The East

df_east_1Director Zal Batmanglij’s The East caught the buzz at Sundance and SXSW. It was produced by Scott Free Productions with Fox Searchlight Pictures. Not bad for the young director’s sophomore outing. The film takes its name from The East, a group of eco-terrorists and anarchists led by Benji, who is played by Alexander Skarsgard (True Blood). The group engages in “jams” – their term for activist attacks on corporations, which they tape and put out on the web. Sarah, played by Brit Marling (Arbitrage), is a corporate espionage specialist who is hired to infiltrate the group. In that process, she comes to sympathize with the group’s ideals, if not its violent tactics. She finds herself both questioning her allegiances and is falling in love with Benji. Marling also co-wrote the screenplay with Batmanglij.

In addition to a thriller plot, the film’s production also had some interesting twists along the way to completion. First, it was shot with an ARRI ALEXA, but unlike most films that use the ALEXA, the recording was done as ProRes4444 to the onboard SxS cards, instead of ARRIRAW to an external recorder. That will make it one of the few films to date in mainstream release to do so. ProRes dailies were converted into color-adjusted Avid DNxHD media for editing.

Second, the film went through a change of editors due to prior commitments. After the production wrapped and a first assembly of the film was completed, Andrew Weisblum (Moonrise Kingdom, Black Swan) joined the team to cut the film. Weisblum’s availability was limited to four months, though, since he was already committed to editing Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. At that stage, Bill Pankow (The Black Dahlia, Carlito’s Way) picked up for Weisblum and carried the film through to completion.

df_east_2Andrew Weisblum explained, “When I saw the assembly of The East, I really felt like there was a good story, but I had already committed to cut Noah. I wasn’t quite sure how much could be done in the four months that I had, but left the film at what we all thought was a cut that was close to completion. It was about 80% done and we’d had an initial preview. Bill [Pankow] was a friend, so I asked if he would pick it up for me there, assuming that the rest would be mainly just a matter of tightening up the film. But it turned out to be more involved than that.”

Bill Pankow continued, “I came on board June of last year and took the picture through to the locked cut and the mix in November. After that first screening, everyone felt that the ending needed some work. The final scene between the main characters wasn’t working in the way Zal and Brit had originally expected. They decided to change some things to serve the drama better and to resolve the relationship of the main characters. This required shooting additional footage, as well as reworking some of the other scenes. At that point we took a short hiatus while Zal and Brit  rewrote and reshot the last scene. Then another preview and we were able to lock the cut.”

df_east_3Like nearly all films, The East took on a life of its own in the cutting room. According to Weisblum, “The film changed in the edit from the script. Some of what I did in the cut was to bring in more tension and mystery in the beginning to get us to the group [The East] more quickly. We also simplified a number of story points. Nothing really radical – although it might have felt like that at the time – but just removing tangents that distracted from the main story.” Pankow added, “We didn’t have any length constraints from Fox, so we were able to optimize each scene. Towards the end of the film, there were places that needed extra ‘moments’ to accentuate some of the emotion of what the Sarah character was feeling. In a few cases, this meant re-using shots that might have appeared earlier. In addition to changing the last scene, a few other areas were adjusted. One or two scenes were extended, which in some cases replaced other scenes.”

Since the activists document their activities with video cameras, The East incorporates a number of point-of-view shots taken with low-res cameras. Rather than create these as visual effects shots, low-res cameras were used for the actual photography of that footage. Some video effects were added in the edit and some through the visual effects company. Weisblum has worked as a VFX editor (The Fountain, Chicago), so creating temporary visual effects is second nature. He said, “I usually do a number of things either in the Avid or using [Adobe] After Effects. These are the typical ‘split screen’ effects where takes are mixed to offset the timing of the performances. In this film, there was one scene where two characters [Tim and Sarah] are having a conversation on the bed. I wanted to use a take where Tim is sitting up, but of course, he’s partially covered by Sarah. This took a bit more effort, because I had to rotoscope part of one shot into the other, since the actors were overlapping each other. I’ll do these things whenever I can, so that the film plays in as finished a manner as possible during screening. It also gives the visual effects team a really good roadmap to follow.”

df_east_4Bill Pankow has worked as an editor or assistant on over forty features and brings some perspective to modern editing. He said, “I started editing digitally on Lightworks, but then moved to Avid. At the time, Lightworks didn’t keep up and Avid gave you more effects and titling tools, which let editors produce a more polished cut. On this film the set-up included two Avid Media Composer systems connected to shared storage. I typically like to work with two assistants when I can. My first assistant will add temporary sound effects and clean up the dialogue, while the second assistant handles the daily business and paperwork of the cutting room. Because assistants tend to have their own specialties these days, it’s harder for assistants to learn how to edit. I try to make a point of involving my assistants in watching the dailies, reviewing a scene when it’s cut and so on. This way they have a chance to learn and can someday move into the editor’s chair themselves.”

Both editors agree that working on The East was a very positive experience. Weisblum said, “Before starting, I had a little concern for how it would be working with Zal and Brit, especially since Brit was the lead actress, but also co-writer and producer. However, it was very helpful to have her involved, as she really helped me to understand the intentions of the character. It turned out to be a great collaboration.” Pankow concluded, “I enjoyed the team, but more so, I liked the fact that this film resonates emotionally, as well as politically, with the current times. I was very happy to be able to work on it.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

The Hobbit

df_hobbit_1Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was one of the most anticipated films of 2012. It broke new technological boundaries and presented many creative challenges to its editor. After working as a television editor, Jabez Olssen started his own odyssey with Jackson in 2000 as an assistant editor and operator on The Lord of the Rings trilogy. After assisting again on King Kong, he next cut Jackson’s Lovely Bones as the first feature film on which he was the sole editor. The director tapped Olssen again for The Hobbit trilogy, where unlike the Rings trilogy, he will be the sole editor on all three films.

