Avid’s Hidden Gems

Avid Media Composer offers a few add-on options, but two are considered gems by the editors that rely on them. ScriptSync and PhraseFind are essential for many drama and documentary editors who wield Media Composer keyboards every day. I’ve written about these tools in the past, including how you can get similar functionality in other NLEs. New transcription services, like Simon Says, make them more viable than ever for the average editor.

Driven by the script

Avid’s script-based editing, also called script integration, builds a representation of the script supervisor’s lined script directly into the Avid Media Composer workflow and interface. While often referred to as ScriptSync, Avid’s script integration is actually not the same. Script-based editing and script bins are part of the core Media Composer system and does not cost extra.

The concept originated with the Cinedco Ediflex NLE and migrated to Avid. In the regular Media Composer system, preparing a script bin and aligning takes to that script is a manual process, often performed by assistant editors that are part of a larger editorial team. Because it is labor-intensive, most individual editors working on projects that aren’t major feature films or TV series avoid using this workflow.

Avid ScriptSync (a paid option) automates this script bin preparation process, by automatically aligning spoken words in a take to the text lines within the written script. It does this using speech recognition technology licensed from Nexidia. This technology is based on phonemes, the sounds that are combined to create spoken words. Clips can be imported (transcoded into Avid MediaFiles) or linked.

Through automatic analysis of the audio within a take, ScriptSync can correlate a line in the script to its relative position within that take or within multiple takes. Once clips have been properly aligned to the written dialogue, ScriptSync is largely out of the picture. And so, in Avid’s script-based editing, the editor can then click on a line of dialogue within the script bin and see all of the coverage for that line.

Script integration with non-scripted content

You might think, “Great, but I’m not cutting TV shows and films with a script.” If you work in documentaries or corporate videos built around lengthy interviews, then script integration may have little meaning – unless you have transcripts. Getting long interviews transcribed can be costly and/or time-consuming.  That’s where an automated transcription service like Simon Says comes in. There are certainly other, equally good services. However, Simon Says, offers export options tailored for each NLE, including Avid Media Composer.

With a transcription available on a fast turnaround, it becomes easy to import an interview transcript into a Media Composer script bin and align clips to it. ScriptSync takes care of the automatic alignment making script-based editing quick, easy, and painless – even for an individual editor without any assistants.

Finding that needle in the haystack

The second gem is PhraseFind, which builds upon the same Nexidia speech recognition technology. It’s a tool that’s even more essential for the documentary editor than script integration. PhraseFind (a paid option) is a phonetic search tool that analyzes the audio for clips within an Avid MediaFiles folder. Type in a word or phrase and PhraseFind will return a number of “hits” with varying degrees of accuracy.

The search is based on phonemes, so the results are based on words that “sound like” the search term. On one side this means that low-accuracy results may include unrelated finds that sound similar. On the other hand, you can enter a search word that is spelled differently or inaccurately, but as long as it still sounds the same, then useful results will be returned.

PhraseFind is very helpful in editing “Frankenbites.” Those are edits were sentences are ended in the middle, because a speaker went off on a tangent, or when different phrases are combined to complete a thought. Often you need to find a word that matches your edit point, but with the correct inflection, such as ending a sentence. PhraseFind is great for these types of searches, since your only alternative is scouring through multiple clips in search of a single word.

Working with the options

Script-based editing, ScriptSync, and PhraseFind are unique features that are only available in Avid Media Composer. No other NLE offers similar built-in features. Boris FX does offer Soundbite, which is a standalone equivalent to the PhraseFind technology licensed to them by Nexidia. It’s still available, but not actively promoted nor developed. Adobe had offered Story as a way to integrate script-based editing into Premiere Pro. That feature is no longer available. So today, if you want the accepted standard for script and phonetic editing features, then Media Composer is where it’s at.

These are separate add-on options. You can pick one or the other or both (or neither) depending on your needs and style of work. They are activated through Avid Link. If you own multiple seats of Media Composer, then you can purchase one license of ScriptSync and/or PhraseFind and float them between Media Composers via Avid Link activation. While these tools aren’t for everyone, they do offer a new component to how you work as an editor. Many who’ve adopted them have never looked back.

©2020, 2021 Oliver Peters

Avid Media Composer 2020

Avid Media Composer has been at the forefront of nonlinear, digital video editing for three decades. While most editors and audio mixers know Avid for Media Composer and Pro Tools, the company has grown considerably in that time. Whether by acquisition or internal development, Avid Technology encompasses such products as storage, live and post mixing consoles, newsroom software, broadcast graphics, asset management, and much more.

In spite of this diverse product line, Media Composer, as well as Pro Tools, continue to be the marquee products that define the brand. Use the term “Avid” and generally people understand that you are talking about Media Composer editing software. If you are an active Media Composer editor, then most of this article will be old news. But if you are new to Media Composer, read on.

The Media Composer heritage

Despite challenges from other NLEs, such as Final Cut Pro,  Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro, and DaVinci Resolve, Media Composer continues to be the dominant NLE for television and feature film post around the world. Even in smaller broadcast markets and social media, it’s not a given that the other options are exclusively used. If you are new to the industry and intend to work in one of the major international media hubs, then knowing the Media Composer application is helpful and often required.

Media Composer software comes in four versions, ranging from Media Composer | First (free) up to Media Composer Enterprise. Most freelance editors will opt for one of the two middle options: Media Composer or Media Composer | Ultimate. Licenses may be “rented” via a subscription or bought as a perpetual license. The latter includes a year of support with a renewal at the end of that year. If you opt not to renew support, then your Media Composer software will be frozen at the last valid version issued within that year; but it will continue to work. No active internet connection or periodic sign-in is required to use Media Composer, so you could be off the grid for months and the software works just fine.

A Media Composer installation is full-featured, including effects, audio plug-ins, and background rendering software. Depending on the version, you may also receive loyalty offers (free) for additional software from third-party vendors, like Boris FX, NewBlueFX, iZotope, and Accusonus.

