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

Waking Sleeping Beauty

If you had young kids in the late 80s or early 90s, then you are no stranger to Disney’s animated blockbusters of those decades, like Little Mermaid or The Lion King. Now you have a chance to go behind the scenes with a new documentary, Waking Sleeping Beauty. The film was recently screened at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival and is being distributed theatrically by the Walt Disney Company.

The project originally came together when Don Hahn (producer, The Lion King) and Peter Schneider (former head of Disney Feature Animation) decided it was a story that needed telling. After pitching the idea to then Disney Studios chief Dick Cook, the company agreed to provide a small budget and let Hahn and Schneider produce a candid documentary, “warts and all.”

Hahn and Schneider decided to focus the film on the decade from 1984 to 1994, which Hahn describes “as the perfect storm of talented executives and creatives, who came together to reinvent the magic of Disney animation.” This era starts at the transition point when many of the original Disney animators were retiring and as the division was being infused with new blood (such as John Lasseter, Tim Burton and Brad Bird). It’s also the point at which the new executive team of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells took the reigns of the corporation. The era ends at another transition point, after the untimely deaths of co-CEO Frank Wells and lyricist and creative force Howard Ashman, as well as the departure of Disney Studios head Jeffrey Katzenberg. Although the animation division continued with more successful films, the documentary ends with The Lion King.

Since Don Hahn had been in the middle of the action, he became the ideal choice to direct and even narrate the documentary. Not only did he intimately know the story, because he’d lived through it, but he also knew about many of the available media assets. Much of the documentary comes from news clips, internal videos and electronic press kits used to promote the various films. In addition, the animators themselves produced quite a few of their own “home videos” and unique caricatures that Hahn could use to enhance the visuals.

Waking Sleeping Beauty took about a year and a half to post and went through the hands of three editors (Vartan N. Nazarian, John “JD” Ryan and Ellen Keneshea).  As Hahn explained, “I had three editors on the film and it turned out to be a great way to work. They each brought a special talent and perspective to the film. Vartan did most of the ‘heavy lifting’ to get us to our first cut. I consider JD as my ‘forensic editor’. He picked up after Vartan and was the guy who dug in deep to find those little ‘gems’ of never-before-seen footage that make this film special. Ellen – with whom I’d worked on other films – came in at the end with a fresh eye, finished the film and gave it polish.” The editors were also aided by assistant editor, Andrew Sorcini, who found and pulled many of the photos and film clips.

Vartan Nazarian expanded on the workflow, “We started with about 250 hours of archival footage in just about every type of format, from old VHS, ¾” and Hi8 to HDCAM and everything in between. That actually grew throughout the edit, as more clips were found. Over about a two month period, I was able to get the first 250 hours down to around a two-and-a-half hour assembly, which was the basis for Disney greenlighting the project. From this point, the various versions averaged around 100 minutes until it was trimmed to its final 88 minute length.”

I asked JD to explain a bit more about how he and Don Hahn worked in pulling together some of the footage. He replied, “Having spent time at Feature Animation and knowing most of the artists involved in the films of those days, I was able to bounce ideas off of Don and remind him of things that I might have been told by animators in my day as a production assistant in the late 90s.  I remember at the beginning of my time on this project, that I mentioned Joe Ranft.  Here was a wonderfully terrific, kind and talented man, who had helped me get my start in animation.  Going through the footage that was available to me, I was finding all sorts of footage of Joe.  I would mention this to Don and we would find a way to make the material we had work into the story.  Sometimes it worked, other times it didn’t.”

A film like this always has its challenges – especially since the story was being told from an internal point-of-view. Ellen Keneshea responded, “This is really a very affirming story. The studio was very supportive and they backed Don in letting this be very candid. It was screened for all of the principals in the story and everyone was glad we were telling this story. It’s really about the hearts and minds of the animators and less about the technology, so we wanted to be true to them.”

