Some films might be hard to believe if it weren’t for the fact that the stories are true. Such is the case with Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s largest studio film to date as a director. Unbroken tells the amazing true life story of Louis Zamperini, who participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and then went on to serve as a bombardier on a B-24 in the Pacific during World War II. The plane went down and Zamperini plus two other crew members (one of whom subsequently died) were adrift at sea for 47 days. They were picked up by the Japanese and spent two years in brutal prisoner-of-war camps until the war ended. Zamperini came home to a hero’s welcome, but struggled with what we now know as post traumatic stress disorder. Through his wife, friends and attending a 1949 Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles, Zamperini was able to turn his life around by finding the path of forgiveness, including forgiving his former prison guards.
Since Zamperini’s full life story could easily take up several films, Unbroken focuses on his early years culminating with his heroic return home. Jack O’Connell (300: Rise of an Empire, Starred Up) plays the lead role as Louis Zamperini. Jolie pulled in a “dream team” of creative professionals to help her realize the vision for the film, including Roger Deakins (Prisoners, Skyfall, True Grit) as director of photographer, Alexandre Desplat (The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Monuments Men) to compose the score and Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit, No Country for Old Men) to polish the final draft of the screenplay. ILM was the main visual effects house and rounding out this team were Tim Squyres (Life of Pi, Lust Caution, Syrianna) and William Goldenberg (The Imitation Game, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Argo) who co-edited Unbroken.
Australia to New York
The film was shot entirely in Australia during a 67-day period starting in October 2013. The crew shot ARRIRAW on Alexa XT cameras and dailies were handled by EFILM in Sydney. Avid DNxHD 115 files were encoded and sent to New York via Aspera for the editors. Dailies for the studio were sent via the PIX system and to Roger Deakins using the eVue system.
Tim Squyres started with the project in October as well, but was based in New York, after spending the first week in Australia. According to Squyres, “This was mainly a single camera production, although about one-third of the film used two cameras. Any takes that used two cameras to cover the same action where grouped in the Avid. Angie and Roger were very deliberate in what they shot. They planned carefully, so there was a modest amount of footage.” While in New York, Squyres and his assistants used three Avid Media Composer 7 systems connected to Avid Isis shared storage. This grew to five stations when the production moved to the Universal lot in Los Angeles and eventually eight when William Goldenberg came on board.
During production Squyres was largely on his own to develop the first assembly of the film. He continues, “I really didn’t have extensive contact with Angie until after she got back to LA. After all, directing on location is a full-time job, plus there’s a big time zone difference. Before I was hired, I had a meeting with her to discuss some of the issues surrounding shooting in a wave tank, based on my experiences with Life of Pi. This was applicable to the section of Unbroken when they are lost at sea in a life raft. While they were in Australia, I’d send cut scenes and notes to her over PIX. Usually this would be a couple of versions of a scene. Sometimes I’d get feedback, but not always. This is pretty normal, since the main thing the director wants to know is if they have the coverage and to be alerted if there are potential problems.”
The first assembly of the film was finished in February and Squyres continued to work with Jolie to hone and tighten the film. Squyres says, “This was my first time working with an actor/director. I really appreciated how much care she took with performances. That was very central to her focus. Even though there’s a lot of action in some of the scenes, it never loses sight of the characters. She’s also a very smart director and this film has hundreds of visual effects. She quickly picked up on how effects could be used to enhance a shot and how an effect, like CG water, needed to be tweaked to make it look realistic.”
William Goldenberg joined the team in June and stayed with it until October 2014. This was Tim Squyres’ first time working with a co-editor and since the film was well past the first cut stage, the two handled their duties differently than two editors might on other films. Goldenberg explains, “Since I wasn’t on from the beginning, we didn’t split up the film between us, with one editor doing the action scenes and the other the drama. Instead, we both worked on everything very collaboratively. I guess I was brought in to be another set of eyes, since this was such a huge film. I’d review a section and tweak the cut and then run it by Tim. Then the two of us would work through the scene with Angie, kicking around ideas. She’s a very respectful person and wanted to make sure that everyone’s opinion was heard.” Squyres adds, “Each editor would push the other to make it better.”
