The Zero Theorem

df_tzt_1Few filmmakers are as gifted as Terry Gilliam when it comes to setting a story inside a dystopian future. The Monty Python alum, who brought us Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, to name just a few, is back with his newest, The Zero Theorem. It’s the story of Qohen Leth – played by Christoph Walz (Django Unchained, Water for Elephants, Inglorious Basterds) – an eccentric computer programmer who has been tasked by his corporate employer to solve the Zero Theorem. This is a calculation, that if solved, might prove that the meaning of life is nothingness.

The story is set in a futuristic London, but carries many of Gilliam’s hallmarks, like a retro approach to the design of technology. Qohen works out of his home, which is much like a rundown church. Part of the story takes Qohen into worlds of virtual reality, where he frequently interacts with Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), a webcam stripper that he met at a party, but who may have been sent by his employer, Mancom, to distract him. The Zero Theorem is very reminiscent of Brazil, but in concept, also of The Prisoner, a 1960s-era television series. Gilliam explores themes of isolation versus loneliness, the pointlessness of mathematical modeling to derive meaning and privacy issues.

I recently had a Skype chat with Mick Audsley, who edited the film last year. Audsley is London-based, but is currently nearing completion of a director’s cut of the feature film Everest in Iceland. This was his third Gilliam film, having previously edited Twelve Monkeys and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Audsley explained, “I knew Terry before Twelve Monkeys and have always had a lot of admiration for him. This is my third film with Terry, as well as a short, and he’s an extraordinarily interesting director to work with. He still thinks in a graphic way, since he is both literally and figuratively an artist. He can do all of our jobs better than we can, but really values the input from other collaborators. It’s a bit like playing in a band, where everyone feeds off of the input of the other band members.”df_tzt_5

The long path to production

The film’s screenplay writer Pat Rushin teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida. He originally submitted the script for The Zero Theorem to the television series Project Greenlight, where it made the top 250. The script ended up with the Zanuck Company. It was offered to Gilliam in 2008, but initially other projects got in the way. It was revived in June 2012 with Gilliam at the helm. The script was very ambitious for a limited budget of under $10 million, so production took place in Romania over a 37-day period. In spite of the cost challenges, it was shot on 35mm film and includes 250 visual effects.

df_tzt_6Audsley continued, “Nicola [Pecorini, director of photography] shot a number of tests with film, RED and ARRI ALEXA cameras . The decision was made to use film. It allowed him the latitude to place lights outside of the chapel set – Qohen’s home – and have light coming in through the windows to light up the interior. Kodak’s lab in Bucharest handled the processing and transfer and then sent Avid MXF files to London, where I was editing. Terry and the crew were able to view dailies in Romania and then we discussed these over the phone. Viewing dailies is a rarity these days with digitally-shot films and something I really miss. Seeing the dailies with the full company provides clarity, but I’m afraid it’s dying out as part of the filmmaking process.”df_tzt_7

While editing in parallel to the production, Audsley didn’t upload any in-progress cuts for Gilliam to review. He said, “It’s hard for the director to concentrate on the edit, while he’s still in production. As long as the coverage is there, it’s fine. Certainly Terry and Nicola have a supreme understanding of film grammar, so that’s not a problem. Terry knows to get those extra little shots that will make the edit better. So, I was editing largely on my own and had a first cut within about ten days of the time that the production wrapped. When Terry arrived in London, we first went over the film in twenty-minute reels. That took us about two to three weeks. Then we went through the whole film as one piece to get a sense for how it worked as a film.”

Making a cinematic story

df_tzt_4As with most films, the “final draft” of the script occurs in the cutting room. Audsley continued, “The film as a written screenplay was very fluid, but when we viewed it as a completed film, it felt too linear and needed to be more cinematic – more out of order. We thought that it might be best to move the sentences around in a more interesting way. We did that quite easily and quickly. Thus, we took the strength of the writing and realized it in cinematic language. That’s one of the big benefits of the modern digital editing tools. The real film is about the relationship between Bainsley and Qohen and less about the world they inhabit. The challenge as filmmakers in the cutting room is to find that truth.”

df_tzt_8Working with visual effects presents its own editorial challenge. “As an editor, you have to evaluate the weight and importance of the plate – the base element for a visual effect – before committing to the effect. From the point-of-view of cost, you can’t keep undoing shots that have teams of artists working on them. You have to ensure that the timing is exactly right before turning over the elements for visual effects development. The biggest, single visual challenge is making Terry’s world, which is visually very rich. In the first reel, we see a futuristic London, with moving billboards. These shots were very complex and required a lot of temp effects that I layered up in the timeline. It’s one of the more complex sequences I’ve built in the Avid, with both visual and audio elements interacting. You have to decide how much can you digest and that’s an open conversation with the director and effects artists.”