Nazarian pointed out that, “The biggest creative challenge was finding the right visuals to illustrate the story, since there isn’t actual footage of every single event. Our objective was to stay within the proper context of the images, even if they might not be from the literal event. Sometimes, we only had audio interviews for certain people, so a lot of effort went into filling the visual gaps in our source material. A case in point is one of the most emotionally powerful moments in the film -  ‘Katzenberg’s Day Of Atonement Talk.’ I edited that scene from footage of a story-and-design meeting that Katzenberg had with the artists and crew for the movie Aladdin. The footage is completely from a different meeting. Yet it serves strongly to show Katzenberg’s concern for the duress and stress the artists were going through both in work and in their personal, familial lives in order to meet the hectic deadlines that he was strongly responsible for creating.  It shows Katzenberg’s compassion and guilt for the artists’ suffering and clearly expresses visually the pain and frustration of the artists.”

A huge technical challenge was how to best deal with the mix of formats. Since the bulk of the footage was standard definition, the decision was made to cut the project as a 30i NTSC project using the available SD sources, regardless of proper timecode. After the cut was locked, clips that were used in the sequence were then upconverted to HDCAM 1080i masters. Downconverted standard definition copies of these tapes were used to replace all the footage by “eye-matching” each clip. Although very time-consuming, this allowed an edit list to be turned over to the online facility with timecode that would correctly match the HD sources. Ultimately the 1080i edited masters were converted to 24p for distribution. Digital Film Tree assisted in the various conversions of source footage and Fotokem handled the final online assembly, color correction and digital intermediate work for film. Waking Sleeping Beauty includes about 70 minutes of original music, seamlessly written and integrated around the animated film elements by Chris Bacon. The final mix was done at Skywalker Ranch.

The format challenge affected the choice of which editing system to use. Hahn had originally leaned towards Apple Final Cut Pro. “I owned Final Cut myself. I thought it might be best in handling such a wild variety of video formats, but it’s really a matter of what the editors are most comfortable with. Vartan suggested Avid Media Composer instead, which was fine with me, since that’s what we had been using for all of the animated features. It turned out to be a good choice, because all three editors were very familiar with Media Composer.”

Vartan added, “While I know FCP well, this project’s needs weighed heavily in favor of using Avid. We started cutting this in my apartment on Media Composer version 2.8 with a Mojo SDI. In the end, we were on 3.0 with a Mojo DX and shared storage, so there was lots of real time capability, which could not have been done in FCP without image degradation and a lot of rendering. All of the rough cut editing was at DV25, but we also redigitized footage for screening at the 1:1 standard def resolution. The systems were rock solid. Avid’s media management is far superior to FCP’s, so I really couldn’t imagine doing it on any other system than Media Composer.”

I asked Ellen to characterize some of the changes in the cut. “Don had a really good idea of how he wanted the story to unfold. There were only minor concept changes, since this was told in a linear fashion,” she replied. “Originally we weren’t going to put any clips from the animated films into the body of the film. Instead they would be shown together at the end; however, this changed after some of the screenings. These sections really cried out for seeing a clip of the film as it was being discussed or described. That would tie it all together for the audience. So, we opted to scatter some clips of the films through the documentary. Another idea that we resisted was a ‘where are they now’ style of ending. The idea was entertained, but in the end, everyone felt that stopping with 1994 was a natural close to the film, since this was a new time of transition for Disney.”

The film does culminate in a very moving montage of iconic animated shots set to the song Part of Your World. This was edited by JD Ryan, who explained, “When we started the project, Don really wanted to hold off on showing final color of the animated films until the end.  During the course of the film we would see pencil sketches and story boards – the inner workings that it takes to make one of these films. But in the final moments of the movie, you would be left seeing those iconic moments that really captured the great work that was done during this time. Pulling them together was a treat. As a theater-goer of those films, you are left with this great sense of joy in recalling the movies that garnished the silver screen in the late 80s and early 90s, and for those people who were seeing the film and had the pleasure of working on them, there’s an added sense of great pride.”

