Particle Fever

df_pf_1Filmmaking isn’t rocket science, but sometimes they are kissing cousins. Such is the case of the documentary Particle Fever, where the credentials of both producer David Kaplan and director Mark Levinson include a Doctorate in particle physics. Levinson has been involved in filmmaking for 28 years, starting after his graduation from Berkeley, when he found the job prospects for physics in a slump. Instead he turned to his second passion – films. Levinson worked as an ADR specialist on such films as The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain, and The Rainmaker. While working on those films, he built up a friendship with noted film editor Walter Murch (The Conversation, Julia, Apocalypse Now, K-19: The Widowmaker). In addition, Levinson was writing screenplays and directing some of his own independent films (Prisoner of Time). This ultimately led him to combine his two interests and pursue Particle Fever, a documentary about the research, construction and goals of building the Large Hadron Collider.

When it came time to put the polish on his documentary, Mark Levinson tapped Walter Murch as the editor. Murch explained, “I was originally only going to be on the film for three months, because I was scheduled to work on another production after that. I started in March 2012, but the story kept changing with each breaking news item from the collider. And my other project went away, so in the end, I worked on the film for 15 months and just finished the mix a few weeks ago [June 2013].” At the start of the documentary project, the outcome of the research from the Large Hadron Collider was unknown. In fact, it wasn’t until later during the edit, that the scientists achieved a major success with the confirmation of the discovery of the Higgs boson as an elementary particle in July 2012. This impacted science, but also the documentary in a major way.

Finding the story arc

df_pf_6Particle Fever is the first feature-length documentary that Walter Murch has edited, although archival and documentary footage has been part of a number of his films. He’d cut some films for the USIA early in his career and has advised and mixed a number of documentaries, including Crumb, about the controversial cartoonist Robert Crumb. Murch is fond of discussing the role of the editor as a participatory writer of the film in how he crafts the story through pictures and sound. Nowhere is this more true than in documentaries. According to Murch, “Particle Fever had a natural story arc by the nature of the events themselves. The machine [the Large Hadron Collider] provided the spine. It was turned on in 2008 and nine days later partly exploded, because a helium relief valve wasn’t strong enough. It was shut down for a year of repairs. When it was turned on again, it was only at half power and many of the scientists feared this was inadequate for any major discoveries. Nevertheless, even at half power, the precision was good enough to see the evidence that they needed. The film covers this journey from hope to disaster to recovery and triumph.”

Due to the cost of constructing large particle accelerators, a project like the Large Hadron Collider is a once-in-a-generation event. It is a seminal moment in science akin to the Manhattan Project or the moon launch. In this case, 10,000 scientists from 100 countries were involved in the goal of recreating the conditions just after the Big Bang and finding the Higgs boson, often nicknamed “the God particle”. Murch explained the production process, “Mark and David picked a number of scientists to follow and we told the story through their eyes without a narrator. They were equipped with small consumer cameras to self-record intermittent video blogs, which augmented the formal interviews. Initially Mark was following about a dozen scientists, but this was eventually narrowed down to the six that are featured in the film. The central creative challenge was to balance the events while getting to know the people and their roles. We also had to present enough science to understand what is at stake without overwhelming the audience. These six turned out to be the best at that and could convey their passion in a very charismatic and understandable way with a minimum of jargon.”

Murch continued, “Our initial cut was two-and-a-half hours, which was ultimately reduced to 99 minutes. We got there by cutting some people, but also some of the ‘side shoots’ or alternate research options that were explored. For example, there was a flurry of excitement related to what was thought to be discoveries of particles of ‘dark matter’ at a Minnesota facility. This covered about 20 minutes of the film, but in the final version there’s only a small trace of that material.”

Sifting to find the nuggets

df_pf_2As in most documentaries, the post team faced a multitude of formats and a wealth of material, including standard definition video recorded in 2007, the HDV files from the scientists’ “webcams” and Panasonic HD media from the interviews. In addition, there was a lot of PAL footage from the media libraries at CERN, the European particle accelerator. During the production, news coverage focused on the theoretical, though statistically unlikely, possibility that the Large Hadron Collider might have been capable of producing a black hole. This yielded even more source material to sift through. In total, the production team generated 300 hours of content and an additional 700 hours were available from CERN and the various news pieces produced about the collider.

