Comparing Final Cut Pro X, Media Composer and Premiere Pro CC

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The editing world includes a number of software options, such as Autodesk Smoke, Grass Valley EDIUS, Lightworks, Media 100, Sony Vegas and Quantel. The lion’s share of editing is done on three platforms: Apple Final Cut Pro, Avid Media Composer or Adobe Premiere Pro. For the last two years many users have been holding onto legacy systems, wondering when the dust would settle and which editing tool would become dominant again. By the end of 2013, these three companies released significant updates that give users a good idea of their future direction and has many zeroing in on a selection.

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Differing business models

Adobe, Apple and Avid have three distinctly different approaches. Adobe and Avid offer cross-platform solutions, while Final Cut Pro X only works on Apple hardware. Adobe offers most of its content creation software only through a Creative Cloud subscription. Individual users have access to all creative applications for $49.99 a month (not including promotional deals), but when they quit subscribing, the applications cease to function after a grace period. Users may install the software on as many computers as they like (Mac or PC), but only two can be activated at any time.

Apple’s software sells through the Mac App Store. Final Cut Pro X is $299.99 with another $49.99 each for Motion and Compressor. Individual users may install and use these applications on any Mac computers they own, but enterprise users are supposed to purchase volume licenses to cover one installation per computer. With the release of FCP X 10.1, it appears that Apple is offering updates at no charge, meaning that once you buy Final Cut, you never pay for updates. Whether that continues as the official Apple policy from here on is unknown. FCP X uses a special version of XML for timeline interchange with other applications, so if you need to send material via EDL, OMF or AAF – or even interchange with previous versions of Final Cut Pro – you will need to augment FCP X with a variety of third-party utilities.

Avid Media Composer remains the only one of the three that follows a traditional software ownership model. You purchase, download and install the software and activate the license. You may install it on numerous Macs and PCs, but only one at a time can be activated. The software bundle runs $999 and includes Media Composer, several Avid utilities, Sorenson Squeeze, Avid FX from BorisFX and AvidDVD by Sonic. You can expand your system with three extra software options: Symphony (advanced color correction), ScriptSync (automated audio-to-script alignment) and PhraseFind (a dialogue search tool). The Symphony option also includes the Boris Continuum Complete filters.

Thanks to Avid’s installation and activation process, Media Composer is the most transportable of the three. Simply carry Mac and Windows installers on a USB key along with your activation codes. It’s as simple as installing the software and activating the license, as long as any other installations have been de-activated prior to that. While technically the FCP X application could be moved between machines, it requires that the new machine be authorized as part of a valid Apple ID account. This is often frowned upon in corporate environments. Similarly, you can activate a new machine as one of yours on a Creative Cloud account (as long as you’ve signed out on the other machines), but the software must be downloaded again to this local machine. No USB key installers here.

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Dealing with formats

All three applications are good at handling a variety of source media codecs, frame rates and sizes. In some cases, like RED camera files, plug-ins need to be installed and kept current. Both Apple and Avid will directly handle some camera formats without conversion, but each uses a preferred codec – ProRes for Final Cut Pro X and DNxHD for Media Composer. If you want the most fluid editing experience, then transcode to an optimized codec within the application.

Adobe hasn’t developed its own mezzanine codec. In fact, Premiere Pro CC has no built-in transcoding tools, leaving that instead to Adobe Prelude or Adobe Media Encoder. By design, the editor imports files in their native format without transcoding or rewrapping and works with those directly in the sequence. A mix of various formats, frame rates, codecs and sizes doesn’t always play as smoothly on a single timeline as would optimized media, like DNxHD or ProRes; but, my experience is that of these three, Premiere Pro CC handles such a mix the best.

Most of us work with HD (or even SD) deliverables, but higher resolutions (2K, UHD, 4K) are around the corner. All three NLEs handle bigger-than-HD formats as source media without much difficulty. I’ve tested the latest RED EPIC Dragon 6K camera files in all three applications and they handle the format well. Both Adobe and Apple can output bigger sequence sizes, too, such as 2K and 4K. For now, Avid Media Composer is still limited to HD (1920 x 1080 maximum) sequences and output sizes. Here are some key features of the most recent updates.