Waking Sleeping Beauty is upfront about the corporate politics that surrounded Disney during those years, especially at the senior executive levels. Nevertheless, there are no villains in the plot and the story is as much a “comeback kid” story as any scripted, dramatic feature. Don Hahn put it best, “Animators tend to labor in obscurity and we all felt this was a story that should be told. These are people who brought a lot of happiness to audiences and also made a lot of money for the company. Waking Sleeping Beauty is really about what they went through on a personal level to make these films.”

Written for Videography magazine (NewBay Media LLC)

©2010 Oliver Peters

IllumiNations 2000: Reflections of Earth

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One of the coolest projects I’ve ever worked on is about to enter its tenth year. In 2009, the nighttime lagoon show at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT theme park enters what may well be its last year in this current version. Many theme park attractions are refreshed or changed periodically and I suspect that, the economy notwithstanding, it will be time to revamp this popular show, as well. IllumiNations 2000: Reflections of Earth was designed to usher in the new millennium and was to be activated a on New Year’s Eve, 1999. Due to logistical reasons Reflections of Earth was actually fired up in October, 1999. This marked the culmination of nearly a yearlong effort on the part of the video team and a total of several years for the show designers.

 

Themed attractions are often out of the ordinary and this was no exception. IllumiNations 2000: Reflections of Earth closes out each night at EPCOT in a celebration of fire, fireworks, lasers, fountains and a 29-foot tall globe that opens like flower petals – all tied together with an outstanding music score. The globe is mounted on a floating barge. A series of LED video screens in the shape of five continental masses (North and South America, Eurasia, Africa and Australia) are mounted onto the skeletal struts of the globe. Much of the show plays out as video on these screens in harmony with the music and fireworks.

 

Unlike other Disney shows, Reflections didn’t consist of a cast of Disney characters, but instead was designed as a celebration of humankind. The show loosely takes the audience on a journey that start with the big bang and symbolically progresses through the formation of earth, water and land, then to the creation of plants and animals and finally to the introduction of humans and their impact through transportation, architecture, creativity and communication. This story is told visually in a combination stock footage, original footage and some animation.

 

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Reflection of Earth was driven by show director Don Dorsey, an independent creative consultant who handled every aspect of the show’s design, including music, video and fireworks. The score itself is an outstanding piece of work composed by Gavin Greenaway. It features a symphony consisting of London Symphony and Royal Philharmonic players recorded at Abbey Road Studios. Greenaway is closely associated with Hans Zimmer and mixed the final score at Zimmer’s Media Ventures facility. Even if you’ve never visited EPCOT, you’ve probably heard pieces of this score under ABC network special event promos and bumpers.

 

Creating the video content

 

Century III at Universal Studios Florida won the bid to produce the video portion of Reflections. In the year that we developed the video content for the earth globe, I served as one CIII’s project managers, as well as the lead editor/compositor. As one of the leads, I headed up a remarkable team of artists, animators, directors and editors who contributed to the success of Reflections of Earth.

 

You’d expect that screens on a 29-foot tall globe would be of extremely high resolution, but in fact, the opposite is true. The five continental masses amount to about 15,000 LED clusters. These are electronically linked to pixels on the graphics display card of the computer playing back the files. The video itself appears as a flat map of the earth that fits into a file size of only 364×160 pixels. Of course, just like a real map, much of this is blank in the location of the oceans. Our world map aligns to the upper left corner of the display card and these pixels correspond to their companion LEDs on the globe.

 

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Early on we had lobbied for a doubling of the resolution of the screens to a density of at least 720 pixels wide. This idea was quickly dropped because such an increase is actually a square factor that would not only affect the screens, but the weight on the barge, time to hand-wire the LED matrices and last, but not least, the budget. The barge and globe sit at the center of the World Showcase Lagoon (EPCOT) and audience viewing distances range from 500 to 700 feet away. In reality, the resolution of these 364×160 pixel files turned out to be acceptable.