Much like the Rings films, all production for the three Hobbit films was shoot in a single eighteen month stretch. Jackson employed as many as 60 RED Digital Cinema EPIC cameras rigged for stereoscopic acquisition at 48fps – double the standard rate of traditional feature photography. Olssen was editing the first film in parallel with the principal photography phase. He had a very tight schedule that only allowed about five months after the production wrapped to lock the cut and get the film ready for release.

To get The Hobbit out on such an aggressive schedule, Olssen leaned hard on a post production infrastructure built around Avid’s technology, including 13 Media Composers (10 with Nitris DX hardware) and an ISIS 7000 with 128TB of storage. Peter Jackson’s production facilities are located in Wellington, New Zealand, where active fibre channel connections tie Stone Street Studio, Weta Digital, Park Road Post Production and the cutting rooms to the Avid ISIS storage. The three films combined, total 2200 hours (1100 x two eyes) of footage, which is the equivalent of 24 million feet of film. In addition, an Apace active backup solution with 72TB of storage was also installed, which could immediately switch over if ISIS failed.

The editorial team – headed up by first assistant editor Dan Best – consisted of eight assistant editors, including three visual effects editors. According to Olssen, “We mimicked a similar pipeline to a film project. Think of the RED camera .r3d media files as a digital negative. Peter’s facility, Park Road Post Production, functioned as the digital lab. They took the RED media from the set and generated one-light, color-corrected dailies for the editors. 24fps 2D DNxHD36 files were created by dropping every second frame from the files of one ‘eye’ of a stereo recording. For example, we used 24fps timecode with the difference between the 48fps frames being a period instead of a colon. Frame A would be 11.22.21.13 and frame B would be 11:22:21:13. This was a very natural solution for editing and a lot like working with single-field media files on interlaced television projects. The DNxHD files were then delivered to the assistant editors, who synced, subclipped and organized clips into the Avid projects. Since we were all on ISIS shared storage, once they were done, I could access the bins and the footage was ready to edit, even if I were on set. For me, working with RED files was no different than a standard film production.”

df_hobbit_2Olssen continued, “A big change for the team since the Rings movies is that the Avid systems have become more portable. Plus the fibre channel connection to ISIS allows us to run much longer distances. This enabled me to have a mobile cart on the set with a portable Media Composer system connected to the ISIS storage in the main editing building. In addition, we also had a camper van outfitted as a more comfortable mobile editing room with its own Media Composer; we called it the EMC – ‘Editorial Mobile Command’. So, I could cut on set while Peter was shooting, using the cart and, as needed, use the EMC for some quick screening of edits during a break in production. I was also on location around New Zealand for three months and during that time I cut on a laptop with mirrored media on external drives.”

The main editing room was set up with a full-blown Nitris DX system connected to a 103” plasma screen for Jackson. The original plan was to cut in 2D and then periodically consolidate scenes to conform a stereo version for screening in the Media Composer suite. Instead they took a different approach. Olssen explained, “We didn’t have enough storage to have all three films’ worth of footage loaded as stereo media, but Peter was comfortable cutting the film in 2D. This was equally important, since more theaters displayed this version of the film. Every few weeks, Park Road Post Production would conform a 48fps stereo version so we could screen the cut. They used an SGO Mistika system for the DI, because it could handle the frame rate and had very good stereo adjustment tools. Although you often have to tweak the cuts after you see the film in a stereo screening, I found we had to do far less of that than I’d expected. We were cognizant of stereo-related concerns during editing. It also helped that we could judge a cut straight from the Avid on the 103” plasma, instead of relying on a small TV screen.”

df_hobbit_3The editorial team was working with what amounted to 24fps high-definition proxy files for stereo 48fps RED .r3d camera masters. Edit decision lists were shared with Weta Digital and Park Road Post Production for visual effects, conform and digital intermediate color correction/finishing at a 2K resolution. Based on these EDLs, each unit would retrieve the specific footage needed from the camera masters, which had been archived onto LTO data tape.

The Hobbit trilogy is a heavy visual effects production, which had Olssen tapping into the Media Composer toolkit. Olssen said, “We started with a lot of low resolution, pre-visualization animations as placeholders for the effects shots. As the real effects started coming in, we would replace the pre-vis footage with the correct effects shots. With the Gollum scenes we were lucky enough to have Andy Serkis in the actual live action footage from set, so they were easy to visualize how the scene would look. But other CG characters, like Azog, were captured separately on a Performance Capture stage. That meant we had to layer separately-shot material into a single shot. We were cutting vertically in the timeline, as well as horizontally. In the early stages, many of the scenes were a patchwork of live action and pre-vis, so I used PIP effects to overlay elements to determine the scene timing. Naturally, I had to do a lot of temp green-screen composites. The dwarves are full-size actors and for many of the scenes, we had to scale them down and reposition them in the shot so we could see how the shots were coming together.”

As with most feature film editors, Jabez Olssen likes to fill out his cut with temporary sound effects and music, so that in-progress screenings feel like a complete film. He continued, “We were lucky to use some of Howard Shore’s music from the Rings films for character themes that tie The Hobbit back into The Lord of the Rings. He wrote some nice ‘Hobbity’ music for those. We couldn’t use too much of it, though, because it was so familiar to us! The sound department at Park Road Post Production uses Avid Pro Tools systems. They also have a Media Composer connected to the same ISIS storage, which enabled the sound editors to screen the cut there. From it, they generated QuickTime files for picture reference and audio files so the sound editors could work locally on their own Pro Tools workstations.”

Audiences are looking forward to the next two films in the series, which means the adventure continues for Jabez Olssen. On such a long term production many editors would be reluctant to update software, but not this time. Olssen concluded, “I actually like to upgrade, because I look forward to the new features. Although, I usually wait a few weeks until everyone knows it’s safe. We ended up on version 6.0 at the end of the first film and are on 6.5 now. Other nonlinear editing software packages are more designed for one-man bands, but Media Composer is really the only software that works for a huge visual effects film. You can’t underestimate how valuable it is to have all of the assistant editors be able to open the same projects and bins. The stability and reliability is the best. It means that we can deliver challenging films like The Hobbit trilogy on a tight post production schedule and know the system won’t let us down.”