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Adobe Premiere Pro CC (version 7.2.1)

The current build of Premiere Pro CC was released towards the end of 2013. Adobe has been enhancing editing features with each new update, but two big selling points of this version are Adobe Anywhere integration and Direct Link between Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC. Anywhere requires a shared server for collaborative workflows and isn’t applicable to most users who don’t have an Anywhere infrastructure in place. Nevertheless, this adds the client-side application integration, so those who do, can connect, sign in and work.

df_nle_7_smOf more interest is Direct Link, which sends the complete Premiere Pro CC timeline into SpeedGrade CC for color correction. Since you are working directly with the Premiere Pro timeline, SpeedGrade functions with a subset of its usual controls. Operations, like conforming media to an EDL, are inactive. Direct Link facilitates the use of various compressed codecs that SpeedGrade wouldn’t normally handle by itself, since this is being taken care of by Premiere Pro’s media engine. When you’ve completed color correction, the saved timeline is sent back to Premiere Pro. Each clip has an applied Lumetri filter that contains grading information from SpeedGrade. The roundtrip is achieved without any intermediate rendering.

df_nle_6_smThis solution is a good first effort, but I find that the response of SpeedGrade’s controls via Direct Link are noticeably slower than working directly in a SpeedGrade project. That must be a result of Premiere Pro working in the background. Clips in Premiere Pro with applied Lumetri effects also require more resources to play well and rendering definitely helps. The color roundtrip results were good in my tests, with the exception of any clips that used a filter layer with a LUT. These displayed with bizarre colors back in Premiere Pro.

You can’t talk about Premiere Pro without addressing Creative Cloud. I still view this as a “work in progress”. For instance, you are supposed to be able to sync files between your local drive and the Cloud, much like DropBox. Even though everything is current on my Mac Pro, that tab in the Creative Cloud application still says “coming soon”. Others report that it’s working for them.

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Apple Final Cut Pro X (version 10.1)

This update is the tipping point for many FCP 7 users. Enough updates have been released in over two years to address many of the concerns professional editors have expressed. 10.1 requires an operating system update to Mavericks (10.9 or later) and has three marquee items – a revised media structure, optimization for 4K and overall better performance. It is clear that Apple is not about to change the inherent design of FCP X. This means no tracks and no changes to the magnetic timeline. As with any update, there are plenty of small tweaks, including enhanced retiming, audio fades on individual channels, improved split edits and a new InertiaCam stabilization algorithm.

df_nle_9_smThe most obvious change is the move from separate Events and Projects folders to unified Libraries, similar to Aperture. Think of a Library as the equivalent to a Final Cut Pro 7 or Premiere Pro CC project file, containing all data for clips and sequences associated with a production. An FCP X Library as viewed in the Finder is a bundled file, which can be opened using the “show package contents” Finder command. This reveals internal folders and files for Events, Projects and aliases linked to external media files. Imported files that are optionally copied into a Library are also contained there, as are rendered and transcoded files. The Libraries no longer need to live at the root of a hard drive and can be created for individual productions. Editors may open and close any or all of the Libraries needed for an edit session.

df_nle_8_smFCP X’s performance was optimized for Mavericks, the new Mac Pro and dual GPU processing. By design, this means improved 4K throughput, including native 4K support for ProRes, Sony XAVC and REDCODE camera raw media files. This performance boost has also filtered down to older machines. 10.1 brought better performance with 1080p ProRes and even 5K RED files to my 2009 Mac Pro. Clearly Apple wants FCP X to be a showcase for the power of the new Mac Pro, but you’ll get benefits from this update, even if you aren’t ready to leap to new hardware.

Along with Final Cut Pro X 10.1, Apple also released updates to Motion and Compressor. The Motion update was necessary to integrate the new FxPlug3 architecture, which enables developers to add custom interface controls. Compressor was the biggest change, with a complete overhaul of the interface in line with the look of FCP X.

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Avid Media Composer (version 7.0.3)

The biggest feature of Media Composer 7.0.3 is optimization for new operating systems. It is qualified for Windows 8.1 and Mac OS X 10.8.5, 10.9 and 10.9.1. There are a number of interface changes, including separate audio and video effects palette tabs and changing the appearance of background processing indicator icons. 24fps sound timecode is now supported, the responsiveness with the Avid Artist Color Controller has been improved and the ability to export a simplified AAF file has been  added.

df_nle_10_smTranscode choices gain a set of H.264 proxy file codecs. These had been used in other Avid news and broadcast tools, but are now extended into Media Composer. Support for RED was updated to handle the RED Dragon format. With the earlier introduction of 7.0, Avid added background transcoding services and FrameFlex – Avid’s solution for bigger-than-HD files. FrameFlex enables resizing and pan/scan/zoom control within that file’s native resolution. Media Composer also accepts mixed frame rates within a single timeline, by applying Motion Adapters to any clip that doesn’t match the frame rate of the project. 7.0.3 improves control over the frame blending method to give the editor a better choice between temporal or spatial smoothness.

