Categories
Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with the editor of “Angel Has Fallen,” Gabriel Fleming, ACE

Gabriel Fleming, ACE, began his editing career in reality TV, cutting shows like “Making the Band” and “America’s Next Top Model.” That led him to scripted TV for MTV’s “Teen Wolf” series before landing an assisting editor gig on the feature film, Battleship, then quickly moving up to editing features like Deepwater Horizon, Patriot’s Day, and Blindspotting.

Today, Gabriel and I discuss his latest editing project, Angel Has Fallen. This interview will be available in a couple of weeks as a podcast. I will also be running an interview with the director of Angel Has Fallen, Ric Roman Waugh in a couple of weeks.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

HULLFISH: I noticed — going through your IMDB page — you’ve worked with a couple of directors several times. Do you think that that’s just the way it is with editors — that a director finds you and have a comfort level and trust in you that they don’t want to give up?

FLEMING: I worked with Peter Berg on a few films, and director Amber Sealy I’ve worked with a few times. Right now I’m doing my second film with Ric Roman Waugh, the director of Angel Has Fallen. We’re working on a film called Greenland, and there really is a benefit to having worked together before. The first film with a director, you’re discovering so much about how they work, what they’re going to respond to, how polished cuts need to be for them, and in what way they need to be polished.

It’s a lot easier when you start that second film. I feel a lot more at ease right now cutting Greenland with Ric, and he feels a lot more at ease with me. I’m not showing him nearly as many edits during production because he just trusts me, and I’m not worried about what’s going on in production because I trust that he’s thorough.

HULLFISH: Tell me about the first time that you worked with him which was on the movie that we’re talking about here: Angel Has Fallen. You mentioned how polished something needs to be or that it is polished in a certain way.

FLEMING: So I spent a long time in the trenches cutting reality television, and the discipline I got from that was when you present something for the first time, it has to be air-able. It has to be something that an audience could watch and find entertaining. That’s a habit that I bring to features. So I tend to like my editor’s cut to be something that could — not quite, but almost — go onto the big screen.

When I present things to a director, I don’t want them to be taken out of the film by bumpy edits or bumpy sound cuts. But as you get to know a director, you get to know what’s going to bump for them and what you don’t have to worry about. With the second film with Ric, I know that he is not going to get bumped by visual effects missing, that I can just use text. I can have the sound not be perfect, he can hear past that. There’s another benefit of having worked with someone before is knowing the level of polish that you need to get to.

HULLFISH: That’s important, right, because if you spend a huge amount of time polishing scenes to the nth degree then that limits how much time you can experiment. Or how much you can version.

FLEMING: Yes. But one of the reasons I do like to polish is that I like to give my experiments their best chance right out the gate.

One of the things that I try to do in the editor’s cut is to include all the crazy ideas that I have. I try to put those in the first time. And then we’ll scale back. So the first thing the director sees is, “I’m not sure this is going to work. Here’s a wild way of doing this. If it doesn’t work maybe it will inspire something else.” But the editor’s cut is just me in the room cutting. That’s the most precious time to me, where I’m the freest to play.

HULLFISH: You were saying that you like — during your editor’s cut — to be able to have the time to experiment. That’s another place where you have to know that the director, right? Some directors would say, “Yeah, show me some crazy!” And some directors would say, “No. I need to see it the way I planned it. And then if you wanna show me something different. Show it to me after you show me what I’ve planned.”

Gerard Butler stars as ‘Mike Banning’ in ANGEL HAS FALLEN. Photo Credit: Simon Varsano.

FLEMING: Even if they want to see it the way they saw it, I tend to push to try something different for the first screening. And if I know that there’s going to be resistance to that, I’ll have the version that I think that they want ready to go. So first show them something where they might say, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. I wanted it to be like this.” And I’ll have it cued up and say, “Boom! Here it is.”

Most of the time they want to go with how they originally envisioned it, but I want to offer an alternative, and one time out of ten that alternative leads somewhere. Sometimes the most important part of the process is when you’re discovering something new and showing the director something that they hadn’t thought of. To me, it’s important as an artist to subvert expectations and bring my own vision into it, even if I know it’s not going to stay.

I think the editor’s role is a dual one. One is to bring into being the director’s vision, and then a secondary role is to bring your own vision and see if that meshes, and see if that inspires anything — see if it brings you to a place that the director didn’t see themselves, and that they like better.

HULLFISH: Do you think that has something to do with the objectivity you’re able to bring? Because the director has it in his head and shot it and he might be even thinking of what he was envisioning and not thinking of what actually got on film.

FLEMING: Yeah. That’s something that is a consistent tension with directors — that they have something on their head, but part of the editor’s function is not to cut based on the initial vision, but based on what the footage is and what the footage is bringing to the table. And I try and cloister myself quite a bit. I don’t read the script over and over again. I’ll read the scripts initially before the project and then I’ll read just the scene before looking at the footage and then I try not to look at it again. Let’s not worry about the script. Let’s worry about what the actors did in those moments. What we need to hit. So I try to keep myself in a little bit of a cocoon. There are times when I’ve been on set cutting. And I really try not to know too much about the set, including simple things like geography.

If you’ve been on the set you intuitively understand its geography when watching the footage, but the audience may not. The editor has the advantage of sharing the audience’s ignorance of production. Often I’ll look at some footage with the director and ask, “Where is this?” And they’ll look at me like I’m crazy, “How can you not know this?” They are unaware they are seeing beyond the borders of the frame.

HULLFISH: A lot of other editors talk about the fact that you don’t want to be on set to know that a jib shot took six hours to set up but I’m not gonna use it. But if I saw it on set, you might think, “I gotta use that jib shot I saw how much work they put into it.”.

FLEMING: I’ve been lucky enough to work with directors who are not precious about that kind of stuff. Ric is that way. Peter Berg is that way. Neither one is precious about their shots.

Danny Huston as ‘Wade Jennings’ and Travis Cole as ‘Frederick Schmidt’ in ANGEL HAS FALLEN. Photo Credit: Simon Versano.

HULLFISH: One of your other relationships I wanted to just talk about because I think for younger editors they might be interested in the way that you were able to move up. You’ve worked with Colby Parker a couple of times. What was your first project together how long have you guys been working together?

FLEMING: I get asked a lot how one moves up into scripted features. Right out of college — I studied film at UC Santa Cruz — I got a job as an intern and then Apprentice editor on a big feature. This is 1996. I worked on that for a year and I saw the assistants weren’t getting a lot of opportunities to cut. There was so much time spent on just the organization and mechanics, so there’s just no time in one’s life to edit.

I decided to leave Hollywood because I wanted to start cutting right away. The idea was to get as far away from the glory as I could, so I went back to the Bay Area, which is where I grew up, and I started working in corporate videos. So I was editing as a full-time career very early on — in my early 20s — not the most impressive work, but at least I was cutting eight hours a day. And then I took that experience and moved closer and closer to Hollywood. I moved to LA and got into editing reality television, did that for seven years, some for MTV. The network was starting to get into scripted: Teen Wolf was one of MTV’s first scripted pilots, and Colby Parker was hired to edit it. He needed a music editor, and the post super — Blaine Williams — was a reality post super who I’d been working with for years, and he thought, “A lot of our reality editors can cut music, so I bet Gabe can do this.” So I was the music editor on the Teen Wolf pilot for just one week, and that’s how Colby and I met.

At the end of the week, he said, “Hey, would you be interested in helping me on this movie Battleship?” So that was my transition. I didn’t know Colby before that. I came to Battleship as a newbie assistant editor with 15 years of full-time editing experience, and I was able to help out with whatever little bits of editing that needed to be done.

After that, I just became indispensable (laughs). They always say that moving up is “opportunity plus preparation.” I had done an incredible amount of preparation. This opportunity was complete luck — but I had those years under my belt cutting. Even if it was cutting garbage, it’s still cutting. I like to think that editing is a quality-agnostic skill. You don’t need to be working on the best material to learn the essential skills of editing. So I tell anybody who’s starting out: “just cut.” Do whatever you can to cut and get the hours in. It’s like playing an instrument. It’s not like riding a bike. It’s like playing an instrument. You’ve got to practice practice practice practice practice.

HULLFISH: That’s exactly my advice to people. And I make that instrument analogy all the time. You wouldn’t expect that you could pick up a violin and play brilliantly the first time. You know that you’ve gotta practice and practice and practice and that’s the only way to get good.

FLEMING: Yep and it feels like — unfortunately the way the assistant editing path has developed once non-linear came along — there’s just not that much of an opportunity to practice in that environment, especially in features. The analogy I make is: “it’s better to be playing piano in a crappy bar down the street than helping out with the piano strings in the symphony.”

HULLFISH: Or turning pages for the symphony piano player.

FLEMING: Yeah exactly.

HULLFISH: Somebody was just emailing me about the fact that they were a reality editor and they want to move into features. What can I do? Having never been a reality editor myself I really didn’t have a lot of advice and they were willing to become an assistant editor and I said it’s really a very different skill being an assistant editor and being an editor. Did you find that there were things you needed to learn on the fly about being an assistant?

FLEMING: Yeah. It is very much a different skill. And I was lucky enough to have other assistants around me that knew what they were doing when I made that transition. I was the second assistant. I wasn’t really in charge of the entire operation which is a monumental task and requires a lot of experience.

Joseph Millson as ‘Agent Ramirez’ and Jada Pinkett Smith as ‘Agent Thompson’ in ANGEL HAS FALLEN. Photo Credit: Jack English.

Unfortunately, it’s so much about luck and it’s so much about who you know to get into that position and I didn’t really know that many people in the scripted world. I still don’t know that many people in the world of feature filmmaking. I get asked that question all the time by reality editors and by assistants in scripted television, and I never have a good answer because there is no one path. Everybody’s path is different. The only thing I can say is when you get that opportunity — when you get that moment of luck — that you’re ready to grab it because that’s something I do see with a lot of people. They’re not ready to grab it — for whatever psychological reason, or maybe a financial reason, they can’t take that risky jump. It’s scary but you’ve got to do something scary if you want to move into the place you want to work.

HULLFISH: My background is not reality TV, but kind of similar. I worked for The Oprah Winfrey Show for a decade and I did trailers for a while. I worked on a movie trailer — and as you probably know, the trailer editors work from the rough cut of the movie — probably before the director has even touched it, and, because I knew the studio executives and had a long and strong relationship with them, I told them, “I think this movie is terrible, but I think it could be rescued with judicious editing. That was kind of my entry into working on features. And having someone else say, “I can’t work on this film anymore for personal reasons, but there’s this guy — Steve Hullfish — who’s never cut features but I think that he would be great.” And that’s exactly what you’re talking about. When you get the miraculous opportunity, that you are ready to take it. At that point, I’d been an editor for 25 years, but I’d never cut a feature. Just being ready for that opportunity is a huge thing.

FLEMING: That seems to be a consistent story from people. It’s always some random lucky moment. You get a certain number of those in your career — it’s not necessarily only one. You get maybe five over your 40 years of working. And with some of them, you have to know what NOT to take because sometimes the more prestigious projects are not what you should be doing. It’s important to recognize the difference between what you think you’re supposed to do and what you actually should do.

HULLFISH: Sure. You don’t want to take the next Star Wars movie and then realize halfway through it that you are not prepared to edit the next Star Wars movie.

FLEMING: Exactly. Or if you want to do the next Marvel movie, you need to realize that you’re signing up for a huge time commitment and that you’re cognizant of that decision — that’s not for everybody.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk a little about actually making this movie. What was the schedule?

FLEMING: We shot from the end of February until late May or June. Production was about ten or twelve weeks, in London and Bulgaria, and editorial was in London. The director lives in Austin, so we did the director’s cut in Austin for about twelve weeks. It was pretty standard. Ric is a thorough director and there were no big bumps along the road in production. There were no big bumps along the road in our process in putting the film together. We had the usual visual effects delays but otherwise, it was pretty smooth and I think we had a really good film six weeks into the director’s cut.

HULLFISH: So you spent about 12 weeks in London on the editor’s cut then 12 weeks in Austin on the director’s cut?

Jada Pinkett Smith stars as ‘Agent Thompson’ in ANGEL HAS FALLEN. Photo Credit: Jack English.

FLEMING: And then I came back to London for tweaks from the producers, color grade, DI, mix all of that.

Working with Ric is great. He’s a director who during the director’s cut is in the room 10 hours a day, sitting right with me. That’s the first time where I really had a director who was with me the whole time. He’s very specific about what he wants and likes to be there for every moment. It was a good experience.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk about your approach.

FLEMING: I tend to come at it from selects, so I’ll watch everything. I’ll pull selects. And then I will just narrow down from there. Narrow down, narrow down, narrow down. It’s a very time-consuming process. I’m indecisive. I wait to actually cut a scene together until I’m really really really familiar with the footage, which I think is different from a lot of people. For me, the selects process takes about five times as long as the actual editing. Once I’ve narrowed down what I’m liking it just comes together.

HULLFISH: Are you starting that selects process from a KEM roll, where you just put all of every single take in a big giant timeline or are you calling up individual shots and takes from a bin and finding what you like and cutting it into a timeline?

FLEMING: It depends. If it’s a scene where I know that it’s a straight-up dialogue and I know it’s going to be standard cutting — I might have an assistant break it down to a line-string — where it’s different performances next to each other, or I might do it myself. But I keep in mind that when you cut from a line-string as a first step, it has a pro-cut bias.

HULLFISH: Yep.

FLEMING: It just causes you to cut more, so what I’ll usually do if I cut a scene from a line-string from the beginning, I will go through the footage again and find ways to minimize the cutting or find any long chunks that would’ve worked on their own.

But if it’s a scene that’s more documentary style — which is a lot of what I end up doing — then I’ll try to find flows that work and moments that are a little off. What I’m always looking for is something that’s not quite perfect — not so imperfect that it takes you out, but that it feels natural. That is has a little bit of energy and it gives the scene something unexpected. I’m always looking for that and I will cling to those bits and cut a scene around those. Usually, those moments fall out of the cut because something about them doesn’t work, or the performance isn’t quite right. But at least if I start from those I’ll have had a foundation rooted in reality. Trying to get that little feeling of “this might have been a documentary.”

HULLFISH: I want to go back to that line-string idea. That is the danger that line-string. To explain to others — this line-string has a lot of different names but basically, you take the first line of a scene, whatever it is: “Hey Gabriel it’s Steve.” Using every single take and every single setup, you take just that one line and you put it into a sequence back-to-back and then go to the next line and the next line. But because of that, it tends to make you cut more because there is a cut after every line in the line-string.

Gerard Butler stars as ‘Mike Banning’ in ANGEL HAS FALLEN. Photo Credit: Jack English.

FLEMING: Exactly. When I do this, I never do individual lines next to each other. It’s always an exchange of at least four. Character A will say his line, then character B followed by A saying another line and then back to B. So I’ll never divide it smaller than that. Because if you just see them individually then you’re seeing them in tiny little chunks. You can’t see the forest for the trees. So I never go down that small.

HULLFISH: When I do a line-string, I usually do it based on blocking. I’ll break things down so an entire scene that’s 90 seconds long, I’ll break it into five pieces or six.

FLEMING: Yes. Also, I try and make the cut point in the line string where I know there’s most likely going to be a cut in the scene. It’s all in an effort to remove the threat of over-cutting.

I find that line-strings are extremely useful for action. Breaking down a scene like a fistfight: I will take just the same four swings: swing, punch, block, punch, swing. I’ll take that chunk from every camera and just put them all next to each other. I won’t necessarily use that for cutting, but it becomes extremely useful after it’s starting to come together to say, “Oh this swing doesn’t really make sense. Ok. This swing from this camera angle gets it a little bit better.” That — to me — makes action sequences come together very naturally and smoothly — when you break it down into its component parts because action sequences are really just very fast storytelling. It’s goal/obstacle goal/obstacle in half a second.

HULLFISH: And those line strings I also find are good for the director when you come to the classic question, “Is that the best take?” And you can easily run through your choices.

FLEMING: Yeah. That accelerates the process a lot.

HULLFISH: Do you have a special way or method of watching dailies.

FLEMING: I usually have my feet up on the desk and just watch in order. Or sometimes I’ll watch the last take first. Depends on my mood. I hear there are some people who can watch multi-cam dailies with both cameras at once. I just can’t. I need to see the full frame to really understand every new nuance of a shot.

HULLFISH: But you do group the clips.

FLEMING: Oh yeah. It’s so rare to work on a project where they’re shooting single camera. There are always two cameras going, and it’s useful to be able to toggle through them. I don’t use the groups that much to cut, but they do need to be grouped because there’s just a lot of use that comes out of that.

HULLFISH: So this is a continuing story of this character, correct?

FLEMING: Yeah it is.

HULLFISH: Did you use prior scores or what did you use for temp?

FLEMING: A lot of what Ric was trying to do with this film was to re-establish the style. I don’t know if you’ve seen the first two, but they’re a pretty popcorn version of this type of movie. What Ric wanted to do is make it gritty and more emotional and more character-based. In terms of the score, we were trying to bring a whole new feel to the franchise. United 93 ended up being our main temp track because we were trying to get as much documentary feel and restraint with the score. So we had a lot of United 93. We had a lot of Sicario – which everybody’s temping with these days. And then also Prisoners.

HULLFISH: That’s a great score. I’ve used that as temp.

FLEMING: Yeah. That’s where we went. The final score — David Buckley, who’s our composer, who’s just such an amazing composer — was much more stripped back. But that was a really good core to start from. So I think when you see it, it really feels a lot different than the first two films. And in the preview audiences, we had a lot of fans of the first two films and they loved it. We were wondering if they were gonna be off-put by how different it was stylistically, but they loved the difference.

HULLFISH: The temp scores you picked are so interesting. I just cut a movie with a ghost and so I’m looking at all these movies with ghosts. United 93 is not one that I would have guessed. Sicario, yes. Prisoners is a go-to for certain tension. United 93 would not have been one that I had would have thought of.

FLEMING: Honestly, it surprised me too. But we started gravitating toward it because we wanted the dialogue scenes to feel as urgent and as documentary-like as we could. And United 93 has this beautiful restrained score because the subject matter required a light touch. That ended up being what we were trying to kind of bring into this film — to get that level of gravitas onto what is essentially a popcorn film — to imbue or heighten that tension of the film that we were making.

HULLFISH: Did you watch the other movies either before your interview or since your interview?

FLEMING: I watched Olympus before the interview and then London after. I cut Patriot’s Day along with Colby Parker, which is a real-life story about a terrorist attack in Boston. And Ric wanted that feel. He wanted to bring that tone and feel to this film. So he said, “I want that editor!” and Colby wasn’t available, so here I am! (laughs)

HULLFISH: That’s a lot of how people get gigs. I definitely have landed jobs because somebody had watched another movie that I’d cut and said, “We called you because of this other movie.”.

FLEMING: Exactly yeah. That’s how one gets typecast in a role. When people like your work then they keep wanting to replicate the same thing. It’s a challenge to get out of that system. But I’m OK with it for now.

HULLFISH: I didn’t see any of the movies you did with Amber Sealey. I’m assuming those films were different.

FLEMING: Those were different, but there is a commonality. Amber’s film A Plus B, which I cut, was very documentary-based. It was about a couple going through a breakup, entirely shot in one apartment. I’ve also written and directed a couple of features and the first feature I did was near the end of 1999, right before the mumblecore movement.

HULLFISH: Oh yeah.

FLEMING: So I was working with the very beginning a digital video, and I was really interested in French new wave at the time, particularly Godard and cinema verite. My approach was to just start shooting my friends and making projects that way. I was doing a lot of documentary verite style stuff. That ended up translating into a lot of what I ended up editing. That’s Peter Berg’s style as well. Friday Night Lights is along those lines. So when I came in to work with him — first through Colby — it all fit together.

I remember my first interview with Pete, he watched the trailer for the second feature I directed, and he said, “OK. Yup. Let’s do this.” But I feel like I maybe get typecast that way in terms of just doing verite documentary style. I would love to do a film one day where the cameras are all on tripods. Maybe a musical or something (laughs).

HULLFISH: It is interesting the typecasting that goes on. Do you think there’s a way to fight that? Maybe you have to go off and do a film that’s maybe not quite as big. Instead of doing the fourth “Fallen” movie, you could go do a little independent where they shoot with tripods.

FLEMING: Two years ago I did a film called Blindspotting which was pretty different. When I jumped onto it, I just thought it would be a fun little indie project, but it ended up getting picked up by Lionsgate. I think it’s about choices. You get offered movies and you get offered interviews and it depends where you are at that moment. Sometimes you just really need a job, so you’ll do what comes up, but it’s about taking risks. It’s about turning things down. I want to expand my palette. And that can be scary sometimes. But, it’s all about what projects you choose to take if you’re lucky enough to get offered multiple projects.

HULLFISH: You mentioned directing — and I even think I saw cinematographer and writer — what did any of those other jobs in the industry bring to your editing or what does your editing bring to those other core skills?

FLEMING: I always feel like I’m an editor first — even in my directing and writing. I think in terms of cuts and I think in terms of how shots are going to work together and how the flow is going to be; how the music is going to work with that. So it’s all holistic to me. I think of it as filmmaking. And there are just different tasks within it. As an editor, I think I bring a director’s attitude. When I’m going into a scene I like to find something about it that excites me, “Oh, I can do this to the scene. I can bring this to the scene.” Or “if I do this in the scene I’m gonna be satisfying this creative expression of my own.” So it’s hard for me to know: What is directing? What is writing? What is editing? because it’s all one piece.

I do know that I bring a certain creative responsibility to things that I’m working on because of my background of directing and because of my background, honestly, in reality television, because in reality television the editor is ultimately responsible for the show. You’re the last stop. You need to deliver. I bring that attitude to scripted.

HULLFISH: There’s that process of cutting the scene together, but then, once you start assembling the entire movie there are the larger decisions that have to happen on a kind of a macro scale of the story. Talk to me about how your writing directing and reality show experience causes you to approach those larger choices.

FLEMING: There is so much writing that happens in the editing process that has to do with structural integrity and the structural flow and also the emotional flow of how the tone of one scene moves into the next. Particularly when you’re working on a film where you’ve got multiple storylines that are overlapping, how that gets put together is extremely important, and so much of that is the editing process. I was surprised by that when I started coming into features — how much could be changed.

HULLFISH: Different than the script.

FLEMING: Yeah. REALLY different than the script! And that responsibility is one that I enjoy.

We’re not going to just say, “This is what the script was.” We’ve got to make this better. We have to make this right. I’m also surprised how much dialogue writing I end up doing during the process with ADR, and how to get one piece of information across extremely efficiently. The wording that needs to go into ADR is so precise, especially when it’s something that you maybe need to overlap with an actor’s lips moving saying something else. I spend a lot of time doing that.

A writing background has been extremely helpful with knowing how structure works, knowing how story flow works and knowing when you can break the rules.

HULLFISH: Do you find that most of the time when something’s not working that it’s not at the scene level but it’s more at the larger structural level? Or are you feeling those things sometimes inside of a scene?

FLEMING: I think it’s both. Usually, in the earlier cuts, you’re leaving the scenes long. You’re leaving them with all of their content or most of their content. And just the length of the scene can have a huge effect on the story as a whole. You can have a scene that you cut four lines out, and suddenly it changes how a scene 10 minutes later behaves because you weren’t slowed down in that earlier section. Finding a flow is such magical alchemy. It’s hard to really say what guidelines there are or what rules. Because you can take out a couple of lines and completely affect the film as a whole. Not from a logical standpoint, but just from an emotional flow.

Finding that is really thrilling, especially when it happens near the end of the process, because often you’ll have a film that’s just a little too bulky — something’s just a little off — and then right towards the end you’ll find something that you never thought of — like “Oh, let’s change this line to this” or “let’s just move this half of the scene over here” and then suddenly everything will just click into place and it’s wonderful when it happens.

HULLFISH: You’ve done a ton of action movies — or several, at least. Is there a key to it? You mentioned that “action is just fast storytelling.”

FLEMING: Action scenes to me are — in a way — the purest form of cinema. You’re not dealing with dialogue necessarily, you’re not dealing with a lot of elements that we borrow from other arts like playwriting and painting and photography. Action is movement and pacing and emotion. And every action scene needs three things that I think often get forgotten: Story, Emotion, and Cool.

Action scenes are really just fast story in that the character has an objective and there is an obstacle in front of them. The objective is to get to that door, but there’s someone in the way who they need to fight their way past. And what often gets forgotten is that the character really just needs to get to that door. They don’t need to fight for fight’s sake. They just need to get to the door. Whenever I approach an action scene I try to keep that in mind. “What are they trying to do?” How do we keep this on track? How do we keep the objective of getting to that door active?

Then the other thing is emotion. Action is very emotional. It’s a high-stress situation that we’re putting these characters in. And every punch doesn’t hurt unless you see someone’s face in pain. You really need to get the emotional through-line. That’s where you get the tension and that’s where you get that adrenaline. It’s from watching people in pain or struggling and seeing that emotional story. I’ve seen this in TV a lot where you get so obsessed with the stunts that they forget to shoot people’s faces to see what they’re going through and to see the pain — their struggle.

And then the last piece of action is the cool factor. That’s something that directors always remember. “What’s the cool thing?” It’s got to be there, but it’s always in service to story and emotion. Once you get those first two, it’s simple.

HULLFISH: The emotion thing is interesting because I was thinking of the Jason Bourne movies and oftentimes the action hero is this consummate professional who tries not to show any emotion, but he always has the non-professional sidekick or partner or person they’re rescuing who is showing the emotion for the audience.

FLEMING: Those films are very high on the cool factor. But Matt Damon is in there suffering. You see him struggling and I think that’s a big part of why those films work. Harrison Ford is amazing at suffering and showing fear. You feel for him.

HULLFISH: Atomic Blonde is another one. You feel her getting hit and kicked and beaten. That’s one where you really feel the pain of the character in the fight.

FLEMING: With fight scenes, I’ll do an “efforts” pass. “Efforts” is the grunting and hard breath and groaning sounds. So I’ll do a pass where I really just try and amp it up and add as much pain as I can, bring as much vulnerability as I can as a temp track, and then we’ll bring the actor in eventually to record the real thing. But just the sound of them hurting helps SO much.

HULLFISH: A lot of people might not realize that a lot of times the production sound for those action scenes is useless.

FLEMING: Yeah. Often they’re concentrating so much on getting the choreography of the fight that it’s hard to bring in the performance at the same time. Gerard Butler has been doing this for a while, so he’s really good at getting in the performance while he’s doing the stunts, but it’s good to amp it up later with some good efforts and some good emotion in the efforts.

HULLFISH: It’s interesting that you’re ADRing those yourself. Do you have a microphone in the edit room?

FLEMING: iPhones. I just beat myself up and I roll around and I try to sound as pathetic as possible. Sometimes that stuff stays in.

HULLFISH: I cut a movie called Courageous and there was a big fight scene and the producer and I went outside in the grass outside the edit bay with my H4N Zoom and recorded the punches and grunts and rolling around, cloth sounds and whatever we could do before the professionals come in and do it.

FLEMING: And often when the professionals do it you have to really encourage them to NOT sound tough — to sound vulnerable because there’s a lot of macho in fight scenes and the more vulnerable your stars sound, the more tension there is. The more emotional it is.

HULLFISH: That is a great little nugget to go out on. I want to thank you so much for your time and the generosity of chatting with me.

Art of the Cut book cover
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors

FLEMING: Thank you so much. This was fun.

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.

Categories
Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with Kevin Tent, ACE on editing “Peanut Butter Falcon”

Kevin Tent, ACE, has been nominated for an Oscar and numerous ACE Eddie Awards for his work on Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska. He also won an ACE Eddie for The Descendants.

Today, Kevin and I discuss his work on in indie film, Peanut Butter Falcon, which he cut on Adobe Premiere.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

HULLFISH: Last time we talked was when you did Downsizing. You did that with director Alexander Payne. You’ve done a bunch of films for him.

TENT: I’ve done pretty much every film that he has directed except for his French short that was released a few years ago. I was on another movie when he did that. I started out with him on his very first feature Citizen Ruth then Election then About Schmidt then Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska then Downsizing. I think that’s all of them.

HULLFISH: What is the key to those long-term relationships, like Joel Cox and Clint Eastwood, Thelma with Martin Scorsese, Sally Menke with Quentin Tarantino?

TENT: Personally we get along very well. We’re similar in some respects. He grew up in Omaha I grew up in Buffalo, New York. We’re about the same age. And when we first met he said the producers had been dangling a lot of very established editors in front of him but he didn’t want to have a “godfather,” he wanted to have a partner.

I do other projects between his films as it takes him longer to get his next one going. So I’ll go edit something else. I like to think when we’re back together I’m a sharper editor than I was when I left him last. But he’s a very good editor in his own right too, and I think that goes for Marty and also Quentin. I think they’re not only great directors but very very good editors, to begin with.

HULLFISH: I didn’t know you were from Buffalo. I’m from nearby — Brockport, NY. I used to be a news cameraman for WOKR-TV in Rochester and shot in Buffalo all the time. I went to SUNY Brockport.

TENT: I went to SUNY Oswego, but then I dropped out and moved to California and went to film school out here.

HULLFISH: Is this a new director for you?

The Peanut Butter Falcon

TENT: Yeah. I’d worked with the producers before (Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa), they had been working on the cut for a while — the directors (Tyler Nilson & Michael Schwartz) were editing themselves — and they needed some help. Albert and Ron produced Election and Nebraska. And they’re going do Alexander’s next film. They asked “Hey, would you help us out?” So I came on and worked with the guys (Tyler & Michael) and also worked with Nat Fuller who I would like to give a big shout out to, too.

HULLFISH: And Nat had worked with you before as an assistant, right?

TENT: Yes. Many years ago I worked on Maleficent, for Disney. Just for a short time and he was an assistant on that movie. I remember him being a really sweet guy. That was maybe six or seven years ago. It was a nice coincidence that we hooked up again. He’s made the move into cutting. He joined Peanut Butter Falcon right before I came on. Nat has now gone on to cut Stranger Things. He’s done two, I think three seasons of that!

HULLFISH: What was the schedule like for you guys? You said that you’ve got a bunch of movies coming out all at the same time, so you probably edited this a while ago?

TENT: It was over a year and a half ago that we finished. We finished in February or March 2018. So it’s taken a long time to come around. I think they waited for South by Southwest and they had to finish the music and stuff like that. So it just took them a while. It seems like people are really responding well which is great. Have you seen it yet?

HULLFISH: I have not seen it.

TENT: It’s pretty great. It’s a feel-good movie, but really funny. It’s just one of those magical things where everything kind of seems to work.

HULLFISH: This is a film that you were brought on to kind of in the middle…

TENT: The directors were editing themselves. But, you know it’s hard to edit your own stuff especially if it’s your first movie. I think that makes even harder. And Michael — one of the directors — has done a lot of commercial editing and a lot of stuff like that. So it wasn’t like he didn’t know anything, but a feature was a little more challenging. They had written it and they had directed it and they were very close to it.

When I came on one of the bigger things I tackled was reducing the subplots of the movie to really subplots. They were wed to a lot of things that I felt you didn’t need to really focus on so much. There was a backstory with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) and his brother which I reduced to flashbacks instead of full-on scenes. That really helped the overall flow of the movie. It was something they probably would have gotten to on their own at some point. But it’s hard to let go of stuff that you wrote and directed.

But being able to step back I could see that that was kind of clunking up the beginning of the movie. We went with a more abstract approach to some of these flashbacks. Which ultimately were more emotional. It was a little hard for them at first, but they knew the movie was getting better and better as we embraced some of these changes.

HULLFISH: You were brought on by the producers. Did that cause any political difficulties or was that a useful thing?

TENT: Well, it’s definitely useful for the end project. The guys — Tyler and Michael — were really pretty supportive right off the bat. They knew that they were kind of stuck. They knew they needed to do something to shake it loose so they were supportive.

I had asked just to work for a few weeks on my own to get to know the footage and also experiment because I hate experimenting really radical ideas with people in the room. You always feel like you’re under time constraints and you don’t want to spend half an hour doing something stupid. So sometimes you don’t try things, but when I’m on my own, I will try all different things and sometimes they work, sometimes it just is a catalyst for something else.

HULLFISH: How long did you work on the film?

TENT: About ten weeks I think. So about what a director’s cut would be. I think I worked for six weeks on my own. Couldn’t quite get to the whole movie done by that time. Then I had a week or two of just working on the ending with Nat. Nat had done a lot of work roughing it in, he did a great job.

The ending’s this big wrestling match and it’s got a lot of cross-cutting and stuff going on, so that took some time. Then we previewed it and then we did about maybe two or three weeks of changes after that. But it didn’t really change too much from the preview. The cut was in good shape. We scored very well at the preview and that was exciting.

HULLFISH: You talked about the cross-cutting in the final scenes. Do you mean like between an A and a B story?

TENT: Yeah, an A and a B. Between a wrestling match going on and then there’s a bad guy (John Hawks) coming for Shia’s character and then there’s a C story with Dakota Johnson handcuffed to a car steering wheel and she’s trying to get loose. So we’ve got all these bits going on.

HULLFISH: I know it was a while ago, but when you think back to that cross-cutting of those storylines what were some of the things that caused that scene to really need attention?

The Peanut Butter Falcon

TENT: You want it to be suspenseful so you have this wrestling match going on and Zack is losing the wrestling match. You have to build that up. And at the same time, you are trying to get all these storylines to climax at one point. So you don’t want to be in the wrestling match too long before you cut to the next thing so that people don’t forget that storyline — well, not forget — but lose their emotional attachment to it. I think it’s all about emotional attachment. So you want the audience to be emotionally attached to the wrestling match. You want to be emotionally attached to Dakota Johnson trying to get loose from the car. And you want to be emotionally worried that Shia has got the bad guy coming after him. So you want to keep that balance going, and that just takes finessing and time to play around with it.

HULLFISH: I’m really interested in the fact that it’s a process, right? It’s not just a one and done kind of thing.

TENT: Yeah… It’s a process alright. You work and work and work on it and then you look at it the next day and say, “No. Not working yet.” Maybe I have to rethink how it starts or drop whole sections. Or put sections and beats back. It’s constantly changing until it suddenly feels right. Or right enough at that moment. The next day you start again. Maybe refine the sequence or maybe it works enough to move onto the next step and actually show it to people.

HULLFISH: You talked about directing a little bit. You’ve directed several things. What do you think you’re directing does for your editing or vice versa?

The Peanut Butter Falcon

TENT: I directed a movie a couple of years ago called Crash Pad. I’ll tell you what it did for me in the editing room. I was already extremely empathetic to directors. I am probably more empathetic than most about how difficult it must be on the set, but after the experience of directing I had even more empathy and more sympathy for how difficult it is to catch anything that’s good on camera. In my opinion, it’s a miracle a movie ever comes out good. So I think I’ve gained more empathy, understanding, and sympathy for the directors I work with. Less judgmental of the footage and more accepting of what we’ve got.

On the flip side, I had one comforting thought in my mind while I was directing, that — worst-case — if something’s really bad – I can cut it out and figure out some way around it. So that was a big plus for me while I was directing. The biggest thing is having understanding and sympathy and empathy for the footage you have. Sometimes there’s a tendency for editors to complain: “Why didn’t you get that shot?” I don’t think I’ve ever been a big complainer although I’m sure I said those exact words before but I know “it’s hard out there.” Now I am more careful to not be critical of that kind of stuff, and just accept that this is the footage. What do we do? How can I be the best editor to fix what the problems we have right here?

HULLFISH: You mentioned that for the directors you were working with on this film even though that they CAN direct, it’s great to have another set of eyes. When you directed, you hired somebody for your film. You knew that despite how well you edit, you needed someone else to cut for you.

