Interview with Christopher Rouse, The Bourne Ultimatum

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The saying that “good things come in threes” may not always be true for movie sequels, but it sure seems to be the case for Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne franchise. The Bourne Ultimatum is the third installment in this series and has hit the theaters to upbeat reviews. Matt Damon returns as Jason Bourne, a spy who’s had enough, but just can’t seem to quit in peace. Like the first two films, The Bourne Ultimatum promises to be a fast and furious ride from beginning to end.

 

I spoke with Christopher Rouse, the film’s editor, just a day after the official premiere and literally only a few days after the mix was completed. Rouse has been on board since The Bourne Identity (as have many of the cast and much of the crew), when he was brought on as one of the editors. In addition to the previous two Bourne films, Rouse also edited such suspenseful films as The Italian Job, Paycheck and United 93, for which he earned an Oscar nomination. All of these films are well-crafted pieces that really showcase the storytelling contribution of an editor.

 

Fast Paced Post

 

The post schedule on this film was as much of a race to the finish as the movie itself. Rouse explained, “We started shooting last October and originally were supposed to be done with all photography by January, but we actually shot some pick-ups as late as June. Paul Greengrass [director] and Frank Marshall [producer] are very adamant that something shouldn’t just be good if it can be made better. So the script and the film’s structure were evolving all the way to the end. I started with the film at the beginning of principal photography and was headquartered in London. Paul wants to see cut material as early as possible so that he can address issues with coverage very quickly. As a result, I completed my first assembly about a week after the initial production was completed. Although it’s standard for a director to get an official ten weeks for a director’s cut, that didn’t happen in our case. We kept working and refining the film and were very fortunate that the studio trusted us.”

 

In January Rouse set up shop back in Los Angeles and continued to communicate daily with Greengrass long distance until he returned to California. All of the sound and editorial finishing was happening in Los Angeles, but the visual effects company, Double Negative, was in London. Chris continued, “It was quite a compressed schedule for a film of this size and complexity, so I literally haven’t had a day off in the last three months.” The workload and schedule pushed the team to add more edit systems and editors. Rouse explained, “I collaborated a lot with Paul on this film and spent less time actually pushing the buttons, so we brought on two co-editors, Mark Fitzgerald and Derek Brechin to help cut the scenes.”

 

Developing the Style

 

I’m always curious how an editor chooses to shape the film he or she is working on and what hurdles they might run into. Rouse said, “The Bourne Ultimatum was never overly long from the start, so I didn’t have the challenge of a three-hour cut at the first assembly. Of course, the visual style and pacing were already well-established in the first two films, so I was cutting tight versions of the scenes on the first pass. I think this film really moves the entire time, but it has a nice balance. When the audience needs to take a breath so they can feel a scene resonate, we let that happen. Paul gives me the creative freedom to try things out that feel right to me. I can drop dialogue lines if they aren’t working and rearrange scenes if that makes the story better. As scripted, there’s a non-verbal scene of Jason Bourne arriving in Madrid, which is followed by a dialogue scene of the folks who are tracking him. Back-to-back these two pieces were fine, but not as interesting as they could have been. I found that it made the film more compelling to intercut the two scenes. We were constantly assessing structural issues. We knew that we had to keep certain scenes, as they were anchoring the story. Other scenes were much more in flux – some cuts we had them in, and then they’d be out in the next version – or sometimes in a different configuration. Keeping a scene or losing it can be a hard choice to make, because a scene’s presence, or lack thereof, has a domino effect on the entire film.”

 

Rouse uses large note cards tacked to the wall – a favored technique of many film editors. Each card shows a representative thumbnail image printed from that scene along with a description. This gives Rouse the “big picture” view of how the film is constructed and the ability to quickly rearrange scene order to judge how an alternate flow might affect the story. Sometimes he’ll use several walls to compare different versions.