This is usually the stage at which a film might be completely rearranged in the edit and deviate significantly from the script. That wasn’t the case with Unbroken. Goldenberg explains, “The movie is partly told through flashbacks, but these were scripted and not a construct created during editing. We experimented with rearranging some of the scenes, but in the end, they largely ended up back as they were scripted.”
The art of cutting dialogue scenes
Both editors are experienced Media Composer users and one unique Avid tool used on Unbroken was Script Integration, often referred to as ScriptSync. This feature enables the editor to see the script as text in a bin with every take synced to the individual dialogue lines. Squyres says, “It had already been set up when I came on board to cut a previous film and was handy for me there to learn the footage. So I decided to try it on this film. Although handy, I didn’t find it essential for me, because of how I go through the dailies. I typically build a sequence out of pieces of each take, which gives me a set of ‘pulls’ – my favorite readings from each setup strung together in script order. Then I’ll cut at least two versions of a scene based on structure or emotion – for example, a sad version and an angry version. When I’ve cut the first version, I try not to repeat shots in building the second version. By using the same timeline and turning on dupe detection, it’s easy to see if you’ve repeated something. Assembling is about getting a good cut, but it’s also about learning all the options and getting used to the footage. By having a few versions of each scene, you are already prepared when the director wants to explore alternatives.”
Goldenberg approaches the raw footage in a similar fashion. He says, “I build up my initial sequences in a way that accomplishes the same thing that ScriptSync does. The sequence will have each line reading from each take in scene order going from wide to tight. This results in a long sequence for a scene, with each line repeated, but I can immediately see what all the coverage is for that scene. When a director wants to see alternates for any reading, I can go back to this sequence and then it’s easy to evaluate the performance options.”
Building up visual effects and the score
Unbroken includes approximately 1100 visual effects shots, ranging from water effects, composites and set extensions to invisible split screens used to adjust performance timing. Squyres explains, “Although the editing was very straightforward, we did a lot of temporary compositing. I would identify a shot and then my assistant would do the work in either Media Composer or After Effects. The spilt screens used for timing is a common example. We had dozens of those. On the pure CG shots, we had pre-vis clips in the timeline and then, as more and more polished versions of the effects came in, these would be replaced in the sequence.” Any temp editorial effects were redone in final form by one of the VFX suppliers or during the film’s digital intermediate finishing at EFILM in Hollywood.
In addition to temp effects, the editors also used temp music. Squyres explains, “At the beginning we used a lot of temp music pulled from other scores. This helps you understand what a scene is going to be, especially if it’s a scene designed for music. As we got farther into the cut, we started to receive some of Alexandre’s temp cues. These were recorded with synth samples, but still sounded great and gave you an good sense of the music. The final score was recorded using an orchestra at Abbey Road Studios, which really elevated the score beyond what you can get with samples.”
Finding the pace
In a performance-driven film, the editing is all about drama and pacing. Naturally Squires and Goldenberg have certain scenes that stand out to them. Squyres says, “A big scene in the film is when Louis meets the head guard for the first time. You have to set up that slow burn as they trade lines. Later in the film, there’s a second face-off, but now the dynamic between them is completely different. It’s a large, complex scene without spoken dialogue, so you have to get the pacing right, based on feel, not on the rhythm of the dialogue. The opening scene is an action air battle. It was shot in a very measured fashion, but you had to get the right balance between the story and the characters. You have to remember that the film is personal and you can’t lose sight of that.”
For Goldenberg, the raft sequence was the most difficult to get right. He says, “You want it to feel epic, but in reality – being lost at sea on a raft – there are long stretches of boredom and isolation, interrupted by some very scary moments. You have to find the right balance without the section feeling way too long.”
Both editors are fans of digital editing. Goldenberg puts it this way, “Avid lets you be wrong a lot of the time, because you can always make another version without physical constraints. I feel lucky, though, in having learned to work in the ‘think before you edit’ era. The result – more thinking – means you know where you are going when you start to cut a scene. You are satisfied that you know the footage well. I like to work in reels to keep the timeline from getting too cumbersome and I do keep old versions, in case I need to go back and compare or restore something.”
The film was produced with involvement by Louis Zamperini and his family, but unfortunately he died before the film was completed. Goldenberg sums it up, “It was a thrill. Louie was the type of person you hope your kids grow up to be. We were all proud to be part of telling the story for Louie.” The film opened its US release run on Christmas Day 2014.
Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.
©2015 Oliver Peters