 

Test, test, test …

 

We actually spent quite a lot of time testing images for their readability. The company that manufactured the screens and the player software was able to provide us a sample panel that eventually ended up as the Australia screen. Even at a proportion that was cheated to be larger than Australia really is relative to the other land masses, this panel was only about 40×40 pixels – about the size of a computer desktop icon.

 

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Between lack of pixel resolution and the different ways in which LED screens display contrast, saturation and gamma, a lot of testing was required. Our Australia test screen was set up at the Magic Kingdom maintenance area in a location where we could actually view images at the proper distance. If an image was discernible on Australia, then there would be no difficulty identifying images on larger screens, like North America. In the end, thousands of images were reviewed for technical and creative suitability. Eventually this process whittled down the content to roughly 400 stock clips that made the cut.

 

Putting it all together

 

As the lead editor for this show, I ended up doing most of the post on an Avid Media Composer (version 7.2) with AVR-77 as the best image resolution. Media Composer isn’t usually considered a compositor, but it was ideal for this project, with some sections having over 50 video tracks. Not every 4×3 image neatly fit a sweet spot inside our oddly-shaped, land mass screens. Many clips had to be augmented to blend or extend portions of the image to bleed outside of the matte formed by the continent’s shape. This task was handled on the Avid Media Illusion compositor. [Illusion was eventually discontinued by Avid. Many of its features ended up as part of the Avid DS tool set.] Once a clip was fixed, I’d edit, assemble and composite it into each continent as a full screen image (720×486). The tracks for the five continental masses would then be nested into a timeline combining all five sets of composites into a master sequence resembling the flattened map of the earth.

 

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The master timeline would be exported, scaled and cropped into the 364×160 AVI file. We soon realized that the late-90s-era PC on the barge didn’t have the performance to play and decode compressed files, so these AVIs are actually uncompressed. In fact, the show is divided into seven files, which are played back through custom playlist software. Reflections of Earth is edited to music and the show is driven by timecode. The start of the video is only triggered once and continues in free run for the entire performance. The music plays separately from an external multitrack source, so our biggest fear was that the video would drift out of sync. Much to our delight, these AVIs held sync and, in fact, I’ve never seen the video hiccup in all the years that I’ve been back to see the show.

 

The audience’s delight

 

One of the unique aspects of working on a show like Reflections of Earth is that you can actually see it as often as you like and experience it with a real audience – feeling their reactions anew. We designed the show with a rotating globe and different images on all sides. Through a bit of guesswork, we settled on a speed of three rotations per minute. This means that you only see any given image for a maximum of 20 seconds. Even less, when you consider how long the audience has to lock on that sweet spot for each shot. By design, you will not see all the images during one performance of the show. The next time you see the show or if you stand in a different place, the experience will be new again. Hopefully you’ll discover images and think about concepts and ideas that are different than the last time.

 

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Don Dorsey’s intent was not to be literal in how and why our team placed certain images onto specific screens. Sometimes images not specific to European or Asian history or culture might be placed on the Eurasian continental mass, simply because it provided the ideal canvas for that image. A fun moment of serendipity came in the transportation section. We had used an image of a Viking ship, which fit nicely across our Eurasian canvas and instantly communicated the idea of ancient travel and the spirit of exploration. EPCOT happens to have a Norwegian pavilion as one of the many countries that surround the lagoon. These attractions employ foreign students who work as part of the EPCOT cast. The first night that Reflections of Earth ran publically, some of these cast members were outside watching the show. It just so happened that the rotation aligned the Viking ship to face Norway – resulting in a resounding cheer from the Norwegians. I’ve been back a number of times and seen this happen more than once.

 

Disney doesn’t release attendance figures, but if Reflections of Earth makes its full ten year run, it has been estimated that at least 70 million people will have seen this show. There are few projects that any of us have worked on with sort of an audience! IllumiNations 2000: Reflections of Earth was intended to celebrate the start of the new millennium with an expression of hope for humankind. So far that has been a challenge, but it’s nice to know that spirit is still alive somewhere. Here’s hoping we will rekindle that spirit worldwide some day soon.

 

© 2008 Oliver Peters