TENT: Well I couldn’t help myself. I really couldn’t. I did some editing too. I was like, “Oh my God! This is a mess! I think I’m the only person that can try to get myself out of this one.” Franco Pante was the main editor, we worked really closely together. It was fun. And he was terrific. We just passed scenes back and forth. He’d work on this and I’d work on that and then he’d take it back and try this. It was creative, productive and fun.

HULLFISH: You don’t edit with other people a lot do you?

TENT: A couple of times, but primarily I’m a one-man band, which I kind of like, but I would do a bigger project.

HULLFISH: You just seemed to be happy about working with another editor — there’s that collaborative sense and you get to talk to somebody else and throw things back and forth. Some people do that a lot and some people don’t.

TENT: It all depends on the project too. Every project’s different, which is one of the great things about the film industry.

HULLFISH: On other films, when you’re finished with dailies do you start assembling scenes — one scene to the next — immediately? When do you start assembling scene to scene to scene?

TENT: If you have two scenes that they shot that actually go together then I would probably put the two scenes together while I’m assembling. But other than that I keep them all separate in a bin and then when I have a bunch of them and I can tie them together and if I’m missing one I’ll just put “scene missing” graphic and keep on going.

HULLFISH: With some of the films you’ve done, they’re pretty quirky. Do many of them have ad-libbing in them?

TENT: Alexander’s movies? Not much ad-libbing.

HULLFISH: So, they’re the kind of movies that are written with very specific dialogue in mind?

TENT: Yes. He likes the actors to follow the dialogue. So his movies may feel that way sometimes — and maybe Sideways — Thomas Haden Church did a lot of ad-libs but for the most part actors stuck to their pages because that’s how he likes it.

Other movies — Peanut Butter Falcon for instance — lots of ad-libs. Shia is a really remarkable actor and even if he’s ad-libbing he’s so into his character that it just seems so natural and he’s really amazing. I had never edited any footage of his before and I was very impressed with him.

HULLFISH: When you’re working with those kinds of performances there can be tonal differences from one take to another. Do you try to control temperature and tone through performance or take choice? Is that something that you find you’re able to do with some actors?

TENT: With some actors, yeah.

HULLFISH: How are you making those determinations of where the edit needs to be as far as the temperature of a performance?

TENT: It’s really hard to give a specific. I think that’s what editing is all about. You’re constantly adjusting especially subtle performances. It could be dropping a line. It could be adding a reaction shot in a certain spot. It could be shortening a scene by half. There are countless ways to play with a performance, so it’s hard to say.

The Peanut Butter Falcon

HULLFISH: I’m talking more because he gives you a range of performances and so you’re choosing, “Maybe this performance is better than this performance but the tone or the temperature of this performance is better for this spot in the movie.”.

TENT: Yes. You’re constantly doing that too. That’s constantly happening. You also don’t realize, or can’t tell, till you start watching the movie as a whole. That’s when you might notice that the character’s kind of one way and all of sudden they’re up high and then they come back down, so you want to adjust that so it all seems believable. So it all seems realistic and true and that you don’t have a performance that takes anyone out of the movie. That’s something you’re always looking for but you might not know that until you put the whole movie together or put three or four scenes together.

HULLFISH: Then with a movie like this one where you’re talking about kind of changing parts of how the movie was originally written you’ve got a performance that somebody thought was going to be used one way but now it’s used as a flashback or if you tighten up a movie, one of the things that I found before — let’s say you’ve got to take out a couple of scenes — when you do that you realize the two scenes that weren’t supposed to go back to back are joined so the performances don’t work now back to back.

TENT: It’s true. That happens all the time. You just kind of figure it out while you’re working on it. Make adjustments to performances in one or both scenes. Or manufacture a few beats between with establishing shots or music or something. A lot of times the audience will let you know about this too. When you screen it for people they’ll feel those bumps in performance if it’s not right. And even if you didn’t see it then you’ll hear about it and realize, “Maybe there’s an adjustment we can make.”

HULLFISH: Can you talk to me a little bit about those screenings.

TENT: It’s super nerve-racking. I always get really nervous because you never know what’s going to happen or how it’s going to play. You hope your movie is playing pretty good. You think it’s in the ballpark. But you don’t really know until you screen for an audience and then you find out for sure.

On Peanut Butter Falcon we had a small producer’s screening after the first six weeks. And they (producers and directors) were happy. It was feeling smooth. It’s telling the story. We’re getting a sense of everything, and it’s a fun ride. That was a very positive screening, but I was very nervous. And our first preview I was nervous too because everyone you’re working with knows the movie fairly well but you never know what an audience is going to say. You’re hoping that they’re going to like it. On Peanut Butter Falcon the screenings were consistently positive, which is good. It gave us even more confidence to keep on going in the direction we we were going in.

HULLFISH: Do you take notes during those screenings or no?

TENT: I don’t. But I remember pretty much everything. At least I think I do. I just try to feel the audience. I can kind of feel when we lose them. So I’m like, “OK. We’ve got to do something in this area because they’ve lost their patience or they’re disengaged.” I think I really just watch for engagement and disengagement and I can feel that. Also, I’ll remember, “I’ve got to fix the bad sound here. Maybe there’s another take of this.” And I’ll remember those kinds of things when I go back to the cutting room.

I used to take notes and I take a notepad with me in case somebody has a good idea I want to write it down, but I find that when I go back to a movie I usually remember what people have said or what I felt. Or what I think they felt.

HULLFISH: This movie was edited in Adobe Premiere which is new to you correct?

TENT: Yes. I inherited a Premiere project. I had used it once briefly before but this was my first time really using it.

HULLFISH: What was the training like? Did you go in a little scared or skeptical?

TENT: I was definitely scared but I jumped right in. I should have probably done things differently, like taken a class or two, but it was one of those situations where I had to start right away. The people at Adobe were very gracious and very helpful, but basically, I just sat down and started using it. Oh and I watched a couple of videos on YouTube. So there was a big learning curve for me and in hindsight, I probably should have taken a class or had someone to sit with me for a day or two or more.

HULLFISH: You just dove right in. That’s brave.

TENT: Yeah, just dove right in, I think it was more foolish than brave. It was a little hard because I’m so used to using an Avid and Premiere does have a way that you can set it up like an Avid, but upon reflection, I wish I wouldn’t have done that. People have told me that it’s not really like cutting with an Avid. You should use it how it’s meant to be used. But it happened so fast. I was trying to relearn it through the lens of an Avid user, and that was kind of hard.

HULLFISH: Do remember how it was organized? Was everything in one project like it is in an Avid? Or did they break it up into separate reels, maybe?

TENT: It was all in one project. Nat and I had to really reorganize it. We had to build it into more of a traditional movie project because it didn’t come that way. Tyler and Michael were used to doing small projects, their shorts, their commercials. And they just loaded tons of footage into a system and started cutting. Honestly, it was kind of a mess. The project was a gorilla to wrestle to the ground and organize, but we did it.

HULLFISH: What are some of the ways that you needed to organize that you felt helped you edit when you did the organization?

TENT: Well, for one thing, we created group clips. Clips hadn’t been grouped yet.

HULLFISH: So, grouping the clips so that you could use them as multi-cam.

TENT: Yes. I don’t think the guys had considered that. We also set up bins and organized them so we could see the clips and takes visually. I don’t think we even had bins organized by scene if I remember correctly. Nat was a big part of getting us up and running.

HULLFISH: With group clips, do you find that the value of those is just being able to cut from one angle to the next without having to find it and match it?

TENT: Yeah I think it’s really useful. Also, I look at group clips together sometimes. For example – in one particular scene in Peanut Butter Falcon, the “A camera” had covered the actors celebrating a birthday party and the “B Camera” rambled around a bar handheld. Picking up various tidbits of footage. A band playing, people cutting cake, people clinking glasses. Having the clips linked helps me remember where a particular “b-cam” shot might be. I’ll remember when an actor says some line, go to it and then look for the corresponding “b-cam” bit I was thinking of.

HULLFISH: Another thing that I would think that an inexperienced editor of any kind or of any age might not organize properly is archiving sequences or edits of scenes or reels. Was there a need to create archival bins of reels that had been delivered or stages that had been reviewed?

TENT: Yeah. Do you mean did we do that in Premiere?

HULLFISH: Yeah when you finally organized.

TENT: We did do that and we did save cuts. I save versions of stuff all the time. If I’m mid-scene when quitting for the night, I’ll save that version from that night in case I want to go back and steal something that I’ve changed the next day of cutting. We were constantly archiving cuts and stuff like that.

HULLFISH: Was there anything in Premiere that you liked?

TENT: I do like a lot of it. I like how you can move tracks around the timeline. And the graphics that they use for the waveforms are very useful, especially for music. We did a lot of music cutting, so that was really handy.

Like I said before – I think if I could do it all over again. I would have taken classes to learn how to use it how it’s intended to be used.

HULLFISH: Anytime somebody complains to me about Avid, for example, I’ll ask, “Well, do you really know how to use it?” I’ve edited two movies in Premiere. I cut one movie in FCP7, and then everything else I’ve cut in Avid. I know my Final Cut Pro experience was bad because I didn’t know what I was doing. So there’s really nobody to blame but myself.

TENT: Me too. I feel that way too. But it was just so fast that I just had to sit down and get started. But then I also think that’s a good way to learn. Just sit down and start doing it.

HULLFISH: Oh yeah. Start blasting through.

TENT: What do you prefer if you’re given the choice?

HULLFISH: For me I prefer Avid. But that’s definitely because of my comfort level with it. You and I have probably been on Avid about the same amount of time. I’ve been on Avid since 1992. So when you’ve been working on something that long, I know it inside and out. I can do whatever I want to do I don’t have to think about what I’m doing, I just do it. And I also troubleshoot fairly well. And when I get on Premiere, there’s so much stuff to like, but then I get lost.

TENT: And there are workarounds, but you just don’t know them. It was a good experience. I’m glad I had a chance to use it.

HULLFISH: What have you been working on since?

TENT: I also have another movie coming out soon that I worked on as an additional editor. It’s called The Brian Banks Story which is also really good. And then a sweet comedy also really good called Otherhood. It’s a Netflix film. Really cute and charming and funny.

Also, I did a film a few years ago called Disconnect with a director friend: Henry Alex Rubin — a great film that nobody ever saw and his new movie Semper Fi is coming out. I’m not sure when. That was the other one I did last year. I had a busy year. I was doing lots of smaller films that were done quickly. The last thing I actually finished was Otherhood, which is out now. I finished that in April.

And up next – I’m waiting for Alexander to start his next film hopefully in October.

HULLFISH: That’s a big issue with a lot of editors who work with directors that always want them to be part of their projects. If you’re the favorite editor of a director, how do you schedule your movies to time out with their movies? You don’t want to sit around too long with nothing to do, but you want to make sure you’re available.

TENT: Right. Yeah. It’s tricky. It’s really tricky. I’ve always — knock on wood — been lucky that it’s kind of worked out. There’ve been a couple of times where it’s overlapped and that’s always been nerve-wracking. I don’t like doing that. Too stressful.

HULLFISH: Tell me about trying to negotiate that.

TENT: It’s hard. It’s really hard to do. Downsizing was a good example. I was finishing my movie while Downsizing was in production. Alexander was OK with it overlapping and we, fortunately, had Joe Bini come in and help. He and I were both cutting while I was trying to finish my movie, but I found it very stressful. Like I wasn’t giving Downsizing enough attention and then I also thought I was not giving my own movie enough attention.

HULLFISH: When you get dailies — when you’re looking at a blank timeline — what do you do?

TENT: I select things I like as I go along. So I start watching dailies and even if it’s a reaction shot I’ll throw it in the timeline and save it. And I’ll just keep collecting stuff, even sound effects sometimes. Like a door closing or something. I’ll think “Oh, that’s really good. I’ll save that.” I just kind of keep these various things in the timeline, just collect my favorite moments and then start putting it together. Basically editing is hunting and gathering at the same time.

I used to watch dailies all the way through, then go back and start collecting and cutting. But now it seems it’s more efficient to watch and collect at the same time. I copy my selected goodies and start cutting with them and keep pushing all my selects south in the timeline. So sometimes my first cuts of scenes will have behind them, tons of junk or leftover clips of stuff I pulled.

HULLFISH: And how are you using that collection? You’ve got a big selects reel of stuff. Are you cutting from that? Do you pop that in the source monitor and edit from it? Or do you put it in the timeline and use it as a starting point?

TENT: That’s a good question. I do both. Sometimes I’ll match clip to the original daily and cut it in twice.

And then I’ve also gotten into — and maybe you have too — stacking takes on top of each other. Alexander and I do this a lot.

Talking earlier about how we’re regulating performances — we do that a lot, so we’ll have — this performance which is a little hotter, it’s a little angrier here, let’s keep it but I think we should go with this one right now. Then keep on cutting but we keep going back and looking. Sometimes they stay in a cut for a really long time and then other times, once we get it put together, we’ll decide that this is the one we should keep.

HULLFISH: And you’re doing that on two different tracks?

TENT: You can mute that clip in Premiere, which is cool. Avid can do that now too. We’ve been using it for a few years.

HULLFISH: You’re not talking about muting the audio, but muting the entire clip or track, right? So that the clip is in the timeline but if you don’t see it visually or hear it audibly.

TENT: Right.

HULLFISH: Resolve does something similar which allows you to have alternate takes in the same clip in the timeline and switch between them. And even if — for example — let’s say in one take the delivery of a line in a segment takes two and a half seconds but you’ve got another take where there’s a little pause in it and maybe it’s three seconds? It’s still in the timeline as one segment and if you watch one it pushes everything down a half a second or pulls it back a half a second. It’s really cool.

TENT: Really?

HULLFISH: Yeah. Check out Alternate takes in Resolve.  It actually even flows between takes that are different lengths so you can see both takes in context of the edit without changing the length of either take.

With a lot of your films — well most films, right? — The plot is about one thing but then the subtext is something different. What does that mean to you when you’re trying to cut a film and you know this film is really about loss even though it seems to be about wrestling?

TENT: I think what’s interesting is that… That’s something that evolves. Peanut Butter Falcon is a good example of what you’re saying. It’s really a movie about family and you don’t realize it at first. And all the editing we did eventually made that subtext stronger. It’s not something consciously we were trying to do but I think as the film evolved and got tighter and more focused that came to the surface. And that’s what’s kind of sweet about the movie. You have these three main characters who are all kind of orphans and alone and then through this crazy story they all hook up and become a family. Very sweet.

Subtext is something that I think you can’t really force. It’s a big question. I think those things just kind of hopefully evolve organically and naturally. I think that’s why Peanut Butter Falcon works so well. Very strong undercurrents which an audience feels more than intellectually thinks about.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk about the idea of how you deal with a director — and it would be interesting for you to talk about how it’s different with someone that you work with so often, like Alexander. Your collaboration with him might be very different than with other directors that you worked with less.

TENT: My approach is I am just pretty honest of what I think is better for the movie. Michael and Tyler were great fun to work with. We had our differences and ultimately it’s their choice what they decide, but I’ll give my pitch of why and what I did as opposed to how they had it before. And then it’s kind of up to them to either go for it or not.

I’m not super pushy, but one time I said that to Alexander and he said, “Oh Yeah right!” (sarcastically) (laughs) I think I try to be really clear on why I make some of the decisions I make. And why I think something is better for the movie or for a character.

A lot of it is personal preference. Ultimately they’re the director of the movie and they have the final say. If I REALLY believe in something I’ll go back to it again — a couple of times — but I usually abide by my “Three Time Rule” which is that I only bring up a significant idea or cut three times. Like dropping a scene or swapping a performance. If the fish aren’t biting the first time around and I really feel it’s important I’ll bring it up two more times over the course of the cutting. It might be the very last day of the mix where I’ll bring it up a third time — if I really believe in it — but after three times you have to let it go. You don’t want to become annoying or create trust issues with the director. Plus… so many times while cutting I thought something was so critically important, then I see the movie later and I think… “what was I worried about? That still works.”

HULLFISH: As far as relationships that are more established, like with Alexander, the other advantage that you’ve got is that you’ve maybe said stuff to them that they didn’t agree with, but it was later shown to be correct so they see — eventually — that you were right. And when that happens enough times you gain some credibility.

TENT: Right. I know. It’s true. But he and I – we don’t get into anything like that. We don’t take ownership of things in the movies. I figure what happens in the room when we close the door – happens and whatever comes out comes out. We don’t say to ourselves “that was my idea.” Because it’s never really anyone’s idea. It’s a combination of people working on a project or scene and whatever comes out is what comes out.

HULLFISH: Right, because on something where you truly believe, “That was my idea.” It was still triggered by….

TENT: Yes!

HULLFISH: …your director maybe saying something that didn’t work, but that’s how you came up with your idea.

TENT: Exactly. So that’s why I think the editing rooms is this sanctuary where stuff happens and when it comes out of the room hopefully it’s good. Who knows or cares why things came out the way they did? It was a combination of everything that happens in there.

HULLFISH: Because the producers brought you onto this film was there any tension between the directors and the producers and your relationship with them?

TENT: In this circumstance, everyone I think felt there needed to be some help or they needed some fresh eyes on the project. I had breakfast with Tyler and Michael right before I started — and they were excited about having someone else help, because I think they had been working really hard, but they were just stuck a little bit.

HULLFISH: So two directors?

TENT: Tyler and Michael Yeah.

HULLFISH: How did they interact with each other?

TENT: It’s interesting. They’re really great guys. They’re super talented. They’ve known each other for years. They’re really good buddies. They made a short film together, and they know Zach. It’s a great story behind the making of this movie. Zach, they met at a filmmaking camp in Florida I believe where Zach’s from — for Down’s syndrome children and adults. They really love Zach and Zach’s so lovely — you’ll see it in the movies. They decided to work on a script with him. So many of the ideas in the script are things that Zach came up with. They were so open to his ideas. Zach loves wrestling so we’re going to work this wrestling thing into the movie. Zach loves to swim, so we’re going to work this swimming thing into the movie and that’s how they wrote it. That’s how they directed it and that’s how they were in the editing room too.

HULLFISH: Thank you so much for chatting with me. I really enjoyed talking about this movie with you.

TENT: I can’t wait for you to see it. So please let me know. I’d love to hear what you think.

Art of the Cut book cover
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.

Categories
Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with Fred Raskin, ACE on editing “Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood”

As an assistant editor to the legendary Sally Menke, Fred Raskin, ACE, worked on both of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies and created a working relationship with the director that launched him from assistant editor to the coveted editor’s chair with Django Unchained, though he HAD edited projects for other directors prior to Django.

Fred has worked – solo or as co-editor – on films including Hateful Eight, Django Unchained, Guardians of the Galaxy – 1 and 2, Fast and Furious AND Fast Five.

Today, Fred and I discuss his work on Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.

Fred Raskin, ACE, in the cutting room of Hateful Eight. Photo courtesy, Wm. Stetz.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

HULLFISH : Let’s talk about the diegetic (http://filmsound.org/terminology/diegetic.htm) music, or the beds of music and sound and radio and TV content that the characters are listening to — or that you would imagine are filling their space.

RASKIN: The entire movie — to some extent — is a product of Quentin’s memory of that era. And one of the things that is foremost in his mind was that everyone listened to 93-KHJ — an AM station that played the rock music of the era. He wrote into the screenplay that the deejays from that radio station would be — to some extent — the narrators of the movie. Them introducing the songs and coming out of them and even the way they read the commercials was all going to be part of the soundscape of the movie. He actually got ahold of a 40 CD set that was just all of this KHJ material from 1969. And he listened to all of it. And I had to have my assistants catalog it all so that when he would say, “OK I want to use this song which is from this date with this deejay” we were able to pull it up. KHJ is as much a character in the movie as any of the people.

HULLFISH: Did you find that you needed to edit picture to that audio material or were you trying to edit mute or were you adding the audio later? What was the timetable of including those soundtrack pieces?

RASKIN: When I’m doing my assembly, Quentin really does not come into the editing room during production. He just remains focused on shooting the movie. He literally had to come into the editing room twice during the entirety of the five-month shoot. So when I’m doing my assembly I generally am working without music. He’s very good about not telling me what songs he intends to use because he doesn’t want to have the experience of watching it for the first time to find that I’ve used the song in a different way than he had intended. Sometimes he knows — down to each verse — what he wants to see at what point, so seeing something that’s off is going to throw him and he’d rather see it silent and then put the music in later.

But sometimes he would shoot with a particular song playing in playback and if that was the case then I had a pretty good sense that that was a song he was intending to use. And when I knew, I would use it and usually wouldn’t be too far off from what he intended. But for a lot of the stuff, I didn’t know, so generally when I had assembled something dry, when he came in, we would try putting the music in against it and then make the adjustments so that the rhythms of the edit matched the song. But if it was something where I knew what the song was ahead of time then I would use that. It was kind of cool. There are probably more jump cuts in this movie than in any of his previous movies and a lot of that comes from cutting the stuff in time with the music. That allowed us to get away with things that I don’t think we would have had they played dry.

Quentin Tarantino directing a scene from ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

HULLFISH: One of the things I noticed with some of those tracks is that often the background audio cut as if the character was listening to it in their car and so if there was a picture cut there was also an audio cut. It wasn’t like a traditional music montage where the music continues under the picture cuts.

RASKIN: Yup. Cliff’s drive home is probably the most obvious example of that. We’re collapsing a relatively long drive home and one of the ways that we had to tell that story is by hearing a different song every time we cut to a different part of his drive. For me, as I was working on the movie, I got used to the rhythms of the way we had cut those songs and they almost formed their own new rhythm. I’m sure on first viewing it’s a little bit more jolting, but I kind of fell in love with the way we transition from one song to the next.

HULLFISH: You mentioned jump cuts so let’s talk about that. The most obvious place that most people are going to remember them — I think it’s even in the trailer — is where Rick….

RASKIN: … has that freak-out in his trailer after he blows his lines.

HULLFISH: Yes.

RASKIN: That was always [Quentin’s] intention for that scene. That is sort of a rarity in the Tarantino pantheon because that’s a scene that was actually pretty much entirely improv-ed. Quentin had spoken with Leo about what he wanted the scene to accomplish and he gave him the main beats that Leo had to hit. And then he said, ‘OK, I’m going to shoot this from one angle.’ They ultimately ended up doing four takes of it. It’s all from one wide shot inside the trailer and each take Leo kind of did his own thing but found those particular beats that Quentin wanted him to hit. Then — stylistically — Quentin refers to it as his Taxi Driver sequence. There was really no way to put that together other than jump-cutting it — unless we were literally to just hold on a shot for five minutes of a guy freaking out. But I think the jump cuts give you a good feeling for how frustrated Rick is in that moment. I’m really proud of that sequence. The jump cuts tell the story. They contribute to the comedy of the scene, like when Rick says “That’s it! No more drinking!” and then we cut right to him taking a sip from his flask.

Brad Pitt star in ONCE UPON TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

HULLFISH: The other part to doing those kinds of jump-cut sequences — not only do you have to be conscious of the material that you want to have the audience hear, but you also need to kind of choose where there are going to be big visual jumps. Like from the left side of the trailer cutting to the right, or sitting than standing. Talk to me a little bit about constructing that if you can remember.

RASKIN: We occasionally would use big sound effects like door slams or him kicking the table as a cut point. There weren’t really any rules in terms of what we could get away with. In general, I think it tended to work better when Rick wasn’t in the same position. When he’s jumping around from one end of the frame to the other it just adds to the insanity that the character’s feeling. We kind of found the beats that we were going to use, strung them all together, and then found the rhythm by watching it through and feeling, “OK, we should lose a few frames here” and played it back until it felt like “All right. This is working. We like this.” We tried a few different versions. There were a number of different beats. We watched the whole thing back and felt like, “All right. This is doing everything that we needed it to do.” Then you play it for an audience whether that’s my assistants or an actual test audience and then you find out whether it’s working or not. In this case, everybody responded really well to it.

HULLFISH: There are other jump cuts, too, right?

RASKIN: Yes. The other thing about that trailer scene — since I went into it discussing the music-based jump cuts — is that there is no music under that scene.

Another series of jump cuts is when Roman and Sharon are driving to the Playboy mansion and Deep Purple’s “Hush” is playing, we were able to collapse their drive through the use of jump cuts. It was a combination of slow-motion and 24fps and we found — certainly with the slow-mo — using the jump cuts was just a really cool effect.

Margot Robbie stars in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

We have the moment where Jim Stacy introduces himself to Rick Dalton which is a weird example. That was a scene that played out in one take and we wanted to collapse it and Quentin said, “This is my homage to the Brian De Palma movies of the late ’60s — using the jump cuts in this way.” So I said “OK.” He’s pretty firm that there are no rules. Even though plenty of people would look at that and say, “What are you doing? You can’t do that.” Quentin will just say, “Eh… I did it.” The real joy to working with him is that he knows everything that’s come before and he uses that knowledge to great effect. He knows what’s going to work and what isn’t, and certainly there’s stuff in this movie that people are going to be bothered by, like the fact that like we hear from a narrator very early on in the movie and then we don’t hear from that narrator again until the last act of the movie — that’s something that I’m sure studio execs would have issue with. And he just says, “I use the narration when I need it, and I don’t think the audience has any problem following that.”

HULLFISH: You’ve referenced Taxi Driver and Brian de Palma movies. I think everyone knows that Quentin is a big film aficionado. How much of your interaction with him relies on you having his level of film references that borders on the encyclopedic?

RASKIN: It’s an interesting question. In order to do the job, probably not so much. In order to converse with him about it, a whole damn lot. Nobody is going to be up at the same level as he is. If you ever want to feel like you don’t know anything about movies, spend 10 hours in a room with Quentin Tarantino. So you’ve got to roll with it. He’s going to talk about movies that he expects you’re going to know and you’re gonna hang your head in shame and say, “I haven’t seen that — but I’m going to.” But the truth is that he knows what he wants and he’s very good at explaining what he wants. And then we can execute it together. And then it’s just if you’ve edited movies before you kind of understand how you’re gonna refine it to make it work. Certainly, my experience at doing the job helps but I don’t think I needed to have as encyclopedic a knowledge base as he has in order to pull off something like that.

Margot Robbie BTS in Columbia Pictures “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

HULLFISH: I’m trying to remember the story from our last interview. Your love of movies helped you land the editing job — seeing movies at the arthouse theater that Quentin owns and talking to him at that theater?

RASKIN: No. Not exactly. I met him because I was an assistant for the great Sally Menke on the Kill Bill movies. I assisted Sally on the two movies that she cut prior to Kill Bill and so she brought me on to Kill Bill. We didn’t see him at all during the production on that movie and that was a LONG production. If memory serves, it was about eight months. And when he got back from shooting he came into the editing room for the first time and we would have lunch together — at least initially. Once they really got into it, Sally and Quentin would be in the room together hunkered down. I’ve come to understand what that’s all about!

But whenever the opportunity arose, we would just engage in conversation about movies and I think he very quickly had a sense that we were kind of kindred spirits. And I WAS a regular at the New Beverly — that’s the theater that he now owns. But long before he owned it I was regularly going there to check out revival double features. After finishing the Kill Bill movies I would just randomly run into him at that theater or at various parties and whenever we’d see each other we’d talk about whatever we’d seen recently and so he kind of kept me in mind so that when they did their rough-cut screenings of both Deathproof and Inglourious Basterds he called me up and invited me to his friends and family screenings — which was a tremendous honor, really exciting. There’s not really much more thrilling than getting a call from Quentin Tarantino saying, “Hey, I want you to come and see our first cut of my new movie.”

HULLFISH: I talked to another assistant of Sally’s — Phyllis Housen — and she said her job on Kill Bill was conforming the Avid cut to a film cut so that Quentin could watch Kill Bill projected on film.

Leonardo DiCaprio star in Columbia Pictures “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

RASKIN: That’s correct. Kill Bill was actually a weird situation because that movie was shot three-perf Super 35mm so you couldn’t actually conform work picture. We had to do a film-out of the entire first cut and then whenever changes were made, more film-outs had to be done and those film-outs had to be physically cut into the initial film-out. But all of the movies that I’ve worked with Quentin on as editor have been shot four-perf so that we’ve got work picture printed off the negative that can be conformed based on the Avid cut so that we can do screenings in 35mm, or, in the case of Hateful Eight, 70.

HULLFISH: So he’s still doing screenings on film? On Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, you guys were screening on projected film? Not just for audience screenings, but kind of every day?

RASKIN: Yeah. We definitely did dailies screenings on film. That was for probably the first half or so of the shoot. They always fall off at a certain point. It was every day or every other day when the shoot began. At first we went to FotoKem to screen, but then we built a screening room downstairs at our production office that could hold about 70 people — something like that. The whole crew and cast were invited. But then as we got into post whenever we finished a scene I would turn it over to my assistants to have them start conforming it so that when Quentin wanted to screen it on film we had that option. We didn’t do it that often as we were putting the movie together. We screened what — at that time — was the first two hours, which really only went up through the scene where Rick meets Trudi — the little girl on the porch of the saloon on the set of Lancer. We screened all of that with Bob Richardson on film. So it was cool because we’d been looking at the Avid for so long and then to get to see it on 35mm — there was an extra level of period authenticity to see it projected on 35mm. In general, when you’ve finished a cut, you want to screen it right away and that’s not really possible when you’re conforming film. There’s at least a one day lag time and then you also have to think about opticals and titles. So we were definitely forced to screen digitally sometimes when we needed to watch it right away. We were cutting on Avid DNX 115, so it looked really good projected, but it wasn’t film. We did eventually end up doing at least one of our test screenings on film and that was pretty amazing.

Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt on the set of ONCE UPON TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. (woman in shot: ELISE NYGAARD OLSON)

HULLFISH: When you were screening dailies on film, was that the first time you were looking at the film or had you looked at the film in Avid before?

RASKIN: In general I had watched it on the Avid. When the first day’s material came in, I wanted to see it on film, so I watched it on the KEM, but as more material came in and my time was more limited I would watch one take for each set-up on the Avid so I kind of had a sense as to how he wanted the scene to come together and to make sure that we had everything we needed, but honestly there was never a time when we didn’t.

HULLFISH: The reason why I ask that question is because I’m wondering how you were dealing with looking at dailies on film — or when you were with Quentin in the screening room were you getting notes? How are you keeping track of notes? Just by the scene and take numbers?

RASKIN: My assistants’ built daily rolls and we knew what takes were on it. They had a FileMakerPro codebook that would spit out a screening notes page that had room for about six takes on a page and it would have the scene and take number and the camera lens. Any information that might be asked for while we’re in the dailies screening. It also had a little space for me to write notes and for the most part, what I would do is I would sit next to Quentin and anything that he laughed at meant he liked it and I would note that. Sometimes he would say to me, “Here’s what I’m thinking about this.”

There was the scene in Lancer where Timothy Olyphant rides up on his horse and the camera follows him and ends up on a shot of him framed over Scoot McNairy’s gun belt. Quentin wanted that scene played entirely on that shot, but he also shot coverage on it and we watched the coverage in dailies and Quentin said, “Listen, I think I’m probably just going to hold on that shot in the movie, but when you do your assembly, use the coverage because I’m curious to see what that version of the scene looks like.” So there’d be things like that that he would bring up during dailies screenings. But honestly, the most important thing was: what does Quentin laugh at, because that is almost invariably what he wants to see in the movie.

BTS – Leonardo DiCaprio and Quentin Tarantino in Columbia Pictures “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

HULLFISH: I love that idea that you just pointed out which was: he can see in his head what the single shot looks like, but he’s interested in seeing the coverage version, so you cut the coverage version knowing probably it’s never gonna make the movie but you still have to do it, right?

RASKIN: Seeing it play out as one shot? Well, anybody could do that. But looking at the coverage was going to take more time. And I have to say that when I did that, there was one thing that I really liked in the coverage version, but ultimately it just wasn’t as cool as letting it all play out in one shot, so that’s how it is in the finished movie.

HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about the process: the way a film changes over time; what those decisions are; how easy it is as an editor to kind of unlock your brain from what you’ve already cut to what the film COULD be…

RASKIN: My assembly for this movie was not short. It was about four hours and forty-one minutes long. So there’s two hours worth of movie that didn’t make the final cut of the movie. We knew going in that there was some stuff that wasn’t going to make the final cut of the movie. And I think when Quentin came into the editing room, he had a pretty good sense as to what a lot of that material was. Not all, but a lot of it.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

I think when we got it down to — I don’t want to call it a director’s cut, because I think the director’s cut is what’s in theaters right now — but when we got through the first pass with him working with me I think at that point the movie was hovering somewhere around three hours and twenty-five minutes and we kind of knew the goal was approximately two hours and forty-five minutes. That kind of felt like what the length of the movie should be. But when we ended up at close to three and a half hours we were both not quite sure how we were going to get there. (laughs)

It was a process of watching the movie with an audience and the more times you watch it, the more things you notice. We did something on this movie that we hadn’t done on the previous ones. When we finished a cut we would watch it silently at high speed and take notes of anything that we saw that we thought would be a good cut, without having to watch the whole thing at speed. It just helped us come up with ideas for cuts. And that turned out to be very effective. We came up with some good stuff that we were able to lose by doing it that way.

But I would say probably the most significant cut that we made involved the Lancer material. In the screenplay, there were four Lancer scenes. In the finished movie, there’s only two. And it’s the middle two that were kept. The first and last scene we ended up dropping. But the way it was designed you actually get the story of the Lancer pilot episode over the course of this movie. Every time you go to Lancer, you get a little bit more of the story and you can actually follow that story.

Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt on the set of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

One of the neat concepts that he had is that, if you’re paying attention, this is another thing you get to enjoy. But we found as we were trying to get the movie down — and just kind of watching the movie – that if it didn’t have to do with Rick, Cliff or Sharon, it wasn’t integral to the movie. And in the case of both the first and the last Lancer scenes, they were kind of getting in the way. You just wanted to get back to Rick and Cliff. So that was a big concept that Quentin had that is ultimately not really represented in the movie.

Initially, the fourth Lancer scene was Rick rehearsing his lines. The movie takes place over three days: two in one weekend in February, and then the third on a Friday in August. The second day actually ended with Rick rehearsing his lines for that final Lancer scene. It was actually a really beautiful scene — one of the best pieces of writing in the screenplay — but it was Quentin himself who said, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think we have to cut that scene. We have to cut it because we’ve already accomplished what that scene was intending to accomplish.” When we see what is now Rick’s final Lancer moment — when Trudi comes up to him and says, ‘That was the best acting I’ve ever seen in my whole life,’ and he is overjoyed, Rick has accomplished what he set out to accomplish that day. He’s delivered the performance that he was hoping he could deliver. So that aspect of the story was done. We were kind of all of the feeling that once you got past Spahn Ranch it was time to wrap up the second day. So let’s drive them home and get them watching “The FBI” together — just Rick and Cliff together as two buddies and then that’s going to be the end of day two.

Leonardo DiCaprio star in Columbia Pictures “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Once we lost the fourth Lancer scene, then it became clear that since we’re not actually following through on that storyline, we probably don’t need the first scene either. It was great conceptually because you kind of got dropped into this Western world without knowing what it was. You were introduced to Timothy Olyphant and Luke Perry’s characters in this Western and you didn’t know what you were looking at. It was disorienting but in a really good way. And then when the scene comes to an end, we see Sam Wanamaker — the director — come in on his on his crane and yell “Cut!” and then we see Rick and Cliff arriving on set in the Cadillac. Now that’s just a moment unto itself. Originally. they showed up and Trudi noticed Rick arrive.

But once we realized we weren’t going to use the end of the Lancer story there seemed less of a point to have the beginning. So it really just became about Rick’s performance within Lancer. Keeping the movie focused on Rick and Cliff.

HULLFISH: I’m really interested in those structural changes.  Other than dropping two hours worth of material, were there any other structural changes? Because otherwise, you’re kind of following things linearly. Like you said: it’s day one, day two, day three.

