The film buffs I know tend to have strong feelings one way or another about a Coen Brothers film. Most have quirky scripts and odd characters that endear audiences to these stories. Movies like Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? are a real treat for fans. After all, who would have ever thought that George Clooney would have dared to play Everett as he did in Oh Brother ? Ethan and Joel Coen form the unique writing, directing and editing team that brings these characters to life. More often than not, these films are played with a lot of comedy and a not-so-subtle wink to the audience, such as in the homage to the climax of The Wizard of Oz when our heroes in Oh Brother approach the Ku Klux Klan rally. Or the fact that the film itself is very loosely based on Homer’s epic poem, Odyssey – only transposed to the Deep South of the 1930s. Their newest release, No Country For Old Men takes a sharply different and darker turn.
No Country For Old Men is a crime thriller. The story starts when small town loser Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds a pick-up truck surrounded by a sentry of dead men with a load of heroin and $2 Million still in the back. It turns out that this is the scene of a drug deal gone bad, but Moss takes the money, setting off a series of twists and turns as he is pursued by the psychopathic and murderous mastermind (Javier Bardem). Toss in Tommy Lee Jones as the local Texas sheriff and Woody Harrelson as a bounty hunter and this makes for an interesting cinematic mix. This is a story that could have easily been handled with a humorous, maybe even slapstick touch, but the Coens have purposefully kept the story dark, choosing to faithfully adapt the film from a novel by Cormac McCarthy.
Making The Move To Digital Editing
Just as their approach to writing and directing is a bit unusual, so is their approach to editing. Joel and Ethan Coen have always edited their own films in a tag-team fashion, credited under the pseudonym of the fictitious Roderick Jaynes. Prior to Intolerable Cruelty, they used traditional film editing tools. Ethan would review and mark up takes on an upright Moviola and then hand these over to Joel who assembled the scenes on a KEM flatbed editing table. It’s a system that served them well until convinced to try digital nonlinear editing for the first time on Intolerable Cruelty. With assistance from Apple and the Coens’ post production supervisor, Dave Diliberto, a system was set up that closely mimicked their idiosyncratic workflow. This approach has since been expanded on the subsequent films.
In speaking with Joel and Ethan Coen, they cheerfully admitted to not being very computer-savvy, but have taken to Apple’s Final Cut Pro as a natural fit for their style. Ethan said, “We literally had to stop the trainers in the beginning and tell them to assume we knew nothing about computers, because even manipulating the interface with the mouse was totally new to us. Now it comes comfortably and we work in the same style as with the Moviola and the KEM.” In the original set-up, two Apple PowerMac G5s were networked together using standard Ethernet connections. Each brother would work with separate Final Cut Pro project files. As Ethan reviewed the takes and made shot selections, that project would be saved to a folder on his computer. When ready, Joel would be able to access that folder over the network and copy it to his machine, open the copy and proceed to assemble the timelines for scenes. Joel added, “Our method isn’t very high-tech, though. We work together on different systems in the same cutting room. The key to this workflow for us is the bell. We actually have a bellhop’s desk bell that Ethan will hit when he’s ready for me. I hear it ding and know there’s a file waiting for me. In the past, we used a grease pencil hanging on rubber bands from the ceiling, but now it’s the bell. That’s the key to our style!”
Thinking that maybe I should take the bell comment with a grain of salt, I picked up the conversation with Neil Stelzner, the associate editor on No Country For Old Men. Stelzner is the one covering the technical bases and shared a hand in cutting scenes on the latest film. Stelzner said, “No, they weren’t pulling your leg. They do actually work that way and they do use that bell. Joel and Ethan cut in the same room, right next to each other. The bell is used to alert Joel when Ethan has selects he wants Joel to pick up.” Their cutting room layout has grown since the initial set-up used for Intolerable Cruelty,. With this film, the Coens made the move to two systems connected to an Apple Xserve server using the Apple Xsan shared storage network. In the past, they were moving DV media across Ethernet between the computers, but in this more recent approach, common shared media files are accessible to both workstations courtesy of Xsan. Joel and Ethan still work off of individual versions of the projects, so when Ethan saves his file and closes it, Joel is able to access it from the server and assemble sequences.