 

“My assistants do a lot of the temp sound effects editing and dialogue clean-up on my scenes, but I’m very ‘hands on’ with music. I like to place it myself at an early stage. In this case, we had all the music from the other two films. Of course, as the film gets more and more rearranged, the music edits start to get more sloppy. So then I’ll bring in a music editor to clean this up and add some fresh ideas of their own.”

 

The Cutting Room

 

Chris Rouse edited The Bourne Ultimatum on Avid Media Composer Adrenalines connected to Unity shared storage. Rouse owns his own system, but by the end, a total of eight Media Composers were connected for the editors, assistants and visual effects editors. Orbit handled the Avid rental gear and LEM and Root 6 assisted with the London-based systems. 35mm film dailies were transferred to high definition video, but unlike other films, Rouse didn’t cut in high def. Chris explained, “I’ve cut films at Avid’s standard definition 14:1 resolution and I was really considering editing in HD, but then backed out at the last minute. We had considered loading in all the footage as both standard and high definition. I would have cut in standard and the HD would be conformed for screenings. Because the film kept changing, it was hard to keep up on the HD side, so we quickly dropped that idea. Instead, I edited at Avid’s 3:1 resolution, which uses a bit more storage, but looks far better than 14:1 when projected. The Bourne Ultimatum has a lot of night shots and even though it isn’t HD, this resolution was a great improvement. On the next film I’ll add a laptop system running a software version of Media Composer and consider using Avid’s new DNxHD36 compressed high definition codec.”

 

Even the “friends and family” screenings were presented straight out of the Avid at 3:1 instead of high definition. The Bourne Ultimatum didn’t go through any preview screenings – rare for a major studio release – and so was able to skip an HD conform. A few shots were printed and projected on film, but no dailies were printed and the movie wasn’t really seen at full quality until they reached the digital intermediate phase at Technicolor. Occasionally this can lead to some surprises. Chris added, “We did see a few soft shots, but this is really in keeping with Paul’s style and the general style and camera movement in the film. On some of the shots, we did see some crew members that weren’t visible to us in the Avid cut. Typically this would be someone’s shoulder in the corner of a shot. Since this was a DI, it was a simple matter to do a slight digital blow-up and fix the shot.”

 

Rouse is both an Avid editor and owner, so I asked if there were any special features, such as multi-cam or Script Editing, that help his cutting style. Chris explained, “Paul shoots with at least two cameras most of the time. I will have the assistants group the clips if it makes sense to do so, such as when you have two sync angles on the lead character. I don’t use the multi-cam mode necessarily, but by grouping them, I can quickly choose one angle or the other. I haven’t used the Script Editing feature. I know editors who swear by it, but I don’t really interact with the lined script like other editors. Once I start to cut the scenes together, I only occasionally go back to the script for reference. By then, the film takes on a life of its own. I’ve worked a little on Lightworks and Final Cut, but Avid feels the best to me for my style. It just seems to give me the quickest access to the material.”

 

Closing Thoughts

 

“As an editor, I miss the communal exchange that used to be there when everyone screened dailies as a group,” Rouse said. “Now everyone gets their own DVD, so I’ll screen dailies with my assistants, but usually not with the crew. What you miss this way are some of the spontaneous reactions that came out of the group as they saw a shot for the first time. It was helpful to see and remember while you were editing. That process has changed, but we’ve adapted.”

 

As our conversation wound down, Chris departed his advice for new editors, “Remember that editing is a craft and you only get better at a craft by practicing it. It doesn’t matter what the material is or how good it is – just cut. You learn the most by editing material that’s not very strong and making it better. Taking something that is unwatchable and turning it into something entertaining is more challenging than getting the last bit of nuance out of great footage. The editing tricks I use today are things I learned twenty years ago when I wasn’t working on such great looking footage. That’s why Academy Award judging is particularly difficult. One never quite knows the quality of material the editor had to work with, and how far that material evolved in the cutting room. Visually bold films tend to get more attention, but a staid film can sometimes be the more difficult editing job.”

