The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The director who brought us Se7en has tapped into the dark side again with the Christmas-time release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Hot off of the success of The Social Network, director David Fincher dove straight into this cinematic adaptation of Swedish writer Steig Larsson’s worldwide publishing phenomena. Even though a Swedish film from the book had been released in 2009, Fincher took on the project, bringing his own special touch.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is part of Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. The plot revolves around the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, a member of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families, forty years earlier. After these many years her uncle hires Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a disgraced financial reporter, to investigate the disappearance. Blomkvist teams with punk computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Together they start to unravel the truth that links Harriet’s disappearance to a string of grotesque murders that happened forty years before.

For this production, Fincher once again assembled the production and post team that proved successful on The Social Network, including director of photography Jeff Cronenweth, editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall and the music scoring team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Production started in August of last year and proceeded for 167 shooting days on location and in studios in Sweden and Los Angeles.

Like the previous film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was shot completely with RED cameras – about three-quarters using the RED One with the M-X sensor and the remaining quarter with the RED EPIC, which was finally being released around that time. Since the EPIC cameras were in their very early stages, the decision was made to not use them on location in Sweden, because of the extreme cold. After the first phase in Sweden, the crew moved to soundstages in Los Angeles and continued with the RED Ones. The production started using the EPIC cameras during their second phase of photography in Sweden and during reshoots back in Los Angeles.

The editing team

I recently spoke with Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, who as a team have cut Fincher’s last three films, earning them a best editing Oscar for The Social Network as well as a nomination The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I was curious about tackling a film that had already been done a couple of years before. Kirk Baxter replied, “We were really reacting to David’s material above all, so the fact that there was another film about the same book didn’t really affect me. I hadn’t seen the film before and I purposefully waited until we were about halfway through the fine cut, before I sat down and watched the film. Then it was interesting to see how they had approached certain story elements, but only as a curiosity.”

As in the past, both Wall and Baxter split up editorial duties based on the workload at any given time. Baxter started cutting at the beginning of production, with Wall joining the project in April of this year. Baxter explained, “I was cutting during the production to keep up with camera, but sometimes priorities would shift. For example, if an actor had to leave the country or a set needed to be struck, David would need to see a cut quickly to be sure that he had the coverage he needed. So in these cases, we’d jump on those scenes to make sure he knew they were OK.” Wall continued, “This was a very labor intensive film. David shot 95% to 98% of everything with two cameras. On The Social Network they recorded 324 hours of footage and selected 281 hours for the edit. On Dragon Tattoo that count went up to 483 hours recorded and 443 hours selected!”

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has many invisible effects. According to Wall, “At last count there were over 1,000 visual effects shots throughout the film. Most of these are shot stabilizations or visual enhancements, such as adding matte painting elements, lens flares or re-creating split screens from the offline.  Snow and other seasonal elements were added to a number of shots, helping the overall tone, as well as reinforcing the chronology of the film. I think viewers will be hard pressed to tell which shots are real and which are enhanced.” Baxter added, “In a lot of cases the exterior locations were shot in Sweden and elaborate sets were built on sound stages in LA for the interiors. There’s one sequence that takes place in a cabin. All of the exteriors seen through the windows and doors are green screen shots. And those were bright green! I’ve been seeing the composited shots come back and it’s amazing how perfect they are. The door is opened and there’s a bright exterior there now.”

A winning workflow solution

The key to efficient post on a RED project is the workflow. Assistant editor Tyler Nelson explained the process to me. “We used essentially the same procedures as for The Social Network. Of course, we learned things on that, which we refined for this film. Since they used both the RED M-X and the EPIC cameras, there were two different frame sizes to deal with – 4352 x 2176 for the RED One and 5120 x 2560 for the EPIC. Plus each of these cameras uses a different color science to process the data from the sensor. The file handling was done through Datalab, a company that Angus owns. A custom piece of software called Wrangler automates the handling of the RED files. It takes care of copying, verifying and archiving the .r3d files to LTO and transcoding the media for the editors, as well as for review on the secured PIX system. The larger RED files were scaled down to 1920 x 1080 ProRes LT with a center-cut extraction for the editors, as well as 720p H.264 for PIX. The ‘look’ was established on set, so none of the RED color metadata was changed during this process.”

