Five Came Back

We know them today as the iconic Hollywood directors who brought us such classic films as Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, The African Queen, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – just to name a few. John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra and George Stevens also served their country on the ground in World War II, bringing its horrors and truth to the American people through film. In Netflix’s new three-part documentary series, based on Mark Harris’ best-selling book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, contemporary filmmakers explore the extraordinary story of how Hollywood changed World War II – and how World War II changed Hollywood, through the interwoven experiences of these five legendary filmmakers.

This documentary series features interviews with Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Greengrass and Lawrence Kasdan, who add their own perspectives on these efforts. “Film was an intoxicant from the early days of the silent movies,” says Spielberg in the opening moments of Five Came Back. “And early on, Hollywood realized that it had a tremendous tool or weapon for change, through cinema.” Adds Coppola, “Cinema in its purest form could be put in the service of propaganda. Hitler and his minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels understood the power of the cinema to move large populations toward your way of thinking.”

Five Came Back is directed by Laurent Bouzereau, written by Mark Harris and narrated by Meryl Streep. Bouzereau and his team gathered over 100 hours of archival and newsreel footage; watched over 40 documentaries and training films directed and produced by the five directors during the war; and studied 50 studio films and over 30 hours of outtakes and raw footage from their war films to bring this story to Netflix audiences. Says director Laurent Bouzereau, “These filmmakers, at that time, had a responsibility in that what they were putting into the world would be taken as truth. You can see a lot of echoes in what is happening today. It became clear as we were doing this series that the past was re-emerging in some ways, including the line we see that separates cinema that exists for entertainment and cinema that carries a message. And politics is more than ever a part of entertainment. I find it courageous of filmmakers then, as with artists today, to speak up for those who don’t have a platform.”

An editor’s medium

As every filmmaker knows, documentaries are truly an editor’s medium. Key to telling this story was Will Znidaric, the series editor. Znidaric spent the first sixteen years of his career as a commercial editor in New York City before heading to Los Angeles, in a move to become more involved in narrative projects and hone his craft. This move led to a chance to cut the documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. Production and post for that film was handled by LA’s Rock Paper Scissors Entertainment, a division of the Rock Paper Scissors post facility. RPS is co-owned by Oscar-winning editor, Angus Wall (The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Wall, along with Jason Sterman and Linda Carlson, was an executive producer on Winter of Fire for RPS. The connection was a positive experience, so when RPS got involved with Five Came Back, Wall tapped Znidaric as its editor. Much of the same post team worked on both of these documentaries.

I recently interviewed Will Znidaric about his experience editing Five Came Back. “I enjoyed working with Angus,” he explains. “We edited and finished at Rock Paper Scissors over a fifteen month period. They are structured to encourage creativity, which was great for me as a documentary editor. Narratively, this story has five main characters who are on five individual journeys. The canvas is civilization’s greatest conflict. You have to be clear about the war in order to explain their context. You have to be able to find the connections to weave a tapestry between all of these elements. This came together thanks to the flow and trust that was there with Laurent [Bouzereau, director]. The unsung hero is Adele Sparks, our archival producer, who had to find the footage and clear the rights. We were able to generally get rights to acquire the great majority of the footage on our wish list.”

Editing is paleontology

Znidaric continues, “In a documentary like this, editing is a lot like paleontology – you have to find the old bones and reconstruct something that’s alive. There was a lot of searching through newsreels of the day, which was interesting thematically. We all look at the past through the lens of history, but how was the average American processing the events of that world during that time? Of course, those events were unfolding in real time for them. It really makes you think about today’s films and how world events have an impact on them. We had about 100 hours of archival footage, plus studio films and interviews. For eight to nine months we had our storyboard wall with note cards for each of the films. As more footage came in, you could chart the growth through the cards.”

Five Came Back was constructed using three organizing principles: 1) the directors’ films before the war, 2) their documentaries during the war, and 3) their films after the war. According to Znidaric, “We wanted to see how the war affected their work after the war. The book was our guide for causality and order, so I was able to build the structure of the documentary before the contemporary directors were interviewed. I was able to do so with the initial interview with the author, Mark Harris. This way we were able to script an outline to follow. Interview footage of our actual subjects from a few decades ago were also key elements used to tell the story. In recording the modern directors, we wanted to give them space – they are masters – we just needed to make sure we got certain story beats. Their point of view is unique in the sense that they are providing their perspective on their heroes. At the beginning, we have one modern director talking about one of our subject directors. Then that opens up over the three hours, as each talks a little bit about all of these filmmakers.”

From Moviola to Premiere Pro

This was the first film that Znidaric had edited using Adobe Premiere Pro. He says, “During film school, I got to cut 16mm on the Moviola, but throughout my time in New York, I worked on [Avid] Media Composer and then later [Apple] Final Cut Pro 7. When Final Cut Pro X came out, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it, so it was time to shift over to Premiere Pro. I’m completely sold on it. It was a dream to work with on this project. At Rock Paper Scissors, my associate editor James Long and I were set up in two suites. We had duplicate drives of media – not a SAN, which was just given to how the suites were wired. It worked out well for us, but forced us to be extremely diligent with how our media was organized and maintaining that throughout.” The suites were configured with 6-core 2013 Mac Pros, AJA IoXT boxes and Mackie Big Knob mixers for playback.

