Framing Britney Spears Editors on Documentary Storytelling | The Rough Cut

by Ankit Verma | Aug 4, 2021

As the legal battle between Britney Spears and her conservatorship rages on, and the #FreeBritney movement grows stronger, its clear that The New York Times/FX Networks-produced documentary, Framing Britney Spears is set to become a watershed piece of content.

The Rough Cut host, Matt Feury chats with the Emmy-nominated editors of Framing Britney Spears, Geoff O’Brien and Pierre Takal, on the editorial challenges of compressing twenty years of footage into a little more than an hour of screen time.

The episode explores several themes and challenges around documentary, including their editorial approach, the significance of audio manipulation in documentary storytelling, and challenges of crafting a compelling story out of so much raw footage.

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Key conversations

*Quotes below have been edited for clarity and length.

Having a responsibility when editing

O’BRIEN: Sam [Stark, the film’s director-producer] wanted to reframe the way people looked at [Spears]. And I remember her also, in the beginning, saying we’re never going to use any archival of her as a joke—she’s never going to be the punchline of anything, [we’ll] never make an edit that does what everyone else has done to her, to take the cheap shots, or being too gratuitous. We knew that providing cultural context, and social context, and historical context would help round out the story of what had happened.

The challenge of editing 20 years of footage into an hour-long film

O’BRIEN: When we were first starting out we had a huge research team and a spreadsheet timeline of everything in her life, and any touchdown moments. And it was pages and pages long. We knew we couldn’t tell everything, but we had to show a lot of it… because we knew we wanted to show how things in succession affect somebody over time. Our first cut was a three-hour long edit.

But that three-hour cut, at the same time, was a hard watch. It was not easy to watch. Because there was a time when everybody just felt that they could say anything they wanted – and they did. So that was definitely a hard part of trying to figure out what to cut and what to leave.

On their editorial approach; reductive or additive?

O’BRIEN: I initially wanted to see everything, because I didn’t really know or had forgotten a lot of the story. I wanted to throw everything down and see it all from beginning to end. And then I realized, “Yeah, I’m three hours long, and this is never gonna work.”

TAKAL: It was actually a very interesting personal experience for me, because having worked at MTV on those clips shows and using some of that same footage I was seeing, and completely changing its meaning and not using it in an exploitive way, I’m guilty of being part of the machine that did the bad things. And that made working on this actually a wonderful personal experience—to use it in a different way. To reframe it, I guess.

Organizing and categorizing all that footage

O’BRIEN: We had all the media lumped into different buckets. But then you start looking through these bins and you realize (even some minor events) provide a good foreshadowing of what happens later in her life. So while this stuff was organized in a very logical manner, it didn’t always make sense as far as the emotional architecture of the script. And that was always challenging to say, “I know this isn’t a major part of her life, but it’ll actually help frame what’s to come.”

TAKAL: It’s hard to label things and put markers on things before you even start. How do you organize stuff when you don’t even know the story, and how it’s gonna play out? Obviously, if it’s scripted, then things are scene-based. But in this case you really need the freedom to discover things on your own.

The use of acoustic treatments and plugins

TAKAL: It’s important to not manipulate (interview audio), or do the least amount possible. One thing I always communicate to the mixer is that while we’re not manipulating anything, you can do a lot with levels. Audio is 80% of importance. When you have archival or news that’s interwoven in an interview, you make the interview the loudest. And then you have the stuff that’s interwoven at about 75%, volume-wise, so that you really follow the information that you’re supposed to get from the interview. The other stuff should never compete.

It’s a very subtle way of creating a sort of audio tapestry, where not everything is 100%, not every little sound up from the news is as important as the interview. But you’re not changing it at all. You’re just reducing the level.

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