Edgar Wright has written and directed a string of successful comedies and cult classics. His latest, Last Night in Soho is a change from this pattern. It’s a suspense thriller that would make Hitchcock proud. Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is a young English country girl who’s moved to the Soho area of London to study fashion design. Her nightly dreams transport her into the past of the swinging 60s and the Soho nightlife, observing and becoming strangely intertwined with the life of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring singer. Those dreams quickly evolve into nightmares as the story turns more sinister.
Last Night in Soho was edited by Paul Machliss, ACE, a frequent collaborator with Wright. Machliss edited Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, The World’s End, and Baby Driver. The latter picked up a BAFTA win and an Oscar nomination for best editing. I recently had a chance to interview Machliss during a break from cutting his next feature, The Flash.
Music was a key plot device and impetus for much of the editing in Baby Driver. In Last Night in Soho, music of the 1960s also plays a key role, but in a less blatant manner.
Baby Driver was about capital E editing. Edgar and I took a lot of what we learned and applied it to Soho. Can we do it in a more subtle away? It’s not immediately obvious, but it’s probably as intense. It just doesn’t show itself to the same level.
One clever shot was the bit in the phone box, where right at the end of the dance, they go in for a snog. Initially the reflection is that of Matt [Jack] and Anya [Sandie]. Then as Matt pulls back, you realize that it becomes Thomasin [Eloise] in the mirror. That was initially in a mirror when they start kissing. In the middle of the kiss there’s an effects team yanking the mirror back to reveal Thomasin and a stand-in behind the mirror. The visual effect is to get rid of the moment when the mirror is yanked.
I’d love to say it was full of subtle things that couldn’t have been done without editing. However, it almost goes back to the days of Vaudeville or the earliest days of cinema. Less is more – those simple things are still incredibly effective.
As with Baby Driver, I presume you were editing primarily on the set initially?
I was on set every day. We did about three weeks straight of night shoots at the height of summer in Soho. I wouldn’t say we owned Soho, but we could just literally run anywhere. We could park in Soho Square and wheel the trolleys wherever we needed for the purposes of filming. However, Soho didn’t close down – life carried on in Soho. It was fascinating to see the lifestyle of Soho change when you are filming from 6:00 PM till 6:00 AM. It’s in the smaller hours that elements of the ‘darker’ side of Soho start to appear and haunt the place. So that slightly sinister level of it hasn’t gone away.
Being on set had a lot to do with things like music playback, motion control cameras, and certainly lighting, which probably more than Baby Driver played a huge part in this film. I found myself somewhat responsible for the timing to make sure that Edgar’s idea of how he wanted the lighting to work in sync with the music was 100% successful on the night, because there was no fixing it afterwards.
Some editors avoid being on set to maintain objectivity. Your working style seems to be different.
My MO really is not to do the perfect assemble edit in the midst of all the madness of filming. What I’m trying to do for Edgar is a proof of concept. We know as we’re shooting that issues can arise from continuity, camera angles, and various other things. So part of what I’m doing on set is keeping an eye on all the disparate elements from a technical perspective to make sure they’re all in harmony to support Edgar’s vision. But as the editor, I still need to make time for an assembly. Sometimes that meant getting there an hour or two earlier on set. Then I just sit at the Avid with headphones and quickly catch up on the previous day’s work, where I do try and make more of a concerted effort to cut a good scene. Then that gets passed on to the editorial department. By the time Edgar and I get back into the cutting room, we have a fully assembled film to start working on.
Lighting design – especially the neon sign outside of Ellie’s window – drives the scene transitions.
Edgar’s original brief was, “There is a point where the lighting goes from blue, white, red, blue, white, red, and then whenever she transitions into the past, it goes into a constant flashing red.” That’s something that any good lighting operator can queue quite simply. What made it more interesting is that Edgar said, “What I’d love, is for the lighting to flash subtly, but in time to every different bit of music that Eloise puts on her little record player.” Then it was like, “Oh, right, how do we do that?”
Bradley Farmer on our music team was able to break the songs down into a kind of beat sheet with all the lyrics and the chorus. Edgar would go, “According to the storyboards this is the line in the song that I’d like it to start going red, red, red.” Armed with that knowledge, I had one track of audio with the music in mono and another track with longitudinal timecode – a different hour code for every song. I would edit full screen color images of red, white, and blue as a reference on the Avid to match what the timing of the color changes should be against the track.
Next, I was able to export an XML file out of the Avid, which could be read by the lighting panel computer. The lighting operator would load these sequences in so the panel would know when to have the lights in their ‘on’ or ‘off’ state. He also had a QuickTime reference from the Avid so he could see the color changes against the burnt-in timecode and know, “Next one’s red, program the SkyPanel to go red.”