Quentin Tarantino and Margot Robbie on the set of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

RASKIN: There were minor things. In Quentin’s original concept — despite the fact that you’re essentially cutting between three different characters: Rick, Cliff, and Sharon — in his original concept we would have stayed with each of those characters for a good chunk of time. We weren’t cutting back and forth between them that much. If you’re with Sharon, you’re with her for 20 minutes.

There were a few things that ended up becoming a little modular. For example, the scene where Jim Stacy introduces himself to Rick originally came right after the scene on the porch with Trudi. But we felt it was going to be better to have some time after that scene — let that scene sink in — so we moved the Jim Stacy scene to after the scene where Sharon picks up a hitchhiker on her way to Westwood. So there was some slightly modular stuff. Just a few things kind of moving around a little. There’s nothing that was massively reordered. And the flashbacks actually came exactly where they had always come. That’s scripted.

HULLFISH: The interesting thing in that restructure you were just talking about is that I feel like that happens a lot when you drop significant portions of a movie. Then pieces that were never meant to be joined are now adjacent and when you see them together you can immediately see that there needs to be some time between those scenes so you have to pull a scene from somewhere else to break them up again — or maybe create a montage from the deleted scenes to break them up.

RASKIN: That’s true, but we also had a really happy accident happen by scenes that came together because of lifted material. The Jim Stacy scene is intercut with Rick’s fantasy about being in The Great Escape. The last shot of The Great Escape scene is Rick as Hilts, The Cooler King, walking away from the German commandant and the framing matched exactly with Sharon crossing the street in Westwood. We cut straight from one to the next and have the music carry over and it was just a really nice happy accident.

HULLFISH: When you’re intercutting multiple storylines, were they always scripted so that the cut from one storyline to the other was the same as it ended in post?

RASKIN: Not always, but a lot of times — yes. A lot of it was scripted the way it plays out in the movie. The scene that happens in the third day where Marvin calls Rick “Two words: Sergio Corbucci. Nebraska Jim.” That scene originally happened at the end of the second day. But we were kind of feeling like we don’t want things to be that positive for Rick at the end of the second day. Let’s let the second day end not necessarily knowing what the future holds for Rick and then we can get into it when we get into the third day. Although it wasn’t scripted that way when Quentin came into the editing room he had a pretty good sense that that’s what we were going to do with it.

HULLFISH: Were you trying to edit the scenes that were actually part of TV shows like a ’60s TV show would have been edited or were you just cutting them the way that you would cut the rest of the movie?

Brad Pitt stars in Columbia Pictures “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

RASKIN: Probably more the latter. The one thing that Quentin had everybody who worked on the movie watch was the actual pilot for Lancer. He knew going into the movie that he was treating Lancer like “this is my third Western” after Django and Hateful Eight. So he wasn’t going to direct it like a TV Western. He was going to direct it like a Quentin Tarantino Western.

Initially, there was kind of a fake-out. When Lancer first comes onto the screen, you don’t know what you’re looking at until you realize that it’s a show, so it had to feel like the rest of the movie. If we saw it and it was 4:3 format, you would have instantly known what it was. But when it came to the Bounty Law episode I really just kind of went with my gut there and then obviously Quentin came in and worked with me to refine it. It was initially a little bit more cutty in my editor’s assembly, but Quentin is very good about restraining me. So, no, there wasn’t a conscious effort to emulate the cutting styles of ’60s TV shows, but I think that, as with all of Quentin’s material, the footage dictated how it was going to be cut.

The truth is a lot of what made it feel so perfectly period was Bob Richardson’s cinematography and the musical choices.

We had a running thing going for all of the media in the movie — which was mainly Bounty Law and the 14 Fists of McCluskey — that those would all be scored by Bernard Herrmann. There’s a lot of pieces that he wrote. Actually, the “14 Fists” music is the score that Alfred Hitchcock threw out for Torn Curtain.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt star in ONCE UPON TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

HULLFISH: I didn’t know that!

RASKIN: Yes. I believe that was the last movie that they worked on together. Hitchcock was really not happy with Herrman’s score for that and he threw it out. But Elmer Bernstein re-recorded it and so that’s what the “14 Fists” music was. Initially there were three cues that Herrman recorded himself and our music supervisor — Mary Ramos — got ahold of those initial recordings and when we’re at Spahn Ranch and Cliff is walking down the hall toward George Spahn’s room — or what he hopes is George Spahn’s room — the music coming from the television set is one of those initial actual Bernard Herrmann recordings of the Torn Curtain score. It’s “scource.” it’s creating tension but it’s supposed to be coming from the TV.

HULLFISH: You mentioned the VO. In the single viewing of the movie, I missed the early VO and I just caught the VO that was at the end of the film.

RASKIN: When Rick introduces Marvin to Cliff when they’re sitting at the bar. Rick says, “This is my stunt double, Cliff. My car’s in the shop, so he gave me a ride.”

HULLFISH: Now I remember! Then the narrator says, “That’s not why he needed a ride.”

RASKIN: Exactly. That’s the one time that we hear from the narrator in the first part of the movie. I think as scripted there were a couple of other times that he appeared, but for various reasons, we ended up dropping them. Quentin just said, “They’re going to understand it. They might not like it, but they’re going to understand it.”

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt star in ONCE UPON TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

HULLFISH: That’s one of those interesting things with a director-editor relationship. Did you try to pitch him or say, Why don’t we try to find some things for the narrator to say in the middle or do you just say, “Hey, it’s Quentin Tarantino. I’m leaving this alone.”

RASKIN: No. We did try a few things. There were a couple more that were scripted but ultimately we just didn’t need them. It’s kind of like the narration in the Hateful Eight which also kind of comes out of nowhere. For some people, it doesn’t work. And I understand. It’s jarring. We haven’t heard from this character before. Who is this person? But it’s how Quentin chose to tell the story. This is not a guy who’s afraid of breaking the rules. Look at this movie structurally and if ever there were a screenplay that did not conform to the Syd Field screenwriting rules it’s this one.

The first two hours of the movie are virtually plotless. There’s sort of the storyline: is Rick going to be able to pull off the scene? Beyond that, there’s not that much. You’ve got the specter of the Manson murders looming in the distance, that does hang over everything and provides you with a ticking clock during the first two hours of the movie and then it comes into play in a serious way in the third act. It is a very “not traditional” movie and it’s only a filmmaker who is as familiar as Quentin is with what has come before who can say, “OK, I’m going to throw all of these rules away. We’re just going to do our own thing.”

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio star in ONCE UOPN A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

HULLFISH: It’s really an interesting idea that early in the movie you get to see Charles Manson and then your brain kind of says, “Oh, wait a minute. I see where this movie’s going.” And that carries you. So did you guys play with where that revelation of the Manson family landed?

RASKIN: No actually. The Manson stuff was always kind of where it is, mainly because the scene in which Manson shows up at Sharon’s house is something that actually happened. Manson saw Sharon which is why Manson knew that movie stars lived there when he sent the killers out on their way. It had to happen before Sharon went to Westwood. It couldn’t really happen anywhere else. You see the Manson girls at the beginning of the movie before they cross paths with Rick and Cliff. I don’t think the entire audience is 100 percent clear that that’s the Manson family at the beginning, but you figure it out over the course of the movie.

HULLFISH: As you guys were trying to finalize the length of the film were there other places that you felt like we’ve got to get to this moment for the audience earlier?

RASKIN: I mentioned cutting the Lancer stuff. There was one other pretty major cut in the movie, which is the Musso and Frank sequence was originally a much longer sequence. I want to say my assembly was something in the realm of like 28 minutes — something like that.

Al Pacino stars in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

HULLFISH: For people who aren’t quite as familiar with the movie as you are, you’re talking about the scene with Pacino where he’s talking to Rick about needing to go to Italy.

RASKIN: Yes. And you see cuts to the different media that Rick has been in. That sequence was originally much longer. And it was this giant thing that you had to get past before the movie could really get started. We realized pretty early on that that was going to have to change. It needed to be more of a scene that felt like it was part of the movie and hit the key beats that we needed to hit in terms of setting up Rick as a character and setting up his place in this world. And once we had done that then the movie could get on its way. We knew we had to get through that faster than it was originally envisioned.

HULLFISH: That must have been a tough call for Quentin to cut down Al Pacino’s scene by 80 percent.

RASKIN: The main goal while we were editing the movie is “what’s going to be best for the movie?” not “what scene am I so proud of that I need to show off my writing ability or my directing ability?” It was always just: “what does the movie need?” He was ruthless making this movie and editing this movie — finding what it was. Obviously having a movie that is relatively plotless for the first two days in which it takes place doesn’t hurt matters any. He knew we had to get it down to a reasonable length. I know that two hours and forty-one minutes might not feel like a reasonable length to some people but when you factor in that we had to cut out an entire feature in order to get it there — it was a job.

HULLFISH: I’m sure it was.

RASKIN: One of the things that I really love about the movie is that people perceive it as being so different from his other movies. There really isn’t any violence until you get to the end of the Spahn Ranch sequence. That’s not actually true. It’s just that all the violence is contained within these films within the film. You do watch a guy take a flamethrower to a roomful of Nazis, but because it’s under the guise of being within this other movie, it doesn’t feel like it’s real violence.

So we actually got to have a lot of action beats that people don’t even really notice or regard as action but that’s certainly what they are.

Brad Pitt stars in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

Then the whole Spahn Ranch sequence I think is something that I didn’t realize until the dailies came in — obviously, I’d read the screenplay — but it wasn’t till I was seeing it play out in the dailies that I realized Quentin was doing something that he really had only done before in Kill Bill. With Kill Bill, the whole point of the movie is that he’s telling the story by hopping around from genre to genre. It wasn’t until the dailies came in on the Spahn Ranch sequence that I realized, “Oh, all of a sudden we’ve entered The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it resembles Daniel Pearl’s cinematography.

We’re there with the family and who knows what’s going to happen? He’s directing it like: is Cliff going to survive this sequence? And if you know anything about the history, you know there was a stuntman who was murdered at Spahn Ranch. Cliff may not be making it out of this movie alive! One of the interesting things about playing with both real-life figures and fictional ones is that the audience knows and expects what’s going to happen to the real-life figures, but the fictional ones? Anything is fair game. If the sequence works, hopefully, you’ll feel a sense of dread about what Cliff is walking into.

I also give credit to our sound editors and mixers on that sequence because like they really leaned into the whole Texas Chain Saw Massacre with all the weird sound effects as the Manson family kids are peeking out of doorways and watching Cliff as he arrives. Even Cliff walking down the hallway with the creaks in the wood. It plays out like a horror movie.

Beverly Hills, CA – Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Producer/Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino and Margot Robbie seen at Sony Pictures ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD Photo Call in Beverly Hills, CA

HULLFISH: One of the things on my list to ask about was the sound design on that Spahn Ranch stuff because it’s great.

RASKIN: That’s also a byproduct of when I was putting my assembly together I had no idea what Quentin intended to use for music there. Maybe his intention was going to be, “We’re gonna put all this creepy music in.” But I have to put it together dry. So I really relied on the sound effects to create the tension and the suspense and the horror. So our sound editors — Wylie Stateman and Leo Marcil and Harry Cohen — they really came up with great stuff for that sequence that served as music.

HULLFISH: Did the sound team deliver any of that stuff to you early, during production or for early screenings? Or were you coming up with sound effects and design for your first cut completely by yourself?

RASKIN: Midway through production, Leo Marcil, who is one of Wylie Stateman’s sound editors, he joined us in the editing room. One of the things that I learned working on the Kill Bill movies is that Quentin gets very attached to the sound effects that he’s been hearing. I’m laying this on him, but actually, we all do.

HULLFISH: Temp love is not just music. Temp love happens with sound effects too.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

RASKIN: Yeah, absolutely. So one of the things that I started doing on Django was — as soon as we finished a scene, we’d get it over to the sound editors so that they could cut more realistic sound effects, so that the good stuff would make its way into the movie, as opposed to my crappy library temp stuff. So on this movie, there were certain things in particular that I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to pull off with my library.

The two big things were Spahn Ranch. How do you create tension solely through sound effects? The other thing was the sound of the Hollywood backlot. Specifically when Rick is shooting Lancer. Because I had this idea in my head that when Rick is doing the scene and when the scene gets interrupted that we were gonna hear a change in the backgrounds. Our sound team did an amazing job pulling this off. I have to give credit to Mike and Chris Minkler for the way they mixed it. When we’re in the world of Lancer you’re hearing — if you look on the floor you see the shadow of a ceiling fan and they’ve put in these whooshes for that ceiling fan. You’re hearing a fully sound designed Western movie.

Then you get to this point where the music just drops out and the sound effects start dropping out and it just gets totally dead and Rick says, “Line.” Then you hear the script supervisor from off-camera give him the line. The sound team came in and made that work and it really didn’t fully work until we were on the mix stage. They just really nailed that. And when the scene starts up again all the sound effects come rushing back in. I just love what they did with that.

HULLFISH: I love that story, Fred, thank you so much for spending time with me I really appreciate it. It’s always great to talk to you.

Art of the Cut book cover
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors

RASKIN: My pleasure. Take care.

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.

Categories
Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with the editors of “Spider-Man: Far from Home”

Spider-Man: Far From Home was edited by veteran MCU (Marvel Comics Universe) editor, Dan Lebental, ACE, and another experienced big-budget editor, Leigh Folsom Boyd. Lebental’s credits include Dead Presidents, Elf, Iron Man (I and II), Cowboys and Aliens and many MCU films. Leigh Folsom Boyd’s filmography includes Fast and Furious (6 and 7), Ant-Man, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

Art of the Cut previously spoke to Folson-Boyd about her work on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales in this interview.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

This interview is also available as a podcast.

HULLFISH: With movies like this, there’s got to be a balance between the character development stuff — the stuff that provides the “why” — and the action, superhero stuff. Was that something that you needed to balance in post?

LEBENTAL: I think it evolved, right?

FOLSOM-BOYD: Right.

LEBENTAL: They had a lot of good stuff in place, and the first movie had established an awful lot about him, but as we went along, things did keep evolving.

HULLFISH: Some of the VFX are so elaborate that I was trying to figure out — in the early stages before the effects were delivered — what were you using to get a feel for those shots? Were you using previs?

LEBENTAL: It went through this whole stage of giving us previs. Our first goal with the assembly is to just be able to tell a story, so they gave us enough previs and then that turns into postvis, which is they start to shoot backgrounds and we put that stuff in. But then at a certain point, all bets are off and we start rewriting the whole movie anyway, and Leigh certainly did an awful lot of that.

FOLSOM-BOYD: We were using slugged cards at some points, and then we’d get postvis for the new beats.

LEBENTAL: You sometimes have to start the conversation by requesting something whether it was planned or not, just to get everyone thinking. We’re gonna have to do something here, so we may interact with the postvis people or previs even sometimes and say, “Can you do this for us?” And then we’ll put it in and once the director and the other powers-that-be come in then they’ll put in their two cents, but we have to get it started.

Spider-Man in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: ™ FAR FROM HOME

HULLFISH: You mentioned that things changed fairly significantly. Is there a specific example that you could cite of some of those things that did change?

LEBENTAL: The action scenes definitely evolve the most. Leigh had the task of the gigantic end battle. How it evolved was night and day from what it originally was. On my side was the illusion battle which we started off as one thing — and we have high ambitions, the original plan everyone felt was underwhelming, so then the Eye of Sauron goes onto that and then we put all our effort into that and then it moves to the next thing.

HULLFISH: What was the breakdown of stuff coming in during dailies and who took what

LEBENTAL: Leigh tried to take everything. (everyone laughs) She’s more than game for everything. I’m a story guy, so I have an interest in character and tone, so in our negotiation for who would do what, it made me very happy to give her the biggest, hardest tasks. In my world, I like to find the tone — find the story beats and the character stuff and try to get that stuff a little off the table because I figure If we get that early it means a lot to what the rest of the process is going to be. So therefor Leigh took two of the three biggest action scenes in the movie with joy and love and did it. And we help each other. She comes and comments on whatever I do and I come in and comment on hers. Between us there’s an enormous skill set — an enormous amount of experience to be able to tackle the different problems as they come.

FOLSOM-BOYD: And we just had a lot of fun approaching the work. I love the collaboration with Dan and — like he said — we were just able to hammer it out and get it done.

HULLFISH: You two have both worked on some big movies and I am really interested in the thought process of trying to manage those or understand what it means to work on a movie of that size and scope.

Spider-Man in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: ™ FAR FROM HOME

LEBENTAL: Experience is a great thing. Leigh already was a very veteran person on big pictures and we have FX pictures. So she’s no stranger to any of that. I’m a Marvel veteran — in fact, the original Marvel veteran because I did the first Iron Man. I have the knowledge of what’s going to be expected and how it’s gonna go down. There’s a lot of having faith in the process — don’t worry about it now, we’ll get there. We don’t have a lot of pieces until late because of effects or additional photography that makes things work, but we’re editors, so we have to try to make do with what we have. You can’t just say, “Well that’ll\\ be better later.”
You have to hammer out version after version even if you know that this isn’t going to be what it ultimately is. Also, sometimes they need work-in-progress for other shoots. Like, Leigh did this amazing bus sequence (where Peter first tries on the EDITH glasses) and they had shot the interiors before the exteriors. The script had some dialogue and ideas but it really wasn’t the shape of what Leigh developed it to be. In order to do that, there’s this chicken and egg thing where you have to present something so that then they can react off of it. It’s part of our mission. It can be thankless too because they’ll respond to it by saying, “Well that’s wrong.” And we have to say, “Yeah, yeah. Let’s now make it right by getting the stuff we need.” So that’s a prime example of a sequence that evolved into one of my favorites.

HULLFISH: Leigh, speak to that a little bit about how it evolved and what the process was of trying to cut a sequence where you don’t have the footage that you need. What was carrying you through being able to get through that process?

Spider-Man in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: ™ FAR FROM HOME

FOLSOM-BOYD: While it’s evolving you go through a lot of ideas. For instance, with the bus sequence, I’d go into Dan’s room to talk through it because there were a couple of things in the script that I couldn’t see happening, and Dan would listen and then offer some MCU perspective, then I’d go back to my room and try to create something. Peter Parker is putting on the glasses and he’s introduced to EDITH. And so in the MCU world (Marvel Comics Universe), the audience knows that any of the Stark Technology is pretty spot on. It works. So to have a scene where that technology is not functioning properly required the scene to evolve so that it made sense in that world. That evolved right up until the additional photography shoot. Jon Watts, our director said, “We need a gag here, like the glasses falling off of Peter’s face.” It has to be something that makes sense and that’s not gonna dumb-down the sequence, but it has to be fun, so that was something that kept evolving.

LEBENTAL: To add to that, when we do these scenes they’re not shot in order. They’re in isolation. At first, they’re their own movie. The fact is that that scene established the rules of what EDITH would be. You can’t have a six billion dollar piece of tech that’s stupid. You have to say, “Whatever rules you’re going to put here now are going to apply to the third act.” So in backing it in to be just right for that sequence it meant actually looking at the strings that went all the way to the final sequence to make it all cohesive and to make it make sense. We had a lot of that. We had good sequences that had their own rules for that sequence, but then when you put it against the whole movie, then you’d run into a problem, like, “Wait a minute! I thought that Edith couldn’t do this or could do this.” So you get to a point where you’ve got to find a new way to solve the earlier scene. So Leigh had to solve it about four or five times.

FOLSOM-BOYD: At one point, I’d just go knock on his door and he’d look up as if to say, “What now?” Dan is a great collaborator, and ultimately it all worked out. As editors, if we have questions, the audience will too, so it’s good to talk it out.

Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smulders in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: ™ FAR FROM HOME.

LEBENTAL: To your earlier question about the process, it’s like that quote in Shakespeare: “Love. It’s a mystery.” There’s kind of faith in the process you have to have. Especially on these gigantic films that are just complete organized chaos. There’s no one person in the whole film that actually knows what’s going on everywhere. Ultimately you get in the room and get everyone on the same page, but while it’s going you have to just take a deep breath and have faith. So as Leigh’s therapist that’s that was my job: “Don’t worry! This battle isn’t over.”

HULLFISH: I thought you guys were both supposed to be the therapist for the director.

LEBENTAL: That’s later.

HULLFISH: You were talking about these discussions and the process. But these discussions are not happening just between the two of you. These are happening with Kevin Feige, and they’re happening with the director. Tell me a little bit about managing those relationships and how you two were collaborating with the rest of the team.

LEBENTAL: Mostly they’re trying to get to the big points of the story, but they’re also trying to develop the action sequences. They have a whole department at Marvel called Look Dev. So a lot of the imagination that makes them greenlight a movie is based on actual still images that these amazing artists make. So they say, that’s great. That was a famous moment in the comics. Now let’s evolve this into a story. We’re actually coming in later in the game. I came in a little bit earlier since I had a relationship with John Watts and that team. They brought me in to pitch the whole story very early.

Samuel L. Jackson is Nick Fury in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: ™ FAR FROM HOME.

But when we arrive, it’s kind of like landing on a moving bus. There’s no time for anyone to necessarily explain anything to us. We just had to kind of jump on and get our own sea legs and start down the path and up until directors cut there aren’t really that many eyes on us. There are only eyes on things that they’re worried about. The rest is us just saying, “OK what kind of movie can we make with what they’re shooting.” So that’s what we did and we had lot of fun because Leigh and I could talk about problems and she could educate me with her amazing organization, next to my messy organization, and I’d give her a few pointers on Marveldom and comedy and things like that.

HULLFISH: Leigh, you mentioned: “This scene isn’t quite working” or there’s some problem that you’re having. How are you relaying those concerns upward in the chain — not necessarily to Dan, because I’m sure that the things you would tell Dan you would not necessarily tell to the director or to Kevin Feige.

FOLSOM-BOYD: Right. The last thing you want to do is go off and panic everyone that something’s not working and do a sky-is-falling moment. You only want to raise that flag when you really have an issue. So there were a couple of times when we would go to set and I would bend Jon’s ear and say, “For this moment what did you kind of envision happening?” And he would say, “Well, I thought that this would happen like this.” And then he’d ask, “Is that not working?” And I would say, “I’m gonna go back and take a look with that in mind and I will get back to you.” Sometimes it didn’t work, but I’d try something else because in talking with him I would come up with another approach or he would have insight and I would combine that with what I was doing and see if that would work better. So as far as relaying any concerns upward, we were lucky because we really didn’t have a scene that was not going to work. As Dan said, Have faith in the process and usually the problems worked out or it was something that — when we got deep into post — everyone thought, “it works but we can make it better.” And they’d add it to the additional photography shoot and “plus” it. So problems were mitigated in that way as well.

Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smulders in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: ™ FAR FROM HOME.

LEBENTAL: My philosophy these days — it’s really evolved over the years — is that we have way more movie than we’re ever going to use in this thing. We have a lot of movie that is on the cutting room floor, so I’m really loathed to go and present problems. I also know that there’s politics going on that we have to be careful about. The director’s biggest task during the shoot is to make his day. He’s trying to make his day. So if we go to him and say, “We’re missing this and this,” it means that he has to take off something else and he may not make his day. They have their own politics they’re juggling about what they consider a completed scene, so we may think they haven’t gotten any inserts, but they actually get them later even though they mark the scene as complete.

So you just have to take a breath and if there’s really a problem we’d speak up, but for me, the real problems actually never involved coverage because I always figure that we either have a way around it or the director already knows it and he’s going to get it later. For me, the real problems are around if I’m seeing a character problem. What I prefer to bring up is what IS working. If you look at this and this is working, why don’t you try to tone everything here? And so I’ll talk about that stuff and this director is as smart as a whip and it doesn’t take a lot. You don’t even have to finish a sentence and he’ll already have it. I try not to be somebody who rocks the boat. That’s from a lot of experience, knowing that you can do more damage than good.

HULLFISH: But that’s part of having the editor cutting while they’re shooting is to be able to raise those alarms. But I agree that you don’t want to be the whiner that is always asking for stuff that they don’t have or complaining about things that are wrong.

Tom Holland and Samuel L. Jackson star in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: ™ FAR FROM HOME

LEBENTAL: The real issues — the juicy ones — DO get talk. We would have meetings that would drift up to the editing room where we could talk about what the bad guy’s arc in the story’s going to be. What are we going to emphasize? Going into the shooting script, it wasn’t fleshed out yet. A lot of it did get fleshed out in the course of principal photography and that had to be done face-to-face. It wasn’t something we could do remotely. Leigh and I would talk about the issues incessantly. We’re talking about what everything is about while we’re going; what the implications are… We even knew about the implications of our tag at the end and we speculated about that an awful lot — if we were really going to be able to do it because it was such a corporate decision. So we’re talking amongst ourselves and then when it drifts into the producers and director then we’ll bring up these things, but to me, the individual scenes and coverages are not necessarily what I want to spend the very little time I have with them about. I’m going to talk about story.

FOLSOM-BOYD: Of course Dan and I are both very story-driven, but Dan is laser-focused on story. Like he was saying earlier, the movie is so big and at a certain point, it has to come down. So having that focus really helps to just say, “OK, this is a fun moment but it isn’t necessary. It’s not story-driven and we can lose it and it’s OK.”

HULLFISH: Plot-wise — and I didn’t write the movie or edit it — but the big concept for me was “Who’s the next Iron Man?” Is that idea — or some other simple thought — that you judged scenes against?

LEBENTAL: Well let me answer that question in a different way because that question is absolutely there built-in. What we face a lot though are scenes that are talking to two different things or more, where you do have to slim it down. This scene is about how Peter is dealing with the death of Tony. How is he going to overcome that? Who’s going to be the next Iron Man is just a manifestation of having lost his parental figure. Then the issue is that we can get scenes that are convoluted and have multiple talking points at the same time. And ultimately you have to choose a lane. So to answer the question, yeah, you want to sharpen it. In that moment it’s about Peter being confronted with who’s the next Iron Man, meaning, “How am I going to replace my father figure?” Generally, I like scenes to not have too many functions because they’ll sort of cancel each other out.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Holland star in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: ™ FAR FROM HOME.

HULLFISH: I was thinking more along the lines of — Peter’s always trying to decide, “Am I worthy to accept this mantle? How is it going to affect me? How is it gonna affect my friends?”

FOLSOM-BOYD: Yes. It’s how it affected Peter. Leading up to the Illusion Battle he doesn’t feel worthy and he’s never gonna be able to measure up.

HULLFISH: Dan gave you a lovely compliment about your organizational skills. What do you think Dan has learned from you, Leigh? What’s the difference between your organizational styles. How are you organizing that he was impressed with the organizational skills?

FOLSOM-BOYD: It was a high compliment but I’m at a loss because I feel like we both had terrific support keeping us both in line in the cutting room with our assistants. I like to color the matte a certain color if I’ve made a change so I lean on that a lot.

LEBENTAL: What she’s not saying is how messy my bins are. And how disorganized I am, so finding things are like a needle in a haystack.

HULLFISH: Did you guys ever share bins? Were you only working on your scene and there wasn’t a lot of handoff?

FOLSOM-BOYD: We had some scenes that were handed off for sure, but you have the bin settings and I would just click to my bin setting so it didn’t mess up whatever Dan wanted to do for his bin setting.

LEBENTAL: The hardest part was that her room was set up in post-production to be the one that all the players would come into all day.

HULLFISH: Great power play, Leigh!

Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smulders in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: ™ FAR FROM HOME.

LEBENTAL: Leigh is a very statuesque lady. She’s tall and I’m short and stubby. She has a raised table with a high chair and I felt like a toddler climbing up and trying to work that way. We’d have each other settings on our machines so we could each work on the other’s machine.

HULLFISH: I’m interested in the fact that there was a specific room that was more set up to accommodate the director, the producers, whoever needed to come in and have a discussion.

LEBENTAL: Leigh’s friendlier than me.

FOLSOM-BOYD: Honestly, on the first Spider-Man Jon set up his desk and his office and everything in Dan’s room. We called it the dorm room on this one.

LEBENTAL: Yeah, my room was the dorm. Even though he had own huge office around the corner, he set up a desk and would hang out only in my room. I had to leave a sock on the door to let him know not to come in.

FOLSOM-BOYD: When Jon wasn’t with me, he was in Dan’s room.

LEBENTAL: But also the way her room was organized, when Kevin Feige and all those guys would sit in with us, hers was the more comfortable place, except for me having to crawl into the highchair.

HULLFISH: Did you guys come in to try to do previs editing before the movie?

LEBENTAL: Not on this one.

HULLFISH: Have you done it on previous ones?

Angourie Rice, Jacob Batalon and Zendaya in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: ™ FAR FROM HOME.

LEBENTAL: Yeah. I don’t particularly like to do it. I do it at the request of the director. I’m still a little old-school in that I think the editor’s job is to not have any skin in the game. To try to get the footage fresh and just evaluate and make our decisions based not on what the plan was, but on what’s going to work. So I always find — especially early on in the process when they’re involving individual moments — I find that that’s gonna make it a little bit more difficult to just see it for what it is. Later in the process, of course, we have to help plan very precisely what the reshoots or additional photography are going to be. But during the initial phases, I’m not a huge fan of it. If it helps the process, I’ll do it begrudgingly.

HULLFISH: Leigh, you were talking about trying to sell scenes or know whether they’re working or not. I always think sound effects — especially in a movie that’s got a lot of VFX or is somewhat fantastical — helps with that. Talk to me a little bit about building out sound effects to try to get a scene working when you don’t even have all the shots maybe.

FOLSOM-BOYD: I think sound effects and music are great and of course, help sell a scene. It helps with the everything, but there’s a natural rhythm that has to work before you have sound and music added to it regardless. So, I’ll play a sequence mute just to see if I have a rhythm right or if the natural flow of the scene seems to be playing right and then dress it up with music and sound. We all know that you can influence tone and pace if you have the right sound and music. Just to add a little more intensity to the scene you put a more intense or percussive music beat just to get it a little more action paced. I’m a big believer in dressing up the scene for presentation because I think it gives you the frame of mind. When I want to present a sequence I s present it as full as possible to the director. I want them to feel like they’ve made a movie, so dressing it up gives it a more polished feel.

HULLFISH: Dan any thoughts on that?

Samuel L. Jackson and Jon Favreau in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: ™ FAR FROM HOME.

LEBENTAL: I have no patience. At this point I just want it to — as quickly as it can — feel like a movie. Usually what I do is I’ll cut this scene and have in mind some music and sound effects. I’ll only do key sound effects myself and then I’ll toss it to my assistant. They did a mountain of sound work. Before the sound house even starts we have filled all those tracks with sound. That’s the work of the assistant team. Leigh did a lot more of her own than I did. I just get the things in place and say “here’s what I need” or my assistant’s been around so long that she knows what I need. Also important is our music editor.

When we’re first starting, each scene is its own movie. You’re cutting it like you’re giving it its day in court. You’re going to make it like it’s the most important scene ever. And then later on as you refine it, you’ll decide that maybe you don’t need the beginning — or the end — and maybe not the middle either. But at the beginning, they all get their full treatment with all of the sound and bells and whistles to see if they’re going to make the grade. That old notion from way back of a rough cut with rough sound? That’s a thing of the past. You can’t show work that doesn’t look like a movie right off the bat.

HULLFISH: Dan when you’re looking at a blank timeline what is your approach?

LEBENTAL: There are a lot of schools of thought. I’m the impatient editor. As soon as I see something that grabs me, I jump in. My view of the whole thing is that at the beginning of my career it was still film. You had to be very careful with film. I would call film painterly because every stroke was very important. You couldn’t damage the print. Once we went digital, to me it’s more like sculpting. It’s like clay. I’m going to look at everything, but I might start editing before I look at everything. That sounds crazy, but as soon as something gets me I’ll go in. I cut from a strong point of view which means that sometimes I know what I’m looking for and therefore I preclude a lot of footage right off the bat without really having fully examined it. Like I know: Well they got a big wide here. Maybe we’ll use it to get into the scene or maybe we used to get out of the scene, but I’m not cutting to that damn thing during the middle of the scene. There’s no reason to jump outside there, so I’m not going to spend my afternoon looking at 20 takes of your wide. I know it sounds terrible but that’s me being honest.

Spider-Man in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: ™ FAR FROM HOME

HULLFISH: Leigh? What’s your approach? Do you use selects reels?

FOLSOM-BOYD: I started out trying to be a selects person but I share Dan’s point of view in that if I get excited to dig in, I’ll start looking at dailies and then I’ll start just like cutting it in.  I’ll do selects for action beats sometimes, but I think I’m probably more Dan’s school of thought — jumping in.

LEBENTAL: I’ll put markers on things just to know where they were.

HULLFISH: The thing with that school of thought is that you both know that it’s a process, so if you make a decision on day one you’re not locked in so why not dive in?

LEBENTAL: Not only that, but I always say: if you do the perfect cut on day one in the assembly all you’ve done is precluded that cut from existing, because this is a collaborative process that we have to go through, so I have to play a bit of a game with myself to not — as they say — tighten the lug nuts too much during the early cut. I’m very much aware of having done that before and seeing a movie go past its peak. I’ve had that happen to me.

When I have that first cut in good shape, I have to then put it aside because I know that if things go right — when we get towards the end — there’s a certain moment where you wanted to just slam in tight. Leigh’s smiling because she knows we had that moment where they were like, “God this thing’s just not going to get better.” So, we’d say, OK here we go. And then wham! All of a sudden it’s in fighting shape. I have this mind thing of where we should be when, rather than going right in to try to make the perfect scene on day one. I want to make a good scene. I want to make a playable scene but it’s not exactly the most refined or efficient scene that it’s going to ultimately be.

HULLFISH: I love that quote: “Don’t tighten the lug nuts on too tight.” Tell me a little about screenings. Does it change for you to be in a room with multiple people?

Michelle (Zendaya) catches a ride from Spider-Man in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: ™ FAR FROM HOME.

FOLSOM-BOYD: So because we have spoilers in our movie, we had to pull people that had seen Avengers: Endgame for our screenings. So it was a small pool to be able to take from. The first screening that we had went really well, then our subsequent screenings — the number to pull from gets smaller and smaller. And then the executives decided that we couldn’t really have screenings until Avengers Endgame comes out because we need to be able to have a larger pool to take from. People have to know what the spoilers are from that to see our movie.

LEBENTAL: The core issue here is that these movies have to be shown to audiences, and we were hamstrung. So the normal process would be to keep bringing in new fresh audiences to view it, so until Endgame was out we couldn’t really readjust and do the screenings that would help us take it home. Screenings are incredibly important. We record the audiences on those infrared surveillance cameras and you get to know everyone in that little select audience.

HULLFISH: But when you’re sitting in an audience for the first time are you feeling the movie differently? Are you taking notes?

FOLSOM-BOYD: I do. I’m the one that always has a little pad and pen and I’m taking notes. You get a stack of cards so it’s kind of silly for me to sit there and do all the notes, but I’ve done it for years. You sit there on the edge of your seat and as a joke comes up, and, as Dan says, it’s either a clam or it plays. And we would give each other the thumbs up. There was a moment in the third act where when I was cutting I wasn’t sure it was going to be funny and Dan worked with me on it and he said, “Trust me. This is funny.” So the first time that we screened it, it got a laugh and I turned to Dan and I smiled. I said, “OK. You’re right. You’re right all the time.” They’re very informative, but for me personally, I get nervous sitting in the audience because you know early on whether you’ve got the audience with you or if they’re not really loving the movie because there’s just an energy in the room. So when they start laughing early on, you’re thinking, “All right. OK. This might not be so bad.”

(l to r) Numan Acar, Tom Holland and Jacky Gyllenhaal in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: ™ FAR FROM HOME

LEBENTAL: Those things are crazy because you hang on a dime and then big decisions are made off this small little group that’s seeing this movie — statistically insignificant. You have to look at it and take it for what it’s worth. Then there’s the other great stuff is to see when the twists hit. Leigh’s right. If you have a screening and they’re not on board right away you know that it’s gonna be a long night.

