Final Cut Pro vs DaVinci Resolve

Apple’s innovative Final Cut Pro editing software has passed its tenth year and for many, the development pace has become far too slow. As a yardstick, users point to the intensity with which Blackmagic Design has advanced its flagship DaVinci Resolve application. Since acquiring DaVinci, Blackmagic has expanded the editing capabilities and melded in other acquisitions, such as EyeOn Fusion and Fairlight audio. They’ve even integrated a second, FCP-like editing model called the Cut page. This has some long-time Final Cut editors threatening to jump ship and switch to Resolve.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into some of the comparisons. While Resolve has a strong presence as a premier color correction tool, its actual adoption as the main editor within the post facility world hasn’t been very strong. On the other hand, if you look outside of the US to Europe and the rest of the world, you’ll find quite a few installations of Final Cut Pro within larger media operations and production companies. Clearly both products have found a home servicing professional workflows.

Editing versus finishing

When all production and post was done with film, the picture editor would make all of the creative editing decisions by cutting workprint and sound using a flatbed or upright editing machine. The edited workprint became the template for the optical house, negative cutter, film timer, and lab to produce the final film prints. There was a clear delineation between creative editing and the finishing stages of filmmaking.

Once post moved to videotape, the film workflow was translated into its offline (creative editing) and online (finishing) video counterparts. Offline editing rooms used low-res formats and were less expensive to equip and operate. Online rooms used high-res formats and often looked like the bridge of a starship. But it could also be the other way around, because the offline and online processes were defined by the outcome and not the technology. Offline = creative decisions. Online = finished masters. Of course, given proper preparation or a big budget, the offline edit stage could be skipped. Everything – creative edit and finishing – was all performed in the same online edit bay.

Early nonlinear editing supplemented videotape offline edit bays for a hybrid workflow. As computer technology advanced and NLE quality and capabilities improved, all post production shifted to workstation-based operations. But the offline/online – editing/finishing – workflows have persisted, in spite of the fact that most computers and editing applications are capable of meeting both needs. Why? It comes down to three things: personality, kit, and skillset.

Kit first. Although your software might do everything well, you may or may not have a capable computer, which is why proxy workflows exist today. Beyond that comes monitoring. Accurate color correction and sound mixing requires proper high-quality audio and video monitoring. A properly equipped finishing room should also have the right lighting environment and/or wall treatments for sound mixing. None of this is essential for basic editing tasks, even at the highest level. While having a tool like Resolve makes it possible to cover all of the technical aspects of editing and finishing, if you don’t have the proper room, high-quality finishing may still be a challenge.

Each of the finishing tasks requires its own specialized skillset. A topnotch re-recording mixer isn’t going to be a great colorist or an award-winning visual effects compositor. It’s not that they couldn’t, but for most of us, that’s not the way the mind works nor the opportunities presented to us. As we spend more time at a specialized skill – the “10,000 hour” rule – the better we are at it.

Finally, the issue of personality. Many creative editors don’t have a strong technical background and some aren’t all that precise in how they handle the software. As someone who works on both sides, I’ve encountered some of the most awful timelines on projects where I’ve handled the finishing tasks. The cut was great and very creative, but the timeline was a mess.

On the flipside, finishing editors (or online editors before them) tend to be very detail-oriented. They are often very creative in their own right, but they do tend to fit the “left-brained” description. Many prefer finishing tasks over the messy world of clients, directors, and so on. In short, a topnotch creative editor might not be a good finisher and vice versa.

The all-in-one application versus the product ecosystem

Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve is an all-in-one solution, combining editing, color, visual effects, and sound mixing. As such, it follows in the footsteps of other all-in-ones, like Avid|DS (discontinued) and Autodesk Flame (integrated with Smoke and Lustre). Historically, neither of these or any other all-in-ones have been very successful in the wider editing market. Cost coupled with complex user interfaces have kept them in more rarified areas of post.

Apple took the opposite approach with the interaction of Final Cut Pro X. They opted for a simpler, more approachable interface without many features editors had grown used to in the previous FCP 7/FCP Studio versions. This stripped-down application was augmented by other Apple and third-party applications, extensions, and plug-ins to fill the void.

If you want the closest equivalent to Resolve’s toolkit in the Final Cut ecosystem, you’ll have to add Motion, Logic Pro, Xsend Motion, X2Pro Audio Convert, XtoCC, and SendToX at a very minimum. If you want to get close to the breadth of Adobe Creative Cloud offerings, also add Compressor, Pixelmator Pro (or Affinity, Photo, Publisher, and Designer), and a photo application. Resolve is built upon a world-class color correction engine, but Final Cut Pro does include high-quality grading tools, too. Want more? Then add Color Finale 2, Coremelt Chromatic, FilmConvert Nitrate, or one of several other color correction plug-ins.

Yes, the building block approach does seem messy, but it allows a user to tailor the software toolkit according to their own particular use case. The all-in-one approach might appear better, but that gets to personality and skillset. It’s highly unlikely that the vast majority of Resolve users will fully master its four core capabilities: edit, color, VFX (Fusion), and mixing (Fairlight). A good, full-time editor probably isn’t going to be as good at color correction as a full-time colorist. A great colorist won’t also be a good mixer.

In theory, if you have a team of specialists who have all centralized around Resolve, then the same tool and project files could bounce from edit to VFX, to color, and to the mix, without any need to roundtrip between disparate applications. In reality it’s likely that your go-to mograph/VFX artist/compositor is going to prefer After Effects or maybe Nuke. Your favorite audio post shop probably won’t abandon Pro Tools for Fairlight.

Even for the single editor who does it all, Resolve presents some issues with its predefined left-to-right, tabbed workflow. For example, grading performed in the Color tab can’t be tweaked in the Edit tab. The UI is based on modal tabs instead of fly-out panels within a single workspace.

If you boil it all down, Resolve is the very definition of a finishing application and appeals best to editors of that mindset and with the skills to effectively use the majority of its power. Final Cut Pro is geared to the creative approach with its innovative feature set, like metadata-based organization, skimming, and the magnetic timeline. It’s more approachable for less-experience editors, hiding the available technical complexity deeper down. However, just like offline and online editing suites, you can flip it around and do creative editing with Resolve and finishing with Final Cut Pro (plus the rest of the ecosystem).

The intangibles of editing

It’s easy to compare applications on paper and say that one product appears better and more feature-rich than another. That doesn’t account for how an application feels when you use it, which is something Apple has spent a lot of time thinking about. Sometimes small features can make all the difference in an editor’s preference. The average diner might opine that chef’s knives are the same, but don’t tell that to a real chef!

