Downsizing

The bond between a film director and the editor is often a long-lasting one. The industry is full of pairings that continue film after film. One such duo is director Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants, Sideways) and editor Kevin Tent (Welcome to Me, Girl Interrupted, Election). Tent has edited every film that Payne directed, with the exception of Payne’s short film Paris, je t’aime. In fact, Payne also served as producer for Crash Pad, a film directed by Tent.

The latest Alexander Payne film to hit the cinemas is Downsizing, a sci-fi satire starring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, and Kristen Wig. In the film, scientists discover human miniaturization as a way to combat overpopulation. Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wig) decide to give it a try, exchanging their average life in Omaha for Leisure Land, one of the ‘micro-communities’ sprouting up. Their modest $150,000 in personal assets will make them multimillionaires, so they take the plunge.

Sci-fi and satire

The sci-fi genre is a new approach for Payne, which is where I started my conversation with Kevin Tent. He explains, “The sci-fi theme is a departure for Alexander, but this is still very much an ‘Alexander Payne movie’. It’s still about the human experience. In the plot, shrinking is seen as a way to save the human race, but people get greedy. They can make themselves instantly rich, save money on food, medicine, and move into big ‘McMansions’. Human nature takes over, which makes the film funny and also thought-provoking. It covers a lot of ground and politics.”

“It’s easy to ask, why sci-fi,” Tent continues. “Alexander Payne is an artist who is always looking for ways to challenge himself. He co-wrote the script ten years ago, but it took this long to get it made. For one thing, Downsizing is more expensive than his past films. As an editor, I first looked at the cutting differently, because of working with the visual effects; but, I quickly realized that this film, like Alexander’s others, was about the characters and the story.  [Those are] still the most important elements of the movie. I had recently worked on The Audition, which was shot mostly with green screen – and a while back, The Golden Compass, which was a serious visual effects movie.  I had enough knowledge about the process to know one thing. These people can do anything! We had a terrific VFX team, headed by our creative guru, Jamie Price. ILM and Framestore did most of the visual effects.”

Digital production to aid the process

Alexander Payne shifted to digital acquisition with Nebraska and has followed suit with his latest, Downsizing. According to Tent, “Alexander shoots a lot of coverage, so he likes digital for that. It’s also easier to deal with when compositing visual effects. We had over 130 hours of total footage. Of course, a fairly good chunk was plates for VFX and 2nd unit footage. Most of the scenes were shot with single camera, but sometimes with multi-cam. Especially for some of the big speeches, which were covered with two and sometimes three cameras. We synced up the takes in the Avid, which makes it so easy to switch from camera to camera. Mindy Elliot is our amazing first assistant. She’s a total pro and a total joy to work with. She’s been running our cutting rooms since The Descendants. Angela Latimer was our second. She did 99% of the scripting [for Avid’s ScriptSync feature] and also helped cut early versions of Paul’s drug montage [scene in Downsizing]. Joe Carson was our VFX editor. I met him while working on Sponge Bob The Movie. I was one of the live action CGI editors on that film. Joe is awesome. He not only kept all of our visual effects organized, but he was also kept busy with the countless comps, morphs, and speed-ups that we tossed at him on a daily basis.”

Production wrapped in mid-August 2016 and then Tent started cutting with Payne right after Labor Day. Tent continues, “When I cut with Alexander, we basically start from scratch. I do create an editor’s cut during production, which we go back to for reference during our time together cutting, but it isn’t the starting point when I begin with Alexander. He’s a good editor, so when we work together, it’s really like having two editors in the room. We start watching dailies and start building scenes. We often look back at my editor’s cut and realize the scene or a part of it was better in that earlier version. Or maybe not. If there is something we like, we’ll put it back into the current cut.  We completed our first pass (kind of a director’s assembly) in January to show the studio. By early to mid-July we had a locked cut with about 80% of the completed VFX shots. The remainder trickled in afterwards. All together, that’s about ten or eleven months of cutting and finishing. Our DI/color grading was handled by the amazing Skip Kimball at Technicolor.”

Tools and tips

As a fellow editor, it’s always fun to talk about the tools and how to use them on a feature film project. Kevin Tent is a committed Avid Media Composer user. (Pacific Post provided the Avid systems used by the editing team.) According to Tent, “This was a huge project and Media Composer never had a problem with it.” One unique hallmark of Media Composer is Avid’s Script Integration. Notable within it is ScriptSync, Media Composer’s ability to automatically analyze waveforms and synchronize them – and, therefore, the associated clip – against text that has been input, like a film script. When correctly indexed, simply clicking on a line of dialogue in the on-screen script brings up all of the corresponding coverage. An ongoing licensing dispute limited its use to older versions of Media Composer, until the issue was finally resolved this year. That is great news for devotees of Avid’s powerful ScriptSync capability.

Many film editors swear by Avid’s Script Integration tools, yet some never use them at all. Was Tent a ScriptSync user? “Hell, ya!,” is his instant reply. “We stayed on Media Composer 7.0.6, because of the ScriptSync licensing issue, just so we could use it. I had Angela mark a lot of extra material and ad libs in addition to the scripted dialog. For example, an action like Paul opening a door or something like that. That would help, especially if they shot a lot of takes or resets within one bigger take, which tends to happen a lot when the shooting is on digital. There’s a massive party scene midway through the movie with people dancing, smoking pot, that kind of thing, and I asked Angela to add a ton of detail describing the scene. It made finding specific actions so quick. It’s also an especially great aid at re-cutting scenes when you are looking for alternate coverage.”

Another aid that editors like is to place scene cards on the wall. Typically these are 3”x5” note cards with written scene descriptions – one for each scene – that can be pinned to the wall in the order of the ongoing edit. Although Tent is also a proponent of these – a remnant practice from the old film days – his Downsizing cutting room didn’t have enough wall space to accommodate cards.

The Downsizing script clocked in a tad long and the first assembly that Payne and Tent cut was 2:45 (final length was 2:08). Obviously the team needed to do a bit of “downsizing” themselves. Tent explains, “The biggest lost scenes were bookending storyteller elements to open and close the film. There was an old caveman from far in the future telling a group of children about the events within the film and how once giants roamed the world. This story element was painful to lose, because it was very funny and effective emotionally. But it took an added three or four minutes to get to Matt Damon’s character and that hurt us.  The audience wants you to get to your main characters and understand what they’re seeing within a reasonable amount of time. Fortunately, Alexander hadn’t shot it yet as part of the main production. We previewed with storyboards, temp music, and voice over. While it was tough to lose it from the point of view of the script, we weren’t leaving produced material ‘on the cutting room floor’. Ultimately if you don’t know it was there, you won’t miss not having it.”

Downsizing opened in cinemas on December 21. Whether you are in it for the thought-provoking concepts or simply a lot of laughs and a wild ride, it’s a film to enjoy. Alexander Payne is bound to have another success on his hands.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

© 2017, 2018 Oliver Peters

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