HULLFISH: When the screenings go bad you also know you’ve got your work cut out for you for the next couple of weeks, right?

LEBENTAL: Oh yeah. It’s strange because these are scored things. And I’ve certainly had it where you think this audience isn’t enjoying it and then the score comes back and it’s higher than the other ones. So you have to kind of go by both of those things: what you felt in the room but you also have to go by what they tell you on the scores. That’s just part of the process. We go down alleys that lead to nothing a lot. As much as we’re always advancing the picture, we’re also sometimes going backward on certain things. That’s why you have to have enough screenings to get to that point where you feel, “yeah that’s it.” Sometimes the focus group does kill you because one person can really change the tone of 20 different people by saying something bothered them and then they all get to think about it and then all of a sudden that’s the takeaway.

HULLFISH: Dan you alluded to the fact that you started cutting on film. Do you remember your first non-linear job?

LEBENTAL: Actually the first movie I was the editor on was cut on this rinky-dink State of the art thing big. Back then it was a poor man’s Ediflex. It was this thing that chased a bunch of Betamax. You’d do a preview and then you’d hear like twelve Betamax zip into place so you could play multiple cuts. You got at least 15 seconds of material you can watch here! That’s where science has brought us! What can they do more? But by my second film, I was on an Avid. I bought my first Avid in ’92. But in those days we also had the parallel film route. So even if we’re cutting digital we would have a film room with us and we would be cutting the prints up and getting them ready for screenings. So we would still look at film because the resolution wasn’t very good.

HULLFISH: So 1992… what was the movie?

LEBENTAL: It was a film called Dead Presidents that came out in ’94.

HULLFISH: Leigh, what about you? Have you always been on Avid?

FOLSOM-BOYD: I’ve always been on Avid.

Peter Parker(TOM HOLLAND) is stopped by an Italian Customs Officer (GIADA BENEDETTI) in Columbia Pictures’ SPIDER-MAN: ™ FAR FROM HOME.

LEBENTAL: Well for me it became my advantage. That’s how I rose so quickly in Hollywood — because I was on the cusp of that.

FOLSOM-BOYD: He doesn’t say anything about how talented he is.

HULLFISH: Thank you so much for your time it’s been really informative and interesting and fun to talk to both of you. Congratulations on the movie and good luck on your next projects.

LEBENTAL: Congrats on your health. I know you went through a lot.

HULLFISH: Yeah I’m feeling great. I really appreciate your thoughts and have a great rest of your day. Thank you so much.

LEBENTAL: Take care.

HULLFISH: Thank you so much for your time.

FOLSOM-BOYD: Bye.

Art of the Cut book cover
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.

Categories
Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with Oscar-winning editor Mark Sanger, ACE

Mark Sanger, ACE was one of the very first guests on Art of the Cut when he won the Oscar for Best Editing for Gravity in 2013 – a film for which he was also nominated for an ACE Eddie for Best Edited Dramatic Feature Film.

Mark started as an assistant editor and VFX editor back in the late 1990s and worked on films like The Mummy Returns and 102 Dalmations.

As a VFX editor he worked on Die Another Day, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Children of Men, Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland.

In addition to editing Gravity, Sanger has also edited Last Nights, Transformers: The Last Knight, and Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.

In this interview, we’ll be discussing his latest film, Pokemon Detective Pikachu, directed by Rob Letterman and starting Ryan Reynolds and Justice Smith.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

This interview is also available as a podcast.

HULLFISH: Mark I saw this film in 3D. Did you edit in 3D or were editing decisions initially made in 2D?

SANGER: As far as I’m concerned when it comes down to the editing of picture I apply the same methodology to 2D and 3D as I do to cutting sound and picture — and that is I start with the most basic of principles, which is: do the visuals go together? When it comes down to 2D and 3D, my idea is always to cut in 2D, because then if you know that the cuts are working at that level, then everything else is just a bonus on top of that. If you start working in 3D and you cut in the three-dimensional environment, my argument is that you would have to go back and recut your 2D version because cutting in 3D is a very very different universe than cutting in two dimensions. So I always start in 2D and if that’s working, what you can then do is — in the stereographic environment at the end — during post-production — then if any of the cuts are jarring — say if you’re cutting from a close up to a wide-angle — which are invariably the cuts that tend to give you a headache in 3D, that’s why you can adjust the curve of the 3D. So on that cut, for instance, you can then make the blend across that cut almost a two-dimensional blend and then you can gradually open it up across the following cut. But I would argue that you have to do it that way around. If you shot in 2D, then you HAVE to do it that way round, because that’s the only way you’re genuinely ensuring that you have a good edit in the 2D environment and a good edit in the 3D environment. If you shot in 3D It’s a very different kettle of fish.

HULLFISH: And so this was not shot in 3D?

SANGER: It was not. It was shot on film. The intention was always to shoot it in a way and cut it in a way that harks back to the nostalgia of the film noir environment.

HULLFISH: When you were saying “blend in 3D,” you aren’t talking about a dissolve, right? You were talking about adjusting the 3D-ness of the shot?

SANGER: Yeah. There are some changes in Gravity, for instance, where we would cut from a big close-up of Sandra Bullock’s face to a wide-shot of the void of space, so you’re definitely dealing with very close close-ups jumping to very wide expanses and some of those cuts — in the three dimensional world — when you cut to those wide shots, you’re actually almost cutting to just a two dimensional image.

HULLFISH: Right.

SANGER: But the reason I would argue is that the 3D works in any of these movies at all are when those cuts are imperceptible to the viewer. While there will be some big wide expansive shots that you will be very aware that you’re seeing a three-dimensional image, the editing of the two-dimensional version of the film for me is what will always drive the stereographic version of the post-production process.

HULLFISH: I would think over the course of the lifetime of the film, most people are watching in 2D. You’re watching it on your home TV set. You’re watching it on a 2D movie screen. You’re getting it on your phone.

SANGER: Absolutely. And it’s for that very reason that it is always my preference to make it work at the most granular level — depending upon what the film is. I will invariably cut a scene mute, just to get the rhythm and the pacing of the visuals correct. And then the dialog part is something that then informs that mute cut. So I won’t stick with the mute cut necessarily, but the dialogue part will then inform that and it will grow from that point.

But you have to start with a seed and let it grow, and that seed is the raw visual cut. Now, in the case of Detective Pikachu I did stray from that slightly in that — when you are cutting, for instance, a dialogue between one actor who has been prerecorded and another actor who is reacting to playback of that recording on set, then what I would invariably do is create a radio play of the scene, because in the case of Detective Pikachu, you’ve got a buddy cop format for the movie, which means that the dialogue is what is driving the rhythm and pacing of the scene. There’s some great dialogue, particularly in the bar scene where Tim is talking to Pikachu and Pikachu is jumping up and running back and forth in the bar. You’ve got this banter going back and forth. That’s something that we have to CREATE in post-production. And so in the case of that film I will do a pass which is: edit the dialogue together; find the best takes in terms of performance — choose the performances that we think best drive the scene in the way that we want it to go from the practical shoot side — find any pre-recorded material of, for instance, Ryan Reynolds who was often recorded separately — and then create a radio play without the visuals that run in the way that it should. At that point then it’s almost a reverse of what I would do on more conventional shoot, which is — that radio play has driven it because that’s the only way you can cut a scene when you’re dealing with an actor and a bunch of empty plates that will ultimately be filled with some animation. Drive the rhythm of the scene with the radio play of the dialogue and then let the cutting of the visuals inform that rhythm. Then you don’t stick to it because then you realize the rhythm is working but Pikachu literally doesn’t have enough time to get from A to B. So at that point you’re thinking, “Well, note to the director and note to the visual effects guys. Can we discuss what Pikachu could be doing at this moment that would allow the necessary blocking of the scene, but also won’t betray the rhythm of the dialogue.”.

HULLFISH: Did you get Ryan Reynolds recording performance — audio performance — before they shot the movie?

SANGER: Yeah. Rob Letterman was very, very wise, having had lots of experience in this realm before. We did two sessions of recordings with Catherine, Justice, and Ryan in a room together where they were basically doing a read through but also we were going to be extracting some of Ryan’s performances and using those in the film. So that was a very useful tool for everybody. That was pre-shoot and that was very informative for everybody in order to gauge what the movie is, and also for Rob to go away and think, “Well actually there are a few gags that Ryan clearly improvised there that we absolutely need to incorporate visually into the blocking of the scene.” So those two pre-recorded sessions were very, very helpful. And Rob was very smart and I think it may actually have been Ryan’s suggestion for Ryan to be available for the first few days of filming so that Justice got an opportunity to understand — in the real environment that they were shooting in — to get a gauge of the story that we’re making. So for a few days, Ryan was there doing off-camera lines and that really got the rhythm solidified. Rob was very specific over what those scenes would be that we would shoot upfront in order to really maximize the back and forth that we needed to ensure we carried on through the rest of the shoot. And then, of course, it was a process of — as we were going through the shoot — there would be the recordings of those original rehearsals. I created a radio play of all of Rob’s selected performances of Ryan and they were used as playback on set for justice to react to.

HULLFISH: Was Justice listening to an earpiece?

SANGER: Yeah.

HULLFISH: I just cut a film with a person who spends a lot of time on the phone and all the performances on the phone were done by a non-actor off-camera and the timing of the performances were so different, and the delivery was so different for the on-camera actor to play against. That’s really smart. I love the fact that they did the pre-recordings with multiple actors. It wasn’t just a voice-over session with Ryan.

SANGER: Right.

HULLFISH: That’s huge.

SANGER: It is huge. And again, it comes from Rob’s experience doing other things like Monsters vs. Aliens. He was able to have the foresight to see some of the pitfalls of where we could have ended up had we not done that. There were a lot of movies that maybe didn’t make that decision, and I would argue there’s a disconnect — a subliminal disconnect for the audience, where they won’t necessarily understand what it is that they’re feeling, but they are witnessing a false event. They can tell that this dialogue was actually something going on between two different people at two different times. So I would argue that anything where you can counteract that subliminal feeling of a lack of reality that’s going to make your overall storytelling more cohesive. So yes, I think that worked for everybody because what we couldn’t end up having is a rhythm to the scene that was one thing when you shoot it with the three actors doing a read through and then something else entirely — something that didn’t have that life and energy — when we came to shoot it practically.

That said, there was always somebody on set who was available to read back Ryan’s lines. But — I think this is crucial: they had listened to Ryan’s selected takes and learned the rhythm and the pacing of those lines so that occasionally, if it wasn’t practical for playback to be going on, that actor on set could be at least giving Justice the rhythm and pacing that would honor the performance that Ryan would ultimately be performing together.

HULLFISH: Because he had a very distinctive, kind of a manic character. So you can’t have a laconic performance against it.

SANGER: No. One of the greatest joys I’ve had in the industry was sitting on an ADR stage with Ryan Reynolds just improvising lines and bringing so much life to the movie and there’s obviously a more explicit version of the jokes. Invariably those are the ones that you really want to use because they’re the ones that I found funniest, but he would sit there and give Rob Letterman, the director, a whole broad spectrum of different performances. And that puts you in a position where you’ve got a wealth of different options that you can follow and auditioning with Rob Letterman which ones we were going to use… those days were some of the most fun on the show.

HULLFISH: I believe it. Talk to me a little bit about editing improv-ed lines. It’s not the same as pure scripted. You’re not looking at a script asking, “Which performance of this exact line do I like better?” You’re saying, “Which LINE do I like better?”

SANGER: Well there’s that and then — in the visual effects room — it goes a step deeper as well. There’s one thing where your editing improvised lines between a group of people who are all sharing the same space together as those lines are being improvised. That in itself has its pros and cons. It’s another thing entirely when the improvised lines are being improvised in an ADR session that is being recorded after the practical shoot has been done. And in that scenario, if there’s a line you really want to use but there’s no reaction — in that scenario you’re either in the position where you go off and you seek a reaction and you just can’t find one that justifies using the line and it would feel so manufactured in the edit that the line would fall flat, OR the beautiful scenario would be that you scroll through and you find a reaction from someone like Justice Smith, who does give such a wonderful palette of different reactions on every single take, that often you could go in and you could find a moment with Justice and you say, “Oh my God, look at that!” It wasn’t meant for that moment, but it worked so perfectly, it was divine intervention.

HULLFISH: And do you have to do some kind of organization to be able to find those reactions? Do you create selects reels of reactions because you know you’re going to be in that situation?

SANGER: My working process is always based upon performance anyway. And so there is a process that I go through on any film — whatever it is — that is exactly the same. Which is: I have my assistants — and this is a fairly common process, so it’s not like I have a trademark on this — but this is what works for me on every single movie — and that is, I have my assistants go through and mark up every single line that is said in every single take, and sometimes those lines are identical in every take, and sometimes those lines might be slightly different. That way when constructing the scene, I can see every single delivery of that line and I can work out immediately that it’s going to be between take four and take six and you audition both of those and you make a decision. Everything is all about decision after decision after decision. And that’s how I construct a scene together.

Now, when we get into the world of improvisation, then what you’ll find is that you may have already assembled a scene in one way but then you need to go back and do a deep dive on some of the ADR — all the lines that were recorded subsequent to the practical shoot. In those scenarios, it’s about creating fresh dailies performance sequences which *I* will then put together (as opposed to having an assistant put it together). I’ll go through and I’ll say, “I need that moment, that moment, and that moment from each take.” I’ll say to Robert Letterman, “Please just give me five minutes. I’m going to go and find all those moments.” He’ll have an espresso. He’ll come back and then I’ll present each one of those moments to him and then we will make a decision. So the process of discovering the performances is always ongoing and those select sequences that you have — you may find yourself going back to them six weeks later to be looking for slightly different moment — but without that basis, the way that my dailies are formatted for me by my amazing assistants — that process would not be possible.

HULLFISH: I work very similarly. The only difference for me is that I don’t tend to go by line because I feel like it breaks it up too much. So I usually break a scene up into like six or eight beats and then I just do the beats instead of the lines.

SANGER: I do exactly the same thing. The initial process is a two-stage process. I get the dailies broken down in that format by the assistants and then I create a separate version of that sequence which is where I go in a little bit more granular level and break the scene up into beats as you say. And to me, the moment when you get six cameras on a conversation — regardless of how big the movie is or how small the movie is or how big the scene is or how small the scene is — that’s always daunting because you don’t know your in into a scene and you don’t know your out. You can only really be informed by finding how you left the previous scene and what performance and camera angle and camera move is going to work best editorially with that. That to me is the moment where I start to see the shape of the dailies and if you don’t have that scene broken up into beats, then I certainly wouldn’t be able to focus on how one line is interconnected with the next line. So going into a scene initially — exactly as you said — if you don’t break it up into line by line and then beat by beat as a consequence of that then I’d very quickly get lost within the scene and just have to start again. So that maybe just me, but there’s something very comforting about: if you’ve got four pages of dialogue and your assistant has broken it down into lines and then you break it down into beats, all of a sudden everything becomes very clear and the route that you’re going to take to cut scene becomes a lot more satisfying.

HULLFISH: Since I use that same technique I want to play “devil’s advocate” on two points of what I think are the problems of that technique. The first one: we started this conversation about breaking the scenes down because of reactions. You specifically said you were using reactions that weren’t necessarily supposed to be for that line. So that means, if you’ve broken the beats down beat-for-beat, you’re now looking for reactions that are outside of those beats.

SANGER: Yes. It’s an extremely valid point, but that is one of the moments where if you do need to find a fresh reaction that had not been broken down into those beats that would be one of those moments where I would say to the director, OK, I need to do a deep dive on the whole scene because it could be that the reaction we’re looking for isn’t necessarily exactly what we have in our heads but could even be pre-“action” or post-“cut.”.

HULLFISH: Absolutely.

SANGER: And so that requires a deep dive on all of the dailies and, yes, essentially you have to sort again — re-break the scene down but that’s where you need the patience of someone like Rob Letterman to be able to say, “OK. I get it. I’ll give you 30 minutes.” Then you can go away and really scrutinize. It’s so beneficial for the director too because then the director isn’t sitting with the editor desperately trying to find something amongst the four hours of dailies. Instead, they’re being presented with 90 seconds of options from which you can then whittle down a bunch of selects.

HULLFISH: That’s the value I find in breaking the selects down into those beats. Sometimes if you’ve got a scene and you’ve got 40 minutes of dailies I can’t wrap my head around 40 minutes of dailies, but if it’s broken down by — say — the blocking of the scene so I’m only looking where they come into the room and go to the table, for example — now I only have to watch three minutes of dailies.

The other danger I find with doing that is because you’ve pre-edited the scene into these little beats, you don’t tend to let the edits play longer because you’re no longer watching the totality of a single take.

SANGER: Yes. Invariably. But I think the scene has to grow organically. And so the most difficult part for me is the beginning of the scene. Because at the beginning of the scene you can then see, “Now I can see where this is going to grow.” You don’t necessarily then need to stick to the selects that you’ve chosen, but most importantly, in that secondary process, after the assistants have put it together in the secondary process when I’m going through and breaking it down into my own sequence — which, part of that process is the selection of the beats — that’s how I learn the dailies. At that point — once the scene begins to grow organically — if you’re looking for a moment that wasn’t necessarily in your original selects but you’re very aware of because you’ve broken that the whole sequence down and you know your dailies. Then it’s just a case of grabbing what you know. Then you need to decide whether the shape of what you were originally selecting is actually working. Maybe what you actually need to be doing is to go off and find something different. But I only ever make selects — as it were — in that process where the director and I need to go and find something slightly different for a unique moment. Other than that I will always have all of the takes — whether or not the director selected them or not — marked up by the assistant in the way that I outlined because they’re all potential selects.

HULLFISH: One of the great things I find with those kinds of broken down selects reels is that they’re great for collaborating with the director.

SANGER: Correct.

HULLFISH: It’s the classic “is that the best take?” So you can quickly run through just the takes of that line. “Here you go. Here are three minutes. I can show you everything you got.”

SANGER: Exactly. What those sequences do is give your director the confidence to know that they’re seeing everything. That nothing’s been getting missed along the way. Because that would be a tragedy. The worst possible outcome could be that you design a scene one way and then six weeks later you turn the scene over to visual effects and then actually there WAS the take that the director was looking for and it was never presented to them. That would be the cardinal sin. So I think for a director to be able to see each and every single performance that they committed to film on the day of the shoot gives them the confidence to be able to say, “Yes! Thank God! We’ve got it.” Or “Well, we didn’t get it quite as planned but at least I can see everything here in order to make the decisions about how we move forward.”.

HULLFISH: One of the other things you mentioned was how important it is to find your way into the scene or to know how you’re going to get out of the scene. So when you’re cutting dailies you don’t have that opportunity. Very few movies are cut linearly or shot linearly although some you get a chance to edit after it’s been shot — though rare.

SANGER: Yes. There are three scenarios, basically. The first scenario is that unique situation where the movie’s already been assembled and you’re just going in to refine that in some way, which means that you get to reassemble the movie in chronological order. That’s rare for me just because the very nature of the films that I seem to be offered which are VFX-heavy movies where the visual effects schedule drives post-production and therefore you are being forced to turn the scenes early on for the sake of the visual effects work without necessarily knowing what the scene is coming from and what it’s necessarily going to. That’s scenario one. Scenario 2 is the scenario that I tend to be working with is where you are not presented with the benefit of knowing what’s preceding and what’s following.

HULLFISH: You’re just cutting dailies as they’re shot.

SANGER: In scenario two all you can do is put the best possible version of the scene together that you can hope for and hopefully the ins and the outs of the scene are going to bind with the scenes around it. The most beneficial with scenario 3, which is that there is an ongoing conversation between you and the director about either there are planned outs to a scene and planned ins to a scene based on the script. The director is in a position to be able to actually have that conversation with you before they are shot. And that’s the ideal, but I’ve often gone back to a director and said, “Look, we shot scene 4. You like the assembly of scene 4. I know you had this idea about the in on scene 5, but how about this?” And the director may tell you, “Absolutely not. No. I want to stick with exactly what I really planned and therefore please make sure that scene 4 ends to accommodate that.” Or occasionally the director will say, “You’re right. I didn’t anticipate actually shooting the end of scene 4 that way, but because of that I need to rethink the start of scene 5.”

it’s part of the evolutionary process of making a film. With all the best intentions in the world, once you’re actually shooting, if there’s something better than planned that comes from a moment of epiphany on set then clearly you need to work with that. And that’s definitely part of the editor’s role with the director is to remind them, “Hey, by the way, I know your head’s in that scene in a minute but just think about this when you go into scene five.” Directors are completely overburdened with people telling them “no” all day long because of the nature of the logistics of filming movies. It’s very, very difficult to come away on any day thinking, “That was a brilliant day! I got everything that I wanted!” So for the editor to always be on the phone at the end of the day and say, “Hey, hope you had a great day. Here’s something to consider for next week.”

HULLFISH: How much conversation do you actually have during shooting? Do you keep your eye on the schedule so you know: “Rob’s going to be shooting this tomorrow and I can inform that?” How carefully are you looking at the production schedule?

SANGER: In the case of Detective Pikachu, very closely because 1) I would need to make sure that the radio plays for each scene of Ryan Reynolds — if it was one of the days where he’s not on set — then those radio plays need to be supplied to set so that everybody has enough time for the technical process of making those radio plays available to the actors. So it may be that I’m cutting a scene that is required urgently by visual effects, but I also need to be keeping my eye on ball with the schedule because literally, they won’t be able to turn over on the day’s shoot if they haven’t got the Ryan Reynolds performance to work to the following day. But also — on any movie where you have a very tight shooting schedule and very tight visual effects schedule — you always have to be keeping an eye on the ball for a multitude of different events that are going to be hitting you all in the face once you have post-production. You need to be thinking about sticking to the visual effects schedule so that there are no penalties incurred by production. You know you’re going to be previewing the movie at some stage. You have to preview version of the director’s cut for the studio. What is it that you need to be looking at in terms of the overall schedule that will help those screenings because you’re going to be screening a version of the movie that has very, very few animated characters in it. It’s a RAW version of the film and that’s going to be difficult for anybody to watch. So you’re always thinking about what’s going to be happening not only the next day but three months from now, six months from now, because if you drop the ball during the very early days of shoot and you lose momentum. For want of a better metaphor — the wheels come off the car pretty fast.

On Detective Pikachu, I had a little bit of a battle with some of the execs at legendary because I normally bring in a music editor very very early in the show — during the shoot. And the reason for that is that when you’re dealing with editing scenes so quickly for the visual effects schedule, you don’t often have the time to lay in music and sound in the way that you might do on a non-visual effects movie. my inclination is to never do music or sound editing. I always want to be able to offer that up to other people. It is a natural part of the process in the 21st century that it is expected. And so the problem — as you say — is if you don’t get the music edit right, the tone of the movie you ultimately end up presenting is dramatically affected by it. And if you’re trying to sell this movie to people and the tone of the movie isn’t right musically, then it is very, very difficult to salvage that at the last minute and try to make it work because by that time everybody’s snow-blind by hearing the track that they’ve been listening to and often there is an unfortunate side effect that people start questioning whether or not the picture edit is correct. And so bringing on a music editor very early on in the process for me is crucial in terms of one of those decisions that you need to make sooner rather than later because you can have a great version of the movie that works for you and the director with no sound effects and no music. Sound effects are, always going to help you. but then layering in the wrong temp track presentation to the studio or to for a preview screening can drastically alter the way that it is received. So my argument is always: if you have — for instance — a 10-week schedule for a music editor budgeted, use two of them or three of them even during the shoot because then at least you get the clarity of everybody agreeing what the temp track needs to be moving forward.

This is the first of four progressive screenshots of the Avid timeline. This is the editor’s cut of Reel 3. To see this is greater detail, right-click or option-click on the image and choose “Open in another browser window or tab.” With the image in its own window, you can zoom in as far as you’d like.

HULLFISH: You were talking about screenings. Tell me a little bit of what you did with animation or previs to be able to show at a screening since Pikachu wasn’t in any of the plates?

SANGER: I didn’t think it was anything too different from the way people work nowadays. It was a combination of a post-viz team who were working for me. During the shoot, editorial was actually based within pre-vis and post-vis. I came on three months before we started shooting to put together some of the key sequences we needed because they needed to be locked-down very closely for the shoot. I always like to be part of that process because it means that the director and the editor have had an opportunity to work out the mechanics of a scene before it’s dictated by….

HULLFISH: By what was shot.

Same reel, this is the director’s cut

SANGER: By the shot! And so on Detective Pikachu I came on board and worked with the pre-vis team to design some of the sequences — some of the big sequences — with and for Rob because he’s got so much on his plate. He could go away and leave me to work with them and then present something at the end of the day so he could give notes. That was always a benefit to him. That pre-vis team — once we got into the shooting process — became the post-vis team and we would do a pre-official turnover just for post-vis where we would start getting some of the blocking sketched out during the shooting process. Framestore, in particular, had a great process called Sketchviz. It’s not great for presentation, but it’s extremely useful for solidifying early conversations about animation between the director, the editor, and the visual effects company. Basically, it was like watching an early Walt Disney movie where they literally just sketch animate on the sequence — and you wouldn’t want to present it necessarily to an audience — what it meant was that we weren’t having a disconnected conversation between a pre-vis company and a director and an editor that was then followed up by the visual effects company and the director and the editor. It was almost a live set of animation notes that we could update really fast to accommodate the way the sequence was coming together. So it was a combination of different tools that we used and as with any process, you start off using one palette and by the end, you learn to use that palette and adapt it.

HULLFISH: Did you use The Third Floor for pre-vis?

SANGER: We used The Third Floor. They were on for some of the post-vis as well, then Framestore were using the Sketchviz process.

HULLFISH: Do you think Sketchviz was an in-house software for Framestore?

Same reel. This is one of the versions screened for a preview audience.

SANGER: I’d never used it before, so I don’t know if anybody else out, there is using it but Johnathan Faulkner, the supervisor at FrameStore presented to us and we thought it was just amazing. We don’t need to wait on track plates for post-viz. We don’t need to wait on the process. We can literally supply you a scene and you can come back to us overnight with a full set of animation proposals for the entire scene? It was invaluable.

HULLFISH: The reason why I ask about Third Floor is because I’ve interviewed them and they have their own editors, but pre-vis editors cut things very differently than you might cut them.

SANGER: That goes exactly to my point of why I find it useful to come on early in the process because pre-vis editors are some of the greatest and unspoken heroes in the industry. They’ll be handed one sequence and told to put it together without necessarily the context of the editorial style of how the rest of the movie is going to be put together. And that’s not their fault, but it does present you with a problem when scenes around a pre-vised sequence are cut one way and then the sequence that was pre-vised nine months earlier is shot exactly the way that it was assembled by the pre-vis editor, and then you have a conflict of styles and tone. That’s something that we tried to combat on Detective Pikachu by having me assembling pre-vis from the very, very beginning.

HULLFISH: I’ve talked to those pre-vis editors and one of the things that they mention is they’re working with pretty crappy visuals compared to the final film, so if you see a wide shot like that wide-shot in Detective Pikachu that sets up this massive universe of the characters, it’s so visually stunning that you just want to hold on it for a while to soak it in. But in the pre-vis, it might look pretty bland and boring and you’d maybe want to get off of it quicker than you would if you had the full visual complexity of the shot. They also don’t get the actual characters so when you have to sit down and look at Iron Man’s face as he cries about a lost friend or something, those people are just seeing a crappy Iron Man mask and they may not hold for the full emotional context. So they’re definitely hampered.

This is the final delivery of Reel 3.

SANGER: Hampered is absolutely the right word or hindered certainly by a lack of respect for them by people who might be initially putting the movie together, but also by a lack of context. Everything is context when you’re putting a scene together. And if you haven’t read the script of the movie how on earth are you going to be able to put a scene together that honors everything that precedes it and follows it. You have pre-vis editors who desperately want to honor the film that they’re cutting a sequence together for. I’ve been in a situation on one occasion where a pre-vis supervisor was charged with putting a sequence together based on a series of notes the director and I put together and came back with something that had nothing to do with what we had pitched them, purely because they thought that the scene would be better if it opened one way and ended another way. The irony being that the character that they opened the scene with died earlier on in the film. They had this amazing CGI asset that they wanted to use and present and in that situation it is very, very frustrating the fact that there is still a disconnect in preproduction between the pre-vis houses and production because time can be wasted when somebody is desperate to give the best job they can but isn’t presented with all of the tools to do that. Or just decides to go off on a tangent.

HULLFISH: Especially on a movie with a lot of pre-vis, they tend to be movies that are kind of secretive. So they do not give the entire script to the pre-vis editor so it’s not even like they’re just ignoring looking at the previous scene and the next scene. They don’t even have them.

SANGER: It is a real problem because so much of the budget of the movie and the shooting process of the movie is now based upon work that is done by this group of extremely talented people — as I say, unsung heroes — early on in the process and yet they aren’t always given all of the information that they need in order to present the best possible sequence. That is the reason why I think it is important for editors to come on now on these big visual effects movies long before shoot because it enables a continuity of tone, structure, rhythm, and pace that helps the pre-vis company do the best job that they possibly can and the production ends up shooting something that has been tonally and creatively and aesthetically agreed by the director.

HULLFISH: You mentioned earlier that you tend to get a lot of these visual effects movies. Do you think the trajectory of your career has been because of a background as a VFX editor early on or VFX work you did?

SANGER: Most definitely. It’s a very interesting career path in that — as I suspect with anybody’s career — you could never really predict the way that it went. In the case of visual effects, the reason for that is that visual effects don’t exactly float my boat. My favorite films don’t have visual effects. And yet at the same time, I feel very privileged.

I started taking visual effects editing work frankly because it paid more money than the first assistant job. The reason that it did that in the early days at least was that you were coming out of the visual effects budget rather than the editorial budget. Of course, the visual effects budget is clearly gargantuan in comparison. That wasn’t me being money-grabbing in any way. That was me as a new parent with a mortgage needing to just get a little bit of extra cash if I could. The downside of visual effects editing is that it’s a lot of admin. It’s a lot of technical admin, which frankly never interested me. And if you ask many of the visual effects producers who were forced to work with me in the past they would all agree (all laugh) For all of the people that had to put up with my visual effects admin, it’s amazing that I was offered more than one job to be honest with you.

However, the reason I survived was because another aspect of visual effects editing was putting together Avid comps — something quick and dirty that the director and the editor could look at and say, “Well I can see this will work” or Well I can see now that we need to extend that shot by 16 frames. So because that ingratiates yourself with the editor and director, I started to get a few visual effects editing jobs and from that, worked with some of the greatest directors in the world. So I can’t knock it, but the benefit of that is that on the whole, the large majority of the movies that I end up being offered are visual effects-heavy films. But I would like to think at least that with the exception of a couple, I normally would err on the side of movies that are driven by story and character where visual effects are one of the tools that you use as a storyteller. My favorite films are conversations between people in a cafe or the end of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: three men looking at each other in a graveyard. Those are my favorite films. It’s just by the nature of the career path that I’ve had. I end up cutting different ones.

I met with Rob Letterman over Skype about the job. I hadn’t read the script at the time, but I was taken by his pitch about how this was a father and son story. And it just happened that there were some characters who would need to be generated using visual effects. But ultimately it was the heart and the charm of what he wanted to bring to the movie that was the reason I wanted to do the movie. And I did have to say to him, “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know what Pokémon are.” But he was great because he said, “Well, I know exactly what they are and the benefit of that is that for the two of us to be putting a film together that will mean that you will always have an eye on whether or not this film plays to people who aren’t aware of what the Pokemon universe is.”

I have to say I’m very pleased that some of the reviews talked about how this wasn’t a movie that was just for pokemon fans, but it was a movie that everybody could enjoy. That was a deliberate move on Rob’s part. But for me, the fact that we created a story about Pokemon that reached out to a much broader audience and seems to have succeeded in that in terms of storytelling, I’m very proud of that.

HULLFISH: I completely enjoyed the movie, and, like you, I had no idea what a Pokemon was. And I loved the film. What i’d love to have you talk about a little bit more is — when you did that interview on Skype with Rob, you might have prepped and tried to read up on Pokemon and say you are a fan, but instead you just were you and that’s actually what got you the job.

SANGER: I would hope so. As an editor, you spend so much time with the director locked up in a room with them.

HULLFISH: And you can’t fake it.

SANGER: And you can’t — I can’t fake it, let’s put it that way. So for me, it would be doing both myself and the director a disservice to try and lie my way through an interview. That’s not to say that I don’t need the work, because I’m a jobbing editor like anybody else. We all have bills to pay. So when a job comes up it’s not like I decide which job I’m going to do. It’s the same for any of my colleagues at my level. We all need to work. But at the same time, I think you have to respect the director enough to be able to say, Look, honestly I don’t know what pokemon are. But from everything that you’re saying and the fact that I think you and I get on and the fact that I respect the experience you have as a director and your intentions, if I’m honest with you – you can be honest with me and we should have a much more collaborative experience together for it.

HULLFISH: Did you feel at a disadvantage in the interview because you hadn’t seen the script? Is that something you like to do before you have that kind of conversation?

SANGER: It depends on the movie. In the case of Detective Pikachu, the reason I was initially interested was because I heard great things about Rob Letterman and I’d seen some of his movies and he was somebody that I wanted to work with. There are some projects where you don’t necessarily know about the director or the production company and in those situations, clearly you’ll get a script and you’ll like the script and it’s off the back of that you will hope to have a conversation. But what entices me about a story and what ultimately may get me a job, there’s never really any set rule.

HULLFISH: There are a lot of flashbacks in this movie. What’s the key to using a flashback or getting in and out the transitions between flashbacks?

SANGER: That’s a great question because in Detective Pikachu the whole structure of the movie is built around flashbacks. It opens with some flashbacks that are Tim’s flashbacks of his own memories and it ends with flashbacks that are imposed flashbacks where one of the main characters is projecting his own memories upon Tim and Detective Pikachu. It’s interesting when you get into flashbacks — it’s all about the perspective of the character from the point of view of the story that you’re playing. The specific aesthetic transitions are something that is always a conversation. For instance, in the case of Tim, we decided to put a slight sepia effect on — which some may say is a little stereotypical. But at the same time, I think it served the purposes of what we’re talking about. Then you’re also dealing with the storytelling aspects of it. So, for instance, there is a flashback in Detective Pikachu that is interrupted and information that is being given to the audience during that flashback is cut off at a crucial moment, and so the decisions you make over how much story to convey to the audience up until that point during that flashback they affect everything that has preceded that scene and everything that follows. And so flashbacks are for me at once the most interesting part of any film that I’ve worked on because there are so many decisions that need to be made within them and around them and they can affect the entire structure of the movie. And so those exact same reasons the most difficult part of anything that I’ve been involved in that hopefully they appear simple and part of the overall DNA of the storytelling but WHERE to place them and how much information to give and — crucially — how much information to give from the perspective of that character that gives the audience enough information, but at the same time doesn’t betray the fact that you’re only seeing that flashback from that character’s perspective. All of those decisions are at the very heart of what film editing is all about. Rob and I were always talking very respectfully about Rashomon because clearly there are nods of respect to that format. Flashbacks are probably one of the most underrated tools the director and editor can use because they can be used in a very simple fashion or they can be used in a very complex fashion. I hope that we used them in a way that the audience can understand. And yet it was the point in the movie that we spent most time debating.

HULLFISH: To the people who haven’t seen the movie, there is one moment that is revealed over and over again, and it always depends on what is revealed and by whose perspective it’s revealed. So what I wanted to ask was how different was your edit from the script in regards to the flashbacks?

SANGER: Quite different.

HULLFISH: Very interesting. Why?