Avid Media Composer editors rave about the trim tool. Many Adobe Premiere Pro editors swear by Dynamic Link. Some Apple Final Cut Pro editors get frustrated when they have to return to a track-based, non-magnetic NLE. It’s puzzling to me that some FCP stalwarts are vocal about shifting to Resolve (a traditional track-based NLE) if Apple doesn’t add ‘xyz’ feature. That simply doesn’t make sense to me, unless a) you are equally comfortable in track-based versus trackless architectures, and/or b) you truly have the aptitude to make effective use out of an all-in-one application like Resolve. Of course, you can certainly use both side-by-side depending on the task at hand. Cost is no longer an impediment these days. Organize and cut in FCP, and then send an FCPXML of the final sequence to Resolve for the grade, visual effects, and the mix.

It’s horses for courses. I recently read where NFL Films edits in Media Composer, grades in DaVinci Resolve, and conforms/finishes projects in Premiere Pro. That might seem perplexing to some, but makes all the sense in the world to me, because of the different skillsets of the users at those three stages of post. In my day gig, Premiere Pro is also the best choice for our team of editors. Yet, when I have projects that are totally under my control, I’ll often use FCP.

Ultimately there is no single application that is great at each and every element in post production. While the majority of features might fit all of my needs, that may not be true for you or anyone else. The divide between creative editing and finishing is likely to continue – at least at the higher end of production. In that context, Final Cut Pro still makes more sense for a frictionless editing experience, but Resolve is hard to beat for finishing.

There is one final caveat to consider. The post world is changing and much is driven by the independent content creator, as well as the work-from-home transformation. That market segment is cost conscious and subscription business models are less appealing. So Resolve’s entry point at free is attractive. Coupling Resolve with Blackmagic’s low cost, high quality cameras is also a winning strategy for new users. While Resolve can be daunting in its breadth, a new user can start with just the tools needed to complete the project and then learn new aspects of the software over time. As I look down the road, it’s a toss up as to who will be dominant in another ten years.

©2021 Oliver Peters

The Mole Agent

At times you have to remind yourself that you are watching a documentary and not actors in a fictional drama. I’m talking about The Mole Agent, one of the nominees for Best Documentary Feature in this year’s Academy Awards competition. What starts as film noir with a humorous slant evolves into a film essay on aging and loneliness.

Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi originally set out to document the work being done by private investigator Romulo Aitkin. The narrative became quite different, thanks to Romulo’s mole, Sergio Chamy. The charming, 83-year-old widower was hired to be the inside man to follow a case at a retirement home. Once on the inside, we see life from Sergio’s perspective.

The Mole Agent is a touching film about humanity, deftly told without the benefit of an all-knowing narrator or on-camera interviews. The thread that binds the film is often Sergio’s phoned reports to Romulo, but the film’s approach is largely cinema verite. Building that structure fell to Carolina Siraqyan, a Chile-based editor, whose main experience has been cutting short-form projects and commercials. I recently connected with Carolina over Zoom to discuss the post behind this Oscar contender.

* * *

Please tell me how you got the chance to edit this film.

I met Maite years ago while giving a presentation about editing trailers for documentaries, which is a speciality of mine. She was finishing the The Grown-Ups and I’m Not From Here, a short documentary film. I ended up doing the trailers for both and we connected. She shared that she was developing The Mole Agent. I loved the mixture of film noir and observational documentary, so I asked to work on the film and ended up cutting it.

Did her original idea start with the current premise of the film or was the concept broader at that point?

Maite wanted to do a documentary about the workings of a private detective agency, since detectives are often only represented in fiction. She worked with Romulo for a few months and realized that investigations into retirement homes are quite common. She loved the idea for the film and started focusing on that aspect.

Romulo already had a mole that he used inside the homes on these cases, but the mole broke his hip. So Romulo placed a newspaper want ad for someone in his 80s who could work as his new mole on this case. A number of credible older men applied. Out of those applicants, Sergio was hired and turned out to be perfect for the film. He entered into the retirement home after some initial training, including how to discretely communicate with Romulo and how to use the spy cameras.

How was the director able to convince the home and the residents to be in the film?

The film crew had arrived a couple of weeks before Sergio. It was explained that they were doing a film on old age and would be focusing on any new residents in the home. So, the existing residents were already comfortable with the presence of the cameras before he arrived. Maite was very empathetic about where to place cameras so that they wouldn’t bother residents or interfere with what the staff was doing, even if that might not be the best location aesthetically.

Maite is very popular here. She’s written and directed a number of films about social issues and her point-of-view is very humble and very respectful. This is a good retirement home with nothing to hide, so both the staff and the residents were OK with filming. But to be clear, only people who consented appear in the film.

I understand that there were 300 hours of raw footage filmed for this documentary. How did you approach that?

The crew filmed for over three months. It’s actually more that 300 hours of footage, because of the spy cameras. Probably as much as 50 hours more. I couldn’t use a lot of that spy camera material, because Sergio would accidentally press record instead of pressing stop. The camera was in his pocket all the time, so I might have black for 20 minutes. [laugh] 

I starting on the project in January [2019] after it had been shot and the camera footage merged with the sound files. The native footage was shot with Sony cameras in their MXF format. The spy cameras generated H.264 files. To keep everything smooth, I was working with proxy files.

Essentially I started from zero on the edit. It took me two months to categorize the footage. I have an assistant, but I wanted to watch all of the material first. I like to add markers while I’m watching and then add text to those markers as I react to that footage. The first impression is very important for me.

We had a big magnetic blackboard and I placed magnetic cards on the wall for each of the different situations that I had edited. Then Maite came during the middle of March and we worked together like playing Tetris to structure the film. After that we shifted to Amsterdam for two months to work in a very focused way in order to refine the film’s structure. The first edition was completed in November and the final mix and color correction was done in December.

Did you have a particular method to create the structure of this documentary?

I feel that every film is different and you have to think a lot about how you are going to face each movie. In this film I had two certainties, the beginning – Romulo training Sergio – and the ending – what Sergio’s thoughts were. The rest is all emotion. That’s the spine. I have to analyze the emotion to converge to the conflict. First, there’s the humor and then the evolution to the sadness and loneliness. That’s how I approached the material – by the emotion.

I color-coded the magnetic cards for different emotions. For example, pink was for the funny scenes. When Maite was there, the cards provided the big picture showing all the situations. We could look and decide if a certain order worked or not.

What sort of changes to the film came out of the review stage?

This is a very international film with co-producers in the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Chile. We would share cuts with them to get helpful feedback. It let us make the movie more universal, because we had the input of many professionals from different parts of the world. 