The post schedule lasted about twenty weeks ending with a mix in June 2013. Part of that time was tied up in waiting for the completion of visual effects. Since there was no budget for official audience screenings, the editorial team was not tasked with creating temp mixes and preview versions before finishing the film. Audsley said, “The first cut was not overly long. Terry is good in his planning. One big change that we made during the edit was to the film’s ending. As written, Qohen ends up in the real world for a nice, tidy ending. We opted to end the film earlier for a more ambiguous ending that would be better. In the final cut the film ends while he’s still in a virtual reality world. It provides a more cerebral versus practical ending for the viewer.”

Cutting style 

df_tzt_9Audsley characterizes his cutting style as “old school”. He explained, “I come from a Moviola background, so I like to leave my cut as bare as possible, with few temp sound effects or music cues. I’ll only add what’s needed to help you understand the story. Since we weren’t obliged on this film to do temp mixes for screenings, I was able to keep the cut sparse. This lets you really focus on the cut and know if the film is working or not. If it does, then sound effects and music will only make it better. Often a rough cut will have temp music and people have trouble figuring out why a film isn’t working. The music may mask an issue or, in fact, it might simply be that the wrong temp music was used. On The Zero Theorem, George Fenton, our composer, gave us representative pieces late in the  process that he’d written for scenes.” Andre Jacquemin was the sound designer who worked in parallel to Audsley’s cut and the two developed an interactive process. Audsley explained, “Sometimes sound would need to breath more, so I’d open a scene up a bit. We had a nice back-and-forth in how we worked.”

df_tzt_3Audsley edited the film using Avid Media Composer version 5 connected to an Avid Unity shared storage system. This linked him to another Avid workstation run by his first assistant editor, Pani Ahmadi-Moore. He’s since upgraded to version 7 software and Avid ISIS shared storage. Audsley said, “I work the Avid pretty much like I worked when I used the Moviola and cut on film. Footage is grouped into bins for each scene. As I edit, I cut the film into reels and then use version numbers as I duplicate sequences to make changes. I keep a daily handwritten log about what’s done each day. The trick is to be fastidious and organized. Pani handles the preparation and asset management so that I can concentrate on the edit.”

df_tzt_2Audsley continued, “Terry’s films are very much a family type of business. It’s a family of people who know each other. Terry is supremely in control of his films, but he’s also secure in sharing with his filmmaking family. We are open to discuss all aspects of the film. The cutting room has to be a safe place for a director, but it’s the hub of all the post activity, so everyone has to feel free about voicing their opinions.”

Much of what the editor does, proceeds in isolation. The Zero Theorem provided a certain ironic resonance for Audsley, who commented, “At the start, we see a guy sitting naked in front of a computer. His life is harnessed in manipulating something on screen, and that is something I can relate to as a film editor! I think it’s very much a document of our time, about the notion that in this world of communication, there’s a strong aspect of isolation. All the communication in the world does not necessarily connect you spiritually.” The Zero Theorem is scheduled to open for limited US distribution in September.

Originally written for DV magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 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

Film Budgeting Basics

New filmmakers tackling their first indie feature will obviously ask, “What is this film going cost to produce?” The answer to this – like many of these questions – is, “It depends.” The cost of making a film is directly related to the resources needed and the time required for each resource. That often has little to do with the time involved in actually filming the scenes.

A friend of mine, after directing his first feature, was fond of saying, “The total time of saying the words ‘roll, action, cut, print’ was probably less than an hour; but, it took me two years prior to that to have the privilege.” Cost is almost never related to return. I’ve often told budding filmmakers to consider long and hard what they are doing. They could instead take the same amount of money and throw themselves the biggest party of their life. After all the effort of making the film, you might actually have more to show for it from the party. Film returns tend to follow other media success percentages, where typically 15% are successful and 85% fail (or at least don’t make a financial return). Understanding how to maximum the value on the screen is integral to budgeting a feature film.

I often work in the realm of indie features, which includes dramatic productions and documentaries. Each of these two categories tends to break into cost tiers like these:

Dramatic films

$0 – $50,000

$200,000

$500,000

$1,000,000-$2,000,000

Over $2,000,000

Documentaries

$0 – $30,000

$50,000

$300,000-$1,500,000

Over $1,500,000

Money is always tight within these ranges. Once you get over $2,000,000, you tend to have a bit more breathing room and the ability to tackle issues by adding more resources to the equation. Production is related to time and that varies greatly between scripted films and documentaries, where the story is often evolving over time and out of the director’s control. Here is a typical rule-of-thumb timeline for the production of each.

