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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Audio mixing strategy, part 2

In my previous post, I discussed creating split-track audio – also know as stems – for the dialogue, sound effects and music components of the composite stereo mix. One useful aspect of the QuickTime format is that it can be a multi-track file, holding numerous discrete audio tracks within the same file. Likewise, Apple Final Cut Pro can create and use multi-track audio in a discrete fashion. The trick is in how you set up your sequence settings and in how you use the mixer panel.

Set the sequence audio configuration to Channel Grouped or Discrete Channels. This lets you control the output destination of your audio channels and whether they work as stereo pairs or as individual mono tracks.

In the Audio Outputs tab, establish how many target outputs the sequence will have. If you want three separate stereo pairs for dialogue, sound effects and music, then this tab should be set to six outputs of stereo pairs or dual mono tracks. If you are using stereo instead of multi-channel audio hardware (an Avid Mbox2 Mini in my case), you’ll receive a warning message alerting you that all tracks cannot be monitored. Just ignore it.

The last step is to make sure that your new sequence is actually set to output to the assigned tracks. Right-click on each track of the track panel and make sure your audio outputs are properly assigned. A1 and A2 to 1 & 2, A3 and A4 to 3 & 4 and A5 and A6 to 5 & 6.

Edit the stereo stem files to their appropriate tracks.

Notice a separate meter bar for each output track in the master section of the Audio Mixer. At this point you will only hear the output of audio track A1 and A2, due to your stereo audio hardware.

To monitor the composite mix, enable stereo downmix in the master section. Now all tracks are monitored. Muting and soloing specific tracks will let you isolate parts of the mix to hone in on a section. Working with stems can be very useful when the client calls to say they liked the mix, but can you bring the music down a bit. Instead of having your outside audio studio remix the track, simply make the level adjustment using these stems.

To archive your master file with discrete, split-audio tracks, export a self-contained file using Current Settings.

You can check this file in QuickTime Player 7 (Show Movie Properties) and verify the separate sound tracks embedded within the file.

In addition, you can import this file back into FCP, edit it across to a new sequence and confirm that the tracks are indeed discrete.

If you did make level changes to create a new mix from the stems, then it is also possible to export a self-contained version of the file with this new composite stereo track. Duplicate the sequence and change the settings back to a two-channel output. Make sure all track assignments are reset to 1 & 2. A self-contained export from this sequence will contain a single mixed stereo track.

You might also want to revisit “Sitting in the Mix” for more on mixing strategies.

©2011 Oliver Peters

Audio mixing strategy, part 1

Modern nonlinear editors have good tools for mixing audio within the application, but often it makes more sense to send the mix to a DAW (digital audio workstation) application, like Pro Tools, Logic or Soundtrack Pro. Whether you stay within the NLE or mix elsewhere, you generally want to end up with a mixed track, as well as a set of “split track stems”. I’ll confine the discussion to stereo tracks, but understand that if you are working on a 5.1 surround project, the track complexity increases accordingly.

The concept of “stems” means that you will do a submix for components of your composite mix. Typically you would produce stems for dialogue, sound effects and music. This means a “pre-mixed” stereo AIFF or WAVE file for each of these components. When you place these three stereo pairs onto a timeline, the six tracks at a zero level setting should correctly sum to equal a finished stereo composite mix. By muting any of these pairs, you can derive other versions, such as an M&E (music+effects minus dialogue) or a D&E (dialogue+effects minus music) mix. Maintaining a “split-track, superless” master (without text/graphics and with audio stems) will give you maximum flexibility for future revisions, without starting from scratch.

A recent project that I edited for the Yarra Valley winemakers was cut in Avid Media Composer 5, but mixed in Apple Soundtrack Pro. I could have mixed this in Media Composer, but I felt that a DAW would give me better control. Since I don’t have Pro Tools, Soundtrack Pro became the logical tool to use.

I’ve had no luck directly importing Avid AAF or OMF files into Soundtrack Pro, so I would recommend two options:

a)    Export an AAF and then use Automatic Duck Pro Import FCP to bring those tracks into Final Cut Pro. Then “send to” Soundtrack Pro for the mix.

b)   Export individual tracks as AIFF audio files. Import those directly into Soundtrack Pro or into FCP and then “send to” Soundtrack Pro.

