Youth Without Youth

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It was 1968 when fellow film student George Lucas first introduced Walter Murch to Francis Ford Coppola. The trio was invited to a demo of the new CMX600 nonlinear editing system. This early computer workstation was the precursor to modern NLEs, but could only handle several minutes worth of black-and-white footage. In spite of that, they had seen the future and boldly predicted this device would sweep the industry in five years. That proved to be off the mark, of course. Nevertheless, this chance meeting sealed a relationship that would last for decades – leading Coppola to give Murch his start in feature film editing, first as a sound editor and mixer on The Rain People and later as a picture editor for The Conversation. Fast forward nearly forty years to find Coppola and Murch united again on Youth Without Youth – Francis Ford Coppola’s first film in ten years.

 

Coppola wrote, produced and directed Youth Without Youth, adapting the screenplay from a novella by legendary Romanian author Mircea Eliade. The film stars Tim Roth as Dominic Matei, an elderly professor whose mysterious rejuvenation heightens his intelligence and whose apparent immortality makes him a target for the Nazis in this World War II-era parable. Coppola characterized the film as “a love story wrapped in a mystery.” Sony Pictures Classics has picked up distribution for fall, so pre-release information is tight; but Walter Murch was willing to add that, “It’s a little bit of Faust meets Dorian Gray.” The film also stars Alexandra Maria Lara, Bruno Ganz, Andre M. Hennicke, Marcel Iures and introduces Alexandra Pirici.

 

Taking the Digital Route

 

Walter Murch spoke on the project’s unique workflow at this year’s NAB Final Cut Pro Users Group SuperMeet and was kind enough to elaborate more about it with me recently. When you think of Coppola or Murch and the big-budget films they’ve done together or separately, such as The Godfather series, Apocalypse Now, Cold Mountain or Jarhead, it’s hard to fathom that the approach taken on Youth Without Youth provides a perfect roadmap for the indie filmmaker determined to use desktop tools to tell the story. Youth Without Youth is an almost total digital production – Coppola’s first. Certain material was captured on 35mm for various reasons – speed variation, three-camera setups, etc. –  but it appears that working digitally turned out to be so creatively and technically satisfying that the director has vowed never to shoot a motion picture on film stock again.

 

Francis Ford Coppola financed the production himself for a limited budget – under ten million dollars – so it became important to own or control as much of the process as possible. The digital parts of Youth Without Youth were shot with Coppola’s two Sony F900 CineAlta camcorders, which in turn were fed to an HDCAM-SR field recorder. The onboard HDCAM recorders of the F900 cameras actually record the 1920×1080 HD signal with a sampling of 1440×1080 pixels in 3:1:1 color space. By sending the uncompressed, full raster 4:2:2 signal from the camera to the SR recorder, the team was able to preserve more of the camera’s inherent image quality. In addition, the SR deck features the unique ability to record two simultaneous 4:2:2 A and B camera inputs onto a single tape. These recordings became the equivalent of the film negative and were used for the final digital intermediate. The onboard HDCAM tapes were used as back-up tapes for reviewing footage and to create DVCAM copies for ingest into the Final Cut Pro editing station.

 

The Villa

 

Production started in Bucharest in October of 2005 with the Coppola team working out of a rented Romanian villa that served as a combination of production offices, post and living quarters. At the time, Murch was wrapping up the mix on Jarhead, so the initial assembly of Youth Without Youth was handled by Romanian editor Corina Stavila and her assistant, Andrei Dascalescu, working on a single Final Cut Pro station with media in DVCAM resolution. Coppola shot a total of 162 hours, which is the equivalent of nearly 900,000 feet of 35mm film, so the first assembly came in at about 3 and a half hours long. Stavila and Coppola’s next cut brought that down to 2 hours and 50 minutes, and this version was up-rezzed to HDCAM by Dascalescu. Murch joined the team in April 2006, along with Sean Cullen, long time first assistant and associate editor; Kevin Bailey, a post-production intern; and Pete Horner, sound designer and rerecording mixer with whom Murch had worked on Apocalypse Redux. The HDCAM version was screened at 2K resolution on a Christie digital cinema projector and at that point there was a collective sigh of relief as everyone was encouraged by the crisp and striking images on the fifty-foot wide screen.

 

Over the next few months, Murch set about the task of reviewing the dailies and recutting the film. His initial version trimmed a further 30 minutes (including restoring ten minutes of scenes that had been cut); however, the target was to bring in the film at two hours. Murch offered this rule-of-thumb, “I have found you can only cut out about 30% from a first assembly by tightening. If that gets you down to the target length, then every scene in the assembly is going to be in the finished film. But if the film has to be even shorter, you can’t just use ‘dieting and exercise.’ You have to start making more drastic surgical changes and lose some major parts of the film. Francis is a process-oriented director. He has a powerful overall vision of what he wants, but welcomes experimentation and collaboration and loves to see the film continue to reveal itself through all stages of the filmmaking process. So he encouraged us to try dropping scenes and rearranging the structure where it seemed appropriate.”