There is no clear winner among these three. If you are on Windows, then the choice is between Adobe and Avid. If you need 4K output today, Apple or Adobe are your best option. All three handle a wide range of popular camera formats well – especially RED. If you like tracks – go Avid or Adobe. If you want the best application for the new Mac Pro, that will clearly be Apple Final cut Pro X. These are all great tools, capable of any level of post production – be it commercial, corporate, web, broadcast entertainment or feature films. If you’ve been on the fence for two years, now is the time to switch, because there are no bad tools – only preferences.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Lone Survivor

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The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have already spawned a number of outstanding films, but one that is bound to set the bar higher is the recently-released Lone Survivor, starring Mark Wahlberg as US Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. In early screenings, a number of critics have already compared the film favorably with Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down.

df_ls_06Skip ahead a paragraph if you are concerned about spoilers. The story is based on Luttrell’s best-selling memoir by the same name. It focuses on the failed 2005 Operation Red Wings in which a four-man SEAL team that included Luttrell was sent to retrieve an Al Queda-aligned Taliban leader. Their position was discovered by local shepherds and the SEALs had to decide whether to let them go or kill them. After a unit discussion, the locals were released, which presumably compromised the SEAL unit’s position. Finding themselves surrounded and outnumbered, a firefight ensued. A helicopter sent to extract the team was shot down resulting in the deaths of sixteen, including SEAL and Army special operations units. In the fight, Luttrell’s three teammates were also killed. The story continues with the unusual circumstances that led to his survival through the help of local tribesmen and subsequent rescue. The team leader, Lt. Michael P. Murphy, received a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on that day.

Making this film was entrusted to writer/director Peter Berg (Battleship, Hancock, The Kingdom, Friday Night Lights). For the edit, Berg tapped Colby Parker, Jr., who has cut seven films with Berg. Parker works on a mix of films, music videos and commercials. In fact, he first met Berg doing a Limp Bizkit music video. For commercials, Parker works out of LA’s Rock Paper Scissors editorial company, also home to Academy Award-winning editors, Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network).

df_ls_07I recently spoke with Parker about his experiences on Lone Survivor. Parker explained, “While we were working on Hancock, Peter brought in Marcus and introduced him. We were going to go full speed into Lone Survivor, but then Battleship came up first, so that had to be put on the back burner. After Battleship, it was back to Lone Survivor, but Peter had to find independent financing for it. He had to work really hard to make it happen. Peter has a great affection for three things – his son, football and the military. His father was a Navy historian, so this was a passion project for him.”

Marcus Luttrell was instrumental in the film staying technically accurate. Parker continues, “Marcus was involved in approving the locations, as well as the edit. In a typical war movie, you see a lot of yelling in a battle as commands are issued back and forth. That’s completely different from how the SEALs operate. They are very disciplined units and each member knows what each person’s role is and where there should be. Communication is often silent through signals and there’s a lot of flanking. The SEALs call it ‘water through trees’. The SEALs tend to shoot sparsely and then wait for a response, so the enemy will reveal their position. I had to recut some scenes, to minimize the yelling that wasn’t correctly portrayed.”

df_ls_05Lone Survivor involved a 44-day shoot in New Mexico, where the mountains were a sufficient substitute for Afghanistan. Tobias Schliessler (The Fifth Estate, Hancock) was the director of photography, working with RED cameras. According to Parker, they watched a lot of other war films for the right frame of mind. He explained, “As a reference for how the environment should look, the guideline was the documentary Restrepo about the Afghanistan war. This was his basis for sky, lighting and terrain.”