The Production and Post Workflow
No Country For Old Men was shot on 35mm film by director of photography, Roger Deakins, a long time Coen Brothers collaborator. Dailies were processed at Deluxe and transferred to HDCAM at Laser Pacific, as well as to DVCPRO HD files stored on FireWire drives. These drives were sent to the cutting room so the media could be copied to the Xsan storage. While Intolerable Cruelty was cut at DV resolution, this latest round took advantage of the better resolution of DVCPRO HD. Laser Pacific also transferred the dailies to D-VHS tapes. In this format compressed HD video is stored on VHS-sized cassettes with a signal quality comparable to high definition, digital broadcast television. These tapes were sent to the set for the production company to review dailies in a high-quality and easily-transported format. When it came time for audience preview screenings, DVCPRO HD QuickTime files were exported from the Final Cut Pro systems (complete with the temp mix of the film) and sent to Postworks New York, who in turn output these files to HDCAM masters for projection. Once the cut was locked, first assistant editor Katie McQuerrey generated edit decision lists (EDLs) and QuickTime picture-reference files that were sent to EFILM. There the original negative was scanned, conformed to the cut, digitally color-corrected and recorded out to film.
The Coens and Stelzner are already in the thick of things with the next film, Burn After Reading. Here the approach has evolved yet a step further. Shot on 35mm film, the dailies are transferred at Technicolor New York to HD and also ingested to hard drives using the new Apple ProRes 4:2:2 compressed HD codec. This QuickTime codec offers improved image resolution over DVCPRO HD, yet maintains a file size that isn’t too much bigger than uncompressed, standard definition video. The ProRes files are then loaded into Xsan. According to Stelzner, “We are also using a beta version of Apple’s new Final Cut Server application. It has a lot of search features that aren’t necessary for Ethan’s and Joel’s workflow, but it aids us in automatically creating lower-resolution proxy files of the dailies. These have smaller file sizes, but pretty good image quality, so the aim is to make it possible to securely download dailies and rough cuts using aspects of Final Cut Server. We cut in ProRes, but the proxy files can be reviewed by others on the network.”
The Coen Brothers and Apple have a good working relationship. Apple consultants helped translate their unusual workflow into the digital world. In turn, Ethan and Joel have appeared in Apple web videos promoting Color, the color-grading application included in the Final Cut Studio 2 software suite, which was launched at NAB 2007. This was a natural choice, since Oh Brother, Where Art Though? brought digital film grading into the mainstream. Director of photography Roger Deakins made extensive use of electronic film timing (the hallmark of DI) to nail the look in that film in post. Apple hadn’t released Color until after No Country For Old Men wrapped, but, I was curious whether it would play a roll in future Coen projects. According to Ethan, “We really leave the final look to our director of photography, Roger Deakins, working with Michael Hatzer, our colorist at EFILM. So, to date, [Apple] Color hasn’t played a role for us as we cut. It has a lot of potential and we feel that Color may play a role in the future as another tool on the set. DPs and directors could use it to experiment and decide on different looks to be achieved later in post.”
Although they seem to be adapting well to digital technology, Joel and Ethan Coen couldn’t resist closing our chat on an impish note, “Computers are almost too perfect. One of the real fun parts of old-school film editing was to search through the bottom of the trim bin to find that one or two-frame clip you’d trimmed off but needed to add back. We miss that sort of unpredictability with nonlinear digital editing. We’d love it if there were something like that in the software and have talked to Apple about programming some sort of randomness into the application to make it feel more like the old days. Fortunately for others, I suppose, they simply tell us – quite politely – that they can’t do that!”
Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)