Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

blg_chrislebenzon_timburton.jpg

 

One can certainly say that director Tim Burton’s choices for films have been anything but run-of-the-mill. Even standard stories receive a creative treatment unlike that of any other director. Films like Big Fish, Corpse Bride, Ed Wood and Beetlejuice are just a few examples that have become classics in the vocabulary of students of the filmmaking arts. It’s fitting that Burton should have been tapped to bring his Gothic imagination to the beloved and acclaimed Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

 

This newest film adaptation is based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, but the story has its roots in London of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Although many believe there may have been a real Todd in the late 1700s who was responsible for 160 murders, most trace the legend back to a serialized real-crime magazine story in 1846 by Thomas Peckett Prest, entitled The String of Pearls. Whether truth of fiction, Sondheim’s version of the tale has been the most recent to bring this combination of horror and love story to an audience. It opened on Broadway in 1979, starring Len Cariou as  Sweeney Todd and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett. The concept of Sondheim’s Todd is bloody and terrifying, with a score more cinematic than typical musicals. It was inspired by the work of legendary soundtrack composer and Hitchcock favorite, Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, The Birds).

 

Now an even wider audience gets a chance to experience the film, as Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd) and Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Lovett) take a turn at making these roles their own. This is, in fact, the sixth screen collaboration between Burton and Depp, the most recent since Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Depp, of course, is known for bringing his own unique talents and characterizations to every role he plays, such as the swash-buckling Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Depp isn’t alone in Sweeney Todd, as the film combines a rather unique mix of actors known for their chameleon-like personifications, including Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) as Pirelli, a rival barber, Helena Bonham Carter (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Fight Club) as Mrs. Lovett and Alan Rickman (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Perfume, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) as Judge Turpin, the focal point of Todd’s lust for revenge.

 

Repeat Performances

 

The collaboration of Burton and Depp are obvious to the general audience, but others exist on this project, as well, including between Burton and the film’s editor, Chris Lebenzon, A.C.E. This is their tenth film together, including such notables at Batman Returns and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. As eclectic as Burton’s mix of films are, Lebenzon has also cut his share of action blockbusters working with producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Pearl Harbor, Crimson Tide, Top Gun) as well as directors Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor, Armageddon) and Tony Scott (Déjà Vu). Sweeney Todd is different than any of these genres because it’s a musical and that poses different challenges for any editor.

 

Chris Lebenzon contrasted this film’s structure with his past projects. “Sweeney Todd is really a simple story about a man seeking revenge, which is balanced by the love story of Mrs. Lovett’s affection for Todd. It’s not a musical in the style of a film like Chicago or Dreamgirls. There are no big song-and-dance numbers. In fact, throughout most of the film, only one or two characters are ever singing together in the same song. The story is told through the singing, so the lyrics become part of the film’s dialogue. As an editor, I had to concentrate on the beauty of the storytelling. It’s not the type of film that needs a lot of scene rearrangement to create the best story arc. That roadmap has already been created by the stage play. We come to learn the points of the story in a basic three act structure. Although it is a simple story, it’s told in a complicated way through the lyrics. You have to be careful as an editor to make sure these are easily understood and not get too flashy in your cutting style, so that you don’t take away from the audience’s ability to understand what’s going on.”

 

Working With The Music

 

The production style was a lot like filming and posting a music video. The actors recorded their songs ahead of time and then sang to playback tracks on set. Since the total length of the songs largely determined the length of the film, Sweeney Todd didn’t require the sort of editorial tightening that becomes a challenge for most dramatic films. Lebenzon elaborated, “I was on the project during the production at Pinewood Studios is England, working in tandem with the filming. At times, Tim would need to shorten or lengthen a song to enhance the drama of a scene, which might include adding or removing a few bars of music. Michael Higham [music producer/supervising music editor] and I would make these musical edits for the playback on set. Occasionally I’d speed up or slow down the music slightly to match the drama. We didn’t want to change the drama to match the track, but rather let the acting take precedence. Later the final version would be scored to reflect these changes. Sync was a challenge in performance, since there were lots of takes. I’d often have to slide shots to adjust for better lipsync to the track. Since I was cutting in tandem with the filming schedule, Tim would review my cuts on a Saturday and make adjustments the following week based on this stage in the film. I didn’t have to adjust a lot for overall cinematic pacing, because each song really has a pace of its own.”