For this spot, I used option B. First, I checker-boarded my dialogue and sound effects tracks in Media Composer and extended each clip ten frames to add handles. This way I had some extra media for better audio edits and cross fades as needed in Soundtrack Pro. Next, I exported individual tracks as AIFF files. These were then imported into Final Cut Pro, where I re-assembled my audio-only timeline. In FCP, I trimmed out the excess (blank portion) of each track to create individual clips again on these checker-boarded tracks. Finally, I sent this to Soundtrack Pro to create a new STP multi-track project.

Soundtrack Pro applies effects and filters onto a track rather than individual clips. Each track is analogous to a physical track on a multi-track audio recorder and a connected audio mixer; therefore, any processing must be applied to the entire track, rather than only a portion within that track. My spot was made up entirely of on-camera dialogue from winemakers in various locations and circumstances. For example, some of these were recorded on moving vehicles and needed some clean-up to be heard distinctly. So, the next thing to do was to create individual tracks for each speaking person.

In STP, I would add more tracks and move the specific clips up or down in the track layout, so that every time the same person spoke, that clip would appear on the same track. In doing so, I would re-establish the audio edits made in Media Composer, as well as clean up excess audio from my handles. DAWs offer the benefit of various cross fade slopes, so you can tailor the sound of your audio edits by the type of cross fade slope you pick for the incoming and outgoing media.

The process of moving dialogue clips around to individual tracks is often referred to as “splitting out the dialogue”. It’s the first step that a feature film dialogue editor does when preparing the dialogue tracks for the mix. Now you can concentrate on each individual speaking part and adjust the track volume and add any processing that you feel is appropriate for that speaker. Typically I will use EQ and some noise reduction filters. I’ve become quite fond of the Focusrite Scarlett Suite and used these filters quite a bit on the Yarra Valley spot.

Soundtrack Pro’s mixer and track sheet panes are divided into tracks, busses, submixes and a master. I added three stereo submixes (for dialogue, sound effects/ambiances and music) and a master. Each individual track was assigned to one of these submixes. The output of the submixes passed through the master for the final mix output. Since I adjusted each individual track to sound good on its own, the submix tracks were used to balance the levels of these three components against each other. I also added a compressor for the general sound quality onto the submix, as well as a hard limiter on the master to regulate spikes, which I set to -10dB.

By assigning individual dialogue, effects and music tracks to these three submixes, stems are created by default. Once the mix is done to your satisfaction, export a composite mix. Then mute two of the three submixes and export one of the stems. Repeat the process for the other two. Any effects that you’ve added to the master should be disabled whenever you export the stems, so that any overall limiting or processing is not applied to the stems. Once you’ve done this, you will have four stereo AIFF files – mix plus dialogue, sound effects and music stems.

I ended the Yarra Valley spot with a nine-way tag of winemakers and the logo. Seven of these winemakers each deliver a line, but it’s intended as a cacophony of sound rather than being distinguishable. I decided to build that in a separate project, so I could simply import it as a stereo element into the master project. All of the previous dialogue lines are centered as mono within a stereo mix, but I wanted to add some separation to all the voices in the tag.

To achieve this I took the seven voices and panned them to different positions within the stereo field. One voice is full left, one is full right, one is centered. The others are partially panned left or right at increments to fill up the stereo spectrum. I exported this tag as a stereo element, placed it at the right timecode location in my main mix and completed the export steps. Once done, the AIFF tracks for mix and stems were imported into Media Composer and aligned with the picture to complete the roundtrip.

Audio is a significant part of the editing experience. It’s something every editor should devote more time to, so they may learn the tools they already own. Doing so will give you a much better final product.

©2011 Oliver Peters

Demystifying Color Grading II

In previous posts on color correction and grading I’ve discussed how to use some of the built-in and third-party tools to stylize the look of your production. It never ceases to amaze me how many people assume color grading is just the click of a preset in Magic Bullet Looks or the click of the Auto-Balance function in a grading tool. In fact, grading is more than just fixing problems. It takes a bit of thought and effort to enhance an image creatively and tastefully. None of this is terribly difficult if you break correction down to its component parts.

