Making a documentary

Creating a Video Documentary

For something as seemingly simple as two cars racing down a drag strip, capturing – and editing – the complete story of hot rodding, especially in a documentary video format, is a monumental, complex “beast”, to say nothing of the man-hours and dedication necessary to reach the product’s finish line.

While the history of early hot rodding has obviously occurred; known and available in books, magazines, photos, films/videos and first-person recollections, the plotting of the story in some form of a manageable, understandable timeline becomes more complicated when blending the span of time, plus outside influences and individuals responsible.

Consider the forces and elements at work in the late 1940s: the state of the nation (with World War II having ended), young men returning from armed forces with acquired mechanical skills, the inertia of hands-on car improvements and at-speed opportunities from Hot Rod magazine, dry lakes and drag strip competitions at abandoned military landing strips, and the influx of components from backyard and upstart tinkerers – and later big-time corporate auto manufacturers.

Of course, that doesn’t include the plethora of sanctioning organizations in, say, drag racing alone.  Before the NHRA solidified its hold as the premier organization on the formerly-known “quarter-mile” sport, there was the UDRA, AHRA, PRA, IHRA – as well as major independent events such as the World Series of Drag Racing (Cordova, IL), and central California’s Bakersfield Fuel & Gas Championships, to name just a few.

The backbone, being the competitors, offers up a critical, although complex web of intrigue.  Top fuel dragsters, for example, is a derivative from “Top Eliminator”, which in the 1950s pitted the day’s top two competition machines in a final run-off, yet derived from classes including dragsters, plus the swiftest couples, sedans – and even motorcycles.  In 1957, when nitro was banned, racers on gas began using multiple engines, mounted in-line, sideways, side-by-side.  Literally, it became whatever they could dream up.  Not long after nitro was reinstated in 1964, the fast stock cars morphed into the funny car; machines went from carburetors to injector, then blowers, plus gas to alcohol, then nitro, in a span of less than a year! Pro Stocks came soon thereafter.  Aside from the pros are the sportsman ranks, of which there have been literally hundreds of classes, formulas and records keeping.

All must be kept in mind when doing the complete history of hot rodding.

Remember, too, that the sport was ever evolving in hardware, which lead to the performance automotive aftermarket, and also followed along the similar timeline path as the gains made on the nation’s racetracks.

Toss in the state of the economy, escalating cost of fielding a competitive racecar, numerous setbacks in safety – and forward results from, say, Don Garlits’ revolutionary rear-engine dragster; the result of losing part of his foot in a front-driven car’s transmission accident, etc.

 The Nuts & Bolts

Those creating the documentary must plot out the story timeline using all available facts.  The acquisition of hundreds – if not thousands of photos and film clips are no easy task.  Each must be cataloged for the correct year, model, class, driver – and in many cases, specific weekend of capture.  That’s not to mention the painstaking removal of artifacts; dust scratches, color fades, etc., all of which must then be digitized.

While on the subject of logging and digitizing, consider more than 200 (up to perhaps over 300) on-camera interviews from individuals.  Each must be transcribed, with their quotes and subject matter logged for particular eras and relevance.  Separating fact from fiction is nothing short of mind-boggling, as tall tales must likewise be verified.  Just because a certain racer might claim to be the first over, say, 180 MPH, or the first to win six straight national meets, doesn’t mean that’s what actually happened.  Indeed, the staff must remain keen to presenting the story in a manner akin to an attorney plotting the facts, and presenting a case.

There are a myriad of other things to consider, which also takes time and patience, and that’s in the actual editing phase.  While following the timeline script and inserting pertinent interview clips, for example, accompanying photos must support what the speaker is saying.  And film clips, most of which were created before the advent of sound, often need audio effects.  Such sound clips all have to first be located, then transferred – and must be perfectly timed relative to what is shown.  For instance, you can’t show a Pro Stock car that lifts the front wheels in each gear change, while using audio of a bracket car with an automatic transmission.  Sound effect location and timing is a huge project unto itself!

The history, timeline/script creation, cultivation of interviews, gathering and logging of film, photo metadata, sifting of fact from fiction, plus the actual editing and onscreen presentation is something which, much like the creation of hot rodding, takes a bit of time.  After all, there’s only one chance to get such an important, meaningful documentary correct.  Like the runoff for Top Eliminator, there’s only one chance to pull this off at the drop of the flag.  It’s a race against time, but one where it must be done right to be considered a winner.