“When the cut was locked, I used an EDL [edit decision list] and my own database to conform the .r3d files back into reels of conformed DPX image sequences. This part was done in After Effects, which also allowed me to reposition and stabilize shots as needed. Most of the repositioning was generally a north-south adjustment to move a shot up or down for better head room. The final output frame size was 3600 x 1500 pixels. Since I was using After Effects, I could make any last minute fixes if needed. For instance, I saw one shot that had a monitor reflection within the shot. It was easy to quickly paint that out in After Effects. The RED files were set to the RedColor2 / RedLogFilm color space and gamma settings. Then I rendered out extracted DPX image sequences of the edited reels to be sent Light Iron Digital who did the DI again on this film.”

On the musical trail

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo leans heavily on a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. An early peak came from a teaser cut for the film by Kirk Baxter to a driving Reznor cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. Unlike the typical editor and composer interaction – where library temp tracks are used for the edit and then a new score is done at the end of the line – Reznor and Ross were feeding tracks to the editors during the edit.

Baxter explained, “At first Trent and Atticus score to the story rather than to specific scenes. The main difference with their approach to scoring a picture is that they first provide us with a library of original score, removing the need for needledrops. It’s then a collaborative process of finding homes for the tracks. Ren Klyce [sound designer/re-recording mixer] also plays an integral part in this.” Wall added, “David initially reviewed the tracks and made suggestions as to which scenes they might work best in.  We started with these suggestions and refined placement as the edit evolved.  The huge benefit of working this way was that we had a very refined temp score very early in the process.” Baxter concluded, “Then Trent’s and Atticus’s second phase is scoring to picture. They re-sculpt their existing tracks to perfectly fit picture and the needs of the movie. Trent’s got a great work ethic. He’s very precise and a real perfectionist.”

The cutting experience

I definitely enjoyed the Oscar-winning treatment these two editors applied to intercutting dialogue scenes in The Social Network, but Baxter was quick to interject, “I’d have to say Dragon Tattoo was more complicated than The Social Network. It was a more complex narrative, so there were more opportunities to play with scene order. In the first act you are following the two main characters on separate paths. We played with how their scenes were intercut so that their stories were as interconnected as possible, giving promise to the audience of their inevitable union.”

“The first assembly was about three hours long. That hovered at around 2:50 for a while and got a bit longer as additional material was shot, but then shorter again as we trimmed. Eventually some scenes were lost to bring the locked cut in at two-and-a-half hours. Even though scenes were lost, those still have to be fine cut. You don’t know what can be lost unless you finish everything out and consider the film in its full form. A lot of work was put into the back half of the film to speed it up. Most of those changes were a matter of tightening the pace by losing the lead-in and lead-outs of scenes and often losing some detail within the scenes.”

Wall expanded on this, “Fans of any popular book series want a filmed adaptation to be faithful to the original story. In this case, we’re really dealing with a ‘five act’ structure. [laughs]. Obviously, not everything in the book can make it into the movie. Some of the investigative dead ends have to be excised, but you can’t remove every red herring.  So it was a challenging film to cut. Not only was it very labor intensive, with many disturbing scenes to put together, it was also a tricky storytelling exercise. But when you’re done and it’s all put together, it’s very rewarding to see. The teaser calls it the ‘feel-bad film of Christmas’ but it’s a really engaging story about these characters’ human experience. We hope audiences will find it entertaining.”

Some additional coverage from Post magazine.

Written for DV magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)

©2011 Oliver Peters

Case studies in film editing

Last update : January 18, 2014

NOTE: This post has been changed into a page on the top header, called “Film Stories”. Further updates will be made on that page.

I’ve had the good fortune, thanks to my work with Videography and Digital Video magazine, to interview an inspiring collection of some of the best film editors in the world. You can click on the “filmmakers” category on the side panel to access these stories, but I’ve aggregated them here for easy access here.

These interviews cover a wide range of feature film styles. The interviewees were gracious enough to share their experiences with creative challenges and how they leveraged editing technology to get the job done. For those keeping a tally, Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut Pro are well-represented, along with “cameos” by Lightworks. Even Adobe’s tools make several appearances. Although I don’t consider myself in the same league as most of these luminaries, I’ve included a few projects of mine, which happen to fit nicely into the world of indie filmmaking.