 

If the past films of Matt Damon, Paul Greengrass and Chris Rouse are any measure, The Bourne Ultimatum audience – not to mention students of the craft everywhere – are in for a great ride.

 

Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)

A First Look at Apple Color

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The biggest shock of Apple’s new Final Cut Studio 2 has been that they had included Color in the bundle at a standard upgrade price. Color is a motion-picture quality, color correction and grading application based on the Final Touch technology acquired from Silicon Color. Up until IBC 2006 (prior to this acquisition) Silicon Color had marketed Final Touch as a tiered product for SD, HD and 2K grading, topping out at a price in the thousands of dollars for the 2K version. By bundling Color as part of Final Cut Studio, Apple introduced many new folks to this powerful application, who would never have given it a second look under the Final Touch banner.

 

The last official versions of Final Touch were pretty buggy, so how good a job was Apple able to do in a few short months? The answer is quite a lot. Color 1.0 is very stable if you stay within Apple’s recommended guidelines. Some of these issues, like drop frame sequence compatibility have been fixed in the latest 1.0.1 update, but others remain, so new users should consult Apple’s latest release notes for any potential gotchas in their particular workflows. Not all issues will apply, but some users in online forums still report problems with 720p at PAL frame rates and length limitations. For optimum performance work in segments that are ten minutes or less in length and fewer than 200 edits.

 

The Interface

 

The biggest complaint I hear in online forums is how daunting the interface is. This puzzles me, as it’s a rather simple and well-designed application. Granted it isn’t very FCP-like, but sports an interface similar to many Unix/Irix/Linux applications. If you have ever worked with Shake or a color grading application like daVinci or Autodesk Lustre, then you’ll feel right at home with Apple Color. 

 

The interface color scheme uses a neutral grey background so as not to detract from the task at hand. It’s best to run with two screens, although the entire interface can fit on a single screen if your display card handles 1680 x 1050 pixels or greater. This means that you can run Color on a single screen desktop system, a 17″ MacBook Pro or even one of the higher-end 15″ MacBook Pros with an external monitor. In a two-screen configuration, one screen displays the working interface and the other shows video and a variety of scopes. The video image can be toggled between full screen or quarter screen, though only HD clips will actually be quarter screen on a 23″ display.

 

The working interface is arranged in a series of tabs. The left-to-right order of these tabs (called Rooms) follows the same order as the video processing through Color. The first is Setup, which is where you define application preferences, render locations and so on. You also go here to see your shots as a list and to locate saved color grades. The Rooms continue to the right, organized in the order of Primary In, Secondaries, Color FX, Primary Out and Geometry. As you grade a clip, you will work through these rooms in that same order. The last two are Still Store and Render Queue. Saved reference images from the Still Store can be split screened and compared with active clips for shot matching.

 

Making The Grade

 

Working with Color is as much an art as a science. Most of your work is going to be done in either the Primary In room or one of the eight Secondaries. One trick I picked up from Bob Sliga (colorist and former Final Touch demo artist, now on the Apple staff) is that you shouldn’t try to do all the correction in a single room. For example, use the color wheels and curves in the Primary In room to establish a pleasing overall look and then go into the Secondaries to customize that image. Both areas offer the typical color wheels and curves, but the effect is cumulative. You might improve the basic shot through the Primary In, but leave it neutral. Then in Secondary 1 make it warmer (more yellow/red) and in Secondary 2 make it cooler (more blue). Since each secondary can be enabled or disabled, this becomes a quick way to toggle through alternative “looks” for a director without having to start over each time.

 

There are eight Secondaries. Grading in a secondary room can be applied to the whole image, a circular, rectangular or custom vignette or a keyed color. Vignettes permit grading both inside and outside of the vignette area within a room, so eight rooms could actually equate to sixteen layers of color grading. You can also use trackers to lock vignettes to objects or people in the shot. You don’t have to always start with Secondary 1. For instance, if you use a vignette to highlight a person in Secondary 1 by darkening the area outside the vignette and then highlight another in Secondary 2, the vignette in Secondary 2 is trying to counteract the darkened video created in Secondary 1 and the two highlights won’t match. Instead, darken the overall shot in Secondary 3 and then use a vignette in Secondary 1 and Secondary 2 to brighten the two different people equally.