Originally written for Avid Technology, Inc.

©2013 Oliver Peters

Phil Spector

df_philspector_3Phil Spector became famous as a music industry icon. The legendary producer, who originated the “wall of sound” production technique of densely-layered arrangements, worked with a wide range of acts, including the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers and the Beatles. Unfortunately, fame can also have its infamous side. Spector abruptly came back into public notice through the circumstances of the 2003 death of actress Lana Clarkson and his subsequent criminal trials, culminating in a 2009 conviction for second-degree murder.

The story of his first murder trial and the relationship between Spector (Al Pacino) and defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren) form the basis for the new film by HBO Films. Phil Spector, which is executive produced by Barry Levinson (Rain Man), was directed by celebrated screenwriter/director David Mamet (The Unit, The Shield, Hannibal, Wag the Dog). Rather than treat it as a biopic or news story, Mamet chose to take a fictionalized approach that chronicles Spector’s legal troubles as a fall from grace.

One key member of the production team was editor Barbara Tulliver (Too Big to Fail, Lady in the Water, Signs), who has previously collaborated with Mamet. She started as a film editor working on commercials in New York, but quickly transitioned into features. According to Tulliver, “I assisted on David’s first two films and then cut my first feature as an editor with him, so we have established a relationship. I also cut Too Big to Fail for HBO and brought a lot of the same editorial crew for this one, so it was like a big family.”

df_philspector_4As with most television schedules, Phil Spector was shot and completed in a time frame and with a budget more akin to a well-funded independent feature, rather than a typical studio film. Tulliver explained, “Our schedule to complete this film was between that of a standard TV project and a feature. If a studio film has six weeks to complete a mix, a film like this would have three. The steps are the same, but the schedule is shrunk. I was cutting during the thirty-day production phase, so I had a cut ready for David a week after he wrapped. HBO likes to see things early, so David had his initial cut done after five weeks, instead of the typical ten-week time frame. Like any studio, HBO will give us notes, but they are very respectful of the filmmakers, which is why they can attract the caliber of talent that they do for these films. At that point we went into a bit of a hold, because David wanted some additional photography and that took awhile until HBO approved it.”

The production itself was handled like a film shoot using ARRI Alexa cameras in a single-camera style. An on-set DIT generated the dailies used for the edit. Although you wouldn’t consider this a visual effects film, it still had its share of shots. Tulliver said, “There were a lot of comps that are meat-and-potatoes effects these days. For instance, the film was shot in New York, so in scenes when Spector arrives at the courthouse in Los Angeles, the visual effects department had to build up all of the exteriors to look like LA. There are a number of TV and computer screens, which were all completed in post. Plus a certain amount of frame clean-ups, like removing unwanted elements from a shot.”

df_philspector_2Mamet wrote a very lean screenplay, so the length of the cut didn’t present any creative challenges for Tulliver. She continued, “David’s scripts are beautifully crafted, so there was no need to re-arrange scenes. We might have deleted one scene. David makes decisions quickly and doesn’t overshoot. Like any director, he is open to changes in performance; but, the actors have such respect for his script, that there isn’t a lot of embellishment that might pose editing challenges in another film. Naturally with a cast like this, the performances were all good. The main challenge we had, was to find ways to integrate Spector’s songs into the story. How to use the music to open up scenes in the film and add montages. This meant all of the songs had to be cleared. We were largely successful, except with John Lennon’s Imagine, where Yoko Ono had the final say. Although she was open to our using the song, ultimately she and David couldn’t agree to how it would be integrated creatively into the film.”

Phil Spector was cut digitally on an Avid Media Composer. Like many feature editors, Barbara Tulliver started her career cutting film. She said, “I’m one of the last editors to embrace digital editing. I went into it kicking and screaming, but so did the directors I was working with at the time. When I finally moved over to Avid, they were pretty well established as the dominant nonlinear edit system for films. I do miss some things about editing on film, though. There’s a tactile sense of the film that’s almost romantic. Because it takes longer to make changes, film editing is more reflective. You talk about it more and often in the course of these discussions, you discover better solutions than if you simply tried a lot of variations. In the film days, you talked about the dramatic and emotional impact of these options. This is still the case, but one has to be more vigilant about making that happen – as opposed to just re-cutting a scene twenty different ways, because it is easy and fast – and then not know what you are looking at anymore.”

df_philspector_1“Today, I cut the same way I did when I was cutting film. I like to lay out my cut as a road map. I’ll build it rough to get a sense of the whole scene, rather than finesse each single cut as I go. After I’ve built the scene that way, I’ll go back and tweak and trim to fine-tune the cut. Digital editing for me is not all about the bells-and-whistles. I don’t use some of the Avid features, like multi-camera editing or Script Sync. While these are great features, some are labor-intensive to prepare. When you have a minimal crew without a lot of assistants, I prefer to work in a more straightforward fashion.”

Tulliver concluded with this thought, “Although I may be nostalgic about the days of film editing, it would be a complete nightmare to go back to that. In fact, several years ago one director was interested in trying it, so I investigated what it would take. It’s hard to find the gear anymore and when you do, it hasn’t been properly maintained, because no one has been using it. Not to mention finding mag stripe and other materials that you would need. The list of people and labs that actually know how to handle a complete film project is getting smaller each year, so going back would just about be impossible. While film might not be dead as a production medium, it has passed that point in post.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine.

©2013 Oliver Peters

Zero Dark Thirty

df_zdt_1Few films have the potential to be as politically charged as Zero Dark Thirty. Director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, K-19: The Widowmaker) and producer/writer Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, In the Valley of Elah) have evaded those minefields by focusing on the relentless CIA detective work that led to the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy SEALs. Shot and edited in a cinema verite style, Zero Dark Thirty is more of a suspenseful thriller, than an action-adventure movie. It seeks to tell a raw, powerful story that’s faithful to the facts without politicizing the events.