I hope you will take the time to revisit these articles and pick up some tips that might benefit your own personal style. Enjoy!

The Wolf of Wall Street

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Featured in the post – Thelma Schoonmaker, Scott Brock

American Hustle

Directed by David O. Russell

Featured in the post – Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten

Inside Llewyn Davis

Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Featured in the post – Katie McQuerrey

Particle Fever

Directed by Mark Levinson

Featured in the post – Walter Murch

The East

Directed by Zal Batmanglij

Featured in the post – Andrew Weisblum and Bill Pankow

The Hobbit

Directed by Peter Jackson

Featured in the post – Jabez Olssen

Phil Spector

Directed by David Mamet

Featured in the post – Barbara Tulliver

Zero Dark Thirty

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Featured in the post – Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg

Cloud Atlas

Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer

Featued in the post – Alexander Berner

Looper

Directed by Rian Johnson

Featured in the post – Ryan Thudhope

Hemingway & Gellhorn

Directed by Philip Kaufman

Featured in the post – Walter Murch

The Bourne Legacy

Directed by Tony Gilroy

Featured in the post – John Gilroy

Moonrise Kingdom

Directed by Wes Anderson

Featured in the post – Andrew Weisblum

The Descendants

Directed by Alexander Payne

Featured in the post – Kevin Tent, Mindy Elliott

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Directed by David Fincher

Featured in the post – Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter, Tyler Nelson

Hugo

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Featured in the post – Rob Legato, Thelma Schoonmaker

My Fair Lidy

Directed by Ralph Clemente

Featured in the post – Oliver Peters

Higher Ground

Directed by Vera Farmiga

Featured in the post – Colleen Sharp, Jeremy Newmark

127 Hours

Directed by Danny Boyle

Featured in the post – Jon Harris, Tamsin Jeffrey

The Social Network

Directed by David Fincher

Featured in the post – Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter, Michael Cioni, Tyler Nelson

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Directed by Don Hahn

Featured in the post – Vartan Nazarian, John Ryan, Ellen Keneshea

Casino Jack (documentary)

Directed by Alex Gibney

Featured in the post – Allison Ellwood

Tetro

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Featured in the post – Walter Murch

Scare Zone

Directed by Jon Binkowski

Featured in the post – Oliver Peters

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Directed by David Fincher

Featured in the post – Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter

Blindsided (documentary)

Directed by Talia Osteen

Featured in the post – Oliver Peters

Encounters at the End of the World

Directed by Werner Herzog

Featured in the post – Brian Hutchings

The Dark Knight

Directed by Chris Nolan

Featured in the post – Lee Smith

Shine A Light

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Featured in the post – David Tedeschi, Rob Legato

Sweeney Todd

Directed by Tim Burton

featured in the post – Chris Lebenzon

Runnin’ Down A Dream

directed by Peter Bogdanovich

Featured in the post – Mary Ann McClure

No Country For Old Men

Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Featured in the post – Ethan and Joel Coen

Youth Without Youth

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Featured in the post – Walter Murch, Sean Cullen

In the Valley of Elah

Directed by Paul Haggis

Featured in the post – Jo Francis

The Bourne Ultimatum

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Featured in the post – Chris Rouse

Charlie Bartlett

Directed by Jon Poll

Featured in the post – Jon Poll

Ratatouille

Directed by Brad Bird

Featured in the post – Darren Holmes

The Closer (TNT television)

Featured in the post – Eli Nilsen

Hot Fuzz

Directed by Edgar Wright

Featured in the post – Chris Dickens

Death To The Tinman

Directed byRay Tintori

Featured in the post – Ray Tintori, Par Parekh

Year of the Dog

Directed by Mike White

Featured in the post – Dody Dorn

Zodiac

Directed by David Fincher

Featured in the post – Angus Wall

The War Tapes

Directed by Deborah Scranton

Featured in the post – Steve James

Waist Deep

Directed by Vondie Curtis Hall

Featured in the post – Teri Shropshire

Crash

Directed by Paul Haggis

Featured in the post – Hughes Winborne

American Hardcore

Directed by Paul Rachman

Featured in the post – Paul Rachman

The Way Back Home

Directed by Reza Badiyi

Featured in the post – Oliver Peters

Jarhead

Directed by Sam Mendes

Featured in the post – Walter Murch, Sean Cullen

Chasing Ghosts

Directed by Kyle Jackson

Featured in the post – Kyle Jackson

The Aviator

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Featured in the post – Ron Ames, Rob Legato