 

Next is the Color FX room, a node-based compositor whose effects are added on top of the grading done in the Primary In and Secondaries rooms. Color employs the GPU and CPU differently than Apple’s FxPlug filters, so a different set of plug-ins is required. A number come with the system, but a powerful package of effects is also available from developer Graeme Nattress. For example, I used one of the Nattress S-Curve plug-ins to really dig out some definition in a nearly burnt-out sky with excellent results. The Color FX room includes a bin loaded with process tree presets. These are ready-to-use effects than can be tweaked and will give you an idea how to structure your own trees for custom looks. The last grading room is Primary Out. It’s the best place to go when the client says, “I love everything, but make it all darker.” Finally, there’s a Geometry room for pan-and-scan work. The quality of the Geometry effects looked far cleaner than most DVEs I’ve used, but these moves are only rendered when you aren’t using the FCP roundtrip path. When FCP is used, the Geometry information is sent back to FCP as size and position parameters that have to be rendered in Final Cut.

 

Round-Tripping

 

Clearly the optimal use of Color is in conjunction with Final Cut Pro. Most of the readers are editors who will only use Color in that context, so I’ll skip Color’s DI-oriented features. Start by using the Final Cut Pro 6 “Send To Color” command. Color works with the raw media files, so generally FCP effects won’t show up in Color. Motion tab values and basic FCP 3-way color correction (since the 1.0.1 patch) will be translated, but only individual shots and not composites will be displayed. You’ll need to “bake in” any effects that are to be graded in Color after the effect is applied. To do this, export a rendered, self-contained file of that composite and drop it back on the FCP timeline before sending it to Color. This also applies to Smoothcam and slomo shots. Color will properly interpret the effect, but when it comes time to render, the entire media file will be rendered – not just the portion that appears in the edited sequence. When you’ve finished your grading, render the clips and send the sequence back to Final Cut Pro. There you’ll find a new sequence, labeled “from Color”. It will match the original, except that the shots are now linked to the rendered Color media and not the original captured QuickTime files.

 

So… How was it?

 

I’ve got to say that Color is a pleasure, but it isn’t the only Final Cut grading solution you’ll ever use. There are still plenty of reasons to use the 3-way corrector or plug-ins like Magic Bullet Colorista to correct or enhance a handful of shots inside FCP. To get the most out of Apple Color, it’s worth it to plan a color grading pass into your routine. Just about all of the grades and effects can be keyframed – a big improvement over other systems. Although an expensive colorist-style panel with trackballs would be nice – it is optional. I actually felt quite comfortable with the Apple Mighty Mouse. With Color it felt far less fatiguing on long sessions than using a mouse with other grading software. Using the middle click of the mouse also allows you to scroll through the timeline. The sheer quality of the correction and how Color processes the image is impressive and on a fast machine, it generally plays clips in near real-time, even when numerous layers (rooms) are applied.

 

I tested rendering times with various media formats, such as DV, DVCPROHD, XDCAM-HD and uncompressed HD. I also tested various target render formats, including 10-bit uncompressed and Apple’s ProRes 422. A two-minute 1080i clip – with several layers of grading and an added Color FX Film Grain filter – took between 14 and 17 minutes to render on a MacPro (two dual-core Xeons) with 8GB RAM and the ATI X1900XT graphics card. A similar DV clip took about 11 minutes, so render times don’t correlate to frame size, format or the amount of grading.