The original concept started before the raid on bin Laden’s compound occurred. It was to be about the hunt, but not finding him, after a decade of searching. The SEAL raid changed the direction of the film; but, Bigelow and Boal still felt that the story to be told was in the work done on the ground by intelligence operatives that led to the raid. Zero Dark Thirty is based on the perspective of CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), whose job it is to find terrorists. The Maya character is based on a real person.

Zero Dark Thirty was filmed digitally, using ARRI Alexa cameras. This aided Kathryn Bigelow’s style of shooting by eliminating the limitation of the length of film mags. Most scenes were shot with four cameras and some as many as six or seven at once. The equivalent of 1.8 million feet of film (about 320 hours) was recorded. The production ramped up in India with veteran film editor Dylan Tichenor (Lawless, There Will Be Blood) on board from the beginning.

According to Tichenor, “I was originally going to be on location for a short time with Kathryn and Mark and then return to the States to cut. We were getting about seven hours of footage a day and I like to watch everything. When they asked me to stay on for the entire India shoot, we set up a cutting room in Chandigarh, added assistants and Avids to stay up to camera while I was there. Then I rejoined my team in the States when the production moved to Jordan. A parallel cutting room had been set up in Los Angeles, where the same footage was loaded. There, the assistants could also help pull selects from my notes, to make going through the footage and preparing to cut more manageable.”df_zdt_3

William Goldenberg (Argo, Transformers: Dark of the Moon) joined the team as the second editor in June, after wrapping up Argo. Goldenberg continued, “This film had a short post schedule and there was a lot of footage, so they asked me to help out. I started right after they filmed the Osama bin Laden raid scene, which was one of the last locations to be shot and the first part of the film that I edited. The assembled film without the raid was about three hours long. There was forty hours of material just for the raid and this took about three weeks to a month to cut. After I finished that, Dylan and I divided up the workload to refine and hone scenes, with each making adjustments on the other’s cuts. It’s very helpful to have a second pair of eyes in this situation, bouncing ideas back and forth.”

As an Alexa-based production, the team in India, Jordan and London included a three-man digital lab. Tichenor explained, “This film was recorded using ARRIRAW. With digital features in the past, my editorial team has been tasked to handle the digital dailies workload, too. This means the editors are also responsible for dealing with the color space workflow issues and that would have been too much to deal with on this film. So, the production set up a three-person team with a Codex Digilab and Colorfront software in another hotel room to process the ARRIRAW files. These were turned into color-corrected Avid DNxHD media for us and a duplicate set of files for the assistants in LA.” Director of photography Greig Fraser (Snow White and the Huntsman, Killing Them Softly) was able to check in on the digilab team and tweak the one-light color correction, as well as get Tichenor’s input for additional shots and coverage he might need to help tell the story.

df_zdt_4Tichenor continued, “Kathryn likes to set up scenes and then capture the action with numerous cameras – almost like it’s a documentary. Then she’ll repeat that process several times for each scene. Four to seven camera keep rolling all day, so there’s a lot of footage. Plus the camera operators are very good about picking up extra shots and b-roll, even though they aren’t an official second unit team. There are a lot of ways to tell the story and Kathryn gave us – the editors – a lot of freedom to build these scenes. The objective is to have a feeling of ‘you are there’ and I think that comes across in this film. Kathryn picks people she trusts and then lets them do their job. That’s great for an editor, but you really feel the responsibility, because it’s your decisions that will end up on the screen.”

Music for the film was also handled in an unusual manner. According to Goldenberg, “On most films a composer is contracted, you turn the locked picture over to him and he scores to that cut. Zero Dark Thirty didn’t start with a decision on a composer. Like most films, Dylan and I tried different pieces of temp music under some of the scenes that needed music. Of all the music we tried, the work of Alexandre Desplat (Argo, Moonrise Kingdom) fit the best. Kathryn and Mark showed Alexandre a cut to see if he might be interested. He loved it and found time in his schedule to score the film. Right away he wrote seven pieces that he felt were right. We cut those in to fit the scene lengths, which he then used as a template for his final score. It was a very collaborative process.”

Company 3 handled the digital intermediate mastering. Goldenberg explained, “The nighttime raid scene has a very unique look. It was very dark, as shot. In fact, we had to turn off all the lights in the cutting room to even see an image on the Avid monitors. Company 3 got involved early on by color timing about ten minutes of that footage, because we were eager and excited to see what the sequence could look like when it was color timed. When it came to the final DI, the film really took on another layer of richness. We’d been looking at the one-light images so long that it actually took a few screenings to enjoy the image that we’d been missing until then.”

df_zdt_2Both Tichenor and Goldenberg have been cutting on Avid Media Composers for years, but this film didn’t tax the capabilities of the system. Tichenor said, “This isn’t an effects-heavy film. Some parts of the stealth helicopters are CG, but in the Avid, we mainly used effects for some monitor inserts, stabilization and split screens.” Goldenberg added, “One thing we both do is build our audio tracks as LCR [left, center, right channel] instead of the usual stereo. It takes a bit more work to build a dedicated center channel, but screenings sound much better.”

Avid has very good multicamera routines, so I questioned whether these were of value with the number of cameras being used. Tichenor replied, “We grouped clips, of course, but not actual multicam. You can switch cameras easily with a grouped clip. I actually did try for one second on a scene to see if I could use the multicam split screen camera display for watching dailies, but no, there was too much going on.” Goldenberg added, “There are some scenes that – although they were using multiple cameras – the operators would be shooting completely different things. For instance, actors in a car with one camera and other cameras grabbing local flavor and street life. So multicam or group clips were less useful in those cases.”