Our music playback guy, Pete Blaxill, had copies of the tracks in stereo and was able to use my timecode as his base timecode. He then sent that timecode to the lighting panel. So if Edgar goes, “I now want to pick up the song from the first chorus,” then the lighting panel would chase the playback timecode. Once the sequence was set at the lighting panel, wherever Edgar wanted to go, the lighting desk knew which part of the song we were at and what the next color in the sequence was.
To make things a tad more complex Edgar wanted to shoot some of the action to the playback at 32fps so there could be a dreamlike quality to movement at certain points in the song. This meant creating a lighting map that would work at 32fps, as well as the regular 24fps version. Bradley Farmer gave me a version of the songs that were exactly 33.3% faster and pitch-corrected. I reformatted my Avid sequence so everything just went on and off a third faster for the 32fps tracks. And once again, gave the XML file to the lighting guy and the sped-up tracks to Pete for his Pro Tools system.
I realized that the motion control camera could also be triggered by external timecode from Pete’s Pro Tools system. We utilized that at the climax of ‘You’re My World’ where Anya descends the staircase in the Cafe de Paris ballroom. This was a two-layer composite shot filmed with a motion control camera in multiple passes. Thomasin does one pass descending the staircase and then we did Anya’s pass. We also had singer Beth Singh [Cilla Black] in the foreground of the shot with her backing band behind her. Pete Blaxill would hit play on his Pro Tools. The music would be coming through the foldback for Beth to mime to, the lighting switched in at the right musical point, and then at exactly the right moment in the chorus the Pro Tools timecode would trigger the MoCo. I remember sitting crosslegged on the floor out of the way in the corner and watching all this happen. It’s incredibly ‘nerdy,’ but it gave one a wonderful feeling of satisfaction to be part of the team that could make moments like this happen seamlessly.
What formats were used to capture Last Night in Soho?
This was all shot 35mm, except that we used an ARRI Alexa for the night shoots. We tested both 16mm and 35mm for these exteriors. The 16mm looked good, but was too grainy and the highlights flared out tremendously. The 35mm was okay, but required a lot more lighting to achieve the desired look. Of course with the Alexa being digital, you put it there without any extra lighting at all, look at the result, and go, “Gosh, look at the amount of detail – that’s almost usable as it is.” Just because of the variety of shots we needed, Edgar and DP Chung-hoon Chung decided to use the Alexa for exterior night locations and any interior location where we would be looking out into the street at some point – for example, the library that Eloise visits later in the film.
Does the choice of film rather than digital acquisition add some technical challenges?
Fortunately, Kodak is still a company that is churning out 35mm stock full-time. The infrastructure for it though is getting less and less. Even in the time between doing The World’s End and Last Night in Soho, there is now only one facility in the UK that can process 35mm. And it has to process the rushes for every production that’s shooting on 35mm in the UK.
Even so, it’s great to think that a medium like 35mm can still support something as complicated as one of Edgar’s films without having to do everything in the digital domain. You’ve got the [Panavision] Millennium XL cameras – even though they’re nearing 20 years old, they’re pretty solid.
Edgar is totally aware that he’s not shooting on an ‘archaic’ format for the sake of it, but that it’s his preferred medium of acquisition – in the same way some painters choose water-based paints as opposed to oil-based. He knows what medium he’s on and he respects that. You might say, “Yes, but the punter won’t necessarily know or appreciate what format this was shot on.” However, it helps to contribute to the feeling of our production. It’s part of the look, part of the patina – that slightly organic feel of the media brings so much to the look of Soho.
Because you are cutting on set, you’re working from a video tap off of the film camera.
Right. Once again, I had a little network set up with a large spool of Cat 5 cable connected to the Qtake system. And I would put myself out of the way in a corner of the soundstage and get on with it. I would just be a crew member quietly doing my job editing, not bothering Edgar. Sometimes he might not see me for a couple of hours into the day until he needed my input on a shot.
So that means at some point the low-resolution video tap clips have to be replaced by the actual footage after the film has been transferred.
That’s right. I used my editorial team from Baby Driver – Jerry Ramsbottom and Jessica Medlycott. Both of them were well-versed in the technique of over-cutting the low-res video tap footage once the hi-res Avid media came back from the lab. I never had to worry about that. The cutting room was also in Soho and when we were shooting there, if Edgar ever had a question about the footage or the previous day’s edit he would say, “Could we meet an hour early (before call-time) and pop into the cutting room to look at some stuff?” It also meant that we could tweak the edit before that day’s shoot and give Edgar a better idea of his goals for that day.
Please tell me about the production and post timeline, considering that this was all impacted by the pandemic.
Prep started at the beginning of 2019. I came on board in April. The shoot itself went from May till early September. We then had the director’s cut period, which due to the complexity took slightly longer than your average 10 weeks.
