In The Mix

Racing to Air

Four editors’ quick work with racially charged footage was a haunting experience.

Bob Makela
  • Vice News reporter Elle Reeve with white nationalist Christopher Cantwell

    Vice News Tonight on HBO
  • Tim Clancy

    Vice News Tonight on HBO
  • John Chimples

    Vice News Tonight on HBO
  • Cameron Dennis

    Vice News Tonight on HBO
  • Denny Thomas

    Vice News Tonight on HBO

On a Sunday night last August, Tim Clancy got a call from Josh Tyrangiel, executive vice-president at Vice News.

Could Clancy, the showrunner and an executive producer of HBO's Vice series, clear his busy Monday schedule to help with a one-day editing job — for a show that wasn't even his?

"He said, 'I think we may be sitting on the most important footage in America right now,'" Clancy recalls. A rally by white nationalists and other far-right supporters in Charlottesville, Virginia, had turned violent and deadly, and correspondents from HBO's Vice News Tonight had been there. (Vice debuted on HBO in April 2013 and spun off Vice News Tonight in late 2016.)

The footage they captured became Charlottesville: Race and Terror, an award-winning 20-minute documentary that aired on Vice News Tonight mere hours after that disturbing weekend. Clancy was one of four editors who scrambled to get the piece on the air by Monday night. It quickly became a viral sensation, seen by 60 million people.

"Because we were able to flip it that fast and show people what everybody was talking about on the news, it became a phenomenon," says Clancy, who edited the first 11 minutes and acted as a supervising producer on the film. "As an editor, that was like a dream scenario: you have amazing footage that's really important, and if you want to get it out there, you just have to trust your instincts."

John Chimples was the first editor brought on board. He arrived at 1 p.m. on Sunday to whittle down more than 20 hours of material from two cameras and some surveillance footage. By 4 p.m., it became clear he was dealing with some powerful material.

He recalls that, by midnight, when he began cutting the ominous Friday-night tiki-torch march, "I was certain it was going to be really big." He worked all night and delivered a 40-minute rough cut by 10 the next morning.

"Once cut," he says, "the opening chant of the march sort of freaked me out every time I played it." When Cameron Dennis began his day, he thought he'd be editing a piece on the Super Bowl of eSports. Instead, Vice News Tonight executive producer Madeleine Haeringer walked into his edit bay at 8 a.m. and said she needed him to pivot to something important.

"I had zero idea we [even] had a crew in Charlottesville," Dennis says. He put together another five-minute section from new footage Chimples hadn't seen. "All of the editors worked in isolation, so I had no clue what else was being cut in the other rooms."

The fourth editor, Denny Thomas, had never worked with another editor on a single story. His task was to edit a five-minute sequence that included footage of a car ramming into a crowd, which resulted in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer.

"Because of the immediacy of the event, and because of the strict deadline we were under, there was really no time to process what I was working with," Thomas says. "But after the doc aired, when the adrenaline high wore off, it was quite emotionally draining."

The finished documentary is haunting, from the evocative torches and chanting white nationalists to correspondent Elle Reeve's brave interviews with white supremacist Christopher Cantwell. In one scene, Cantwell shows off a weapons cache on his hotel bed. The piece is a testament to all-hands-on-deck filmmaking — and a chilling look at angry America.

"The story would be nothing without Elle Reeve, who pitched it," Clancy points out. "Two producers worked on it, Josh Davis and Tracy Jarrett, and I think it's amazing that, in a piece about race, the producer who [filmed] the white supremacist with his machine guns was a fearless person of color. A young black woman, Tracy Jarrett, was producing the piece."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2018