The film’s post schedule took about four months from the first full assembly until the final mix. Goldenberg said, “I don’t think you can say the cut was ever completely locked until the final mix, since we made minor adjustments even up to the end; but, there was a point at one of the internal screenings where we all knew the structure was in place. That was a big milestone, because from there, it was just a matter of tightening and honing. The story felt right.” Tichenor explained, “This movie actually came together surprisingly well in the time frame we had. Given the amount of footage, it’s the sort of film that could easily have been in post for two years. Fortunately with this script and team, it all came together. The scenes balanced out nicely and it has a good structure.”

For addition stories:

DV’s coverage of Zero Dark Thirty’s cinematography

An interview with William Goldenberg about Argo

FXGuide talks about the visual effects created for the film.

New York Times articles (here and here) about Zero Dark Thirty

Avid interview with William Goldenberg.

DP/30 interview with sound and picture editors on ZDT.

Originally written for DV magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2012, 2013 Oliver Peters

Cloud Atlas

Every once in a while a film comes along that requires a bit of reflection to get the full meaning. Often you need several screenings to find all the clues and story details that you might have missed the first time. Cloud Atlas is such a film. It’s based on the multi-threaded, best-selling novel by David Mitchell and becomes the latest theatrical release by writer/directors Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy). The Wachowskis are joined by co-writer/co-director Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) for a unique three-director production endeavor.

Cloud Atlas was originally thought to be un-adaptable as a film, but thanks to a script that earned the blessing of Mitchell, the three were able to make that a reality. The film is broken into six eras and locations (1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144 and 2346). It features an ensemble cast whose members each play a variety of different characters within different parts of the story. The locations range from the South Pacific to the United States and Europe to a futuristic version of Seoul and finally a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Instead of telling this as a series of sequential short stories, the different time frames are continually intercut. The audience is following six narrative episodes at once, yet taken together, the flow and story arc really become a single story. It’s as if the film proceeds by weaving in and out of six parallel universes.

Connections

In broad strokes, Cloud Atlas is about freedom, love, karma and the connective fabric of the universe. Each person has elements of good and evil and talents that they use, which come out in different ways. The actors portray different characters throughout the film who may be heroes in one era, but villains in another. The yearning for freedom or love by a character that starts in one part might manifest itself in another character at a different time and place. Cloud Atlas is partially a reincarnation story. It plays on the sense of déjà vu, except that in this story, the experience that the character thinks has happened (like meeting someone) actually happens in a future life.

The scene structure of Cloud Atlas is crafted so that what would otherwise be single scenes in a standard drama are actually split among several different eras. Action that starts in 1849, for example, might be continued in a smash cut to 1936. Although the audience didn’t see the complete linear progression of what transpired in either, the result is that there’s both a carry-over and a residual effect, making it easy to mentally fill in the blanks for each. To help the audience connect the dots, there are several plot points and clues tying one era to another – sometimes in very obvious ways and at other times only as a reference or shot in a montage.

The task to pull this all together fell to veteran German film editor Alexander Berner (Resident Evil, The Baader Meinhoff Complex, The Debt, The Three Musketeers). Berner is a partner in the Munich-based editorial facility Digital Editors, which he helped start twenty years ago as the first all-digital facility in Germany. He had cut Tom Tywker’s film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, but had never worked with Andy and Lana Wachowski before. They hit it off well and Berner was tapped to cut Cloud Atlas.

The film was shot in sixty days at various European locations with the three directors splitting up into two production units. The Wachowskis covered the 1849 ocean voyage, the 2144 rebellion in Neo Seoul and the events “after the fall” in the 24th century. Tykwer captured the stories of composer Frobisher (1936), journalist Ray (1973) and London publisher Cavendish (2012). For Berner, this meant double the amount of footage compared to a “normal” film, but without any more time to deliver a first cut. With the help of assistant editor Claus Wehlisch, Berner was able to keep up with camera and deliver his first assembly – complete with temp sound effects and score – two days after the shooting wrapped.

Crafting the mosaic

Alexander Berner explained the experience to me, “Andy and Lana had never worked with me before, so they didn’t really know what to expect. I think they may have had some initial concerns, since they hadn’t really seen anything cut up to that point. I had only sent a couple of assembled action scenes to them while they were filming. During the entire first assembly, it was all left up to Claus, a fabulous editorial team and me. We took a Christmas break and then started to do the fine cut in January.  I like to present a first assembly that’s a very watchable movie. I had assumed we’d sit down and review the whole film and then start making changes. When Andy, Lana and Tom saw the first reel they were all relieved at how good it looked and played, so we decided to dive right in at that point.”

The first assembly ran nearly three-and-a-half hours and it only took Berner about ten weeks to lock the picture at its final 172 minute length. Berner continued, “The first cut really followed the script, but the final film is a lot different in actual structure. The script is faithful to the book, but only about fifty percent is the same, as we had to cut out portions and extra characters that would have simply made this film too long. That was all with David Mitchell’s collaboration. I view the script as the ‘color palette’ and the edit is where you ‘mix the paint’. The footage from production came in a very scrambled fashion, so the only way to build the first cut was to follow the script. Once the three directors came in, then we had a chance to re-arrange scene elements or change line readings made necessary by the restructuring. Our main focus was to make sure we maintained the right emotional bow within a scene, even though we might start the action in one era and carry it forward into another. It was important to be able to tell these six stories as one big movie with one big emotional thought.”

According to Berner, every scene that was shot for the film is in the final cut, although sometimes the essence of it only survived as a shot within a montage or as a single, short scene. Just enough for the audience to follow the story or see a connection. I asked Berner his take on working with three directors. He responded, “At first I thought ‘What is this going to be like?’ Maybe each director would concentrate on only their scenes. In fact, it was a collaboration with everyone contributing and really a very harmonious and productive experience. We’d usually watch a scene and if it was OK or only needed a few minutes of tweaking, then we’d proceed to ‘mangle’ it into the bigger picture.”

The musical thread

One unusual aspect to Cloud Atlas is that co-director Tom Tykwer was also co-composer with Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek. A key element is The Cloud Atlas Sextet, the life’s work of the 1936 composer in the Frobisher narrative. This melody becomes a re-occurring piece throughout the film that helps bind eras together. For example, it’s part of the 1936 storyline, but then re-appears on a vinyl LP found by journalist Luisa Rey in a 1973 San Francisco record shop. The music itself becomes the score under these scenes, which binds the emotion together. You linger on the memory of the era you just left, while continuing into the next.