Avid only offers three add-on options for Media Composer itself: ScriptSync, PhraseFind, and Symphony. Media Composer already incorporates manual script-based editing. Plain text script documents can be imported into a special bin and clips aligned to sentences and paragraphs in that script. Synchronization has to be done manually to use this feature. The ScriptSync option saves time – automating the process by phonetically analyzing and syncing clips to the script text. Click on a script line and any corresponding takes can be played starting from that point within the scene.

The PhraseFind option is a phonetic search engine, based on the same technology as ScriptSync. It’s ideal for documentary and reality editors. PhraseFind automatically indexes the phonetics of the audio for your clips. Search by a word or phrase and all matching  instances will appear, regardless of actual spelling. You can dial in the sensitivity to find only the most accurate hits, or broader in cases where dialogue is hard to hear or heavily accented.

Media Composer includes good color correction, featuring wheels and curves. In fact, Avid had this long before other NLEs. The Symphony option expands the internal color correction with more capabilities, as well as a full color correction workflow. Grade clips by source, timeline, or both. Add vector-based secondary color correction and more. Symphony is not as powerful as Baselight or Resolve, but you avoid any issues associated with roundtrips to other applications. That’s why it dominates markets where turnaround time is critical, like finishing for non-scripted (“reality”) TV shows. A sequence from a Symphony-equipped Media Composer system can still be opened on another Media Composer workstation that does not have the Symphony option. Clips play fine (no “media offline” or “missing plug-in” screen); however, the editor cannot access or alter any of the color correction settings specific to Symphony.

Overhauling Media Composer

When Jeff Rosica took over as CEO of Avid Technology in 2018, the company embraced an effort to modernize Media Composer. Needless to say, that’s a challenge. Any workflow or user interface changes affect familiarity and muscle memory. This is made tougher in an application with a loyal, influential, and vocal customer base.  An additional complication for every software developer is keeping up with changes to the underlying operating system. Changes from Windows 7 to Windows 10, or from macOS High Sierra to Mojave to Catalina, all add their own peculiar speed bumps to the development roadmap.

For example, macOS Catalina is Apple’s first, full 64-bit operating system. Apple dropped any 32-bit QuickTime library components that were used by developers to support certain codecs. Of course, this change impacted Media Composer. Without Apple rewriting 64-bit versions of these legacy components, the alternative is for a developer to add their own support back into the application, which Avid has had to do. Unfortunately, this introduces some inevitable media compatibility issues between older and newer versions of Media Composer. Avid is not alone in this case.

Nevertheless, Media Composer changes aren’t just cosmetic, but also involve many “under the hood” improvements. These include a 32-bit float color pipeline, support for ACES projects, HDR support, dealing with new camera raw codecs, and the ability to read and write ProRes media on both macOS and Windows systems.

Avid Media Composer 2020.10

Avid bases its product version numbers by the year and month of release. Media Composer 2020.10 – the most recent version as of this writing – was just released. The versions prior to that were Media Composer 2020.9 and 2020.8, released in September and August respectively. But before that it was 2020.6 from June, skipping .7. (Some of the features that I will describe were introduced in earlier versions and are not necessarily new in 2020.10.)

Media Composer 2020.10 is fully compatible with macOS Catalina. Due to the need to shift to a 64-bit architecture, the AMA framework – used to access media using non-Avid codecs – has been revamped as UME (Universal Media Engine). Also the legacy Title Tool has been replaced with the 64-bit Titler+.

If you are a new Media Composer user or moving to a new computer, then several applications will be installed. In addition to the Media Composer application and its built-in plug-ins and codecs, the installer will add Avid Link to your computer. This is a software management tool to access your Avid account, update software, activate/deactivate licenses, search a marketplace, and interact with other users via a built-in social component.

The biggest difference for Premiere Pro, Resolve, or Final Cut Pro X users who are new to Media Composer is understanding the Avid approach to media. Yes, you can link to any compatible codec, add it to a bin, and edit directly with it – just like the others. But Avid is designed for and works best with optimized media.

This means transcoding the linked media to MXF-wrapped Avid DNxHD or HR media. This media can be OPatom (audio and video as separate files) or OP1a (interleaved audio/video files). It’s stored in an Avid MediaFiles folder located at the root level of the designated media volume. That’s essentially the exact same process adopted by Final Cut Pro X when media is transcoded and placed inside an FCPX Library file. The process for each enables a bullet-proof way to move project files and media around without breaking links to that media.

The second difference is that each Avid bin within the application is also a dedicated data file stored within the project folder on your hard drive. Bins can be individually locked (under application control). This facilitates multiple editors working in a collaborative environment. Adobe adopted an analog of this method in their new Adobe Productions feature.

The new user interface

Avid has always offered a highly customizable user interface. The new design, introduced in 2019, features bins, windows, and panels that can be docked, tabbed, or floated. Default workspaces have been streamlined, but you can also create your own. A unique feature compared to the competing NLEs is that open panes can be slid left or right to move them off of the active screen. They aren’t actually closed, but compacted into the side of the screen. Simply slide the edge inward again to reveal that pane.

One key to Avid’s success is that the keyboard layout, default workspaces, and timeline interactions tend to be better focused on the task of editing. You can get more done with fewer keystrokes. In all fairness, Final Cut Pro X also shares some of this, if you can get comfortable with their very different approach. My point is that the new Media Composer workspaces cover most of what I need and I don’t feel the need for a bunch of custom layouts. I also don’t feel the need to remap more levels of custom keyboard commands than what’s already there.

Media Composer for Premiere and Final Cut editors

My first recommendation is to invest in a custom Media Composer keyboard from LogicKeyboard or Editors Keys. Media Composer mapping is a bit different than the Final Cut “legacy” mapping that many NLEs offer. It’s worth learning the standard Media Composer layout. A keyboard with custom keycaps will be a big help.

My second recommendation is to learn all about Media Composer’s settings (found under Preferences and Settings). There are a LOT of them, which may seem daunting at first. Once you understand these settings, you can really customize the software just for you.

Getting started

Start by establishing a new project from the projects panel. Projects can be saved to any available drive and do not have to be in a folder at the root level. When you create a new project, you are setting the format for frame size, rate, and color space. All sequences created inside of this project will adhere to these settings. However, other sequences using different formats can be imported into any project.

