Hail, Caesar!

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Combine kidnapping, mystery, farce, and a good measure of quirkiness, and you’ve defined the quintessential Coen Brothers script. Complete with a cast of Coen alums, Hail, Caesar! is just such a film. Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest is set in the motion picture factory town of Hollywood in the 1950s. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a studio fixer tasked with finding Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), one of the studio’s biggest money-makers. Whitlock has been kidnapped in the middle of production of a Bible epic by a group called “The Future”. Of course, that’s not Mannix’s only dilemma, as he has other studio problems he needs to deal with, such as disgruntled director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) and personal issues by starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson).

The Hail, Caesar! story idea has been kicking around for over a decade before the Coens finally brought it into production. Along with being a concept that fits right into their wheelhouse, it’s also a complex production. In this story about the Golden Age of Hollywood, much of the film involves movies within the movie. The tale weaves in and out of multiple productions being filmed on the fictional Capitol Pictures lot.

In keeping with the texture of films of that era, Hail, Caesar! was shot on film by long-time Coen director of photography, Roger Deakins (True Grit, No Country for Old Men, The Ladykillers). Deakins’ first choice might have been the ARRI ALEXA, but agreed that film was the appropriate solution and so shot with an ARRI 535-B to Kodak Vision3 negative stock. Fotokem handled development with EFILM covering telecine transfer, finishing, and digital intermediate color correction.

Time for a fresh change

Although they are lovers of the film image, Joel and Ethan Coen were also among the first to embrace Apple Final Cut Pro in their transition to digital editing for the film Intolerable Cruelty. They had been using Final Cut Pro up until Inside Llewyn Davis; however, it had become sufficiently “long in the tooth” that it was time for a change. This brought them to Adobe Premiere Pro CC. I recently interviewed Katie McQuerrey about this shift. She is credited as an additional or associate editor of numerous Coen films (Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit, Burn After Reading) – a role which she describes as being Joel and Ethan’s right-hand person in the cutting room. For Hail, Caesar!, this included interfacing with Adobe and handling the general workflow so that Premiere Pro was a functional editing tool for the filmmakers.

df0916_hailcaesar_6McQuerrey explains, “After Apple stopped supporting Final Cut Pro 7 we knew it was time to change. We looked at Final Cut Pro X, but because of its lack of audio editing functions, we knew that it wasn’t right for us. So, we decided to give Premiere Pro a try. David Fincher had a successful experience with Gone Girl and we knew that Walter Murch, who is a friend of the Joel and Ethan’s, was using it on his next film. I’ve edited on Avid, Final Cut, and now Premiere Pro and they all make you adjust your editing style to adapt to the software. Joel and Ethan had only ever edited digitally on Final Cut Pro, so Premiere Pro provided the easiest transition. [Avid] Media Composer is very robust for the assistant editor, but a bit restrictive for the editor. I’m on an Avid job right now after a year away from it and miss some of the flexibility that Premiere Pro offers. You really come to appreciate how fluid it is to edit with. I think both Final Cut Pro 7 and Premiere Pro are better for the editor, but they do add a bit more stress on the assistants. Of course, Joel and Ethan were generally shielded from that.”

df0916_hailcaesar_2One of the unknowns with Premiere Pro was the fact that Hail, Caesar! was being shot on film. Avid has tried-and-true methods for tracking film keycode, but that was never part Premiere Pro’s architecture. Assistant editor David Smith explains, “EFILM scanned all of the negative at 2K resolution to ProRes for our cutting purposes. On an Avid job, they would have provided a corresponding ALE (Avid Log Exchange list) for the footage and you would be able to track keycode and timecode for the dailies. For this film, EFILM sync’ed the dailies and provided us with the media, as well as a Premiere Pro project file for each day. We were concerned about tracking keycode to turn over a cut list at the end of the job. Adobe even wrote us a build that included a metadata column for keycode. EFILM tracks their transfers internally, so their software would reference timecode back to the keycode in order to pull selects for the final scan and conform. At their suggestion, we used Change List software from Intelligent Assistance to provide a cut list, plus a standard EDL generated from Premiere Pro. In the end, the process wasn’t that much different after all.” EFILM scanned the selected negative clips at 4K resolution and the digital intermediate color correction was handled by Mitch Paulson under Roger Deakins’ supervision.

Adapting Premiere Pro to the Coen Brothers workflow

df0916_hailcaesar_3It was Katie McQuerrey’s job to test drive Premiere Pro ahead of the Coens and provide assistance as needed to get them up to speed. She says, “Joel was actually up to speed after a day or so. Initially we all wanted to make Premiere Pro work just like Final Cut, because it appears similar. Of course, many functions are quite different, but the longer we worked with it, the more we got used to some of  the Premiere Pro ways of doing things. As functionality issues came up, Adobe would make adjustments and send new software builds. I would test these out first. When I thought they would be ready for Joel and Ethan to use, we’d install it on their machines. I needed to let them concentrate on the edit and not worry about software.”

Joel and Ethan Coen developed a style of working that stems from their film editing days and that carried over into their use of Final Cut Pro. This was adjusted for Premiere Pro. McQuerrey continues, “Ethan and Joel work on different computers. Ethan will pick selected takes and mark ins and outs. Then he saves the project and dings a bell. Joel opens that project up to use as he assembles scenes. With FCP you could have multiple projects open at once, but not so with Premiere. We found out from Adobe that the way to handle this was through the Media Browser module inside of Premiere. Joel could browse the drive for Ethan’s project and then access it for specific sequences or selected shots. Joel could import these through Media Browser into his project as a non-destructive copy, letting Ethan continue on. Media Browser is the key to working collaboratively among several editors on the same project.” Their edit system consisted of several Mac Pro “tube” models connected to Open Drives shared storage. This solution was developed by workflow engineer Jeff Brue for Gone Girl and is based on using solid state drives, which enable fast media access.

df0916_hailcaesar_5As with all films, Hail, Caesar! posed creative challenges that any application must be able to deal with. McQuerrey explains, “Unlike other directors, Joel and Ethan wait until all the shooting is done before anything is cut. I wasn’t cutting along with dailies as is the case with most other directors. This gave me time to get comfortable with Premiere and to organize the footage. Because the story includes movies within the movie, there are different aspect ratios, different film looks and color and black-and-white film material. Editorially it was an exciting project because of this. For example, if a scene in the film was being ‘filmed’ by the on-camera crew, it was in color and should appear to play out in real-time as you see the take being filmed. This same sequence might also appear later in a Moviola viewer, as black-and-white, edited film. This affected how sequences were cut. Some shots that were supposed to be real-time needed to look like one continuous take. Or someone in the film may be watching a rough cut, therefore that part had to be cut like a rough cut. This is a film that I think editors will like, because there are a lot of inside jokes they’ll appreciate.”

Fine tuning for the feature film world

df0916_hailcaesar_4One criticism of Adobe Premiere Pro CC has been how it handles large project files, particularly when it comes to load times. McQuerrey answers, “The Open Drives system definitely helped with that. We had to split the film up into a separate projects, for cuts, sound, visual effects, music, etc. in order to work efficiently. However, as we got later into the post we found that even the smaller projects had grown to the size that load times got much slower. The remedy was to cull out old versions of sequences, so that these didn’t require indexing each time the project was opened. Periodically I would create archive projects to keep the oldest sequences and then delete most of the oldest sequences from the active project. This improved performance.”

The filmmaking team finished Hail, Caesar! with a lot of things they liked about their new software choice. McQuerrey says, “Joel likes some of the effects features in Premiere Pro to build transitions and temp comps. This film has more visual effects than a usual Coen Brothers film, including green screens, split screens, and time remaps. Many of the comps were done in Premiere, rather than After Effects. Ethan and Joel both work differently. Ethan would leave his bins in list view and do his mark-ups. On the other hand, Joel also really liked the icon view and hover scrubbing a lot. Temp sound editing while you are picture editing is very critical to their process. They’ll often use different takes or readings for the audio than for the picture, so how an application edits sound is as important – if not more so – than how it edits picture. We had a couple of bumps in the road getting the sound  tracks interface working to our liking, but with Adobe’s help in building new versions of software for us, we got to the place where we really appreciated Premiere’s sound tools.”

Katie McQuerrey and I wrapped up the interview with an anecdote about the Coens’ unique approach to their new editing tool. McQuerrey explains, “With any application, there are a number of repetitive keystrokes. At one point Joel joked about using a foot pedal, like on an old upright Moviola. At first we laughed it off, but then I checked around and found that you could buy custom control devices for video game play, including special mice and even foot controls. So we ordered a foot pedal and hooked it up to the computer. It came with it own software that let us map command functions to the pedal. We did this with Premiere’s snapping control, because Joel constantly toggles it on and off!” It’s ironic, given the context of the Hail, Caesar! story, but here you have something straight out of the Golden Age of film that’s found itself useful in the digital age.

Click here for Adobe’s behind-the-scenes look.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

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