Some editors like to cut to temp scores, but that’s not Berner’s style. He explained, “I don’t like to cut a scene to music. Often this forces a pace that becomes gimmicky. I like to cut based on my internal sense of rhythm and then, with the right music, it all magically works. I try to avoid temp music, because it often doesn’t work well. If I know who the composer will be ahead of time, I’ll often lay in music from his previous scores to get a good feel for how the film will work. With Cloud Atlas, Tom gave us versions of many of the tracks ahead of time. This enabled me to cut in music that was far more representative of the final score than is usually possible.”

Editorial balance

Watching the film for myself with an editor’s eye, it felt that the six narratives were reasonably balanced in their screen time. Berner told me there was no conscious effort to do that though. He continued, “It’s great that it felt balanced to you, but we were just trying to follow the emotion. If you actually measured the time, they aren’t equal. I do use Walter Murch’s trick of posting scene cards on the wall, which helped us greatly. Andy, Lana and Tom liked to re-arrange these to get an idea of the flow and it also helped to see which scenes had been deleted. At the end of the day, we’d always update the positions of the cards on the wall to reflect the current cut at that point.”

Alexander Berner cut the film on a Unity-connected Avid Media Composer system. He initially started on version 6.0 software, but ended up reverting to 5.5, because of reliability issues with Unity. Berner said, “I’ve been cutting on Avids for about twenty years and I generally love the software. In this case, version 6 dropped some color correction features that I needed, so I when back to the previous version. In narrative post, you don’t need a lot of fancy features, so the earlier software version was just fine. I’ve tried ScriptSync a few times, but never really ended up using it. In fact, I drive my assistants crazy setting up for it and then in the end, it just doesn’t fit my style.”

Thirteen visual effects companies tackled the 1,000-plus shots. Although this wasn’t overtly an effects-driven feature, the make-up prosthetics ended up getting a lot of digital love. Frank Griebe and John Toll were the two directors of photography for Cloud Atlas. It was shot on film and ARRI in Munich handled the lab work and the DI finishing, providing a seamless integration of these disparate elements.

Cloud Atlas represented a very unique challenge for Alexander Berner. “Every film has the usual challenges – working with a new director or cutting the film down to time. In this case, I’m probably the very first editor who’s ever worked with three directors on the same film. What’s truly unique, though, is that this film has several different genres and each has to be represented at its best. There’s action, comedy, a love story, intelligent dialogue, period drama and a thriller. Each one has to work as well in this film as if it were a single-genre film. As an editor, that was quite fun and maybe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I realize though, that young people really respond to this approach, so maybe we’ll see a lot more of this style of film in the coming years.” Alexander Berner’s next film is another collaboration with Andy and Lana Wachowski – Jupiter Ascending – currently in pre-production.

(Additional coverage by Post magazine may be found here.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Networks

©2012 Oliver Peters

Looper

One of the fun films of this year is Looper, a sci-fi/time travel adventure by director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom). In the story, the character of Joe – a mob killer – is played by both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis. One as the present day version of Joe and the other as his future self. An ambitious film like this typically requires the work of numerous visual effects companies. The task of setting up the futuristic environments fell to a relatively new northern California effects shop, Atomic Fiction.

Co-founders Kevin Baillie and Ryan Tudhope started their careers as talented, enthusiastic teenagers who, through persistence, landed slots on the Star Wars, Episode I pre-visualization effects team working at Skywalker Ranch. This led to a decade of work as compositors and effects supervisors on a host of blockbusters (Hellboy, Sin City, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers) thanks to a long stint at The Orphanage and ImageMovers Digital. With the demise of those companies, Tudhope and Baillie decided to combine their talents and start a new visual effects company model that could take advantage of the latest in software and post-production concepts, like working in the cloud.

Setting the tone

I spoke with Ryan Tudhope about the work Atomic Fiction did for Looper, as well as some of his thoughts on this new business model. Tudhope explained how they landed the job, “We’ve been a fan of Rian Johnson’s films and love the gritty reality of his stories. So we were all over Looper as soon as it was announced. We also knew that Looper’s visual effects supervisor, Karen Goulekas, was a meticulous and seasoned supervisor and would be looking to pull together the best team possible. Atomic Fiction’s art director Brian Flora and I explained how we were combining our incredibly talented team with a new, lower cost business model. Karen saw an opportunity to utilize us, initially for concept design and later on approximately 80 shots. All of this encompassed the film’s digital environments, which include futuristic city aerials, building design and modifications, set extensions and so on. Everything from wide establishing shots down to street-level views of buildings and scenery.”

The crew at Atomic Fiction took many of their cues from Bladerunner. Tudhope continued, “We wanted Looper to have a classic feel and looked to Bladerunner for inspiration, with its industrial tone and signature style, the lens flares and so on. But we also wanted to find our own way, so the two cities in Looper are more grounded in reality. They are more run down. We used common elements to tie our shots together such as graffiti and shelters for squatters, tents, etc. We designed objects and technology – like generators and antennas – that would be attached onto existing building as you know them today. The story takes place in two future cities – Kansas City and Shanghai, which is shown as the more prosperous of the two. Shanghai had to be newer, shinier and far more futuristic-looking. San Francisco doubled as Shanghai in one particular shot, so we had to transform aerials of the bay into this future version of Shanghai.”

To achieve their vision, Atomic Fiction relied heavily on using elements from the film’s 35mm anamorphic plates whenever possible. Tudhope explained, “We are big believers in having something real in the shot. You get so much good stuff from the plate photography that you don’t have to create from scratch, as you would if it were all CG. For example, the water and building textures and overall atmospherics. Sometimes we were able to use existing buildings and simply modify them. You get inspired by objects that are actually in the shot, which can be used as you transform it. In one of the bay aerials, there was a real barge on the water that we were able to enhance. In Bladerunner, the effects team made extensive use of miniatures and relied on fewer shots to tell the story. I often feel that modern effects films tend to overdo it, while the classics let the audience breathe for a moment. I believe Looper will have some of that classic feel.”

