Being an Assistant Editor on a Sundance Documentary: Julie Hwang on “The Game Changers”
Before the lush celebrity gift suites, the sold-out Q&A sessions, and the long lines of frozen but eager cinephiles trying to grab the hottest ticket in Park City, a movie was made — and it was hard work. And behind the producers and directors and actors who led the charge, a “below-the-line” crew of anywhere from tens to hundreds of craftspeople worked to bring filmmakers’ visions to life. They’re the post production engineers, the editors, the camera operators, or the composers whose names are in the credits but not the numerous story pitches to Sundance press outlets like the COW. Union or non-union, aspiring or veteran, these individuals spent weeks of their life behind the scenes dedicated to telling a story. And in my 2018 COW Sundance Film Festival coverage, I’m telling their stories.
Like many of the connections made at Sundance, I met Julie Hwang in a flash during an Avid mixer on Main Street, introduced by a mutual friend. Between the purple lights, free beanies, and blaring music, we could barely hear each other — but when I saw she had served as an assistant editor on her first Sundance documentary feature, I insisted we trade cards and follow up soon after the fest. (Then I ran off into the night to interview Barbie down the street.)
And I’m so glad I did because Julie is rad.
Julie Hwang came into editing in a roundabout way. Her background is technical: she went to MIT and was an electrical engineer at Texas Instruments in Texas where she designed HDMI switches for ten years! “If you ever switched inputs on your HDMI TV, there’s a good chance one of the chips I worked on made that possible.”
Once she left engineering, Julie took a Final Cut Pro class and some other production-oriented classes around Dallas, worked on a low budget feature in various roles, and then found herself moving to Silicon Valley along with her partner when he was transferred. After a couple years of freebies and Indies, she decided to fully commit to post production.
“I finally got into post-production, oddly enough, via production. I was working as a PA and assistant travel coordinator on a pretty big travel-based reality competition show. I got to travel to a bunch of different cities, and it felt a little like running away with the circus. Ultimately, I wanted to find something more stable and in post-production back in the Bay Area. Luckily, one of the producers on the show recommended me to a post production supervisor she knew in the Bay Area, and that’s how I finally got my first job working with Avid. I started out as a logger and I didn’t really have any Avid experience at all. It was my first time working in a real TV post-production environment and I just loved it and knew that’s where I wanted to be.”
Julie served as assistant editor on The Game Changers, a documentary that features athletes, soldiers, scientist and cultural icons working together to change the way we eat and live and shift toward a plant-based diet. The documentary was directed by Louie Psihoyos and executive produced by James Cameron, and debuted at Sundance to a sold out audience.
Outside The Ray Theater where The Game Changers premiered.
Creative COW: Why did you originally choose to go into engineering, and what made you shift into film? Was it a life-long passion you put aside to pursue engineering?
Julie Hwang: I’ve had a love of movies and a fascination with the film industry since a pretty young age, but I grew up as a first generation Asian American whose parents were both engineers. The film/TV industry was something that wasn’t really known to my family and also seemed like a risky and impractical pursuit to them. It was something I could never give up completely though. Even at MIT, I took film and media classes, which I definitely enjoyed more than my engineering classes.
Back in Dallas, I became heavily involved in the film festival community there and even helped run the Asian Film Festival of Dallas for a few years. Those experiences brought me in contact with actual filmmakers and other people working in the industry, which made the idea of working in the industry much less abstract. I also want to mention Justin Lin’s success at Sundance back in 2002 with Better Luck Tomorrow. Seeing someone with a similar background to my own break out in the movie industry like he did was huge.
Deciding to make the break still took a while, but my final turning point came when I realized I didn’t want to retire from my working life at 55 or 65 as an engineer, and that’s what was going to happen if I didn’t leave.
Engineering and post production are two industries that are notoriously unwelcoming to women. There’s copious research that shows parallels between both industries’ lack of ability to retain, develop, and promote women properly. What has been your experience going from one to the other? Do the two technical roles share similarities, or are things quite different?
Both industries definitely require similar skill sets and I think my engineering background has served me quite well. It’s all about trade-offs and working with the resources you have to get things done.
One thing I saw a lot in my engineering career was the drive to make processes more efficient and squeeze more performance out of existing systems and that’s a mentality with which I approach the technical side of my work as an assistant editor. Especially in television, where schedules are so tight, it’s important to do everything you can to get the editors working as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
I think I was pretty lucky in my engineering career to have worked at a large corporation that had a lot of programs and systems in place to help promote and develop women. Going from a company that had thousands of employees to companies that had less than 50, sometimes less than 5 employees was a big adjustment. Also, so much of our industry is word of mouth and you often find yourself on short assignments. There’s a lot more hustle involved. I had to learn to really speak up more for myself and put myself out there in order to make an impression or find new opportunities.