When we arrived in Amsterdam the first cut of the film was about three hours long. Originally the first part was 30 minutes long and that was cut down to 10 minutes. When we watched the longer cut, we felt that we were losing interest in the investigation; however, the relationship that Sergio was establishing with the women was wonderful. All the women are in love with him. It starts like film noir, but with humor.  So we focused on the relationships and edited the investigation parts into shorter humorous segments that were interspersed throughout the film.

The reality was incredible and definitely nothing was scripted. But some of the co-producers commented that various scenes in the film didn’t feel real to them. So, we considered those opinions as we were tightening the film.

You edited this film with Adobe Premiere Pro. How do you like using it and why was it the right tool for this film?

I started on film with Moviola and then edited on U-matic, which I hated. I moved to Avid, because it was the first application we had. Then I moved to Final Cut Pro; but after FCP7 died, I switched to Premiere Pro. I love it and am very comfortable with how the timeline works. The program leaves you a lot of freedom as to how and where you put your material. You have control – none of that magnetic stuff that forces you to do something by default.

Premiere Pro was great for this documentary. If a program shuts down unexpectedly, it’s very frustrating, because the creative process stops. I didn’t have any problems even though everything was in one, large project. I did occasionally clean up the project to get rid of stuff I wasn’t using, so it wasn’t too heavy. But Premiere allowed me to work very fluidly, which is crucial.

You completed the The Mole Agent at the end of 2019. That’s prior to the “work from home” remote editing reality that most of the world has lived through during this past year. What would be different if you had worked on the film a year later?

The Mole Agent was completed in time for Sundance in January of 2020. Fortunately we were able to work without lockdowns. I’ve worked a lot remotely during this past year and it’s difficult. You get accustomed to it, but there is something missing. You don’t get the same feeling looking through a [web] camera as being together in the room. Something in the creative communication is lost in the technology. If the movie had been edited like this [communicating through Zoom] – and considering the mood during the lockdowns and how that affects your perception of the material – then it really would be a different film.

Any final thoughts about your experience editing this film?

I had previously worked sporadically on films, but have spent most of my career in the advertising industry. A few years ago I decided that I wanted to work full-time on long-form films. Then this project came to me. So I was very open during the process to all of the notes and comments. I understood the process, of course, but because I had worked so much in advertising, I now had to put this new information into practice. I learned a lot!

The Mole Agent is a very touching film. It’s different – very innovative. It’s an incredible movie for people who have seen the film. It affects the conscience and they take action. I feel very glad to have worked on this film.

This article also appears at postPerspective.

©2021 Oliver Peters

W.A.S.P.

A regrettable aspect of history and the march of time is that many interesting stories are buried or forgotten. We learn the bullet points of the past, but not the nuances that bring history alive. It’s a challenge that many documentarians seek to meet. While the WWII era is ripe with heroic tales, one unit was almost forgotten.

Women Airforce Service Pilots  (aka WASP)

As WWII ramped up, qualified male pilots were sent to European and Pacific combat, leaving a shortage of stateside pilots. The WASP unit was created as a civilian auxiliary  attached to the U. S. Army Air Forces, It was organized and managed by Jackie Cochran, an accomplished female aviator and entrepreneur. More than 25,000 women applied for the WASP, but only 1,830 were accepted into the program.

The WASP members engaged in military-style training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. They wore uniforms, and were given flight assignments by the military, yet they weren’t actually in the military. Their role was to handle all non-combat, military flight tasks within the states, including ferrying aircraft cross-country from factories to deployment bases, serve as test pilots, and handle training tasks like towing targets and mock strafing runs over combat trainees. During her service, the typical WASP would fly more types of aircraft than most male, military pilots. Sadly, 38 WASP died during training or active duty assignments.

Although WASP members joined with the promise of their unit becoming integrated into the regular military, that never happened. As the war wound down and male pilots returned home needing jobs, the WASP units were disbanded, due in part to Congressional and media resistance. Records were sealed and classified and the WASP were almost forgotten by history. Finally in the late 1970s President Carter signed legislation that recognized WASP members as veterans and authorized veterans benefits. In 2009 President Obama and the Congress awarded WASP members with the Congressional Gold Medal.

The documentary

Documentary filmmaker Jon Anderson set out over a decade ago to tell a complete story of the WASP in a feature-length film. Anderson, a history buff, had already produced and directed one documentary about the Tuskegee Airmen. So the WASP story was the next logical subject. The task was to interview as many living WASP to tell their story as possible. The goal was not just the historical facts, but also what it was like to be a WASP, along with some of the backstory details about Cochran and the unit’s formation. The result was W.A.S.P. – A Wartime Experiment in WoManpower.

Anderson accumulated a wealth of interviews, but with limited resources. This meant that interviews were recorded mostly on DV cameras in standard definition. However, as an instructor of documentary filmmaking at Valencia College, Anderson also utilized some of the film program’s resources in the production. This included a number of re-enactments – filmed with student crews, talent, and RED cameras. The initial capture and organization of footage was handled by a previous student of his using Final Cut Pro 7.

Technical issues

Jon asked me to join the project as co-editor after the bulk of interviews and re-enactments had been compiled. Several dilemmas faced me at the front end. The project was started in FCP7, which was now a zombie application. Should I move the project to Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro, or Media Composer? After a bit of experimentation, the best translation of the work that had already been done was into Premiere Pro. Since we had a mix of SD and HD/4K content, what would be the best path forward – upconvert to HD or stay in standard def? HD seemed to be the best option for distribution possibilities, but that posed additional challenges.

Only portions of tapes were originally captured – not complete tapes. These were also captured with separated audio and video going to different capture folders (a feature of FCP “classic”). Timecode accuracy was questionable, so it would be nearly impossible to conform the current organized clips from the tapes at a higher resolution. But since it was captured as DV from DV tapes, there was no extra quality loss due to interim transcoding into a lower resolution file format.

Ultimately I opted to stick with what was on the drives as my starting point. Jon and I organized sequences and I was able to borrow a Blackmagic Teranex unit. I exported the various sequences between two computers through the Teranex, which handled the SD to HD conversion and de-interlacing of any interlaced footage. This left us with upscaled ProRes interviews that were 4×3 within a 16×9 HD sequence. Nearly all interviews were filmed against a black limbo background, so I then masked around each woman on camera. In addition, each was reframed to the left or right side, depending on where they faced. Now we could place them against another background – either true black, a graphic, or B-roll. Finally, all clips were graded using Lumetri within Premiere Pro. My home base for video post was TinMen – an Orlando creative production company.