 

If you count Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride and Nightmare Before Christmas this is Lebenzon’s fourth film with musical performances. Lebenzon pointed out some of his challenges. “My biggest concern was how to get into and out of each song. They had to transition from the natural dialogue and not just stick out as a song that had been dropped into the middle of a scene. To do this I used the best coverage to create a natural flow to the scene. Usually I’d edit the song first and then work backwards to get from the preceding dialogue of the scene into that song. I also had to build up the appropriate mood. This isn’t a big sound effects movie like a Bruckheimer film, so I worked up some temp backgrounds for Tim, as well as used score elements under dialogue lines to create the proper mood leading into and out of the songs.”

 

Handling The Post

 

Sweeney Todd was filmed in 35mm and although three studios were involved (Warner Bros., Paramount and DreamWorks), no film dailies were ever screened and the film didn’t go through any official preview audience screenings. (The director of photography, Dariusz Wolski, had done extensive tests in pre-production to establish a look.) The negative was transferred to HD-D5 and ingested into Avid systems at a standard definition resolution for cutting.

 

Chris and I spoke a bit on his experience in using modern nonlinear edit systems. Chris said, “I cut the film on Avid systems in London. I love Avids for what I do and have only cut on them, but I’m most comfortable with the older Meridien systems, because they feel more responsive to me than the newer [Avid Media Composer] Adrenalines. We did also had Adrenalines in our mix of cutting rooms, which were used to do an HD conform of my cut for internal screenings. Media Composer systems have the advantage of being able to track several different timecode signals. Since all the performance takes were based on a common playback track of the song, the assistants were able to load the dailies, including the timecode of the corresponding playback track for the song. This enabled me to quickly match different takes against each other at the same point in a song, using that timecode for reference.”

 

Some initial color grading was performed using the Avid systems to get a 12 minute clip of Sweeney Todd ready for the Venice Film Festival. Lebenzon continued, “As an editor, you never had to deal with color correction, but now people expect it. For the final theatrical release, though, the film has gone through the digital intermediate process with Stefan Sonnenfeld of Company 3 handling the final color grading of the film. Tim went for a look that’s dark and desaturated, except that certain colors are accentuated. Specifically the red of the blood and in the frill on Mrs. Lovitt’s dress.  And we kept Sacha Baron Cohen’s introduction scene brighter, in keeping with the comedic tone of the scene. Another advantage of modern systems is how they handle visual effects. On Déjà Vu we sent a lot of simpler effects, like blue screens and set extensions, to [Adobe] After Effects. One of the assistants was really a whiz at it – saving us $60,000.”

 

Working with Tim Burton has proved to be a good experience for Lebenzon. “I’ve probably worked more closely with Tim on this film than any others. He makes quick decisions, which was good on this film. You have to consider this a low budget production by major studios standards, given the nature of the subject matter – an R-rated musical horror film. There were no reshoots needed and since I had been cutting on the same schedule as the filming, I was only about three set-ups behind when the film wrapped. I was able to do this by starting the cut of a scene using the video assist tapes and then replace those shots when I received the transferred footage. Since Tim was very involved in the cutting room during the production, nothing was a surprise to him as we finished the cut. Tim took the usual ten weeks to get a director’s cut and then a couple of more weeks to address notes from the studios and Stephen Sondheim. In fact, Tim’s biggest concern was that Sondheim would be happy with the effort. He was thrilled.”

 

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has opened to wide theatrical release just in time for the holiday film season. Audiences are bound to be enthralled by this newest telling of a tragic story of love, revenge and meat pieces in a style that only Tim Burton can bring to the screen.