Dramatic films – timeline

1 year to secure rights and funding

2 months of casting, scouting, preparation

1 month readying actual production logistics

2-5 weeks of production (stage and location)

8-20 weeks of picture editorial

8-20 weeks sound editorial and scoring (usually starts after picture is “locked”)

1-2 weeks of picture finish/conform/grade

1-2 weeks of audio mix (re-recording mix)

1 week to finalize all deliverables

Documentaries – timeline

The timeframe up to the start of editorial differs with every project and is an unknown.

8-60 weeks of picture editorial

8-20 weeks sound editorial and scoring (usually starts after picture is “locked”)

1-2 weeks of picture finish/conform/grade

1-2 weeks of audio mix (re-recording mix)

1 week to finalize all deliverables

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Clearly any of these categories can take longer, but in the indie/low-budget field, indecision and letting things drag out will destroy the viability of the project. You don’t have the luxury of studio film timeframes. This is where a savvy line producer, unit manager and production manager (often the same person on small films) can make or break the budget. Here are some cost variables to consider.

Cost variables that need to be evaluated and balanced

Union versus non-union.

More days of shooting versus fewer, but longer days, with overtime pay.

The size of the cast and the experience level of the actors.

Allotting adequate (non-filmed) rehearsal time.

The number of script pages (a shorter script means a less costly production).

Accurate timing of scene descriptions to determine how much production time is required for each scene.

The number of locations and location changes/distances.

Period drama versus a contemporary story.

Stage and sets versus shooting at real locations.

The number of make-up and wardrobe changes.

A production location with local crews and facilities versus bringing in resources from the outside.

Film versus digital photography.

The number of cameras.

The amount of gear (dollies, cranes, etc.).

Cost-saving tips

Investigate opportunities to partner with regional film schools.

Using a director of photography who is his own camera operator and who can supply his own cameras and lenses.

Using a location mixer with his own gear.

Using an editor with his own gear.

Eliminate the needs for an elaborate “video village” and possibly reduce the need for a DIT (if you have savvy camera assistants).

Negotiate lower equipment rental costs based on fewer days per week.

Negotiate local resources for food, lodging, travel and craft services.

Explore alternatives to stages, such as empty warehouses.

Explore unsigned local musical artists for songs, scores, etc.

Hold one or more days of production in reserve (to fix “gaps” discovered during editing), in order to shoot inserts, B-roll, transitional shots, the opening title, etc.

Errors that will drive up cost

The film is too short or too long (ideal is a first cut that’s about 10% longer than target, so it can be trimmed back).

Unforeseen or poorly executed visual effects.

Judgment calls made on location to “save” time/effort on a rushed day.

Allowing the actors too much freedom to ad lib and improvise, as well as play with props.

Indecision in the edit.

Changing the edit after the cut is “locked”.

Using stock images or popular music without making provisions in advance for clearance and budgeting.

Cost-saving items that AREN’T

Failing to shoot a complete master shot as part of the coverage on complex scenes.

Using two or more camera throughout the entire production.

Letting actors ad lib in lieu of adequate rehearsal.

Not hiring a script supervisor/continuity person.

Using blue/green-screen effects for driving shots.

Relying on low-light cameras instead of proper lighting.

Extensive use of the “video village” on set.

Limiting the amount of footage sent to the editors (send them everything, not only “circle takes”).

Short-changing the importance of the role of the data wrangler.

Not allowing adequate time or resources for proper data management.

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For reference, I put together two sample budgets a year ago, as part of a presentation at Digital Video Expo in Pasadena. It’s available for download here in Numbers, Excel and PDF versions. Feel free to manipulate the spreadsheets for your own production to see how they stack up. I break down a film/DI and a digital photography budget. As you can see, going with 35mm film adds about $175K more to the budget, largely due to stock, processing and DI costs. In a major studio feature, the difference in formats is inconsequential, but not in the million dollar indie range. I have not included a “film-out”, which will add $75-$200K.

The budget I developed, with the help of a number of experienced unit managers, represents a fairly typical, non-union, indie film. It includes most of the cost for crew, cast, production and post, but does not include such items as the cost of the script, props, sets, production office rentals, hotels, insurance, creative fees and others. As a rule-of-thumb, I’ve factored gear and stage rentals as 3-day weeks. This means you get seven days of use, but are only charged for three. In the past year, I’ve heard rates as low as 1.5-day weeks, but I don’t think you can plan on that being the norm. A 3-day or 4-day week is customary.

Many states offer film production incentives, designed to entice producers to shoot a project in that state. Often local investment money and economic incentives will attract producers to a particular locale. That’s great if the state has good local crew and production resources, but if not, then you’ll have to bring in more from the outside. This adds cost for travel and lodging, some of which an enterprising producer can negotiate for trade in the form of a credit on the film. There’s no guarantee of that, though, and as it’s such a variable, this is a cost item that must be evaluated with each individual production.