“All of the media was first transcoded to ProRes, which I believe is one of the reasons that the systems were rock solid during that whole time. There’s an exemplary engineering department at RPS, and they have a direct line to Adobe, so if there were any issues, they became the go-betweens. That way I could stay focused on the creative and not get bogged down with technical issues. Plus, James [Long] would generally handle issues of a technical nature. All told, it was very minimal. The project ran quite smoothly.” To stay on the safe side, the team did not update their versions of Premiere Pro during this time frame, opting to stick with Premiere Pro CC2015 for the duration. Because of the percentage of archival footage, Five Came Back was finished as HD and not in 4K, as are a number of other Netflix shows.

To handle Premiere Pro projects over the course of fifteen months, Znidaric and Long would transfer copies of the project files on a daily basis between the rooms. Znidaric continues, “There were sequences for individual ‘mini-stories’ inside the film. I would build these and then combine the stories. As the post progressed, we would delete some of the older sequences from the project files in order to keep them lean. Essentially we had a separate Premiere Pro project file for each day, therefore, at any time we could go back to an earlier project file to access an older sequence, if needed. We didn’t do much with the other Creative Cloud tools, since we had Elastic handling the graphics work. I would slug in raw stills or placeholder cards for maps and title cards. That way, again, I could stay focused on weaving the complex narrative tapestry.”

Elastic developed the main title and a stylistic look for the series while a52 handled color correction and finishing. Elastic and a52 are part of the Rock Paper Scissors group. Znidaric explains, “We had a lot of discussions about how to handle photos, stills, flyers, maps, dates and documents. The reality of filming under the stress of wartime and combat creates artifacts like scratches, film burn-outs and so on. These became part of our visual language. The objective was to create new graphics that would be true to the look and style of the archival footage.” The audio mix when out-of-house to Monkeyland, a Los Angeles audio post and mixing shop.

Five Came Back appealed to the film student side of the editor. Znidaric wrapped up our conversation with these thoughts. “The thrill is that you are learning as you go through the details. It’s mind-blowing and the series could easily have been ten hours long. We are trying to replicate a sense of discovery without the hindsight of today’s perspective. This was fun because it was like a graduate level film school. Most folks have seen some of the better known films, but many of these films aren’t as recognized these days. Going through them is a form of ‘cinematic forensics’. You find connections tied to the wartime experience that might not otherwise be as obvious. This is great for a film geek like me. Hopefully many viewers will rediscover some of these films by seeing this documentary series.”

The first episode of Five Came Back aired on Netflix on March 31. In conjunction with the launch of Five Came Back, Netflix will also present thirteen documentaries discussed in the series, including Ford’s The Battle of Midway, Wyler’s The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, Huston’s Report from the Aleutians, Capra’s The Battle of Russia, Stevens’ Nazi Concentration Camps, and Stuart Heisler’s The Negro Soldier.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

A quarter-century for Premiere Pro

I don’t normally plug a manufacturer’s promotional marketing events, but this one seems especially noteworthy. At the end of last year, Adobe Premiere Pro hit its 25th anniversary. It launched in November 1991 as simply Premiere and has gone through numerous iterations – from Premiere to Premiere Pro, CS and now CC. Premiere Pro in all of its versions has always been a popular piece of software by the number of units in the field. However, it’s only been in recent years that this NLE has attracted the attention and respect of top tier editors. And along with that, a legion of editors who now consider it their “go to” editing application. So, this event seems too good not to pass along.

To commemorate this quarter-century milestone, Adobe is kicking off Premiere Pro’s 25th Anniversary today. Adobe is celebrating through a special contest with the help of Imagine Dragons. The Grammy-winning band has teamed up with Adobe to give fans and aspiring producers the chance to co-create a music video. In an industry first, Imagine Dragons is offering total access to the raw footage shot from their music video of Believer, which was posted on YouTube March 7. At this writing, it’s already garnered over seven million views.

Integrating these video clips, fans can cut their own version using Premiere Pro (and Creative Cloud) to enter Adobe’s Make the Cut contest. Entries will be judged by a panel of industry pros, including Angus Wall (Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Kirk Baxter (The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonThe Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl), Bill Fox (Straight Outta Compton, Hustle & FlowBand of Brothers), Matt Eastin (director for Believer), Vinnie Hobbs, an award-winning music video editor who has worked with Kendrick Lamar and Britney Spears, Imagine Dragons and Ann Lewnes (Adobe CMO).

The winner of the contest will claim a Grand Prize of $25,000. Adobe will also award bonus prizes of $1,000 each and a year-long Creative Cloud subscription in four special categories:

Fan Favorite: The most liked video by fans on the Adobe Creative Cloud Channel on YouTube.

Most Unexpected: No specific criteria, but knock their socks off.

Best Young Creator: The best up and coming editor under 25 years old.

Best Short Form: The most impressive video that’s 30-60 seconds long.

Finally, one special bonus prize of $2,500, a year-long subscription to Creative Cloud, and 25 Adobe Stock credits, will go to the cut with the best use of supplied Adobe Stock clips.

If you’re up for the challenge, head over to Adobe’s Make the Cut contest website for more details and to enter.

From the site: “Download exclusive, uncut music video footage and work with Adobe Premiere Pro CC to create your own edit of the video for their new hit song Believer. You’ll have 25 days to make your cut and show the world your editing chops—deadline is April 8th.” Good luck!

©2017 Oliver Peters

Voyage of Time

df0617_vot_3_smFans of director Terrence Malick adore his unique approach to filmmaking, which is often defined by timeless and painterly cinematic compositions. The good news for moviegoers is that Malick has been in the most prolific period of his directing career. What could be the penultimate in cinema as poetry is Malick’s recent documentary, Voyage of Time. This is no less than a chronicle of the history of the universe as seen through Malick’s eyes. Even more intriguing is the fact that the film is being released in two versions – a 90 minute feature (Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey), narrated by Cate Blanchett, as well as a 45 minute IMAX version (Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience), narrated by Brad Pitt.

