Particle Fever

df_pf_1Filmmaking isn’t rocket science, but sometimes they are kissing cousins. Such is the case of the documentary Particle Fever, where the credentials of both producer David Kaplan and director Mark Levinson include a Doctorate in particle physics. Levinson has been involved in filmmaking for 28 years, starting after his graduation from Berkeley, when he found the job prospects for physics in a slump. Instead he turned to his second passion – films. Levinson worked as an ADR specialist on such films as The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain, and The Rainmaker. While working on those films, he built up a friendship with noted film editor Walter Murch (The Conversation, Julia, Apocalypse Now, K-19: The Widowmaker). In addition, Levinson was writing screenplays and directing some of his own independent films (Prisoner of Time). This ultimately led him to combine his two interests and pursue Particle Fever, a documentary about the research, construction and goals of building the Large Hadron Collider.

When it came time to put the polish on his documentary, Mark Levinson tapped Walter Murch as the editor. Murch explained, “I was originally only going to be on the film for three months, because I was scheduled to work on another production after that. I started in March 2012, but the story kept changing with each breaking news item from the collider. And my other project went away, so in the end, I worked on the film for 15 months and just finished the mix a few weeks ago [June 2013].” At the start of the documentary project, the outcome of the research from the Large Hadron Collider was unknown. In fact, it wasn’t until later during the edit, that the scientists achieved a major success with the confirmation of the discovery of the Higgs boson as an elementary particle in July 2012. This impacted science, but also the documentary in a major way.

Finding the story arc

df_pf_6Particle Fever is the first feature-length documentary that Walter Murch has edited, although archival and documentary footage has been part of a number of his films. He’d cut some films for the USIA early in his career and has advised and mixed a number of documentaries, including Crumb, about the controversial cartoonist Robert Crumb. Murch is fond of discussing the role of the editor as a participatory writer of the film in how he crafts the story through pictures and sound. Nowhere is this more true than in documentaries. According to Murch, “Particle Fever had a natural story arc by the nature of the events themselves. The machine [the Large Hadron Collider] provided the spine. It was turned on in 2008 and nine days later partly exploded, because a helium relief valve wasn’t strong enough. It was shut down for a year of repairs. When it was turned on again, it was only at half power and many of the scientists feared this was inadequate for any major discoveries. Nevertheless, even at half power, the precision was good enough to see the evidence that they needed. The film covers this journey from hope to disaster to recovery and triumph.”

Due to the cost of constructing large particle accelerators, a project like the Large Hadron Collider is a once-in-a-generation event. It is a seminal moment in science akin to the Manhattan Project or the moon launch. In this case, 10,000 scientists from 100 countries were involved in the goal of recreating the conditions just after the Big Bang and finding the Higgs boson, often nicknamed “the God particle”. Murch explained the production process, “Mark and David picked a number of scientists to follow and we told the story through their eyes without a narrator. They were equipped with small consumer cameras to self-record intermittent video blogs, which augmented the formal interviews. Initially Mark was following about a dozen scientists, but this was eventually narrowed down to the six that are featured in the film. The central creative challenge was to balance the events while getting to know the people and their roles. We also had to present enough science to understand what is at stake without overwhelming the audience. These six turned out to be the best at that and could convey their passion in a very charismatic and understandable way with a minimum of jargon.”

Murch continued, “Our initial cut was two-and-a-half hours, which was ultimately reduced to 99 minutes. We got there by cutting some people, but also some of the ‘side shoots’ or alternate research options that were explored. For example, there was a flurry of excitement related to what was thought to be discoveries of particles of ‘dark matter’ at a Minnesota facility. This covered about 20 minutes of the film, but in the final version there’s only a small trace of that material.”

Sifting to find the nuggets

df_pf_2As in most documentaries, the post team faced a multitude of formats and a wealth of material, including standard definition video recorded in 2007, the HDV files from the scientists’ “webcams” and Panasonic HD media from the interviews. In addition, there was a lot of PAL footage from the media libraries at CERN, the European particle accelerator. During the production, news coverage focused on the theoretical, though statistically unlikely, possibility that the Large Hadron Collider might have been capable of producing a black hole. This yielded even more source material to sift through. In total, the production team generated 300 hours of content and an additional 700 hours were available from CERN and the various news pieces produced about the collider.