 

Vertical Editing

 

One of the advantages that Murch found to the digital image was a greater ability to manipulate it when compared with film. “Film has grain that’s fixed in size at the molecular level, but pixels are different. When you magnify a digitally-sourced image, pixels are recalculated and averaged mathematically, so the image stays sharper longer. You don’t have grain getting in the way and shots can be blown up far more than with film.  The rule of thumb with 35mm is that the grain starts to become obvious when the image is blown up more than 20%. Some shots in Youth Without Youth, however, were resized more than 120% with no visible artifacts. Arranging shots along a timeline would be considered horizontal editing, so I guess you could call this vertical editing: editing the image within the frame. Francis deliberately shot most of this film with locked-off cameras, limiting camera movement to specific moments for maximum impact. So sometimes, I would need to adjust a shot for headroom, but we also modified framing in cinematically playful ways. About a third of the shots had something done to them in post as part of the storytelling language. I was slightly apprehensive before I started doing this, thinking that it might become a time-suck, but it was quickly obvious that Final Cut Pro could handle this kind of work effortlessly, and it became second-nature. We were very lucky to have Kevin with us, because he turned out to be a whiz with Shake. The film has about 200 effects shots. Most of them were done by UPP, a great effects house in Prague, but 60 shots were done in-house by Kevin. These included getting rid of non-period artifacts, dust-busting, invisible split-screens and some blue-screen compositing.” In September, Murch worked with Coppola in Bucharest to get the cut down to two hours and a lock.

 

The in-house approach carried through to finishing, as well. Sean Cullen picked up the story, “We did all the final up-rezzing in-house. When it came time to conform the SR tapes, though, we found that their timecode wasn’t frame-accurate with the HDCAM tapes, since the deck and the cameras hadn’t been fed from an independent master timecode generator. Many shots were up to three frames out, so we recaptured with handles and then eye-matched every shot to align the SR footage with the locked cut. Once this full-resolution footage was matched, we used Shake to generate DPX files from the FCP QuickTime movies and these were sent to Laser Pacific, our DI facility. The DPX image sequences were for complete scenes and not just individual shots, so we were taking complete responsibility for the accuracy of the conform.”

 

Sound also followed an unorthodox process. Sound designer Pete Horner flew Coppola’s Digidesign ICON console (last used on Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette) to Bucharest where he did the predub mixes in a specially-constructed room at Coppola’s villa. The concept of flying a film console halfway around the world and expecting it to work the day after it arrived would have been unthinkable in the days of analog behemoths, like SSL, Neve or Harrison film mixing desks; however, the ICON is a physically small but digitally powerful 128-input control surface that functions as the front-end for a Pro Tools workstation. It doesn’t have any audio signal going through it. As such, it’s robust and portable. Music for the film, composed by Osvaldo Golijov, was recorded in Bucharest and the soundtrack album was also mixed by Pete Horner on the same ICON board.

 

Walter Murch’s Thoughts on the Role of the Editor

 

According to Murch, the term editing is inadequate to describe today’s processes, preferring instead the French word montage – which implies the constructive aspects of the job. Murch said, “Film editing consists of three integrated parts: plumbing, performance and writing. These are all dependent on each other. Plumbing is the workflow – knowing how to get the media into and out of ever-more-complicated systems in the quickest and most reliable way possible. Then there’s performance: the editor has to respond artistically to the internal rhythms of the material and to extend and develop those rhythms further in actually constructing the film. The impulse that reveals when it’s the precise moment to make a cut is exactly like a drummer hitting a cymbal or a violinist plucking a string at the right time. Finally there is writing. The nature of film is ‘abundance’ and as a result you have to be creatively selective – on Youth Without Youth our shoot-to-final-film ratio was 80:1. This process of creative compression is like writing, but using the only vocabulary an editor has at hand – sounds and images. Which shot should follow which, like constructing a sentence. Then looking at the whole and deliberating about whether scenes, once constructed, are in the correct order or even ultimately necessary to the film.” 

 

Digital production, simultaneous SR recording and DI-ready output from an inexpensive desktop system might sound like bleeding edge technology, but lessons learned on Youth Without Youth will prove invaluable for filmmakers at any budget level for years to come. Francis Ford Coppola has been a pioneer in applying video technologies to filmmaking, but this latest effort shows that desktop solutions are finally reaching the potential that was first hinted at nearly four decades ago.

 

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

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