Refining the story

With the technical details sorted out, it was time to refine the story. Like many docs, you end up with more possible storylines than will fit. It’s always a whittling process to reveal a story’s essence and to decide which items are best left out so that the rest remains clear. Interviews were bridged with voice-overs plus archival footage, photos, or re-enactments to fill in historical details. This went through numerous rounds of refinement with input from Jon and Rachel Becker Wright, the producer and co-editor on the film. Along the way Rachel was researching, locating, and licensing archival footage for B-roll. 

Once the bulk of the main storyline was assembled with proper voice-overs, re-enactments, and some B-roll, I turned the cut over to Rachel. She continued with Jon to refine the edit with graphics, music, and final B-roll. Sound post was handled by the audio production department at Valencia College. A nearly-final version of the 90-minute documentary was presented at a “friends and family” screening at the college.

Emmy®

Many readers know about the national Emmy® Awards handed out annually by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS). It may be less known that NATAS includes 19 regional chapters, which also award Emmys within their chapters. Awards are handed out for projects presented in that region, usually via local broadcast or streaming. Typically the project wins the award without additional craft categories. Anderson was able to submit a shortened version of the documentary for judging by the Suncoast regional chapter, which includes Florida, Puerto Rico, and parts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia. I’m happy to say that W.A.S.P. – A Wartime Experiment in WoManpower won a 2020 regional Emmy, which included Jon Anderson, Rachel Becker Wright, Joe Stone (production designer), and myself.

Awards are nice, of course, but getting the story out about the courageous ladies of the WASP is far more important and I was happy to play a small part in that.

©2021 Oliver Peters

Kirk Baxter, ACE on editing Mank

Mank, David Fincher’s eleventh film, chronicles Herman Mankiewicz (portrayed by Gary Oldman) during the writing of the film classic, Citizen Kane. Mankiewicz, known as Mank, was a witty New York journalist and playwright who moved to Los Angles in the 1930s to become a screenwriter. He wrote or co-wrote about 40 films, often uncredited, including the first draft of The Wizard of Oz. Together with Orson Welles, he won an Academy Award for the screenplay of Citizen Kane. It’s long been disputed whether or not he, rather than Welles, actually did the bulk of the work on the screenplay. 

The script for Mank was penned decades ago by David Fincher’s father, Jack Fincher, and was finally brought to the screen thanks to Netflix this past year. Fincher deftly blends two parallel storylines: Mankiewicz’ writing of Kane during his convalescence from an accident – and his earlier Hollywood experiences with the studios, as told through flashbacks. These experiences, including his acquaintance with William Randolph Hearst – the media mogul of his time and the basis for Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane – inspired Mankiewicz’ script. This earlier period is infused with the political undercurrent of the Great Depression and the California gubernatorial race between Upton Sinclair and Frank Merriam.

David Fincher and director of photography Erik Messerschmidt, ASC (Mindhunter) used many techniques to pay homage to the look of Citizen Kane and other classic films of the era, including shooting in true black-and-white with RED Monstro 8K Monochrome cameras and Leica Summilux lenses. Fincher also tapped other frequent collaborators, including Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for a moving, vintage score, and Oscar-winning editor, Kirk Baxter, ACE. I recently caught up with Baxter to discuss Mank, the fourth film he’s edited for David Fincher.

***

Citizen Kane is the 800 pound gorilla. Had you seen that film before this or was it research for the project?

I get so nervous about this topic, because with cinephiles, it’s almost like talking about religion. I had seen Citizen Kane when I was younger, but I was too young to appreciate it. I was growing up on Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Conan the Barbarian. Then advancing my tastes to the Godfather films and French Connection. Citizen Kane is still just such a departure from all of that. I was kind of like, “What?” That was probably in my late teens.

I went back and watched it again before the shoot after reading the screenplay. There were certain technical aspects to the film that I thought were incredible. I loved the way OrsonWelles chose to leave his scenes by turning off lights like it was in the theater. There was this sort of slow decay and I enjoy how David picked up on that and took it into Mank. Each time one of those shots came up in the bungalow scenes, I thought it was fantastic.

Overall, I don’t consider myself any sort of expert on 1930s and 1940s movie-making and I didn’t make a conscious effort to try to replicate any styles. I approached the work in the same way I do with all of David’s work – by being reactionary to the material and the coverage that he shot. In regard to how close David took the stylings, well, that was more his tight rope walk. So, I felt no shackling to slow down an edit pace or stay in masters or stay in 50-50s as might have been common in the genre. I used all the tools at my disposal to exploit every scene the best I could. 

Since you are cutting while the shooting goes on, do you have the ability to ask for coverage that you might feel is missing? 

I think a little bit of that goes on, but it’s not me telling Fincher what’s required. It’s me building assemblies and giving them to David as he’s going and he will assess where he’s short and where he’s not. I’ve read many editor interviews over the years and I’ve always kind of gone, “huh,” when someone’s projecting they’re in the control seat. When you’re with someone with the ability that Fincher has, then I’m in a support position of helping him make his movie as best he can. Any other way of looking at it is delusional. But, I take a lot of pride in where I do get to contribute. 

Mank is a different style of film than Fincher’s previous projects. Did that change the workflow or add any extra pressure? 

I don’t think it did for me. I think it was harder for David. The film was in his head for so many decades and there were a couple of attempts to make it happen. Obviously a lot changes in that time frame. So, I think he had a lot of internal pressure about what he was making. For me, I found the entire process to be really buoyant and bubbly and just downright fun. 

As with all films, there were moments when it was hard to keep up during the shoot. And definitely moments coming down to that final crunch. That’s when I really put a lot of pressure on myself to deliver cut scenes to David to help him. I felt the pressure of that, but my main memory of it really was one of joy. Not that the other movies aren’t, but I think sometimes the subject matter can control the mood of the day. For instance, in other movies, like Dragon Tattoo, the feeling was a bit like your head in a vise when I look back at it.

Sure. Dragoon Tattoo is dark subject matter. On the other hand, Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Mankiewicz really lights up the screen. It certainly looks like he’s having fun with the character. 

Right. I loved all the bungalow scenes. I thought there was so much warmth in those. And I had so much compassion for the lead character, Mank. Those scenes really made me adore him. But also when the flashback scenes came, they’re just a hoot and great fun to put together. There was this warmth and playfulness of the two different opposing storylines. No matter which one turned up, I was happy to see it. 

Was the inter-cutting of those parallel storylines the way it was scripted? Or was that a construction in post? 

Yes, it was scripted that way. There was a little bit of pulling at the thread later. Can we improve on this? There was a bit of reshuffling later on and then working out that ‘as written’ was the best path. We certainly kicked the tires a few times. After we put the blueprint together, mostly the job became tightening and shortening. 

Obviously one of the technical differences was that this film was a true black-and-white film shot with modified, monochrome RED cameras. So not color and then changed to black-and-white in the grade. Did that impact your thinking in how to tackle the edit?