Murch is known for his detailed editor’s codebook for scenes and dailies that he maintains for every film in a Filemaker Pro database. Particle Fever required a more streamlined approach. Murch came in at what initially appeared to be the end of the process after Mona Davis (Fresh, Advise & Consent) had worked on the film. Murch said, “I started the process later into the production, so I didn’t initially use my Filemaker database. Mark was both the director and my assistant editor, so for the first few months I was guided by his knowledge of the material. We maintained two mirrored workstations with Final Cut Pro 7 and Mark would ingest any new material and add his markers for clips to investigate. When these bins were copied to my station, I could use them as a guide of where to start looking for possible material.”

Mapping the sound

df_pf_4The post team operated out of Gigantic Studios in New York, which enabled an interactive workflow between Murch and sound designer Tom Paul (on staff at Gigantic) and with composer Robert Miller. Walter Murch’s editorial style involves building up a lot of temporary sound effects and score elements during the rough cut phase and then, piece-by-piece, replacing those with finished elements as he receives them. His FCP sequence on Particle Fever had 42 audio tracks of dialogue, temp sound effects and music elements. This sort of interaction among the editor, sound designer and composer worked well with a small post team all located in New York City. By the time the cut was locked in May, Miller had delivered about an hour of original score for the film and supplied Murch with seven stereo instrumentation stems for that score to give him the most versatility in mixing.

Murch and Paul mixed the film on Gigantic’s Pro Tools ICON system. Murch offered this post trick, “When I received the final score elements from Robert, I would load them into Final Cut and then was able to copy-and-paste volume keyframes I had added to Robert’s temp music onto the final stems, ducking under dialogue or emphasizing certain dynamics of the music. This information was then automatically transferred to the Pro Tools system as part of the OMF output. Although we’d still adjust levels in the mix, embedding these volume shifts gave us a better starting point. We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. In the end, the final mix took four days. Long days!”

df_pf_3Gigantic Post offered the advantage of an on-site screening room, which enabled the producers to have numerous in-progress screenings for both scientific and industry professionals, as well as normal interested viewers. Murch explained, “It was important to get the science right, but also to make it understandable to the layman. I have more than a passing interest in the subject, but both Mark and David have Ph.D.s in particle physics, so if I ever had a question about something, all I had to do was turn around and ask. We held about 20 screenings over the course of a year and the scientists who attended our test screenings felt that the physics was accurate. But, what they also particularly liked was that the film really conveys the passion and experience of what it’s like to work in this field.” Final Frame Post, also in New York, handled the film’s grading and digital intermediate mastering.

Graphic enhancements

df_pf_5To help illustrate the science, the producers tapped MK12, a design and animation studio, which had worked on such films as The Kite Runner and Quantum of Solace. Some of the ways in which they expressed ideas graphically throughout the film could loosely be described as a cross between A Beautiful Mind and Carl Sagan’s PBS Cosmos series. Murch described one example, “For instance, we see Nima (one of our theorists) walking across the campus of the Institute for Advanced Study while we hear his voice-over. As he talks, formulas start to swirl all around him. Then the grass transforms into a carpet of number-particles, which then transform into an expanding universe into which Nima disappears. Eventually, this scene resolves and Nima emerges, returning on campus and walking into a building, the problematic formulas falling to the ground as he goes through the door.”

Although this was Walter Murch’s first feature documentary, his approach wasn’t fundamentally different from how he works on a dramatic film. He said, “Even on a scripted film, I try to look at the material without investing it with intention. I like to view dailies with the fresh-eyed sense of ‘Oh, where did this come from? Let’s see where this will take the story’.  That’s also from working so many years with Francis [Ford Coppola], who often shoots in a documentary style. The wedding scene in The Godfather, for instance; or the Union Square conversation in The Conversation; or any of the action scenes in Apocalypse Now all exemplify that. They are ongoing events, with their own internal momentum, which are captured by multiple cameras. I really enjoyed working on this film, because there were developments and announcements during the post which significantly affected the direction of the story and ultimately the ending. This made for a real roller coaster ride!”

Particle Fever premiered at Doc/Fest Sheffield on June 14th, and won the Audience Award (split with Act of Killing). It is currently in negotiations for distribution.

NOTE: The film will open in New York on Ma5, 2014. In October 2013Peter W. Higgs – who theorized about the boson particle named after him – was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, together with Francois Englert. For more on Walter Murch’s thoughts about editing, click here.

And finally, an interesting look at Murch’s involvement in the Rolex Mentor Protege program.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

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