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Editor James K. Crouch on Editing a Feature Film During COVID

Jourdan Aldredge

We chat with editor James K. Crouch about what he learned from editing the Tribeca feature film 12 Mighty Orphans during COVID-19 lockdowns.

One of the highlights of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival is the heartwarming tale of “the Mighty Mites” football team in 12 Mighty Orphans.

Harkening back to period sports dramas like Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights, and Seabiscuit, 12 Mighty Orphans tells the true Depression-era story of a ragtag football team of Fort Worth orphans that went from playing without shoes to playing for the Texas state championship.

And, while the film includes a star-studded cast of A-listers like Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen, and Robert Duvall, it was still an outsider’s production, shot on location in north Texas during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, as revealed in a chat with 12 Mighty Orphans editor James K. Crouch, the final edit of the film actually benefited from the various setbacks and production lockdowns, as it gave Crouch, director Ty Roberts, and producer Houston Hill a chance to deeper explore how to best build an inspirational, book-based period sports drama from the ground up.

Discovering New Ways to Work Together

We were in the thick of editing back in March and the city shut down. Ty Roberts is the type of director who wants to see every take and every option. Working remotely, even when we were in the same city, just made it that much harder. But, we were able to find a way.

– James K. Crouch

It’s fair to say that, at any time, editing a feature film is quite an undertaking. This is doubly true when you’re cutting together a large ensemble feature that shot over 120 terabytes of multi-camera coverage—as was the case with the 12 Mighty Orphans production. It gets even more daunting when you remove your hands-on director from the room due to pandemic protocols.

As Crouch puts it, “While nothing beats being in the room with the director,” he and Roberts did indeed experiment with several different live editing software applications as they tried to remotely work together through the edit.

The process certainly took some getting used to, especially due to the occasional issue with stability and audio delay, Crouch reports. Nonetheless, the duo eventually found their own unique system for collaborating remotely. The resulting hybrid workflow was a mix of using Frame.io for longer scenes and actually just using iMessage to quickly send and review short sequences during the fine-cutting stage.

Fitting as Much of the Source Book into the Film

Mighty Orphans Timeline
A view of Crouch’s editing setup for working on 12 Mighty Orphans. Image via James K. Crouch.

I had learned on my last film with Ty (The Iron Orchard) that adapting a book into a film is just hard—there’s just so much information, so many great beats to include. There was just no way we could fit everything in. Our first cut of the movie was around three and a half hours before we were eventually able to cut it down to an hour and fifty minutes.

James K. Crouch

The story of 12 Mighty Orphans is one that sounds too good to be true. However, as recounted in the non-fiction book on which the film is based, the story of the sensational Depression-era football team draws from real events and people. And, while this makes amazing source material when writing, shooting, and ultimately editing a feature film based on a book and true story, eventually a tricky balance must be found when deciding what to leave in and what to cut out.

Still, despite no one wanting to go through a pandemic shutdown, the fact that the production of 12 Mighty Orphans came to a sudden halt also worked a bit in the production team’s favor. It didn’t just give them more time to find different ways to cut down their movie, it also gave opportunities to sneak more of the source material back in. There’s that balance we mentioned.

Crouch estimates the editing process was expanded to around seven months, and they were actually able to revisit many of their favorite sequences and beats that had been cut in the past. Moments they weren’t initially able to include as full scenes found their way back in through montages and other transitional sequences.

Getting Creative with Footage and Resources

Mighty Orphans Storyboard
A look at the extensive storyboards guiding the editing process for 12 Mighty Orphans. Image via James K. Crouch.

With such a big story and so much source material to cover, shooting 12 Mighty Orphans was a gigantic operation in terms of coverage. Crouch estimates that he worked with “over 120 terabytes” of multi-camera footage captured with two ARRI Minis (open gate RAW anamorphic).

However, even with that amount of RAW footage to work with, it actually could have been even more, as shutdowns hit the production with a few important scenes still left to shoot. The production and post-production teams had to get creative and experiment in order to make certain scenes work. 

There’s a flashback scene of Luke Wilson’s character from when he’s in World War I that we had been originally scheduled to shoot in mid-March in Austin, right before the city shut down. And, these scenes were pretty instrumental to the story. However, we were eventually able to find a way to mix and match a lot of the scenes together by scouring YouTube for short films about WWI and clips from WWI reenactors, which we were able to license and use.

– James K. Crouch

With production shut down, the 12 Mighty Orphans team explored many different options for adding in stock clips, archival footage, and other stylistic elements to weave the narrative together. Crouch also credits a great deal of their ability to mix and match footage types to their meticulous storyboarding process, which “helped us visualize the ever-so-changing structure throughout the process.”

Experimenting with Different Ways to Tell the Story

12 Mighty Orphans Set
Luke Wilson, Jacob Lofland, and Martin Sheen on the set of 12 Mighty Orphans. Image via Sony Picture Classics.

After our first test audience screening, Lane Garrison (who co-wrote the film and plays the character Luther) had the idea of having a voice-over narration by Martin Sheen. Which proved to be a great breakthrough, but also a good deal of more work with writing, recording, and ultimately finding the right balance in the edit for just the right amount of voice-over that the story needed.

– James K. Crouch

As we’ve covered in the past, voice-over narration can seamlessly tie a film’s narrative together. It can also help trim the runtime, even while simultaneously providing context and story information that sometimes gets lost when working on book adaptations. 

As such, along with getting creative with different footage types and editing workflows, the 12 Mighty Orphans team also experimented with other ways to tell their film’s unique story. One of these breakthroughs was the time-tested approach of letting one of their biggest stars provide narration. Throughout the film, Martin Sheen’s character, the orphanage’s doctor and team’s defensive coordinator, provides insight and inspiration via voice-over.

Proxies, Backups, and Editing with Premiere Pro

Editor James Crouch
Editor James K. Crouch in his home studio setup working on 12 Mighty Orphans. Image via James K. Crouch

As he has on “every movie I’ve ever done at this point,” Crouch edited 12 Mighty Orphans on Adobe Premiere Pro. And, while there’s plenty to love about Premiere these days, Crouch admits that he did make some decisions on his workflow and how he backed-up footage to help mitigate any risks of crashes or stability.

I have an extremely powerful Mac Pro, where you could edit natively in RAW if you wanted to. But, that’s asking for stability issues. So, I always say, ‘use one type of gasoline for your car,’ and always make proxies to edit in because it is much more stable and you can work that much faster.

– James K. Crouch

Crouch’s setup included editing with proxies on RAID 0 SSDs and he reports that he didn’t have a single issue or crash. Everything was backed up on RAID 5s, and he made sure to use the second to third most recent versions of Premiere Pro to avoid any issues with updates.

With the peak of the pandemic behind him, and with the film industry returning to normal, Crouch feels that the extra time he had to work on the edit did indeed help the film overall, and he’s hopeful that the inspirational true story told in 12 Mighty Orphans will help the film take its place among the timeless period sports dramas of the past.

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Cover image of the 12 Mighty Orphans via Sony Picture Classics.