Once you open a project, Media Composer follows a familiar layout of bins, timeline, and source/record windows. There are three normal bin views, plus script-based editing (if you use it): frame, column, and storyboard. In column view, you may create custom columns as needed. Clips can be sorted and filtered based on the criteria you pick. In the frame view, clips can be arranged in a freeform manner, which many film editors really like.

The layout works on single and dual-monitor set-ups. If you have two screens, it’s easy to spread out your bins on one screen in any manner you like. But if you only have one screen, you may want to switch to a single viewer mode, which then displays only the record side. Click a source clip from a bin and it open its own floating window. Mark in/out, make the edit, and close. I wish the viewer would toggle between source and record, but that’s not the case, yet

Sequences

Media Composer does not use stacked or tabbed sequences, but there is a history pulldown for quick access to recent sequences and/or source clips. Drag and load any sequence into the source window and toggle the timeline view between the source or the record side. This enables easy editing of portions from one sequence into another sequence.

Mono and stereo audio tracks are treated separately on the timeline. If you have a clip with left and right stereo audio on two separate channels (not interleaved), then these will cut to the timeline as two mono tracks with a default pan setting to the middle for each. You’ll need to pan these tracks back to left and right in the timeline. If you have a clip with interleaved, stereo audio, like a music cue, it will be edited to a new interleaved stereo track, with default stereo panning. You can’t mix interleaved stereo and mono content onto the same timeline track.

Effects

Unlike other NLEs, timeline clips are only modified when a specific effect is applied. When clips of a different format than the sequence format are cut to the timeline, a FrameFlex effect is automatically applied for transform and color space changes. There is no persistent Inspector or Effects Control panel. Instead you have to select a clip with an effect applied to it and open the effect mode editor. While this may seem more cumbersome, the advantage is that you won’t inadvertently change the settings of one clip thinking that another has been selected.

Media Composer installs a fair amount of video and audio plug-ins, but for more advanced effects, I recommend augmenting with BorisFX’s Continuum Complete or Sapphire. What is often overlooked is that Media Composer does include paint, masking, and tracking tools. And, if you work on stereo 3D projects, Avid was one of the first companies to integrate a stereoscopic toolkit into Media Composer

The audio plug-ins provide a useful collection of filters for video editors. These plug-ins come from the Pro Tools side of the company. Media Composer and Pro Tools use the AAX plug-in format; therefore, no AU or VST audio plug-ins will show up inside Media Composer.

Due to the 64-bit transition, Avid dropped the legacy Title Tool and Marquee titler, and rewrote a new Titler+. Honestly, it’s not as intuitive as it should be and took some time for me to warm up to it. Once you play with it, though, the controls are straight-forward. It includes roll and crawl options, along with keyframed moves and tracking. Unfortunately, there are no built-in graphics templates.

Trimming

When feature film editors are asked why they like Media Composer, the trim mode is frequently at the top of the list. The other NLEs offer advanced trimming modes, but none seems as intuitive to use as Avid’s. Granted, you don’t have to stick with the mouse to use them, but I definitely find it easier to trim by mouse in Premiere or Final Cut.

Trimming in Media Composer is geared towards fluid keyboard operation. I find that when I’m building up a sequence, my flow is completely different in Media Composer. Some will obviously prefer the others’ tools and, in fact, Media Composer’s smart keys enable mouse-based trimming, too. It’s certainly preference, but once you get comfortable with the flow and speed of Media Composer’s trim mode, it’s hard to go to something else.

Avid’s journey to modernize Media Composer has gone surprisingly well. If anything, the pace of feature enhancements might be too incremental for users wishing to see more radical changes. For now, there hasn’t been too much resistance from the old guard and new editors are indeed taking a fresh look. Whether you are cutting spots, social media, or indie features, you owe it to yourself to take an objective look at Media Composer as a viable editing option.

To get more familiar with Media Composer, check out Kevin P. McAuliffe’s Let’s Edit with Media Composer tutorial series on YouTube.

Originally written for Pro Video Coalition.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Video Technology 2020 – Editing Software

Four editing applications dominate the professional market: Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro X, Avid Media Composer, and Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. Established facilities are still heavy Avid users, with Adobe being the up-and-coming choice. This doesn’t mean that Final Cut Pro X lost out. Going into 2020, Apple can tout FCPX as the best-selling version of its professional editing tool. It most likely has three million users after nearly nine years on the market. While pro editors in the US are often reluctant to adopt FCPX, this innovative application has earned wider acceptance in the broader international market.

The three “A”s have been battling for editing market share, but the wild card is Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve. It started as a high-end color correction application, but through Blackmagic’s acquisitions and fast development pace, Resolve is becoming an all-in-one application rivaling Autodesk Smoke or Avid DS. Recent versions bring enhanced creative editing tools, making it possible to edit, mix, composite, grade, and deliver entirely from Resolve. No need to roundtrip with other applications. Blackmagic is so dedicated to Resolve as an editor that they introduced a special editor keyboard.

Is Resolve attractive enough to sway editors to shift away from other tools? The answer for most in 2020 will still be “no.” Experienced editors have made their choice and all of the current options are quite good. However, Resolve does make the most sense for new users with no prior allegiances. The caveat is advanced finishing. Users may edit in an editing application, but then roundtrip to Resolve and back for grading. Unfortunately these roundtrips can be problematic. So I do think that many will opt to cut creatively in their NLE of choice, but then send to Resolve for the final grade, mix, and VFX work. Expect to see Resolve’s finishing footprint expand in 2020.

Two challenges confront these companies in 2020: multi-user collaboration and high dynamic range (HDR) delivery. Collaboration is an Avid strength, but not so for the other three. Blackmagic and Adobe have an approach to project sharing, but still not what Avid users have come to expect. Apple offers nothing directly, but there are some third-party workarounds. Expect 2020 to yield collaboration improvements for Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro.

HDR is a more complex situation requiring specialized hardware for proper monitoring. There simply is no way to accurately view HDR on any computer display. All of these companies are developing software pipelines to deal with HDR, but in 2020, HDR delivery will still require specific hardware that will remain the domain of dedicated color correction facilities.