For the first ten minutes. At first you sit down and you go, “Oh, we work in black and white.” And then you get used to it very quickly. I forwarded the trailer when it was released to my mother in Australia. She texted back, “It’s black and white????” [laugh] You’ve got to love family!

Black-and-white has a unique look, but I know that other films, like Roma, were shot in color to satisfy some international distribution requirements. 

That’s never going to happen with someone like David. I can’t picture who that person would be that would tell him with any authority that his movie requires color. 

Of course, it matches films of the era and more importantly Citizen Kane. It does bring an intentional, stylistic treatment to the content. 

Black-and-white has got a great way of focusing your attention and focusing your eye. There’s a discipline that’s required with how shots are framed and how you’re using the images for eye travel. But I think all of David work comes with that discipline anyway. So to me, it didn’t alter it. He’s already in that ballpark.

In terms of recreating the era, I’ve seen a few articles and comments about creating the backgrounds and sets using visual effects, but also classic techniques, like rear projection. What about the effects in Mank

As in most of David’s movies, it’s everywhere and a lot of the time it looks invisible, but things are being replaced. I don’t have a ratio for it, but I’d say almost half the movie. We’ve got a team that’s stabilizing shots as we’re going. We’ve got an in-house visual effects team that is building effects, just to let us know that certain choices can be made. The split screen thing is constant, but I’ll do a lot of that myself. I’ll do a fairly haphazard job of it and then pass it on for our assistant editors to follow up on. Even the montage kaleidoscope effect was all done in-house down the hall by Christopher Doulgeris, one of our VFX artists. A lot of it’s farmed out, but a fair slice is done under the roof. 

Please tell me a bit about working with Adobe Premiere Pro again to cut this film.

It’s best for me not even to attempt to answer technical questions. I don’t mind exposing myself as a luddite. My first assistant editor, Ben Insler, set it up so that I’m able to move the way I want to move. For me, it’s all muscle memory. I’m hitting the same keystrokes that I was hitting back when we were using Avid. Then I crossed those keys over to Final Cut and then over to Premiere Pro. 

In previous versions, Premiere Pro required projects to contain copies of all the media used in that project.  As you would hand the scene off to other people to work on in parallel, all the media would travel into that new project, and the same was true when combining projects back together to merge your work.  You had monstrously huge projects with every piece of media, and frequently duplicate copies of that media, packed into them. They often took 15 minutes to open. Now Adobe has solved that and streamlined the process. They knew it was a massive overhaul, but I think that’s been completely solved. Because it’s functioning, I can now purely concentrate on the thought process of where I’m going in the edit. I’m spoiled with having very technical people around me so that I can exist as a child. [laugh]

How was the color grade handled?

We had Eric Weidt working downstairs at Fincher’s place on Baselight. David is really fortunate that he’s not working in this world of “Here’s three weeks for color. Go into this room each day and where you come out is where you are at.” There’s an ongoing grade that’s occurring in increments and traveling with the job that we’re doing. It’s  updated and brought into the cut. We experience editing with it and then it’s updated again and brought back into the cut. So it’s this constant progression. 

Let’s talk about project organization. You’ve told me in the past that your method of organizing a selects reel was to string out shots in the order of wide shots, mediums, close ups, and so on. And then bump up the ones you like. Finally, you’d reduce the choices before those were presented to David as possible selects. Did you handle it the same way on Mank?

Over time, I’ve streamlined that further. I’ve found that if I send something that’s too long while he’s in the middle of shooting that he might watch the first two minutes of it, give me a couple of notes of what he likes and what he doesn’t like, and move on. So, I’ve started to really reduce what I send. It’s more cut scenes with some choices. That way I get the most relevant information and can move  forward.

With scenes that are extremely dense, like Louis B. Mayer’s birthday party at Hearst’s, it really is an endless multiple choice of how to tackle it. I’ll often present a few paths. Here’s what it is if I really hold out these wides at the front and I hang back for a bit longer. Here’s what it is if I stay more with Gary [Oldmam] listening. It’s not that this take is better than the other take, but more options featuring different avenues and ways to tell the story. 

I like working that way, even if it wasn’t for the sake of presenting it to David. I can’t watch a scene that’s that dense and go, “Oh, I know what to do.” I wouldn’t have a clue. I like to explore it. I’ve got to turn the soil and snuff the truffles and try it all out. And then the answers present themselves. It all just becomes clear. Unfortunately, the world of the editor, regardless of past experiences, is always destined to be filled with labor. There is no shortcut to doing it properly.

With large-scale theatrical distribution out of the question – and the shift to Netflix streaming as the prime focus – did the nature of studio notes change at all? 

David’s generous about thought and opinion, if it’s constructive and helpful.  He’s got a long history of forwarding those notes to me and exploring them. I’m not positive if I get all of them. Anything that’s got merit will reach me, which is wise. Having spent so many years in the commercial world, there’s a part of me that’s always a little eager to solve a puzzle. If I’m delivered a pile of notes, good or bad, I’m going to try my best to execute them.  So, David is wise to just not let me see the bad ones.

Were you able to finish Mank before the virus-related lockdowns started? Did you have to move to a remote workflow? 

The shooting had finished and we already had the film assembled. I work at a furious rate whilst David’s shooting, so that we can interface during the shoot. That way he knows what he’s captured, what he needs, and he can move on and strike sets, release actors, etc. There’s this constant back and forth.

At the point when he stops shooting, we’re pretty far along in terms of replicating the original plan, the blueprint. Then it’s what I call the sweeps, where you go back to the top and you just start sweeping through the movie, improving it. I think we’d already done one of those when we went remote. So, it was very fortunate timing.

We’re quite used to it. During shooting, we work in a remote way anyway. It’s a language and situation that we’re completely used to. I think from David’s perspective, it didn’t change anything. 

If the timing had been different and you would have had to handle all of the edit under remote conditions, would anything change? Or would you approach it the same way? 

Exactly the same. It wouldn’t have changed the amount of time that I get directly with David. I don’t want to give the impression that I cut this movie and David was on the sidelines. He’s absolutely involved, but pops in and out and looks at things that are made. He’s not a director that sits there the whole time. A lot of it is, “I’ve made this cut, let’s watch it together. I’ve done these selects, let’s watch them together.” It’s really possible to do that remotely. 

I prefer to be with David when he’s shooting and especially in this one that he shot in Los Angeles. I really tried to have one day a week where we got to be together on the weekends and his world quieted down. David loves that. I would sort of construct my week’s thinking towards that goal. If on a Wednesday I had six scenes that were backed up, I’d sort of think to myself, “What can I achieve in the time frame before David’s with me on Saturday? Should I just select all these scenes and then we’ll go through the selects together? Or should I tackle this hardest one and get a good cut of that going?”