 

I think Apple did an amazing job in a few short months, but there’s definitely room for improvement. For instance, you can’t slave audio with the picture. Final Cut’s 3-way color settings translate, but don’t really match in Color. Overall the quality is superb, but I was disappointed with the blur effects. You can’t add a soft focus effect from the vignettes in the Secondaries. This requires a Color FX filter and I thought these looked crunchy on highly compression media, like XDCAM-HD and DVCPROHD. At least one handy feature – adding notes to shots in the list view – doesn’t work yet and finally, there is only one undo.

 

Apple has definitely brought a world-class, feature film toolset to the desktop. A few days of working with Color should be all it takes for most users to get comfortable with the interface. Remember that color grading is an art and if you are new to it, check out one of the many books on color correction techniques and theory before stepping behind the controls with a client. That being said, editors who have the eye for giving their project that special touch will find Color a delightful experience.

 

Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)

Interview with Charlie Bartlett director, Jon Poll

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When you think of teen comedies and coming-of-age stories, classics like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Risky Business might come to mind, but there haven’t been many recent films that are held in the same regard. Charlie Bartlett, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival might change that. It has been picked up by MGM and is slated for a summer release. The film has been characterized as a teen comedy that is funny, smart and warm and has been likened to Harold and Maude. It stars Anton Yelchin (Charlie Bartlett) as an awkward high school student who has been kicked out of his prep school for making fake IDs. He now has to fit into his local public school and it’s probably the last chance. Charlie masters the system and soars to popularity by first counseling his peers – as the school “therapist” – and then by selling them the drugs that his psychiatrist prescribes for him. Through the course of the film, Charlie learns that this isn’t always the right path to solve problems and that while trying to help others he had better help himself. The cast also includes Robert Downey, Jr. as the disenchanted principal, Hope Davis as Charlie’s mom and Kat Dennings – Charlie’s girlfriend, who also happens to be the principal’s daughter.

 

What also makes Charlie Bartlett unusual is that the story is brought to life by director Jon Poll, who has spent the last two decades as an editor on such hits as Meet the Fockers, Austin Powers in Goldmember, Meet the Parents and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me to name a few. Although Poll has produced and directed second unit, this is the first time he’s helmed such a large and visible project. As Poll’s first big film, I was curious what steps he took to get this project made. Jon explained, “I had worked on twenty films as an editor, one as a co-producer and second unit director [Meet the Fockers] and one as an executive producer [40 Year Old Virgin].  I felt like I was ready to direct a film and spent a year looking for the right script. Jay Roach – for whom I’d edited five films – gave me Gustin Nash’s Charlie Bartlett script to read. I laughed out loud and was moved when I read it and knew this one was right, so Jay, David Permut, Barron Kidd and I brought it to the studios. Everyone thought we were nuts, trying to make a teen comedy that involved drugs, so needless to say we received a lot of rejections. We finally connected with Bill Horberg at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment who also believed in this script. Usually they partner with another company or studio to produce a film, but because of the subject matter, they became the sole production company, since no one else would touch it. It was hard work to get to this point, but I wanted to make a well-crafted, entertaining film that was smart and still had an edge to it.”

 

From Editor To Director

 

Many editors dream of directing one day, but never take the plunge, so I wondered if Jon had always been a “frustrated director” during his years in the cutting room. Jon laughed at my comment and responded, “No, I was never a frustrated director. I was actually quite happy! I’ve always viewed myself as a filmmaker, whether I worked as an editor or on second unit or as a producer. I knew I wanted to direct when I was in school at USC. I’ve always enjoyed editing and now the right time came along for me to make the move into directing. I feel that I am a better director now than I would have been at 25 because of that and I made a better movie as a result.” And how was it directing a cast with such notables as Robert Downey, Jr.? “At first I was terrified of the thought of directing Downey,” Poll explained. “He’s an Oscar-caliber actor, and of course, because of his own struggles, the irony of having him play this role wasn’t lost on anyone, including himself. Fortunately, I found that not only was he very giving and totally together as an actor and a person, but that he completely embraced the concept of the movie. As an editor I’ve spent twenty years in dark cutting rooms talking to actors on the screen who couldn’t hear me. You are always wishing for something slightly different in the next take, but have no control over that. Now I’m lucky to actually be able to talk to them and ask for what I want!”