Articles originally written for Videography and Digital Video magazines (NewBay Media LLC)

©2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 Oliver Peters

The Social Network

Who would have thought that the online world of social media would make an interesting movie? That’s exactly what David Fincher set out to do in The Social Network, the story of how Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) became the youngest billionaire in history – thanks to a little start-up called Facebook. The Aaron Sorkin script is based on the book, The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich.

This was a return engagement for a number of Fincher’s crew, including cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club) and editors Angus Wall (Panic Room, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Kirk Baxter (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). The past two films – shot with the Grass Valley Viper camera – raised the bar for an all-digital production and post production workflow. The Social Network does that again, as the first released studio picture shot with a RED ONE camera equipped with the upgraded Mysterium-X sensor. As in the past films, the editorial team used Apple Final Cut Pro connected to an Apple Xsan shared storage system as their weapon of choice.

Angus Wall explained the workflow, “From our standpoint as editors, it was a very easy film to work on. Tyler Nelson and Alex Olivares, the assistant editors, handled all the data management and file conversions at David’s production offices. They converted the native RED camera files to Apple ProRes 422 (LT) for us. After that, it was pretty much the same for us as on Button or Zodiac, except that this time we were working with 1920×1080 images, which was great.”

When I suggested that Benjamin Button must have been more of a challenge as an effects film, Kirk Baxter quickly pointed out the similarities. “There are about 1,000 effects shots in The Social Network. It has a lot of digital matte paintings, but there was also face replacement much like in Button. In this film, there are two characters who are twins, but in fact the actors aren’t. So a similar process was used to turn one of the actors into the twin of the other. Although the story isn’t driven by the same sort of visual effect, like the aging technique that was a dramatic device in Benjamin Button, it still has a lot of effects work.”

For a fresh feel, Fincher tapped Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the score. Angus explained, “This worked out extremely well. Trent and Atticus were hired relatively early in the process.  Since they were working in tandem with the cutting, we were able to drop in a lot of near-final tracks instead of using temp music. This was great, because we had about 30 of their tracks to work with, all of which were actually intended for this film. That’s much better than the norm, where you scour your iTunes library to find some workable music to put under scenes.”

David Fincher shot approximately 280 hours of footage, recording all of the scenes with two and sometimes three RED cameras. The production schedule spanned from September to March, with a pick-up scene shot in July. Baxter and Wall worked out of Rock Paper Scissors (Wall’s LA editorial company) during shooting, staying up with the production during the first assembly process. Once production wrapped, editing was moved to Fincher’s production company offices. The two editors split up the scenes between themselves during the fine-cutting of the film.

Baxter explained, “David is a busy guy, so he doesn’t constantly sit over your shoulder while you’re editing. If Angus or I started out on a complex scene during the assembly, we usually stayed with it throughout post, since we were already familiar with all the footage. David would bounce between our two cutting rooms reviewing and offering his notes. He’s a very good director for an editor, because he knows exactly what he wants. He’s not an ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ type of guy. But he doesn’t overwhelm you either with information. At the beginning, he’ll set a general direction of what he’s looking for to get you started. Then deeper into the fine-cut, he’ll start tuning his approach and giving you more detailed comments.”

Most first assemblies are long and then the editor has to do major surgery to get the movie to the desired length. This wasn’t an issue with The Social Network. Wall explained, “The script was around 160 pages, so we were concerned that the first assembly was going to be correspondingly long. Our target was to keep the film under two hours. From the start, Kirk and I cut the scenes very tightly, using faster performances and generally keeping the pace of the film high. When the first assembly was completed, we were at a length of 1 hour 55 minutes – actually a minute shorter than the final version. Unlike most films, we were able to relax the pace and put some air back into the performances during the fine cut.”