We worked up until the new year and had a preview screening early in January, which got some good numbers back. Edgar was able to start talking to the studio about some additional photography. We planned that shoot for the last week of March 2020. But at the last minute it was cancelled as we entered the first lockdown. However, visual effects work continued, because all of that could be done remotely. We had a weekly VFX review using Zoom and Cinesync with Double Negative for about a four-month period during the first lockdown. That was a bit of a lifesaver for us to know that the film still had a heartbeat during that time.
Things calmed down at the end of July – enough for the studio to consider allowing us to remount the additional photography. And of course, it was a new world we were living in by that stage. Suddenly we were working in ‘zones’ on set. I was assigned the zone with the video department and couldn’t go on to set and work with Edgar. We had an area – divided by plastic fencing – where we could be. We would have to maintain a distance with him on one side and me on the other. Fortunately, I had my edit-trolley modified so that the A-Grade monitor was on a swivel-mount and that’s how he was able to keep an eye on the progress of the work.
We were only the second production in England to resume at that time. I think other productions were watching us and thinking, “Would we all just collapse like flies? Would COVID just go ‘BAM!’ and knock us all out?” Overall, the various PCR testing and new health and safety procedures added about an extra 20% to the budget, but it was the only way we were going to be allowed to shoot.
The reshoots went very well and we had another preview screening in October and the numbers were even better. But then we were approaching our second lockdown in the UK. However, this time Edgar and I were able to see post-production all the way through. All of our dates at Twickenham Studios for the sound mix and at Warner Bros. De Lane Lea for the grade could be honored, even though strict safety precautions were in place.
We delivered the film on December 18th of last year, having made all the various HDR and SDR versions for the UHD Blu-ray, as well as general release. We did a wonderful Dolby Vision/Dolby Atmos version, which is actually the ultimate way to see the film. Because of the pandemic and the lack of open theaters at the time, there was a school of thought that this film should be released directly onto a streaming platform. Fortunately, producers Eric Fellner and Nira Park viewed the final grade and mix at Twickenham and said, “No, no, this is a cinematic experience. It was designed to be seen on the big screen, so let’s wait. Let’s bide our time.”
Edgar Wright was also working on the documentary, The Sparks Brothers. Was the post on these two simultaneous? If so, how did this impact his availability to you during the Soho post?
The timelines to the two projects were kind of parallel. Making a documentary is about gathering tons of archival footage and obtaining new interviews. Then you can leave it with the editor to put a version of it together. I remember that Edgar had done a ton of interviews before we started shooting Soho. He’d done all of the black-and-white interviews in London or in LA pre-pandemic. The assembly of all of that footage happened during our shoot. Then when the lockdown occurred, it was very easy for Paul Trewartha, the editor of the Sparks documentary, to carry on working from home.
When we came back, the Soho and Sparks cutting rooms were both on different floors of our edit facility on Wardour Street in Soho. They were on the first floor and we were on the top floor. Edgar would literally bounce between the two. It got a little bit fraught for Edgar, because the grading and dubbing for both films happened at the same time at different facilities. I remember Edgar had to sign off on both films on December 18th. So he had to go to one facility to watch Soho with me and then he went off to watch Sparks with Paul, which I imagined gave him quite a degree of satisfaction to complete both huge projects on the same day.
To wrap it up, let’s talk edit systems. Avid Media Composer is still your go-to NLE. Right?
Avid, yeah. I’ve been running it for God knows how long now. It’s a little like touch-typing for me – it all just happens very quickly. When I watch all the dailies of a particular scene, I’m in almost a trance-like state, putting shots together very quickly on the timeline before taking a more meticulous approach. I know the ballistics of the Avid, how it behaves, how long it takes between commands. It’s still the best way for me to connect emotionally to the material. Plus on a technical level – in terms of media management, having multiple users, VFX editors, two assistant editors – It’s still the best.
In a past life you were a Smoke editor. Any closing thoughts about some of the other up-and-coming editing applications?
You certainly can’t call them the poor cousins of post-production. Especially Resolve. Our colorist, Asa Shoul, suggested I look at Resolve. He said, “Paul, you really should have a look, because not only is the cutting intuitive, but you could send me a sequence, to which I could apply a grade, and that would be instantly updated on your timeline.” Temp mixes from the sound department would work in a very similar way. I think that sort of cross-pollination of ideas from various departments, all contributing elements to a sequence, which itself is being continually updated, is a very exciting concept.
I wouldn’t be surprised if one day someone said, “Paul, we are doing this film, but we’re going to do it on Resolve, because we have this workflow in place and it’s really good.” At my advanced age of 49 [laugh], I don’t want to think, “Well, no, it’s Avid or nothing.” I think part of keeping your career fresh is the ability to integrate your skills with new workflow methods that offer up results, which would have seemed impossible ten years earlier.
Images courtesy of Focus Features.
©2021 Oliver Peters