This period of Malick’s increased output has not only been good for fans, but also for Keith Fraase, co-editor of Voyage of Time. Fraase joined Malick’s filmmaking team during the post of The Tree of Life. Although he had been an experienced editor cutting commercials and shorts, working with Malick was his first time working on a full-length feature. Keith Fraase and I recently discussed what it took to bring Voyage of Time to the screen.

Eight years in the making

“I began working with Terry back in 2008 on The Tree of Life,” Fraase says. “Originally, Voyage of Time had been conceived as a companion piece to The Tree of Life, to be released simultaneously. But plans changed and the release of Voyage was delayed. Some of the ideas and thematic elements that were discussed for Voyage ended up as the ‘creation sequence’ in Tree, but reworked to fit the tone and style of that film. Over the years, Voyage became something that Terry and I would edit in between post on his other narrative films. It was our passion project.”

df0617_vot_1Malick’s cutting rooms are equipped with Avid Media Composer systems connected to Avid shared storage. Typically his films are edited by multiple editors. (Voyage of Time was co-edited by Fraase and Rehman Nizar Ali.) Not only editors, but also researchers, needed access to the footage, so at times, there were as many as eight Media Composer systems used in post. Fraase explains, “There is almost always more than one editor on Terry’s films. At the start of post, we’d divvy up the film by section and work on it until achieving a rough assembly. Then, once the film was assembled in full, each editor would usually trade-off sections or scenes, in the hope to achieve some new perspective on the cut. It was always about focusing on experimentation or discovering different approaches to the edit. With Voyage, there was so much footage to work with, some of which Terry had filmed back in the 70s. This was a project he’d had in his mind for decades. In preparation, he traveled all over the world and had amassed years of research on natural phenomena and the locations where he could film them. During filming, the crew would go to locations with particular goals in mind, like capturing mud pots in Iceland or cuttlefish in Palau. But Terry was always on the lookout for the unexpected. Due to this, much of the footage that ended up in the final films was unplanned.”

df0617_vot_2Cutting Voyage of Time presented an interesting way to tackle narration. Fraase continues, “For Voyage, there were hours and hours of footage to cut with, but we also did a lot of experiments with sound. Originally, there was a 45 page script written for the IMAX version, which was expanded for the full feature. However, this script was more about feelings and tone than outlining specific beats or scenes. It was more poetry than prose, much of which was later repurposed and recorded as voiceover. Terry has a very specific way of working with voiceover. The actors record pages and pages of it. All beautifully written. But we never know what is going to work until it’s recorded, brought into the Avid, and put up against picture. Typically, we’ll edit together sequences of voiceover independent of any footage. Then we move these sequences up and down the timeline until we find a combination of image and voiceover that produces meaning greater than the sum of the parts. Terry’s most interested in the unexpected, the unplanned.”

The art of picture and sound composition

Naturally, when moviegoers think of a Terrence Malick film, imagery comes to mind. Multiple visual effects houses worked on Voyage of Time, under the supervision of Dan Glass (Jupiter Ascending, Cloud Atlas, The Master). Different artists worked on different sections of the film. Fraase explains, “Throughout post production, we sought the guidance from scientific specialists whenever we could. They would help us define certain thematic elements that we knew we wanted – into specific, illustratable moments. We’d then bring these ideas to the different VFX shops to expand on them. They mocked up the various ‘previz’ shots that we’d test in our edit – many of which were abandoned along the way. We had to drop so many wonderful images and moments after they’d been painstakingly created, because it was impossible to know what would work best until placed in the edit.”

df0617_vot_4“For VFX, Terry wanted to rely on practical film elements as much as possible. Even the shots that were largely CGI had to have some foundation in the real. We had an ongoing series of what we called ’skunkworks shoots’ during the weekends, where the crew would film experiments with elements like smoke, flares, dyes in water and so on. These were all layered into more complex visual effects shots.” Although principal photography was on film, the finished product went through a DI (digital intermediate) finishing process. IMAX visual effects elements were scanned at 11K resolution and the regular live action footage at 8K resolution.

df0617_vot_5The music score for Voyage of Time was also a subject of much experimentation. Fraase continues, “Terry has an extensive classical music library, which was all loaded into the Avid, so that we could test a variety of pieces against the edit. This started with some obvious choices like [Gustav] Holst’s ‘The Planets’ and [Joseph] Haydn’s ‘The Creation’ for a temp score. But we tried others, like a Keith Jarrett piano piece. Then one of our composers [Hanan Townshend, To The Wonder, Knight of Cups] experimented further by taking some of the classical pieces we’d been using and slowing them way, way down. The sound of stringed instruments being slowed results in an almost drone-like texture. For some of the original compositions, Terry was most interested in melodies and chords that never resolve completely. The idea being that, by never resolving, the music was mimicking creation – constantly struggling and striving for completion. Ultimately a collection of all these techniques was used in the final mix. The idea was that this eclectic approach would provide for a soundtrack that was always changing.”

Voyage of Time is a visual symphony, which is best enjoyed if you sit back and just take it in. Keith Fraase offers this, “Terry has a deep knowledge of art and science and he wanted everyone involved in the project to be fascinated and love it as much as he. This is Terry’s ode to the earth.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

Final Cut Pro X – Reflecting on Six Years

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Some personal musings…

Apple’s Final Cut Pro X has passed its five-year mark – and by now nearly most of its sixth. Although it’s getting increasing respect from many corners of the professional editing community, there are still many that dismiss it, due to its deviation from standard editing software conventions. Like so many other things that are Apple, FCPX tends to be polarizing with a large cohort of both fanboys and haters.

