopus play with the fish and then climbs on top of it for the last time is so poignant. This is followed by the heartwarming and heartbreaking story of how she fulfills her mission to reproduce but gives up her life in the process. Something about this part of the story (maybe it’s obvious because the themes are so powerful and universal) just worked, and we actually used it as a kind of benchmark to evaluate the tone and feel of other sequences we cut had.
What specific post-production challenges did you face that were unique to your project? How did you solve it?
Post production in general was a big challenge. At first we worked with a variety of different camera formats, frame rates and resolution sizes. We were warned by online editors that Post and QC were going to be a nightmare, and that it would take weeks to get everything right and cost a fortune. Because of the amount of footage we struggled with, we were working on 4 or 5 hard drives. First we went straight to Baselight, and colorist Kyle Stroebel and I had a very intense and scary couple of days trying to reconnect things and get the timing right. It quickly became clear that this wasn’t going to work.
At that point we were rescued by an online editor machine called Dani Nel. [who spent 3-4 days re-syncing the project] and exported to Baselight. It’s been a stressful week but amazing what you can do when you combine the right human skills with good creative tools.
The film was made with an organization called the Sea Change Project. What Adobe tools do you use for your work and why? Why were you the best choice for this project?
Sea Change Project is a media representation organization that uses Adobe tools to create our content. From our book Sea Change (The Underwater Wilderness) which was created in InDesignto all of our images that are archived and edited in Light space and Photoshop, Design work in Photoshopand finally, all of our video that is edited in Premiere Pro. The seamless integration and workflow between Adobe tools made it an obvious choice for our work. My octopus teacher was the biggest project we’ve done with Adobe tools, and it definitely benefited from the ease with which footage was organized – we had thousands of hours to deal with – and the ease with which to process and work with proxy files through a dynamic link Media encoder, the layout of the timeline and the ability to easily play with a wide variety of tracks, plus a strong focus on a team user experience.
I think the most important thing is always how a tool feels to you. Having been using Premiere Pro for so long, it was an obvious choice for me, and when editing had to be relocated to other parts of the world and Dan Schwalm took on the job for a while, he was just as familiar with the program.
What do you like about Premiere Pro and / or any of the other tools you use?
Still images and video are our primary methods of conveying the beauty and awe of the African Great Forest, but raw capturing these two media is only half the job. To be able to bring our raw image files into such Light space The intuitive workflow and powerful color correction tools allow us to archive thousands of images for easy access and processing to restore the life and full performance of the images we took. This also applies to the video we are recording. in the My octopus teacher, We were very impressed with the color correction feature that allowed us to adjust multiple cameras and different water conditions. Although we used baselight for the final grade, we need to get a feel for what can and cannot work side by side while editing. It was great to find out quickly and in a user-friendly way.
There are so many hacks: keyboard shortcuts save time and become muscle memory –Nesting is very useful for keeping a timeline clean – time remapping and simple keyframing give you a lot of creative freedom. Time remapping has been a very powerful tool, especially underwater where animals and water movements need to be speeded up or slowed down. While it doesn’t always work Chain stabilization can also be very effective – especially since almost everything is hand-held underwater. Obviously, of course, working with proxies and using dynamic linking with Media Encoder makes things a lot more efficient.
Who is your creative inspiration and why?
Again, it is difficult to reduce it to one person. This was my first big movie, and I learned so much from the more experienced filmmakers I’ve worked with. Craig Foster showed me how powerful it is to think outside the box, follow your passion, and use raw elements to create something magical (he had amazing ideas on how to create sounds from strips of dried seaweed and how to create them of music to use). James Reed has an amazing modern style that makes everything smooth and cohesive. Jinx Godfrey, our editorial consultant, had a phenomenal sensitivity and thoughtfulness that really helped us reduce the story to the bare essentials.
In terms of outside inspiration, I’ve heard a lot from Werner Hertzog lately and love what he says about “ecstatic truth” – often in storytelling you are trying to share a meaningful sequence of events, but more than that, you try to express a feeling and a message. We had an absolutely immersive approach to making this film, and as much as we wanted to share Craig’s story, we were hoping to give viewers a glimpse of what it felt like to experience the magic of filmmaking and maybe especially the editing – it is a kind of alchemy between sound and image that transports people beyond the limits of what they think is possible.
What was the hardest part of your career and how did you get over it? What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers or content creators?
As an aspiring filmmaker in South Africa, the hardest part was surely getting the opportunity to show (and especially to show myself) what I was capable of. It’s hard to know where to start in this industry, and before I got that opportunity, I was on the verge of giving up. I was incredibly lucky to meet Craig and even more lucky that he had the confidence in me to win me over to this project. I think it’s important to keep making films, improving your craft, and developing creatively, but finding mentors to help you navigate the industry and keep you encouraged no matter how talented you are is important and how good your job is.
What do you like best about your work area and why?
Of course, all editing is done on the computer, but our team works in all disciplines of filmmaking. We work in the Great African Seaforest and it’s a movie dream. The light is always dancing underwater, you never know what you’re going to run into and we’re out here every day always looking for an opportunity to snap a shot that could enhance a sequence we’re creating in the edit.