Edit This!: 'TWA Flight 800'
Issue: August 1, 2013

Edit This!: 'TWA Flight 800'

NEW YORK — Editor David Jakubovic (www.davidjaku.com) recently completed work on the documentary TWA Flight 800, which looks at the 1996 explosion that brought down the Paris-bound flight off the shore of Long Island. The film premiered on Epix, and will see international release via Lionsgate.

“The editing process of this film was a little unusual and interesting creatively, because there is an incredible level of journalism in it,” notes Jakubovic. “And because of the sensitivity of the issue, the film needed to be highly credible and air-tight, to the point that nobody would be able to honestly call it a conspiracy theory film.”

TWA Flight 800, says Jakubovic, is the most important film he’s worked on to date. “When editing drama, action, comedy, a music video, or really anything, there is usually a vibe I am going for in terms of the edit — a mood I am trying to help the footage instill in the viewer. This mood is inspired by the content, but it also nourishes the content, enhancing it. In a great project, the edit, story and characters dance together to create emotional impact. I tried to do as little of this as possible with the film.”

Jakubovic had conversations with director Kristina Borjesson on the tone of the film. He says it was clear that it couldn’t resemble a reality show and had to come off as a serious documentary, one that would keep the viewer on the edge of their seat.

“My challenge was for the film to be both absolutely credible and absolutely gripping, using mostly interviews, documents, just a little bit of news footage and b-roll,” Jakubovic explains.

“Before I start an edit, I always try to close my eyes and think of the vibe. But in this case, I could not figure out the vibe. This was because this movie didn’t need a vibe. In fact, the last thing TWA Flight 800 needed was to be given some interesting, creative treatment in the editing room. What the film required was to be completely credible, which could be sabotaged by anything that seemed like creative editing, anything that resembled manipulation. Style can be misconstrued as opinion, and we wanted to offer no opinions, only evidence. This film needed to be a court case, editorially.”

Jakubovic says it was decided that the story would be told simply, and that artistic editing devices, such as montages, fast cuts, and other stylistic choices, would only occur when their purpose was very obvious and transparent. There would be no subtleties. It would be extremely clear and in-your-face.

“There is great footage we left out of the film — extraordinary material and infuriating stories — excluded either because we only had 99 percent of the evidence to support them or because we felt that the material worked well emotionally but didn’t add much to the case by way of hard, cold facts,” he recalls.

He points to footage shot by Long Island’s News 12, which showed tons of debris being thrown away at a dumping site at the end of the investigation. “This footage is absolutely maddening,” he states. “Why would evidence be disposed of? And a lot of evidence! Emotionally, the footage is very powerful. But we didn’t know what the specific pieces being disposed of were, and could not stand behind a manipulation of the audience into thinking, ‘They are throwing away damning evidence in those pictures.’ While it was strong circumstantial evidence of a corrupt investigation, circumstantial evidence was never good enough to be used in this film.”

Clarity was another important aspect of the edit. Because director Kristina Borjesson and science reporter Tom Stalcup both knew the material so well, a possible danger was assuming the audience understand everything. “The content of this film is so intense, unusual, and scientific, that we made sure to hold the viewer’s hand as much as possible in the simple storytelling and presentation of the evidence.”

One tactic used to ensure clarity was to omit every extraneous word. Too much language might overload the viewer’s brain and cloud the points they were trying to get across. This was particularly true with the scientific and forensic content related to the physical evidence. 

“We actually left out very powerful aspects of the physical evidence from the film,” he recalls, “aspects which we did in fact include in our petition to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), not because we did not trust the intelligence of the viewers, but because we did not want to overextend their patience.”

Jakubovic says he was also careful about the use of music. “Using no music would have created a sort of auditory alienation, I believe, and although an obnoxiously purist voice in my head constantly told me ‘We should not use music at all, you’re being cheap and trite like CNN,’ it was decided that music was important to help move the film along.”

Jakubovic cut the documentary in Final Cut Pro 7, but says it’s the last project he’ll use the editing program on. “Most of the graphics were pretty simple,” he adds. “The graphics of documents and text were done by Adam Stroncone using After Effects, and by Jake Dean and Chris Root, who did some 3D simulations. There is one very complicated shot that involved a recreation of the seats on the plane. We didn't use too much of it, even though it was a hugely complex and accurate recreation of the plane's interior.”

The feature drew on a mix of formats. New material was captured in Sony’s XDCAM format and on a Canon 5D. The archival footage was all standard definition. “Some of it was just VHS, because it was internal stuff that was never released,” notes David Jakubovic. “Some was DVD, and various news archival footage that was sent to us as QuickTimes. We did our best to make it look okay.”

The edit for the end of the film had more of a sentimental feel. The final scene contains footage of the lead investigators who are speaking to families of TWA Flight 800 victims and presenting them with the petition that would be submitted to the NTSB. 

Jakubovic admits to breaking his own rules in this section. 

“I intercut these images with those of the TWA 800 memorial being visited by the investigators,” he notes. “I am okay with this little bit of emotional editing. The footage itself was highly emotional, so it felt right to highlight the heroism in demanding the truth, blowing the whistle on what is perhaps one of the biggest travesties in American history, and telling the victims’ families, ‘Here is our proof.’”