Finally, as with cameras, AI will become an increasing aspect of post hardware. You already see that in Apple’s shape recognition within FCPX (automatic sorting of wides and close-ups) or Adobe Sensei for content replacement and automatic music editing. Expect to see more of these features introduced in coming software versions.

Originally written for Creative Planet Network.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Ford v Ferrari

Outraged by a failed attempt to acquire European carmaker Ferrari, Henry Ford II sets out to trounce Enzo Ferrari on his own playing field – automobile endurance racing. Unfortunately, the effort falls short, leading Ford to turn to independent car designer, Carroll Shelby. But Shelby’s outspoken lead test driver, Ken Miles, complicates the situation by making an enemy out of Ford Senior VP Leo Beebe. Nevertheless, Shelby and his team are able to build one of the greatest race cars ever – the GT40 MkII – setting the showdown between the two auto legends at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. Matt Damon and Christian Bale star as Shelby and Miles.

The challenge of bringing this clash of personalities to the screen was taken on by director James Mangold (Logan, Wolverine, 3:10 to Yuma) and his team of long time collaborators. I recently spoke with film editors Michael McCusker, ACE (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, Logan) and Andrew Buckland (The Girl on the Train) about what it took to bring Ford v Ferrari together.

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[OP] The post team for this film has worked with James Mangold on quite a few films. Tell me a bit about the relationship.

[MM] I cut my very first movie, Walk The Line, for Jim 15 years ago and have since cut his last six movies. I was the first assistant editor on Kate & Leopold, which was shot in New York in 2001. That’s where I met Andrew, who was hired as one of the local New York film assistants. We became fast friends. Andrew moved out to LA in 2009 and I hired him to assist me on Knight & Day. We’ve been working together for 10 years now.

I always want to keep myself available for Jim, because he chooses good material, attracts great talent, and is a filmmaker with a strong vision who works across multiple genres. Since I’ve worked with him, I’ve cut a musical movie, a western, a rom-com, an action movie, a straight-up superhero movie, a dystopian superhero movie, and now a car racing film.

[OP] As a film editor, it must be great not to get type-cast for any particular cutting style.

[MM] Exactly. I worked for David Brenner for years as his first. He was able to cross genres and that’s what I wanted to do. I knew even then that the most important decisions I would make would be choosing projects. I couldn’t have foreseen that Jim was going to work across all these genres – I simply knew that we worked well together and that the end product was good.  

[OP] In preparing for Ford v Ferrari, did you study any other recent racing films, like Ron Howard’s Rush?

[MM] I saw that movie and liked it. Jim was aware of it, too, but I think he wanted to do something a little more organic. We watched a lot of older racing films, like Steve McQueen’s Le Mans and Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix. Jim’s original intention was to play the racing in long takes and bring the audience along for the ride. As he was developing the script and we were in preproduction, it became clear that there was so much more drama that was available for him to portray during the racing sequences than he anticipated. And so, the races took on more of an energized pace.

[OP] Energized in what way? Do you mean in how you cut it or in a change of production technique, like more stunt cameras and angles?

[MM] I was fortunate to get involved about two-and-a-half months prior to the start of production. We were developing the Le Mans race in pre-vis, which required a lot of editing and discussions about shot design and figuring out what the intercutting was going to be during that sequence, which is like the fourth act of the movie. You’re dealing with Mollie and Peter [Ken Miles’ wife and son] at home watching the race, the pit drama, what’s going on with Shelby and his crew, with Ford and Leo Beebe, and also, of course, what’s going on in the car with Ken. It’s a three act movie unto itself, so Jim was trying to figure out how it was all going to work, before he had to shoot it. That’s where I came in. The frenetic pace of Le Mans was more a part of the writing process – and part of the writing process was the pre-vis. The trick was how to make sure we weren’t just following cars around a track. That’s where redundancy can tend to beleaguer an audience in racing movies. 

[OP] What was the timeline for production and post?

[MM] I started at the end of May 2018. Production began at the the beginning of August and went all the way through to the end of November. We started post in earnest at the beginning of November of last year, took some time off for the holidays, and then showed the film to the studios around February or March.

The challenge was that there was going to be a lot of racing footage, which meant there was going to be a LOT of footage. I knew I was going to need a strong co-editor, so Andrew was the natural choice. He had been cutting on his own and cutting with me over the years. We share a common approach to editing and have a similar aesthetic. There was a point when things got really intense and we needed another pair of hands, so I brought in Dirk Westervelt to help out for a couple of months. That kept our noses above water, but the process was really enjoyable. We were never in a crisis mode. We got a great response from preview audiences and, of course, that calms everybody down. At that point it was just about quality control and making sure we weren’t resting on our laurels. 

[OP] How long was your initial cut and what was your process for trimming the film down to the present run time?

[MM] We’re at 2:30:00 right now and I think the first cut was 3:10:00 or 3:12:00. The Le Mans section was longer. The front end of the movie had more scenes in it. We ended up lifting some scenes and rearranging others.  Plus, the basic trimming of scenes brought the length down. But nothing was the result of a panic, like, “Oh my God, we’ve got to get to 2:30:00!” There were no demands by the studio or any pressures we placed upon ourselves to hit a particular running time. I like to say that there’s real time and there’s cinematic time. You can watch Once Upon a Time in America, which is 3:45:00, and feel likes it’s an hour. Or you can watch an 89-minute movie and feel like it’s drudgery. We just wanted to make sure we weren’t overstaying our welcome. 

[OP] How extensively did you re-arrange scenes during the edit? Or did the structure of the film stay pretty much as scripted?

[MM] To a great degree it stayed as scripted. We had some scenes in the beginning that we felt were a little bit tangential and weren’t serving the narrative directly and those were cut. The real endeavor of this movie starts the moment that these two guys [Shelby and Miles] decide to tackle the challenge of developing this car. There’s a scene where Miles sees the car for the first time at LAX. We understood that we had to get to that point in a very efficient way, but also set up all the other characters – their motives and their desires.

It’s an interesting movie, because it starts off with a lot of characters. But then it develops into a movie about two guys and their friendship. So it goes from an ensemble piece to being about Ken and Carroll, while at the same time the scope of the movie is opening up and becoming larger as the racing is going on. For us, the trickiest part was the front end – to make sure we spent enough time with each character so that we understood them, but not so much time that audience would go, “Enough already! Get on with it!”

