Interview with Hot Fuzz editor, Chris Dickens

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One of the surprise early summer hits is Rogue Pictures’ Hot Fuzz, a who-done-it spoof of police action/buddies films, like Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys. It’s brought to you by the same team responsible for the cult classic Shaun of the Dead and stars co-writer Simon Pegg as Sergeant Nicholas Angel. His London colleagues at the Metropolitan Police think Angel’s stellar arrest record is making them look bad, so Angel gets “promoted” to a sleepy village in rural England. That’s when the fun begins. Part action film, part comedy, director/co-writer Edgar Wright used Tony Scott’s films, such as Domino and Man On Fire, for stylistic inspiration.

 

Chris Dickens, the film’s editor is key to this visual style. Dickens graduated from the Bournemouth Film School in 1990 and started his career as a film and linear editing assistant in television documentaries at Channel 4 and the BBC in Britain. He got his early editing break by cutting comedies and later moved on to dramas. While working on the TV series Spaced, Dickens hooked up with writer/director Edgar Wright and went on to edit his first feature film, Shaun of the Dead (released in 2004). Other features include Goal!, Gone and Seed of Chucky.

 

Paying Attention To Sound

 

I had a chance to watch the film in the theaters to prep for this story and was impressed by the degree of cutting and sound design. This seemed like a natural start to my conversation with Chris Dickens, the film’s editor. He explained, “Hot Fuzz used sound in a very stylized way, because it is a comedy. I initially did a lot of sound editing when I started in the business, so sound has been very important to me. Of course, it is fifty percent of any feature. In Hot Fuzz, we used a lot of whooshes and other elements to help pay off the jokes. This would certainly be over the top for a drama, but Edgar [Wright, the director] and I both saw this in the same way; so, I built up the soundtracks to create a sense of heightened realism – to be like a super-hero film. Then the sound editors took that to the next level. When you work with sound, you have to think about what works for the picture and how to manipulate the audience’s emotions. I love to intertwine music and sound effects to create a ‘soup’ that is very atmospheric – so you can’t tell the difference between the music and the effects.”

 

The Tony Scott influence is clearly seen in the pacing of Hot Fuzz. I was amazed to learn that there were over 5,500 cuts in the film! Chris continued, “Edgar wanted a fast-paced style to mimic action films. There are quite a lot of cuts in some sections to create transitional elements and to show police procedure. A hand-cranked camera was used for some of our mug shot montages. This naturally created a lot of flash frames, so in many of these sequences I edited together a series of flashes as part of a transition or interlude scene. A lot of the cuts are nearly invisible and others are intentional, such as jump cuts. We wanted the cutting at times to draw attention to itself. There are also other invisible things, like hidden split screens in a shot to pick up the pace within that shot.”

 

Universal Themes

 

The film is as action-packed as any thriller, but you can’t ignore the fact that it fits the mold of many classic British comedies. I wondered if Hot Fuzz had set out to deliberately be Pythonesque. Or does it just seem that way to Americans? According to Dickens, “No, we weren’t trying to mimic other comedies, just the action films. British humor certainly has a style that the rest of the world recognizes. English comedy is very distinctive because we have a sense of our own ridiculousness. The film was intended to be quirky, but at the same time it has a universal nature. Sergeant Nicholas Angel is the man who is taken from the sophisticated city and dropped in the middle of the ‘sticks’, where he has trouble fitting in and even understanding the language. The story is set in England, but I’m sure the same would be true if it were a New York City police officer dropped into the Deep South in the US. There a universality that works in any country.”