“One of the coolest, but also challenging aspects of Looper, was the film format. The film was shot on anamorphic 35mm. Match moves were a real problem for us, because of extremely complex lens distortion patterns, heavy grain and extensive warping on the edge of the frame during focus pulls. On the other hand, we had a great time matching the anamorphic lens flares that were already in the footage. It was great reference.” In total, Atomic Fiction took five weeks to develop the original concept art and design and then about four months to deliver finished effects.

Tools of the trade

Like any visual effects house, Atomic Fiction taps into a wide range of 2D and 3D software to get the job done. Tudhope described their operation, “We rely heavily on off-the-shelf software, but we tie it together with custom tools and functionality. For asset builds, animation and most lighting, [Autodesk] Maya is the tool of choice, but we tend to use [Autodesk] 3DS MAX for matte painting projections and CG environments. All of the matte painting is done in [Adobe] Photoshop and the final composites are done with [The Foundry’s] Nuke. All three companies have been great partners for us and dedicate substantial resources to the professional market.”

“The combination of 3D and 2D can be very efficient, because you can take 3D building models and reuse them from different angles without the need to draw them again from scratch. We typically put together digital environment teams, pairing 2D and 3D artists based on their strengths and what’s needed for any given shot. Sometimes you have to go back and forth between 2D and 3D. The key is being able to look at a shot and know why something isn’t working and then make the necessary adjustments. That’s harder to learn than figuring out how to bend the tools to meet the task. In general, the industry’s 2D/3D pipeline could still use some improvement. For instance, matte painters using Photoshop can easily put a lot of nuance into a shot through hundreds of layers and composite modes to get haze and glows and other details just right. That’s something that combines well inside Photoshop, but gets subtly altered when you try to pass those layers out to other tools.”

A new business model

Baillie and Tudhope realized great talent would be an important ingredient to launching Atomic Fiction, but they also felt their industry was due for innovation. They wanted to leverage new technologies to allow their company to be nimble, yet produce the high quality visual effects their team was known for.

Tudhope discussed their thoughts behind establishing the new company. “From our experience at other shops, we feel that the right number in any one location is around 40 or 50 employees. We have about 40 now and that number seems to be a sweet spot for efficiency, crew morale and maintaining a sense of team and company culture. We designed the facility with the cloud in mind. When you plan to build local hardware resources like a render farm, you end up buying for peak capacity, which means many times the system is underutilized. Instead, with the help of our partners at ZYNC, we jumped head first into Amazon’s EC2 cloud services. By moving rendering to the cloud, instead of owning the hardware locally, you start to treat it like a utility, such as electricity. You only pay for what you use. This means that rendering can literally be scaled from as little as the Macs on the artists’ desks to as many cores as you need. You have a lower total operating cost, and don’t have to pass unused equipment expenses on to the next client.”

“We render both 2D and 3D in the cloud, using V-Ray for 3D renders and Nuke for comps. ZYNC provides the software to manage the process from end-to-end. In order to make it work efficiently, we have an extremely fast internet connection. We literally push terabytes of data back and forth. Fortunately, it only takes a few minutes to get our shots into the cloud at first. After that, many of the revisions to a shot only require sending the changed data, which makes subsequent updates and renders just as fast as a local render farm.”

Security is always a concern when you talk about cloud-based services for the studios. Atomic Fiction has taken that issue head-on. Tudhope explained, “When we pitch a studio, we are often prepared with all sorts of data as to why the process is secure. In most cases, they are actually quite eager to exploit the cost savings and quality improvements, via more and faster artist iterations that cloud rendering provides. The reality is that many effects shops – especially smaller ones – don’t even have dedicated firewalls between them and the Internet. We take security very seriously, with high-end firewalls, a well-engineered internal network architecture, and heavy encryption of data going into and out of the cloud. Despite these intense security precautions, we are careful to only process small slices of a shot – not edited scenes with audio – with the cloud. Those micro-level components pose a much smaller security risk for our clients. We believe that the most important security measure of all is the professionalism of your staff and imparting to them how important the issue of security is.”

Looper opens across the country in September. Check it out to see how Atomic Fiction has used the cloud and off-the-shelf tools to transform the reality of today into the cities of tomorrow.

More from FxGuideWired and Movieline.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine (NewBay Media, LLC).

©2012 Oliver Peters

Hemingway & Gellhorn

Director Philip Kaufman has a talent for telling a good story against the backdrop of history. The Right Stuff (covering the start of the United States’ race into space) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague) made their marks, but now the latest, Hemingway & Gellhorn continues that streak.

Originally intended as a theatrical film, but ultimately completed as a made-for-HBO feature, Hemingway & Gellhorn chronicles the short and tempestuous relationship between Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen) and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman). The two met in 1936 in Key West, traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War and were married in 1940. They lived in Havana and after four years of a difficult relationship were divorced in 1945. During her 60-year career as a journalist, Gellhorn was recognized as being one of the best war correspondents of the last century. She covered nearly every conflict up until and including the U. S. invasion of Panama in 1989.

The film also paired another team – that of Kaufman and film editor Walter Murch – both of whom had last teamed up for The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I recently spoke with Walter Murch upon his return from the screening of Hemingway & Gellhorn at the Cannes Film Festival. Murch commented on the similarities of these projects, “I’ve always been attracted to the intersection of history and drama. I hadn’t worked with Phil since the 1980s, so I enjoyed tackling another film together, but I was also really interested in the subject matter. When we started, I really didn’t know that much about Martha Gellhorn. I had heard the name, but that was about it. Like most folks, I knew the legend and myth of Hemingway, but not really many of the details of him as a person.”

