Showcasing a powerful story of pain, adversity, and triumph in BAD AXE

Bad Axe still.

Image source: IFC Films

First-generation Cambodian-Mexican-American filmmaker, David Siev, captures a real-time portrait of 2020 during the pandemic in his first moving film, BAD AXE. The documentary portrays an Asian American family in rural Michigan fighting to keep their restaurant and American dream alive. They reckon with a global pandemic, racial tensions, and generational scars from Cambodia’s “killing fields”, a number of sites used for mass executions and burials of people killed by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s.

With the help of co-producer and editor, Peter Wagner, and editor Rosie Walunas, Siev showcases his family’s resilience against adversity during a historic time in United States history. We sat down with Wagner and Walunas to learn more about the film’s editing process using Adobe Premiere Pro and Adobe After Effects as well as their experiences getting to where they are today.

How and where did you first learn to edit?

Wagner: I filmed and edited skateboarding videos during my childhood. As time went on, I began to feel myself more drawn to filming and editing than to the actual skateboarding. I taught myself how to edit on software including Premiere Pro as a way to enhance and have more fun with the videos we were making.

Walunas: I started editing videos I shot on a mini-DV camera when I was a kid. I wanted to make skateboard and music videos for a living and would often implement videos into school projects. On the first day of college, I joined the student TV station. I had a knack for editing and figuring out how to “make things look cool.” When I took my first job in New York City as a production assistant, I quickly realized my skill set is not in the producing and logistics realm but more so in the creative and technical department.

How do you begin a project/set up your workspace?

Wagner: Lately, I’ve been editing on a MacBook Pro M1 Max, with an iPad Pro as a second display. I begin by watching all the footage and marking and sorting everything based on my initial reactions to what I’m seeing, i.e., “funny moments”, “tender moments”, etc.

Walunas: Siev and Wagner got the project set up, but the layout was a lot like most nonfiction pieces. On every project I work on, I try to keep the same approach after initially watching and pulling selects, especially now that so much is remote.

I have scene bins and timelines and every time those get worked on, a date and a number starting from one is appended to the end of the timeline names. This number always counts up and starts from one each day. This allows me to send out multiple versions of a scene at one time while I continue working. When the director returns their feedback, I move forward with the version they prefer. Once full cuts come into play, I use the sub-sequence feature, and the timelines are named as follows: main cut name, date, SUB, scene name, number for the day.

This process is done throughout the day so the director can give me near-instant feedback when it works for them, and I can continue working while they are busy. Most importantly, I’m able to get a sense of what they like through this process. This also helps open other creative discussions about how scenes play out, where they fit, and what is important.


Image source: Rosie Walunas

Tell us about a favorite scene or moment from this project and why it stands out to you.

Wagner: I love all the scenes featuring Chun Siev. He brings so many moments of raw and comedic levity to an otherwise very emotional documentary. The trash-burning scene has always been a personal favorite of mine.

Walunas: The fights between Jaclyn and Chun always stand out to me, especially the “money fight” where Jaclyn believes her efforts are taken for granted. I identify with Jaclyn’s role in the family and her work ethic and passion. Seeing how those passionate fights play out shows the emotional depth of this film and the family’s story, which is what makes it so relatable. By the end of the film, this development and exploration pay off.

What were some specific post-production challenges you faced that were unique to your project? How did you go about solving them?

Wagner: Siev and I started working on this project as a two-person production team operating on opposite sides of the country, in the midst of a pandemic. We shipped drives back and forth and heavily relied on services like Dropbox to make sure our sequences and drive contents matched and were effectively backed up.

Walunas: When I came on board, Siev and I were on the phone daily and service wasn't great in rural Michigan so our calls would often drop out. He would walk around the family’s house and property until he could get a signal. Other than that, we had a good system starting with a drive full of media and then sending new media over the web from Michigan.

Due to the grassroots budget of the project, I had to walk Siev through a lot of the online process. But because Premiere Pro is so intuitive and streamlined, it was easy for me to just pick up the phone and walk him through whatever he needed, such as making an .AAF or sending a patch to the colorist.

Bad Axe still.

Image source: IFC Films

What Adobe tools did you use on this project and why did you originally choose them? Why were they the best choice for this project?

Wagner: Premiere Pro was honestly the best tool for this project. Siev hadn’t spent much time editing programs before BAD AXE, and the ease and intuitiveness of Premiere Pro made it extremely easy to guide him through navigating the program, even while talking over the phone.