SANGER: Because there is that usual evolution that happens on a movie of this size whereas you’re going along — we may change some dialogue and then we may have another conversation because we weren’t due to shoot some of the flashbacks until later on in the schedule. So it becomes: “Wait for a second! Should we actually be showing Pikachu in that shot?” because that affects the perspective of this character and there’s a chain reaction that you have to consider and it’s constantly evolving. Let’s put it this way: the story didn’t change, but the point of view of who was seeing what definitely was part of the ongoing debate because we had to audition it several times in the context of the whole movie. You can come up with a great idea about: “What if we actually played that move from this character’s point of view?” It might radically clarify this story moment, but then you really do have to sit back and watch that one change — that one flashback — in the context of the whole movie because it does have a ripple effect. So it’s a very time-consuming process. So the content and the nature of all of the flashbacks in the movie was different from what was originally scripted but always in a very positive way. With flashbacks, it’s the surrounding material that you’re putting together that is informing the flashbacks and vice versa.

HULLFISH: Putting a sepia tone might be a little clichéd but if you don’t have some kind of method either that there’s a transition effect or sepia or black and white or blurry edges, sometimes you lose the audience. The audience has to immediately know they’re in a flashback — unless it’s some kind of device where you’re not supposed to know — but if the audience doesn’t know you’re in a flashback then all this information goes past them and then they think, “Wait a minute! We’re in a flashback! What did I just listen to?” And then they’re lost.

SANGER: And by the way, there clearly were points when I was experimenting with something like that and I would run it for Rob and he would say, “I’m sorry. I’ve lost the context.” He would be telling me exactly what I suspected, which was: it wasn’t working that way, and just by adding a visual aesthetic like a sepia tone isn’t always enough. But we believe for the audience that we were trying to make this film for that simple tools are often the best. They work for a reason. Again it’s about perspective and it’s about context and if you can give the audience enough context to understand that not only that they’re seeing a flashback, but on this occasion you’re seeing a flashback of the same event from different characters point of view — as long as you have given them enough information visually and audibly for them to make that mental transition and understand where they’re at, then you don’t lose them. The moment they are confused about what the context is and what the perspective is on that moment when you lose them, and at that moment you’re in danger of losing them from that point.

HULLFISH: Mark, thanks so much for chatting with me.

SANGER: An absolute pleasure talking to fellow editors any time. It’s frankly one of the few joys that we get. Certainly, for me, there’s a lot of pain in the process, of what I do as a job.

HULLFISH: Well, I really appreciate your generosity of sharing so much with us.

SANGER: Thanks, man. All the very best. Hope to see you soon.

HULLFISH: Bye-bye.

This interview is also available as a podcast.

Art of the Cut book cover
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.

Categories
Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with feature film editor, Roger Barton

Roger Barton has edited many of the biggest and most iconic films in Hollywood history. As an associate editor, he worked on Titanic and Armageddon. His films as editor include, Gone in 60 Seconds, Pearl Harbor, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, Eragon, Speed Racer, all four Transformer movies, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Terminator Genisys, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, among many others. He’s currently editing Michael Bay’s 6 Underground.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

Roger Barton in his cutting room for Michael Bay’s upcoming Netflix movie, “6 Underground”

HULLFISH: You and I have been trying to connect since you edited Godzilla: King of the Monsters. I’m really glad we finally were able to make it happen. I was talking to the editor of Chernobyl recently and he was telling me about this service for remote editing called Evercast, and then I found out that you not only used it on Godzilla but actually started working with the two founders to develop it and implement it at some of the studios.

BARTON: I became involved in Evercast while I edited the last Godzilla film. At that time, I was about six months separated from my wife and I had a 13-year-old son who was trying to navigate this new scary world. I was approached by Legendary Pictures to do Godzilla and though I really wanted to cut the film, I couldn’t leave my son behind and to go to Atlanta for four months.

HULLFISH: God bless you for that.

BARTON: So as chance would have it a buddy of mine who lived across the street from the house I was renting looked me up on IMDB and said, “Oh my God! I didn’t know you edited these kinds of movies…” (whatever that means…), “…you should reach out to my friends who are developing this new remote collaboration tool called Evercast.” As he described it to me, I couldn’t believe it, because it sounded exactly what I was looking for and I think the industry has been hoping for, for many years.

They organized a demo for me the next day that began when I received an email invite which contains a URL that you open with Google Chrome. As long as you have Chrome and a webcam, you can join an Evercast room. (iPad, PC Windows, and Linux are all being released very soon). I connected with the two creators of Evercast, Brad Thomas and Alex Cyrell from my home while I was on my laptop using a standard wireless DSL connection. They were connecting to me, each from their own homes in Arizona. I was completely blown away by the lack of latency, the quality of the image, and the forethought put into the platform, specifically with regard to creative collaboration. I’ve used several other platforms and/or combinations of platforms which is why Evercast really impressed me — they basically took the best ideas of each and built them into a platform that is live, and doesn’t require you to spend lots of money on proprietary equipment.

Evercast UI screenshot

So, back to Godzilla. I desperately wanted to stay in Los Angeles and try using Evercast to collaborate with the Director, Michael Dougherty who was already in Atlanta. I approached Valerie Flueger Veras, the head of post at Legendary, who supported me (thank you Valerie!) and introduced me to their head of content security, Dan Meacham. After vetting the platform up and down, Dan gave us provisional approval to use it and that was a huge hurdle because obviously, no studio is going to allow their very expensive IP to run over the internet unless it’s absolutely bulletproof.

The biggest hurdle still remained – a test with the Director. By this time I had a couple of weeks of footage to play – and the expectation was that I would be traveling soon to Atlanta for an unknown period of time. It was a Sunday afternoon when we decided to do a test, so I sent Michael an invite and shortly afterward he popped into the Evercast room with no tech support required. I was in my cutting room in Burbank, streaming out of my Avid to him in his apartment where he was on his laptop connected wirelessly. What started as a test effortlessly turned into a working session where we just stayed on the platform and worked for three hours. I was able to show him cuts; make trims, change takes all with him live as if I was doing the changes with him sitting right behind me.

Here’s the best part, I recorded the entire session. This enabled me to relax, knowing that I could replay it all the next day to make sure all the notes were done and done accurately. As I said, many of small notes or experiments, I did live with Michael, but for more complex ideas that require time and thought — I would do later by playing the recorded session back while I followed along with my Avid. Evercast records each stream individually, so I could switch between the main screen to view either his recorded webcam or the content was was being streamed at the time. This meant that nothing was lost in translation.

Anyway, at the end of the three-hour session, I said to Michael, “Do you still want me to come out to location?” And he said, “God no! Why would you want to come to Atlanta for three months, let’s continue using this.” That was a life-changing moment because it started me on this new path as I try to promote something I believe can improve the quality of our lives. I’ve always shied away from the spotlight, so in many ways, this is uncomfortable for me but if I can make a small difference or help other families stay together — it will have all been worth it.

HULLFISH: That sounds fantastic. Did the technology of it kind of melt away? Because human interaction — you and I are on Skype right now: I can see your face, I can see whether you’re getting antsy or whether you’re engaged. Did you feel like you were really engaged with him like you would be if you were in the room?

BARTON: Very much so and not always in a good way, (both laugh). I think a lot of editors will understand this: I’m used to running first cuts for directors and usually they’re behind me where I can’t see their reactions…but on Evercast I’d see his facial expressions as he’s watching the cut live — just like I’m watching you right now. And so whether it’s a laugh, a smile, a grimace or whatever, I could make note of it…good and bad. Thankfully I could mute his camera from my side if I had clearly F’d up a scene (laughs).

Before this experience, what I’m used to — is being sent to location for months at a time, trying to pull the director into the cutting room after a 14-hour shoot, where literally hundreds of people are nipping at them all day for answers. I’m usually the last person they want to be with at the end of the day, which is never a good time to be showing your first cut.

On Godzilla, by staying in Los Angeles and using Evercast, I literally got more collaboration time with the director than I ever have — even when the production sent me and my crew to location. In most instances it was Michael who initiated the Evercast sessions, whether it was a five-minute quick question, 30 minutes between lighting setups or an hour session at lunch, all he had to do was open up his laptop, hit his bookmark in Google Chrome and we would be in the room together. We took advantage of all those moments on set where he had downtime and in most cases, he was totally relaxed because I wasn’t trying to force him to be there.

Michael shot 3 million feet of film so I averaged between 8 and 12 hours of dailies a day which meant I had to adapt my workflow in several ways, but using Evercast enabled me to collaborate with him and get his eyes on sequences early. In fact, by the time he returned from shooting, he had a pass on many of the scenes and certainly all the big set pieces because we had early VFX turnover obligations. Getting this early feedback translated to far less anxiety when Michael returned from shooting – because he already knew what movie he had shot, and any missing footage we needed I could easily ask for by streaming the cut to the set — rather than exporting QuickTimes, uploading them on other platforms and waiting for a response that often never came.

HULLFISH: That’s interesting.

BARTON: It takes away that impersonal element of sending a cut to the director and then waiting for feedback days later. And in the case of visual effects reviews, it allows eight to ten groups from anywhere in the world to come together live in this protected space — without the need to distribute files ahead of time.

HULLFISH: What are some of the tools that you have? Can you draw on the for example?

BARTON: So we already covered the recording, which for me was one of the biggest features, but soon we’ll have the ability to take pieces of those recordings and allow other people to have access to them. For example, let’s say that you and I are in a visual effects review and the director says, “By the way, I have a music note for this scene. This part of the cue isn’t quite hitting the tone I want.” So at the end of that session, you can go back to that recording and select any portion of it, then give access to any authorized users of that room which could include the Music Editor or Composer. In the world I tend to work in, there are hundreds of notes to distribute to several different vendors after a visual effects review. Often this requires translation and interpretation. Imagine if the animator (who wasn’t part of the review) could watch the Director give notes on their shot — flipping between watching the Director’s webcam and the content being streamed. We’re attempting to remove all that stands between a Director and the person who’s doing the work so there’s absolute clarity on what the note is, which we think increases efficiency by reducing the number of iterations.

Evercast used for VFX review

HULLFISH: Oh yeah! Absolutely!

BARTON: Then, of course, you can draw on the screen, but unlike the other platforms, you won’t have to upload all the files first, since we’re a live collaboration platform.

HULLFISH: One of the things you kind of alluded to was the security issues. Some people might not realize it, but unless you’re working at a studio, the studios are really critical about needing all of their vendors and crew to be in a facility that has these kinds of door locks and there’s no access to the Internet and other security precautions. Facilities have to get certified for these specific security protocols. Tell me a little bit about the security and a little bit more about how that got approved by a bunch of studios.

BARTON: When I finished my tour of duty on Godzilla, the impact Evercast had on me and my life was profound. I saw an opportunity to not only become part of a new company and exercise a different part of my brain but more importantly, I saw an opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of my friends, my colleagues — who go through many of the same challenges that I do. I hear time and time again how much we all love this craft, but the lifestyle that comes with it is just getting too much…or maybe I’m just getting too old (laughs). Footage counts are skyrocketing, budgets and schedules are shrinking, studios are chasing tax rebates around the globe requiring us to leave home for months at a time, or longer. So I’m on board with any technology that pushes back against this trend to help us reclaim a little bit of our lives.

After working with Brad and Alex for six months, discussing ideas that would improve the platform, I approached them and said, “I really feel like I can open some doors for you guys with people I’ve worked for during the last twenty years.” Not long after, I invested money, took nine months off from cutting to introduce Evercast to the studios — becoming part of the team and was made co-founder. My primary goal at that time was getting Evercast approved by the studios from a content security perspective. So I walked Evercast into each of the studios beginning with Disney.

HULLFISH: It’s always good to start small.

BARTON: (laughs) Well, the film I had done before Godzilla was Pirates. (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)) And of course Disney is conquering the world so why not? They were the first to see Evercast and their immediate reaction reinforced my own instinct on what this could potentially be. I remember this boardroom meeting we had. Their production technology department was there; post-production; visual effects; IT — there were probably twenty-five people in that boardroom when we demoed Evercast for the first time. At one point, the boss stood up and said to their team, “Guys, you may all have your own security issues, but this is clearly the way of the future so figure it out and get it done.” I just looked at my partners and thought, Wow! This really has an opportunity to change a lot of lives…and by the way, we now have a world-wide master agreement in place with Disney and all their affiliates.

HULLFISH: I love the idea of just the quality-of-life issues. It looks like you’re in your home. Were you cutting with Michael in your home? Or did you just come back from the studio?

BARTON: One of the reasons I’ve worked for Michael on so many projects is that he never asks me to travel — so when I sign up, I know I’ll be in town for the next calendar year. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love traveling, just not for months at a time without my family. Not to mention, Michael’s cutting room is in Santa Monica, so it’s a 10-minute drive from my house.

HULLFISH: Do you know Alan Bell? He has cut some very big films and decided at the top of his game to move to New Hampshire, but he still wants to cut movies — just not in LA.

BARTON: Alan is my hero because he’s attempting to create the life he wants without sacrificing his career. Total trailblazer. I did a demo for him nine months ago — before he moved back east — and he was excited about the possibility of using Evercast to edit movies from his house. We’re continuing the discussion and it’s just a question of finding the right fit.

Evercast

This raises the issue of our pricing model which is currently based on a flat rate — and it enables anyone on the entire production to use Evercast for as long as they want with no restrictions or recordings. We provide a virtual room that anyone you approve can enter. For this room, the flat rate is $999/month which breaks down to $250 per week and for that price, you can literally have anyone in visual effects (not including vendors), editorial, music, sound or casting using the platform. We have people doing production meetings, table reads editorial and VFX reviews, sound spotting on the platform. In fact, just today there is a music video being shot where the director literally is directing on one coast while the shoot is happening on another as the live camera feed is streamed to the Director.

HULLFISH: The production of movies including VFX and editorial and music and graphics design does seem to be increasingly international. It’s been that way for a while, so it seems that no matter what you’ve got somebody in L.A. and somebody in New York and somebody in London on every production almost.

BARTON: Yeah, especially with regard to visual effects. The vendors are now spread so wide across the globe. You’ve got WETA in New Zealand, ILM up north while MPC and Framestore have hubs in London, Vancouver, and Montreal. It’s all over the place. So Evercast is a way to keep everyone on the same page. In fact, on the film, I’m cutting for Michael right now — called Six Underground — our visual effects supervisor Rich Hoover is using Evercast about four or five hours every day reviewing shots with all of our vendors including ILM.

HULLFISH: I love the transparency of letting all those things flow directly from the director to the actual end person because normally it is through layers of other people. The VFX supervisor and you are sitting with the director and then you guys get all those notes and those go to the local VFX producer and down through supervisors to the end animator or compositor and somewhere along the line something gets lost in translation.

BARTON: It happens to me all the time in visual effects as shots come back wrong, but I’m guilty of it as well. In the past I would scribble down notes on a yellow pad and then I’d try to read them the next day and the pages would be full of sentence fragments because sometimes the directors are moving so fast, I don’t want to stop them for clarification because they’re in the flow. So I do my best guesswork the next day, which is not always accurate especially when I don’t have a photographic memory.

HULLFISH: You think of something like a director giving notes and he makes a hand gesture or uses his hands to show the interaction of two objects. There’s no way you can translate that to the VFX guys — especially directly to the end worker who’s executing the shot — but if you can send that little video to him, he’ll totally understand what he’s supposed to do.

BARTON: Right. And so that probably removes two or three iterations to get you to where the director wants to be. I see that time and time again. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard, “That’s not what I meant,” I’d be a rich man. Even in editorial, often I’ll make a change convinced that this is what the director had in mind only to run it for them and hear them say, “That’s interesting, but no. That’s not what I meant. This is what I meant.” Having a recording of the session ensures everything is done right.

HULLFISH: It sounds like a great platform. I don’t do gigantic movies like you do — the biggest of the big — but $250 a week seems incredibly reasonable even for the lower budget films I work on.

BARTON: Well when you spread it across all the departments who have access to it, we feel it’s literally giving it away. And I get that there are smaller budget projects where there might be a reaction to our flat rate but I think those are the projects who benefit the most by avoiding all the travel for the editor, the assistant editor which include flights, per diem, hotels, cars — not to mention the lifestyle issues that we’ve been talking about.

We also realize as a company that there’s a huge market to reach with all the individual content creators out there — the YouTubers, the people who don’t have a studio behind them, so what we intend to do is, in the in the months ahead, release an Evercast lite version that removes some of the security protocols that we’ve spent a tremendous amount of resources towards. And by removing those, we think we can lower the price to reach all of those individual content creators which then makes this the same user experience available to just about anybody.

HULLFISH: You mentioned that with a VFX guy, it might save him two or three iterations. That’s a week of work for one person depending on the shot.

BARTON: It certainly is.

HULLFISH: I go on location sometimes but a lot of times a director will deliver the entire dailies “dump” at the end of the movie or may be delivered in two gigantic chunks and directors just say, “Hey, you’re you’re on your own.” And I would love to be able to offer this solution to them.

BARTON: Do you do your work from home?

Steve Hullfish editing in director’s “post production bungalow.”

HULLFISH: I do minor editing work at home, but I have an office about 20 minutes away with a big sound system and big monitor and a standing desk and an Avid NEXIS Pro. I have two systems there, so I can have an assistant there. When I’m at home, I’m working off a MacBookPro and headphones.

BARTON: I’ve tried to work from home and what I find is that I get so distracted during the day that I end up working until 3 or 4 in the morning to make up for all the time that I just goofed off!

HULLFISH: I can relate. Since you were committed to being home with your son before you really knew about Evercast, were you planning — on Godzilla — to try to use some other system?

BARTON: I didn’t have a horse in the race. I just wanted to find whatever technology existed out there to improve my lifestyle and cut a movie I wanted to do, but do it from Los Angeles. That’s what started me down this path.

HULLFISH: I’m going to bring up a touchy subject which is this leads us down the road to outsourcing editing to India and China or at least some English speaking country with a lower cost of living. Obviously, I believe that the editor’s position requires things that can’t be outsourced — it’s a relationship that is important to the director — but can we talk about that elephant in the room?

BARTON: I don’t look at what we do — what we have to contribute — as something that can be outsourced so easily, like a rotoscope artist or a compositor who doesn’t have that intimate relationship with the filmmaker. For that reason, I think we’re completely protected as editors because of what we contribute to the process. That’s my personal opinion.

Alan Bell, ACE in his home studio.

HULLFISH: You could say this allows me to get Alan Bell who just wants to cut a movie in his home and as long as I’m willing to do it through this medium, I can get this great editor.

BARTON: And that makes me really happy. I think that’s to be celebrated — that people can make personal decisions about whatever is best for their family and still have a career.

HULLFISH: With the cost of living in California or New York, I’m sure more and more of us are probably thinking, “Alan’s got a good idea.”

BARTON: Oh, it’s been on my mind for a long time. I’ve seen other people do it with varying degrees of success. I’m wearing my Oregon baseball hat as you can probably see. I’m from the Pacific Northwest and I have a love-hate relationship with L.A. I love the people I’ve met here — my close friends and family are here — but if I didn’t have to live here, I’m not sure I would.

HULLFISH: I’m interested in the transition that happens once the director comes off the production end and is free to be with you side-by-side.

BARTON: I’ll give you a good example of how it continued to be used after production on Godzilla. I got into a rhythm with the director where he would check in with me from his house in the morning and I would show him what I was working on. Then he would give me notes which I churn through so that by the time he shows up at noon, I already have them implemented. Evercast continued to allow us to push the ball down the field, even while we were back home, and it also meant that the Director didn’t have to be in the cutting room for 12 hours a day over my shoulder, which I greatly appreciated…just sayin’.

HULLFISH: Since this interview, I got a demo of the Evercast system. Here’s the video.

HULLFISH: I’d love to switch topics. I was looking through your imdb page and maybe it’s missing some early years, but it looks to me like you went straight to working on the world’s biggest movie. Your imdb page looks so improbable.

BARTON: (laughs), I literally did make the leap from That Darn Cat to Titanic. My friends make fun of me all the time.

The editor of That Darn Cat was really Richard Harris who was one of the principle editors for Jim on Terminators and True Lies so when Jim was looking for someone to run the cutting room on Titanic, Richard was one of the people he reached out to — and because we were finishing That Darn Cat, Richard said, Oh my God! You’ve got to meet Roger…he’s a bit of a geek which is exactly what Jim needed at the time to manage that film, and so I was given this incredible opportunity to make this quantum leap into a world I probably had no business being in. But, I think my career is marked by those moments where an opportunity presents itself and I’ve decided to jump and hope the net appears below me.

I constantly put myself in situations where I’m uncomfortable because I feel like that’s when we grow as people or as artists. That was certainly a big opportunity for me.

I’ll give you another example on the same film where I took that leap. At that time, I was simply hired to run the cutting room because It was Jim’s intention to cut the movie by himself. As the weeks went by, I’m working at his house in Malibu and the footage is just piling up – mountains of it. Three or four weeks into the process, I can not imagine Jim catching up to the amount of footage he’s shooting, so I see an opportunity. I called the producer, John Landau, and said, “Listen. I’m not sure how you’re going to make your release date if Jim cuts this himself, so, if you’d like, I can start assembling this into some shape that Jim can at least work from, so he’s not starting from scratch. I can find someone to replace what I do — running the cutting room.” Afterward, there was a long silent beat on the phone and I’m sitting there with gritted teeth, waiting for his answer. And he says, ‘Ok kid, let me let me talk to Jim about it and I’ll get back to you.’

So the next day John calls me and says, All right. It’s a green light. “Go ahead and start cutting, and find your replacement.” So, for the next month, I was alone at Jim’s house, cutting together many of those scenes that were recut of course by Jim, Conrad, and Richard. But, to be sitting in there for that month, cutting that movie on my own, I kept looking behind my shoulder saying, ‘How the fuck did I get here?’ Thankfully, it seemed to work out, okay, because I had worked under some really talented editors up to that point, and I paid attention, so when the opportunity came, even though there was some fumbling around and experimentation, I felt like I could at least show Jim something that reflected the material.

Mark Goldblatt, ACE speaking at the Avid Master Editors Workshop in Rockport, Maine.

And ultimately that’s how I met Mark Goldblatt. Because at Jim’s Christmas party, he ran a few scenes for his friends and amongst those cut scenes were things that I had assembled, and Mark took notice of it, asked Jim who had cut it, and Jim sort of reluctantly turned his head to me standing in the corner. That was my introduction to Mark Goldblatt. He was looking for an assistant while he was cutting Armageddon for Michael Bay, so I literally jumped from Titanic to Armageddon, where I assisted Mark, and had the best film-school experience you can possibly imagine by sitting behind him for twelve hours a day while watching him cut. Mark Goldblatt is one of the most incredible, generous human beings I’ve ever met — he’s also the most talented editor I’ve ever met and is responsible for my career. Mark taught me not only how to edit, but how to be an editor.

HULLFISH: That’s a really unusual position for an assistant editor to be in. What were your responsibilities besides acting as a second pair of eyes in the cutting room? That’s just not what any assistant editor I’ve ever heard of does — to solely give feedback on edits “live.”

BARTON: I was a sounding board for him.

HULLFISH: I’m shocked that someone pays an assistant editor to act solely as a sounding board. Many people use their assistant editors as sounding boards but it’s only after they’ve done the syncing and all the other stuff.

Mark Goldblatt, ACE

BARTON: Well, some of the other assistants were a little pissed off that my entire job was to sit in there with Mark while they were out syncing dailies and doing a host of other things to run the cutting room. I had no idea what I was walking into but quickly learned, I was there to support Mark in whatever way he wanted me to. It created a little tension in the cutting room, but Mark also worked twelve hours a day from 11:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. And when he left, he would typically leave me two to three hours of sound work to do that I had to have ready for him in the morning. So not only did I have to be there before he showed up, but I had plenty of work to do once he left after I’d been focused in his room for twelve hours a day.

HULLFISH: So you weren’t just sitting in the back, but that is still amazing. Did he teach you by saying, ‘Here’s what you do?’ Or were you just in the room and you got it through example?

BARTON: Everything he taught me was by osmosis. I was lucky enough to be in that position — to sit with Mark and provide an opinion — for whatever that was worth. But the benefit to me was understanding his workflow and watching him work the footage over and over and over again – each time elevating the film. Mark accomplishes this in part by building out select rolls that allow you to frequently revisit the raw footage in an organized and efficient manner. Watching him build these reels allowed him to understand the Director’s intentions and how they might have changed over the course of each setup. Revising these reels allowed him to constantly come up with new solutions to support new ideas. It really spoke to both by right and left brain and I’ve used it ever since, whether I’m cutting an intimate dialog scene or gigantic action set piece.

HULLFISH: You also mentioned that you do a continuous process of select rolls. What are you doing once you’ve made a selects roll for a scene? What changes are occurring to the selects roll through the process?

BARTON: Well, the reel is so important to me that as new footage comes in — before I do anything else — I will fold that into the existing select reel as if it was all shot on one day. So going back to that represents the entire scene.

For me personally to load every clip individually whenever there’s a new idea — it’s really arduous and not creatively what appeals to me. By having done the heavy lifting early on and organizing the footage in a sequence that represents all the usable footage — I feel like I can go back into a select roll and very quickly come up with some options rather than going to hunt for it in this enormous amount of dailies that might be spread across 50, 60, 70 clips.

HULLFISH: The reason why I asked it was because some people will make multiple selects reels where they’ll whittle it down even more or they’ll maybe have an assistant cut a reel for the scene of only a selection and then they’ll go you know. Now I just want to act sometimes as an assistant make me a selects reel of nothing but reactions of “Joe.”

BARTON: To each his own. Everyone has their own process and I would never criticize someone else for theirs, but for me I feel like I need to run the footage through my hands as often as possible. So when it comes to finding material — whether it’s a master, a reaction, or a close-up or a dynamic effects plate, I feel like that’s where the creativity lies. And I think in that process of scrubbing the footage, a whole host of other questions might be answered or a possibility might be presented.

HULLFISH: And how granularly are you breaking your selects rolls up?

BARTON: I wish I could tell you there’s one rule, but it’s an intuitive process that changes each time I seem to do it. Also, I don’t want to break apart the film too much, otherwise I won’t see the possibility of just sitting on a shot that works great without cutting.

HULLFISH: That’s exactly my point.

BARTON: Often, if I’m looking at a master that that tells the story or reveals geography through an interesting camera move — I’m paying particular attention to those and making sure that they exist in a long section even though they might encompass several lines of dialogue. In fact, it might encompass a quarter of the scene. The length of the select roll doesn’t matter to me at all. So if it’s a four-hour select roll, I have no problem with that, because normally I’m scrolling the reel to at least park myself on the section I want to run. Then I sort of break it down into the medium shots where I might play two or three lines of dialogue — still looking for when I can hold it longer — but when I get into the close-up coverage that’s when I start to cut it up more so than I would otherwise. It’s really important at that point — when I’m breaking up individual lines of dialogue that I am also cutting into my select roll any reaction shot I feel might tell the story in another way — in a more powerful way. I’m a big fan of reaction shots.

Mark Goldblatt, ACE with Ken Beyda on the Moviola.

HULLFISH: You mentioned that one of the things you learned from Mark Goldblatt was the process of going over and over and over and redoing things. And if you weren’t in the room with him you might just think, “Oh he’s a brilliant editor and he cut it like that the first time he laid it out.” The only way you knew how he ended up at a scene was because you were there the whole time to see that it was a process, and not “one and done.” It reminds me of a story from a documentary about the Eagles where Jackson Browne lived upstairs from the Eagles and so they heard him writing songs and they could hear that the songs didn’t come out fully formed. He needed to work them and revise and edit and it was a PROCESS.

BARTON: I had a similar experience on a film where we considered folding elements of one of my favorite bands’ new album into our score. On paper, this was the coolest idea ever! We flew to meet the band and they handed over sketches for their new album which I was SO excited about. The next day I plugged the drive in, listened to the tracks and thought…”you’ve got to be kidding me?” Unfortunately we couldn’t see past these sketches so we passed on the opportunity, then months later the album came out and guess what…there were some amazing tracks! It’s a process.

How each of us gets to a locked picture may vary wildly, but in my experience it’s usually a very long, drawn-out process where you feel at times, “this scene can’t get any better” and then the pizza delivery dude sees what you’re working on and offers a new idea that makes you think, “why the hell didn’t I think of that!?” (laughs) I’ve worked on lots of films requiring multiple editors and sometimes you lean out your door to hear someone else working on the same scene as you. We all need strong opinions as editors, but I do my best to separate my opinion from my ego — it’s a work in progress, but I’m working on it because even without multiple editors, we’re ultimately there to support someone else’s vision: the director’s.

Producer Kevin Feige of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (C) with President of Marketing for The Walt Disney Studios, Ricky Strauss (L) and President, The Walt Disney Studios, Alan Bergman (R)

I really appreciate the way that Kevin Feige, Jeff Ford and everyone at Marvel works because they really seem to support and promote “the best idea wins” approach because it really does take a village to make the best film. As much as filmmaking is about presenting a strong point of view, what we do is inherently subjective. I believe editors do their best work when they make strong choices, but that doesn’t mean those choices are the only way the scene or sequence works — and to top it off, because the entire experience is so fluid, what works one week may be undone by a change in the previous reel this week. This multi-faceted puzzle is why I love what we do as editors.

HULLFISH: You have worked on more massive projects than just about anyone I’ve spoken with. How different is it in terms of process to work on these enormous films than something smaller? What kind of project management is layered on top of your creative skills? Or is all of that stuff on post producers or assistant editors? What would surprise someone like me, whose films are smaller, about working on something massive?

BARTON: With regard to the crew, it’s a matter of scale. Often, on the big films, you’re describing, just about everything is amplified, including expectations — so the pressure is real but no more real than those working on smaller films who are doing more with less.

For me, I try to stay focused on the storytelling and hire people who are far more adept at running the room that I am. I used to be that guy so I have pretty intimate knowledge about workflows, but the technology has ironically passed me by. Now I try to stay in my lane — focused on the creative end of things while keeping an eye out for the warning signs that a problem is heading our way.

HULLFISH: You’ve been fascinating to talk to. Thank you so much for your time — plus your wine’s almost done. I’ve been watching your wine glass get lower and lower and I figured, “When he hits the bottom it’s over.”

BARTON: (laughs) I love working with Michael. He’s been incredibly loyal to me over the years, but sometimes, when I come home, this glass of wine is absolutely essential. And by the way, he might feel the same way about working with me all day!

Art of the Cut book cover
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.

Categories
Post Production

71st Emmy Awards – Art of the Cut nominated editors

Congratulations to all of the nominated picture editors for this year’s Emmy Awards. (71st Emmy Awards)

If you’re interested in reading about the editors involved in the nominations for Best Picture Editing, here is a list of the nominees who have been interviewed for Art of the Cut, including links to their interviews.

71st Emmy Awards

Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing For A Drama Series

The Handmaid’s Tale • The Word • Hulu • MGM, Daniel Wilson Productions, The Littlefield Company, White Oak Pictures
Wendy Hallam Martin, ACE, Editor

Ozark • One Way Out • Netflix • Media Rights Capital
Cindy Mollo, ACE, Editor – Heather Goodwin Floyd, Editor

Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing For A Comedy Series

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel • Simone • Prime Video • Amazon Studios – Kate Sanford, ACE, Editor
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel • We’re Going To The Catskills! • Prime Video • Amazon Studios – Tim Streeto, ACE, Editor

Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing For A Limited Series Or Movie

Chernobyl • Open Wide, O Earth • HBO • HBO Miniseries and SKY in association with Word Games, The Mighty Mint and Sister
Pictures – Jinx Godfrey, Editor
Chernobyl • Please Remain Calm • HBO • HBO Miniseries and SKY in association with Word Games, The Mighty Mint and Sister
Pictures – Simon Smith, Editor

True Detective • If You Have Ghosts • HBO • Leo Trombetta, ACE, Editor

Outstanding Multi-Camera Picture Editing For A Comedy Series

The Big Bang Theory • The Stockholm Syndrome • CBS • Peter Chakos, Editor

Outstanding Picture Editing For A Nonfiction Program

RBG • CNN • CNN Films, Storyville Films – Carla Gutierrez, ACE, Editor

The full list of picture editing nominees is below:

Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing For A Drama Series

Game Of Thrones • The Iron Throne • HBO • Katie Weiland, ACE, Editor
Game Of Thrones • The Long Night • HBO • Tim Porter, ACE, Editor
Game Of Thrones • Winterfell • HBO • Crispin Green, Editor
The Handmaid’s Tale • The Word • Hulu • Wendy Hallam Martin, ACE, Editor
Killing Eve • Desperate Times • BBC America • Dan Crinnion, Editor
Ozark • One Way Out • Netflix • Cindy Mollo, ACE, Editor, Heather Goodwin Floyd, Editor

Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing For A Comedy Series

Barry • berkman > block • HBO • Kyle Reiter, ACE, Editor
Barry • ronny/lily • HBO • Jeff Buchanan, Editor
Fleabag • Episode 1 • Prime Video • Gary Dollner, ACE, Editor
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel • Simone • Prime Video • Kate Sanford, ACE, Editor
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel • We’re Going To The Catskills! • Prime Video • Tim Streeto, ACE, Editor
Russian Doll • Ariadne • Netflix • Laura Weinberg, Editor

Outstanding Multi-Camera Picture Editing For A Comedy Series

The Big Bang Theory • The Stockholm Syndrome • CBS • Peter Chakos, Editor
The Conners • Keep On Truckin’ • ABC • Brian Schnuckel, ACE, Editor
Mom • Big Floor Pillows And A Ball Of Fire • CBS • Joe Bella, Editor
One Day At A Time • The Funeral • Netflix • Pat Barnett, ACE, Editor
Will & Grace • Family, Trip • NBC • Peter Beyt, ACE, Editor

Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing For A Limited Series Or Movie

Chernobyl • Open Wide, O Earth • HBO • Jinx Godfrey, Editor
Chernobyl • Please Remain Calm • HBO • Simon Smith, Editor
Deadwood • HBO • Martin Nicholson, ACE, Editor, Erick Fefferman, Editor
Fosse/Verdon • Life Is A Cabaret • FX Networks • Tim Streeto, ACE, Editor
Sharp Objects • Fix • HBO • Véronique Barbe, Editor, Justin Lachance, Editor, Maxime Lahaie, Editor, Émile Vallée, Editor, Jai M. Vee, Editor
True Detective • If You Have Ghosts • HBO • Leo Trombetta, ACE, Editor

Outstanding Picture Editing For Variety Programming

Carpool Karaoke: When Corden Met McCartney Live From Liverpool • CBS • Tom Jarvis, Editor
Drunk History • Are You Afraid Of The Drunk? • Comedy Central • John Cason, Editor
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver • The Wax & The Furious (segment) • HBO • Ryan Barger, Editor
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver • The Journey Of ChiiJohn (segment) • HBO • Anthony Miale, Editor
Who Is America? • Episode 102 • Showtime • Drew Kordik, Editor, Eric Notarnicola, Editor, Roger Nygard, ACE, Editor, Matt Davis, Additional Editor, Jeremy Cohen, Additional Editor

Outstanding Picture Editing For A Nonfiction Program

Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown • Lower East Side • CNN • Tom Patterson, Editor
Free Solo • National Geographic • Bob Eisenhardt, ACE, Editor
Leaving Neverland • HBO • Jules Cornell, Editor
RBG • CNN • Carla Gutierrez, ACE, Editor
Three Identical Strangers • CNN • Michael Harte, Editor

Outstanding Picture Editing For A Structured Reality Or Competition Program

The Amazing Race • Who Wants A Rolex? • CBS • Kellen Cruden, Editor, Christina Fontana, Editor, Jay Gammill, Editor, Katherine Griffin, Editor, Josh Lowry, Editor, Steve Mellon, Editor, Jason Pedroza, Editor
Queer Eye • Series Body Of Work • Netflix • Joseph Deshano, Editor, Matthew Miller, Editor, Ryan Taylor, Editor, Carlos Gamarra, Editor, Iain Tibbles, Editor, Tony Zajkowski, Editor
RuPaul’s Drag Race • Series Body Of Work • VH1 • Jamie Martin, Lead Editor, Michael Lynn Deis, Editor, Julie Tseselsky Kirschner, Editor, John Lim, Editor, Ryan Mallick, Editor, Michael Roha, Editor, Corey Ziemniak, Editor,

RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars • Jersey Justice • VH1 • Molly Shock, ACE, Editor, Eileen Finkelstein, Editor, Michael Lynn Deis, Editor, Myron Santos, Editor, Steve Brown, Editor, Ray Van Ness, Editor, Michael Hellwig, Editor
Survivor • Appearances Are Deceiving • CBS • Fred Hawthorne, Supervising Editor, Andrew Bolhuis, Editor, Joubin Mortazavi, Editor, Plowden Schumacher, Editor, David Armstrong, Editor, Evan Mediuch, Editor, Jacob Teixeira, Editor

Outstanding Picture Editing For An Unstructured Reality Program

Born This Way • Series Body Of Work • A&E • William Jarrod Burt, Editor, Jacob Lane, Editor, Annie Ray, Editor, Steve Miloszewski, Editor, Malinda Guerra, Editor, David Henry, Editor, Stephanie Lyra, Editor, Dana, Martell, Editor, David McIntosh, Editor, Svein Mikkelsen, Editor, Patrick Post, Editor, Ryan Rambach, Editor, Peggy Tachdjian, Editor, Lisa Trulli, Editor, Kjer Westbye, Editor, Dan Zimmerman, Editor
Deadliest Catch • Battle Of Kings • Discovery Channel • Rob Butler, ACE, Supervising Editor, Isaiah Camp, Supervising Editor, Nathen Araiza, Lead Editor, Ben Bulatao, ACE, Editor, Greg Cornejo, Editor
Life Below Zero • Cost Of Winter • National Geographic • Tony Diaz, Editor, Matt Mercer, Editor, Jennifer Nelson, Editor, Eric Michael Schrader, Editor, Michael Swingler, Editor
RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked • Series Body Of Work • VH1 • Kendra Pasker, Lead Editor, Shayna Casey, Editor
Stavros Stavropoulos, Editor
United Shades Of America With W. Kamau Bell • Hmong Americans And The Secret War • CNN • Alessandro Soares, Editor

 

Categories
Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with documentary editor Paul Crowder, ACE

Paul Crowder, ACE is a London-born, L.A.-based editor. I last spoke with him when he edited Ron Howard’s fantastic tribute to the Fab Four: “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years.” Before cutting “Eight Days,” Paul edited and directed dozens of documentaries and shows and was probably most famously associated with the 2001 Sundance Audience Award-winning documentary, “Dogtown and Z-Boys.”