Shooting with the RED ONE cameras introduced workflow changes for this film. Tyler Nelson (first assistant editor) handled the data management, creation of dailies and the final conforming of files to be sent to Light Iron Digital for the digital intermediate. Nelson explained, “I’m very particular about how the files get handled and so maintained control throughout the process. I was using two workstations with RED Rocket accelerator cards running ROCKETcine-X software to process our dailies. I would generate ProRes 422 (LT) QuickTimes for Angus and Kirk.  However, when it came to delivering visual effect elements and our final conform, we needed a bit more control, so I used a script that I wrote in FileMaker Pro to reference our codebook and pull our online media.”

Nelson continued, “When I received the locked cut, I generated an EDL for each video track and then used my FileMaker Pro script to parse the EDL to drive the transcode of the RED files into 4K DPX image sequences. I used these same EDLs to import each reel into After Effects CS5 to assemble our final conform. The footage was shot in 4K [4096x2048]. David framed his shots with a 2.40 matte, but with a twist.  We added an extra 4% padding on all sides so that if we wanted to reposition the frame north, south, east or west, we had a bit more image to work with. Effectively we had 3932×1638 pixels to use. The final images were exported as 2K [2048x1024] DPX sequences for Light Iron’s DI.” This extra padding on the edges of the frame came in handy, because Nelson also stabilized a number of shots. SynthEyes was used to generate tracking data for use in After Effects for this stabilization.

Early testing with various DI processes allowed the team to settle on the optimum RED settings to use in REDline (RED’s command line-driven software rendering engine). All files were delivered using the REDcolor (color space) and REDlog (gamma) values, which provided the most latitude to Light Iron’s colorist, Ian Vertovec. Light Iron CEO and DI supervisor, Michael Cioni explained, “Working with the full-range (flat) DPX files gives us nearly as much malleable range as with the native R3D raw files. Although it’s nice to grade in raw – because you have additional control to change color temperature or ISO values – that really isn’t practical in a film like this, with over 1,000 visual effects. You don’t want a lot of different vendors applying their own image conversions to the files and then later be unable to match the different shots at the DI stage. With log-like DPX files, they behave similar to scanned film negative and fit nicely into the existing pipelines.”

Cioni continued, “Ian graded the files using one of our Quantel Pablos. Since much of the look of the film was eloquently established on set, the grading came naturally to nearly every scene. The Social Network will really show off the expanded latitude and low-noise characteristics of RED’s M-X sensor. The scenes in this movie really live in the shadows. This film will deliver to audiences significantly more detail in images below 10 IRE as compared to typical digital cinema sensitivity. Although the majority of the first release will be seen as film prints, the future of all movies is digital, so the priority was given to the look of the digital master, rather than the other way around.” Technicolor handled the film-out recording for release prints, including digital-to-film color transforms from the DSM (Digital Source Master). The film’s final output is cropped for a 2.40:1 release format.

The technology angle of The Social Network is fascinating, but I wondered if there were any creative challenges for the editors. Kirk Baxter pointed out, “It was very well scripted and directed, so not a lot of story-telling issues had to be resolved in the edit. In fact, there were a number of scenes that were great fun to put together. For example, there’s an early scene about some of the legal depositions. It takes place in two different boardrooms at different times and locations, but the scene is intercut as if it is one continuous conversation. David gave us lots of coverage, so it was a real joy to solve the puzzle, matching eyelines and so on.”

Angus Wall added, “This is a movie about the birth of a major online power, but what happens on the computer is a very minor part.  For us, it was more important to concentrate on the drama and emotions of the characters and that’s what makes this a timeless story.  It’s utterly contemporary… but a little bit Shakespearean, too.   It’s about people participating in something that’s bigger than themselves, something that will change all of their lives in one way or another.”

UPDATE: Here are several nice pieces from Adobe , Post magazine (here and here) and the Motion Picture Editors Guild that also go into more detail about the post workflow.

Written for Videography magazine (NewBay Media LLC).

©2010 Oliver Peters

Movies by the fireside

With Oscar time approaching and movie-going, as well as, movie-giving a holiday tradition for many families, I decided to post a list of some films that are fun for editors to watch. These aren’t all Oscar-contenders, although there’s plenty of bling in this list. They are presented in no particular order, so I hope you enjoy.