Remember that post production work has to occur in some physical place. Audio post is typically done in a studio owned or rented by the audio engineer. That’s not the case for editors. If you hire a freelance film editor, you will also need to factor in the cost of the editing system, as well as a rental office in which to house the operation. Some editors can supply that as a package deal and others don’t.

Naturally, a savvy line producer can find ways to bring this budget even lower. I work a lot with the Valencia College Film Technology Program in Orlando. Over the years they have partnered with many producers to complete Hollywood-grade features. I’m not talking student films, but rather name directors and actors working alongside students and working pros to put out films destined for theatrical distribution. The films produced there often place a level of production value on the screen that’s as much as twice the actual out-of-pocket cost of production and post. All thanks to the resources and services the program has to offer.

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Most new producers have a good handle on the production phase, but post is a total black hole. As a consequence, post often gets short-changed in the budgeting process. Unfortunately, some producers try to figure out their post production costs at the point when everything is in the can, but almost all of the money has been spent. That’s in spite of the fact that post generally takes much more time than the period allotted to location and stage photography. In order to properly understand the post side of things, here are the workflows for four finishing scenarios.

Film – traditional post

Shoot on location with film – 1,000ft. of 35mm = about 10 minutes of unedited footage.

Process the negative at the lab and do a “best light” transfer to videotape or a hard drive.

The assistant editor loads and logs footage and syncs double-system audio.

The editor cuts a first cut, then the director’s cut and then the final version.

The sound team edits dialogue, ADR and sound effects (also temp music at times).

The composer writes and records the score (often in a parallel track to the above).

Sound is mixed in a re-recording session.

The editorial team generates a cut list for the negative cutter.

The negative cutter conforms the negative (physical splices).

All visual effects are added as optical effects.

Lab color timing is performed and answer prints are generated for review.

Film deliverables are generated.

Film – DI (digital intermediate) post

Shoot on location with film – 1,000ft. of 35mm = about 10 minutes of unedited footage.

Process the negative at the lab and do a “best light” transfer to videotape or a hard drive.

The assistant editor loads and logs footage and syncs double-system audio.

The editor cuts a first cut, then the director’s cut and then the final version.

The sound team edits dialogue, ADR and sound effects (also temp music at times).

The composer writes and records the score (often in a parallel track to the above).

Sound is mixed in a re-recording session.

The editorial team generates edit lists for the finishing house.

Selected shots are retransferred (or scanned), conformed and graded.

Visual effects are inserted during the conform/grade.

Digital and/or film deliverables are generated.

Digital production – camera raw photography

Shoot on location with a digital camera that records in a raw file format to a card or hard drive.

The footage is converted into a viewable form for the editors.

The assistant editor loads and logs footage and syncs double-system audio.

The editor cuts a first cut, then the director’s cut and then the final version.

The sound team edits dialogue, ADR and sound effects (also temp music at times).

The composer writes and records the score (often in a parallel track to the above).

Sound is mixed in a re-recording session.

The editorial team generates edit lists for the finishing house.

Camera raw files are conformed and color graded in a process similar to a DI.

Visual effects are inserted during the conform/grade.

Digital and/or film deliverables are generated.

Digital production – tape or file-based (not raw) photography

Shoot on location with a digital camera and recorded to tape or as files to a card or hard drive.

The assistant editor loads and logs footage and syncs double-system audio.

The editor cuts a first cut, then the director’s cut and then the final version.

The sound team edits dialogue, ADR and sound effects (also temp music at times).

The composer writes and records the score (often in a parallel track to the above).

Sound is mixed in a re-recording session.

The editorial team generates edit lists for the finishing house.

Camera files are conformed and color graded.

Visual effects are inserted during the conform/grade.

In some cases, the editing format and the system is of a level to be considered final quality and the same editor can do both the creative edit and finishing.

Digital and/or film deliverables are generated.

As these workflows show, a lot goes into post beyond simply editing and mixing the film. These elements take time and determine the level of polish you present to your audience. The sample budgets I’ve compiled aren’t intended to cause sticker shock. It’s clear that getting the tally to $1 Million doesn’t take very much and that’s a pretty realistic range for a small film. Granted, I’ve worked on films done for $150,000 that looked like a lot more, but it takes a lot of work to get there. And often leaning hard on the good graces of the crew and resources you use.

For comparison, here’s an example at The Smoking Gun that’s purported to be the working budget for M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village under the working title of The Woods. It doesn’t really matter whether it is or it isn’t the actual budget. The numbers are in line with this type of studio film, which makes it a good exercise in seeing how one can spend $70 Million on a film.