Paul and I reconnected for this interview as he completed another musical documentary collaboration with Ron Howard about the world-famous operatic tenor, Luciano Pavarotti.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

HULLFISH: To start off there’s this great opening home video — kind of impromptu performance in this Amazon theater (meaning the Amazon jungle, not the internet retailer). Tell me about deciding to start the movie in that way. It’s not an obvious way to start this film.

CROWDER: No. What I felt when I was making the very first structure of the film was that we need to hear his voice from the outset because really that’s what it was all about. If it wasn’t for his voice being as amazing as it was, he’d just have been a regular opera singer, so hearing his voice was always the key. We had built another completely different idea where he was battling with nerves before going on stage. We were sort of stumbling around with the opening. Now, we had this interview with Andrea Griminelli, who was the flautist on his tour and he told us this story how they went into the jungle and Luciano sang in this opera house in the middle of nowhere and then he told us that he had video of it. We did his interview in Italian because we wanted everyone to talk in their native language so they could really express themselves correctly. He told us he’d send it to us. So we waited and waited and he finally sent this footage.

So now we’ve built our film. We’ve got a lot of the film done with good sections and we finally see this footage which is beautiful, but what do we do with it? It sat around for quite a while and then when we were really thinking about the beginning and Mark Monroe said “I have an idea, send me the raw Amazon Footage.” And he wrote this whole beginning based on that. Watching the footage and hearing Luciano, and you sit back for a second and listen to his voice in that place and realize that it’s just been recorded on a camcorder — not even like a very good one at the time — and he’s doing it by hand you can hear his fingers on the camera, but the beautiful, natural amphitheater acoustics and the theater itself, and just the power of his voice with a little piano — it was like, “why did we not think of this sooner” and it was just one of those moments where you find something and your beginning comes together. It was one of the last things we did. It was one of the last big, big decisions that we made was that opening of the film. It was the same with the Beatles. We had a whole bunch of different beginnings for the Beatles. And right at the end after a screening in New York, we had a sort of “come to Jesus moment.” Once again, Mark had the ideas of the suits. They put the suits on. They take them off at the end. They become Sgt. Pepper. So we built the scene with the suits.

editor Paul Crowder, ACE at Abbey Road Studios for the mix.

You never know where the strengths of your films are going to come from sometimes. That’s what’s really great about this craft, I’m sure you know, that you discover so much within it and you get to have a moment like this suddenly come up and kick your film off in the most perfect way. Because what we always want to do is surprise your audience. Give them something they’re not expecting. You’re in the Amazon jungle in 1995. What are we doing here? And then this story develops and then you see this incredible candid moment that no one’s ever seen before. And it’s presented in its raw form.

HULLFISH: It also showed that he doesn’t need to perform for some gigantic audience. He just wants to sing.

CROWDER: Exactly. He’s also probably thinking, “Caruso stood right here and sang. I’m right where he stood.” Eventually, we went back to Andrea and got him to tell us the story in English because we felt that it would be nice if — at the beginning of the film — that we didn’t have to have people reading subtitles.

HULLFISH: Do you remember what the original idea had been to start the film prior to choosing the Amazon footage?

CROWDER: We originally decided to start with him singing Ave Maria. Ave Maria with imagery — a montage. It’s actually the same concert and performance that we use at the end, but there’s no film or video of that performance. The imagery on the screen was just going to be of the theater, imagery giving a sense of stage, of lights, of makeup, all the elements of a production of opera and just a couple of images of him. Again, the idea of being, I don’t really need to look at him. I just need to listen. Just take in the voice. This is what the fuss is all about. This is why we’re making the film. Just listen. But it was a fairly long piece. It’s a five-minute piece. And it’s hard to sustain that without solid imagery to back it up. It worked in its own sense, but it was a tad self-indulgent. Arias don’t just edit down. There isn’t a place we can jump from here to there. It isn’t four-bar chorus verse. It doesn’t quite work that way. We had musical experts try to find a way to compress the song and they couldn’t. So we moved on from that.

HULLFISH: I know that you are a musician and a drummer, so you have a great musical background yourself, so how much did that help you in trying to work through some of these musical numbers work with?

CROWDER: Massively. It is very helpful having musical knowledge. Understanding musical theory is something I did in my pre-teens. Knowing about keys and knowing about chords and what chords can go next to each other and what transitions can work when editing down a complicated piece. Can you go from this phrase to that phrase musically? Does that musically make sense? What’s wonderful is that my assistant Sierra Neal is also an incredible musician herself, so I could double-check with her. I have to say how incredible Sierra was — what an amazing asset she was to this whole production. I met her at the end of The Beatles film, she helped us through the on-line, she is just brilliant. She gets a music supervisor credit with me on this as well because she was very instrumental in finding the right arias for each section as we went through the film.

HULLFISH: There’s a great montage of what a fun guy Pavarotti is, and it gives the audience a sense — right off the bat — that this is not going to just be a stuffy opera documentary. I love that at the top. Tell me a little bit about that montage and why it was there.

CROWDER: Exactly. We’ve had this beautiful singing moment. Now we start out with him at home doing something that he’d later become accustomed to doing — painting. So that’s a classic scene of just relaxing at home and a little verite, we’re going to go behind the curtain. You’re going to be at home with him. We’re going to show this side of him. I was very aware of his sense of humor — about his upbeat look on life. At the end of the film, I wanted everyone to be able to say, “I wish I could have met him.” We definitely wanted to get his humor out there throughout the film, but definitely at the top it felt like: now that we’ve had this moment of singing it would be great if we sort of brought the pace up a little bit — got the audience’s energy going.

Detail of the audio tracks of the Avid timeline

That was one of the musical pieces Sierra picked — where we come up with a nice upbeat piece of music and then we just show these clips: one of him making a joke, just coming in with the punch line. You don’t need to hear the joke. You don’t even need to know what the jokes about. Making faces, playing soccer, singing with a flower — you get that this guy likes to have a laugh. You definitely know that this is a fun chap. He also takes himself seriously. You see him meeting Kofi Anan — the head of the U.N.

We wanted to give this sense that he’s a broad character — this is not just an opera singer. There’s more to this man. He’s fun and he’s serious and he’s giving. There are so many traits to him that we always wanted to keep trying to push. These great moments that show you “There’s the guy. There he is in real life.” Those things carry so much weight.

HULLFISH: When you run a montage like that at the beginning it sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

CROWDER: Yes. Well here’s the thing: the pacing of operatic music is not upbeat. It’s generally slow-paced. Even the liveliest of songs might get serious and make the film drag a little bit, so wherever possible we wanted to keep the pace up. Try and get to things quickly. That was a particular moment where we thought: “let’s get out of the gate and get moving here” because we knew we had a little speech coming and then we were going to do some of the backstory. It was going to slow down a little, so let’s make sure we’ve got some pace upfront to kick us along and give us a sense that the film’s going to have these moments too. So establishing the rhythm early on.

HULLFISH: There’s an early interview with him — and it’s an interview that makes a return at the end of the movie — and I’m assuming that your desire was to stay on his face while he’s doing this interview, so you used these little VHS transition effects to cover some edits, I assume. Tell me about choosing to do that and why you don’t do a cutaway.

Nicoletta Mantovani and Luciano Pavarotti

CROWDER: Basically we didn’t have anything to cut away to. She’s shooting him on the balcony. The ocean is happening in the background and because of the way we were cutting up some of the audio, you could hear the ocean get cut, so we had to add our own ocean sound effect to help cover the transitions and give us a sense of place. On the videotape that comes from there’s footage of the sunsets and some trees and then suddenly we’re on the balcony with him, so that’s all that we had of the moment. So I didn’t really have cutaways and I wasn’t too into the hard cutting that shows you that there’s definitely an edit happening here. So I used those video transitions because the video was kind of crappy anyway. I thought I’d lean on the crappiness to try to soften the fact that we were pulling up the edits. We had to rush the on-line and really didn’t achieve those transitions as well as I would have liked. I used Sapphire effects and they do a really good job. But I didn’t really hone in on getting those looking as natural as possible. Did they frustrate you?

HULLFISH: No. Certainly not. What I wanted to talk about was that sometimes, with a critical on-camera interview — or in narrative on an important line — you don’t want to cut away from it even if you have to pull something up. You don’t want to go away from him in that critical moment. You don’t want to be off of his face.

CROWDER: That was really it. I didn’t want to leave the moment. I wanted to keep the moment is if he’s here — he’s talking to us — he’s drawing us in. We want to just engage with him. I don’t want to cut to pictures of what he’s talking about. Just let him talk to us. There’s a great rule that the longer you’re on one shot, the more believable it always becomes. When you edit, you’re tricking the audience to a degree, and when you stay on a shot it reveals a lot more about the whole thing. You just get more and more sucked in.

I wanted to stay on him, which is why I didn’t want to do the cutaways. I did consider a FluidMorph (Avid “invisible” transition) but there were a couple of edits that that wasn’t working with.

HULLFISH: How did you deal with all the Italian language stuff? You mentioned that you did interviews with people in whatever language they were most comfortable with. How were YOU coping with all those different languages in the edit bay?

CROWDER: Well, when we did the interviews we had a translator. It was actually my cousin, Michaelangelo, and he did a simultaneous translation. So we had earpieces in so we could hear him, so they would give their answers to our questions, we’d understand their answers and we could follow up based on what we knew and then when we were asking our questions Mike would translate our questions in Italian to them. He was in a separate location monitoring and we would feed his questions through a speaker to them and then mute that. So we had that audio all the time and we had our transcripts and I used Avid ScriptSync to death in this thing. So we had transcripts to work with based on his translation.

However, when you’re editing language and you want to edit language in English, you put your verbs and nouns and things in different positions. So when you’re editing Italian you can’t be literal. You have to edit the Italian to be in Italian. Another one of Sierra’s great attributes is that she speaks Italian — and I speak Italian — so we double-check with ourselves and then we also sent edits out to somebody else who was completely fluent to treble check that we got the Italian edits right. In the initial stages, it was straightforward because we had the translation that we had done simultaneously during the interviews.

HULLFISH: You were listening to the Italian because you speak Italian or you were listening to your cousin who was on another audio track?

CROWDER: I’d listen to my cousin because it was much easier. We slipped the audio because he was always delayed by a few seconds.

HULLFISH: You mentioned ScriptSync. Did you ScriptSync to his English translation?

CROWDER: Yeah. We could have done Italian as well, but we just went with the English version. That took me to where I needed to be in the ballpark of where I needed to be, but because it’s Italian — because you have to edit it differently — you do have to pay a little more attention to finding the correct in and out in the Italian. The fabulous thing about the Italian language is when people are comfortable, a lot of words get melded into one. Three words get blurred into one sound. That’s one of these little things you have to deal with when working with a different language. You’ve got to make sure that at the end of the day that when it gets played in Italy, the Italian sounds right and understandable to the locals.

HULLFISH: How did you deal with all the video and film formats?

CROWDER: About halfway through this film, I panicked a little bit, wondering if we should have edited it in 25fps instead of 24fps. But at the end of the day, you still have to deliver 23.98fps. What Sierra decided in our set-up was to have a different project for every frame rate, because Avid can handle all these frame rates in one timeline. So we digitized everything in its native frame rate. Anything that did not have to have sync sound, we would transfer frame for frame instead of trying to match it back to the 23.98. So 25fps or 29.97fps were all slightly slowed down. We did some transfers through the Teranex and the rest were done through the Baselight in on-line. I won’t be using Baselight again, by the way. It was a nightmare. We were staying 1920×1080, so we didn’t need it. We should have just on-lined it from the Avid.

HULLFISH: So you think you could have online in Avid Symphony?

CROWDER: Absolutely. It would have been much, much easier. Certainly would have been easier translating a lot of the effects.

HULLFISH: Sounds like your problem with the Sapphire VHS transitions would have been better or easier in Symphony.

Screenshot of the project organization in the Avid Project window

CROWDER: Yeah. It was a needless pickle that we didn’t need to be in.

HULLFISH: There were several very creative transitions between stories using these opera posters that animated. I loved those. Tell me a little bit about that.

CROWDER: Those were done by Inka Kendzia who I’ve used to do the graphics on Eight Days a Week and I’ve worked with her since 2004. She’s done pretty much everything I’ve worked on. The idea was to try and get something organic. We wanted to be able to teach a little more about opera to everybody, so there were a few operas that we knew we were going to feature somewhat heavily throughout film and we figured it would be nice to put up a poster and have it give you a little one-liner as if it was a film poster of today.

HULLFISH: A logline.

CROWDER: Exactly and give that to the audience so they can learn a little bit about the opera that they’re watching. Inka and her team came up with a really nice design. She worked on the photographs too, giving them kind of a 2-and-a-half-D look to them (not quite 3D). They came together well and they are a nice touch to the film. We succeeded in the vision of it.

HULLFISH: You talked a little bit about the pacing and the rhythm of things and there are really nice moments where you break up an interview or the transition between interviews with just a few seconds of music — just to give a breath. Talk to me a little bit about determining when you’re not just going to have back-to-back-to-back dialogue — when you’re going to open it up for a little bit of music.

Paul Crowder, ACE (center) with mix team

CROWDER: Well generally the music speaks to me. This is why I like to build everything with music and not add music later. I like to do the radio cut first, so I have the bites and the music working together. Generally, it’s because you’ve got a nice succinct bite — it’s made its point. You don’t want to step on this little moment where they’ve said something and the audience needs to be able to digest that, but you’ve got a perfect moment to rest in because the music has this lovely little piece here and we can just come up of that section and go off. We took great pains to the sections of the film that the backing music was a piece of music from an opera that was reminiscent of where we were in our story. So it was a sad piece of it was a poignant piece or a dangerous piece — we were choosing the aria or musical piece that matched the storyline we were in. For Example, When Pavarotti’s manager Breslin arrives in our story I used the musical piece that introduces “Scarpia” the nemesis in Tosca.

HULLFISH: Talk to me about determining structure. Some of it is very simply chronological. You start when he’s young and you go older and older. But there are definitely places where you break from that chronological structure. Were you creating modules and then determining where the modules went?

CROWDER: No, not really. You want to be as un-chronological as you can when telling a story, especially one that covers from cradle to grave. We had various versions where we came into the story at different moments but it felt natural after “Who is Pavarotti, the man?” to show where he comes from. But there was a lot that happened in his childhood that — when we laid it all out, when we did the whole war and his whole childhood, and it was to a beautiful opera piece, it was a really great 15 — 20-minute section of our first cut, that was completely chronological. We go all the way through what happened to him during the war and getting sick but we just needed to get to him singing. We needed to get to his first performance of La Boheme as soon as we can. And because of naturally where we knew the story was going to go through the performance of “Miss Sarajevo” — he was going to start doing these concerts for kids caught up in the war — we thought that we could move the war part of the biography down to Sarajevo. Then, when he gets sick, we could move that childhood sickness somewhere else in the story where it’s relevant to something else. The key was to find the places where we can still get all this information that’s very important to learn about him but doesn’t have to come so chronologically. That way, we can get to where the audience wants to be — with him singing — as soon as possible.

Luciano with one of his daughters

HULLFISH: There’s a great little section where one of his daughters says something about “my father is a thief” and you used a series of punch zooms on a photo to great comic effect.

CROWDER: That was in the section where we’re introducing his children — his girls — and we thought, “what’s a good opera piece of children?” So I found a good piece from Carmen and I’m laying out her sound bites and putting it together and the music immediately after she says “my father is a thief” is right there with a musical moment aching to be embellished visually — right in the vicinity of where her bites have ended up, and I thought, Well that will be great! When she says “he’s a thief” we can just have a good comedic moment, like, “What are you talking about Willis?” so I just punched in on the music beats.

HULLFISH: There’s a pop culture reference you’re not used to hearing in an interview about editing opera documentaries. Some of my younger viewers might have to google that. (laughs).

CROWDER: Again, music is so important. If you get the right music under the right piece, it leads you to do things. I can’t let a beat go by without doing something to the beat in my head. If I head a loud snare drum or a big hit or something, I’ve got to hit that. That can’t just go by. “We can all hear that hit, right?” So something needs to match the hit.

HULLFISH: The great thing with that is that I never FELT like you were trying to hit visuals or edits on musical hits. My point to many young editors is that if you follow this advice about hitting on beats, it can’t be predictable. It can’t always be on the downbeat, or it can’t always be that the edit itself is on the beat.

Panoramic view of Crowder’s home studio.

CROWDER: Yes. Sometimes it’s nice to have the images move to the beat (as he snaps his fingers rhythmically), but if I’m in that situation I might have it edit on the snare drum THIS time, but NEXT time I’ll be on the bass drum, and then it might be on the upbeat. It won’t be on the same beat every time so it doesn’t get too predictable. You can get away with three of those in a row, but after four or five or six, it’s going to get really boring. You’ve got to change it up. Or have something in the ACTION happen on the beat. That’s far more effective than the edit being on the beat. I learned that very, very early. Jonathan Siegal was an editor that was working at the first place I worked at, ZM Productions, and he was doing this montage and I was doing my first assistant editing — it was all tape-to-tape in those days — and I noticed how many of the hits were hitting to the music. I was like, “That’s genius! Look at that.” I was so impressed. So I learned very early on the power of that image to the music. So that became something I was constantly trying to do. I actually got called out on it back when I was doing these horrendous “Cheating Death or Video Justice” kind of shows and there was some pretty gnarly action and I had it all going to the beat and the producer thought we were having too much fun with it. It was a bit reprehensible.

HULLFISH: One of the first dips to black that I noticed was when he visits Julliard. Was that an act break?

CROWDER: We’re sort of taking a breath. And there’s one before that. The first one is when he’s become a singer, but it’s been very hard, and his wife says, “I was the one who needed to make ends meet. The person making the money in the early days was me.” Then it fades to black and we come up on him opening the umbrella. That dip was turning a page because now his career is going to take off. Now we’re in Chapter 2. That chapter was a longer story too, because really what was the key for him — and we used to have it in the film — we cut it for time — was that when he steps in for Giuseppe Di Steffano on that performance he also had to do it for “Sunday Night at the London Palladium” which is a live show that went out over the TV in England. So he substituted for him as well for that show, so everybody in England saw him on TV that night. There were only two stations in those days. So that was his big break. That’s how he became big in England off the bat. That footage doesn’t exist. I was doing a cheat there and we needed time, so we ended up cutting it down

HULLFISH: I loved that umbrella edit. Was that sound effect Foley or production sound?

CROWDER: Foley.

HULLFISH: I loved that sound and edit.

CROWDER: That that was Chris Jenkins, Sal Ojeda, and the sound team.

HULLFISH: There’s a cool thing you did — I think I noticed it earlier in the film as well — where you transitioned from a black and white clip from a Russian TV special he performed on and then it cut to an appearance on Johnny Carson, and when you cut to Johnny Carson, it was a hard cut, but you cut to it in black and white and then gradually added the color.

CROWDER: I’ve done that before on a few things. It’s just something I like to do. Instead of going from this clip to that clip, it’s almost like the audience clapping and we’re now on another clip where they’re clapping. It makes you think you’re in the same place. And then the color bleeds in and then you realize you’re in a slightly different place. It’s just a little way of tricking the audience to jump from 1965 to 1975. To make that transition feel a little more smooth.

HULLFISH: There was an interesting bit of score that you use with Madelyn Renée Monti.

CROWDER: That was Two Cellos. They do a couple of songs in the film for us.

HULLFISH: Two Cellos is a group?

CROWDER: Yes. Two guys, they’re incredible. Lots of albums out there.

HULLFISH: When you’re describing the Chinese trip, there’s a great lead-in about how foreign opera is to the Chinese culture and we’re watching this great classical Chinese dance performance and you use the end of it to great effect.

Pavarotti performs at the People’s Assembly in Peking, China. (Photo by  Vittoriano Rastelli/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

CROWDER: There’s this fabulous film called Distant Harmony — a great film of his whole Chinese trip and when we get to China, we thought, “Well let’s hear China and get some nice authentic Chinese music, and in that footage was this guy dancing so it seemed natural to just see him, then see Pavarotti in China. It sells it perfectly.

HULLFISH: I totally love that. Talk to me a little bit about having the lyrics in the opera speak to a moment in his life. You did that multiple times — five or six times.

CROWDER: That’s basically the goal of everything that we were picking when we were picking the music for each section. We went with the right aria for the moments. We decided to put the subtitles up and it was kind of a revelation to us how much the actual lyrics were speaking to the film. We were being careful to check the lyrics against what our story was doing at the moment, but for the first few cuts, we were doing it without subtitling — without giving the audience the knowledge we had because we had read the words. So when we put the translated lyrics up on screen it just took it to that extra level. But we had a bit of push back from opera aficionados who didn’t want or need it, so they didn’t like to see the words on screen. From the beginning it was Ron’s idea to create an opera of his life because it was naturally a three-act play: he starts his life, then he becomes this opera star, and then he becomes a philanthropist, and he dies. It was a perfect opera and you have the ‘scena madre’(Principle scene) in the middle. The heartbreak is right there. The devastation is right there. The emotion is right there.

HULLFISH: I loved at the end of the Three Tenors concert that after the stunning finale that there was a perfect amount of time for the film audience to drink in the importance and power of the performance. Talk to me a little bit about pacing that.

CROWDER: That was definitely a thing that we were all worked on to make sure that we left enough breath because you couldn’t cut it too soon to get to the next dialogue. Especially with where we went from there… you’ve gotta take a minute and we all felt it. It was a natural feeling and we worked on it to be just right. The first version was too short. It’s such a moment. You just gotta let the audience enjoy it before you take off to the next bit.

HULLFISH: The third great comic edit but I love in this film was after a quote from someone that “If Pavarotti asked for chicken milk, someone would have milked a chicken.” And you cut to this great scared-looking shot of a chicken.

CROWDER: Yeah, that’s a bit of my sense of humor coming out. I just went for it. Later, I got a lovely comment from two people who knew Luciano and said that he would have been on the floor laughing. That’s right up his alley of things that would make him laugh out loud. So they were really pleased to see that because he would have loved that too. Anytime in a movie like this when you can get a bit of levity, it’s great, especially as we know we have some sorrow coming up in the story, its classic theatre, make them laugh, make them cry.

HULLFISH: Yeah because you’re leading up into some pretty heavy stuff at the point that chicken edit happens. We talked about open-captioning most of the Italian opera lyrics, but when he performs with U2 and sings in Italian, you didn’t caption that.

CROWDER: No we didn’t. We just let the moment play. There were a couple of places where we didn’t want the captioning to get in the way of the action and emotion. With that piece with U2 and Sarajevo, we just didn’t feel the lyrics on-screen were as important as the moment.

HULLFISH: This point where we are discussing Pavarotti perform to raise money for the children in Sarajevo is also where you decide to flashback to Pavarotti’s own war experience as a child during WWII.

CROWDER: It felt much better there. I think in the process of editing we’d put it there, moved it back up to the front of the documentary and then actually put it back. We wanted to show the similarities of war from era to era, we see a building blowing up in Sarajevo and a building blowing up in Modena in 1945, to show what these kids are going through, what Luciano went through himself.

HULLFISH: How did you organize inside the Avid to be able to find all this stuff?

CROWDER: It’s because I have FANTASTIC assistants! (Crowder turns in his seat to look back at Sierra, his assistant)

HULLFISH: Sierra, how did you do it?

SIERRA: We both sifted and sifted and sifted for many, many, many months. We would create bins as we went. We’d create a new category: Here’s “happy Pavarotti” here’s “Sad Pavarotti” here’s “Family.” It was all categorized by what we needed in the story. Paul would say, “OK, we need Pavarotti in the countryside.” So we would do a big search. It was a big collaborative effort on everybody knowing as much of the footage as possible because there is quite a lot of footage.

CROWDER: A lot of this stuff came from his family. Thousands of pictures from Nicoletta Mantovani, Luciano’s widow, and from Luciano’s first wife Adua Veroni and their daughters, Cristina, Guiliana and Lorenza. So we had everything organized by source; after the source then we’d funnel it down to categories of family; of him as a young child; 60s, 70s, Pavarotti, et cetera. But originally by source and then by events.

G7T0MK Music – Luciano Pavarotti Concert – Hyde Park, London

SIERRA: Photos alone were like 16,000 photos. It took a lot of time for us all to familiarize ourselves with everything we had.

CROWDER: It was difficult to deal with such a large amount coming in different formats and the trickier thing, of course, was that a lot of these photographs the family had obtained, but they didn’t remember where they got them. So you’ve got to try and clear they are coming.

CROWDER: It was difficult getting pictures cleared. At the end, the on-line got a lot trickier because there were a lot of unknowns.

HULLFISH: You mentioned how big the team was. Tell me a bit about the people that worked in post with you.

CROWDER: On the editorial side it was me and Sierra and a fantastic chap called Robert Martinez who is an incredible editor and picked up some sections when we were running out of time — we needed to hit some calendar dates. He would help me build some sections, then I’d go over it. Sierra was a massive help in creating sections when we were up against deadlines. We had a couple of other assistants throughout the process, Tim Binmoeller, and Alex Hughes, among others, that was really great at logging and finding photographs and cleaning up photographs and doing that. Then we had the graphics department as well in South Africa that was doing the 3D work on the photographs. That was a company called Meme and a designer named Inka Kendzia. Http://www.mememotion.tv/
And there is the archive Guru, Windsor Wong, who organized it all for each department in the production and had a spectacular archive document that had every storyline covered with footage and photos that were relevant.

HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about your collaboration with Ron Howard.

CROWDER: What’s wonderful about working with Ron is that we have meetings early on where we set out our goals and what we’re trying to do. We work on looks — when we were picking interview locations. This would be a great place. We want to keep it grand. We want to make it feel operatic. So those are some of the visual things and when it gets to creative you have a deck — a little creative outline that we’ve all agreed on that we all discussed and the emotions and the things we’re trying to hit. And then Mark Monroe and I take all the interviews and we start to construct sections of the film and put them together. Then we passed the first 20 minutes off to Ron to see how we are doing — are we liking this? We then discuss with the team— too much of this. This isn’t really working for me. Let’s do more of this. Let’s build tension here, we need more emotion there. Usual things in film making. Obviously, having worked with Ron on the Beatles I was very aware of the things he responds to, the things he likes.

What we did do this time different from last time was that before we went back and did any revisions we completed the film. We got the film completely cut. Instead of taking the first 20 minutes and revising and revising until we get it, we would know that it needs work, but we kept going. We built all our sections and then took all our sections and then refine everything at once. So we have a complete film to refine from the outset. But obviously checking each section. We’d watch the first 20 minutes, then the first 40 minutes, then you watch the first hour, then the first 1:10, then the first 1:20, then 2:00, then it’s 2:30, then almost three hours. Then everybody’s saying, “We’ve got to make it shorter.” That’s the process. Just watching it together. Coming up with the ideas that are resonating — the things that are working — and trying things. You try lots of ideas. There were so many different versions of sections that we had — different storylines that we follow — we dived deep into and we didn’t include. Then we end up where we are and we’re all very good about it.

HULLFISH: And when you were creating those modules or story arcs, did you move those around inside of the whole?

CROWDER: Yes. Taking some of the chronological stuff away and making it NOT chronological. And then trying it in a complete chronological idea. The very first version of the film we had was an intro with Ave Maria, then a jovial peace which Luciano and Nicoletta set up and then we went straight to the girls. We were at the children and that was the very first bit where we settled into the story. So that was the first section we actually built — was the kids’ section. Then we discovered we need more weight behind it.

We definitely moved whole sections around, but when we did that, you also needed to adjust the segment to sit where it’s going to sit now. It’s like anything in editing — you decide “This would be so much better if it was in front!”.

HULLFISH: Thank you so much for this discussion. So interesting talking to you. Another great project. Eight Days a Week — this, I just thoroughly enjoyed them.

CROWDER: Thank you, I’m so pleased to hear it. It’s always a pleasure.

CROWDER: I love Splash. I loved Parenthood. American Graffiti is one of my favorite films, incredible soundtrack. And of course Happy Days. So to have the chance to work with Ron on the Beatles and to work with him again and form a really nice friendship and working relationship. It’s been lovely. Just a really great experience for everybody. He’s so easy going and such a fantastic collaborator. The important thing is, he’s just decisive. He knows what he wants. He knows what he likes. So it makes that part of it very easy because if it’s not working you know immediately and you can change it and move on.

HULLFISH: Love it. Well, maybe you should pitch him the Paul Crowder story: how you come to America as the drummer in the band and become an editor.

CROWDER: And actor! I had an acting carer for like 10 minutes as well. Two episodes are Ellen, the sitcom and the opening scene in a film called The Big Empty.

HULLFISH: Paul, great speaking with you, you have a wonderful rest of your day and all the best on this film and the those coming up.

Art of the Cut book cover
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors

CROWDER: Thanks, Steve.

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.

Categories
Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with “Chernobyl” editor, Simon Smith

Editor Simon Smith has worked on a variety of TV series in the UK for the BBC, including National Treasure, Electric Dreams, Victoria and Endeavour, among others. His latest assignment was the popular and buzz-worthy Chernobyl on HBO.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

This interview will also soon be available as a podcast.

HULLFISH: My son and I have been addicted to Chernobyl, we really love it, It’s great work. Congratulations! I understand you edited some of the episodes, could you explain what your role was on the show?

SMITH: Thank you so much. There were two editors — a fantastic editor named Jinx Godfrey and me, and we basically had alternating episodes. She had Episode 1, I had Episode 2, she had Episode 3, I had Episode 4 and then we were set up to co-edit Episode 5. We kind of split Episode 5 as the scenes came in, and then later we split it by parts of the film, and then eventually Jinx finished on the project and I just did the notes that came in from the director and the execs. Episodes 2 and 4 were really just mine.

HULLFISH: This looks like a series that would have been cross-boarded. (To shoot scenes mixed across multiple episodes instead of only receiving scenes one complete episode at a time.)

SMITH: All five episodes were shot during a single 100-day shoot, out in Lithuania and all over Eastern Europe. So sometimes a day would come in and it would just be scenes from Episode 2, or sometimes they would come in and it’d be scenes from Episode 1. We had the schedule so we knew what we were getting and there would be periods of time when I wouldn’t have any scenes coming in, so I could sit and really work on what had come in before that. It was quite a luxury really to have two editors working on separate episodes during the same unit shoot.

HULLFISH: So you were both working on shared storage at a location separate from where they were shooting?

SMITH: Yeah, we were in Soho in London in a facility called HireWorks, which is popular with big shows and big films. We had Jinx’s Avid, my Avid, three assistants on Avids, one VFX editor on an Avid, and all connected to the ISIS. And we were all in the same project as well, so I could open any of Jinx’s bins, she could open any of my bins. It was huge. It was about 10 terabytes of DNxHD36 media for the five episodes.

HULLFISH: I love the opening in Episode 2, which starts out with a little montage of Russian mosaic artwork over a bed of a Russian language voice and no translation of what it means. Tell me a little bit about that choice and how it was made.

SMITH: I love that too. That was scripted, but I think the original idea was to have it in English. The first version I did had it in English, but it had come to the attention of Craig Mazin the writer as an old poem, and so I found that on YouTube, read in Russian on a radio station, and I laid it in in Russian and instantly loved that. There are certain parts in our series, like the evacuation announcement later in Episode 2, or in Episode 1, when they first phone emergency services, that’s the real phone call. I guess it’s just about creating a world. It puts you very much in that world, by having that poem — especially at the front of the episode – it puts you in the world of these characters and situates them in that place and that time.

HULLFISH: Another sequence that I loved was that sequence where that physicist — Emily Watson’s character, Ulana Khomyuk — wipes down a window and then runs it to the lab and it’s a really nicely paced sequence of her walking to the lab, doing the test. Tell me a little bit about the decision of “how much are we going to show?”

SMITH: Those are lovely rushes when they come in because you know — as an editor that’s where you can play with it. It’s all bits of sound design, clicking of switches and machines that are whirring and you get to put in some of that energy and then also moments of realization and fear when she looks at it and takes it in. I got those rushes in quite early in the shoot and it was a fun one to just jump-cut through: find every beat that progresses along her story. I didn’t have to show it in real-time. Just found the bits that were needed to tell the audience enough about what she was doing, that she was this high-enough level of scientist to really examine this stuff that was on their window with this machine and be able to draw a conclusion from that.

HULLFISH: Another moment that I really love the pacing is in the chaos of the hospital scene where you’re seeing people trying to be treated in hospitals where the cuts are quite quick, then contrasted immediately with the shot of Professor Legasov waiting to brief Gorbachev. And that change is dramatic. Tell me about the need to have the pacing be dynamic: faster in one spot, slow in another.

SMITH: We’re trying to show how this event is being spread out into the world and in this one area there are all these people going to the hospital and it’s very frantic. And then — somewhere else entirely — is this guy just reading about it on a bit of paper. It shows how big the event is, you know the event is big enough that it can affect those two different people in two different places in two very different ways.