[OP] Were you both racing fans before you signed onto this film?

[AB] I was not.

[MM] When I was a kid, I watched a lot of racing. I liked CART racing – open wheel racing – not so much stock car racing. As I grew older, I lost interest, particularly when CART disbanded and NASCAR took over. So, I had an appreciation for it. I went to races, like the old Ontario 500 here in California.

[OP] Did that help inform your cutting style for this film?

[MM] I don’t think so. Where it helped was knowing the sound of the broadcasters and race announcers. I liked Chris Economaki and Jim McKay – guys who were broadcasting the races when I was a kid. I was intrigued about how they gave us the narrative of the race. It came in handy while we were making this movie, because we were able to get our hands on some of Jim McKay’s actual coverage of Le Mans and used it in the movie. That brings so much authenticity.

[OP] Let’s dive deeper into the sound for this film. I would imagine that sound design was integral to your rough cuts. How did you tackle that?

 [AB] We were fortunate to have the sound team on very early during preproduction. We were cutting in a 5.1 environment, so we wanted to create sound design early in the process. The sounds may have not been the exact engine sounds that would end up in the final, but they were adequate to allow you to experience the scenes as intended and to give the right feel.  Because we needed to get Jim’s response early, some of the races were cut with the production sound – from the live mics during filming. This allowed us and Jim to quickly see how the scenes would flow. Other scenes were cut strictly MOS, because the sound design would have been way too complicated for the initial cut of the scene. Once the scene was cut visually, we’d hand over the scene to Don [Sylvester, sound supervisor] who was able to provide us with a set of 5.1 stems. That was great, because we could recut and repurpose those stems for other races.

[MM] We had developed a strategy with Don to split the sound design into four or five stems to give us enough discrete channels to recut these sequences. The stems were a palette of interior perspectives, exterior perspectives, crowds, car-bys, and so on. By employing this strategy, we didn’t need to continually turn over the cut to sound for patch-up work. Then, as Don went out and recorded the real cars and was developing the actual sounds for what was going to be used in the mix, he’d generate new stems and we would put them into the Avid. This was extremely informative to Jim, because he could experience our Avid temp mix in 5.1 and give notes, which ultimately informed the final sound design and the mix. 

[OP] What about temp music? Did you also weave that into your rough cuts?

[MM] Ted Caplan, our music editor, has also worked with Jim for 15 years. He’s a bit of a renaissance man – a screenwriter, a novelist, a one-time musician, and a sound designer in his own right. When he sits down to work with music, he’s coming at it from a story point-of-view. He has a very instinctual knowledge of where music should start and it happens to dovetail into the aesthetic that Jim, Andrew, and I are working towards. None of us like music to lead scenes in a way that anticipates what the scene is going to be about before you experience it.

Specifically, for this movie, it was challenging to develop what the musical tone of the movie would be. Ted was developing the temp track along with us from a very early stage. We found over time that not one particular musical style was going to work. Which is to say that this is a very complex score. It includes a kind of surf rock sound with Carroll Shelby in LA; an almost jaunty, lounge jazz sound for Detroit and the Ford executives; and then the hard-driving rhythmic sound for the racing.

(The final score was composed by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders.)

[OP] I presume you were housed in multiple cutting rooms at a central facility. Right?

[MM] We cut at 20th Century Fox, where Jim has a large office space. We cut Logan and Wolverine there before this movie. It has several cutting spaces, I was situated between Andrew and Don. Ted was next to Don and John Berri, our additional editor, and assistants were right around the corner. It makes for a very efficient working environment. 

[OP] Since the team was cutting with Avid Media Composer, did any of its features stand out to you for this film?

[Both] FluidMorph! (laughs)

[MM] FluidMorph, speed-ramping – we often had to manipulate the shot speeds to communicate the speed of the cars. A lot of these cars were kit cars that could drive safely at a certain speed for photography, but not at race speed. So we had to manipulate the speed a lot to get the sense of action that these cars have.

[OP] What about Avid’s Script Integration feature, often referred to as ScriptSync? I know a lot of narrative editors love it.

[MM] I used ScriptSync once a few years ago and I never cut a scene faster. I was so excited. Then I watched it and it was terrible. To me there’s so much more to editing than hitting the next line of dialogue. I’m more interested in the lines between the lines – subtext. I found that with ScriptSync I could put the scene together quickly, but it was flat as a pancake. I do understand the value of it in certain applications. For instance, I think it’s great on straight comedy. It’s helpful to get around and find things when you are shooting tons of coverage for a particular joke. But for me, it’s not something I lean on. I mark up my own dailies and find stuff that way.

[OP] Tell me a bit more about your organizational process. Do you start with a KEM roll or stringouts of selected takes?

[MM] I don’t watch dailies, which sounds weird. By that I mean, I don’t watch them in a traditional sense. I don’t start in the morning, watch the dailies, and then start cutting. And I don’t ask my assistants to organize any of my dailies in bins. I come in and grab the scene that I have in front on me. I’ll look at the last take of every set-up really quickly and then I spend an enormous amount of time – particularly on complex scenes – creating a bin structure that I can work with. Sometimes it’s the beats in a scene, sometimes I organize by shot size, sometimes by character – it depends on what’s driving the scene. That’s the way I learn my footage – by organizing it. I remember shot sizes. I remember what was shot from set-up to set-up. I have a strong visual memory of where things are in a bin. So, if I ask an assistant to do that, then I’m not going to remember it. If I do it myself, then I’ll remember it. If there are a lot of resets or restarts in a take, I’ll have the assistant mark those up. But, I’ll go through and mark up beats or pivotal points in a scene, or particularly beautiful moments. And then I’ll start cutting.

[AB] I’ve adopted a lot of Mike’s methodology, mainly because I assisted Mike on a few films. But it actually works for me, as well. I have a similar aesthetic to Mike. I’ve used ScriptSync before and I tend to agree that it discourages you from seeing – as Mike described – the moments between lines. Those moments are valuable to remember.  

