Netflix’s Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is a documentary about a summer camp - not far from Woodstock - where teenagers with disabilities were given a chance to transform their lives, and at the same time, ignite a landmark movement. The feature was co-directed by Emmy winner Nicole Newnham and film mixer/former camper Jim LeBrecht, and was released on March 25th.
Much of Crip Camp was constructed from archival footage shot at Camp Jened — some by LeBrecht — on very early Sony Portapak 1/2-inch black & white video, notes Newnham. An early and radical video coalition called “The People’s Video Theater” found the camp by accident when they ran into some campers and counselors at a gas station in the Catskills back in 1971.
Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht
“The footage and the filming had an intimate, verité quality that we wanted the current-day footage we filmed to echo,” explain Newnham and LeBrecht. “We worked with Justin Schein as a DP and some other wonderful documentary cinematographers who specialize in verité, and used cameras - like the Sony FS7 - that could be mounted on the shoulder to match the feel of the People’s Video Theater footage and the later news footage from the ’70s that comprised the political movement part of Crip Camp.”
A team of editors collectively cut the documentary, including Eileen Meyer, Andrew Gersh, Mary Lampson and Shane Hofeldt.
“We worked in a way that would have been familiar to editors working on verité documentaries in the Seventies,” note the filmmakers. “We had an open, collaborative process with each other, and we let our response to the footage dictate many of the editorial decisions.”
The goal was to craft an experience that immersed the viewer in the world of the camp and the explosive, inventive community that was the disability rights movement in the 1970s.
Editor Eileen Meyer (pictured, left) agrees that the process was highly collaborative.
“With some films, it can take a while before all the best archive is found to create the story, or to find the right tone or perspective,” explains Meyer. “I think this was one of those films, and thankfully we were given the time and space to make the best film we possibly could.”
The documentary’s first editor, Andrew Gersh, worked on the film for about a year, taking the project to the Sundance edit lab to created a very solid two-hour assembly.
“At that point, I think everyone decided it would be good to bring in some fresh eyes, so that’s when myself and Mary Lampson came onto the project,” Meyer recalls. “Mary and I collaborated on the edit for the next six months, along with a wonderful editorial support team, including Shane Hofeldt and Lauren Schwartzman. The four of us, along with the directors, collaborated remotely - from New York, Los Angeles, Maine and Berkeley - and we would all come together about once a month for a week or two of in-person collaboration and discussion.”
Much of the team’s time together was spent talking, as opposed to editing, but that proved quite valuable, as it provided a understanding of the deep personal connections involved.
“Using Premiere Pro was an asset in many respects,” says Meyer of the editing setup. “In the second half of the film, especially, we had to cobble together archives from many different sources, with different frame rates, resolutions and aspect ratios. It was very helpful to not have to transcode everything, and just drop it right into the timeline. Also, being able to send very small projects back and forth, that would eventually be incorporated into the ‘master project’ worked very well for us when we were all working remotely.”
For Meyer, the biggest challenge was getting the second half of the film to feel cohesive with the first.
“We had many test screenings with small audiences during the editing process, and some people thought it felt like two different films,” she explains. “The first half was slower and more immersive, and the second half had a more diverse, piecemeal type of archival footage. Since we didn’t have the immersive archive for the second half that we had for the first half, we had to calibrate both to create a fluid style and tone that would carry us through to the end of the film.”
Location sound mixer, sound designer, composer and post supervisor Jacob Bloomfield-Misrach met Jim LeBrecht three years ago.
“He was looking for a business partner to help run his company, Berkeley Sound Artists,” he recalls, “and I was looking to move IMRSV Sound across the country. I had been living in New York for 18 years, and while it had been an incredible experience, I was ready for a different quality of life.”
When LeBrecht, Newnham and producer Sara Bolder asked Bloomfield-Misrach to be the sound supervisor on Crip Camp, the first thing he did was put together a team.
“At IMRSV we have a core group that works like a machine,” says the mixer. “There were six of us on Crip Camp. Our dialogue editor, Greg Francis; a sound effects editor, William Sammons; a head sound designer, Bijan Sharifi; two mixers Dan Olmsted & Jim LeBrecht; and myself as a supervisor.”
LeBrecht played a large role in much of the conceptual work and audio sweetening.
“We had an extensive spotting session with co-director and producer Nicole Newnham, and producer Sara Bolder to make sure everyone knew what they needed to accomplish and then we got to work,” says Bloomfield-Misrach.
“There was a ton of archival footage in the film, so Izotope was critical for us,” he notes. “We use their incredible spectral software to paint out unwanted noise. It’s amazing for archival restoration as well as for dialogue editing. We also have the privilege of working on multiple 5.1 Meyer Sound systems, which are great for tearing audio open and looking around inside. They are very revealing speakers. That was really important for Crip Camp because there was a fine line for us to establish with the audio cleanup.”
The original, handheld recordings at Camp Jened in the 1970s had a lot of heart and soul, but there was also a lot of noise, he notes.
“We needed to surgically take out only the distracting sounds, but keep in enough of the endearing ones. Things like mic handling, kids talking in the background, even a few wind blasts here and there were all adding very lovely elements, but only if treated right. We were very careful not to sterilize these beautiful old recordings.”
Sound design that matched the archival footage was also important.
“Most people don’t think about how the sound of wheelchairs have changed over the years,” Bloomfield-Misrach points out. “This film spans five decades, and wheelchair technology has changed drastically. From manual chairs to motorized ones, we had to make sure the Foley and sound design were appropriate to the scene. That meant recording different types of wheelchairs, on different surfaces, in different spaces, and then distressing them to match the footage. It’s amazing how different all of those variations can be, but I knew we had to get it just right, and my team did a terrific job. The key to all of it is that our work has to stay invisible. No one wants to be distracted by sound design when watching an incredible documentary.”