For me software is a tool. I’ve been editing since the 70s and have used about 15 different linear and nonlinear systems on billable work during that time. More like 20 if you toss in color correction applications. Even more with tools where I’ve had a cursory exposure to (such as in product reviews), but haven’t used on real jobs. All of these tools are a love-hate relationship for me. I have to laugh when folks talk about FCPX bringing back fun to their editing experience. I hope that the projects I work on bring me fun. I don’t really care about the software itself. Software should just get out of the way and let me do my job.

These six years have been a bit of a personal journey with Final Cut Pro X after a number of years with the “classic” version. I’ve been using FCPX since it first came out on commercials, corporate videos, shorts and even an independent feature film. It’s not my primary NLE most of the time, because my clients have largely moved to Adobe Premiere Pro CC and ask me to be compatible with them. My FCPX work tends to be mixed in and around my Premiere Pro editing gigs. For instance, right now I’m simultaneously involved in two large corporate video jobs – one of which I’m cutting in Premiere Pro and the other in Final Cut Pro X. As these things go, it can be frustrating, because you always want some function, tool or effect that’s available in Application A while you’re working in Application B. However, it also provides a perspective on what’s good and bad about each and where real speed advantages exist.

I have to say that even after six years, Final Cut Pro X is still more of a crapshoot than any other editing tool that I’ve used. I love its organizing power and often start a job really liking it. However, the deeper I get into the job – and the larger the library becomes – and the more complex the sequences become – the more bogged down FCPX becomes. It’s also the most inconsistent across various Mac models. I’ve run it on older towers, new MacBook Pros, iMacs and 2013 Mac Pros. Of these experiences, the laptops seem to be the most optimized for FCPX.

Quite frankly, working with the “trash can” Mac Pros, at times I wonder if Apple has lost its mojo. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a sweet machine, but its horsepower leaves me underwhelmed. Given the right upgrades, a 2010 Mac Pro tower is still quite competitive against it. Couple that with intermittent corrupt renders and exports on Adobe applications – due to the D-series AMD GPUs – one really has to question Apple’s design compromises. On the other hand, working with recent and new MacBook Pros, it seems pretty obvious that this is where Apple’s focus has been. And in fact, that’s where Final Cut really shines. Run a complex project on a MacBook Pro versus an older tower and it’s truly a night-and-day experience. By comparison, the performance with Adobe and Avid on the same range of machines results in a much more graduated performance curve. Best might not be quite as good, but worst isn’t nearly as awful.

A lot is made of new versus old code in these competing applications. The running argument is that FCPX uses a sleek, new codebase, whereas Premiere Pro and Media Composer run on creaky old software. Yet Final Cut has been out publicly for six years, which means development started a few years before that. Hmmm, no longer quite so new. Yet, if you look at the recent changes from 10.2 to 10.3, it seems pretty clear that a lot more was changed than just cosmetics. The truth of the matter is that all three of these major applications are written in a way that modules of software can be added, removed or changed, without the need to start from scratch. Therefore, from a coding standpoint, Final Cut doesn’t have nearly the type of advantages that many think it has.

The big advantage that FCPX does have, is that Apple can optimize its performance for the holistic hardware and macOS software architecture of their own machines. As such, performance, render speeds, etc. aren’t strictly tied to only the CPU or the GPU. It’s what enables the new MacBook Pro to offer top-end performance, while still staying locked to 16GB of RAM. It seems to me, that this is also why the Core-series processors appear to be better performers than are the Xeon-series chips, when it comes to Final Cut, Motion and Compressor.

If you compare this to Premiere Pro, Adobe hits the GPUs much harder than does Apple, which is the reason behind the occasional corruptions on the “trash can” Macs with Adobe renders. If you were running the Adobe suite on a top-level PC with high-end Nvidia cards, performance would definitely shine over that of the Macs. This is largely due to leveraging the CUDA architecture of these Nvidia GPUs. With Apple’s shift to using only AMD and Intel GPUs, CUDA acceleration isn’t available on newer Macs. Under the current software versions of Adobe CC (at the time of this writing) and Sierra, you are tied to OpenCL or software-only rendering and cannot even use Apple’s Metal acceleration. This is a driver issue still being sorted out between Apple and Adobe. Metal is something that Apple tools take advantage of and is a way that they leverage the combined hardware power, without focusing solely on CPU or GPU acceleration.

All of this leads me back to a position of love-hate with any of these tools. I suspect that my attitude is more common than most folks who frequent Internet forum debates want to admit. The fanboy backlash is generally large. When I look at how I work and what gets the results, I usually prefer track-based systems to the FCPX approach. I tend to like Final Cut as a good rough-cut editing application, but less as a fine-cut tool. Maybe that’s just me. That being said, I’ve had plenty of experiences where FCPX quite simply is the better tool under the circumstance. On a recent on-site edit gig at CES, I had to cut some 4K ARRI ALEXA material on my two-year-old Retina MacBook Pro. Premiere Pro couldn’t hack it without stuttering playback, while FCPX was buttery smooth. Thus FCPX was the axe for me throughout this gig.

Likewise, in the PC vs. Mac hardware debates,  I may criticize some of Apple’s moves and long to work on a fire-breathing platform. But if push came to shove and I had to buy a new machine today, it would be either a Mac Pro “trash can” or a tricked-out iMac. I don’t do heavy 3D renders or elaborate visual effects – I edit and color correct. Therefore, the overall workflow, performance and “feel” of the Apple ecosystem is a better fit for me, even though at times performance might be middling.