Inglourious Basterds
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Film editor: Sally Menke

This is the newest film in the batch and I found it to be not only well-crafted, but also beautifully shot (cinematography by Robert Richardson). Tarantino draws a lot of opinions, but it’s clear that his approach to shooting and editing uses a very classic style. Pay attention to the dialogue scenes and you’ll agree that Tarantino is probably the best director today in structuring and directing dialogue-driven films.

Memento
Director: Christopher Nolan
Film editor: Dody Dorn

This quirky film is best known for the way the plot is revealed in reverse. In fact, there’s a DVD version that lets you run the scenes from back-to-front in a somewhat linear, chronological order. Although you’d think the scene construction is a contrivance developed in the cutting room, Dorn is the first to admit that this was actually how the script was written.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Director: David Fincher
Film editors: Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall

Slumdog Millionaire beat it out for best cinematography, but nevertheless, Button is a gorgeous example of how digital films can look (cinematography by Claudio Miranda). The aging VFX are the hook, of course, but they work well in service of the story. The editing helps to move the story along, aiding the matter of fact way in which the story is told by its characters.

Murderball
Directors: Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro
Film editors: Conor O’Neill and Geoffrey Richman

I enjoy documentaries, but they don’t get any better than when the actual events take plot turns as if they were scripted. In this story about paraplegic rugby, the participants are like gladiators in wheelchairs. It was shot with a variety of DV cameras, but the editing pace makes that something you’ll never obsess over. Natural rivalries develop and this story is a blast for anyone who loves films about sports and sports personalities.

Blackhawk Down
Director: Ridley Scott
Film editor: Pietro Scalia

Scott’s film about the horrific events in Mogadishu is a seminal war film – representative of the surrealism of conflict in ways that a film like Apocalypse Now could never do justice to. It’s also a movie that I feel was largely built in the edit bay. Dump a bushel basket of disjointed combat footage on the editor and see what you get.

The Bourne Ultimatum (or Supremacy or Identity)
Directors: Paul Greengrass and Doug Liman
Film editors: Christopher Rouse, Richard Person and Saar Klein

Pick any or all of the three. They are all great. The main criticism leveled by others is the shaky-cam style of shooting and the frenetic ADD cutting. Not something that bothers me in the least. Nevertheless, the films are a fast ride for the audience and exemplify good, fast-paced cutting. It’s all the more helped by the believability Matt Damon brings to the role.

The Italian Job
Director: F. Gary Gray
Film editors: Richard Francis-Bruce and Christopher Rouse

This 2003 remake probably didn’t make many “best lists”, but I enjoyed the film. It’s a nicely crafted caper flick without many flaws. You’ll notice the deft editing Christopher Rouse (The Bourne Ultimatum) brings to the movie. Plus a really cool car chase scene with Minis!

Youth Without Youth
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Film editor: Walter Murch

This is Coppola’s first digital film. It was shot in Romania and is highlighted by some gorgeous cinematography (Mihai Malaimare, Jr.) and a very evocative score (Osvaldo Golijov). It’s a very romantic and surrealistic tale that will keep you enthralled until the end.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Director: Joel Coen
Film editors: Joel and Ethan Coen (credited as Roderick Jaynes), Tricia Cooke

This film is credited with starting the move to DI finishing, thanks to DP Roger Deakins. It’s got a great look and the story shows the Coens at their best, with homages to The Wizard of Oz and Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. I happen to like George Clooney when he plays the buffoon and the stellar cast of O Brother never disappoints in the madcap category.

Shine A Light
Director: Martin Scorsese
Film editor: David Tedeschi

Although technically a documentary, Shine A Light is one of the best concert films in years. I’ve cut my share of concert shows, so I was cutting this one right in my head the whole time I was watching. It’s certainly a fun cut and one that gives you an intimate look inside the performance. Coupled with a Bob Clearmountain live music mix, you’ll feel like you’re right in the middle of the Beacon Theater when you watch this one.

