When Jason van Genderen started filming his family in 2009, he had no intention of making a film that would be seen in 70 cinemas nationwide. Editor / EP, Gavin Banks takes us on a journey through the experience of cutting the documentary feature, Everybody’s Oma.
Jason van Genderen is an award-winning filmmaker known for the short films he makes about his family. But Jason doesn’t only film them when making shorts. He films them all the time.
During the April 2020 lockdown Jason accidentally made his 87YO mother famous by posting a family film that went viral. Gaining over 80M views, Jason made more films about caring for ‘Oma’, who had Alzheimer’s. He continued to shoot more of the family’s dementia journey revealing a bigger story.
Over dinner one night in October 2020, Jason asked me and my wife (producer Olivia Olley) about how to get a feature documentary up. We said: “Build a kick-arse team… Start by finding an experienced producer who believes in and can sell the story. And get a gun-editor who can make the story sing.”
I thought no more about that conversation until receiving an email a month later. Jason had found a producer, Rosalyn Walker, and raised $66K in crowdfunding (through his growing online audience). He invited Olivia to help produce the film and wanted to bring me on as editor / co-director. (Co-director as he wanted to have the creative support when Oma’s care needs increased.
From the start, we aimed to create a film that would travel (Jason already had an international audience of 70K followers). Our core team consisted of two producers, the director and me. The diversity of our group was our biggest strength. Our different genders, outlooks and life experiences meant we were able to see the film from multiple points of view. Throughout the project this helped us identify and address stumbling blocks of story and character.
As we reached the first, second and third official cuts, we extended the circle to include input from external people. Respected editors, producers, and directors. Funding and industry-body heads. Friends and family. Comments from those outside the team helped us identify story and structural issues that needed addressing. Even small comments (“I don’t get a sense of place”) helped us understand how our story was being interpreted, and the questions our audience needed answering.
It’s not always easy to interpret what people mean by their comments, but every time we opened ourselves to input, we were rewarded. The subsequent cuts of the film improved so much that the structure and narrative of the final film is almost unrecognisable from the first. The input of others helped identify problems that I could find solutions to and helped me understand the way the characters, scenes and film were being read.
I was drawn to this story because of its beauty. Jason’s films about caring for Oma were heartfelt and hopeful, and I wanted the feature to stay true to that.
But as I started logging over 80 hours of rushes (that became around 150+ hours), I found a massive difference between the heart-warming stories of the Oma’s Applesauce Facebook page and the lived experience of Jason’s family as they cared for Oma. The director wanted to showcase his family’s take on dementia by featuring Oma as the protagonist. But most of the footage of Oma’s dementia was repetitive, painful to watch, and depressing. Oma’s Facebook celebrity was our strongest hook, but for me, the real story lay in exploring the impacts of dementia on Jason’s family, with Jason as the protagonist and Oma’s dementia as the antagonist.
It’s tricky to deal with a director who is embedded in their own story. It took months for Jason to accept that he and his wife, Megan were the lead characters. He couldn’t see that his experience of Oma’s journey made it more relatable and accessible. But what happened next changed that.
Oma was rushed to hospital because of a medical emergency. Jason and Megan feared for her life. As a team we’d discussed how to manage filming (as well as whether to and what to film) when Oma’s life was under threat. We knew that Jason and/or Megan would need to focus on their family. However, because Oma’s turn was so sudden, we had no access to the hospital. Once Oma was stabilised, I asked both Jason and Megan to start filming first-person video diaries to capture the immediate rawness of how they were feeling. These video diaries became crucial to the narrative. And as they continued, helped me develop Megan’s storyline (which was largely missing from Jason’s POV camera).
As work on logging/selects continued, a date was booked to discuss our film with story consultant, Stephen Cleary. My focus changed from reviewing the material to assembling blocks of rushes that conveyed the scope and story possibilities. I cut three hours of material for the team to review, including character studies of Jason, Megan, and Oma (both pre and post-dementia) and quirky family moments. I also covered Oma’s online and offline fame.
The team spent four days with Stephen. We discussed the type of film we wanted to make, our favourite footage, and possible structures. Stephen’s insight into the structure of a festival film was invaluable.
Before working on our first assemble I was asked to create a Teaser to attract distribution and investment. This was critical to keep the project going beyond the seed funding we had crowdfunded. But it was also a test of the vision we had. Would audiences respond to the characters, subject, and intention of the film? The Teaser did its job. Bonsai Films came on as the ANZ distributor with Screen Australia and Screen NSW investing in the film.
Multiple formats meant that I needed to decide on both a technical and creative approach to the project.
A long conversation with our post house resulted in a decision to transcode all rushes to 24fps (deemed the best choice for delivery) prior to cutting. We created HD proxies for the edit and UHD Masters for the grade. This minimised conform issues during the online/grade and sound mix (saving the production time and money!). With footage being added regularly as Oma’s dementia worsened, we also decided to do the transcoding in-house, which reduced delay between receiving rushes and cutting them.
Seamlessly cutting together the old and new – 14 version of iPhone footage, DSLR and Pro Sony formats – was more of a challenge.
Ob-doc DSLR footage shared the stage with Jason’s iPhone footage in the second half of the cut, enhancing the raw intimacy of the family’s story as it progressed. To prepare audiences for a mixture of formats I introduced the Pro and semi pro formats right from the start of the film. We opened with panoramic establishers shot on a Sony F5 and then moved to DSLR and iPhone footage. I continued this approach throughout the film as it was necessary to fill the gaps that accidental archival footage inherently brings.
Jason’s camera-roll archives revealed some amazing footage. But one of the downsides was that there was little-to-no coverage. As I cut the film the director and I identified pickups (establishers, cutaways) the story needed. We shot FX and panoramas we required on the Pro formats (for image quality and bit depth). Other footage we matched by shooting on iPhone.
Instead of cutting the imperfections out of the iPhone footage I played to them. I used long takes with camera bumps and wobble to add to the authenticity and emotional intensity of scenes. I used form (how a shot was filmed) as much as the content (what was filmed) to serve the emotional journey of the story. I used similar imperfections in the DSLR footage to add to the sense of authenticity. In one scene I included the tail end of a DSLR shot, where the DP dropped the camera down before buttoning off, to offer a better transition to the hand-held, iPhone tracking-shot that followed.
Throughout the project my compass was always the emotional intent of the shot, scene or story. By staying true to that intention I’ve always been able to find my way forward.
Everybody’s Oma (official selection 2022 Sydney Film Festival, MIFF 2022 and Cinefest OZ Film Festival 2022) premiered on June 11 at SFF and was released nationally in 70 cinemas on 11th August 2022.
Original article published in the Australian Screen Editors, Aug 2022.