Whether you play in the studio or the independent film arena, it’s important to understand how to translate the vision of the script in a way that correlates to time and money. Once that becomes second nature, you are on your way to becoming a producer that puts the most production value on the screen for the audiences to appreciate.

©2012 Oliver Peters

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

Hugo

The newest stereo 3D film sensation promises to be Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, just in time for the holidays. The film is the director’s first 3D venture and is based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a children’s graphic novel written and illustrated by Brian Selznick. It’s the story of twelve-year-old Hugo, an orphan who lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station. Hugo gets wrapped up in the mystery involving his father and a strange mechanical man.

Scorsese – who’s as much a film buff as an award-winning director – has a deep appreciation for the art form of past 3D films, like Dial M for Murder. In adapting this fantastical story, Scorsese and his Oscar-winning team have an ideal vehicle to show what stereo 3D can do in the right hands and when approached with care. Unlike the groundbreaking Avatar, which relied heavily on motion capture and synthetic environments, Hugo is a more cinematic production with real sets, actors and is based on the traditional language of filmmaking.

Hugo started production in 2010 using then-prototype ARRI ALEXA cameras, which were configured into special 3D camera rigs by Vince Pace. The ALEXA was the choice of cinematographer Bob Richardson for its filmic qualities. Camera signals were captured as 1920 x 1080 video with the Log-C color profile to portable HDCAM-SR recorders. Hugo will be the first 3D release produced with this particular equipment complement. With post for Hugo in its final stages, I had a chance to speak with two of Scorsese’s key collaborators, Rob Legato (visual effects supervisor and second unit director of photography) and Thelma Schoonmaker (film editor).

Developing the pipeline

Rob Legato has been the key to visual effects in many of Scorsese’s films, including The Aviator. For Hugo, Legato handled effects, second unit cinematography and, in fact, developed the entire start-to-finish stereo 3D post pipeline. Legato started our conversation with the back story, “I had done a small film with the ARRI D-21 and Bob [Richardson] loved the look of the camera. He liked the fact that it was produced by a traditional film camera manufacturer, so when the ALEXA came out, he was very interested in shooting Hugo with it. In order to make sure that the best possible image quality was maintained, I developed a DI workflow based on maintaining all the intermediate steps up to the end in log space. All effects work stayed in log and dailies color correction was done in log, so that no looks were baked in until the final DI stage. We used LUTs [color look-up tables] loaded into [Blackmagic Design] HDLink boxes for monitoring on-set and downstream of any the visual effects.”

“The original dailies were color corrected for editorial on a Baselight unit and that information was saved as metadata. We had both an Avid Media Composer and a Baselight system set up at my home facility, The Basement. Thelma cuts on Lightworks, but by mirroring her edits on Media Composer, I had the information in a form ready to disperse to the visual effects designers. I could load the color grades developed by Marty, Bob and the colorist for each scene into my Baselight, so that when I turned over finished VFX shots to Thelma, they would have the same look applied as those shots had from the dailies. That way a VFX shot wouldn’t be jarring when Thelma cut it back into the sequence, because it would match the same grade.”

Working in the language of stereo 3D

The key to the look of Hugo is the care put into the stereo 3D images. In fact, it’s very much a hand crafted film. Legato continued, “All the 3D imagery was done in-camera. You could never accomplish this type of look and emotional feel with post production rotoscoping techniques used to turn 2D films into 3D. Stereo was designed into the film from the very beginning. Not 3D gags, but rather a complete immersive style to the sets, lighting, camera moves and so on. Marty and Bob would watch the shots on set in 3D wearing their glasses. Performances, lighting, stereography and the position of items in the set were all tweaked to get the best results in 3D. The sets were designed for real depth, including elements like steam and particles in the air. You feel what it’s like to be in that space – emotionally. In the end, the story and the look are both a real love affair with motion pictures.”

One of the common complaints stereo 3D critics offer is that cinematographers cannot use shallow depth-of-field for storytelling. Legato responded, “Marty and Bob’s approach was to create those depth cues through lighting. We erred on the side of more focus, not less – more in the style of Gregg Toland’s work on Citizen Kane. Monitoring in stereo encouraged certain adjustments, like lighting little parts of the set in the background to gain a better sense of depth and control where the audience should focus its attention. That’s why stereoscopic post on 2D films doesn’t work. You cannot put off any part of the art form until later. You lose the taste of the artists. You lose the emotional advantage and the subtlety, because the process hasn’t been vetted by decisions made on the set through staging.”