You mentioned the hospital scenes – in that sequence of scenes there was a nice edit change late on in reviews, and that was just to change the order of a couple of those scenes. We had four or five different scenes in there. I work — as a lot of the editors that you speak to do — with scene cards up on the wall, so I could see the four or five scenes that were taking place in that frantic little set, and one thing I realized through looking at the scene cards was that I could place the scene of Vasily the firefighter and the scene of Lyudmilla next to each other, so we could create a relationship between those two characters. He’s sitting there burned and radiated and she’s trying to get into him. It was nice to look for ways of getting more out of those frantic cuts and beats. I’m a big fan of Eisenstein’s theory of montage — this idea of juxtaposing images to give meaning. Not just a chronology or not just a set of events that are happening side-by-side but to try and convey more meaning from them. Obviously, him being side-by-side with her did that for me.

Then to take it further — as you mentioned — the sudden change to this scientist as he’s sat quiet in a waiting room. It’s a way of giving the audience a ride — taking them somewhere and just when they are in one flow you take them somewhere else. That keeps an audience engaged.

HULLFISH: Coming out of that waiting room, someone could consider the long walk that Legasov takes into the conference room — once he realizes the horror of what he’s just read — to be what editors derogatorily call “shoe-leather.” But if the walk serves a story purpose, then it’s not really “shoe-leather” right? You watch him walk from where he’s seated into this important meeting. Obviously, you could have just cut and the door opens. Watching him walk into that room is almost like a horror movie.

SMITH: The way that I was taught editing — when I was an assistant, the editors I would work for — when they’d break down how they cut scenes and why they cut scenes, was this idea of point-of-view — trying to situate a part of the story from a particular point-of-view. Very much that whole scene — when he goes in, not just when he’s outside, but when he’s inside as well — is really skewed to his point of view — his experience of what’s going on, and I guess that’s why we go on that walk with him. It’s not just showing the scene. It’s not the function of “This is what happened in the Kremlin with Gorbachev.” it’s experiencing it through him. I think it works really well in that you feel his discomfort and unease and fear in that room. And also you see that he has got no idea how to act in that room. So going in there with him was about point-of-view, it was about feeling what he was feeling.

HULLFISH: To reinforce your idea of who’s point-of-view the scene is in, as the generals start to describe the situation and cover-up the fact that there’s a big problem, you’re not watching the General or anyone else in the room. You’re watching Legasov listen to, and react to the lies.

SMITH: I would have done cuts of that scene both ways. I often do a version at the start where I just piece together the actions. Then a version from a character’s point-of-view. Just see it from Legasov’s point-of-view, just try and be with him, where every shot decision is based on either what he’s seeing and what he’s experiencing or cut round to him for his reaction of what he’s seen and what he’s experienced.

HULLFISH: Another place that I thought was really interesting is when they were driving the dosimeter to the plant for the first time — they wrap the truck in lead and the guy drives that up to the plant. The editing is all about building anticipation for what is going to come back with that dosimeter. It’s almost cut like a horror film.

SMITH: We have a cut in the middle of that scene where we cut back to Legasov again. The camera is straight on him and he’s waiting to find out. It’s tense and we made the decision not to end the scene with the truck and the dosimeter. We did shoot the truck parking all the way by the power plant, but then realized that we preferred to stay with our characters who are waiting, it’s from their point-of-view and that’s the horror. It’s the fear that they have. My whole approach to editing these episodes was about telling people’s stories, their experience. That’s what we were all trying to do, was tell the human stories. We weren’t trying to tell a disaster movie. We were trying to show how it affected the individuals who were there.

HULLFISH: Yeah, I thought there was great tension in that scene through the editing and choices of cutting to people waiting and pacing or just sitting there with their head in their hands.

One of the things that I’m really interested in is transitions between scenes and there’s a really nice pre-lap of the sound of the American news report over the shots of the smoke blowing past.

SMITH: The director Johan Renck would always say to join a scene that is already happening and to leave a scene before it’s over. Like that news report, you go into that room with Gorbachev and he’s already sitting there watching it. With the evacuation, you would often see things as they’re already happening. Even with the Kremlin conversation, you’re kind of jumping into these rooms where people are in conversation and dealing with the problem. So when it came to transitions, we wouldn’t necessarily start on an establisher or wide and then go in. We would start on a piece of detail or an action or middle of dialogue and then a few shots later you might cut to a wide and show the room. In Episode 5 — there’s a scene where at the end of a conversation, in my assembly, I had cut out wide and ended it with a beat on a wide quiet moment — but in the final cut, we just cut straight out of the conversation and into the car where they’re driving to the court. That was really driven by the director’s preference for that kind of immediacy and that particular rhythm.

HULLFISH: There’s a cut like that in the first Gorbachev meeting when he tells General Shcherbina to take Legasov to Chernobyl. It cuts away and they’re boarding a helicopter.

SMITH: Yeah exactly. It cuts when they’re boarding the helicopter and it also cuts out of the room leaving them still sitting there. We don’t see them leave the room.

HULLFISH: There’s another edit that is kind of the opposite of that one. Legasov is told to go do something and when he goes — instead of seeing him leave the room — he stubs out a cigarette in an ashtray on the floor and the edit keeps us on the ashtray on the floor.

SMITH: Yeah, I loved that whole sequence at the beginning of Episode 4. It was about six or seven minutes before a piece of dialogue from one of our main characters. That was another thing that I felt was quite unique to this show and was a joy to cut, was that we had these long sequences of montage — these long sequences without dialogue. The evacuation is five or six minutes of just constant shot after shot after shot. And that’s from the script. I think that scene was about five pages of script, describing the evacuation in detail. Without cutting to dialogue from a person. That’s rare, I feel, from the drama scripts I generally get. You don’t get a five page montage scene.

HULLFISH: So that leads to a question I had about another extended action scene without any dialogue, where the divers go into the basement water. When they go into that building the tension is fantastic. Was that actually scripted with the action spelled out in detail until their flashlights go out?

SMITH: I’m almost certain it would have been five pages of non-dialogue script. There was nothing about this that wasn’t scripted. Craig Mazin is at the top of the game and he’d been planning this for so long and he knew exactly how this film would be — more than anything I’ve worked on before — this stayed very true to the script as it was written, with scenes in the order that they were scripted, and very few changes, very few deletions of scenes. He’s made the scripts available online as well, so you can read the script and see that what he wrote — in that order — is pretty much what we get.

HULLFISH: I saw that those scripts were available (https://johnaugust.com/library). I just wasn’t sure if they were the shooting scripts or some other version.

SMITH: I looked at them and scenes that we omitted in editing have been omitted on the available scripts, but everything else is as he wrote it. So I’m looking at the script for the diver scene— that’s scene 255. One, two, three, four — four pages of detailed descriptions of how they walked around that maze of pipes and did what they did.

HULLFISH: How did you pace that, since some of the easiest ways to pace something is to kind of follow the dialogue?

SMITH: My first cut was about six or seven minutes and the final cut is about three and a half minutes, but I kind of just followed the geography of what they did. It was an amazing set that they built and bear in mind that they tanked that set so that the water can always be up at waist height.

Screenshot of Avid timeline of the basement water scene. This is an early edit, not final. A couple of the tracks have RTAS D-Verb on them. (Please note that all images can be seen in full resolution by right-clicking on the image and choosing to open in a new browser window, where you can zoom in to see details.)

I just followed them as they went around and tried to give their point of view of what they’re experiencing. When I could, I’d cut to their point of view as they’re seeing it, and not really use generic travelling shots. It was either experienced with them or through them.

One thing that Craig Mazin had said on his podcast — I remember even before I started the job — I’m probably paraphrasing but: Feature films tell the story in act one, act two, act three and kind of wrap it up nicely and that’s what you go for. But television is experiential. It’s not about necessarily a start, a middle, and a conclusion. It’s about experiencing something. TV is at its best when it’s experiential, and this was one of those scenes where my goal was to just make you feel like you were experiencing it.

And I really wanted the audience to experience the echoes. Technically there’s so much being done with sound in that scene that I broke it off that worked on it separately. I must have had 20 or so audio tracks in the end. It’s very technical and geeky – I used the D-Verb effect as a RealTime AudioSuite (RTAS) effect on some tracks, so I would have several layers that would have different kinds of echoes that would be applied to the whole scene. When there was a drip with an echo, that echo would just go on and on and on and until it naturally dissipated rather than end at the end of the drip clip. So that scene had to be approached in a different way technically, to achieve what I was trying to with ‘experiencing’ it.

I love that scene. I loved cutting it. I loved watching it. Everyone involved did such great work on it. The sound recordist, he had so many mics; he had mics inside the helmets on each of them so you could get each of their individual breath tracks and there were booms outside. We had options in abundance really. I’ve seen that episode in quite a few cinema screenings and every time I still feel my heart is pounding at the end of it, and I’ve seen it a thousand times in the cutting room.

HULLFISH: The other thing — for anyone that watches that scene — and please correct me if I’m wrong, is that is the kind of a scene that you would assume would have underscore to make it scary and to give it drama when there’s no music there. It relies on the sound of the dosimeters, right?

SMITH: Hilda Guðnadóttir, our composer, she really approached all of the score as a kind of hybrid of sound design and score. So there is a Hilda cue in there, but you’re right, it’s not a big, scary cue or the normal trope cliché cue you would have.

With the dosimeters, we had fun with those, and even more so in Episode 4. We really wanted to have complete control over them, so I was trying to find a way of attacking that. One of the first thoughts I had was to create an instrument in GarageBand, which was just the clicking of a dosimeter. Then, in GarageBand on your iPhone or your iPad, you can start a looping instrument and ride the tempo up and down, so you can actually make it click faster or click slower as desired. So I would start playing the scene in the Avid, and start my clicking loop, and then I would ride it up and down live and record it as I went. I did that a lot, but it was rubbish. It wasn’t working, and the reason it wasn’t working is because I’d make a mistake or it was very hard to revise it or manipulate it or change it afterwards. So I needed another approach. Then we found that in ProTools or Logic you can keyframe tempo just like you can keyframe volume in Avid. With that, you could find points in the scene where you wanted it to be going nuts and you could find points where you wanted it slower, and you would just keyframe those on the timeline and ramp it up and down. Once we found that system, it was exactly what we needed. My assistant, Craig Ferreira perfected it, took it off and worked on those individual scenes and customized all the dosimeter sounds.

HULLFISH: I love hearing all about that stuff. It’s like using the un-translated Russian P.A. announcement for the evacuation. The sound is part of telling the story.

SMITH: You don’t need any words. The sound alone is scary enough. I think it the PA works better as just a sound than it does as “attention, attention, evacuation, evacuation.”

Screenshot of Avid’s ScriptSync window, allowing clips to be attached and recalled from the text in the script instead of by clicking a clip in a bin. NG takes are marked in red.

On the evacuation scene, we really pared the sound right back. You don’t actually hear many of the sounds that would be taking place. You don’t hear any other dialogue. You see the old man from Episode 1 getting on a bus and you don’t hear anything he’s saying. You see the nurse from Episodes 1 and 2 pleading with the soldiers and you don’t hear any of the words she’s saying. But you do hear the people move, the shuffling of people, the vehicles, the buses taking off. It was a very restrained use of sound — just picking up particular sounds to give a feeling, like a siren of a car driving past. Just being very minimal with it.

HULLFISH: We talked a little bit about structuring. You were saying how close the structure is to the way that it was scripted.

SMITH: There’s that commonly used saying that a film is written three times, once by the screenwriter in the script, then with the director on the shoot, and then with the editor in post. I agree with that, I believe in that, but 98% of this show was as written by Craig Mazin in the shooting script.

Of the other 2%, the one scene that changed most was the helicopter crash scene in Episode 2. That was probably the biggest scene that we had to re-work. I was cutting that scene — or bits of that scene — for seven or eight months. From the first rushes that come in, to when we finally locked it. It might have even been longer than that because the VFX were right at the end. And I struggled. There were lots and lots of different bits for that scene that came in separately on different days, and there was some second unit stuff that came in. I tried to cut all that together and I found it really, really hard. It just wasn’t working for me. And you do have these anxieties – “Shit am I doing it wrong?” – but one thing I do believe in and do take solace in is trusting the process. It’s going to be wrong, but you will get there. You just have to work it through. Work it through with your collaborators. Work it through with your director, your producers, your writer.

I remember we got through the end of the shoot and I had this assembly and I really hated it and I thought, “Oh God! What am I going to do?” I showed it to Johan, the director, and he agreed it’s a tough one. We played it for the writer and execs and everyone agreed. The original way that it was laid out was intercutting from ground to inside the helicopter and showing how things went wrong in the helicopter. We all came to this decision that the whole scene needed to just be experienced from the viewpoint of our guys on the ground. We need to experience this with our guys. This isn’t about being a Hollywood action film or disaster film. This is much more restrained — much more personal. So then Craig Mazin gave me a new eight-page script of how that scene would work from the rooftop — from Legasov’s point-of-view.

HULLFISH: You’re back to the idea of perspective again.

SMITH: Exactly. In the final cut, we do see it from other helicopters but we don’t go in close into the action. We’re holding back. And I think it’s more horrific. It’s more devastating. And it’s more in keeping with our style and grammar. When I watch it now I’m so glad I trusted in the process.

HULLFISH: Later on we see a montage of the abandonment of the city. Lots of shots showing emptiness. That’s great imagery to build something from.

SMITH: It’s all about the sun coming in in each of those places — in the classroom and in the hospital. The DP (Jakob Ihre) had this radiation metaphor with sunlight. Sunlight was kind of representing the radiation spreading out. And it was shot beautifully. I’m under the guidance on those montage scenes from Johan Renck, the director, and Johan is one of the world’s best commercials directors and music video directors. He’s a master of montage. If you type his name into YouTube you can see his commercials and music videos. I was under very good tutorship from him.

HULLFISH: When they’re trying to find three volunteers to go into the basement the General stands up and he delivers a speech. And at one point instead of being on typical coverage of him — an over into the audience or his face or a medium of his body you cut to kind of behind him looking at his profile in a window with the light streaming in. I loved it.

SMITH: It’s beautiful. It’s absolutely beautiful. If anyone cares to watch the episode again, something that I picked up on when reviewing my first assembly, is that from the phone call in the hotel room where they learn that the world knows that the radiation has spread to Frankfurt and Sweden – from then, all the way through the evacuation, and the talk in the big banquet hall, then through the Kremlin scene where they explained to Gorbachev that they need three men, then through the abandoned Pripyat, and then into that room you just described, Stellan Skarsgård’s character Shcherbina barely says a word until that speech. This arc of his realization from the phone call in the hotel room to him standing up and giving that speech — that’s amazing!

So, I went back and cut every scene through that arc from Shcherbina’s POV. Just his point-of-view, just do it and see what we get. His performances were amazing during those scenes — from him clicking his pen as he waits nervously for Gorbachev to come in or just sitting there totally lost as they describe what’s got to go on. You see all these little tiny brilliant bits of performance, and there were bits that if I’d just gone for the scripted words of dialogue, I would have overlooked perhaps what Stellan was doing. Doing a pass where I just cut it from that character’s point-of-view and just finding all the things that Stellan was doing was really instructive to get the best out of those scenes. And then, of course, you balance it back out afterward. You make sure that you bring in the other characters — that you tell their stories as well. But certainly, I feel that that little arc is made so much better in the edit, or through the edit, by doing that point-of-view pass, so that when he does stand up and give that speech it has all the more impact.

HULLFISH: I want to point out to younger editors the importance of what you were just talking about with editing the scene from just his perspective. You knew all that work of cutting the scene from that person’s perspective wasn’t going to end up with just that scene from that person’s perspective. You were doing it as part of a process you were going through. You needed to do the work even though you knew the work itself wouldn’t eventually be used.

SMITH: Exactly. It was a technique that was taught to me when I was an assistant and my editor would say, “Go and cut that scene from this point-of-view or show me what this person is doing.”

HULLFISH: I’ve heard this technique used of cutting just a close up pass or a wide shot pass.

SMITH: I remember reading in one of your interviews — I think it was Joe Walker — who suggested cutting a scene backward so you don’t get stuck in a rut. How can you do something fresh to find another way of doing the scene? My approach to that is to pick a different character. Cut it from someone else’s point-of-view.

HULLFISH: There’s a great scene in Episode 4 that I wanted to talk about, with that old woman milking her cow and a soldier comes to evacuate her when she goes into a monologue. During the monologue you don’t watch her do the monologue, you cut to pieces of her life or her environment as she’s talking. Just tell me about constructing that montage or that scene.

SMITH: When that scene first came in, I probably did it the boring way, used some of those shots at the beginning as an establisher to the area that she was in, then used some of those shots at the end or whatever. Then I think I tried a cut where I didn’t use very many of them at all and just stayed with her. In this case, it was a suggestion from Johan. As soon as she’s started talking, and we’ve got into it, try those shots in her house and use those to tell the story. Again with Eisenstein’s theory of montage, what those different shots mean, it’s what they convey, when they are put next to each other. So that idea came from Johan, and then I was given the freedom to take that and explore it.

I’d never worked with Johan before, but the working relationship that we created, the way that we’d work – he isn’t one for spending time in the cutting room – he would get the cuts sent to him, and then come back with notes and ideas on how we could approach a scene differently if he wanted a different take on it. And then let you try that.

HULLFISH: Tell me about your approach to notes and your feelings about that advice from him to put those shots in the middle. Seems like great advice, but what if that’s not the way you cut it in the first place, and you didn’t think that was a good idea. Would you have explored it? Just because obviously the director told you to do it?

SMITH: You know, I really love notes to be honest, it’s a weird thing to say perhaps, but there are probably a lot of editors that do. It’s a new task, “go and try it this way”, great, now go and explore this other way. Because really, there are infinite ways that you could approach anything, you could approach it with only music for instance. So having a little bit of “this is what I want” is great.

I try to really listen to what it is that someone wants. Whether that’s the director, whether that’s the writing team, what the execs want from something – really listen to what it is they’re asking of you, and asking of the edit. And try and think hard about the response to that, and giving them what they want. Sometimes you get a note, and it’s better to just understand the problem then it is to do the note. Because the solution may not be correct, but identifying where they are falling out of the experience, and then address that, look at that, explore that.

And try everything. Even if it’s a note that you don’t agree with, try it. The process is only going to make it better. What notes are doing, is giving you an opportunity to possibly make it better, right? So I love that. If they’re going to give us the time to do the notes, keep giving me notes! Keep giving me other ways that we can explore this.

In my own reviews, I give myself notes, give the edit notes, give the edit notes on what could be better in that scene. I mentioned the reshuffle at the very beginning, swapping two scenes around in Episode 2, to put these two characters together. That was something I saw during reviews, I sent a note to Johan and said “Look at this, what do you think of this, if we did this …” and he was like “Oh I love it! Yeah, let’s do that!” So just as much as I’m getting notes, I’m giving myself notes, and giving the edit notes, and I’m part of that process as well. I’m forever reviewing, revising, trying to see if there’s a different way or a new way of doing the scene.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk about the tools and techniques, specific ways you have of working with material.

SMITH: There’s a tool that I use a lot – an awful lot – it’s called “trim to fill”. I don’t think many editors use it. It’s a terrible name for a tool – in Adobe Premiere it’s called “rate-stretch”, and it’s a much better implementation. But for people who don’t know what it is, it basically allows you to take a moment, and stretch that to last as long or as little as you like using the trim functions. For me, it’s one of the purest reductions of what we as editors are doing. It’s editing – but with a single shot. It’s not editing with two shots – it’s not montage – it’s just taking a single shot, and still being an editor with it.

It’s hard to imagine really, but if people wanted to try it, they would take a shot of one of their characters, and a moment when the character isn’t talking, and add a cut point at the beginning of that moment, then add a cut point at the end of that moment and then drop the “trim to fill” effect on that segment. Then trim it out, and roll it back in. And watch what that does. And you suddenly become this “master of time”! It’s completely magical, and it is exactly what we are doing as editors all the time. That’s what we’re trying to do.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s not to manipulate the actor’s performance, that’s not what I’m trying to do – at this level, those guys are the masters of their craft – it’s about manipulating time. Especially when it’s point of view, or rhythm and pacing, having this ability is magic.

HULLFISH: Is that true? I usually use time-warps to be able to pull off the same effect. I’m cutting a movie where the person spends a lot of time on the phone talking to someone and the person that was delivering the lines on the other side of the phone was too slow. They were waiting for the actor to speak then looking down at the script and then reading the line, and it made the pauses too long. So I use something similar to what you’re saying because I couldn’t have that actor wait so long between their lines because the line on the other end of the phone was not that long.

SMITH: Yeah – How are you doing it?

HULLFISH: It’s with “time-warps” in between them. But I’m going to have to try this “trim-to-fill”.

SMITH: Once you’ve tried it, you’ll be thinking “Why didn’t someone tell me about this?!” Honestly, it’s the worst name ever – “trim to fill” is a terrible name – but once you drop that on, then that bit, as you roll out the trim it slows it down, or roll it in and it speeds it up.

Going back to Eisenstein’s theory of montage, he’s actually got two stages to it. There is the first stage, which is the placing of shots – which shots go next to which shots and how that conveys meaning. And then the next lesson is what he calls “metric montage” which is about the duration and rhythm of those shots. So I really feel that his theory of “metric montage” is taken to another place with the use of “trim to fill”. I’m sure that if Eisenstein had had “trim to fill” in his edit toolbox he’d have loved it!

Another thing that I like to do when I’m watching my dailies is to add markers. But if you drop a marker on your dailies sequence, it’s just dropping it on that sequence – there’s no further match back of that marker, onto the source clips themselves. I’d love it if Avid had an option to “add marker to source”.

Screenshot of Eddie Hamilton’s Razer NAGA mouse set-up for editing

So I use one of those gaming mice, and I love it, I think Eddie Hamilton talked about it in an AOTC interview, the Razer Naga. With that, you get to write macros.

So as I’m watching a sequence when I press a button, it activates a macro, that matches back to the source and adds a marker to the source, then goes back to the timeline adds a marker to the sequence and then it continues to play.

So in order, it’s – match frame, add marker, toggle timeline, add marker, play. Okay?

HULLFISH: Love it. No, I totally understand. It’s your workaround to do what you want to do.

SMITH: It’s my workaround – as I’m watching a sequence of dailies I can add a marker. It will then put those markers on my clips in my bin so that when I open my clips from the bin, later on, I can still see the moments I’ve marked. And you can write the macro so it happens instantly – as you’re watching you’re just pressing the button on the mouse. I even have a few different colored markers to choose from. I press a button on the mouse and it just continues playing, but all these markers have been added to my source clips. If Avid can do this without me having to write a macro I’d love it.

What else do I do a lot? Oh here’s another one – I looked up “bin organization” in your book and how different editors lay stuff out. If there’s a reset during a take, I ask the assistants to split that take into several clips. So Take 1 would become Take 1.1, Take 1.2, Take 1.3, so then in the bin, you can see how many versions you have to choose from.

Then for multi-camera stuff, I’ll get them to duplicate the multi-cam-clip, and change the thumbnail to show each camera. So again you can see all the versions that you have. If it was a multi-cam shot, I don’t have the single-cam clips in the bin, as I like the ability to change the camera on the timeline.

I read all of your interviews, look at the screengrabs, and a lot of editors use this “T formation” where they’ll show a single clip of the A camera and the B camera, and then they’ll have a run of the multi-cam clips. I’d much prefer to just duplicate the multi-cam-clip and change the thumbnail. You can turn on little clip icons in the bin, so you can see it’s a multi-cam-clip.

I also use frame borders, so my assistants would color it red if it was no good. So you wouldn’t bother opening that one.

screenshot of Avid bin layout. Clips are multi-cam. Smith has thumbnails for each camera. Then breaks up each take if there are resets, so you get “533E-1A *”, “533E-2.1A *”, “533E-2.2A NG”, “533E-2.3A *”.

I try and keep up with all the advances Avid does and incorporate those or use those. They added mute and un-mute as a button, I use that all the time now, and I’ve put that on the shortcut keys on my mouse. I’ll use those new mute options for auditioning with a director different versions of a cut. I’ll leave the versions or options on the sequence, and just mute/unmute them.

HULLFISH: I want to stop for a second with that because when you’re not talking about muting the sound of a track you’re talking about muting the clip right?

SMITH: Yeah. It might be muting a sound clip, or muting a video clip. That’s a great tool I’m very happy about.

And then I guess the last thing that’s worth plugging for the guys that the make it, is a system called Evercast. When we started Chernobyl we had Craig Mazin, the show-runner in Los Angeles, we had Johan Renck the director in New York, we were shooting in Lithuania, our composer was in Berlin, and we edited in London. So it was hugely international and lots of people wanted to be able to look at things or view things. And Craig Mazin asked us to find a way to best emulate being together in the cutting room. He would stay in Los Angeles, and we could stay in London, and he wanted to be able to see the timeline and the bins and the clip monitor and hear the sounds, communicate with us all, in real-time.

Promotional image from Evercast of collaborators discussing an edit, courtesy of Evercast.

I’d seen different boxes that sling the HDMI or whatever across the internet. But I’ve never had a system that could do all these things in real-time, you’ve got Team Viewer but it doesn’t really do this. We gave this problem to our facility providers HireWorks, and they went off and did a load of research and came back to us with this new tool called Evercast, which had only really just started out. Evercast is made with editors and is for editors. Roger Barton, he’s done Transformers and Terminator films, and Pirates of the Caribbean. So he may talk to you more about this, but he came on and demoed it to us with their team and during the demo, I was blown away, it was everything we wanted and more, and everything that you could try and catch them out with, they’d thought of a solution to.

So what it basically does is it gives anyone the ability using Google Chrome to log in and see your desktop, in real-time with, with HD video, and they can set up as many of those as they like so you could do one for your monitor that’s got your timeline on it, one for your monitor that’s got your bins on it, one for your client monitor, you can do one for your webcam, and you can all communicate in this group session, multiple people can log in at once and do a conference call where they can all see these things.

HULLFISH: How do the people who are watching it see multiple monitors all on one laptop screen?

SMITH: They have a single window with thumbnails down the bottom where they can flick between, or you can open another window, because it’s just a Chrome browser window, so you can have them on several monitors. And they’ve got this option where you can get Evercast to intelligently choose for you. So if you stop the playback and someone then starts talking it will go full screen on the person who’s talking with a webcam and then if someone else starts talking it would switch to their screen. So it’s almost like it cuts the conversation for you between the cameras.

Another Evercast promotional image showing VFX reviews, courtesy Evercast.

Then beyond that, give them huge credit for this, they knew who their market was and they’d done all the things they need to do to satisfy Disney or HBO’s security requirements. They’ve already gone to HBO and said here’s how we built this. Here’s how we do this, here’s how we’ve tested this and they’ve got that sign-off. So if you’re working on a Disney show on HBO show you can get a license to Evercast and communicate and collaborate in this way.

As a tool that, I don’t want to get all lordy about it, but it’s one of those that can improve the quality of our work and it can improve the quality of our lives. You know people get to go home and see their kids at night. You know people get to work together in new ways. I think it’s special.

HULLFISH: I work in Chicago a lot, with producers and directors that are not in Chicago, and a lot of times I’m having to use a workaround. This sounds like a great opportunity for me to be able to share my work with distant producers and directors.

SMITH: It’s amazing. All they need is a wired internet connection, and then Google Chrome and they just log into the room, give the password, and then they get the options of all the monitors that are in the room. They don’t need any other hardware at their end.

HULLFISH: That’s just great information. I love all that technical geeky stuff. Did you see the recent tutorial that I did about using the iPad to control the mixer? You mentioned Eddie Hamilton, and I’ve been in communication with Eddie about it and he sent me his exact setup and he says he actually prefers it. Obviously I was teasing him – I’m like “Come on, Mission Impossible doesn’t have the money to pay for an Avid Artist Mix?”, when he goes “No, they do of course, but I like having an iPad because the form factor is so small, and I can easily move it out of the way”, so he actually does all of his mixing using an iPad connected to his computer. It’s a free app for the iPad, called ProTools Control.

SMITH: I have tried it, a while ago, but I couldn’t get it to work.

HULLFISH: I did a little tutorial on ProVideoCoalition on how to do it. I showed how to download it. The software you need because you need to download EuControl for the Avid and then you have to set your MIDI composer settings, and then your systems have to be on the same Wi-Fi. Eddie was saying “Hey look, I can’t have my computer be on a Wi-Fi network, I’m editing Mission Impossible!” And so he showed me how to do it with hardware with a bunch of adapters to go from the iPad lightning adapter to USB, USB to Ethernet, Ethernet into his computer. So he’s hard-wired to his laptop. He doesn’t have to use Wi-Fi to get the ProTools to the computer like I do.

How to control Avid Media Composer’s Audio Mixer in real-time with an iPad

SMITH: Did you have an interview with one of the guys from The Hunger Games who had a touch screen setup. Is that one of yours?

HULLFISH: I did interview the Hunger Games guys. That was Alan, he uses a Wacom Cintiq tablet.

SMITH: That’s incredible. One of the big things coming is Apple has included a screen sharing to iPads feature, and this ability to use your iPad as a Touch Screen built within Mac OS, so that’s very cool. If you could put your bins or mixer on that.

Sometimes, when I start talking about all this geeky stuff, some editors aren’t into it. But you know what, it’s not about thinking that the tools make you the editor or anything like that, it’s definitely not that. I agree with them. What I’m trying to do, I guess, is remove the tools. If the tools become so good that they fall away, so that as an Editor you can do what you want to do without having to think about the tools – Eddie Hamilton using an iPad to do his mixing – that’s exactly what he’s doing. He’s removing layers of friction between him and Editing. It’s the same with macros and it’s the same with “trim-to-fill”. It’s the same with short-cut buttons and all those things. It’s about how can I, as fluidly as I can, get the idea in my head from my head into the edit. And therefore I hope I justify geeking-out over tools!

HULLFISH: You can always justify geeking-out over tools with me. That is not a problem. But I definitely agree that some people would say “That’s not what I’m interested in, I’m just interested in rhythm and pacing and montage”. So great – how do you montage anything without touching a tool?

SMITH: I love that as well, I could listen to someone talk about montage all day. But then as you say, how do I then achieve that as fluidly as possible.

HULLFISH: Abraham Lincoln once said, “If I had six hours to cut down a tree, I’d spend four hours sharpening my ax.” That’s what we’re talking about when we’re geeking-out like this. Sharpen your ax and it makes the cutting so much easier.

SMITH: That’s brilliant. I love it. Sharpen your ax enough, and it will fall away. That tree will just fall down.

Thank you Steve, and thank you for doing this, all the time, I read all of your AOTC interviews. It’s such a huge asset and library to all of what we do, and to have an opportunity to talk to you and possibly contribute to that library is an honor. It really is.

Art of the Cut book cover
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors

HULLFISH: Thank you so much, Simon. You are definitely part of the library and a very worthy part.

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.

Categories
Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with doc director/editor Todd Miller on “Apollo 11”

I saw Apollo 11 in theatres several months ago, and recently the film has aired on CNN. It was gorgeous and fascinating and – in my eyes, at least – very unusual. I knew that whoever put it together had to have overcome a lot of obstacles, and beyond that, had managed to tell a very compelling story. I was excited to finally track down director/editor Todd Miller and we had a lengthy discussion of numerous fascinating aspects of making the film. This film has incredible scope and size – audio alone was over 18,000 of material – and Todd said that his choice of Adobe Premiere Pro as an NLE never let him down.

Todd Miller has also directed and edited Dinosaur 13, Scaring the Fish, and Gahanna Bill.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

This interview will also be available as a podcast soon on anchor.fm. But keep reading… great visuals in this article that you won’t get with podcast!

HULLFISH: I have spoken to colleagues in the field that just were blown away by Apollo 11. One of my editor buddies said that he would have been fine if the first shot in the movie just lasted 90 minutes.

MILLER: Believe me I think I probably could have done that.

HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about your background as a documentary filmmaker. It looks like you’ve been producing, directing, and editing all of your projects.

MILLER: I started out with a documentary in film school, so I just kind of fell in love with the format. I’ve joked with people that I’m a fiction filmmaker, but my last two projects have been archival documentaries. I definitely approach the documentaries I’ve made in a “fiction way.”

I started out as a student film and kind of turned into more than that. My career goes back to the late ’90s. I was shooting on film — some 35mm, some 16mm — and then transitioned into video, so that tells you how long I worked on that project — probably about 4 years. After that, I did a fiction film. We optioned a screenplay and had three actors. We shot it in six days in upstate New York with two Canon XL2s, which had just come on the market. I edited that project and that was really challenging. I worked pretty closely with Michael Phillips at Avid because we had some technical issues with some of the advanced features etc. but that really got me into loving editing — multi-camera shoot — we had two cameras going all the time and just kind of a free-form style cinematography and it was a beast. It took me years to edit that.

That film didn’t really go anywhere. We made it just because we wanted to do something. We were all friends and just wanted to work on something that we could shoot quickly. Shortly after that, I started Dinosaur 13. That was planned to just be an art film. It was an excuse, really, to get out of New York. I had been taking a lot of editing jobs, directing jobs, producing jobs and I was just kind of spent.

CNN Films: Apollo 11 Production Still

My producing partner, Tom, who is also a cinematographer, spent a lot of time out west, he and I both were shooting and I was editing as we were going along. That film took approximately three years to make and it turned into something more when we stumbled across one of our interviewees Peter Larson who had discovered this T-Rex. So that led to just a wonderful experience working with him and his group, showing this wonderful world of paleontology.

That film premiered at Sundance 2014, was acquired by Lionsgate CNN Films and then shortly after that we were trying to get back into some fiction filmmaking, but an opportunity came along with CNN films. They were interested in doing some short films for a new initiative and we were actually working on a project that was – oddly enough – looking at the provenance of one particular moon rock that was collected on Apollo 17, and that got us into the world of the archive and distribution network within NASA and the National Archives.

So when they approached us for the short film, I said, “I’ve got all this wonderful archive footage from Apollo 17 and it really became an editing experiment to see if we could tell that story using only archival materials. We just had a great time working on it. The team that I connected with on that project — a lot of the guys I have worked with for over a decade — became the backbone for the team that became Apollo 11 and certainly all of the people that we’d met within the NASA system and National Archives assisted us and generated Apollo 11.

HULLFISH: One of the things that intrigued me about this movie is that there are no interviews and there are no talking heads. For those who have not seen the film it is a very kind of fictional narrative approach to a documentary. It’s verite, but it doesn’t LOOK like verite.

MILLER: From early on we always had anticipated that there would be a version of the movie that was going to exist on IMAX screens in science centers and museums. I have always been a fan of the predecessor to IMAX — a lot of the TODD-AO formatted films from the 50s and 60s — that was showcased in New York in the past decade where occasionally they showed some of these films. A lot of them were shot in Cinerama. Not the big films like Ben-Hur but some of these films that were geared more towards science centers. They were shot on 65mm 5-perf. A lot of them were shot in Cinerama — three cameras, three projection systems — and they would do cutdowns of these for single screens — whether it was for Academy qualifications or just a different way to exhibit it.

One particular filmmaker that I really fell in love with was Francis Thompson, who owned the Francis Thompson company here in New York. They were doing a lot of pretty avant-garde art films where they played with quasi-verite films but also a lot of fractured narrative stuff. They did a wonderful film called To Be Alive. 20 minute short that played at the New York World’s Fair in 65. They did a cutdown for that. It was shot in Cinerama and won an Academy Award. They were doing things with narrative that was very intimate — that would inform things in the late 60s moving into the 70s — films like Grand Prix and Woodstock — films that I loved as an editor, that played with parallel time, fractured narrative, split screens. So when we came across a lot of the footage and working with my archive producer who was supplying me with the best available footage, I instantly went back to that filmmaking style. It was something where they used more of a verite approach.