 

When it came to editing Charlie Bartlett, Jon Poll tapped friend and fellow editor Alan Baumgarten. Both had worked in a team that also included Lee Haxall to edit Meet The Fockers. “On Meet The Fockers, my time was split into thirds with cutting, being on stage and working second unit. It took three editors to finish that film and I was happy to share credit with Alan and Lee.” Poll continued, “Alan is a friend and we’ve worked together over the years so I was happy to bring him on board. Even though I’m an editor myself, I think it’s better to have other editors challenge the way you see the film. I often hear of directors who have successfully edited their own projects, but you have to wonder how might that film have been different with another editor on the project. It brings a different perspective and is the smartest way to make movies, so I was never tempted to just edit it myself. We had a small editorial team that also included Catherine Haight [first assistant editor] and Andy Jurgensen [post production coordinator] in addition to Alan. Catherine also cut some of the scenes for us and Andy started as our post production assistant and moved up to post production coordinator. He’s a sharp, young guy and having him on board saved us the cost of a full-blown post production supervisor.” 

 

Keeping The Schedule

 

The post production phase followed a typical feature film schedule. Editing started out in Toronto during filming and moved to Los Angeles after the wrap. The editor’s cut was finished about two weeks after principal photography was completed and then Poll and Baumgarten took ten weeks to finish the director’s cut. The story stuck to the original script, but a plot device involving video interviews throughout the film, including the open and close, was dropped early on. After two successful “friends and family” screenings Sidney Kimmel Entertainment let Poll add two more days of photography for a new open and close. The first screened version was about an hour and fifty minutes in length, but through the usual tightening that occurs as a film is massaged into its final version, the finished length became one hour and thirty-seven minutes. Post was completed in April of this year with an audio mix at Warner Brothers at the hands of re-recording mixers Doug Hemphill and Ron Bartlett.

 

Charlie Bartlett’s $12 million budget might seem like a lot of money, but it’s a tight squeeze for an indie film at this level. Film stock is one example. Poll pointed out, “I’m glad to say I came in under budget and on schedule. We shot 500,000 feet of film. They had originally budgeted only 250,000 and I was told ‘you’re an editor, so you’ll only shoot what you need’. Of course, being an editor, I wanted to make sure I covered all the options. We filmed for 38 days and 18 to 20 of these were with two cameras. I approached everything as a trade off for things that would put more value up on the screen. For example, the negative was transferred to standard definition videotape and we didn’t use any HD or filmed dailies. I did print a few takes. This is routine just to make sure the look is right, but after that, all of our dailies were on video for the rest of the shooting days. The friends and family screenings were done as standard definition projection from a high-res Avid output. All straight out of the Avid, including our audio mix. I didn’t want to waste time and money by having the audio department create a temp mix just for screenings.” 

 

This philosophy carried over to the finish as well. “We did a traditional film finish with cut negative and color-timed prints instead of a digital intermediate. Doing a DI would have cost me too much money. The cheapest DI on a feature from scanned negative in Los Angeles is going to cost at least $125,000. In our case, cutting the negative and running prints will look just as good. From a technical standpoint, this is a performance-driven film without the type of content that would benefit from a DI. There are only about fifty to sixty effects shots that are invisible effects, like locked off split screens, and these don’t cost very much.”

 

As we wrapped the interview I asked Poll for any advice he might offer newcomers to the business. Jon recommended, “Always work harder than anyone else. Always care more than anyone else. Go with your gut. I’ve always had an assistant editor working with me and I always let them cut some scenes. I always show them what I do so they understand the thought process. The technology will change. We’ve moved from film to nonlinear editing and that’s been a huge difference, but the choices you make have to be what’s best for the film and not driven by the technology.”

 

Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)