This has been Murch’s first project destined for TV, rather than theaters. He continued, “Although it’s an HBO film, we never treated it as anything other than a feature film, except that our total schedule, including shooting, was about six months long, instead of ten or more months. In fact, seeing the film in Cannes with an audience of 2,500 was very rewarding. It was the first time we had actually screened in front of a theatrical audience that large. During post, we had a few ‘friends and family’ screenings, but never anything with a formal preview audience. That’s, of course, standard procedure with the film studios. I’m not sure what HBO’s plans are for Hemingway & Gellhorn beyond the HBO channels. Often some of their films make it into theatrical distribution in countries where HBO doesn’t have a cable TV presence.”

Hemingway & Gellhorn was produced entirely in the San Francisco Bay area, even though it was a period film and none of the story takes place there. All visual effects were done by Tippett Studio, supervised by Christopher Morley, which included placing the actors into scenes using real archival footage. Murch explained, “We had done something similar in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The technology has greatly improved since then, and we were able to do things that would have been impossible in 1986. The archival film footage quality was vastly different from the ARRI ALEXA footage used for principal photography. The screenplay was conceived as alternating between grainless color and grainy monochrome scenes to juxtapose the intimate events in the lives of Hemingway and Gellhorn with their presence on the world stage at historical events. So it was always intended for effect, rather than trying to convince the audience that there was a completely continuous reality. As we got into editing, Phil started to play with color, using different tinting for the various locations. One place might be more yellow and another cool or green and so on. We were trying to be true to the reality of these people, but the film also has to be dramatic. Plus, Phil likes to have fun with the characters. There must be balance, so you have to find the right proportion for these elements.”

The task of finding the archival footage fell to Rob Bonz, who started a year before shooting. Murch explained, “An advantage you have today that we didn’t have in the ‘80s is YouTube. A lot of these clips exist on-line, so it’s easier to research what options you might have. Of course, then you have to find the highest quality version of what you’ve seen on-line. In the case of the events in Hemingway & Gellhorn, these took place all over the world, so Rob and his researchers were calling all kinds of sources, including film labs in Cuba, Spain and Russia that might still have some of these original nitrate materials.”

This was Walter Murch’s first experience working on a film recorded using an ARRI ALEXA. The production recorded 3K ARRIRAW files using the Codex recorder and then it was the editorial team’s responsibility to convert these files for various destinations, including ProResLT (1280 x 720) for the edit, H.264 for HBO review and DPX sequences for DI. Murch was quite happy with the ALEXA’s image. He said, “Since these were 3K frames we were able to really take advantage of the size for repositioning. I got so used to doing that with digital images, starting with Youth Without Youth, that it’s now just second nature. The ALEXA has great dynamic range and the image held up well to subtle zooms and frame divisions. Most repositionings and enlargements were on the order of 125% to 145%, but there’s one blow-up at 350% of normal.”

In addition to Bonz, the editorial team included Murch’s son Walter (first assistant editor) and David Cerf (apprentice). Walter Murch is a big proponent of using FileMaker Pro for his film editor’s code book and explained some of the changes on this film. “Dave really handled most of the FileMaker jiu-jitsu. It works well with XML, so we were able go back and forth between FileMaker Pro and Final Cut Pro 7 using XML. This time our script supervisor, Virginia McCarthy, was using ScriptE, which also does a handshake with FileMaker, so that her notes could be instantly integrated into our database. Then we could use this information to drive an action in Final Cut Pro – for instance, the assembly of dailies reels. FileMaker would organize the information about yesterday’s shooting, and then an XML out of that data would trigger an assembly in Final Cut, inserting graphics and text as needed in between shots. In the other direction, we would create visibility-disabled slugs on a dedicated video track, tagged with scene information about the clips in the video tracks below. Outputting XML from Final Cut would create an instantaneous continuity list with time markers in FileMaker.”

The way Walter Murch organizes his work is a good fit for Final Cut Pro 7, which he used on Hemingway & Gellhorn and continues to use on a current documentary project. In fact, at a Boston FCP user gathering, Murch showed one of the most elaborate screen grabs of an FCP timeline that you can imagine. He takes full advantage of the track structure to incorporate temporary sound effects and music cues, as well as updated final music and effects.

Another trick he mentioned to me was something he referred to as a QuickTime skin. Murch continued, “I edit with the complete movie on the timeline, not in reels, so I always have the full cut in front of me. I started using this simple QuickTime skin technique with Tetro. First, I export the timeline as a self-contained QuickTime file and then re-import the visual. This is placed on the upper-most video track, effectively hiding everything below. As such, it’s like a ‘skin’ that wraps the clips below it, so the computer doesn’t ‘see’ them when you scroll back and forth. The visual information is now all at one location on a hard drive, so the system isn’t bogged down with unrendered files and other clutter. When you make changes, then you ‘razor-blade’ through the QuickTime and pull back the skin, revealing the ‘internal organs’ (the clips that you want to revise) below – thus making the changes like a surgeon. Working this way also gives a quick visual overview of where you’ve made changes. You can instantly see where the skin has been ‘broken’ and how extensive the changes were. It’s the visual equivalent of a change list. After a couple of weeks of cutting, on average, I make a new QuickTime and start the process over.”

Walter Murch is currently working on a feature documentary about the Large Hadron Collider. Murch, in his many presentations and discussions on editing, considers the art part plumbing (knowing the workflow), part performance (instinctively feeling the rhythm and knowing, in a musical sense, when to cut) and part writing (building and then modifying the story through different combinations of picture and sound). Editing a documentary is certainly a great example of the editor as writer. His starting point is 300 hours of material following three theorists and three experimentalists over a four-year period, including the catastrophic failure of the accelerator nine days after it was turned on for the first time. Murch, who has always held a love and fascination for the sciences, is once again at that intersection of history and drama.

Click here to watch the trailer.

(And here’s a nice additional article from the New York Times.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine (NewBay Media, LLC).

©2012 Oliver Peters