A lot of the time I would choose – if he was coming in and had the time to watch things – to do selects. Sometimes we could bounce through them just from having a conversation of what his intent was and the things that he was excited about when he was capturing them. With that, I’m good to go. Then I don’t need David for another week or so. We were down to the short hand of one sentence, one email, one text. That can inform me with all the fuel I need to drive cross-country. 

The film’s back story clearly has political overtones that have an eerie similarity to 2020. I realize the script was written a while back at a different time, but was some of that context added in light of recent events? 

That was already there. But, it really felt like we are reliving this now. In the beginning of the shutdown, you didn’t quite know where it was going to go. The parallels to the Great Depression were extreme. There were a lot of lessons for me.

The character of Louis B. Mayer slashes all of his studio employees’ salaries to 50 percent. He promises to give every penny back and then doesn’t do it. I was crafting that villain’s performance, but at the same time I run a company [Exile Edit] that has a lot of employees in Los Angeles and New York. We had no clue if we would be able to get through the pandemic at the time when it hit. We also asked staff to take a pay cut, so that we could keep everyone employed and keep everybody on health insurance. But the moment we realized we could get through it six months later, there was no way I could ever be that villain. We returned every cent. 

I think most companies are set up to be able to exist for four months. If everything stops dead – no one’s anticipating that – the 12-month brake pull. It was really, really frightening. I would hope that I would think this way anyway, but with crafting that villain’s performance, there was no way I was going to replicate it.

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Mank was released in select theaters in November and launched on Netflix December 4, 2020.

Be sure to check out Steve Hullfish’s podcast interview with Kirk Baxter.

This article originally written for postPerspective.

©2021 Oliver Peters

COUP 53

The last century is littered with examples of European powers and the United States attempting to mold foreign governments in their own direction. In some cases, the view at the time may have seemed like these efforts would yield positive results. In others, self-interest or oil was the driving force. We have only to point to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 (think Lawrence of Arabia) to see the unintended consequences these policies have had in the middle east over the past 100+ years, including current politics.

In 1953, Britain’s spy agency MI6 and the United States’ CIA orchestrated a military coup in Iran that replaced the democratic prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, with the absolute monarchy headed by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Although the CIA has acknowledged its involvement, MI6 never has. Filmmaker Taghi Amirani, an Iranian-British citizen, set out to tell the true story of the coup, known as Operation Ajax. Five years ago he elicited the help of noted film editor, Walter Murch. What was originally envisioned as a six month edit turned into a four yearlong odyssey of discovery and filmmaking that has become the feature documentary COUP 53.

COUP 53 was heavily researched by Amirani and leans on End of Empire, a documentary series produced by Britain’s Granada TV. That production started in 1983 and culminated in its UK broadcast in May of 1985. While this yielded plenty of interviews with first-hand accounts to pull from, one key omission was an interview with Norman Darbyshire, the MI6 Chief of Station for Iran. Darbyshire was the chief architect of the coup – the proverbial smoking gun. Yet he was inexplicably cut out of the final version of End of Empire, along with others’ references to him.

Amirani and Murch pulled back the filmmaking curtain as part of COUP 53. We discover along with Amirani the missing Darbyshire interview transcript, which adds an air of a whodunit to the film. Ultimately what sets COUP 53 apart was the good fortune to get Ralph Fiennes to portray Norman Darbyshire in that pivotal 1983 interview.

COUP 53 premiered last year at the Telluride Film Festival and then played other festivals until coronavirus closed such events down. In spite of rave reviews and packed screenings, the filmmakers thus far have failed to secure distribution. Most likely the usual distributors and streaming channels deem the subject matter to be politically toxic. Whatever the reason, the filmmakers opted to self-distribute, including a virtual cinema event with 100 cinemas on August 19th, the 67th anniversary of the coup.

Walter Murch is certainly no stranger to readers. Despite a long filmography, including working with documentary material, COUP 53 is only his second documentary feature film. (Particle Fever was the first.) This film posed another challenge for Murch, who is known for his willingness to try out different editing platforms. This was the first outing with Adobe Premiere Pro CC, his fifth major editing system. I had a chance to catch up with Walter Murch over the web from his home in London the day before the virtual cinema event. We discussed COUP 53, documentaries, and working with Premiere Pro.

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[Oliver Peters] You and I have emailed back-and-forth on the progress of this film for the past few years. It’s great to see it done. How long have you been working on this film?

[Walter Murch] We had to stop a number of times, because we ran out of money. That’s absolutely typical for this type of privately-financed documentary without a script. If you push together all of the time that I was actually standing at the table editing, it’s probably two years and nine months. Particle Fever – the documentary about the Higgs Boson – took longer than that.

My first day on the job was in June of 2015 and here we are talking about it in August of 2020. In between, I was teaching at the National Film School and at the London Film School. My wife is English and we have this place in London, so I’ve been here the whole time. Plus I have a contract for another book, which is a follow-on to In the Blink of an Eye. So that’s what occupies me when my scissors are in hiding.

[OP] Let’s start with Norman Darbyshire, who is key to the storyline. That’s still a bit of an enigma. He’s no longer alive, so we can’t ask him now. Did he originally want to give the 1983 interview and MI6 came in and said ‘no’ – or did he just have second thoughts? Or was it always supposed to be an off the record interview?

[WM] We don’t know. He had been forced into early retirement by the Thatcher government in 1979, so I think there was a little chip on his shoulder regarding his treatment. The full 14-page transcript has just been released by the National Security Archives in Washington, DC, including the excised material that the producers of the film were thinking about putting into the film.

If they didn’t shoot the material, why did they cut up the transcript as if it were going to be a production script? There was other circumstantial evidence that we weren’t able to include in the film that was pretty indicative that yes, they did shoot film. Reading between the lines, I would say that there was a version of the film where Norman Darbyshire was in it – probably not named as such – because that’s a sensitive topic. Sometime between the summer of 1983 and 1985 he was removed and other people were filmed to fill in the gaps. We know that for a fact.

[OP] As COUP 53 shows, the original interview cameraman clearly thought it was a good interview, but the researcher acts like maybe someone got to management and told them they couldn’t include this.

[WM] That makes sense given what we know about how secret services work. What I still don’t understand is why then was the Darbyshire transcript leaked to The Observer newspaper in 1985. A huge article was published the day before the program went out with all of this detail about Norman Darbyshire – not his name, but his words. And Stephen Meade – his CIA counterpart – who is named. Then when the program ran, there was nothing of him in it. So there was a huge discontinuity between what was published on Sunday and what people saw on Monday. And yet, there was no follow-up. There was nothing in the paper the next week, saying we made a mistake or anything.