Since this the start of a brand new year, I’ve decided to take another swipe at this fun subject. The objective here is to show how many different tools can be used to design interesting looks. Some are built-in, some are third-party, but free, while others cost, but aren’t terribly expensive. Everyone is probably aware of grading tools, like Apple Color, Magic Bullet Looks and Magic Bullet Colorista II. You may be less aware of the fine color correction tools already included in filter packages from GenArts, Coremelt, BorisFX and Noise Industries. So, this is a chance to see how various tools can be applied to give you something special.

As subject matter, I decided to play with the short film Convergence, filmed by UK Director Martin Scanlan and DoP Steve Lawes. This is one of the first video pieces produced with a pre-production model of the brand new Sony PMW-F3 camera. Scanlan was kind enough to post both the ungraded offline-edited version and the final color-graded version of Convergence on Vimeo. Further info is on their blog. They have graciously made the ungraded version available for download, so I pulled some examples from the 1920×1080 H264 file.

Please understand that the download is a conversion from the camera files, which I further converted back to ProResLT for grading. If you see some artifacts in the samples I’ve posted, they are in all likelihood a function of these various conversions for Internet travel. In addition, my grading is purely to demonstrate the possibilities and is not intended to be an example of how I would have actually graded this film. In fact, you’ll see similar shots with entirely different looks and quite frankly, a lot of this is heavy-handed simply for the sake of demonstration. The point is to use color grading to not only fix and even out shots, but also add subtle lighting and color changes in much the same way a photographer will burn and dodge still photographs.

The sample images below display the Final Cut Pro Canvas pane with the filters applied to the image, a Frame Viewer image without filters, plus a small snippet of the filter pane. Underneath each image is a brief description of the filters I’ve applied and why. Click on any image for an enlarged view, as well as the BEFORE and AFTER links to see larger versions of each.


The FCP 3-way Color Corrector was applied for the basic grade. To this I added two instances of the free Face Light filter to brighten both his face and his reflection in the window. The last filter is the free Vignette filter to darken the corners of the image. The combination of these two not only brightens the light on the face, but draws your focus to it. I probably use Face Light and Vignette more than any other third party filter when grading inside FCP.


The first filter added was the Sean Puckett FxAndy film emulation plug-in. It’s designed to mimic many negative and print film stocks. To this I added a Graeme Nattress Warm Diffusion filter. Between the two, I have taken out some of the green cast of the image, reduced saturation and pushed up the brightness of the highlights on her face. This caused the scarf to become very fluorescent, which I knocked by down using the FCP Color Corrector. When you use this or the FCP 3-way in the limit mode, it becomes an HSL keyer, just like in Color, Colorista II or DaVinci Resolve. I isolated the color of the scarf, thus creating a mask for the scarf. Then the corrector controls alters just the area inside or outside of that mask. In this case, I used it to separately adjust the color of the scarf.


One of my favorite all-in-one color grading plug-ins is DV Shade EasyLooks. It gives you 3-way color correction, diffusion, gradient, vignette and other tools all in a single plug-in. Here I’ve added a blue gradient, diffusion and a vignette with a single instance of the filter.


The GenArts Sapphire collection offers quite a few color correction/grading filters. I used the Sapphire Gamma correction filter to push up the overall level. When you do that with an image this dark, it invariably increases the video noise. To reduce that I applied Sapphire Grain Remove. The reason I used this instead of one of the various noise reduction filters is that Grain Remove tends to reduce the video noise without softening the skin texture of his face too greatly.


Luca Visual FX Stylizer is another comprehensive color grading tool. It can be used for some extreme looks, but when used more subtly, also works as an overall grading tool. In this example, I primarily increased contrast and removed some of the green cast from the image.


Back to the FCP 3-way Color Corrector for the initial grade. To this I added Luca Visual FX Vivid Touch for a bit more punch in the image.