In any field or occupation, I think it’s important to stand up for yourself and let your ideas be heard. I still have trouble doing that sometimes, and I will admit, I’ve found myself more willing to speak up in situations where the crew has been predominantly women. Let me just say, I’ve been in a few situations where I’ve felt my ideas were dismissed, ignored, or just put down, and none of those situations involved a female producer, director, or editor.
I think one of the best ways to bring about positive change for women in any field is to seek out and work with people you respect and who value your contributions in return, male or female.
Bryant Jennings in The Game Changers.
Tell me about The Game Changers. How did you get involved on the film, and what was your role? How long did you work on the film?
The Game Changers is a feature length documentary that follows elite special forces trainer and former UFC fighter James Wilks as he discovers the performance, health, and environmental impacts of a plant-based diet. It was directed by Louis Psihoyos, who won an Oscar for The Cove, and executive produced by James Cameron and Suzy Amis Cameron. One of the writers was Mark Monroe (Icarus) and the film was edited by Dan Swietlik, ACE (An Inconvenient Truth, Sicko, Fed Up) and Stephanie Mechura (The Price of Sex, Frontline). It was really a dream team of documentary film making and it was an amazing experience to be able to be in the edit rooms with Dan and Stephanie.
I was brought onto the project back in February of last year because they made a decision change NLE’s from Premiere to Avid and needed Bay Area Avid assistants to help transfer the project. I ended up staying on through the rest of the post production process. I was able to do some string-outs and editing, but my primary duties were to manage our massive project and the media and assets.
I feel really lucky to have been brought onto the film, not only because of the caliber of the filmmakers involved, but it’s probably the first project I’ve been involved with that I felt could have a positive impact on the world.
Outside Park City’s Egyptian Theater
What was the most challenging aspect of The Game Changers for you as an assistant editor? How did you meet that challenge?
The amount of material we had was enormous. This is easily the largest project I’ve worked on, in terms of hours of footage and the number of subjects involved. Over 100 subjects were interviewed. In addition to that, we had hours of verite and also a huge amount of archival footage and graphics. From a creative standpoint, condensing and refining all that material into a coherent 90 minute film was a huge challenge by itself, but we also had a lot of logistical issues to deal with.
We had producers, writers, and graphics artists spread all over the world and our editor Stephanie was also working remotely for part of the time. It was vital to have the project well organized and with a good naming convention for each different type of media so we could find things quickly or new material could be found logically. We made heavy use of Google Drive both for sharing scripts, exports, and even Avid bins quickly.
As I mentioned earlier, I had been brought on to help move the project from Premiere to Avid. It was a decision that delayed the start of the edit by about 6 weeks, since we essentially had to rebuild and re-sync everything from scratch, but in the end it probably saved us months.
The ability for multiple members of the team to be working in the same project at the same time was absolutely essential and Scriptsync was just a brilliant way for us to quickly go through all the material we had and to assemble edits. I’m also not sure that we would have been able to keep everything in one project with Premiere. Avid handled our gargantuan project like a champ.
Is this your first trip to Sundance with a film? What has that experience been like?
Yes! This was my first trip with a film. I had come to Sundance before, just as a festival goer, but this was definitely a more exciting experience. At the premiere, I finally got to meet several of our documentary subjects in person which was kind of strange and also nerve wracking, since none of them had seen the film yet. It was a great relief that all the athletes and scientists were happy with the film and how they were portrayed.
Many of your credits are on reality and documentary projects. What are you working toward in the future?
I enjoy the challenge of reality and documentary work where you’re essentially finding the story in the edit, but I do hope to be able to move more into narrative work. Part of my desire to shift is just because that’s a whole area of post production that I’m unfamiliar with and I want to gain that knowledge. In narrative work you also have a larger number of disciplines coming together to create and drive the story, and it would be exciting to be a part of that.
What’s next on the horizon for you? Do you have another project lined up?
There’s still a little more work to be done on The Game Changers post-Sundance. We finished the Sundance cut of the film only a few days before its festival premiere so it doesn’t feel like that project has really wrapped yet. After that, I’m looking at some other TV documentary work, and I think it’s time to start going down to LA more.
What advice do you have for people who might be considering shifting careers into post production?
Always be willing to work hard and learn as much as you can. Be patient but never complacent. If you’re not sure about the switch, ask yourself where you want to be at the end of your career. If you can live with the track that you’re on, that’s great. If you can’t, then you need to do what you can to switch.