I think eventually we will find out. A lot of the people are still alive. Donald Trelford, the editor of The Observer, who is still alive, wrote something a week ago in a local paper about what he thought happened. Alison [Rooper] – the original research assistant – said in a letter to The Observer that these are Norman Darbyshire’s words, and “I did the interview with him and this transcript is that interview.”

[OP] Please tell me a bit about working with the discovered footage from End of Empire.

[WM] End of Empire was a huge, fourteen-episode project that was produced over a three or four year period. It’s dealing with the social identity of Britain as an empire and how it’s over. The producer, Brian Lapping, gave all of the outtakes to the British Film Institute. It was a breakthrough to discover that they have all of this stuff. We petitioned the Institute and sure enough they had it. We were rubbing our hands together thinking that maybe Darbyshire’s interview was in there. But, of all of the interviews, that’s the one that’s not there.

Part of our deal with the BFI was that we would digitize this 16mm material for them. They had reconstituted everything. If there was a section that was used in the film, they replaced it with a reprint from the original film, so that you had the ability to not see any blank spots. Although there was a quality shift when you are looking at something used in the film, because it’s generations away from the original 16mm reversal film.

For instance, Stephen Meade’s interview is not in the 1985 film. Once Darbyshire was taken out, Meade was also taken out. Because it’s 16mm we can still see the grease pencil marks and splices for the sections that they wanted to use. When Meade talks about Darbyshire, he calls him Norman and when Darbyshire talks about Meade he calls him Stephen. So they’re a kind of double act, which is how they are in our film. Except that Darbyshire is Ralph Fiennes and Stephen Meade – who has also passed on – appears through his actual 1983 interview.

[OP] Between the old and new material, there was a ton of footage. Please explain your workflow for shaping this into a story.

[WM] Taghi is an inveterate shooter of everything. He started filming in 2014 and had accumulated about 40 hours by the time I joined in the following year. All of the scenes where you see him cutting transcripts up and sliding them together – that’s all happening as he was doing it. It’s not recreated at all. The moment he discovered the Darbyshire transcript is the actual instance it happened. By the end, when we added it all up, it was 532 hours of material.

Forgetting all of the creative aspects, how do you keep track of 532 hours of stuff? It’s a challenge. I used my Filemaker Pro database that I’ve been using since the mid-1980s on The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Every film, I rewrite the software slightly to customize it for the film I’m on. I took frame-grabs of all the material so I had stacks and stacks of stills for every set-up.

By 2017 we’d assembled enough material to start on a structure. Using my cards, we spent about two weeks sitting and thinking ‘we could begin here and go there, and this is really good.’ Each time we’d do that, I’d write a little card. We had a stack of cards and started putting them up on the wall and moving them around. We finally had two blackboards of these colored cards with a start, middle, and end. Darbyshire wasn’t there yet. There was a big card with an X on it – the mysterious X. ‘We’re going to find something on this film that nobody has found before.’ That X was just there off to the side looking at us with an accusing glare. And sure enough that X became Norman Darbyshire.

At the end of 2017 I just buckled my seat belt and started assembling it all. I had a single timeline of all of the talking heads of our experts. It would swing from one person to another, which would set up a dialogue among themselves – each answering the other one’s question or commenting on a previous answer. Then a new question would be asked and we’d do the same thing. That was 4 1/2 hours long. Then I did all of the same thing for all of the archival material, arranging it chronologically. Where was the most interesting footage and the highest quality version of that? That was almost 4 hours long. Then I did the same thing with all of the Iranian interviews, and when I got it, all of the End of Empire material.

We had four, 4-hour timelines, each of them self-consistent. Putting on my Persian hat, I thought, ‘I’m weaving a rug!’ It was like weaving threads. I’d follow the talking heads for a while and then dive into some archive. From that into an Iranian interview and then some End of Empire material. Then back into some talking heads and a bit of Taghi doing some research. It took me about five months to do that work and it produced an 8 1/2 hour timeline.

We looked at that in June of 2018. What were we going to do with that? Is it a multi-part series? It could be, but Netflix didn’t show any interest. We were operating on a shoe string, which meant that the time was running out and we wanted to get it out there. So we decided to go for a feature-length film. It was right about that time that Ralph Fiennes agreed to be in the film. Once he agreed, that acted like a condenser. If you have Ralph Fiennes, things tend to gravitate around that performance. We filmed his scenes in October of 2018. I had roughed it out using the words of another actor who came in and read for us, along with stills of Ralph Fiennes as M. What an irony! Here’s a guy playing a real MI6 agent who overthrew a whole country, who plays M, the head of MI6, who dispatches James Bond to kill malefactors!

Ralph was recorded in an hour and a half in four takes at the Savoy Hotel – the location of the original 1983 interviews. At the time, he was acting in Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra every evening. So he came in the late morning and had breakfast. By 1:30-ish we were set-up. We prayed for the right weather outside – not too sunny and not rainy. It was perfect. He came and had a little dialogue with the original cameraman about what Darbyshire was like. Then he sat down and entered the zone – a fascinating thing to see. There was a little grooming touch-up to knock off the shine and off we went.

Once we shot Ralph, we were a couple of months away from recording the music and then final color timing and the mix. We were done with a finished, showable version in March of 2019. It was shown to investors in San Francisco and at the TED conference in Vancouver. We got the usual kind of preview feedback and dove back in and squeezed another 20 minutes or so out of the film, which got it to its present length of just under two hours.

[OP] You have a lot of actual stills and some footage from 1953, but as with most historical documentaries, you also have re-enactments. Another unique touch was the paint effect used to treat these re-enactments to differentiate them stylistically from the interviews and archival footage.

[WM] As you know, 1953 is 50+ years before the invention of the smart phone. When coups like this happen today you get thousands of points-of-view. Everyone is photographing everything. That wasn’t the case in 1953. On the final day of the coup, there’s no cinematic material – only some stills. But we have the testimony of Mossadegh’s bodyguard on one side and the son of the general who replaced Mossadegh on the other, plus other people as well. That’s interesting up to a point, but it’s in a foreign language with subtitles, so we decided to go the animation path.

This particular technique was something Taghi’s brother suggested and we thought it was a great idea. It gets us out of the uncanny valley, in the sense that you know you’re not looking at reality and yet it’s visceral. The idea is that we are looking at what is going on in the head of the person telling us these stories. So it’s intentionally impressionistic. We were lucky to find Martyn Pick, the animator who does this kind of stuff. He’s Mr. Oil Paint Animation in London. He storyboarded it with us and did a couple of days of filming with soldiers doing the fight. Then he used that as the base for his rotoscoping.