Hot Fuzz
Director: Edgar Wright
Film editor: Chris Dickens

I saw this again the other night on Comedy Central and it was hilarious. This is a Wright/Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) spoof of cop/buddy films, that has more action than most action films. Pay close attention to the cutting, as this film has over 5,000 picture edits! Dickens picked up an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, but this effort is no less inspiring for other editors. There is some over-the-top violence (a la Monty Python), but in spite of the parody, Hot Fuzz holds up well against “legitimate” action films like the Bourne franchise.

There Will Be Blood
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Film editor: Dylan Tichenor

Daniel Day-Lewis is totally captivating as oilman Daniel Plainview in this film adaption of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! This is also a look at the beauty of film at its best, done the “natural way” – i.e. no DI. Kudos to Robert Elswit, whose cinematography has a real richness to it. For the editors in the crowd, pay attention to the first portion of the film. Tichenor does a masterful job of advancing the story over many years of Plainview’s life without any dialogue.

Well, that’s a quick look at a dozen films for the holidays. Have fun!

© 2009 Oliver Peters

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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If hitting the theaters is a Christmas Day tradition in your family, then David Fincher has a holiday treat for you. This innovative filmmaker brought us the first uncompressed digital film in Zodiac, and is now set to outdo that effort in his newest tour de force production, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. The screenplay was adapted by Eric Roth from a 1920s F. Scott Fitzgerald story and tells the tale of a man born in his eighties and who has the unusual condition of aging backwards.

 

Fincher used a similar methodology to that of Zodiac and nearly the same editorial team, including editor Angus Wall. On The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Wall was joined by Kirk Baxter, a commercial editor at Wall’s Los Angeles editorial company, Rock Paper Scissors. Benjamin Button was Baxter’s first full-length feature film.

 

In our recent conversation, Kirk Baxter explained, “I worked a little with Angus on the tail end of Zodiac, but this is the first film where I’ve had a lead role. We started this around Thanksgiving two years ago. I edited for the first six months long distance, because the crew was in New Orleans and Montreal shooting location scenes. My communication with David was over the phone and using the PIX system for reviews. After that, they moved to LA and the rest of the production took place on a soundstage. Angus joined in after production and then he and I pretty much tag-teamed on scenes thereafter.”

 

Digital workflow

 

Zodiac was photographed using a Grass Valley Viper FilmStream digital cinema camera. In my earlier interview, Wall had indicated to me that Fincher might opt for a Dalsa Origin on Benjamin Button. In the end, the director stuck with a camera and post pipeline that had been successful for Zodiac. Angus explained, “David is very much into the technology. Whenever one project ends, he looks around and sees what’s new and might be viable for the next project. For this film, we stayed with the Viper. A few scenes were also shot with a Sony F23 and the high-speed clips were done on film. David recently shot a Nike commercial with the RED One camera and was very happy with that experience. I found the post workflow easy to deal with, but I think we’re fortunate in that Rock Paper Scissors has a culture of people who like to deal with data. In addition, the RED [Digital Cinema Camera] team provided tremendous support.”

 

The post pipeline, however, had evolved for Benjamin Button. In the past, Viper footage recorded on S.two hard drive magazines (D.MAG) was first copied to an Apple Xsan shared storage system and then converted into QuickTime for editing. As part of the Zodiac pipeline, they archived the S.two uncompressed DPX files to LTO3 data back-up tapes. These were later used to conform the cut prior to sending it out for the digital intermediate film finish. Apple Shake scripts converted the uncompressed DPX files into DVCPRO HD QuickTime media for use in Final Cut. This required a lot of rendering for all the footage that Fincher had shot.

 

Assistant editor Tyler Nelson continued our conversation. “On Benjamin Button, S.two had developed their i.DOCK unit, which plays the D.MAGs and acts like a virtual VTR. Logging information from the set is turned into an XML file that can be imported into Final Cut. The clips are then batch captured in real-time. Since i.DOCK uses serial machine control and has an HD-SDI video output, footage goes straight from the D.MAGs into the Final Cut stations through the AJA KONA cards. The XML files provide a way to match the metadata between the DPX and the QuickTime media.” Angus remembers David wanting “dailies to become hourlies.”