A tailored approach

At the time of this interview, the film was in the final stages of stereo adjustments and color grading. Legato explained, “Unlike a 2D film, the finishing stage includes a final pass to tweak the 3D alignment. That is being handled by Vince Pace’s folks with Marty and Bob supervising. When they are done, that information will go to the colorist to be integrated into the grade. Greg Fisher has been our colorist throughout the film. Often you don’t have the same colorist for dailies as for the DI, but this is a color workflow that works best for Bob. By establishing a look during dailies and then carrying that data to the end with the same colorist – plus using Baselight at both ends – you get great continuity to the look. We tailored the most comfortable style of working for us, including building small 3D DI theaters in England and New York, so they could be available to Marty where he worked. That part was very important in order to have proper projection at the right brightness levels to check our work. Since the basic look has already been establish for the dailies, now Greg can concentrate on the aesthetics of refining the look during the DI.”

Cutting in 3D

Thelma Schoonmaker has been a close collaborator with Martin Scorsese as the editor for most of his films. She’s won Best Editing Oscars for The Departed, The Aviator and Raging Bull. Some editors feel that the way you have to cut for a stereo 3D release cramps their style, but not so with Schoonmaker. She explained, “I don’t think my style of cutting Hugo in 3D was any different than for my other films. The story really drives the pace and this is driven by the narrative and the acting, so a frenetic cutting style isn’t really called for. I didn’t have to make editorial adjustments based on 3D issues, because those decisions had already been made on set. In fact, the stereo qualities had really been designed from take to take, so the edited film had a very smooth, integrated look and feel.”

Often film editors do all their cutting in 2D and then switch to 3D for screenings. In fact, Avatar was edited on an older Avid Media Composer Adrenaline system without any built-in stereo 3D capabilities. Those features were added in later versions. Hugo didn’t follow that model. Schoonmaker continued, “I cut this film in 3D, complete with the glasses. For some basic assemblies and roughing out scenes, I’d sometimes switch the Lightworks system into the 2D mode, but when it came time to fine-cut a scene with Marty, we would both have our glasses on during the session and work in 3D. These were flip-up 3D glasses, so that when we turned to talk to each other, the lenses could be flipped up so we weren’t looking at each other through the darker shades of the polarized glass.”

Thelma Schoonmaker has been a loyal Lightworks edit system user. The company is now owned by EditShare, who was eager to modify the Lightworks NLE for stereo 3D capabilities. Schoonmaker explained, “The Lightworks team was very interested in designing a 3D workflow for us that could quickly switch between 2D and 3D. So, we were cutting in 3D from the start. They were very cooperative and came to watch how we worked in order to upgrade the software accordingly. For me, working in 3D was a very smooth process, although there were more things my two assistants had to deal with, since ingest and conforming is a lot more involved.”

Prior to working on Hugo, the seasoned film editor had no particular opinion about stereo 3D films. Schoonmaker elaborated, “Marty had a very clear concept for this film from the beginning and he’s a real lover of the old 3D films. As a film collector, he has his own personal copies of Dial M for Murder and House of Wax, which he screened for Rob [Legato], Bob [Richardson] and me with synced stereo film projection. Seeing such pristine prints, we could appreciate the beauty of these films.”

Editing challenges

The film was shot in 140 production days (as well as 60 second-unit days) and Thelma Schoonmaker was cutting in parallel to the production schedule. Principal photography wrapped in January of this year, with subsequent editing, effects, mix and finishing continuing into November. Schoonmaker shared some final thoughts, “I’m really eager to see the film in its final form like everyone else. Naturally I’ve been screening the cuts, but the mix, final stereo adjustments and color grading are just now happening, so I’m anxious to see it all come together. These finishing touches will really enhance the emotion of this film.”

Hugo is a fairy tale. It is narrative-driven versus being based on characters or environments. That’s unlike some of Scorsese’s other films, like Raging Bull, Goodfellas or The Departed, where there is a lot of improvisation. Marty injected some interesting characters into the story, like Sacha Baron Cohen as the station inspector. These are more fleshed out than in the book and it was one of our challenges to weave them into the story. There are some great performances by Asa Butterfield, who plays Hugo, and Ben Kingsley. In fact, the boy is truly one of a great new breed of current child actors. The first part of the film is practically like a silent movie, because he’s in hiding, yet he’s able to convey so much with just facial emotions. As an editor, there was a challenge with the dogs. It took a lot of footage to get it right [laughs]. Hugo ends as a story that’s really about a deep love of film and that section largely stayed intact through the editing of the film. Most of the changes happened in the middle and a bit in the front of the film.”

From the imagery of the trailers, it’s clear that Hugo has received a masterful touch. If, like me, you’ve made an effort to skip the 3D versions of most of the recent popular releases, then Hugo may be just the film to change that policy! As Rob Legato pointed out, “Hugo is a very immersive story. It’s the opposite of a cutty film and is really meant to be savored. You’ll probably have to see it more than once to take in all the detail. Everyone who has seen it in screenings so far finds it to be quite magical”.

