Bringing the Extraordinary Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Big Screen

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg talks to high school students in RBG, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen. Image credited to CNN Films.

“So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always been a woman ahead of her time. The start of her law career in the early 1960s highlighted the routine discrimination women faced in the workplace. Since then, the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States has carved out a reputation as a fierce advocate of equality for all, successfully taking on and overturning discriminatory laws — and voicing her dissent when rulings seem to fly in the face of justice.

Ginsburg’s prolific life and career is the focus of a documentary aptly named RBG, which will make its debut at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Co-produced by CNN Films and Storyville Films, the documentary is the brainchild of co-producers and co-directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, both of whom were in awe of Ginsburg’s track record of fervently opposing discrimination of any kind.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg talks to her granddaughter Clara Spera in RBG, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen. Image credited to CNN Films.

“Although she received a lot of notoriety for her dissents, we wanted to tell the story of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the architect of the legal advancements made by women in the 1970s,” says Betsy. “As an attorney, she successfully litigated a series of cases before the Supreme Court that changed many laws affecting women in this country. That’s something a lot of people don’t know about.”

The documentary, which was was three years in the making, combines recent footage of interviews with Ginsburg’s former colleagues, clients, and Ginsburg herself with archival content, such as home movies and audio recordings, including Ginsburg arguing her first case in the Supreme Court. It was cut entirely on Adobe Premiere Pro — a first for the directors.

“Adobe Premiere Pro CC is becoming the gold standard in editing,” says Julie. “Technically, it’s been the smoothest video editing application I’ve ever worked on.”

Adobe Premiere Pro CC timeline from RBG, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen.

Betsy and Julie screened all of their footage before handing it off to editor Carla Gutierrez and associate editor Grace Mendenhall. For eight months, the duo edited footage consisting of different formats from different decades, ranging from high-definition, 4K shots to black-and-white home movie,s and archival content. Grace started as an assistant editor, but moved into the role of associate editor in part because of her editing and graphics skills.

“It was really beneficial knowing After Effects and being proficient enough and fast enough with Premiere Pro to have the time to take on an edit, or do some additional graphics work,” says Grace. “That speed and knowledge was helpful in making me available to do more in a way that an associate editor would.”

Adobe Premiere Pro CC timeline from RBG, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen.

Grace relied on Adobe After Effects CC to colorize black-and-white period footage, including stills and moving shots from Harvard University in the 1950s. Pulling from her background creating motion graphics in After Effects, Grace leveraged color balance capabilities to match the luminance and create just the right color effect.

“The integration between After Effects and Premiere Pro is fantastic,” says Grace. “Once I was done working on a section in my Premiere Pro project, I simply imported the sequence into Carla’s Premiere Pro project. I’m looking forward to trying out the new Shared Projects workflow in Premiere Pro the next time I’m working in a collaborative environment, which will make it even easier to collaborate and edit simultaneously.”

The editors also worked with a motion graphics team in France to marry text and graphics of archival, print-based legal briefs that they created with footage that Betsy and Julie shot with a steadicam in the Supreme Court’s main courtroom.

To sync video and audio clips, Grace and Carla used the multicam editing feature in Premiere Pro. “I like to work from the Source Monitor and Program Monitor in Premiere Pro,” explains Carla. “Having sync material in the browser using multicam clicks was crucial to my process.”

Although not as experienced with Premiere Pro as Grace, the transition for Carla has been very smooth. “The beauty of Premiere Pro lies in its simplicity,” explains Carla. Working with more than 200 hours of footage, Carla segmented her editing work into workable chunks, resulting in many timelines. “With Premiere Pro, I had tons of timelines, but this didn’t slow down the software at all,” she says.

Ginsburg isn’t slowing down any time soon, either. RBG debuts at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival later this month — two months before her 85th birthday — in the Documentary Premieres category.

“Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an extraordinary woman who has accomplished extraordinary things,” says Julie. “We’re honored to tell her story through this film.”

RBG premiered on January 21, 2018 in the Documentary Premieres category at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The film premieres on September 3, 2018 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CNN, and will be available for live streaming via CNNgo platforms and on the CNN mobile apps for iOS and Android.