Murch is known for his detailed editor’s codebook for scenes and dailies that he maintains for every film in a Filemaker Pro database. Particle Fever required a more streamlined approach. Murch came in at what initially appeared to be the end of the process after Mona Davis (Fresh, Advise & Consent) had worked on the film. Murch said, “I started the process later into the production, so I didn’t initially use my Filemaker database. Mark was both the director and my assistant editor, so for the first few months I was guided by his knowledge of the material. We maintained two mirrored workstations with Final Cut Pro 7 and Mark would ingest any new material and add his markers for clips to investigate. When these bins were copied to my station, I could use them as a guide of where to start looking for possible material.”

Mapping the sound

df_pf_4The post team operated out of Gigantic Studios in New York, which enabled an interactive workflow between Murch and sound designer Tom Paul (on staff at Gigantic) and with composer Robert Miller. Walter Murch’s editorial style involves building up a lot of temporary sound effects and score elements during the rough cut phase and then, piece-by-piece, replacing those with finished elements as he receives them. His FCP sequence on Particle Fever had 42 audio tracks of dialogue, temp sound effects and music elements. This sort of interaction among the editor, sound designer and composer worked well with a small post team all located in New York City. By the time the cut was locked in May, Miller had delivered about an hour of original score for the film and supplied Murch with seven stereo instrumentation stems for that score to give him the most versatility in mixing.

Murch and Paul mixed the film on Gigantic’s Pro Tools ICON system. Murch offered this post trick, “When I received the final score elements from Robert, I would load them into Final Cut and then was able to copy-and-paste volume keyframes I had added to Robert’s temp music onto the final stems, ducking under dialogue or emphasizing certain dynamics of the music. This information was then automatically transferred to the Pro Tools system as part of the OMF output. Although we’d still adjust levels in the mix, embedding these volume shifts gave us a better starting point. We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. In the end, the final mix took four days. Long days!”

df_pf_3Gigantic Post offered the advantage of an on-site screening room, which enabled the producers to have numerous in-progress screenings for both scientific and industry professionals, as well as normal interested viewers. Murch explained, “It was important to get the science right, but also to make it understandable to the layman. I have more than a passing interest in the subject, but both Mark and David have Ph.D.s in particle physics, so if I ever had a question about something, all I had to do was turn around and ask. We held about 20 screenings over the course of a year and the scientists who attended our test screenings felt that the physics was accurate. But, what they also particularly liked was that the film really conveys the passion and experience of what it’s like to work in this field.” Final Frame Post, also in New York, handled the film’s grading and digital intermediate mastering.

Graphic enhancements

df_pf_5To help illustrate the science, the producers tapped MK12, a design and animation studio, which had worked on such films as The Kite Runner and Quantum of Solace. Some of the ways in which they expressed ideas graphically throughout the film could loosely be described as a cross between A Beautiful Mind and Carl Sagan’s PBS Cosmos series. Murch described one example, “For instance, we see Nima (one of our theorists) walking across the campus of the Institute for Advanced Study while we hear his voice-over. As he talks, formulas start to swirl all around him. Then the grass transforms into a carpet of number-particles, which then transform into an expanding universe into which Nima disappears. Eventually, this scene resolves and Nima emerges, returning on campus and walking into a building, the problematic formulas falling to the ground as he goes through the door.”

Although this was Walter Murch’s first feature documentary, his approach wasn’t fundamentally different from how he works on a dramatic film. He said, “Even on a scripted film, I try to look at the material without investing it with intention. I like to view dailies with the fresh-eyed sense of ‘Oh, where did this come from? Let’s see where this will take the story’.  That’s also from working so many years with Francis [Ford Coppola], who often shoots in a documentary style. The wedding scene in The Godfather, for instance; or the Union Square conversation in The Conversation; or any of the action scenes in Apocalypse Now all exemplify that. They are ongoing events, with their own internal momentum, which are captured by multiple cameras. I really enjoyed working on this film, because there were developments and announcements during the post which significantly affected the direction of the story and ultimately the ending. This made for a real roller coaster ride!”