I love how easy it is to grasp a base-level understanding of Premiere Pro. You can teach someone a basic understanding of the program in less than a day, which is generally infeasible when using other editing software.

Walunas: In addition to cutting the film in Premiere Pro, I used Adobe Photoshop to remove all the dust and scratches that came through in the photo scans. It’s a tedious process but, to me, cleaning the debris off photos is a sign of respect to the subjects. Sometimes the grit is part of a photo’s story, but most of the time it’s a distraction. I also used Photoshop to build the text elements. This way the graphics can be easily shared and changed in one sweep. It’s easier to keep track of all the text elements when they are done this way. I used After Effects for the still image moves. Even though the movements were subtle, After Effects gives the user a lot more control over the movement and where to draw the eye using vignettes. The roundtrip workflow helps eliminate the build time of graphics and reduces exports before finalizing graphics.

My favorite Premiere Pro feature is the ability to map nudging audio levels to the keyboard. This saves so much time. I just have to click, drag to highlight, and then hit the nudge level up or down command. It’s also great to be able to do this while the timeline is playing. Eventually, you get a sense of how much you’ll want to nudge the levels while working on the fly. I love this so much because it keeps me engaged with the scene. The moment I have to mouse-over to a mixer and look at a number, I’ve hindered my emotional response to the clips as I edit them.

What’s your hidden gem/favorite workflow tip in Adobe Creative Cloud?

Wagner: I love being able to seamlessly incorporate elements from Adobe Audition and After Effects into my edits.

Walunas: My tip to anyone that knows how to edit in Premiere Pro, but is about to embark on a project with multiple people, is to make sure you understand how to share timelines and media. Also, map as many commands as you can to your keyboard and mouse, and make sure they are actually saving you time.

Who is your creative inspiration and why?

Wagner: Mike Mills and Spike Jonze are two of my biggest creative influences. They’re the best.

Walunas: Frederick Wiseman was certainly an early influence, but I can’t choose favorites because every director, editor, and camera person brings something to the table. I love documentaries, and I always have. I love so many docs and different subgenres, and I often find myself referencing some of the classics or films I’ve seen years ago when editing. Maybe in a few years I’ll start referencing the films of today. I’m often inspired simply by watching people and studying them.

In addition, when I’m not working, and in between solitary outdoor adventures, I visit museums and study the light, faces, and body language of paintings. I’m looking for beauty, story, and the emotion the painting conveys to me. I also read the poetry of Robert Frost and Mary Oliver.

Bad Axe movie poster

Image source: IFC Films

What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to face in your career and how did you overcome it? What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers or content creators?

Wagner: Acknowledging and coming to terms with the fact that so much of establishing your career is simply being in the right place at the right time. Finding like-minded filmmakers with positive, can-do attitudes is so important when it comes to working on projects with mutual excitement and creative authorship. Filmmaking can be extremely overwhelming and it’s easy to feel stuck at times, but I’ve found that resetting by making your own silly little video, a little song, or anything creatively tangential, can be a giant help with making your larger goals feel more accessible and exciting.

Walunas: Sexism and experiencing a sort of ageism has been a challenge for me. It’s difficult to get opportunities when people have preconceived notions of what you're capable of based on your age or your looks. It’s almost like I could feel people laughing to themselves when I asked if I could help out with something in the edit room. The best advice I can give is to work hard, do a good job, and don’t give up. Don’t wait for the opportunity. Try to create the opportunity, and keep looking. Things don’t always work out but if you stay the course and make a genuine effort, you never know what your next job will be. Most importantly, be kind to everyone you work with.

What’s your favorite thing about your workspace and why?

Wagner: I love editing on my laptop because it lets me bring my workspace anywhere.

Walunas: I use a laptop and (probably) a smaller screen than most people. I don’t want a huge screen or more than one screen. I’ve found that working with too much screen real estate strains my neck and eyes. I love my KRK Speakers, and I have a programmable mouse. Most importantly, I use a desk my dad built and an antique chair he restored. This is the same desk and chair I’ve used since I was a kid. It fits me perfectly and reminds me to stay humble and appreciate craft.

Editing workflow.

Image source: Rosie Walunas

BAD AXE, Best Documentary Feature and All Other Categories, is now available to watch on the Academy Screening Portal and everywhere you can rent movies.