Editing took about six months. Parker said, “Peter likes to shoot with three cameras all the time, so there’s a lot of coverage. I edit while they are shooting, but I wasn’t on location. I like to blast through the footage to keep up with the camera. This way I can let Peter know if any extra coverage is needed. Often I’ll get word to the 1st AD and he’ll sneak in extra shots if the schedule permits. Although I will have a first assembly when the production wraps, Peter will never sit though a complete viewing of that. He works in a very linear manner, so as we start to view a scene, if there’s something that bothers him, we’ll stop and address it. My first cut was about two-and-a-half hours and the final length came in at two hours.”

df_ls_03Parker continued, “There were a number of scenes that paced well when we intercut them, rather than let them play as written in a linear fashion. For instance, we wanted to let the mission briefing scene play normally. This is where the SEAL team is briefed on their target.  That scene was followed by a scene of the target beheading a local. However, we realized that an actual briefing is very technical and rote – so intercutting these scenes helped keep the audience engaged.” In a film that is intended to accurately portray the frenetic events and chaos of a battle, continuity becomes a challenge for the editor. Parker explained, “In some of the key scenes, the cameras would be on the stars for their takes and then would be turned around to cover the side of the scene showing the Taliban. It was always an issue of matching the energy.”

df_ls_04“I purposefully wanted to make the battlefield clear for the audience. I didn’t want it to be a messy confusing battle. I wanted the audience to experience exactly what the SEALs felt, which was the Taliban closing in on them. I slowed down the pacing so the audience could really track the scene. I’ve had people tell me after screenings that they appreciated the way the first battle is presented, because they’re never lost or confused. In the key scene, where the seal team is debating about what to do with the goat herders, there was a lot of improvisation and a lot of coverage. There was so much strong footage that it was overwhelming. I ended up transcribing every line of dialogue to index cards, then I would lay them on the floor and edit the scene together with these cards.”

Another struggle was how much violence to show. Parker continued, “During the battle, there are scenes with long falls and jumps down the mountainside as the SEALS are looking for cover. These were very brutal visually and I had to be conscious of whether I was getting desensitized to the brutality and needed to dial it back some. One scene that I fought hard to keep in the way I’d cut it, was when Marcus breaks his leg. There’s a bone sticking out through the skin and he has to push it back in. Some folks thought that showing this was just too much, because it was too gruesome. That’s obviously extremely painful, but it’s accurate to what happened and tells a lot about what sort of people become SEALs. I’m glad it stayed in.”

df_ls_02Visual effects played a large role in making Lone Survivor. Image Engine Design (Elysium, Zero Dark Thirty, District 9) in Vancouver handled the majority of effects. The Chinook helicopter crash sequence was completed by ILM. Parker said, “There were a lot of practical visual effects done on location, but these were augmented by Image Engine. The crew did trek up into the upper mountains in New Mexico into some difficult places, so that created a realistic starting point. Muzzle flashes were added or enhanced and mountains were added to some backgrounds. The sets of the villages were only one or two huts and then Image Engine built everything around those. Same for the SEAL base. There were only a few real buildings and from that, they built out a larger base.”

Sound was also a key part of the experience. Parker explained, “Wylie Stateman (Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds) was the supervising sound editor and working with him was very inspiring. He uses a lot of foley, rather than canned effects, and was able to build up a whole sound design ‘language’ for the environment of each scene. It was very collaborative. Wylie and I would discuss our ideas and massage edits to make the sound design more effective.”

The editorial department was set up with four Avid Media Composer systems connected via Unity shared storage. Parker is a big proponent of Avid. He said, “I strictly cut on Avid, but I like some of the improvements they made, thanks for the pressure put on them by Final Cut Pro. This includes some of the timeline-based editing changes, like the ability to copy and paste within the timeline.” The final DI and color grading was handled by Company 3 in Los Angeles.

Originally written for DV magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

 

The Wolf of Wall Street

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Few directors have Martin Scorsese’s talent to tell entertaining stories about the seamier side of life. He has a unique ability to get us to understand and often be seduced by the people who live outside of the accepted norms. That’s an approach he’s used with great success in films like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York and others. Following this path is Scorsese’s newest, The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the memoir of stock broker Jordan Belfort.

Belfort founded the brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont in the 1990s, which eventually devolved into an operation based on swindling investors. The memoir chronicles Belfort’s excursions into excesses and debauchery that eventually led to his downfall and federal prosecution for securities fraud and money laundering. He served three years in federal prison and was sentenced to pay $110 million in restitution after cooperating with the FBI. The film adaptation was written by Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire, Sopranos), who himself spent some time working in a tamer environment at Merrill Lynch during law school. Leo DiCaprio stars as Belfort, along with Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughy as fellow brokers. ( Note: Due to the damage caused by the real Belfort and Stratton Oakmont to its investors, the release of the film is not without its critics. Click here, here and here for some reactions.)