This is a variation of the previous look. On this shot I used Magic Bullet Colorista II. This filter includes three correctors within one filter, plus masking, HSL keying and master curves. In addition to the overall correction, I used the secondary corrector’s keyer to isolate the skin tones of her face. With the face isolated by this mask, I could apply separate correction to brighten just the face without affecting the rest of the shot.


The Boris Continuum Complete 7 package includes BorisFX’s own take on a 3-way Color Grade filter. It permits masking combined with two levels of correction. In this example, I used an egg shape mask around his head and applied both inside and outside correction for the result.


Here’s a look that might be fun for a music video. I have applied the Magic Bullet Mojo filter, which was developed to balance skin tones against the rest of the image. It typically tends towards the so-called “blockbuster” look, using the trendy orange-and-teal grading of many feature films. To it, I have added the free CHV Silk & Fog filter, which softens her face by adding diffusion and glowing the highlights.


The FCP 3-way Color Corrector was used to balance the image – primarily pushing the balance more blue. Then I’ve added a BorisFX BCS Film Effect filter for more bloom and diffusion on the image.


I started by punching up the contrast using the Nattress Simple Curves filter and setting it to an S-curve configuration. The next filter is the Coremelt Secondary HSL Grader. I used it to shift the overall green-orange cast of the original image towards a more pinkish-neutral look. The last filter applied is the Coremelt Dewrinkler to soften her facial texture.


The primary grade was done using the FxFactory Heat filter. This was used to tint the image. Next I applied FxFactory Crush Color to stretch the contrast. Finally, I applied FxFactory Vibrance, which enhances color intensity, without simply increasing uniform saturation.


Back to DV Shade EasyLooks again for the primary grade and some diffusion. To this I added Luca Visual FX Regional Light in order to brighten the area of his face, as well as to add a slight tint within that area. The last step was to add the PHYX Techni2Color filter. This is one of the various Technicolor-style 2-strip filters. When used to extreme it can produce a somewhat unnatural look, since it’s intended to faithfully mimic the original Technicolor process. However, when applied more judicially, it can be used to subtly tint an image, as I did here to remove some of the overall green.


The basic grade was handled by the GenArts Sapphire HueSatBright filter. The next step was to apply Sapphire Hotspots to add bright glowing highlights. Again this caused the scarf to be pushed too far, so I used the FCP 3-way Color Corrector to limit and adjust the color range of only the scarf.


The built-in FCP Levels filter was the starting point to stretch the contrast. Then I added Magic Bullet Colorista (version 1) to isolate the area around his head and brighten and adjust the area within the mask. The third step was to apply Joe’s Soft Spot to blur the area surrounding him.


Magic Bullet Colorista II was used for the full correction. In addition to the overall grade, I used the secondary keyer to isolate and adjust skin tones separately from the rest of the image.


I started with Coremelt Luma S Curve for a basic midrange adjustment. To this added Joe’s Saturation & Colorize to adjust the hue and saturation of the overall image. Note that it’s a bit desaturated from the original. Next came the built-in FCP Brightness & Contrast filter to further brighten the image. The last step was to apply the free River Rock Studios Chromatic Glow filter, which I used to accentuate and whiten the highlights on their foreheads and faces.


The initial grade was done using the FCP 3-way Color Corrector. Then I added a second instance of the 3-way in the limit mode to isolate and brighten her face. The last filter was Joe’s Soft Gradients, which I used to darken the upper right-hand third of the frame. This filter uses blend modes, which varies the resulting looks you can achieve.


To punch up the overall brightness of the image, I started with GenArts Sapphire Gamma. Then I added two instances of the Face Light filter – one for each person. This brightened them even more in relation to the overall image. On top of this I applied the PHYX Haze Removal filter, which enhances the contrast and allows you to apply tinting to the scene according to taste. The last two filters were Joe’s Soft Gradients to darken the sky and Vignette to darken the four corners of the frame.


This shot is more “special effects” in style. I applied the GenArts Sapphire ZGlow to add an overall diffusion. Next was the PHYX Skin Light filter, which enhanced the brightness of lighted objects, like the London Eye, Big Ben and Parliament. The last filter was idustrial revolution Volumetrix2 to add even more glow to the lights and the moonlight poking through the clouds.