Wrapping up this rambling post – it’s all about personal preference. I applaud Apple for making the changes in Final Cut Pro X that they did; however, a lot of things are still in need of improvement. Hopefully these will get addressed soon. If you are looking to use FCPX professionally, then my suggestion is to stick with only the newest machines and keep your productions small and light. Keep effects and filters to a minimum and you’ll be happiest with the results and the performance. Given the journey thus far, let’s see what the next six years will bring.

©2017 Oliver Peters

Nocturnal Animals

nocanim_01_smSome feature films are entertaining popcorn flicks, while others challenge the audience to go deeper. Writer/director Tom Ford’s (A Single Man) second film, Nocturnal Animals definitely fits into the latter group. Right from the start, the audience is confronted with a startling and memorable main title sequence, which we soon learn is actually part of an avant garde art gallery opening. From there the audience never quite knows what’s around the next corner.

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a privileged Los Angeles art gallery owner who seems to have it all, but whose life is completely unfulfilled. One night she receives an unsolicited manuscript from Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), her ex-husband with whom she’s been out of touch for years. With her current husband (Armie Hammer) away on business, she settles in for the night to read the novel. She is surprised to discover it is dedicated to her. The story being told by Edward is devastating and violent, and it triggers something in Susan that arouses memories of her past love with the author.

Nocturnal Animals keeps the audience on edge and is told through three parallel storylines – Susan’s current reality, flashbacks of her past with Edward, and the events that are unfolding in the novel. Managing this delicate balancing act fell to Joan Sobel, ACE, the film’s editor. In her film career, Sobel has worked with such illustrious directors as Quentin Tarantino, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Thomas Anderson and Paul Weitz.  She was Sally Menke’s First Assistant Editor for six-and-a-half years on four films, including Kill Bill, vol. 1 and Kill Bill, vol. 2.  Sobel also edited the Oscar-winning short dark comedy, The Accountant.  This is her second feature with Tom Ford at the helm.

Theme and structure

In our recent conversation, Joan Sobel discussed Nocturnal Animals. She says, “At its core, this film is about love and revenge and regret, with art right in the middle of it all. It’s about people we have loved and then carelessly discarded, about the cruelties that we inflict upon each other, often out of fear or ambition or our own selfishness.  It is also about art and the stuff of dreams.  Susan has criticized Edward’s ambition as a writer. Edward gets Susan to feel again through his art – through that very same writing that Susan has criticized in the past. But art is also Edward’s vehicle for revenge – revenge for the hurt that Susan has caused him during their past relationship. The film uses a three-pronged story structure, which was largely as Tom scripted. The key was to find a fluid and creative way to transition from one storyline to the other, to link those moments emotionally or visually or both. Sometimes that transition was triggered by a movement, but other times just a look, a sound, a color or an actor’s nuanced glance.”

nocanim_02Nocturnal Animals was filmed (yes, on film not digital) over 31 days in California, with the Mojave Desert standing in for west Texas. Sobel was cutting while the film was being shot and turned in her editor’s cut about a week after the production wrapped. She explains, “Tom likes to work without a large editorial infrastructure, so it was just the two of us working towards a locked cut. I finished my cut in December and then we relocated to London for the rest of post. I always put together a very polished first cut, so that there is already an established rhythm and a flow.  That way the director has a solid place to begin the journey. Though the movie was complex with its three-pronged structure – along with the challenge of bringing to life the inner monologue that is playing in Susan’s head – the movie came together rather quickly. Tom’s script was so well written and the performances so wonderful that by the end of March we pretty much had a locked cut.”

The actors provided fruitful ground for the editor.  Sobel continues, “It was a joy to edit Amy Adams’ performance. She’s a great actress, but when you actually edit her dailies, you get to see what she brings to the movie. Her performance is reliant less on dialogue (she actually doesn’t have many lines), instead emphasizing Amy’s brilliance as a film actor in conveying emotion through her mind and through her face and her eyes.”

“Tom is a staggering talent, and working with him is a total joy.  He’s fearless and his creativity is boundless.  He is also incredibly generous and very, very funny (we laugh a lot!), and we share an endless passion for movies.  Though the movie is always his vision, his writing, he gravitates towards collaboration. So we would get quite experimental in the cut. The trust and charm and sharp, clear intelligence that he brings into the cutting room resulted in a movie that literally blossoms with creativity. Editing Nocturnal Animals was a totally thrilling experience.”

Tools of the trade

nocanim_03Sobel edited Nocturnal Animals with Avid Media Composer. Although she’s used other editing applications, Media Composer is her tool of choice. I asked about how she approaches each new film project. She explains, “The first thing I do is read the script. Then I’ll read it again, but this time out loud. The rhythms of the script become more lucid that way and I can conceptualize the visuals. When I get dailies for a scene, I start by watching everything and taking copious notes about every nuance in an actor’s performance that triggers an emotion in me, that excites me, that moves me, that shows me exactly where this scene is going.  Those moments can be the slightest look, a gesture, a line reading.”

“I like to edit very organically based on the footage. I know some editors use scene cards on a wall or they rely on Avid’s Script Integration tools, but none of those approaches are for me. Editing is like painting – it’s intuitive. My assistants organize bins for themselves in dailies order. Then they organize my bins in scene/script order. I do not make selects sequences or ‘KEM rolls’. I simply set up the bins in frame view and then rearrange the order of clips according to the flow – wide to tight and so on. As I edit, I’m concentrating on performance and balance. One little trick I use is to turn off the sound and watch the edit to see what is rhythmically and emotionally working. Often, as I’m cutting the scene, I find myself actually laughing with the actor or crying or gasping! Though this is pretty embarrassing if someone happens to walk into my cutting room, I know that if I’m not feeling it, then the audience won’t either.”