 

Other improvements included the use of Rubber Monkey Software’s Monkey Extract and IRIDAS FrameCycler. Monkey Extract is best known as one of the post options for RED files, but it can be used with a variety of file-based formats. This tool pulled the uncompressed DPX media from the LTO3 back-up tapes. These files in turn were conformed using IRIDAS FrameCycler to match the edited sequence from Final Cut Pro. Despite the heavy use of Apple technology, Color hasn’t yet fit into this pipeline. Angus explained, “I really like Color and have used it to grade three or four commercials with David and several more with other directors. Benjamin Button was done as a DI at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging.” Digital intermediate colorist Jan Yarbrough handled the final color grading on a Filmlight Baselight system.

 

Editorial challenges

 

No two films present the same challenges for an editor and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is no exception. Kirk put it this way, “The whole film was a challenge because stylistically there are so many different scenes. The biggest challenge for us came in the first three reels, because there is no lead performance during that entire time.” Angus went on, “In this period of the film, the Benjamin Button character is a composite of a body actor and a CGI face. When we started, we only had the body actor delivering temp dialogue lines in the scene with other actors. Initially we placed a circle wipe over the actor’s face so the performance would not be distracting. Brad recorded temp dialogue that we used for pacing. Once these scenes were close to being locked, David shot motion capture of Brad’s face performing to the rough cut. This performance was then mapped onto a CGI head and Digital Domain composited the CGI head onto the body actor’s torso.”

 

This film received the benefit of other digital tools. According to Angus, “One of the scenes in the film is a fable told by Cate Blanchett. We were looking for ways to set this scene apart and decided to give it an old movie look, since it’s a movie-within-a-movie. To that aim, we settled on treating these shots with Magic Bullet Looks. The final version that appears in the film was processed through [Adobe] After Effects where we ‘baked in’ the effect. There are also a few other scenes throughout that received a little Magic Bullet love.”

 

Kirk added, “David employs a lot of classical film language in his shooting style. He uses the rules intelligently and also breaks them intelligently. Often the toughest scenes to cut are the simplest. Big action scenes, such as the battle, go together like a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces just fall into place, because David has planned it all out. On the other hand, a simple, straight dramatic scene made up of a wide shot and singles, can be very tough, because you are trying to gauge the best performance and get the right emotion out of the scene.”

 

“I’ve done tons of commercial sessions where the editor has to be as much a politician in the room as concentrate on the edit. The good thing about working with David is that he has a very clear vision and limits the number of voices an editor has to listen to. He lets you be an editor. He doesn’t need to review each and every take, but will let you know if something doesn’t work . If you cut a scene three different ways, he can quickly decide which version works and which doesn’t.”

 

Honing the story

 

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button spent two years in post with Wall and Baxter cutting on shared Apple Final Cut Pro workstations tied to a 60TB Xsan system located at David Fincher’s production offices. The first cut came in at 3 hours 15 minutes, which didn’t include the last nine days of shooting. That added another 20 minutes. Through tightening, but with the extra footage, the film got down to 2 hours and 50 minutes. As Angus explained, “Every minute after that was hard fought to get down to 2 hours and 46 minutes.”

 

Kirk expanded on this, “Most of the last year was really spent polishing the film. We revisited every scene to see how we could make it better. For instance, there are 250 split screens as ‘invisible edits’ in this film. These are cases where we might adjust a take for timing or add a bird flying in the sky from a different take, just to add that little something special. David shoots a lot of lock-offs and that makes this sort of polishing very easy. Even though this film has a fantasy element – Benjamin aging backwards – the story is very rooted in the real world. The script worked in a linear fashion so we didn’t have to rearrange scenes in post to make the story work. In fact, we removed one scene that foreshadowed an event the audience hadn’t seen yet. It was better to let the story reveal itself in a logical fashion. David is very protective of the story, so our trimming involved losing unnecessary lines here and there, rather than whole scenes.”

 

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is told from the point-of-view of Cate Blanchett’s character in her old age from a hospital bed. Angus commented that, “It’s a very personal but universal story – it’s really about life and death. Most of the people who have seen it have commented that it makes you consider your own life. You really get the urge to cherish those around you. The technology is always used in service of this purpose and that’s very satisfying.” Kirk concluded, “This is a very special film. I think it is really David’s ‘flag on the mountaintop’. I hope that the audience will see it that way as well.”

 

Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine and NewBay Media, L.L.C.