This shot strictly used the PHYX filters. PHYX Skin Light was used to brighten their faces. Since this filter enhances the lighting of bright objects against dark backgrounds, it also brightens the area behind our couple. Next I applied the PHYX BleachBypass filter to make the color adjustments. Unlike other bleach bypass plug-ins, the PHYX version gives you a wide range of adjustment and can be successfully used for corrections other than the characteristic skip-bleach look. The last filter in this stack was PHYX SelectiveSat to reduce some of the orange intensity of their skin tones.


Another all-PHYX adjustment, using the PHYX BleachBypass for the basic luma adjustment. Then the PHYX Techni2Color filter to shift the yellow-green cast to a more peach-toned tint. Lastly the PHYX DigitalMakeupKit to soften his skin texture.


These last two examples used Magic Bullet Looks. This first one applies the typical orange-teal, “blockbuster” style.


Another Magic Bullet Looks example with increased contrast and heavy diffusion.


Of course, I don’t want to leave Avid Media Composer out of this discussion, so here are a few examples showing similar approaches in that software. I have used a combination of the built-in color correction mode and filters from Boris FX, Magic Bullet and Sapphire.


I started with the internal color correction mode to get the basic adjustment for brightness and contrast. To this I’ve added two instances of the BCC Brightness/Contrast filter using its pixel chooser to isolate an oval around each people. This was used to brighten them up again the background. Finally, I added Sapphire Vignette to softly darken the edges of the frame.


The first few layers are several instances of the internal color correction mode in order to tweak the luma, contrast and color balance of the image. Then I added Magic Bullet Mojo to create a look for the skin tones and generally desaturate the other colors, not used for skin tones. On top is one more layer of the color corrector to add level-clipping on the highlight peaks.


This image is adjusted with a single filter – BCC Film Process. I simply applied its preset for blooming highlights.


This image was adjusted with only the GenArts Sapphire filters. First, I applied Sapphire HueSatBright for a basic correction. Next, I applied Sapphire Gamma to brighten the midrange values. Last was Sapphire SoftFocus to diffuse the image and soften her skin texture.


Similar to the previous image, this frame is adjusted with only the Boris FX BCC filters. First is BCC Color Correction for a basic luma and contrast adjustment. Next is BCC Color Balance to make the color balance “cooler” (i.e. more blue). On top of that is BCC Levels-Gamma to brighten the midrange. Then comes BCC Film Grain for a simulated grain effect. The topmost filter is BCC Glow to add a bit of diffused glow to the highlights in the image.


Still want to learn more about color grading? Here are a few quick links to other related posts on my blog.

Color Correction Effects Demystified

Color Grading in FCP

Glow as a Color Tool

Grading with Color Wheels

Magic Bullet Colorista II

Music Video Fun

PHYX Color

RED One and Magic Bullet Looks

©2011 Oliver Peters

127 Hours

Director Danny Boyle doesn’t shy away from using digital camera technology as an inventive, storytelling tool. Slumdog Millionaire and 28 Days Later certainly attest to that. His latest, 127 Hours, uses a variety of film and digital formats to tell the true-life story of Aron Ralston (played by James Franco), a mountain climber who was forced to amputate his lower right arm in order to free himself after he became trapped under a boulder. The screenplay is based on Ralston’s book Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

To stay authentic to the story, Boyle shot on location in a canyon in Utah and set up shop at Salt Lake City post house Color Mill, which provided digital “lab” services. As in Slumdog, the Silicon Imaging SI-2K camera played a dominant role, but other formats included 35mm film (3-perf and 4-perf), S-VHS, a Canon Elura (mini-DV) camcorder and a Canon EOS 1D Mark IV digital SLR. The Canon 1D was used for some HD video, but also for stills photographed in a burst mode. This allows the camera to shoot a series of full-resolution, sequential stills at a frame rate less than 24fps. These clips were assembled by Union VFX in London as motion media files at a variety of frame rates. A Redlake high-speed camera rounded out the camera department’s toolkit. Enrique Chediak and Anthony Mantle were Boyle’s cinematographers on this film.