df_wows_04I recently spoke with Thelma Schoonmaker, film editor for The Wolf of Wall Street. Schoonmaker has been a long-time collaborator with Martin Scorsese, most recently having edited Hugo. I asked her how it was to go from such an artistic and technically complex film, like Hugo, to something as over-the-top as The Wolf of Wall Street. She explained, “When I encounter people outside of this industry and they learn I had some connection with Hugo, they make a point of telling me how much they loved that film. It really touched them. The Wolf of Wall Street is a completely different type of film, of course.”

df_wows_01“I enjoyed working on it, because of its unique humor, which no one but Scorsese expected. It’s highly entertaining. Every day I’d get these fantastically funny scenes in dailies. It’s more of an improvisational film like Raging Bull, Casino or Goodfellas. We haven’t done one of those in awhile and I enjoyed getting back to that form. I suppose I like the challenge, because of the documentary background that Marty and I have from our early careers. Continuity doesn’t always match from take to take, but that’s what makes the editing great fun, but also hard.  You have to find a dramatic shape for the improvised scenes, just as you do in a documentary.”

Schoonmaker continued, “The scenes and dialogue are certainly scripted and Scorsese tells the actors that they need to start ‘here’ and end up ‘there’. But then, ‘have fun with the part in the middle’. As an editor, you have to make it work, because sometimes the actors go off on wonderful tangents that weren’t in the script. The cast surrounding Belfort and his business partner, Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill), very quickly got into creating the group of brokers who bought into the method Belfort used to snag investors into questionable stock sales. They are portrayed as not necessarily the smartest folks and Belfort used that to manipulate them and become their leader.  This is fertile ground for comedy and everyone dove into their parts with incredible gusto – willing to do anything to create the excess that pervaded Belfort’s company.  They also worked together perfectly as an ensemble – creating jealousies between themselves for the film.”

df_wows_03The Wolf of Wall Street is in many ways a black comedy. Schoonmaker addressed the challenges of working with material that portrayed some pretty despicable behavior. “Improvisation changed the nature of this film. You could watch the actors say the most despicable things in a take and then they’d crack up afterwards. I asked Leo at one point how he could even say some of the lines with a straight face! Some of it is pretty bizarre, like talking about how to create a dwarf-tossing contest, which Belfort organized as morale boosting for his office parties. Or offering a woman $10,000 to shave her head. And this was actually done in dead seriousness, just for sport.”

In order to get the audience to follow the story, you can’t avoid explaining the technical intricacies of the stock market. Schoonmaker explained, “Belfort started out selling penny stocks. Typically these have a fifty percent profit compared with blue chips stocks that might only have a one percent profit margin. Normally poorer investors buy penny stocks, but Belfort got his brokers to transfer those sales techniques to richer clients, who were first sold a mix of blue chip and penny stocks. From there, he started to manipulate the penny stocks for his own gain, ultimately leading to his downfall. We had to get some of that information across, without getting too technical. Just enough – so the audience could follow the story. Not everything is explained and there are interesting jumps forward. Leo fills in a lot of this information with his voice-overs. These gave Leo’s character additional flavor, reinforcing his greed and callousness because of the writing.  A few times Scorsese would have Leo break the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience to explain a concept.”

The Wolf of Wall Street started production in 2012 for a six-month-long shoot and completed post in November 2013. It was shot primarily on 35mm film, with additional visual effects and low-light material recorded on an ARRI ALEXA. The negative was scanned and delivered as digital files for editing on a Lightworks system.

df_wows_06Schoonmaker discussed the technical aspects. “[Director of Photography] Rodrigo Prieto did extensive testing of both film and digital cameras before the production. Scorsese had shot Hugo with the ALEXA, and was prepared to shoot digitally, but he kept finding he liked the look of the film tests best. Rob Legato was our visual effects supervisor and second unit director again. This isn’t an effects film, of course, but there are a lot of window composites and set extensions. There were also a lot of effects needed for the helicopter shots and the scenes on the yacht. Rob was a great collaborator, as always.

Scott Brock, my associate editor, helped me with the temp sound mixes on the Lightworks and Red Charyszyn was my assistant handling the complex visual effects communication with Rob. They both did a great job.” Scott Brock added some clarification on their set-up. According to Brock, “The lab delivered the usual Avid MXF media to us on shuttle drives, which we copied to our EditShare Xstream server.  We used two Avids and three Lightworks for Wolf, all of which were networked to the Xstream server.  We would use one of the Avids to put the media into Avid-style folders, then our three Lightworks could link to that media for editing.”