Music and sound are integral for many editors, especially Sobel. She comments, “I love to put temp music into my editor’s cuts. That’s a double-edged sword, though, because the music may or may not be to the taste of the director. Though Tom and I are usually in sync when it comes to music, Tom doesn’t like to start off with temp music in the initial cut, so I didn’t add it on this film. Once Tom and I started working together, we played with music to see what worked. This movie is one that we actually used very little music in and when we did, added it quite sparingly. Mostly the temp music we used was music from some of Abel’s [Korzeniowski, composer] other film scores. I also always add layers of sound effects to my tracks to take the movie and the storytelling to a further level. I use sound to pull your attention, to define a character, or a mood, or elevate a mystery.”

Unlike many films, Nocturnal Animals flew through the post process without any official test screenings. Its first real screening was at the Venice Film Festival where it won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize. “Tom has the unique ability to both excite those working with him and to effortlessly convey his vision, and he had total confidence in the film. The film is rich with many layers and is the rare film that can reveal itself through subsequent viewings, hopefully providing the audience with that unique experience of being completely immersed in a novel, as our heroine becomes immersed in Nocturnal Animals,” Sobel says. The film opened in the US during November and is a Focus Features release.

Check out more with Joan Sobel at “Art of the Cut”.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network.

©2017 Oliver Peters

La La Land

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La La Land is a common euphemism for Los Angeles and Hollywood, but it’s also writer/director Damien Chazelle’s newest film. Chazelle originally shopped La La Land around without much success and so moved on to another film project, Whiplash. Five Oscar nominations with three wins went a long way to break the ice and secure funding for La La Land. The new film tells the story of two struggling artists – Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician. La La Land was conceived as a musical set in modern day Los Angeles. It harkens back to the MGM musicals of the 50s and 60s, as well as French musicals, including Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

One of the Whiplash Oscars went to Tom Cross for Best Achievement in Film Editing. After working as one of David O. Russell’s four editors on Joy, Cross returned to cut La La Land with Chazelle. Tom Cross and I discussed how this film came together. “As we were completing Whiplash, Damien was talking about his next film,” he says. “He sent me a script and a list of reference movies and I was all in. La La Land is Damien’s love letter to old Hollywood. He knew that doing a musical was risky, because it would require large scale collaboration of all the film crafts. He loves the editing process and felt that the cutting would be the technical bridge that would hold it all together. He wanted to tell his story with the language of dreams, which to Damien is the film language of old Hollywood cinema. That meant that he wanted to use iris transitions, layered montages and other old optical techniques. The challenge was to use these retro styles, but still have a story that feels contemporary and grounded in realism.”

Playing with tone and time

La La Land was shot in approximately forty days, but editing the film took nearly a year. Cross explains, “Damien is great at planning and is very clear in what he shoots and his intentions. In the cutting room, we spent a lot of time calibrating the movie – playing with tone and time. Damien wanted to start our story with both characters together on the freeway, then branch off and show Mia going through her day. We take her to a specific plot intersection and then flashback in time to Sebastian on the freeway. Then we move through his day, until we are back at the intersection where our two stories collide. Much like the seasons that our movie cycles through – Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall – we end up returning to this specific intersection later in the film, but with a different outcome. Damien wanted to set up certain timelines and patterns that the audience would follow, so that we could ricochet off of them later.”

df0117_lalaland_02As a musical, Tom Cross had to vary his editorial style for different scenes. He continues, “For Sebastian and Mia’s musical courtship, Damien wanted the scenes to be slower and romantic with a lot of camera moves. In Griffith Park, it’s a long unbroken take with rounded edges. On the other hand, the big concert with John Legend is cutty, with sharp edges. It’s fragmented and the opposite of romantic. Likewise, when they are full-on in love and running around LA, the cutting is at a fever pitch. It’s lively and sweeps you off your feet. Damien wanted to be careful to match the editing style to the emotion of each scene. He knew that one style would accentuate the other.”

La La Land was shot in the unusual, extra-wide aspect ratio of 2.55:1 to replicate cinemascope from the 1950s. “This makes ordinary locations look extraordinary,” Cross says. “Damien would vary the composition from classic wides to very fragmented framing and big close-ups. When Sebastian and Mia are dancing, there’s head-to-toe framing like you would have in a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film. During their dinner break up scene, the shots of their faces get tighter – almost claustrophobic – to be purposefully uncomfortable and unflinching. Damien wanted the cutting to be stripped down and austere – the opposite of what’s come before. He told me to play the scene in their medium shots until I punched into their close angles. And once we’re close, we have to stay there.”

Tricks and tools

The Avid Media Composer-equipped cutting rooms were hosted by Electric Picture Solutions in North Hollywood. Tom Cross used plenty of Media Composer features to cut La La Land. He explains, “For the standard dialogue scenes we used Avid’s Script Sync feature. This was very handy for Damien, because he likes to go over every line with a fine tooth comb. The musical numbers were cut using multi-cam groups. For scenes with prerecorded music, multiple takes could be synced and grouped as if they were different camera angles. I had my assistant set up what I call ‘supergroups’. For instance, all the singers might be grouped into one clip. The instruments might be in another group. Then I could stack the different groups onto multiple video tracks, making it easy to cut between groups, as well as angles within the groups.”