[OP] I presume this film was shot digitally. Right?

[MM] It was primarily shot with [ARRI] Alexa 65 LF cameras, plus some other small format cameras. A lot of it was shot with old anamorphic lenses on the Alexa that allowed them to give it a bit of a vintage feeling. It’s interesting that as you watch it, you see the effect of the old lenses. There’s a fall-off on the edges, which is kind of cool. There were a couple of places where the subject matter was framed into the curve of the lens, which affects the focus. But we stuck with it, because it feels ‘of the time.’

[OP] Since the film takes place in the 1960s and with racing action sequences, I presume there were quite a few visual effects to properly place the film in time. Right?

[MM] There’s a ton of that. The whole movie is a period film. We could temp certain things in the Avid for the rough cuts. John Berri was wrangling visual effects. He’s a master in the Avid, but also Adobe After Effects. He has some clever ways of filling in backgrounds or green screens with temp elements to give the director an idea of what’s going to go there. We try to do as much temp work in the Avid as we are capable of doing, but there’s so much 3D visual effects work in this movie that we weren’t able to do that all of the time.

The caveat, though, is that the racing is real. The cars are real. The visual effects work was for a lot of the backgrounds. The movie was shot almost entirely in Los Angeles with some second unit footage shot in Georgia. The current, modern day Le Mans track isn’t at all representative of what Le Mans was in 1966, so there was no way to shoot Le Mans. Everything had to be doubled and then augmented with visual effects. In addition to Georgia, where they shot most of the actual racing for Le Mans, they went for a week to France to get some shots of the actual town of Le Mans. Of those, I think only about four of those shots are left. (laughs)

[OP] Any final thoughts about how this film turned out? 

[MM] I’m psyched that people seem to like the film. Our concern was that we had a lot of story to tell. Would we wear audiences out? We continually have people tell us, “That was two and a half hours? We had no idea.” That’s humbling for us and it’s a great feeling. It’s a movie about these really great characters with great scope and great racing. That goes back to the very advent of movies. You can put all the big visual effects in a film that you want to, but it’s really about people.

[AB] I would absolutely agree. It’s more of a character movie with racing.  Also, because I am not a ‘racing fan’ per se, the character drama really pulled me into the film while working on it.

[MM] It’s classic Hollywood cinema. I feel proud to be part of a movie that does what Hollywood does best.

The article is also available at postPerspective.

For more, check out this interview with Steve Hullfish.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Free Solo

Every now and then a documentary comes along that simply blows away the fictional super-hero feats of action films. Free Solo is a testament to the breathtaking challenges real life can offer. This documentary chronicles the first free solo climb (no ropes) by Alex Honnold of El Capitan’s 3,000-feet-high sheer rock face. This was the first and so far only successful free solo climb of the mountain.

Free Solo was produced by the filmmaking team of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who is renowned as both an action-adventure cinematographer/photographer and mountaineer. Free Solo was produced in partnership with National Geographic Documentary Films and has garnered numerous awards, including OSCAR and BAFTA awards for best documentary, as well as an ACE award for its editor Bob Eisenhardt, ACE. Free Solo enjoyed IMAX and regular theatrical distribution and can now be seen on the National Geographic Television streaming service.

Bob Eisenhardt is a well-known documentary film editor with over 60 films to his credit. Along with his ACE award for Free Solo, Eisenhardt is currently an editing nominee in this year’s EMMY Awards for his work in cutting the documentary. I recently had a chance to speak with Bob Eisenhardt and what follows is that conversation.

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[OP] You have a long history in the New York documentary film scene. Please tell me a bit about your background.

[BE] I’ve done a lot of different kinds of films. The majority is cinema vérité work, but some films use a lot of archival footage and some are interview-driven. I’ve worked on numerous films with the Maysles, Barbara Kopple, Matt Tyrnauer, a couple of Alex Gibney’s films – and I often did more than one film with people. I also teach in the documentary program at the New York Film Academy, which is interesting and challenging. It’s really critiquing their thesis projects and discussing some general editing principles. I went to architecture school. Architectural design is taught by critique, so I understand that way of teaching.

[OP] It’s interesting that you studied architecture. I know that a lot of editors come from a musical background or are amateur musicians and that influences their approach to cutting. How do you think architecture affects your editing style?

[BE] They say architecture is frozen music, so that’s how I was taught to design. I’m very much into structure – thinking about the structure of the film and solving problems. Architecture is basically problem solving and that’s what editing is, too. How do I best tell this story with these materials that I have or a little bit of other material that I can get? What is the essence of that and how do I go about it?

[OP] What led to you working on Free Solo?

[BE] This is the second film I’ve made with Chai and Jimmy. The first was Meru. So we had some experience together and it’s the second film about climbing. I did learn about the challenges of climbing the first time and was familiar with the process – what the climbing involved and how you use the ropes. 

Meru was very successful, so we immediately began discussing Free Solo. But the filming took about a year-and-a-half. That was partly due to accidents and injuries Alex had. It went into a second season and then a third season of climbing and you just have to follow along. That’s what documentaries are all about. You hitch your wagon to this person and you have to go where they take you. And so, it became a much longer project than initially thought. I began editing six months before Alex made the final climb. At that point they had been filming for about a year. So I came on in January and he made the climb in June – at which point I was well into the process of editing.

[OP] There’s a point in Free Solo, where Alex had started the ascent once and then stopped, because he wasn’t feeling good about it. Then it was unclear whether or not he would even attempt it again. Was that the six-month point when you joined the production?

[BE] Yes, that’s it. It’s very much the climbers’ philosophy that you have to feel it, or you don’t do it. That’s very true of free soloing. We wanted him to signal the action, “This is what I plan to do.” And he wouldn’t do it – ever – because that’s against the mentality of climbing. “If I feel it, I may do it. Otherwise, not.” It’s great for climbing, but not so good for film production.

[OP] Unlike any other film project, failure in this case would have meant Alex’s death. In that event you would have had a completely different film. That was touched on in the film, but what was the behind-the-scenes thinking about the possibility of such as catastrophe? Any Plan B?

