You don’t have to be a rabid fan of Edgar Wright’s work to know of his films. His comedy trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) and cult classics like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World loom large in pop culture. His films have earned a life beyond most films’ brief release period and earned Wright a loyal following. The latest film from Wright is Baby Driver, a musically-fueled action film written and directed by Wright, which just made a big splash at SXSW. It stars Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Eiza Gonzalez.
At NAB, Avid brought in a number of featured speakers for its main stage presentations, as well as its Avid Connect event. One of these speakers was Paul Machliss (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The World’s End, Baby Driver), who spoke to packed audiences about the art of editing these films. I had a chance to go in-depth with Machliss about the complex process of working on Baby Driver.
From Smoke to baptism by fire
We started our conversation with a bit of the backstory of the connection between Wright and Machliss. He says, “I started editing as an online editor and progressed from tape-based systems to being one of the early London-based Smoke editors. My boss at the time passed along a project that he thought would be perfect for Smoke. That was onlining the sitcom Spaced, directed by Edgar Wright. Edgar and I got on well. Concurrent to that, I had started learning Avid. I started doing offline editing jobs for other directors and had a ball. A chance came along to do a David Beckham documentary, so I took the plunge from being a full-time online editor to taking my chances in the freelance world. On the tail end of the documentary, I got a call from Edgar, offering me the gig to be the offline editor for the second season of Spaced, because Chris Dickens (Hot Fuzz, Berberian Sound Studio, Slumdog Millionaire) wasn’t available to complete the edit. And that was really jumping into the deep end. It was fantastic to be able to work with Edgar at that level.”
Machliss continues, “Chris came back to work with Edgar on Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, so over the following years I honed my skills working on a number of British comedies and dramas. After Slumdog Millionaire came out, which Chris cut and for which he won a number of awards, including an Oscar, Chris suddenly found himself very busy, so the rest of us working with Edgar all moved up one in the queue, so to speak. The opportunity to edit Scott Pilgrim came up, so we all threw ourselves into the world of feature films, which was definitely a baptism by fire. We were very lucky to be able to work on a project of that nature during a time where the industry was in a bit of a slump due to the recession. And it’s fantastic that people still remember it and talk about it seven years on. Which brings us to Baby Driver. It’s great when a studio is willing to invest in a film that isn’t a franchise, a sequel, or a reboot.”
Music drives the film
In Baby Driver, Ansel Elgort plays “Baby”, a young kid who is the getaway driver for a gang. At a young age, he was in a car accident which leaves him with tinnitus, so it takes listening to music 24/7 to drown out the tinnitus. Machliss explains, “His whole life becomes regimented to whatever music he is listening to – different music for different moods or occasions. Somehow everything falls magically into sync with whatever he is listening to – when he’s driving, swerving to avoid a car, making a turn – it all seems to happen on the beat. Music drives every single scene. Edgar deliberately chose commercial top-20 tracks from the 1960s up to today. Each song Baby listens to also slyly comments on whatever is happening at the time in the story. Everything is seemingly choreographed to musical rhythms. You’re not looking at a musical, but everything is musically driven.”
Naturally, building a film to popular music brings up a whole host of production issues. Machliss tells how this film had been in the planning for years, “Edgar had chosen these tracks years ago. I believe it was in 2011 that Edgar and I tried to sequence the tracks and intersperse them with sound effects. A couple of months later, he did a table read in LA and sent me the sound files. In the Avid, I combined the sound files, songs, and some sound effects to create effectively a 100-minute radio play, which was, in fact, the film in audio form. The big thing is that we had to clear every song before we could start filming. Eventually we cleared 30-odd songs for the film. In addition, Edgar worked with his stunt team and editor Evan Schiff in LA to create storyboards and animatics for all of the action scenes.”
Editor on the front lines
Unlike most films, a significant amount of the editing took place on-set with Machliss working from a portable set-up. He says, “Based on our experiences with Scott Pilgrim and World’s End, Edgar decided it would be best to have me on-set during most of the Atlanta shoot for Baby Driver. Even though a cutting room was available, I was in there maybe ten percent of the time. The rest of the time I was on set. I had a trolley with a laptop, monitor, an Avid Mojo, and some hard drives and I would connect myself via ethernet to the video assist’s hard drive. Effectively I was crew in the front lines with everyone else. Making sure the edit worked was as important as getting a good take in the can. If I assured Edgar that a take would work, then he knew it wasn’t going to come back and cause problems for us six months later. We wanted things to work naturally in camera without a lot of fiddling in post. We didn’t want to have to fall back on frame-cutting and vari-speeding if we didn’t have to. There was a lot of prep work in making sure actions correctly coincided with certain lyrics without the action seeming mechanical.”