Some addition stories featured in the Editors Guild Magazine, Post magazineanother from Post and from FXGuide.

And even more from Rob Legato and Thelma Schoonmaker.

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

Reliving the Zoetrope tradition – Walter Murch and Tetro

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Age can sometimes be an impediment to inspired filmmaking, but Francis Ford Coppola, who recently turned 70, has tackled his latest endeavor with the enthusiasm and creativity of a young film school graduate. The film Tetro opened June 11th in New York and Los Angeles and will enter wider distribution in the weeks that follow. Coppola set up camp in a two-story house in Buenos Aires and much of the film was produced in Argentina. This house became the film’s headquarters for production and post in the same approach to filmmaking that the famed director adopted on Youth Without Youth (2007) in Romania.

 

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Tetro is Francis Ford Coppola’s first original screenplay since The Conversation (1974) and is very loosely based on the dynamics within his own family. It is not intended to be autobiographical, but explores classic themes of sibling rivalry, as well as the competition between father and son. Coppola’s own father, Carmine (who died in 1991), was a respected musician and composer who also scored a number of his son’s films. One key figure in Tetro is the family patriarch Carlo (Klaus Brandauer), an acclaimed symphony conductor, who moved as a young music student from the family home in Argentina to Berlin and then to New York. Carlo’s younger son Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) decided to head back to Buenos Aires in search of his older brother, the brooding poet Tetro (Vincent Gallo) – only to discover a different person than he’d expected.

 

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Coppola put together a team of talented Argentine actors and crew, but also brought back key collaborators from his previous films, including Mihai Malaimare, Jr.(director of photography), Osvaldo Golijov (composer) and Walter Murch (editor and re-recording mixer). I caught up with Walter Murch via phone in London, where he spoke at the 1st Annual London Final Cut Pro User Group SuperMeet.

 

Embracing the American Zoetrope tradition

 

Tetro has a definite style and vision that sets it apart from current studio fare. According to Walter Murch, “Francis funded Tetro in the same fashion as his previous film Youth Without Youth. He has personal money in it from his Napa Valley winery, as well as that of a few other investors. This lets him make the film the way he wants to, without studio interference. Francis’s directing style is process-oriented – he likes to let the film evolve during the production – to make serendipitous discoveries based on the actors, the sets, the atmosphere of a new city. Many directors work this way, but Francis embraces it more than any other. In Coppola’s own words: ‘The director is the ringmaster of a circus that is inventing itself.’ I think that’s why, at age 69, he was enthusiastic about jumping into a country that was new to him and working with talented young local filmmakers.”

 

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This filmmaking approach is reminiscent of Coppola’s original concept for American Zoetrope Studios . There Coppola pioneered early concepts in electronic filmmaking, hallmarked by the “Silverfish”, an AirStream trailer that provided on-set audio and editing support. Murch continued, “Ideally everything needed to make a Zoetrope film on location should be able to be loaded into two vans. The Buenos Aires building that was our base of operations reminded me of the Zoetrope building in San Francisco 40 years ago. The central idea was to break down the separation between tasks and to be as efficient and collaborative as possible. In other words, to operate more like a film-school crew. Zoetrope also has always embraced new technology – the classic ‘early adopter’ profile. Our crew in Buenos Aires was full of young, enthusiastic local film technicians and artists and on a number of occasions, rounding a corner, I felt like I was bumping into a 40-year-younger version of myself.”

 

A distinctive visual style

 

Initial Tetro reviews have commented on the striking visual style of the film. All modern day scenes are in 2.35 wide-screen black-and-white, while flashbacks appear in more classically-formatted 1.77 color. This is Coppola’s second digital film and it followed a similar workflow to that used on Youth Without Youth, shooting with two of the director’s own Sony F900 CineAlta HD cameras. As in the earlier film, the signals from both F900s were recorded onto one Sony SRW field recorder in the HDCAM-SR format. This deck recorded two simultaneous 4:2:2 video streams onto a single tape, which functioned as the “digital negative” for both the A and B cameras.

 

Simultaneously, another backup recording was made in the slightly more compressed 3:1:1 HDCAM format, using the onboard recorders of the Sony cameras. These HDCAM tapes provided safety backup as well as the working copies to be used for ingest by the editorial team. The HDCAM-SR masters, on the other hand, were set aside until the final assembly at the film’s digital intermediate finish at Deluxe.