Schoonmaker continued, “I started cutting right at the beginning of production. As usual, screening dailies with Scorsese was critical, for he talks to me constantly about what he has shot. From that and my own feelings, I start to edit. This was a big shoot with a very large cast of extras playing the brokers in the brokerage bullpens. These extras were very well-trained and very believable, I think. You really feel immersed in the world of high-pressure selling. The first cut of the film came in long, but still played well and was very entertaining. Ultimately we cut about an hour out to get to the final length of just under three hours with titles.”

df_wows_05“The main ‘rewriting of the scenes’ that we did in the edit was because of the improvisations and the occasional need for different transitions in some cases.  We had to get the balance right between the injected humor and the scripted scenes. The center of the film is the big turning point. Belfort turns a potentially damaging blow to an IPO that the company is offering into a triumph, as he whips up his brokers to a fever pitch. We knew we had to get to that earlier than in the first cut. Scorsese didn’t want to simply do a ‘rise and fall’ film. It’s about the characters and the excesses that they found themselves caught up in and how that became so intoxicating.”

An unusual aspect of The Wolf of Wall Street is the lack of a traditional score. Schoonmaker said, “Marty has a great gift for putting music to film. He chose  unexpected pre-recorded pieces to reflect the intensity and craziness of Belfort’s world. Robbie Robertson wrote an original song for the end titles, but the rest of the film relies completely on existing songs, rather than score. It’s not intended to be period-accurate, but rather music that Scorsese feels is right for the scene. He listens to [SiriusXM] The Loft while he’s shaving in the morning and often a song he hears will just strike him as perfect. That’s where he got a lot of his musical inspiration for Wolf.”

Originally written for DV magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

American Hustle

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Hot off of his success with Silver Linings Playbook, writer/director David O. Russell is back with the year-end release of American Hustle. The film (co-written with Eric Singer) was inspired by the true life FBI ABSCAM sting operation of the late 1970s. It tells the story of how FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) recruits con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to pull the sting off. While the film builds on many of the facts of the actual events, Russell chose to make this a work of fiction to allow himself to infuse the characters with his usual unconstrained depth and richness. It’s not as much about politicians who take bribes, but rather about the personalities who develop the con that’s at the heart of the sting operation.

I interviewed Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten, American Hustle’s editing trio, at the beginning of November – just a few days after the cut was locked. Jay Cassidy pointed out the compressed time frame they were under. He explained, “American Hustle had a longer shoot and shorter post schedule than David’s usual films. This project was always intended as coming straight on the heels of Silver Linings Playbook, which Crispin and I had both worked on. In fact, we read through the first draft of the script while still cutting Silver Linings. Thanks to the awards season and the success of that film, the transition into this film became more compressed with less prep. However, the actors that David wanted for American Hustle were scheduled, so if the film was to be made this year with this cast, then the production company had to move forward. They started shooting in mid-March and wrapped in mid-May after a 42-day shoot schedule. We’ve been in post since then. I started at the beginning of principal photography, Crispin came on board four weeks later and Alan six weeks later.”

df_ah_06This accelerated schedule with a December release target was facilitated by the post production sound team getting an early jump on things.  Headed up by sound editor/re-recording mixer John Ross, dialogue clean-up, sound design and music editing had already been happening throughout the period from May until November. Therefore, it wasn’t a matter of starting final sound editing and mixing from scratch, once the cut was finally locked in November.

 Bucking the digital trend, Russell shot American Hustle on film. Cassidy explained, “David likes to shoot 2-perf 35mm. Film was the right look for this drama and 2-perf gives him 22-minute runs on the camera. This means he can keep rolling with fewer stops, so he gets longer production time before the magazine needs to be reloaded. Although, film’s days are definitely numbered. We used Fuji stock and during the filming were informed by Fuji that they were discontinuing film manufacturing. Of course, they did reassure us that there would be enough negative stock available for us to complete the film without any worries!” Deluxe Labs in New York handled film processing. Company 3 in New York transferred the film for dailies and then delivered digital files to the editing team on hard drives for editing.

df_ah_02Struthers continued, “David likes to dive right into post after production. We don’t watch a first assembly of the full movie as with many other directors. We tend to cut individual scenes and then David reviews those and works with us to build the scenes moment by moment. David is very confident about the editing process, so he’s covered himself in order to have options. He likes to shoot the performances with different ‘calibrations’ to the actors’ emotions to give himself choices in the cutting room.”