 

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

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down A Dream

blg_petty.jpg

Epic documentaries about iconic personalities invariably take longer to post than first anticipated. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down A Dream certainly became a prime example. What started out as potentially a fifteen week project ended up taking nearly two years of editor Mary Ann McClure’s time. Like many a good documentary, Runnin’ Down A Dream benefited from a wealth of rich content that few had ever seen. Her journey started in Tom Petty’s vault searching through thousands of hours of archival footage related to Petty’s career. A short while later, famed director Peter Bogdanovich was brought in to direct the documentary – handling the new interviews and shaping the entire project. According to McClure, “One of Tom Petty’s producers, George Drakoulias knew Peter and felt that he had a good feeling for southern stories, based on how he handled The Last Picture Show. It was George who brought Peter to Warner Brothers. Before this project, Peter hadn’t been familiar with Tom Petty’s career. He’s more from the Frank Sinatra era. So, the first thing we did was assemble a lot of the archival footage so that Peter could assess the material. Then he started to get a sense of how much of an icon Petty is to people.”

 

McClure pulled from thousands of hours of content in a range of formats to build Runnin’ Down A Dream. Much of the footage was on one-inch videotape, which was transferred to DVCAM and Digital Betacam or Betacam SP for the edit. The DVCAM with burned-in timecode was the offline editing source while the Digital Betacam and Betacam SP tapes were vaulted until the time for online editing. This footage contained a mix of old TV show appearances, raw multi-camera iso reels from concerts and a lot of home movies. One lucky source was Ron Blair, Petty’s bass player. Blair, an amateur filmmaker, had shot a lot of Super 8MM film during the early part of Petty’s career, which has never been seen by the general public. Of course, Petty had hundreds of photo binders with thousands of personal photographs. These were also all scanned for use in the documentary and carefully catalogued so the editors could track these files through the various stages of post. Finally, new footage, especially the interviews, was shot in high-def. 

 

Organization

 

The only way to tackle a job like this is one section at a time and Runnin’ Down A Dream is no exception. McClure elaborated on her approach, “ I decided to organize this film chronologically, based around the events in Tom’s life. I’d refer to these as pods. So, for instance, one pod might be centered on Mudcrutch – Tom’s band before the Heartbreakers. As we found new content or statements that applied to a section, it would be added to the appropriate pod. I used to cut on film and also on Lightworks, so I prefer to use [Apple’s] Final Cut Pro, because it feels more like a film-editing tool to me. One helpful aspect of Final Cut is that you can work with multiple project files at the same time and don’t have to organize everything into a single project. These pods became individual Final Cut Pro project files, which were essentially selects for that subject matter. I had hundreds of different project files corresponding to the pods. That’s the only way to break this down, because trying to do it all in a single project file would have become too unwieldy.”

 

Post for the documentary was set up at Burbank’s Alphadogs. McClure said, “I was looking for a comfortable environment in Burbank that would be convenient for Tom and Peter. It needed to be professional, but more of a boutique. I wanted someone I could trust technically to cover us if there were any problems. In the end we were there for over a year and at every turn [Alphadogs president] Terence Curren and his a staff were there to help when any issues came up.” By the time the project was done, three cutting rooms were in full swing. McClure preferred to work out of her office in Santa Barbara, operating in tandem with assistant editor Sean Stack at Alphadogs. Stack aided in the editorial process by being available to search through footage.

 

Final Cut Pro timeline sequences were shared between the two via FTP and e-mail. Stack explained, “Finding the right photo for coverage was part of our process and the JPEGs were easy to email along with the FCP project sequence. To save time, I applied a push-in, pull-out or pan to the photo already dropped into a sequence. In Santa Barbara, Mary Ann could quickly shuttle through the sequence, see the pictures with these various moves applied and then easily trim and cut-and-paste her favorite into the working timeline.”

 

Telling The Story

 

Halfway through the post schedule, Jeffrey Doe was added as the second editor. McClure said, “It started to become clear that in order to meet our delivery schedule, one editor just wasn’t going to get through all this material. So, we split up the chronology. I handled the first half up to and including the Damn The Torpedoes album – around 1981 – and Jeff covered the time span after that, based on the pods [selected footage] I had already organized. Generally we worked alone, with Peter and Tom reviewing the cuts every so often. There was a good relationship with Warner Brothers, but the heat was definitely on. Towards the end, I came down nearly every day from Santa Barbara to work with Tom and Peter to get a locked cut.”

