PBS is currently running a “Like Drive,” offering exclusive videos for every so many ‘likes’ their Facebook page receives. One of the latest to be unlocked offers a behind-the-scenes look at “The National Parks.” The video is a bit of a cheat on PBS’ part, since what it shows probably happened three or four years ago–could they find nothing from “Prohibition” or even “The Tenth Inning”?
I like this video though because it offers a brief but accurate feel of a screening with Ken*. Most videos like this, whether they’re focusing on a PBS documentary or a Hollywood blockbuster, tend to be overproduced in an attempt to make it more entertaining. The ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach favors authenticity (of some form) over entertainment, and appeals to a different curiosity.
*Yes I call him Ken and no he would not remember my name, though he reportedly said I was a ‘good guy’ after I left the room once.
During my half-year with Florentine, three films were in various stages of production at the edit house. “Prohibition” was I believe technically wrapped but some work on it was still going on; meanwhile editors were piecing together the first visual versions of “Dust Bowl”(2012) and “The Roosevelts” (2014). During that time three screenings were held at the edit house: two for the two-episode “Dust Bowl” and one for the first four episodes of “The Roosevelts.”
Florentine doesn’t have a proper screening room at its edit house on account of it being an honest to God house. Instead, everyone crams into the office with the biggest TV, which is a 10′ x 20′ room on the first floor where a producer and two of the editors usually work. Since these are the first visual cuts of the episode, each episode will run maybe thirty minutes longer than the final version–often over two hours. Finding a comfortable chair is therefore crucial, and those with lumbar support are hotly contested. More than a dozen people–including Ken and co-director Lynn Novick, the writer, editors, etc–will find a space in here, and often another half-dozen will have to trudge upstairs to another impromptu overflow screening room directly overhead. When this is the case, an additional logistical difficulty is presented: the screenings must be started simultaneously, otherwise one screening will always be subjected to the echoes of the other*. As Florentine is always on the cutting edge of media technology, this obstacle is surmounted by connecting the two rooms via the office phone telecom. On the count of three or some such prompt, the person manning the station in each room will press the space bar and set the episode into motion.
* Echoes were expected and tolerated if you were in the overflow, but Screening Room Alpha was always to be slightly ahead if a perfect synch was not achieved.
At the end of these uninterrupted two-hour sessions, many rush to the two bathrooms the edit house generously affords its occupants. After a short break, everyone (even those banished to the overflow) then gathers back in the main screening room to share their impressions. This is Florentine at its most egalitarian: while the key players always give their impressions first, eventually everyone down to the lowliest intern is invited to opine, even if by that point there may be nothing left to add. The resulting discussion sounds something like what you hear in the PBS video, and it’s fun to witness.
That all of this goes on in some unmarked house* on the corner of a village street has tickled me since I first started there. Early on I asked some of the younger staff why no one seemed interested in highlighting that part of the Ken Burns production. They shrugged and said that the edit house ethos was to stay well and truly behind the scenes. I suggested that there were ways to accommodate that–my tweets didn’t betray anyone’s privacy–but I didn’t push it any further. I still think plenty of Ken Burns fans would like to see more of what goes on in Walpole, but for now this blogpost will have to do.
*I’m pretty sure there’s not even a house number–oh, and you enter through the back. New England can be cold.