Cassidy added, “With David, we’ve all learned that you can’t presume to know which is the best version of an actor’s performance, because of the context around it. It’s usually better to take a scene with three variations to the performance and cut three versions of the scene. This gives David a good starting point with the dialogue and lets him see how the options work.”

df_ah_05Editors often face creative challenges from a film’s length or structure and American Hustle was no exception. Baumgarten explained, “We used a pattern of parallel and overlapping action to condense the film. Rather than drop whole scenes, we found that many of the important story points from those scenes could be preserved by inserting pieces of them into other scenes. This let us tell a more succinct and better story, plus frame the information into a context that makes sense for the audience. Once we did that on a few scenes and saw that it worked well for this film, we decided to find other sections where we could use the same pattern.”

df_ah_03Visual effects were handled in a unique fashion. Cassidy said, “This film has a surprising number of effects, including green screen composites and period fixes. Also the characters wear sunglasses. Many of those shots ended up needing some touch-up to remove unwanted reflections. The production company set up an in-house team and hired the compositors to do most of the effects. They were divided up into two groups, running [Adobe] After Effects and [The Foundry’s] Nuke software. This proved to be very cost-effective, because they handled both temp effects for screenings, as well as final effects. Towards the end, some of the more time-consuming or complex shots were sent to outside vendors, but the bulk of the work was done in-house. We had quicker turnaround for effects, because the compositors were right next door. It was a very interactive process. You could ask for an effect in the morning and have it by the end of the day.”

df_ah_04American Hustle was edited using Avid Media Composer systems connected to an Avid ISIS shared storage network. There were seven Avid systems in the cutting rooms for editors and assistants, one for visual effects, and one in the mix stage. John Ross also used Avid Pro Tools connected with the video satellite system. Cassidy offered his take on the technology side, “It was great working with the ISIS system. It’s Ethernet-based, so this makes it easy to add on more machines, as needed – like my laptop for editing. We were cutting with version 6.5.3 of the Media Composer software and I really like the improvements Avid made. For example, the ability to copy-and-paste audio keyframes and the new ‘select-to-the-right’ function without also grabbing timeline filler media.”

Jay Cassidy concluded, “I’m a big proponent of [Avid] Script Sync. Our first assistant, Mike Azevedo did a great job getting this all loaded and organized. Script Sync was a real time-saver on this film. Sometimes the media was organized by the script and sometimes we had to use transcriptions. There was a lot of coverage on the film mags and this was often not in scene order, but rather, all over the reel. Using Script Sync made it possible to have all of the performances grouped together by the dialogue lines of the scene. In the past, David had been used to the little bit of time it might take to find some of the coverage when he’d ask for alternates. With Script Sync it was all right there, so David could be assured that he had truly seen all of the available coverage for a scene.”

Originally written for DV magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Inside Llewyn Davis

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Fans of Joel and Ethan Coen’s eclectic brand of filmmaking should be thrilled with their latest effort, Inside Llewyn Davis. The story follows Llewyn Davis as a struggling folk singer in the Greenwich Village folk scene at about 1960 – just before Bob Dylan’s early career there. Davis is played by Oscar Isaac, who most recently appeared in The Bourne Legacy. The story was inspired by the life of musician Dave Van Ronk, as chronicled in the book “The Mayor of MacDougal Street”. Although this is the Coen bothers’ most recent release, the film was actually produced in 2012 in true indie filmmaking fashion – without any firm commitment for distribution. It was picked up by CBS Films earlier this year.

df_ild_02The Coen brothers tackle post with a workflow that is specific to them. I had a chance to dig into that world with Katie McQuerrey, who is credited as an additional editor on Inside Llewyn Davis. McQuerrey started with the Coen brothers as they transitioned into digital post, helping to adapt their editorial style to Apple Final Cut Pro. For many of their films, she’s worn a number of hats – helping to coordinate the assistant editors, acting as a conduit to other departments and, in general, serving as another set of eyes, ears and brain while Ethan and Joel are cutting their films.

df_ild_07McQuerrey explained, “Ethan and Joel adapted their approach from how they used to cut on film. Ethan would pull selects from film workprint on a Moviola and then Joel would assemble scenes from these selects using a KEM. With Final Cut Pro, they each have a workstation and these are networked together. No fancy SAN management. Just Apple file sharing and a Promise storage array for media. Ethan will go through a project, review all the takes, make marks, add markers or written notes and pass it over to Joel. Ethan doesn’t actually assemble anything to a timeline. He’s only working within the bins of the broader project. All of the timeline editing of these scenes is then done by Joel.” (Although there’s been press about the Coen brothers planning to use Adobe Premiere Pro in the future, this film was still edited using Apple Final Cut Pro 7.)

