Updated: May 25, 2020
Michael Sellers is a fantastic editor and producer, nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award for "Outstanding Achievement in Editing" among many other accolades from a long list of television credits. More recently, his work as a director won him IFA’s Best Feature Documentary 2018. Michael joins our co-founder Adam Kearns to discuss his work looking at the history of a WW2 airbase in England and the importance of remembering the greatest generation.
The biggest challenge with this project was balancing my day job with what turned out to be my “night job".
Can you tell me about Return to Hardwick and how you became involved in it?
My grandfather was a bombardier and navigator in Europe during World War II. His group, the 93rd Bomb Group, still meet at reunions annually and they wanted to produce a documentary. I went to reunions with him for years and I thought the idea of a documentary was something I’d like to get involved with. Not only was I familiar with the group and its history but I thought I could elevate the project due to my professional work in the film and television industry.
How did you go about researching what is evidently a complex subject?
The cool thing was, I had my grandfather as a resource. What better way to get the history but from someone who was there? Of course, my grandfather wasn’t there for the entire war, but he had a lot of information on the group’s legacy and what they accomplished. Another awesome resource was a book titled Ted’s Travelling Circus. This book was written by Cal Stewart and he had full access to the base and high-ranking officers throughout the entire war. His book was written as a complete log of missions that the group went on from 1942 to 1945.
To be part of a project that deals with a subject so grand and such a significant marker in history, it can bring a lot of pressure to the table.
What was the biggest challenge when filming your documentary?
The biggest challenge with this project was balancing my day job with what turned out to be my “night job". I work in New York City in post-production for broadcast television. That job is a must. It provides a steady income so my family and I can live in this rather expensive city. However, I have always tried to balance more creative work into my schedule. Once I realized that the 93rd Bomb Group was getting serious about the project and money was coming in from donations, I knew I was in for a wild ride the next few years trying to complete this project with all the free time I had available.
How has this project impacted on you personally?
To be part of a project that deals with a subject so grand and such a significant marker in history, it can bring a lot of pressure to the table. This was a small project compared to other well-funded projects out there, but we knew we had a good story. So personally, I felt responsible to tell the history of the group, a group my grandfather served in, as accurately as possible but also make it engaging at the same time. Everyday sitting at the table to edit, I was looking for ways to make the story educational but exciting for people that might not gravitate directly to a World War II story.
It’s Victory in Europe Day today, what do you think about?
V-E Day is a reminder every year what the allied forces accomplished. I go right to thinking about the 93rd Bomb Group first. I have been attending reunions with the group and my grandfather for years. My grandfather passed away in 2016 but I continue to attend reunions and eventually became an officer in the non-profit organization. Along with V-E Day, the annual reunions of the group remind me every year the effort it took to fight for our freedom.
How big was your production team and how did you go about recruiting them?
Since this film is in the micro-budget category, I had to take on a lot of the production duties myself. The 93rd Bomb Group is a veterans and next-generation organization, they are not a movie studio production company. What we came up with was that they would be in charge of soliciting donations to keep the project going and I would take care of producing the film. The main roles I filled was producer, director and editor. But I also shot and wrote the film. That aside, we hired a great team out of Norwich, England to help with the drone camera work. It was a blessing that this company was so close to Hardwick airfield. Over the course of three years I’d pop over in the summer and work on drone shots with them. These are shots we needed of the existing airfield so we could match them up with wartime photos. For finishing I recruited a colourist and sound mixer that I work with here in New York City.
What equipment did you use to film?
For the camera I used the Canon 5D Mark III. I really like this line of cameras from Canon and of course the 5D back in the early aughts was the first DSLR camera to breakthrough and provide really great looking full-frame HD footage. It took some adjustments rigging up the DSLR camera because I’m use to the over the shoulder rigs. I ended up finding this great sling that you fit over your shoulder and then nestle this mono pod that came with it into the sling. It’s called the Dougmon and it really saved my life. When doing the sit-down interview with veterans or experts I just setup a simple three-point lighting system. The lights I already had from previous projects. They were simple 1K and 2K lights that came with soft boxes. As for editing, I have been using Avid for twenty years here in NYC. The software is built to work on long form projects like this and with the media management it offers, in my opinion, there is no other choice.
If there was one thing you could change about your project, what would it be?
If I could change one thing it would be to hire an archivist to help and organize the photos and films we used in the documentary. I did almost 90% of this work myself. A few volunteers from the 93rd Bomb Group organization stepped up and helped in organizing the large amounts material we were getting. In the end though it’s just me sitting in front of my Avid weeding through everything. It’s a slow process to not only first examine the photos and films, make sure they are accurate for the time period I want to use them in, and then edit them into the sequence. An archivist could work a few steps ahead of me and prepare assets that I would have coming up in sequences. They would also be checking on all the historical facts and making sure we weren’t using something out of context.
How would you explain the importance of your project to a 10-year-old?
I would explain to a 10-year-old that this project was important because it tells the story of a group that helped save the world. Now, that’s an attention gabber for a 10-year-old for sure! But once I got their attention, I'd say that the group in this film was just a small group of many, many small groups that came together to make one big group to fight off evil.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to make a feature doc?
The biggest advice I can give to other filmmakers setting out to make their own feature doc is that it's going to take time. As you start planning out how long it’s going to take, double that time. Don’t be discouraged about how long it will take just know that you are in for a long ride.
Michael, thank you for submitting to IFA and it's been a pleasure chatting with you.
Thanks, it's been great.