[OP] Quite a few of the first-hand Iranian interviews are in Persian with subtitles. How did you tackle those?

[WM] I speak French and Italian, but not Persian. I knew I could do it, but it was a question of the time frame. So our workflow was that Taghi and I would screen the Iranian language dailies. He would point out the important points and I would take notes. Then Taghi would do a first pass on his workstation to get rid of the chaff. That’s what he would give to the translators. We would hire graduate students. Fateme Ahmadi, one of the associate producers on the film, is Iranian and she would also do translation. Anyone that was available would work on the additional workstation and add subtitling. That would then come to me and I would use that as raw material.

To cut my teeth on this, I tried using the interview with Hamid Admadi, the Iranian historical expert that was recorded in Berlin. Without translating it, I tried to cut it solely on body language and tonality. I just dove in and imagined, if he is saying ‘that’ then I’m thinking ‘this.’ I was kind of like the way they say people with aphasia are. They don’t understand the words, but they understand the mood. To amuse myself, I put subtitles on it, pretending that I knew what he was saying. I showed it to Taghi and he laughed, but said that in terms of the continuity of the Persian, it made perfect sense. The continuity of the dialogue and moods didn’t have any jumps for a Persian speaker. That was a way to tune myself into the rhythms of the Persian language. That’s almost half of what editing is – picking up the rhythm of how people say things – which is almost as important or even sometimes more important than the words they are using.

[OP] I noticed in the credits that you had three associate editors on the project.  Please tell me a bit about their involvement.

[WM] Dan [Farrell] worked on the film through the first three months and then a bit on the second section. He got a job offer to edit a whole film himself, which he absolutely should do. Zoe [Davis] came in to fill in for him and then after a while also had to leave. Evie [Evelyn Franks] came along and she was with us for the rest of the time. They all did a fantastic job, but Evie was on it the longest and was involved in all of the finishing of the film. She’s is still involved, handling all of the media material that we are sending out.

[OP] You are also known for your work as a sound designer and re-recording mixer, but I noticed someone else handled that for this film. What was you sound role on COUP 53?

[WM] I was busy in the cutting room, so I didn’t handle the final mix. But I was the music editor for the film, as well as the picture editor. Composer Robert Miller recorded the music in New York and sent a rough mixdown of his tracks. I would lay that onto my Premiere Pro sequence, rubber-banding the levels to the dialogue.

When he finally sent over the instrument stems – about 22 of them – I copied and pasted the levels from the mixdown onto each of those stems and then tweaked the individual levels to get the best out of every instrument. I made certain decisions about whether or not to use an instrument in the mix. So in a sense, I did mix the music on the film, because when it was delivered to Boom Post in London, where we completed the mix, all of the shaping that a music mixer does was already taken care of. It was a one-person mix and so Martin [Jensen] at Boom only had to get a good level for the music against the dialogue, place it in a 5.1 environment with the right equalization, and shape that up and down slightly. But he didn’t have to get into any of the stems.

[OP] I’d love to hear your thoughts on working with Premiere Pro over these several years. You’ve mentioned a number of workstations and additional personnel, so I would assume you had devised some type of a collaborative workflow. That is something that’s been an evolution for Adobe over this same time frame.

[WM] We had about 60TB of shared storage. Taghi, Evie Franks, and I each had workstations. Plus there was fourth station for people doing translations. The collaborative workflow was clunky at the beginning. The idea of shared spaces was not what it is now and not what I was used to from Avid, but I was willing to go with it.

Adobe introduced the basics of a more fluid shared workspace in early 2018 I think, and that began a six months’ rough ride, because there were a lot of bugs that came along  with that deep software shift. One of them was what I came to call ‘shrapnel.’ When I imported a cut from another workstation into my workstation, the software wouldn’t recognize all the related media clips, which were already there. So these duplicate files would be imported again, which I nicknamed ‘shrapnel.’ I created a bin just to stuff these clips in, because you couldn’t delete them without causing other problems.

Those bugs went away in the late summer of 2018. The ‘shrapnel’ disappeared along with other miscellaneous problems – and the back-and-forth between systems became very transparent. Things can always be improved, but from a hands-on point-of-view, I was very happy with how everything worked from August or September of 2018 through to the completion of the film.

We thought we might stay with Premiere Pro for the color timing, which is very good. But DaVinci Resolve was the system for the colorist that we wanted to get. We had to make some adjustments to go to Resolve and back to Premiere Pro. There were a couple of extra hurdles, but it all worked and there were no kludges. Same for the sound. The export for Pro Tools was very transparent.

[OP] A lot of what you’ve written and lectured about is the rhythm of editing – particularly dramatic films. How does that equate to a documentary?

[WM] Once you have the initial assembly – ours was 8 hours, Apocalypse Now was 6 hours, Cold Mountain was 5 1/2 hours – the jobs are not that different. You see that it’s too long by a lot. What can we get rid of? How can we condense it to make it more understandable, more emotional, clarify it, and get a rhythmic pulse to the whole film?

My approach is not to make a distinction at that point. You are dealing with facts and have to pay attention to the journalistic integrity of the film. On a fiction film you have to pay attention to the integrity of the story, so it’s similar. Getting to that point, however, is highly different, because the editor of an unscripted documentary is writing the story. You are an author of the film. What an author does is stare at a blank piece of paper and say, ‘what am I going to begin with?’ That is part of the process. I’m not writing words, necessarily, but I am writing. The adjectives and nouns and verbs that I use are the shots and sounds available to me.

I would occasionally compare the process for cutting an individual scene to churning butter. You take a bunch of milk – the dailies – and you put them into a churn – Premiere Pro – and you start agitating it. Could this go with that? No. Could this go with that? Maybe. Could this go? Yes! You start globbing things together and out of that butter churning process you’ve eventually got a big ball of butter in the churn and a lot of whey – buttermilk. In other words, the outtakes.

That’s essentially how I work. This is potentially a scene. Let me see what kind of scene it will turn into. You get a scene and then another and another. That’s when I go to the card system to see what order I can put these scenes in. That’s like writing a script. You’re not writing symbols on paper, you are taking real images and sound and grappling with them as if they are words themselves.

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Whether you are a student of history, filmmaking, or just love documentaries, COUP 53 is definitely worth the watch. It’s a study in how real secret services work. Along the way, the viewer is also exposed to the filmmaking process of discovery that goes into every well-crafted documentary.

Images from COUP 53 courtesy of Amirani Media and Adobe.

(Click on any image for an enlarged view.)

You can learn more about the film at COUP53.com.

For more, check out these interviews at Art of the Cut, CineMontage, and Forbes.

©2020 Oliver Peters