Particle Fever premiered at Doc/Fest Sheffield on June 14th, and won the Audience Award (split with Act of Killing). It is currently in negotiations for distribution.

NOTE: The film will open in New York on Ma5, 2014. In October 2013Peter W. Higgs – who theorized about the boson particle named after him – was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, together with Francois Englert. For more on Walter Murch’s thoughts about editing, click here.

And finally, an interesting look at Murch’s involvement in the Rolex Mentor Protege program.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

Hemingway & Gellhorn

Director Philip Kaufman has a talent for telling a good story against the backdrop of history. The Right Stuff (covering the start of the United States’ race into space) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague) made their marks, but now the latest, Hemingway & Gellhorn continues that streak.

Originally intended as a theatrical film, but ultimately completed as a made-for-HBO feature, Hemingway & Gellhorn chronicles the short and tempestuous relationship between Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen) and his third wife, Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman). The two met in 1936 in Key West, traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War and were married in 1940. They lived in Havana and after four years of a difficult relationship were divorced in 1945. During her 60-year career as a journalist, Gellhorn was recognized as being one of the best war correspondents of the last century. She covered nearly every conflict up until and including the U. S. invasion of Panama in 1989.

The film also paired another team – that of Kaufman and film editor Walter Murch – both of whom had last teamed up for The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I recently spoke with Walter Murch upon his return from the screening of Hemingway & Gellhorn at the Cannes Film Festival. Murch commented on the similarities of these projects, “I’ve always been attracted to the intersection of history and drama. I hadn’t worked with Phil since the 1980s, so I enjoyed tackling another film together, but I was also really interested in the subject matter. When we started, I really didn’t know that much about Martha Gellhorn. I had heard the name, but that was about it. Like most folks, I knew the legend and myth of Hemingway, but not really many of the details of him as a person.”

This has been Murch’s first project destined for TV, rather than theaters. He continued, “Although it’s an HBO film, we never treated it as anything other than a feature film, except that our total schedule, including shooting, was about six months long, instead of ten or more months. In fact, seeing the film in Cannes with an audience of 2,500 was very rewarding. It was the first time we had actually screened in front of a theatrical audience that large. During post, we had a few ‘friends and family’ screenings, but never anything with a formal preview audience. That’s, of course, standard procedure with the film studios. I’m not sure what HBO’s plans are for Hemingway & Gellhorn beyond the HBO channels. Often some of their films make it into theatrical distribution in countries where HBO doesn’t have a cable TV presence.”

Hemingway & Gellhorn was produced entirely in the San Francisco Bay area, even though it was a period film and none of the story takes place there. All visual effects were done by Tippett Studio, supervised by Christopher Morley, which included placing the actors into scenes using real archival footage. Murch explained, “We had done something similar in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The technology has greatly improved since then, and we were able to do things that would have been impossible in 1986. The archival film footage quality was vastly different from the ARRI ALEXA footage used for principal photography. The screenplay was conceived as alternating between grainless color and grainy monochrome scenes to juxtapose the intimate events in the lives of Hemingway and Gellhorn with their presence on the world stage at historical events. So it was always intended for effect, rather than trying to convince the audience that there was a completely continuous reality. As we got into editing, Phil started to play with color, using different tinting for the various locations. One place might be more yellow and another cool or green and so on. We were trying to be true to the reality of these people, but the film also has to be dramatic. Plus, Phil likes to have fun with the characters. There must be balance, so you have to find the right proportion for these elements.”

The task of finding the archival footage fell to Rob Bonz, who started a year before shooting. Murch explained, “An advantage you have today that we didn’t have in the ‘80s is YouTube. A lot of these clips exist on-line, so it’s easier to research what options you might have. Of course, then you have to find the highest quality version of what you’ve seen on-line. In the case of the events in Hemingway & Gellhorn, these took place all over the world, so Rob and his researchers were calling all kinds of sources, including film labs in Cuba, Spain and Russia that might still have some of these original nitrate materials.”