In addition to modern cutting techniques, Cross also relies on lo-fi tools, like scene cards on a wall. Cross says, “Damien was there the whole time and he loves to see every part of the process. He has a great editor’s mind – very open to editorial cheats to solve problems, such as invisible split screen effects and speed adjustments. Damien wanted us to be very meticulous about lip sync during the musical scenes because he felt that anything less than perfect would take you out of the moment. His feeling was that the audience scrutinizes the sync of the singing in a musical more than spoken dialogue in a normal film. So we spent a lot of time cutting and manipulating the vocal track – in order to get it right. Sometimes, I would speed-ramp the picture to match the singing. Damien was also very particular about downbeats and how they hit the picture. I learned that while working with him on Whiplash. It has to be precise. Justin Hurwitz, our composer, provided a mockup score to cut with, and that was eventually replaced by the final music recorded with a 95-piece orchestra. Of course, when you have living, breathing musicians, notes line up differently from the mockup track. Therefore, we had many cuts that needed to be shifted in order to maintain the sync that Damien wanted. During our final days of the sound mix, we were rolling cuts one or two frames in either direction on the dub stage at Fox.”

Editors and directors each have different ways to approach the start of the cutting process. Cross explains, “I edited while they were shooting and had a cut by the time the production wrapped. It’s a great way for the editor to learn the footage and make sure the production is protected. However, Damien didn’t want to see the first cut, but preferred to have it on hand if we needed it. I think first cuts are overwhelming for most directors. Damien had the idea of starting at the end first. There’s a big end scene and he decided that we should do that heavy lifting first. He said, ‘at least we’ll have an ending.’ We worked on it until we got it to a good place and then went back and started from the beginning. It re-invigorated us.”

Tom Cross wrapped with these parting thoughts. “This was a dream project for Damien and it was my dream to be able to work with him on it. It’s romantic, magical and awe-inspiring. I was very lucky to go from a film where you get beaten down on the drums – to another, where you get swept off your feet!”

For more conversations with Tom Cross, check out Art of the Cut.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

The wait is over – FCP X 10.3

df3116_fcpx1003_1_smAmidst the hoopla on Oct. 27th, when Apple introduced the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, the ProApps team also released updates to Final Cut Pro X, Motion and Compressor. This was great news for fans, since Final Cut got a prime showcase slot in the event’s main stage presentation. Despite the point numbering, the bump from 10.2 to 10.3 is a full version change, just like in macOS, where 10.11 (El Capitan) to 10.12 (Sierra) is also a new version. This makes FCP X 10.3 the fourth iteration in the FCP X line and the eleventh under the Final Cut Pro brand. I’m a bit surprised that Apple didn’t drop the “X” from the name, though, seeing as it’s done that with macOS itself. And speaking of operating systems, this release requires 10.11.4 (El Capitan) or higher (Sierra).

If you already purchased the application in the past, then this update will be a free upgrade for you. There are numerous enhancements, but three features stand out among the changes: the new interface, the expanded use of roles for mixing, and support for a wider color gamut.

A new look for the user interface

The new user interface is darker and flatter. Although for my taste, it’s a bit too dark without any brightness sliders to customize the appearance. The dimensional style is gone, putting Final Cut Pro X in line with the aesthetics of iMovie and other Apple applications. Final Cut Pro X was already out of step with design trends at the time it was first released. Reskinning the application with this new appearance brings it in line with the rest of the design industry.

The engineers have added workspaces and rearranged where certain controls are, though generally, panels are in the same places as before. Workspaces can be customized, but not nearly to the level of Adobe’s Premiere Pro CC. The most welcomed of these changes is that the inspector pane can be toggled to full height when needed. In reality, the inspector height isn’t changed. It’s the width of the timeline that changes and toggles between covering and revealing the full inspector panel.

There are other minor changes throughout 10.3, which make it a much better application. For example, if you like to work with a source/record, 2-up viewer display, then 10.3 now allows you to play a source clip from inside the event viewer.

Magnetic Timeline 2 and the expansion of roles

df3116_fcpx1003_2Apple did a lot of work to rejigger the way the timeline works and to expand the functionality of roles. It’s even being marketed as Magnetic Timeline 2. Up until now, the use of roles in Final Cut has been optional. With 10.3, it’s become the primary way to mix and organize connected clips within the timeline. Apple has resisted adding a true mixing panel, instead substituting the concept of audio lanes.

Let’s say that you assign the roles of dialogue, music or effects to your timeline audio clips. The timeline index panel lets you organize these clips into groups according to their assigned roles, which Apple calls audio lanes. If you click “show audio lanes”, the various connected clips rearrange vertical position in the timeline window to be grouped into their corresponding lanes, based on roles. Now you have three lanes of grouped clips: dialogue, effects, music. You can change timeline focus to individual roles – such as only dialogue – which will minimize the size of all the other roles (clips) in the window. These groups or lanes can also be soloed, so you just hear dialogue without the rest, for example.

There is no submix bus to globally control or filter groups of clips, like you have in Premiere Pro or most digital audio applications. The solution in FCP X 10.3 is to select all clips of the same role and create a compound clip. (Other NLEs refer to this as “nesting”.) By doing so, all of the dialogue, effects and music clips appear on the timeline as only three compound clips – one for each role. You can then apply audio filters or adjust the overall level of that role by applying them to the compound clip.