[BE] In these vérité documentaries you never know what’s going to happen, but this is an extreme example. He was either going to do it and succeed, decide he wasn’t going to do it, or die trying, and that’s quite a range. So we didn’t know what film we were making when I started editing. We were going to go with the idea of him succeeding and then we’d reconsider if something else happened. That was our mentality, although in the back of our minds we knew this could be quite different.

When they started, it wasn’t with the intention of making this film. Jimmy knew Alex for 10 years. They were old friends and had done a lot of filming together. He thought Alex would be a great subject for a documentary. That’s what they proposed to Nat Geo – just a portrait of Alex – and Alex said, “If you are going to do that, then I’ve got to do something worthwhile. I’m going to try to free solo El Cap.” He told that to Chai while Jimmy wasn’t there. Chai is not a climber and she thought, “Great, that sounds like it will be a good film.” Jimmy completely freaked out when he found out, because he knew what it meant.

It’s an outrageous concept even to climbers. They actually backed off and had to reconsider whether this was something they wanted to get involved in. Do you really want to see your friend jeopardize his life for this? Would the filming add additional pressure on Alex? They had to deal with this even before they started shooting, which is why that was part of the film. I felt it was a very important idea to get across. Alex is taciturn, so you needed ways to understand him and what he was doing. The crew as a character really helped us do that. They were people Alex could interact with and the audience could identify with.

The other element that I felt was very important, was Sanni [McCandless, Alex Honnold’s girlfriend], who suddenly came onto the scene after the filming began. This felt like a very important way to get to know Alex. It also became another challenge for Alex – whether he would be able not only to climb this mountain, but whether he would be able to have a relationship with this woman. And aren’t those two diametrically opposed? Being able to open yourself up emotionally to someone, but also control your emotions enough to be able to hang by your fingertips 2,000 feet in the air on the side of a cliff.

[OP] Sanni definitely added a lot of humanity to him. Before the climb they discuss the possibility of his falling to his death and Alex’s point of view is that’s OK. “If I die, I die.” I’m not sure he really believed that deep inside. Or did he?

[BE] Alex is very purposeful and lives every day with intention. That’s what’s so intriguing. He knows any minute on the wall could be his last and he’s comfortable with that. He felt like he was going to succeed. He didn’t think he was going to fall. And if he didn’t feel that way he wasn’t going to do it. Seeing the whole thing through Sanni’s eyes allowed us as the audience to get closer to and identify with Alex. We call that moment the ‘Take me into consideration’ scene, which I felt was vitally important.

[OP] Did you have any audience screenings of the rough cuts? If so, how did that inform your editing choices?

[BE] We did do some screenings and it’s a tricky thing. Nat Geo was a great partner throughout. Most companies wouldn’t be able to deal with this going on for a year-and-a-half. It’s in Nat Geo’s DNA to fund exploration and make exploratory films. They were completely supportive, but they did decide they wanted to get into Sundance and we were a month from the deadline. We brought in three other editors (Keiko Deguchi, Jay Freund, and Brad Fuller) to jump in and try to make it. Even though we got an extension and we did a great job, we didn’t get in. The others left and I had another six months to work on the film and make it better. Because of all of this, the screenings were probably too early. The audience had trouble understanding Alex, understanding what he’s trying to do – so the first couple screenings were difficult.

We knew when we saw the initial climbing footage that the climb itself was going to be amazing. By the time we showed it to an audience, we were completely immune to any tension from the climb – I mean, we’d seen it 200 times. It was no longer as scary to us as it had been the first time we saw it. In editing you have to remember the initial reaction you had to the footage so that you can bring it to bear later on. It was a real struggle to make the rest of the story as strong as possible to keep you engaged, until we got to the climb. So we were pleasantly surprised to see that people were so involved and very tense during the climb. We had underestimated that.

We also figured that everyone would already know how this thing ends. It was well-publicized that he successfully climbed El Cap. The film had to be strong enough that people could forget they knew what happened. Although I’ve had people tell me they could not have watched the climb if they hadn’t known the outcome.

[OP] Did you end up emphasizing some aspects over others as a result of the screenings?

[BE] The main question to the audience is, “Do you understand what we are trying to say?” And then, “What do you think of him or her as a character?” That’s interesting information that you get from an audience. We really had to clarify what his goal was. He never says at the beginning, “I’m going to do this thing.” In fact, I couldn’t get him to say it after he did it. So it was difficult to set up his intention. And then it was also difficult to make clear what the steps were. Obviously we couldn’t cover the whole 3,000 feet of El Capitan, so they had to concentrate on certain areas.

We decided to cover five or six of the most critical pitches – sections of the climb – to concentrate on those and really cover them properly during the filming. These were challenging to explain and it took a lot of effort to make that clear. People ask, “How did you manage to cut the final climb – it was amazing.” Well, it worked because of the second act that explains what he is trying to do. We didn’t have to say anything in the third act. You just watch because you understand. 

When we started people didn’t understand what free soloing is. At first we were calling the film Solo. The nomenclature of climbing is confusing. Soloing is actually climbing with a rope, but only for protection. Then we’d have to explain what free soloing was as opposed to soloing. However, Hans Solo came along and stole our title, so it was much easier to call it Free Solo. Explaining the mentality of climbing, the history of climbing, the history of El Capitan, and then what exactly the steps were for him to accomplish what he was trying to do – all that took a long time to get right and a lot of that came out of good feedback from the audience.

Then, “Do you understand the character?” At one point we didn’t have enough of Sanni and then we had too much of Sanni. It became this love story and you forgot that he was going to climb. So the balancing was tricky.

[OP] Since you were editing before the final outcome and production was still in progress, did you have an opportunity to request more footage or that something in particular be filmed that you were missing in the edit?

[BE] That was the big advantage to starting the edit before the filming was done. I often end up coming into projects that are about 80-90% shot on average. So they have the ability to get pick-ups if people are alive or if the event can still be filmed in some way. This one was more ‘in progress.’ For instance, he practiced a specific move a lot for the most difficult pitch and I kept asking for more of that. We wanted to show how many times he practiced it in order to get the feel of it.

[OP] Let’s switch gears and talk about the technical side. Which edit system did you use to cut Free Solo?