This was Walter Murch’s first experience working on a film recorded using an ARRI ALEXA. The production recorded 3K ARRIRAW files using the Codex recorder and then it was the editorial team’s responsibility to convert these files for various destinations, including ProResLT (1280 x 720) for the edit, H.264 for HBO review and DPX sequences for DI. Murch was quite happy with the ALEXA’s image. He said, “Since these were 3K frames we were able to really take advantage of the size for repositioning. I got so used to doing that with digital images, starting with Youth Without Youth, that it’s now just second nature. The ALEXA has great dynamic range and the image held up well to subtle zooms and frame divisions. Most repositionings and enlargements were on the order of 125% to 145%, but there’s one blow-up at 350% of normal.”

In addition to Bonz, the editorial team included Murch’s son Walter (first assistant editor) and David Cerf (apprentice). Walter Murch is a big proponent of using FileMaker Pro for his film editor’s code book and explained some of the changes on this film. “Dave really handled most of the FileMaker jiu-jitsu. It works well with XML, so we were able go back and forth between FileMaker Pro and Final Cut Pro 7 using XML. This time our script supervisor, Virginia McCarthy, was using ScriptE, which also does a handshake with FileMaker, so that her notes could be instantly integrated into our database. Then we could use this information to drive an action in Final Cut Pro – for instance, the assembly of dailies reels. FileMaker would organize the information about yesterday’s shooting, and then an XML out of that data would trigger an assembly in Final Cut, inserting graphics and text as needed in between shots. In the other direction, we would create visibility-disabled slugs on a dedicated video track, tagged with scene information about the clips in the video tracks below. Outputting XML from Final Cut would create an instantaneous continuity list with time markers in FileMaker.”

The way Walter Murch organizes his work is a good fit for Final Cut Pro 7, which he used on Hemingway & Gellhorn and continues to use on a current documentary project. In fact, at a Boston FCP user gathering, Murch showed one of the most elaborate screen grabs of an FCP timeline that you can imagine. He takes full advantage of the track structure to incorporate temporary sound effects and music cues, as well as updated final music and effects.

Another trick he mentioned to me was something he referred to as a QuickTime skin. Murch continued, “I edit with the complete movie on the timeline, not in reels, so I always have the full cut in front of me. I started using this simple QuickTime skin technique with Tetro. First, I export the timeline as a self-contained QuickTime file and then re-import the visual. This is placed on the upper-most video track, effectively hiding everything below. As such, it’s like a ‘skin’ that wraps the clips below it, so the computer doesn’t ‘see’ them when you scroll back and forth. The visual information is now all at one location on a hard drive, so the system isn’t bogged down with unrendered files and other clutter. When you make changes, then you ‘razor-blade’ through the QuickTime and pull back the skin, revealing the ‘internal organs’ (the clips that you want to revise) below – thus making the changes like a surgeon. Working this way also gives a quick visual overview of where you’ve made changes. You can instantly see where the skin has been ‘broken’ and how extensive the changes were. It’s the visual equivalent of a change list. After a couple of weeks of cutting, on average, I make a new QuickTime and start the process over.”

Walter Murch is currently working on a feature documentary about the Large Hadron Collider. Murch, in his many presentations and discussions on editing, considers the art part plumbing (knowing the workflow), part performance (instinctively feeling the rhythm and knowing, in a musical sense, when to cut) and part writing (building and then modifying the story through different combinations of picture and sound). Editing a documentary is certainly a great example of the editor as writer. His starting point is 300 hours of material following three theorists and three experimentalists over a four-year period, including the catastrophic failure of the accelerator nine days after it was turned on for the first time. Murch, who has always held a love and fascination for the sciences, is once again at that intersection of history and drama.

Click here to watch the trailer.

(And here’s a nice additional article from the New York Times.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine (NewBay Media, LLC).

©2012 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

Movies by the fireside

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

Inglourious Basterds
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Film editor: Sally Menke

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

Memento
Director: Christopher Nolan
Film editor: Dody Dorn

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

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

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

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

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

Blackhawk Down
Director: Ridley Scott
Film editor: Pietro Scalia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot Fuzz
Director: Edgar Wright
Film editor: Chris Dickens

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

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

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

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

© 2009 Oliver Peters

Reliving the Zoetrope tradition – Walter Murch and Tetro

blg_tetro_1

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