Swiss Army Man

df2716_swissarmymanWhen it comes to quirky movies, Swiss Army Man stands alone. Hank (Paul Dano) is a castaway on a deserted island at his wit’s end. In an act of final desperation, he’s about to hang himself, when he discovers Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), a corpse that’s just washed up on shore. At this point the film diverges from the typical castaway/survival story into an absurdist comedy. Manny can talk and has “magical powers” that Hank uses to find his way back to civilization.

Swiss Army Man was conceived and directed by the writing and directing duo of Dan Kwan and Daniel Sheinert, who work under the moniker Daniels. This is their feature length film debut and was produced with Sundance in mind. The production company brought on Matthew Hannam to edit the film. Hannam (The OA, Enemy, James White) is a Canadian film and TV editor with numerous features and TV series under his belt. I recently spoke with Hannam about the post process on Swiss Army Man.

Hannam discussed the nature of the film. “It’s a very handmade film. We didn’t have a lot of time to edit and had to make quick decisions. I think that really helped us. This was the dozenth or so feature for me, so in a way I was the veteran. It was fun to work with these guys and experience their creative process. Swiss Army Man is a very cinematically-aware film, full of references to other famous films. You’re making a survival movie, but it’s very aware that other survival movies exist. This is also a very self-reflexive film and, in fact, the model is more like a romantic comedy than anything else. So I was a bit disappointed to see a number of the reviews focus solely on the gags in the film, particularly around Manny, the corpse. There’s more to it than that. It’s about a guy who wonders what it might be like had things been different. It’s a very special little film, because the story puts us inside of Hank’s head.”

Unlike the norm for most features, Hannam joined the team after the shooting had been completed. He says, “I came on board during the last few days of filming. They shot for something like 25 days. This was all single-camera work with Larkin Seiple (Cop Car, Bleed For This) as director of photography. They shot ARRI ALEXA XT with Cooke anamorphic lenses. It was shot ARRIRAW, but for the edit we had a special LUT applied to the dailies, so the footage was already beautiful. I got a drive in August and the film premiered at Sundance. That’s a very short post schedule, but our goal was always Sundance.”

Shifting to Adobe tools

Like many of this year’s Sundance films, Adobe Premiere Pro was the editing tool of choice. Hannam continues, “I’m primarily an Avid [Media Composer] editor and the Dans [Kwan and Sheinert] had been using [Apple] Final Cut Pro in the past for the shorts that they’ve edited themselves. They opted to go with Premiere on this film, as they thought it would be easiest to go back and forth with After Effects. We set up a ‘poor man’s’ shared storage with multiple systems that each had duplicate media on local drives. Then we’d use Dropbox to pass around project files and shared elements, like sound effects and temp VFX. While the operation wasn’t flawless – we did experience a few crashes – it got the job done.”

Swiss Army Man features quite a few visual effects shots and Hannam credits the co-directors’ music video background with making this a relatively easy task. He says, “The Dans are used to short turnarounds in their music video projects, so they knew how to integrate visual effects into the production in a way that made it easier for post. That’s also the beauty of working with Premiere Pro. There’s a seamless integration with After Effects. What’s amazing about Premiere is the quality of the built-in effects. You get effects that are actually useful in telling the story. I used the warp stabilizer and timewarp a lot. In some cases those effects made it possible to use shots in a way that was never possible before. The production company partnered with Method for visual effects and Company 3 [Co3] for color grading. However, about half of the effects were done in-house using After Effects. On a few shots, we actually ended up using After Effects’ stabilization after final assembly, because it was that much better than what was possible during the online assembly of the film.”

Another unique aspect of Swiss Army Man is its musical score. Hannam explains, “Due to the tight schedule, music scoring proceeded in parallel with the editing. The initial temp music pulled was quirky, but didn’t really match the nature of the story. Once we got the tone right with the temp tracks, scenes were passed on to the composers – Andy Hull and Robert McDowell – who Daniels met while making a video for their band Manchester Orchestra. The concept for the score was that it was all coming from inside of Hank’s head. Andy sang all the music as if Hank was humming his own score. They created new tracks for us and by the end we had almost no temp music in the edit. Once the edit was finalized, they worked with Paul [Dano] and Daniel [Radcliffe] to sing and record the parts themselves. Fortunately both are great singers, so the final a cappella score is actually the lead actors themselves.”

Structuring the edit

Matthew Hannam and I discussed his approach to editing scenes, especially with this foray into Premiere Pro. He responds, “When I’m on Media Composer, I’m a fan of ScriptSync. It’s a great way to know what coverage you have. There’s nothing like that in Premiere, although I did use the integrated Story app. This enables you to load the script into a tab for quick access. Usually my initial approach is to sit down and watch all the footage for the particular scene while I plan how I’m going to assemble it. The best way to know the footage is to work with it. You have to watch how the shoot progresses in the dailies. Listen to what the director says at the end of a take – or if he interrupts in the middle – and that will give you a good idea of the intention. Then I just start building the scene – often first from the middle. I’m looking for what is the central point of that scene and it often helps to build from the middle out.”

Although Hannam doesn’t use any tricks to organize his footage or create selects, he does use “KEM rolls”. This term stems from the KEM flatbed film editing table. In modern parlance, it means that the editor has strung out all the footage for a scene into a single timeline, making it easy to scrub through all the available footage quickly. He continues, “I’ll build a dailies reel and tuck it away in the bottom of the bin. It’s a great way to quickly see what footage you have available. When it’s time to revise a scene, it’s good to go back to the raw footage and see what options you have. It is a quick way to jog your memory about what was shot.”

A hybrid post workflow

Another integral member of the post team was assistant editor Kyle Gilbertson. He had worked with the co-directors previously and was the architect of the hybrid post workflow followed on this film. Gilbertson pulled all of the shots for VFX that were being handled in-house. Many of the more complicated montages were handled as effects sequences and the edit was rebuilt in DaVinci Resolve before re-assembly in After Effects. Hannam explains, “We had two stages of grading with [colorist] Sofie Borup at Co3. The first was to set looks and get an idea what the material was going to look like once finished. Then, once everything was complete, we combined all of the material for final grading and digital intermediate mastering. There was a real moment of truth when the 100 or so shots that Daniels did themselves were integrated into the final cut. Luckily it all came together fairly seamlessly.”

“Having finished the movie, I look back at it and I’m full of warm feelings. We kind of just dove into it as a big team. The two Dans, Kyle and I were in that room kind of just operating as a single unit. We shifted roles and kept everything very open. I believe the end product reflects that. It’s a film that took inspiration from everywhere and everyone. We were not setting out to be weird or gross. The idea was to break down an audience and make something that everyone could enjoy and be won over by. In the end, it feels like we really took a step forward with what was possible at home. We used the tools we had available to us and we made them work. It makes me excited that Adobe’s Creative Cloud software tools were enough to get a movie into 700 cinemas and win those boys the Sundance Directing prize. We’re at a point in post where you don’t need a lot of hardware. If you can figure out how to do it, you can probably make it yourself. That was our philosophy from start to finish on the movie.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network.

©2016 Oliver Peters