I recently spoke with editor Jon Harris (Snatch, The Descent, Kick-Ass) and first assistant editor Tamsin Jeffrey about the challenges of cutting 127 Hours. According to Harris, the mixture of formats didn’t turn out to be as big a challenge as one might expect. “Danny wanted these different formats to blend as seamlessly as possible,” Harris said. “Aron kept a video diary, which is where the Elura mini-DV footage fit in and that intentionally had a different look. Each of the other formats was used for its specific production strengths, but the intent was for these elements to match in style as much as possible. The Canon DSLR cameras were used in a couple of ways – in a burst mode to gave us a hyper-real, kinetic look that was used in the flashbacks – as well as for traditional time lapse shots.”

The SI-2K cameras record to the CineForm 4:4:4 camera raw codec, which necessitated the digital equivalent of processing for dailies and editorial media. Jeffrey continued, “Color Mill served as the digital lab in Utah and handled all the data wrangling. They took all of the various formats, backed up and verified the media, and provided the editors with [Avid] DNxHD36 media for cutting. We were working with Avid Media Composer systems and Unity shared storage, both in Utah and later in London. When the production wrapped in Utah, all the media went back to Technicolor in London who handled the digital intermediate for the film. We delivered an edit decision list to Technicolor using Avid’s 16-digit file name format designed for the RED camera. This worked great for the SI-2K material. In the end, working with this camera was almost easier than working with 35mm film.” Fotokem in Los Angeles handled the 35mm film negative processing.

Boyle shot the film during an eight-week schedule in February and March, running two crews around the clock for most of that time. The editors were challenged with 108 hours of raw footage (100 from the SI-2K cameras alone). Harris explained, “Although that sounds like a lot of footage, it’s one of the advantages of these digital formats. In order to capture realistic actions, Danny would let the cameras roll. If in real life, it had taken Aron 45 minutes to get a rope over a rock, Danny would film it in real time. Of course, that time frame was collapsed in editing, but it gave us plenty of raw footage to work with and realistic events.”

“We wanted to give the audience a sense of what Aron was going through without torturing them by showing the actual passage of time in its real length. Danny had a target length of 90 minutes and our first assembly came in at about two hours. With the usual trimming, the film sat at one hour forty minutes for a long while. Eventually we dropped an epilogue that brought the film to its target length. After several screenings, everyone felt that the epilogue was unnecessary anyway, so the shorter version made for a stronger film.”

The story is a fascinating one, but how do you make it interesting for the audience? Harris continued, “When I first read the script, I could see that it didn’t follow the conventional narrative form with all the usual plot points or milestones that I look out for.  It was a very brave piece of work and for that reason it was hard to get a confident sense of whether it would really work on the screen.  But that’s what made it an irresistible challenge and a real adventure. We wanted the audience to get a sense for what type of person Aron was and that was designed to reveal itself as the film went along. These milestones became instinctual through the storytelling and in the way the film was constructed.”

The story uses a lot of flashbacks as a way to “get into Aron’s head”.  One technique used was to show scenes in a triptych view of three columns. Harris explained, “It turns out that the 1.85:1 aspect ratio turned sideways nicely fills one-third of the screen. Danny shot these scenes with the camera turned 90 degrees on its side. That’s where [Avid] Media Composer really helped, because I could line up these scenes on three video tracks and build the composites. Many of the panels in these triptych views are shots that are designed to interact with each other. That was an interesting creative challenge, because changes that you make to one clip have a domino effect on the others. At times, one panel becomes more dominant than the others, so you want to guide the viewer through these – making sure that they are paying the most attention to the intended part of the screen.”

In many of these composited scenes and flashbacks, Harris intercut Ralston in present day time (trapped in the canyon) with friends and family that appear in his memory. It’s as if he’s in the scene with them, but we never actually see him as a character within these flashbacks.

127 Hours ultimately is a film about the human spirit and what drives us to survive. Using innovative camera techniques and Harris’ cutting style was a way to achieve this, without the main character ever leaving the canyon. The film was released in November to strong reviews and just in time for this year’s awards run.

Written for Videography magazine (NewBay Media LLC).

©2010 Oliver Peters