The nature of the production added to the complexity of the production audio configuration, too. Machliss explains, “Sound-wise, it was very complicated. We had playback going to earwigs in the actors’ ears, Edgar wanted to hear music plus the dialogue in his cans, and then I needed to get a split feed of the audio, since I already had the clean music on my timeline. We shot this mostly on 35mm film. Some days were A-camera only, but usually two cameras running. It was a combination of Panavision, Arricams, and occasionally Arri Alexas. Sometimes there were some stunt shots, which required nine or ten cameras running. Since the action all happened against playback of a track, this allowed me to use Avid’s multicam tools to quickly group shots together. Avid’s AMA tools have really come of age, so I was able to work without needing to ingest anything. I could treat the video assist’s hard drive as my source media, as long as I had the ethernet connection to it. If we were between set-ups, I could get Avid to background-transcode the media, so I’d have my own copy.”
Did all of this on-set editing speed up the rest of the post process? He continues, “All of the on-set editing helped a great deal, because we went into the real post-production phase knowing that all the sequences basically worked. During that time, as I’d fill up a LaCie Rugged drive, I would send that back to the suites. My assistant, Jerry Ramsbottom, would then patiently overcut my edits from the video assist with the actual scanned telecine footage as it came in. We shot from mid-February until mid-May and then returned to England. Jonathan Amos came on board a few weeks into the director’s cut edit and worked on the film with Edgar and myself up until the director’s cut picture lock. He did a pass on some of the action scenes while Edgar and myself concentrated on dialogue and the overall shape of the film. He stayed on board up until the final picture lock and made an incredible contribution to the action and the tension of the film. By the end of the year we’d locked and then we finished the final mix mid-February of this year. But the great thing was to be able to come into the edit and have those sequences ready to go.”
Editing from set is something many editors try to avoid. They feel they can be more objective that way. Machliss sees it a bit differently, “Some editors don’t like being on set, but I like the openness of it – taking it all in. Because when you are in the edit, you can recall the events of the day a particular scene was shot – ‘I can remember when Ken Spacey did this thing on the third take, which could be useful’. It’s not vital to work like this, but it does preclude to a kind of short-hand, which is something Edgar and I have developed over these years anyway. The beauty of it is that Edgar and I will take the time to try every option. You can never hit on the perfect cut the first time. Often you’ll get feedback from screenings, such as ‘we’d like to see more emotion between these characters’. You know what’s available and sometimes four extra shots can make all the difference in how a scene reads without having to re-imagine anything. We did drop some scenes from the final version of the film. Of course, you go ‘that’s a shame’, but at least these scenes were given a chance. However, there are always bits where upon the 200th viewing you can decide, ‘well, that’s completely redundant’ – and it’s easy to drop. You always skate as close to the edge of making a film shorter without doing any damage to it.”
The challenge of sound
During sound post, Baby Driver also presented some unique challenges. Machliss says, “For the sound mix – and even for the shoot – we had to make sure we were working with the final masters of the song recordings to make sure the pitch and duration remained constant throughout. Typically these came in as mono or stereo WAVs. Because music is such an important element to the film, the concept of perceived direction becomes important. Is the music emanating from Baby’s earbuds? What happens to it when the camera moves or he turns his head? We had to work out a language for the perception of sound. This was Edgar’s first film mixed in Dolby ATMOS and were the second film in Goldcrest London’s new Atmos-certified dubbing theater. Then we did a reduction to 7.1 and 5.1. Initially we were thinking this film would have no score other than the songs. Invariably you need something to get from A to B. We called on the services of Steven Price (Gravity, Fury, Suicide Squad), who provided us with some original cues and some musical textures. He did a very clever thing where he would match the end pitch or notes of a commercial song and then by the time he came to the end of his cue, it would match to the incoming note or key of the next song. And you never notice the change.”
Working with Avid in a new way
To wrap up the conversation, we talked a bit about using Avid Media Composer on his work. Machliss has used numerous other systems, but Media Composer still fits the bill for his work today. He says, “For me, the speed of working with AMA in Avid in the latest software was a real benefit. I could actually keep up with the speed of the shoot. You don’t want to be the one holding up a crew of 70. I also made good use of background transcoding. On a different project (Fleabag), I was able to work with native 2K Alexa ProRes camera files at full resolution. It was fantastic to be able to use Frameflex and apply LUTs – doing the cutting, but then bringing back my old skills as an online editor to paint out booms and fix things up. Once we locked, I could remove the LUTs and export DPX files, which went straight to the grading facility. That was exciting to work in a new way.”
Baby Driver opens this summer in the US and should be a fun ride. You can certainly enjoy a film like this without knowing the nitty gritty of the production that goes into it. However, after you’ve read this article, you just might need to see it at least twice – once to just enjoy and once agin to study the “invisible art” that’s gone into bringing it to screen.
©2017 Oliver Peters