[BE] We were using Avid Media Composer 8.8.5 with Nexis shared storage. Avid is my first choice for editing. I’ve done about four films on the old Final Cut – Meru being one of them – but, I much prefer Avid. I’ve often inherited projects that were started on something else, so you are stuck. On this one we knew going in that we would do it on Avid. Their ScriptSync feature is terrific. Any long discussions or sit-down interviews were transcribed. We could then word-search them, which was invaluable. My associate editor, Simona Ferrari, set up everything and was also there for the output.

[OP] Did you handle the finishing – color correction and sound post – in-house or go outside to another facility?

[BE] We up-rezzed in the office on [Blackmagic Design DaVinci] Resolve and then took that to Company 3 for finishing and color correction. Deborah Wallach did a great job sound editing and we mixed with Tommy Fleischman [Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street, BlacKkKlansman]. They shot this on about every camera, aspect ratio, and frame rate imaginable. But if they’re hanging 2,000 feet in the air and didn’t happen to hit the right button for the frame rate – you really can’t complain too much! So there was an incredible wide range and Simona managed to handle all that in the finishing. There wasn’t a lot of archival footage, but there were photos for the backstory of the family.

The other big graphic element was the mountain itself. We needed to be able to trace his route up the mountain and that took forever. It wasn’t just to show his climb, but also to connect the pitches that we had concentrated on, since there wasn’t much coverage between them. Making this graphic became very complicated. We tried one house and they couldn’t do it. Finally, Big Star, who was doing the other graphics – photomontages and titles – took this on. It was the very last thing done and was dropped in during the color correction session.

For the longest time in the screenings, the audience was watching a drawing that I had shot off of the cutting room wall and traced in red. It was pretty lame. For the screenings, it was a shot of the mountain and then I would dissolve through to get the line moving. After a while we had some decent in and out shots, but nothing in-between, except this temporary graphic that I created. 

[OP] I caught Free Solo on the plane to Las Vegas for NAB and it had me on the edge of my seat. I know the film was also released in IMAX, so I can only image what that experience was like.

[BE] The film wasn’t made for IMAX – that opportunity came up later. It’s a different film on IMAX. Although there is incredible high-angle photography, it’s an intimate story. So it worked well on a moderately big screen. But in IMAX it becomes a spectacle, because you can really see all those details in the high-angle shots. I have cut an IMAX film before and you do pace them different, because of the ability to look around. However, there wasn’t a different version of Free Solo made for IMAX – we didn’t have the freedom to do that. Of course, the whole film is largely handheld, so we did stabilize a few shots. IMAX merely used their algorithm to bump it up to their format. I was shocked – it was beautiful.

[OP] Let’s talk a bit about your process as an editor. For instance, music. Different editors approach music differently. Do you cut with temp music or wait until the very end to introduce the score?

[BE] Marco Beltrami [Fantastic Four, Logan, Velvet Buzzsaw] was our composer, but I use temp music from very early on. I assemble a huge library of scratch music – from other films or from the potential composers’ past films. I use that until we get the right feel for the music and that’s what we show to the composer. It gives us something to talk about. It’s much easier to say, “We like what the music is doing here, but it’s the wrong instrumentation.” Or, “This is the right instrument, but the wrong tempo.” It’s a baseline.

[OP] How do you tackle the footage at the very beginning? Do you create selects or Kem rolls or some other approach?

[BE] I create a road map to know where I’m going. I go through all the dailies and pull the stuff that I think might be useful. Everything from the good-looking shots to a taste of something that I may never use, but I want to remember. Then I screen selects reels. I try to do that with the director. Sometimes we can schedule that and sometimes not. On Free Solo there was over 700 hours of footage, so it’s hard to get your arms around that. By the time you get through looking at the 700th hour you’ve forgotten the first one. That’s why the selecting process is so important to me. The selects amount to maybe a third of the dailies footage. After screening the selects, I can start to see the story and how to tell it. 

I make index cards for every scene and storyboard the whole thing. By that I mean arrange the cards on a wall. They are color-coded for places, years, or characters. It allows me to stand back and see the flow of the film, to think about the structure, and the points that I have to hit. I basically cut to that. Of course, if it doesn’t work, I re-arrange the index cards (laugh).

A few years ago, I did a film about the Dixie Chicks [Shut Up & Sing] at the time they got into trouble for comments they had made about President Bush. We inherited half of the footage and shot half. The Dixie Chicks went on to produce a concert and an album based upon their feelings about the whole experience. It was kind of present and past, so there were basically two different colors to the cards. It was not cut in chronological order, so you could see very quickly whether you were in the past or the present just by looking at the wall. There were four editors working on Shut Up & Sing and we could look at the wall, discuss, and decide if the story was working or not. If we moved this block of cards, what would be the consequences of telling the story in a different order?

[OP] Were Jimmy or Chai very hands-on as directors during the edit – in the room with you every day at the end?

[BE] Chai and Jimmy are co-directors and so Jimmy tended to be more in the field and Chai more in the edit room. Since we had worked together before, we had built a common language and a trust. I would propose ideas to Chai and try them and she would take a look. My feeling is that the director is very close to it and not able to see the dailies with fresh eyes. I have the fresh perspective. I like to take advantage of that and let them step back a little. By the end, I’m the one that’s too close to it and they have a little distance if they pace themselves properly.

[OP] To wrap it up, what advice would you have for young editors tackling a documentary project like this?

[BE] Well, don’t climb El Cap – you probably won’t make it (laugh)! I always preach this to my students: I encourage them to make an outline and work towards it. You can make index cards like I do, you can make a Word document, a spreadsheet; but try to figure out what your intentions are and how you are going to use the material. Otherwise, you are just going to get lost. You may be cutting things that are lovely, but then don’t fit into the overall structure. That’s my big encouragement.

Sometimes with vérité projects there’s a written synopsis, but for Free Solo there was nothing on paper at the beginning. They went in with one idea and came out with a different film. You have to figure out what the story is and that’s all part of the editing process. This goes back to the Maysles’ approach. Go out and capture what happened and then figure out the story. The meaning is found in the cutting room.

Images courtesy of National Geographic and Bob Eisenhardt.

©2019 Oliver Peters