 

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Did the fact that this was a largely black-and-white film impact Murch’s editing style? “Not as much as I would have thought,” Murch replied. “The footage was already desaturated before I started cutting, so I was always looking at black-and-white material. However, a few times when I’d match-frame a shot, the color version of the source media would pop up and then that was quite a shock! But the collision between color and black-and-white ultimately provoked the decision to frame the color material with black borders and in a different ‘squarer’ aspect ratio – 1.77 vs. 2.35.”

 

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Changes in the approach

 

Walter Murch continued to describe the post workflow, “It was similar to our methods in Romania on Youth Without Youth, although with a couple of major differences. Tetro was assembled and screened in 720p ProRes, instead of DV. We had done a ‘bake-off’ of different codecs to see which looked the best for screening without impacting the system’s responsiveness. We compared DVCPRO HD 720 and 1080 with ProRes 720 and 1080, as well as the HQ versions of ProRes. Since I was cutting on Final Cut Pro, we felt naturally drawn to the advantages of ProRes, and as it turned out for our purposes, the 720 version of ProRes seemed to give us the best quality balanced against rendering time. My cutting room also doubled as the screening room and, as we were using the Sim2 digital projector, I had the luxury of being able to cut and look at a 20-foot wide screen as I did so. Another change for me was that my son [Walter Slater Murch] was my first assistant editor. Sean Cullen, my assistant since 2000, was in Paris cutting a film for the first time as the primary editor. Ezequiel Borovinsky and Juan-Pablo Menchon from Buenos Aires rounded out the editorial department as second assistant and apprentice respectively.”

 

The RED camera has had all the buzz of late, so I asked Murch if Coppola had considered shooting the film with RED, instead of his own Sonys. Murch replied, “Francis is very happy with the look of his cameras, and of course, he owns them, so there’s also a budget consideration. Mihai [Malaimare, DP] brought in a RED for a few days when we needed to shoot with three cameras. The RED material integrated well with the Sony footage, but there is a significantly different workflow, because the RED is a tapeless camera. In the end, I would recommend shooting with one camera or the other if possible. A production shouldn’t mix up workflows unnecessarily.”

 

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Walter Murch discusses future technology

 

It’s hard to talk film with Walter Murch and not discuss trends, philosophy and technology. He’s been closely associated with a number of digital advances, so I wondered if he saw a competitor coming to challenge either Avid Media Composer or Apple Final Cut Pro for film editing. “It’s hard to see into the future more than about three years,” he answered. “Avid is an excellent system and studios and rental operations have capital investment in equipment, so for the foreseeable future, I think Avid and Final Cut will continue to be the two primary editing tools. Four years from now, who knows? I see more possibility for sooner changes in the area of sound editing and mixing. I’ve done some promising work with Apple’s Soundtrack Pro. The Nuendo-Euphonix combination is also very interesting; but, for Tetro it seemed best to stay compatible with what the sound team was familiar using. Also, [fellow re-recording mixer] Pete Horner and I mixed on the ICON and that’s designed to work with Pro Tools.”

 

Murch continued, “I’d really like to see some changes in how timelines are handled. I’ve used a Filemaker database for all of my notes now for more than twenty years, starting back when I was still cutting on film. I tweak the database a bit with each film as the needs change. Tetro was the first film where I was able to get the script supervisor – Anahid Nazarian in this case – to also use Filemaker. That was great, because all of the script and camera notes were incorporated into the same Filemaker database from the beginning. Thinking into the future, I’d love to see the Filemaker workshare approach applied to Final Cut Pro. If that were the case, the whole team – picture and sound editors and visual effects – could have access to the same sequence simultaneously. If I was working in one area of the timeline, for example, I could put a ‘virtual dike’ around the section I was editing. The others would not be able to access it for changes, but would see its status prior to my current changes. Once I was done and removed the ‘dike’ the changes would ripple through, the timeline would be updated and everyone could see and work with the new version.”

 

Stereoscopic 3D is all the rage now, but you may not know that Walter Murch also worked on one of the iconic 3D short films, Captain Eo, starring Michael Jackson. Francis Ford Coppola directed Eo for the Disney theme parks in 1986. It’s too early to tell whether the latest 3D trend will be sustained, but Murch offered his take. “3D certainly has excellent box office numbers right now, but there is still a fundamental perceptual problem with it: Through millions of years of evolution, our brains have been wired so that when we look at an object, the point where our eyes converge and where they focus is one and the same. But with 3D film we have to converge our eyes at the point of the illusion (say five feet in front of us) and simultaneously focus at the plane of the screen (perhaps sixty feet away). We can do this, obviously, but doing it continuously for two hours is one of the reasons why we get headaches watching 3D. If we can somehow solve this problem and if filmmakers use 3D in interesting ways that advance the story – and not just as gimmicks – then I think 3D has a very promising long-term future.”

 

Written for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)

 

© 2009 Oliver Peters