Unfortunately, if you have to go back and make adjustments to an individual clip, you’ll have to open up the compound clip in its own timeline. When you do that, you lose the context of the other clips. For example, tweaking a sound effect clip inside its compound clip, means that you would only hear the other surrounding effect clips, without dialogue and music or seeing the video. In addition, you won’t hear the result of filters or volume changes made at the top level of that compound clip. Nevertheless, it’s not as complex as it sounds and this is a viable solution, given the design approach Apple engineers have taken.

df3116_fcpx1003_3It does surprise me that they ended up with this solution, because it’s a very modal way of operating. This would seem to be an anathema to the intent of much of the rest of FCP X’s design. One has to wonder whether or not they’ve become boxed in my their own architecture. Naturally others will counter that this process is simplified due to the lack of track patching and submix matrices.

Wide color

The industry at large is embracing color standards that enable displays to reproduce more of the color spectrum, which the human eye can see. An under-the-hood change with FCP X is the embrace of wide gamut color. I think that calling it “wide color” dumbs down the actual standards, but I guess Apple wants to keep things in plain language. In any case, the interface is pretty clear on the actual specs.

Libraries can be set up for “standard color” (Rec. 601 for SD and Rec. 709 for HD) or “wide color” (Rec. 2020). The Projects (sequences) that you create within a Library can be either, as long as the Library was initially set up for wide gamut. You can also change the setting for a Project after the fact. Newer cameras that record in raw or log color space, like RED or ARRI models, are perfectly compatible with wide color (Rec. 2020) delivery, thanks to post-production color grading techniques. That is where this change comes into play.

For the most part you won’t see much difference in normal work, unless you really crank up the saturation. If you do this in the wide color gamut mode, you can get pretty extreme and the scopes will display an acceptable signal. However, if you then switch the Project setting to standard color, the high chroma areas will change to a somewhat duller appearance in the viewer and the scopes will show signal clipping. Most current television display systems don’t display wide gamut color, yet, so it’s not something most users need to worry about today. This is Apple’s way of future-proofing Final Cut and to pass the cleanest possible signal through the system.

A few more things

df3116_fcpx1003_4Numerous other useful tools were added in this version. For example, Flow – a morphing dissolve – for use in bridging jump cuts. Unlike Avid’s or Adobe’s variations, this transition works in real-time without analysis or rendering. This is because it morphs between two still frames. Each company’s approach has a slightly different appearance, but Flow definitely looks like an effect that will get a lot of use – especially with interview-driven productions. Other timeline enhancements include the ability to easily add and toggle audio fades. There’s simplified top and tail trimming. Now you can remove attributes and you can roll (trim) between adjacent, connected clips. Finally – a biggie for shared storage users – FCP X can now work with NAS systems that use the SMB protocol.

Working with it for over a week at the time I post this, the application has been quite stable, even on a production with over 2,000 4K clips. I wouldn’t recommend upgrading if you are in the middle of a production. The upgraded Libraries I tested did exhibit some flakiness, which weren’t there in freshly created Libraries. There’s also a technique to keep both 10.2 and 10.3 active on the same computer. Definitely trash your preferences before diving in.

So far, the plug-ins and Motion templates still work, but you’ll definitely need to check whether these vendors have issued updates designed for this release. This also goes for the third-party apps, like those from Intelligent Assistance, because 10.3 adds a new version of FCPXML. Both Intelligent Assistance and Blackmagic Design issued updates (for Resolve and Desktop Video) by the next day.

There are a few user interface bugs, but no show-stoppers. For instance, the application doesn’t appear to hold its last state upon close, especially when more than one Library is open. When you open it again the next time, the wrong Library may be selected or the wrong Project loaded in the timeline. It occasionally loses focus on the pane selected. This is an old bug that was there in previous versions. You are working in the timeline and all of a sudden nothing happens, because the application “forgot” which pane it’s supposed to have focus on. Clicking command-1 seems to fix this. Lastly, the audio meters window doesn’t work properly. If you resize it to be slimmer, the next time you launch FCP X, the meters panel is large again. That’s even if you updated the workspace with this smaller width. And then sometimes they don’t display audio until you close and reopen the audio meters window.

In this round of testing, I’ve had to move around Libraries with external media to different storage volumes. This requires media relinking. While it was ultimately successful, the time needed to relink was considerably longer than doing this same task in other NLEs.

My test units are all connected to Blackmagic Design i/o hardware, which seems to retard performance a bit. With a/v output turned off within the FCP X interface, clips play right away without stuttering when I hit the spacebar. With the a/v output on, I randomly get stuttering on clips when they start to play. It’s only a minor nuisance, so I just turn it off until I need to see the image on an external monitor. I’ve been told that AJA hardware performs better with FCP X, but I haven’t had a chance to test this myself. In any case, I don’t see this issue when running the same media through Premiere Pro on the exact same computer, storage and i/o hardware.

Final Cut Pro X 10.3 will definitely please most of its fans. There’s a lot of substance and improvement to be appreciated. It also feels like it’s performing better, but I haven’t had enough time with a real project yet to fully test that. Of course, the users who probe a bit deeper will point to plenty of items that are still missing (and available in products like Premiere Pro), such as better media relinking, more versatile replace edit functions and batch exporting.

For editors who’ve only given it a cursory look in the past or were swayed by the negative social media and press over the past five years, this would be the version to re-evaluate. Every new or improved item is targeted at the professional editor. Maybe it’s changed enough to dive in. On the other hand, if you’re an editor who’s given FCP X a fair and educated assessment and just not found it to your liking or suitable for your needs, then I doubt 10.3 will temp you. Regardless, this gives fans some reassurance about Apple’s commitment to professional users of their software – at least for another five years.

If you have the time, there are plenty of great tips here at the virtual Final Cut User Group.

The new Final Cut Pro X 10.3 user manual can be found here.

Click here for additional links highlighting features in this update.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2016 Oliver Peters