 

Making It Work

 

Production ran from March until July of last year. Dickens joined the project during the production phase and had a locked picture by December 2006. “We followed a fairly typical workflow,” explained Dickens. “The film was shot on Super 35mm [2.35:1 aspect ratio] film with the intent to do a digital intermediate. Something this intensive couldn’t really have been done by cutting the negative and the norm these days is to do Super 35 as a DI anyway. Technicolor London did the processing and Midnight Transfer telecined the dailies to HD and DVCAM. We used the DVCAM tapes for editing and the HD footage was used by Double Negative [the visual effects house] and for preview screenings. Working Title, the studio, wanted to see a first assembly about a week after the production wrapped. At this point the film was two-and-a-half hours long, so we needed to cut out thirty minutes. Edgar and I took fourteen weeks to get to a director’s cut and had a very tight film by the first screening. Very little actually changed between this time and the locked picture. It was mainly tightening and refining. People are very obsessed with the length of a picture. If you concentrate on making things work – picking up the pacing and making sure the jokes pay off – then the length takes care of itself. When everything feels right, you have the impression that the film is shorter.”

 

Edgar Wright is a very hands-on director who stayed involved in the edit, so I wondered if a lot was rearranged during post. According to Chris, “Hot Fuzz is really Bad Boys II meets The Office meets Agatha Christie meets The Wicker Man. It’s a linear who-done-it, so you can’t really change the script very much during editing or it won’t make sense. Edgar shoots for the edit, with two and three cameras at times, lots of angles and various styles. He likes to try out different things and often this only makes sense once you actually cut the shots together. Our editorial team used four Avid Media Composer Adrenaline systems connected to Unity shared storage. Jonathan Amos, my associate editor, would be cutting some sequences for me in one room while I was cutting in another. Tina [Catriona Richardson, first assistant editor] was editing sound effects for me in the third room, while the fourth Avid was used by Steve Mercer, our visual effects editor. Edgar would bounce back and forth among the rooms. He liked the interludes between scenes, such as in one sequence when the police are pulling guns out of their lock-up that leads into the next scene. To make these interludes work, I needed more close-ups and inserts than what had originally been filmed, so there were a few extra days of second unit photography. These were the main items added as a result of editing.”

 

More Than Color Grading

 

Hot Fuzz went through a digital intermediate process. “Framestore in London did the film scanning and DI. We were running two rooms for about three to four weeks. Double Negative did our visual effects and they were very involved from the beginning, but many elements were added during the grade. For example, a lot of the sparks and bullet hits were added during our DI at Framestore. They used the Baselight system, so our DI sessions were a combination of visual effects and color grading. This was going on while the mix was proceeding on the dub stage, so Edgar, Jess Hall [the director of photography] and I worked in shifts. In the morning we’d review work done at Framestore and then in the evening move to the dub stage to supervise the mix.” Hot Fuzz had a budget of under $20 million, but it looks like a lot more on screen. Chris added, “I doubt you could normally do this kind of film for the budget. We had a lot of good deals from all the folks. They had the time and it was a labor of love for many of them. Our composer, David Arnold, was even able to record for several days with a full orchestra at Air Studios. Having a full orchestral score in a film of this budget really helps to bring everything up a notch.”

 

Although Dickens is still young, his career spans film, linear and nonlinear editing, so I was interested in his perspective on the technology. “The only other NLE I’ve used at this level is Lightworks. I like the Avid, but it really has an interface designed for typing, so I find myself ‘fiddling about’ with the interface more than I should. Lightworks is strictly focused on the ergonomics of cutting. I use a lot of sound tracks when I edit, so I wish that the Avid Adrenaline had more sophisticated audio tools. We also experienced some slowdowns on the system because our project was so large; but, I find that if the equipment basically does its job, you’ll find a way to make it work. In our case, we had four systems connected to shared storage so that Jon, the assistants and I could all work on different scenes and assemblies as the schedule dictated. It’s hard to envision doing this on another system. Of course, the most important thing to me is how to best tell the story. Feature film cutting doesn’t really require a lot of effects and Lightworks was so good because it focused on storytelling. On the other hand, directors are the ones that really expect more out of edit systems these days. They really expect the sort of features included in an Avid or similar systems so that they can mock up more visual effects. Editors have to learn how to use more of these tools to satisfy the directors.”

 

Whether your movie tastes are for comedies or action thrillers, Hot Fuzz offers a bit of each. Students of film will certainly recognize the work that’s gone into this one. If you study film editing technique, you won’t be disappointed by taking a break to check out Dickens’ latest work.

 

Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)

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