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