HULLFISH: Talk a little bit — for the people who haven’t seen the film — about what the film looks like and sounds like.

MILLER: Well the best example we have is that within the team, we jokingly call it “Dunkirk in Space.” In the sense that you’re dropped into a situation, you go on a trip, you don’t know if you’re going to come back or not and then you eventually do. So we wanted viewers to just be dropped in. In this case, it’s right as the mighty Saturn 5 rocket — on May 20th, 1969 — is being carted out to the pad at 39A in Cape Kennedy as it was called and then you just go on a ride. We have no narration. There are no talking heads. No present-day narration. We were given access to a ton of large format archival film, but equally as important was the audio that we were given access to. A lot of which had never before been heard.

Sitting right next to the flight director — back and to the left in the back of the mission control room — is what they call a public affairs officer and their job was to narrate the mission as it was happening live for the public, 24/7 during the 9 day mission on the NASA feed that was going out to the world. These guys were really the voice of the mission and they were doing blow by blow of what exactly was happening. It was really great for someone like me who had an interest in the subject matter but wasn’t necessarily an uber-nerd as I’ve become now, for sure, after making the film. But back then it helped to articulate a lot of the technical things that were happening or things you just couldn’t see because they were happening in space.

And obviously, there were no live TVs outside the spacecraft. So that became our narrative thread. These propel you into the mission and let you know what was happening. Obviously we had all the air to ground transmissions that people have heard — both within the command module and the lunar module — and then we also had the onboard audio, so when the guys were on the backside of the moon and they weren’t in communication with the earth, they would flip on an onboard recorder and we had access to all of those files. Probably the most important piece of audio that no one had heard before was — we were given access to eighteen thousand hours of Project Apollo audio from these mission controllers.

So if you can imagine: in mission control, you have 30 guys sitting in the front room and everybody that has a headset on is being recorded on an individual loop and that is recorded to 1” tape. Then in the back room, there’s an additional sometimes 30 to 40 tracks of audio being recorded. When we were given access to that — of the 18,000 hours of that, 11,000 hours of it was Apollo 11. When it was given to us, it wasn’t synced. There was some hum that was introduced in the early recordings. It was just a mess. It was actually digitized for a speech recognition project with the University of Texas Dallas.

Thanks to some really brilliant work by Ben Feist — one of our consultants up in Toronto — he worked with a grad student out in Europe. They developed an algorithm to tackle all of this audio to sync it all up. So when I got it, I could actually look at it in the timeline and on/off every single channel. Sometimes I would have two hundred tracks at my disposal to tell the story. None of it was transcribed. So it was the work of all of us to try to determine exactly what was happening; when it was happening; if there was anything of interest; if there was anything new that we could build scenes around. That was how we started to actually piece the entire edit together and why it was a little different than what you know normally you would hear.

Believe it or not, there is a nine-day version of the film that exists. We started by just getting every single piece of available audio, still photography, both from the ground and also what the astronauts shot, the flight films, broadcast transmissions, everything related to the mission we wanted to throw into a timeline and see what we had and then just go through it and pick out our story.

HULLFISH: A nine-day version of the film hopefully broken down into more than one sequence!

MILLER: Yeah, we had nine sequences.

HULLFISH: Nine 24 hour sequences?!

MILLER: Ben Feist had a website. I was halfway through the edit on Apollo 17 and I stumbled across his website which was apollo17.org and we immediately hit it off, but I said: “Why didn’t you build this thing six months early and you could have saved me a lot of time?” He’s actually building one for this film. It’s kind of a companion piece for the 50th anniversary in July, called apolloinrealtime.org so you can grab a sleeping bag and set your alarm clock and go on Ben’s website and see all the other materials.

HULLFISH: I talked about this amazing first shot. For those who haven’t seen the film or know much about your project, talk a little about the visual imagery that you’re dealing with.

MILLER: Initially we knew we had access to 16mm and 35mm. I had a little bit of frustration from having original negative from the Apollo 17 film that we did. I wasn’t really happy with the telecined results that we had. There were some shots that we were able to scan and there were others where the negative was in terrible shape. So I really wanted to rescan everything. I knew film scanning technology had come a long way. But I didn’t know to what degree. It just so happens a post-production facility — Final Frame, here in New York, which had done all my color grading for 10 years, was getting into the film scanning business.

They were working on some newer technologies and had convinced me that they could take a massive amount of film, scan it in a decent amount of time. At that time we were dealing with 16 and 35 and even some 8mm home video stuff and we were going to scan it all in up to 4k, which a lot of people think is kind of crazy for 16mm but through testing, we saw some results that looked promising. So that was the original intent and we were primarily dealing with National Archives. It turned into a research project.

We really needed to quantify how much of this material was out there so it became really incumbent on the researchers there — working with our archive team and their archivists and curators — and to my surprise, no one had really tried to quantify how much Apollo material was there. A lot of it changed hands within the archival system. A lot of things were spread across the NASA network, but National Archives being the end repository for a lot of these materials seemed like a good place to start.

So a few months into the project I got an email in May 2017 from one of the supervisory archivists that said they had stumbled across this collection of large format film. It was the old school stuff I was talking about: 65mm five-perf. This was pre IMAX and they also had some 70mm 10 perf engineering films — commonly referred to as military grade one — nobody really had had the capabilities to deal with the military grade ones. So we entered into an agreement with the National Archives to basically scan these materials.

Initially, we were going to bring a team into their facility. We realized it was going to take like a million years to do it because we were only able to do it within the office hours when they were open, so we developed a plan to have a series of shipments in climate-controlled vehicles up the I-95 corridor from D.C. to New York over the span of months. We would get the materials trucked into Final Frame in midtown Manhattan and we would scan it. Several months before that actually took place, we did some test scanning with some of the different reels they had brought up.

I’ve heard Steven Spielberg describe seeing the dinosaurs the first time they were rendered on the computer for Jurassic Park and it was kind of one of those moments. We didn’t know what was on the reels. We knew that they were in good condition, but they really only said “Apollo 11” and some of them had the date of the launch which was July 16, 1969. But other than that we didn’t really know. One of the first reels that we put up was the Saturn 5 being rolled out to the pad. It was actually tails-out on the reels, so it was upside down, so we were craning our necks, but what really got me was that it was an aerial shot. So not only were there large format cameras documenting the launch, but we also had aerial shots, which was astounding. The very next reel was the suiting up shots — large format, unbelievable quality of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins being suited up to go sit on top of the Saturn 5 and the bandwidth was very high coming off the scanner, so we immediately digitized a lot of it — only at that time in 4K, then we went to the DI room to watch it on the big screen. It was just one of those moments where everybody just stood there speechless. We were dumbstruck and that began the process of scanning all of that.

So ultimately we developed a prototype scanner with Final Frame hardware and software guys. It was capable of doing 16k, but we saw some diminishing returns obviously, dealing with storage solutions, so we settled on 8k for the majority of the 65mm and then for the 35mm and 16mm, we did 4k. Just like mission control, we had three teams working around the clock for months to get it all in. And then of course, you can imagine, from an editing standpoint, we had to deal with storage solutions. We had a security issue too in that we had the bulk of all these materials in one location, which was terrifying. Plus this was during the government shutdowns of 2018.
Sometimes we had the raw negative housed in the same location as the hard drive, so it was terrifying. A lot of sleepless nights.

I was working out of our offices, which were in Brooklyn, so I was across the East River, so about once a week we would copy over drives and ship them out of state so at least they would exist in triple locations in case anything happened. And then I began the work of dealing with 4k proxy files from all the 8k stuff and put the film together. I edited it all in Premiere Pro. I ended up having to do all the graphics myself, so I loved the integration with After Effects. I was doing a lot After Effects. It was really just creating placeholders before we got a big visual effects house to do all the graphics. The whole Adobe suite really worked well on this project. The proxies were ProRes 444 HQ. That was the vast majority of everything. We did have some still imagery that the astronauts shot. They shot 1,025 still images in 70mm — not to be confused with the 70mm film footage — Hasselblad images.

Once I got rough edits done, I would send a media-managed project back over to Final Frame and their on-line editors would conform based on my edit and would go back to the original 8k source files and those were integrated into the DI suite where we had a combination of Film Master and Nucoda. We also used Transkoder for all of our dailies and proxies and review files.

HULLFISH: Transkoder is what made the proxies from 8k originals and 4k originals?

Transkoder screencapture

MILLER: That’s right. It’s just a node transcoder. Really robust. I personally have never used it, but that’s the piece of hardware or software that was used to create everything. Here and there, if we had review files, we used Resolve.

HULLFISH: How did you organize the project to be able to keep Premiere working smoothly? Did you break reels or stories or sequences into separate projects?

MILLER: It was tough at first. I set up an office at my house and then I had another set-up at work. I basically had mirrored drives at both places during the project. I was surprised at how robust Premiere was. I thought for sure I would have problems but I really didn’t encounter anything. I broke down the entire film into days, so it’s really eight days “and change.” So there were nine different sequences that represented each day. The great thing about working on a film like this was that our script was the transcripts — which were thousands of pages long — but gave you a backbone in which to at least understand what was going on in the mission from mission control’s vantage point. We were telling the story from the people that were participating at mission control and then also from the astronauts’ POV.

It started off very simply as version one and every single time I would change something I would save the new version and every day that I edited I would save a new project and that kept me in check but also allowed me to streamline things. I’m very diligent when I edit. I don’t really rely on all the tools that Premiere Pro has. I like to go through footage time and time and time again. I don’t use assistants, so I just saturate myself and expose myself to the footage. I’m lucky in that I tend to only work on projects every few years, so I had the luxury of time. I could go in and basically create media-managed projects each time I would save something, so every morning I would wake up, save a new project, go in and just kind of clear out the dustbin of things that I didn’t need. I do not recommend that for young editors because if you don’t know what you’re doing. But that makes it efficient where I can open up a sequence or a project and be able to work on it without ever stuttering or having issues.

HULLFISH: Do you find the key to editing with Premiere is to keep your sequence count down?

MILLER: Yeah I think so. I did find as it got higher — as the file size got higher with the project — it would just take a long time to save. I don’t use auto-save. I’m one of those guys that’s constantly hitting the save button. So waiting for something to save that long is infuriating because I like to work very quickly, but keeping that file size down was the key with Premiere.

HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about the schedule. I mean, just listening to 11,000 hours of mission control audio…

MILLER: 11,000 hours was just the guys in mission control talking on the loops and then also talking to the capsule or the lunar module and then in addition to that you had onboard audio probably 5,000 hours of that. Plus the flight director’s loop as well. We’re still actually in the middle of it even now because we’re doing filmouts for IMAX plus the broadcast version that I’m editing for CNN. The CNN version comes out on June the 23rd. The theatrical version is kind of at the end of its life, though they’re talking about bringing it back at the end of the year. Then we also have the science center museum version which is basically a 40-minute version of the feature version which will be exclusively for science centers and museums. Places like the National Air and Space Museum — that’ll be out on May 17th. That version is called Apollo 11: The First Steps and will be on about 100 IMAX screens worldwide.

HULLFISH: Talk to me about finding the story. There was so much time preparing and building these giant timelines, but where was the story in the midst of all that content?

MILLER: Where we started was to actually read all the autobiographies of the astronauts. Everyone knows about Apollo 11, and I had some cursory knowledge because of working on Apollo 17. What stood out to me initially was just the technical achievement. I’m a big fan of films that are able to show audiences where you are geographically within a scene or space. Denis Villeneuve and his editor are amazing at it in the latest Bladerunner. In one shot he’s able to articulate space. In one shot he’s able to foreshadow a fight that’s about to happen, so you get an idea of exactly the dimensions of the room, what’s happening — so when he goes into all the close-ups it’s not so jarring. I apply the same principle with this film. It was always amazing to me to see the articulation, the attitude of the spacecraft — what they were doing once you got into space? Or where were we in a given place during the launch?

Trying to move throughout different people having a shared experience — and knowing where you were in that — whether it’s a subconscious thought process on the part of the viewer, but it was very specific to the way I like to put together a film. A lot of that came from just working with NASA and their history department and MIT did all of the flight dynamics works on the Apollo missions, so reading the diagrams — how things were presented and then reading the astronauts’ biographies.

One good example is the translunar injection maneuver which is NASA’s fancy way of saying they’re going to light the candle and go to the moon after they’ve done a couple of turns in orbit around the Earth. Everyone that describes that — that’s an Apollo astronaut — for the most part, they all described this incredible experience of the J2 engine lighting on the dark side of the earth and they used to call TLI into sunrise. In fact, Armstrong on the onboard audio says, “we’re going right over the Terminator” meaning the imaginary line on the earth from the dark into the light. And I always wanted to depict that. I’d never seen it depicted in a fiction or nonfiction film. But the astronauts talked about how extraordinary it was, and so, working with my archive producer Steven Slater — who is based in the UK — we found a piece from another Apollo mission that we could fill in the gap. We got to show that to Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins and ask them, “Is this what it looked like?” And they agreed that it looked exactly like that.

Steven Slater

We did some similar things with some of the things they talk about in the book. Neil Armstrong had been asked about his most indelible moment from the mission. For Neil, it wasn’t setting foot on the moon or even returning home safely, but it was seeing the moon from about a hundred thousand miles out, and there was a solar eclipse happening around the moon and they didn’t shoot it on Apollo 11 with their 16mm camera. They didn’t take any stills of it, but we had one from another Apollo mission. We showed that to the guys on the mission to confirm that that was an approximation of exactly what it looked like and we were able to design a scene around that.
Then, just going through the audio — we had to use a divide and conquer approach — once we got the 30 track mission control audio synced, we just took turns listening to it for things that would be of interest, and Tom, my producing partner, just had a knack for it. He found all this amazing stuff. For instance, they were talking about Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick accident that happened a couple of days before the mission, so the mission control guys were talking about that. So I was able to design an entire scene. We also had Walter Cronkite talking on a news broadcast and added that connection into mission control. They were saying that everyone’s forgotten about Apollo because they’re so focused on Chappaquiddick.

Tom actually found an amazing song that the guys played in space. They had this cassette player on board and they would routinely listen to music — all the Apollo astronauts did — Buzz Aldrin at one point says, “Hey, you want to hear some music?” and turns on the cassette deck. A few hours into it there was this amazing song — I’ve listened to it a million times — and I’ve got great ears, but I can still barely pick it up. It took Tom a few days to figure out exactly which song it was. It was this amazing folk song called “Mother Country” by folk artist John Stewart — not to be confused with the comedian — but he was head of the Kingston Trio most famously and he recorded this amazing song that kind of became the soundtrack for all of us working on the project and we were able to include that in the film. We actually tracked down John Stewart’s widow and it turned out she was a huge supporter of space and John himself wrote a song called “Armstrong” and were friends with astronauts, so it was a really great connection. But that kind of goes back to the storytelling — just to find things that would propel the narrative in a unique way, but also to get out of the way of it. We had this amazing footage, and I think it’s very easy to over edit this stuff, but the 16mm camera Buzz Aldrin mounted in the lunar module and turned on during the landing is — I would argue — the most famous shot in cinema. There’s a reason why all three astronauts are American Society of Cinematographer members. So we show that footage as an unbroken shot.

And then probably my second favorite shot is Michael Collins filming the lunar module coming up from the surface of the moon. And I think everybody tends to show that as this amazing miraculous thing, and it was, but it was very, very technical. They didn’t even know where they were on the lunar surface, so they didn’t know exactly the rendezvous coordinates if it was going to work. It was an amazingly intense time and — as we show in the film — if you look at the articulation of both spaceships, they really couldn’t see each other, so they were kind of coming in blind during the rendezvous. It was an amazing sequence that led to the docking of the spacecraft and then subsequently to be able to fire the rockets to get them home was equally as important because if that didn’t happen they would have been marooned. So it was just taking my time and slowing down scenes that were important to the mission and important to the safety of the crew — getting the guys home — but also showcasing things that maybe people hadn’t seen before.

HULLFISH: You talk about finding all these stories. How are you keeping track of the stories that you have to work with? You’re building little compartments of stories that will then become the film. Is that kind of the idea?

MILLER: Yeah. When you see the film, it’s very modular. I knew that there was going to be approximately nine big sequences that we were going to do and they were all based on really, really technical life endangering maneuvers that happen. One would be the launch. Another scene would be Earth orbit. Another one was the translunar injection maneuver. So each one of these was very perilous. Any time you’re firing things in space it’s dangerous business. Every scene was designed around one of those things. And then also the support structure that it took for each one of those maneuvers to happen, we would try to highlight as much as possible. It was always irritating for me to watch Apollo documentaries — particularly if they were on TV — where you would routinely see guys in a blue shirt and then two seconds later on the same day he’s in a white shirt. So we tried to avoid that as much as possible.

Probably some of the most amazing work on the film was actually done by my archive producer, Steven Slater, who actually really jumpstarted the entire project. The mission control footage itself had no audio on it. So Steven, during the early Apollo missions — the first three or four — they didn’t have any sync sound. The later ones did — the J missions — but the first ones did not, so Steven, who spent a large chunk of his career taking audio from the quarter inch and the one-inch tape of loops of mission control and syncing them up. A lot of times you’re just lip sync. You might know a day that things happen but it’s a complete cluster as far as how the actual reels were assembled. Ultimately when they were printed. The cameraman shot with these Arri S cameras. There were usually two cameras in mission control and they were just on/offing the camera. Putting one down, picking up another. No timecode. If you were lucky maybe you could see the mission control clock in a corner and then it would tilt down to somebody saying something, but mostly it was just Steven reading the lips of the mission controllers. He had actually taken all the film after we had scanned all the new footage and filled in the gaps with all the air to ground. When we started, he probably had dozens of clips synced up, and by the end, he had them all. It was incredible. It took years to do. He was able to take every stitch of footage that we had — whether it was 65mm or the 16mm from those two camera guys and put sound to it. So I was able to look at it really for the first time and be able to see exactly when things happened.

HULLFISH: I loved the scene of the flight surgeon announcing the heart rates of all of the astronauts during the launch. How was that stuff organized?

MILLER: That was great. I couldn’t believe we stumbled on that one. How could you not use that one?

So each day — and then within each day — everything that was shot large format would be on V1. then on V2 would be the 35mm and v3 was the 16mm.. so the quality went down as you moved up in the video tracks. If I was messing around with a scene I wouldn’t create a whole new sequence, but just at the tail end of the sequence I was working on, work on it there.

HULLFISH: Let’s get back to the organizing principles. Maybe even outside the NLE. Did you have a big board with PostIt notes or index cards or did you have a database?

MILLER: If you were here, behind me in my edit suite, I have every single image that’s been printed out from the mission. It’s chronological, which is great. It basically looks like the room from A Beautiful Mind. I really saturated my office walls with everything to do with the mission. It looks kind of crazy to me right now but it all made sense when I was editing the project. One of the most useful things was a map of mission control. Knowing where all the guys sat and knowing at what time each guy started his shift. So I actually have a legend that has an image of Mission Control — you see where the retro-fire guy is, where the flight director sits, where CAPCAM is — all the different positions. And we have the shift changes where everything happened.

I wanted to know individual names, so when you watch the film we actually introduce Dave Reed who is the retro-fire guy or Bruce McCandless — everybody seems to know who Gene Kranz was from Apollo 13 and he was the flight director during the landing on Apollo 11 and certainly the dean of flight controllers but there were four other ones that were responsible for the safety of the mission and did a phenomenal job. So I have all of them listed out and then also when you get to the lunar surface where everything was. Going back to the transcript — which became our script — we found a lot of discrepancies with historical records, so a big part of our work was to do a lot of time remapping not only with audio but some of the footage needed it as well because a lot of the cameras that they were utilizing used variable frame rate. Also some of the television transmissions — we got those to exactly where they were timewise.

Current thinking was that when Buzz Aldrin and Neal Armstrong were on the surface of the moon, they were out of communication for a certain amount of time. Our work showed that they were never out of communication and we were able to get the mission clocks just right from our work, and also correct some of the official transcripts that have been floating around. That was a really important part of our project. It’s really the work of volunteers like ourselves and all the people that came before us and all people that come after us who track all this stuff. The great thing about working on a space film is that they’re on a clock and we’re on a clock, so as long as I can get things synced up it became very easy in the edit suite to be able to just pick and choose what I wanted. So much of this type of film — going back to the story — is about transitions. How do you get in and out of a scene? That was always a key aspect for me.

Composer Matt Moore

My longest collaborator is my buddy Matt Moore. I’ve known him since we were kids and I utilize his music to keep me honest in the edit. He did a period score for this — primarily on a 1968 Moog synthesizer reissue. But he’s a guitarist by trade — though a multi-instrumentalist. He gave me this little guitar riff on ukulele actually.

HULLFISH: There’s a very high-tech Apollo 11 kind of instrument.

MILLER: (laughs) Right? I was just joking with him recently because even though he didn’t know this, I kept it as a muted track. If I ever got lost in the edit I would go back to that because it had a certain cadence to it that kind of kept me in the rhythm of the edit. It was always on the very bottom of the timeline and got me through a lot of those tough transitions.

HULLFISH: I saw a YouTube video about him creating the score. Was he always feeding you music throughout the production?

 

MILLER: Yeah. He does a lot of traditional scoring from iFilms. I’ll temp in stuff and give it to him and then he’ll blow my mind with something better. From the very beginning on this, he said he wanted to use instruments from the period. So he ordered this Moog synthesizer — and there were only twenty-five were made — these 1968 reissued Moogs. He didn’t know how to play it, but kind of like all of us on the team who saturated ourselves in the story, he saturated himself in the synthesized music of the 50s and 60s and just became a real super fan of it and just really got his masters degree on it. He’d deliver these hour-long Moog compositions which were terrifying at first but then just became this amazing way to work.

I could basically use all of an hour or two-hour long composition — which was very complex, very moving and had different layers to it, different time signatures — and I was able to structure scenes around it and that became the bedrock. And it was just a wonderful way to work, in fact, we said we’re always going to work this way in the future because it allowed me to really slow things down and play with it and I’m basically temping in the music of my composer. So if I gave specific notes at least he could go back and get it in the ballpark and layer in some things, but it was just a tremendous piece of work that he did. I was just so proud of him.

HULLFISH: You mentioned transitions and how important those were getting in and out of scenes. Could you talk to me a little bit about transitions and anything specific — a transition or two that you remember or were really proud of?

MILLER: I think a really good example of that would be during the lunar landing sequence. Initially, we didn’t want to have any music on it. And we cut the whole scene together and there was just something missing about it. When they landed I knew that I wanted everything to just go away. When you’re on the lunar surface you just enter into this entire existence of nothing. You are in the vacuum of space on the lunar, surface, much as how the astronauts experienced it. Initially, the landing had a very similar approach. It was all static and air-to-ground and a bunch of stuff from the on-boards. The transition between the two was tough. I thought it was going to be very easy, but to find exactly when that line was — which I thought was going to be the moment of touchdown. But as it turned out it wasn’t that easy. That’s not how it happened in real life. They landed and even though in the Lunar Module they knew they landed, mission control didn’t. They had telemetry that said that they did, but there were these tense moments — Did they make it? Did they not make it — and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had just an amazing amount of housekeeping to do. They’re turning off switches and calling out commands, so to try to transition that was tough. And then ultimately what we ended up doing was putting the music on the landing — which has actually become one of my favorite cues in the film.

Another transition was after they get back into lunar orbit and they have to light the candle home during the transearth injection maneuver that was a difficult one because we had a music cue initially that was dramatic, but it was really intense — intention-driven. The scene ends with Charlie Duke — the CAPCOM — throwing his arms up in the air and saying, “Hallelujah” once they acquired the signal and they know that the guys have the nose of the command module pointed home and it looks like everything’s going to be OK. They’re going to get out of lunar orbit and they’re going to get home safe. The music was not taking us into that feeling. So it was a very simple fix, though it took us a month to figure it out: we just had a simple drone that went from a very intense drone to a very melodic drone and it just fed right into that celebration that was going on in Mission Control. To get in and out of those scenes initially were difficult.

HULLFISH: When did you first start on the project — and you just mentioned that you’re still really still working on it now.

MILLER: I think most editors can relate to this story: We met with government officials who came up to see if Final Frame could be trusted with their priceless archival film and the owner of Final Frame turned to me and said, “If we wait six months we’ll be able to scan in 16K instead of 4K.” All these eyeballs went to me and I knew that that would lose me six months of editing. Because it was new technology there was no guarantee that they were actually going to be able to make it happen in six months. But it all worked out in the end. So we started at the tail end of 2017 and then because we really didn’t know what was on a lot of the large format footage, that was my first thing to rifle through. We prioritized reels based on descriptions and what little information we had. And I wanted to cut the entire film linearly, so we just dealt with everything that happened in the first few days of the mission. The minute that stuff got off the scanner it was immediately couriered over to me on hard drives and I would start cutting it right as things were coming off the scanner. I’d considered cutting at Final Frame, but it seemed like it was just going to be chaos over there with all of the footage coming in. So it was nice to just be in a dark room by myself and get a hard drive and just edit every day. It was really exciting with new things coming in every day.

HULLFISH: And what was your process as the stuff came in from Final Frame?

MILLER: The footage had dates, so if the can said July 16, 1969, that’s my Day One. Luckily, pretty much every single reel had a date. There was a lot that hit the cutting room floor. There were some large format things that were in the training. There was a world tour that happened. So when those things came — that weren’t a priority — I would certainly rifle through it to see if there was anything that we needed. Actually, the end credit sequence was kind of birthed by looking through all that material. So the funnel of data started with a master scanning sheet which was a shared file that the archivist at the National Archives had access to. The post supervisors at Final Frame and then our team as well. Our experts — like our archive producer in the UK — who worked remotely were able to organize all of that stuff and teed it up for me.

HULLFISH: I’m interested in this idea of scenes. Did you just completely go linearly? I remember one of the scenes in the movie was the astronauts were approaching the launch site at the same time there were technicians trying to take care of a leak.

MILLER: When the rocket takes off they say “tower clear” and at that moment the command of the mission shifts to Houston. But before that, it’s all down in Florida at Kennedy in the firing room. So there’s a director and hundreds of people that are all on these loops. Probably the most famous of them — and we were shocked when we heard him — because no one had heard his voice before, was Gunter Wendt was the pad commander who, in Apollo 13 Tom Hanks as he’s getting suited up jokingly says “I wonder where Gunter went?” We had footage of him and I couldn’t believe people didn’t utilize it, but our archive producer are on the back of one of these reels. We found a bunch of CCTV footage — that was part of his personal collection — of the Astro van going through the pad. NASA had these CCTV cameras located all over the launch pad and on the way to launch. I just thought it was a terrific little way to kind of showcase the journey of these guys going out to the pad. They get suited up. They get in this van and they get driven out and they sit on top of this rocket. Well, that entire journey was just fascinating to me from a psychological standpoint from the astronauts perspective. The weight of the entire world is on your shoulders, You drive eight miles out to this pad, then you’ve got to get into an elevator and go three hundred and thirty feet in the air and then go sit on top of this rocket that has been fired only a few times!

I kept a stat next to my edit suite that of all the manned and unmanned missions to the moon prior to 1969, only 48 percent of them were successful. So I’m sure that those guys didn’t know that. But I wanted to convey that during that sequence that this was not a foregone conclusion that it was going to be successful. So as we were looking through all of this footage, I’m seeing these guys in these hardhats working on this line and listening for hours to the public affairs officer at Kennedy — it was the voice of Jack Kane, who had this big, thick Queens New York accent, he was just a character. He was kind of a Harry Caray larger than life personality. He’s saying that there’s this hydrogen leak that’s happening, and he’s so nonchalant about it, saying, “Well, we’ve got a team coming out and they’re going to tighten some bolts around this hydrogen leak” and at the exact same time he’s describing the Astro van pulling up and the guys are getting on the elevator. So it just turned out we had the audio of it happening in real time and we also had this closed circuit television footage as well.

HULLFISH: And you used that as if it was CCTV footage, using multi-screen or split screen, right?

MILLER: Yeah. I was a fan of those early films that did cut down of parallel time — pre — Woodstock and the pre — Grand Prix style which the Francis Thompsons and the editor on that project that I mentioned before — To Be Alive — was Theo Kamecke and he went on to direct a classic — Moonwalk One — which documented the Apollo 11 mission and a lot of the footage that we are utilizing, he was directly responsible for. It was always in the back of my mind as we were working on that to tell that through the use of split-screen.

HULLFISH: When you were building those scenes did you pull it out of one of these nine-day sequences? Were you creating a timeline just for the scene?

MILLER: I just have a bin that says footage and within that bin are all the different sources of footage. I really don’t like to inundate myself with sequences. I have a very good memory when it comes to numbers and shots, so when the guys would send me the proxy files, they would reference the actual identifier of the reel. Usually, it would be a seven digit alpha-numeric, like 255 — PM28. And there were probably about 200 of those from the large format. I had that for the 65mm 5 — perf and then I would have one for 70mm 10-perf. And there were probably 100 more of those. And I would just memorize them. I just saturated myself with the footage and kind of memorized it at all. Then I had a bin for audio and that actually worked in our favor to use Premiere because Ben in Toronto — when he was syncing all the 30-track stuff, used Adobe Audition. He just found that that was an easy way to sync everything and it just naturally worked out that I could import export very easily within those Adobe products.

When the audio was digitized it was never synced up. So we had 11,000 hours — one clip would be an hour, another clip would be three hours, and another would be 10 minutes and you didn’t know what day it was — you didn’t know anything. So he worked a grad student in Germany who had developed an algorithm to look at waveforms and luckily they did have a timecode carrier on the first strike so they could look at that, but they basically thumb-printed this off-carrier signal. We also needed pitch control, all this interleaving, there was hum that was introduced during the recording. We wanted to time-re-map it so it was synced exactly to the mission clock. He did all of that within Audition, and then we got a project file for each individual day and each individual tape itself. So the 30 tracks I believe were on 9 tapes representing each day. They were 1” tapes with 30 tracks. NASA only built two of these machines and one was built to service the other one in case it broke.

So they actually had these custom Soundscriber playback heads to be able to digitize all of it. It took years and years and years from the team at the University of Texas in Dallas. But when I got the Adobe Audition project from Ben, at any given time there would be 60 tracks that you could on-off, so I could listen to exactly who was talking at any given time. If a retro guy was talking to a back-room technician I could easily solo those two tracks and just listen to their conversations. There was a scene that hit the cutting room floor — that’ll be on the DVD extras — with a 25-year-old female that just popped up on a 30 track — which was so rare — it’s usually all these white crusty old men that are talking. She just comes on and is this very vibrant mathematician and it turns out she had this really important job. They asked her to run their math on the return trajectories which were off, and she basically stopped short of calling them a bunch of dummies, but in the span of five minutes just basically spits out all this math at them and why their numbers are wrong. And she became a flight controller that sat in the front room eventually during the Apollo missions. On 13 she was right there. Her name is Francis Northcut. They call her Poppy. It was a great little side story. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any footage of her. so we couldn’t really utilize her in the film. It just goes to show you the power of discovering little hidden things like that.

HULLFISH: What were you doing to get down to the story that you ended up telling from this massive archive of materials? What were some of your guiding principles for making those determinations of  “This is going to make it and this isn’t?”

MILLER: I just wanted to see a movie that I wanted to see — that I really hadn’t seen depicted. I wanted it to be visually engaging — which certainly with the discovery of the large format material it was going to be. What are all those hidden moments that elicit emotional responses in people that can connect with this? I didn’t want it to be just about the astronauts. There were so many people involved. One of the things that always got me was — the last broadcast from space, and they did it all the time, was that the astronauts thanked all of the people that got them that far. Not just the people in mission control, but all the people that built the spacecraft. Hundreds of thousands of people. I wanted to do that in a way that could acknowledge those people without necessarily showing them. You realize that everyone that was in mission control working around the clock to make it a success — it was hundreds of people. So I think that combined with just seeing unique things. We scanned this image of a beautiful woman in the firing room and I just wondered, “Where did she come from?” Her name was Joanne Morgan.

She was the only female there that first time for Apollo 11. We didn’t have any audio but we had stunning visuals of her. Another was an African-American gentleman that was always shown in the front room of Mission Control. I’d seen him in other films, and I was trying to figure out where he sits because it doesn’t look familiar. It turns out he had this important job is more important than sitting in the front room. He was in charge of monitoring solar flares. The astronauts would give their radiation levels as they were traveling to the moon and it was his job to jot those down and also monitor our satellites around the earth that was monitoring the sun and if there was major solar flare activity they could alert the spacecraft and take evasive action. So we got to design a little scene around that. Also just going back to all the main things that happened during the mission. Just trying to stay on point with where you were in the mission in all those big moments.

HULLFISH: There’s also great stuff outside of NASA, of all of the spectators out on the beach in their RVs and on top of their station wagons and a great sequence of all of the VIP stands and Johnny Carson and famous people walking around.

MILLER: It was incredible. We had this great footage 8mm footage of Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon and Isaac Asimov and they’re all in a private jet, and they get to Kennedy — they’re having a good time — but just like everybody else, they got to get on the bus to go out to the pad. Even though you’re in the VIP section you kind of became a part of everyone else. Initially, we had started the film with that before we got access to all of the large format stuff. But you realize what a monumental time in history it was too, with Vietnam and the civil rights movement going on. There were protests happening down at the pad. You mentioned the RVs on the beach. This was happening in July and there was this endless fleet of VW buses which probably traveled up I-95 afterward and went to Woodstock a month later in August.

HULLFISH: It’s really interesting to me that there was a process of starting this movie with 8mm footage of Johnny Carson and then you realize, “We’ve got this incredible shot of the Saturn 5 rocket being rolled on the treaded transport.” You just have to adapt, right? You have to be open to saying, “We’ve got a better way now. We thought we had the right way before but now we have a better way.”.

MILLER: Yeah. That’s the beauty of documentary and working with archival materials is to keep yourself open to the possibility that something out there might be better. I thought for sure we had the blueprint down of how we were going to do it. I had everything down to the minute. I knew that film was going to be ninety-six minutes back in the winter of 2017 then that all gets thrown out the window. But if you put yourself in a position to be open to that, you can make really good films.

HULLFISH: Do you think that’s one of your primary skills or talents — that ability to stay open to new material, new methods?

MILLER: Yeah I think so. I’ve been very lucky in my career. I’m not an old man but I’m not a young either. To see the transition of different technologies and different things. I’m proud to say my last two films that even though we’ve deployed some newer technologies — particularly on this one to deal with the large format footage — we kind of pride ourselves on using old school things. The beauty of working with the team at Final Frame and also IMAX is developing some newer systems where you can shoot on large format films or even large format digital and it’s not so inaccessible. We’re working on some things that are going to be exciting for a lot of filmmakers to be able to utilize — some newer stuff where you don’t need 20 million dollars to make one of these types of films. You can do it where it’s economically feasible.

HULLFISH: When you were looking at all this gorgeous large format scanned film, were you viewing it in 4K in your NLE? What kind of monitor were you using in your cutting room?

MILLER: Everything was 4K. In the Nucoda room doing the DI, that was all 8K. Another amazing part of the project was being able to test so much down at Smithsonian’s Air and Space IMAX screen. I put together the first 5 minutes of the film and we got to go down there and test. Then when I had the first 30 minutes we got to show it to the astronauts and their families. And that was certainly a wonderful way to work.

HULLFISH: When you were viewing in your home, you were viewing 4K?

MILLER: At home, my system was actually a MacBook Pro, so I would have half resolution but when I was at the office, I was full resolution multiple tracks within Premiere on a Mac trashcan.

HULLFISH
I really appreciate you filling us in on this fascinating project. Thank you so much for the time.

MILLER: Ok thanks. Bye.

Art of the Cut book cover
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

This interview will also be available as a podcast soon on anchor.fm.

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.