 

The final film is four hours long. It was distributed with a limited theatrical release as well as telecast on the Sundance Channel, but the real target is the DVD market. Did the four hour length create any resistance? Mary Ann responded, “In the beginning everyone was pushing for a two hour film, including me. But there was just so much to include and Tom is such a great storyteller. We didn’t want to string together a number of short clips and create yet another Behind The Music. Our interviews weave the story together instead of a ‘voice of God’ narrator, so even at four hours, the show moves along and is entertaining. When it got down to deciding on which pieces to drop in order to shorten the film, there just wasn’t any large section that everyone really felt like losing. It’s not like you could simply skip over Petty’s solo career or his legal battles with the record company or his time with the Traveling Willbourys. Our original cut actually came in at five hours, but we were able to trim an hour through tightening – literally cutting out frames here and there in sections.”

 

Pushing The Envelope

 

The task of online finishing of Runnin’ Down A Dream fell to the editorial team at Alphadogs, including editor Danica Barnes and assistant editor Sean Stack. The length and complexity of this project meant an almost four week long online session. Alphadogs owns about ten bays split between Avid systems and Apple Final Cut Pro, so generally the offline edit solution will dictate which workflow is used for finishing: Avid Symphonies for Media Composer offlines and Apple Final Cut Pro with AJA Kona cards for Final Cut offlines. In this case, that logically meant a Final Cut Pro finish. The documentary was mastered to HDCAM-SR, so all archival NTSC footage had to be rescaled to high-def. It was upconverted in a pillarbox format (black edges on the sides) using the built-in features of the AJA Kona 3 capture card, with the remaining percentage of “blow up” being handled by Final Cut’s own software resizing controls.

 

Nothing is ever as easy as it seems, though, and the Alphadogs team hit some issues when using Apple’s new ProRes 4:2:2 compressed HD codec. According to Stack, “The really large still photo files caused the system to choke and corrupt some of the ProRes renders, so in the end I completed the photo moves on a separate system. There are about 350 stills in the final piece. I would take these into [Adobe] Photoshop for cropping and clean-up. Then I’d bring these into Final Cut and do the camera-style moves, but render to the uncompressed 8-bit HD codec. This rendered media would then be available to Danica over our shared storage network, so she could drop my files back into the ProRes timeline. We really put Apple’s ProRes codec to the test and the final result speaks for itself. Two months after the finish, there was a screening and it looked really amazing projected on the big screen after watching it the edit bay for so long.”

 

Digital Color Timing

 

A color-grading pass using Apple’s new Color application was in the original plan. Alphadogs has been working with veteran daVinci colorist Brian Hutchings to develop various workflows for Final Cut-based projects. In the end, Runnin’ Down A Dream was graded at another shop from the SR tapes on a daVinci 2K. Due to the impending delivery schedule, this was done prior to the insertion of all of the final archival footage, since some had to wait for rights clearances. This grading pass established a look for the interview sections and then the master tape came back to Alphadogs for the cleared archival footage to be inserted. These shots were largely left untouched, though Hutchings did tweak a few with the regular FCP 3-way color correction filter. Barnes also noted that some of the pristine interview footage received a slight film grain treatment to better match the appearance of the old film shots.

 

Even though Hutchings didn’t grade this documentary on Color, it’s a tool he regards with much potential. Earlier this year, he graded Werner Herzog’s latest documentary about Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World using Color in an Apple-based grading room at Alphadogs. Brian offered these thoughts on Apple’s new upstart tool, “Lately there has been a growth in software for color timing. Many different applications for different workflows. Competition is good. It forces everybody to bring their best game and listen to the feedback from those who run their software. One can only imagine what tools future versions of Color will bring to us. Apple’s support of the Red Camera is in the works, so it is incredible to think of what will be available to so many more storytellers.”

 

Rock and documentary fans alike will want to add Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down A Dream to their collection. Tom Petty joins a long list that includes The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Metallica to give us a look behind the curtain. Reviews have been great and even mention how seamless the editing is despite all the elements. The documentary DVD has been sold out, as well. All a result of the editors who have spent countless hours in rooms pouring over a wealth of material to weave together an entertaining story for the rest of us.

 

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