df_ild_06Inside Llewyn Davis was filmed on 35mm over the course of a 45-day production in 2012. It wrapped on April 4th and was followed by a 20 to 24-week post schedule, ending in a final mix by the end of September. Technicolor in New York provided lab and transfer services for the production. They scanned in all of the raw 35mm negative one time to DPX files with a 2K resolution and performed a “best light” color correction pass of the DPX files for dailies. In addition, Technicolor also synced the sound from the mono mix of production mixer Peter Kurland’s location recordings. These were delivered to the editorial team as synced ProRes files.

df_ild_05McQuerrey said, “Ethan and Joel don’t cut during the shooting. That doesn’t start until the production wraps. Inside Llewyn Davis has a look for many of the scenes reminiscent of the era. [Director of photography] Bruno Delbonnel worked closely with [colorist] Peter Doyle to establish a suggested look during the dailies. These would be reviewed on location in a production trailer equipped with a 50” Panasonic plasma that Technicolor had calibrated. Once the film was locked, then Technicolor conformed the DPX files and Bruno, Ethan and Joel supervised the DI mastering of the film. Peter graded both the dailies and the final version using a [Filmlight] Baselight system. Naturally, the suggested look was honed and perfected in the final DI.”

df_ild_04Inside Llewyn Davis is about a musician and music is a major component of the film. The intent was to be as authentic as possible. There was no lip-syncing to the playback of a recorded music track. Peter [Kurland] recorded all of these live on set and that’s what ended up in the final mix. For editing, if we ever needed to separate tracks, then we’d go back to Peter’s broadcast wave file multi-track recordings, bring those into Final Cut and create ‘merged clips’ that were synced. Since Ethan and Joel’s offices are in a small building, the assistants had a separate cutting room at Post Factory in New York. We mirrored the media at both locations and I handled the communication between the two offices. Often this was done using Mac screen sharing between the computers.”

df_ild_03The Coen brothers approach their films in a very methodical fashion, so editing doesn’t present the kinds of challenges that might be the case with other directors. McQuerrey explained, “Ethan and Joel have a very good sense of script time to film time. They also understand how the script will translate on screen. They’ll storyboard the entire film, so there’s no improvisation for the editor to deal with. Most scenes are filmed with a traditional, single-camera set-up. This film was within minutes of the right length at the first assembly, so most of the editorial changes were minor trims and honing the cut. No significant scene lifts were made. Joel’s process is usually to do a rough cut and then a first cut. Skip Lievsay, our supervising sound editor, will do a temp mix in [Avid] Pro Tools. This cut with the temp mix will be internally screened for ‘friends and family’, plus the sound team and visual effects department. We then go back through the film top to bottom, creating a second cut with another temp mix.”

“At this stage, some of the visual effects shots have been completed and dropped into the cut. Then there’s more honing, more effects in place and finally another temp mix in 5.1 surround. This will be output to D5 for more formal screenings. Skip builds temp mixes that get pretty involved, so each time we send OMF files and change lists. Sound effects and ADR are addressed at each temp mix. The final mix was done in five days at Sony in Los Angeles with Skip and Greg Orloff working as the re-recording mixers.”

df_ild_08Even the most organized production includes some elements that are tough to cut. For Inside Llewyn Davis, this was the cross-country driving sequence that covers about one-and-a-half reels of the film. It includes another Coen favorite, John Goodman. McQuerrey described, “The driving scenes were all shot as green-screen composites. There are constantly three actors in the car, plus a cat. It’s always a challenge to cut this type of scene, because you are dealing with the continuity from take to take of all three actors in a confined space. The cat, of course, is less under anyone’s control. We ‘cheated’ that a bit using seamless split-screens to composite the shots in a way that the cat was in the right place. All of the windows had to be composited with the appropriate background scenery.”

“The most interesting part of the cut was how the first and last scenes were built. The beginning of the movie and the ending are the same event, but the audience may not realize at first that they are back at the beginning of the story. This was filmed only one time, but each scene was edited in a slightly different way, so initially you aren’t quite sure if you’ve seen this before or not. Actions in the first scene are abbreviated, but are then resolved with more exposition at the end.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters