Carol

df0116_carol_smFilms tend to push social boundaries and one such film this season is Carol, starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Kyle Chandler. It’s a love story between two women, but more importantly it’s a love story between two people.  The story is based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, who also penned The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train. Todd Haynes (Six by Sondheim, Mildred Pierce) directed the film adaptation. Carol was originally produced in 2014 and finished in early 2015, but The Weinstein Company opted to time the release around the start of the 2015 awards season.

Affonso Gonçalves (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Winter’s Bone), the editor on Carol, explains, “Carol is a love story about two women coming to terms with the dissatisfaction of their lives. The Carol character (Cate Blanchett) is unhappily married, but loves her child. Carol has had other lesbian affairs before, but is intrigued by this new person, Therese (Rooney Mara), whom she encounters in a department store. Therese doesn’t know what she wants, but through the course of the film, learns who she is.”

Gonçalves and Haynes worked together on the HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce. Gonçalves says, “We got along well and when he got involved with the production, he passed along the script to me and I loved it.” Carol was shot entirely on Super 16mm film negative, primarily as a single-camera production. Only about five percent of the production included A and B cameras. Ed Lachman (Dark Blood, Stryker, Selena) served as the cinematographer. The film negative was scanned in log color space and then a simple log-to-linear LUT (color look-up table) was applied to the Avid DNxHD36 editorial files for nice-looking working files.

Creating a timeless New York story

Cincinnati served as the principal location designed to double for New York City in the early 1950s. The surrounding area also doubled for Iowa and Pennsylvania during a traveling portion of the film. Gonçalves discussed how Haynes and he worked during this period. “The production shot in Cincinnati, but I was based at Goldcrest Films in New York. The negative was shipped to New York each day, where it was processed and scanned. Then I would get Avid editorial files. The cutting room was set up with Avid Media Composer and ISIS systems and my first assistant Perri [Pivovar] had the added responsibilities on this project to check for film defects. Ed would also review footage each day; however, Todd doesn’t like to watch dailies during a production. He would rely on me instead to be his eyes and ears to make sure that the coverage that he needed was there.”

He continues, “After the production wrapped, I completed my editor’s cut, while Todd took a break. Then he spent two weeks reviewing all the dailies and making his own detailed notes. Then, when he was ready, he joined me in the cutting room and we built the film according to his cut. Once we had these two versions – his and mine – we compared the two. They were actually very similar, because we both have a similar taste. I had started in May and by September the cut was largely locked. Most of the experimenting came with structure and music.”

The main editorial challenges were getting the right structure for the story and tone for the performances. According to Gonçalves, “Cate’s and Rooney’s performances are very detailed and I felt the need to slow the cutting pace down to let you appreciate that performance. Rooney’s is so delicate. Plus, it’s a love story and we needed to keep the audience engaged. We weren’t as concerned with trimming, but rather, to get the story right. The first cut was two-and-a-half hours and the finished length ended up at 118 minutes. Some scenes were cut out that involved additional characters in the story. Todd isn’t too precious about losing scenes and this allowed us to keep the story focused on our central characters.”

“The main challenge was the party scene at the end. The story structure is similar to Brief Encounters (a 1946 David Lean classic with the beginning and ending set in the same location). Initially we had two levels of flashbacks, but there was too much of a shift back and forth. We had a number of ‘friends and family’ screenings and it was during these that we discovered the issues with the flashbacks. Ultimately we decided to rework the ending and simplify the temporal order of the last scene. The film was largely locked by the sixth or seventh cut.”

As a period piece, music is very integral to Carol. Gonçalves explains, “We started with about 300 to 400 songs that Todd liked, plus old soundtracks. These included a lot of singers of the time, like Billie Holiday. I also added ambiences for restaurants and bars. Carter (Burwell, composer) saw our cut at around the second or third screening with our temp score. After that he started sending preliminary themes to for us to work into the cut. These really elevated the tone of the film. He’d come in every couple of weeks to see how his score was working out with the cut, so it became a very collaborative process.”

The editing application that an editor uses is an extension of how he works. Some have very elaborate routines for preparing bins and sequences and others take a simpler approach. Gonçalves fits into the latter group. He says, “Avid is like sitting down and driving a car for me. It’s all so smooth and so fast. It’s easy to find things and I like the color correction and audio tools. I started working more sound in the Avid on True Detective and its tools really help me to dress things up. I don’t use any special organizing routines in the bins. I simply highlight the director’s preferred takes; however, I do use locators and take a lot of handwritten notes.”

Film sensibilities in the modern digital era

Carol was literally the last film to be processed at Deluxe New York before the lab was shut down. In addition to a digital release, Technicolor also did a laser “film-out” to 35mm for a few release prints. All digital post-production was handled by Goldcrest Films, who scanned the Super 16mm negative on an ARRI laser scanner at 3K resolution for a 2K digital master. Goldcrest’s Boon Shin Ng handled the scanning and conforming of the film. Creating the evocative look of Carol fell to New York colorist John J. Dowdell III. Trained in photography before becoming a colorist in 1980, Dowdell has credits on over 200 theatrical and television films.

Unlike other films, Dowdell was involved earlier in the overall process. He explains, “Early on, I had a long meeting with Todd and Ed about the look of the film. Todd had put together a book of photographs and tear sheets that helped with the colors and fashions from the 1950s. While doing the color grading job, we’d often refer back to that book to establish the color palette for the film.” Carol has approximately 100 visual effects shots to help make Cincinnati look like New York, circa 1952-53. Dowdell continues, “Boon coordinated effects with Chris Haney, the visual effects producer. The ARRI scanner is pin-registered, which is essential for the work of the visual effects artists. We’d send them both log and color corrected files. They’d use the color corrected files to create a reference, preview LUT for their own use, but then send us back finished effects in log color space. These were integrated back into the film.”

Dowdell’s tool of choice is the Quantel Pablo Rio system, which incorporates color grading tools that match his photographic sensibilities. He says, “I tend not to rely as much on the standard lift/gamma/gain color wheels. That’s a video approach. Quantel includes a film curve, which I use a lot. It’s like an s-curve tool, but with a pivot point. I also use master density and RGB printer light controls. These are numeric and let you control the color very precisely, but also repeatably. That’s important as I was going through options with Todd and Ed. You could get back to an earlier setting. That’s much harder to do precisely with color wheels and trackball controls.”

The Quantel Pablo Rio is a complete editing and effects system as well, integrating the full power of Quantel’s legendary Paintbox. This permitted John Dowdell and Boon Schin Ng to handle some effects work within the grading suite. Dowdell continues, “With the paint and tracking functions, I could do a lot of retouching. For example, some modern elements, like newer style parking meters, were tracked, darkened and blurred, so that they didn’t draw attention. We removed some modern signs and also did digital clean-up, like painting out negative dirt that made it through the scan. Quantel does beautiful blow-ups, which was perfect for the minor reframing that we did on this film.”

The color grading toolset is often a Swiss Army Knife for the filmmaker, but in the end, it’s about the color. Dowdell concludes, “Todd and Ed worked a lot to evoke moods. In the opening department store scene, there’s a definite green cast that was added to let the audience feel that this is an unhappy time. As the story progresses, colors become more intense and alive toward the end of the film. We worked very intuitively to achieve the result and care was applied to each and every shot. We are all very proud of it. Of all the films I’ve color corrected, I feel that this is really my masterpiece.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Sicario

df0416_sicario_1_sm

Sicario is an emotional and suspenseful look into the dark side of the war on drugs as told by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners, Incendies). It teams a by-the-book FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt) with an interagency task force led by CIA agent Matt (Josh Brolin). The shadowy mix of characters includes Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) – an enigmatic contractor working with Matt. As the special operation proceeds with increasingly extra-legal means, we learn that there’s more to Alejandro than meets the eye – part former crusading prosecutor and part hitman. Kate and the audience are forced to question the morality of whether the ends justify the means as told through an increasingly tense and suspenseful story.

From Wagner to Hollywood

The key to driving such a thriller is often the editor, which in this case was Joe Walker (12 Years a Slave, Hunger, Harry Brown). I had a chance to discuss Sicario with Walker as he took a break from cutting the next Villeneuve film, Story of Your Life. Walker’s road to Hollywood is different than many other top-level, feature film editors. While editors often play musical instruments as a hobby, Walker actually studied to be a classical composer in his native England.

df0416_sicario_7Walker explains, “It’s always been a hard choice between films and writing music. I remember when I was ten years old, I’d run 8mm films of the Keystone Cops at slow speed with Richard Wagner playing against it and kind of get depressed! So, these were twin interests of mine. I studied classical composing and balanced two careers of editing and composing up until the mid-2000s. I used my music degree to get a job with the BBC where I moved into assistant editor roles. The BBC is very cautious and it took me eleven years before finally being allowed to cut drama as an editor. This was all on 16mm film and then I moved into digital editing, first with Lightworks and later Avid. I always wanted to work on bigger films, but I felt there was a glass ceiling in England. Big studio films that came in would always bring their own editors. The big break for me was 12 Years a Slave, which provided the opportunity to move to Los Angeles.”

Controlling the story, characters and rhythm

df0416_sicario_6Sicario has a definite rhythm designed to build suspense. There are scenes that are slow but tense and others that are action-packed. Walker explains his philosophy on setting the pace, “Since working with Steve McQueen (director, 12 Years a Slave) I’ve been known for holding shots a long time to build tension. This is contrary to the usual approach, which says you build tension by an increasingly faster cutting pace. Sometimes if you hold a shot, there’s even more tension if the story supports it. I’ll even use the trick of invisible split screens in order to hold a take longer than the way it was originally shot. For example, the left side of one take might hold long enough, but something breaks on the right. I’ll pull the right side from a different take in order to extend the end of the complete shot.”

Another interesting aspect to Sicario is the sparseness of the musical score, in favor of sound design. Walker comments, “Music is in an abusive relationship with film. Putting on my composer hat, I don’t want to tell the audience what to think only by the music. It’s part of the composite. I try to cut without a temp score, because you have to know when it’s only the music that drives the emotion. I’ll even turn the sound down and cut it as if it was a silent movie, so that I can feel the rhythm visually. Then sound effects add another layer and finally music. In Sicario, I made use of a lot of walkie-talkie dialogue to fill in spaces – using them almost like a sound effect.  Jóhann Jóhannsson (composer, Prisoners, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher) was thrilled to get a clean output without someone else’s preconceived temp score, because it allowed him to start with a clean palette.”

df0416_sicario_3Editing shapes the characters. Walker says, “Taylor Sheridan’s script was fantastic, so I don’t want to do a disservice to him, but there was a continual process of paring down the dialogue and simplifying the story, which continued long into the edit. Benicio Del Toro’s character says very little and that helps keep him very mysterious. One of the biggest cuts we made in the edit was to eliminate the original opening scene, shot on the coast at Veracruz. In it, Alejandro (Del Toro) is interrogating a cop by holding his head underwater. He goes too far and kills him.  So he drags the lifeless body to the shore only to resuscitate him and begin the interrogation again. A strong and brutal scene, but one that told too much about Alejandro at the outset, rather than letting us – and Kate (Emily Blunt) – figure him out piece by piece. We needed to tell the story through Kate’s eyes. The film now starts with the hostage rescue raid, which better anchors the film on Kate.  And it’s not short of its own brutality. At the end of the scene we smash cut from a mutilated hand on the ground to Kate washing the blood out of her hair in the shower. This very violent beginning lets the audience know that anything could happen in this film.”

A carefully considered production

Sicario was produced for an estimated $31 million. While not exactly low budget, it was certainly modest for a film of this ambition. The majority of the film was shot in New Mexico over a 49-day period, starting in July of 2014. Final post was completed in March of this year. Roger Deakins (Unbroken, Prisoners, Skyfall), the film’s director of photography, relied on his digital camera of choice these days, the ARRI Alexa XT recording to ARRIRAW. The editorial team cut with transcoded Avid DNxHD media using two Avid Media Composer systems.

df0416_sicario_4Joe Walker continues, “This was a very carefully considered shoot. They spent a lot of effort working out shots to avoid overshooting. Most of the set-ups were in the final cut. They were also lucky with the weather. I cut the initial assembly in LA while they were shooting in New Mexico. The fine cut was done in Montreal with Denis for ten weeks and then back to LA for the final post. The edit really came together easily because of all the prep. Roger has to be one of our generation’s greatest cinematographers. Not only are his shots fantastic, but he has a mastery of sequence building, which is matched by Denis.”

“Ninety percent of the time the editorial team consisted of just my long-time first assistant Javier [Marcheselli] and me. The main focus of the edit was to streamline the storytelling and to be as muscular and rhythmic with the cutting as possible. We spent a lot of time focused on the delicate balance between how much we see the story through our central character’s eyes and how much we should let the story progress by itself.  One of the constructs that came out of the edit was to beef up the idea of surveillance by taking helicopter aerials of the desert and creating drone footage from it.  Javier is great with temp visual effects and I’m good with sound, so we’d split up duties that way.”

df0416_sicario_8“I’m happy that this was largely a single-camera production. Only a few shots were two-camera shots. Single-camera has the advantage that the editor can better review the footage. With multi-cam you might get four hours of dailies, which takes about seven hours to review. When are you left with time to cut? This makes it hard to build a relationship with the dailies. With a single-camera film, you have more time to really investigate the coverage. I like to mind-read what the direction was by charting the different nuances between takes.”

It shouldn’t matter what the knives are

Walker is a long-time Media Composer user. We wrapped up with a discussion about the tools of the trade. Walker says, “This was a small film compared to some, so we used two Avid workstations connected to Avid’s ISIS shared storage while in LA. It’s rock solid. In Montreal, there was a different brand of shared storage, which wasn’t nearly as solid as ISIS. On Michael Mann’s Blackhat, we sometimes had sixteen Avids connected to ISIS, so that’s pretty hard to beat. I really haven’t used other NLEs, like Final Cut, but Premiere is tempting. If anything, going back to Lightworks is even more intriguing to me. I really loved how intuitive the ‘paddles’ (the Lightworks flatbed-style Controller) were. But edit systems are like knives. You shouldn’t care what knives the chef used if the meal tastes good. Given the right story, I’d be happy to cut it on wet string.”

df0416_sicario_2The editing application isn’t Walker’s only go-to tool. He continues, “I wish Avid would include more improvements on the audio side of Media Composer. I often go to outside applications. One of my favorites is [UISoftware’s] MetaSynth, which lets me extend music. For instance, if a chord is held for one second, I can use MetaSynth to extend that hold for as much as ten, twenty seconds. This makes it easy to tailor music under a scene and it sounds completely natural. I also used it on Sicario to elongate some great screaming sounds in the scene where Alejandro is having a nightmare on the plane – they are nicely embedded into the sounds of the jet engines – we wanted the message to be subliminal.”

df0416_sicario_5Joe Walker is a fan of visual organization. He explains, “When I’m working with dailies, I usually don’t pre-edit select sequences for a scene unless it’s a humongous amount of coverage. Instead, I prefer to visually arrange the ‘tiles’ (thumbnail frames in the bin) in a way that makes it easier to tuck in. But I am a big fan of the scene wall. I write out 3” x 5” note cards for each scene with a short description of the essence of that scene on it. This is a great way to quickly see what that scene is all about and remind you of a character’s journey up to that point. When it comes time to re-order scenes, it’s often better to do that by shifting the cards on the wall first. If you try to do it in the software, you get bogged down in the logistics of making those edit changes. I’ll put the cards for deleted scenes off to the side, so a quick glance reminds me of what we’ve removed. It’s just something that works for me.  Denis has just spent the best part of a year turning words into pictures so he laughs at my wall and my reliance on it!”

(It’s also worth checking out Steve Hullfish’s excellent interview with Walker at his Art of the Cut column.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Steve Jobs

df0216_sj1_smIt’s challenging to condense the life of a complex individual into a two-hour-long film. So it’s no wonder that the filmmakers of Steve Jobs have earned both praise and criticism for their portrayal of the Apple co-founder. The real Steve Jobs generated differing emotions from those who knew him or those who viewed his life from the outside. To tackle that dilemma screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (Moneyball, The Social Network, Charlie Wilson’s War) and director Danny Boyle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later) set out to create a “painting instead of a photograph”.

Steve Jobs with Michael Fassbender in the central role uses a classic Shakespearean three-act structure, focusing on three key product launches. Act 1 depicts the unveiling of the first Macintosh computer (1984); Act 2 is the introduction of the NeXT computer (1988); Act 3 is the reveal of the original iMac (1998). These three acts cover the narrative arc of Jobs’ rise, humiliation/revenge, and his ultimate return to prominence at Apple. All of the action takes place backstage at these launch events, but is intercut with flashbacks. The emotional thread that ties the three acts together is Jobs’ relationship with his daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs.

An action film of words

Aaron Sorkin’s scripts are known for their rapid fire dialogue and Steve Jobs is no exception. Clocking in at close to 190 script pages, the task of whittling that down to a two-hour movie fell to editor Elliot Graham (Milk, 21, Superman Returns). I recently spoke with Graham about how he connected with this project and some of the challenges the team faced. He explains, “I’ve been a fan of Danny’s and his regular editor wasn’t available to cut this film. So I reached out and met with them and I joined the team.”

Steve Jobs“When I read the script, I characterized it as an ‘action film of words.’ Early on we talked about the dialogue and the need to get to two hours. I’ve never talked about the film’s final length with a director at the start of the project, but we knew the information would come fast and we didn’t want the audience to feel pummeled. We needed to create a tide of energy from beginning to end that takes the viewer through this dialogue as these characters travel from room to room. It’s our responsibility to keep each entrance into a different room or hallway revelatory in some fashion – so that the viewer stays with the ideas and the language. Thank goodness we had sound recordist Lisa Pinero on hand – she really helped the cast stay true to the musicality of the writing. The script is full of intentional overlaps, and Danny didn’t want to stop them from happening. Lisa captured it so that I could edit it. We knew we wanted very little ADR in this film, so we let the actors play out the scene. That was pivotal in capturing Aaron’s language.”

“Each act is a little different, both in production design and in the format. [Director of photography] Alwin Küchler (Divergent, R.I.P.D., Hanna) filmed Act 1 on 16mm, Act 2 on 35mm, and Act 3 digitally with the ARRI Alexa. We also added visuals in the form of flashbacks and other intercutting to make it more cinematic. Danny would keep rolling past the normal end of a take and would get some great emotions from the actors that I could use elsewhere. Also when the audience arrives to take their seats at these launch events, Danny would record that, which gave us additional material to work with. In one scene with Jobs and Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Danny kept rolling on Kate after Michael left the room. In that moment we got an exquisite emotional performance from her that was never in the script. In another example, he got this great abstract close-up of Michael that we were able to use to intercut with the boardroom scene later. This really puts the audience into Steve’s head and is a pay-off for the revenge concept.”

Building structure

df0216_sj2Elliot Graham likes to make his initial cut tight and have a first presentation that’s reasonably finished. His first cut was approximately 147 minutes long compared with a final length of 117 minutes plus credits. He continues, “In the case of this film, cutting tight was beneficial, because we needed to know whether or not the pace would work. The good news is that this leaves you more time to experiment, because less time is spent in cutting it down for time. We needed to make sure the viewer would stay engaged, because the film is really three separate stories. To avoid the ‘stage play’ feeling and move from one act into the next, we added some interstitial visual elements to move between acts. In our experimenting and trimming, we opted to cut out part of the start of Act 2 and Act 3 and join the walking-talking dialogue ‘in progress.’ This becomes a bit of a montage, but it serves the purpose of quickly bringing the viewer along even though they might have to mentally fill in some of the gaps. That way it didn’t feel like Act 2 and Act 3 were the start of new films and kept the single narrative intact.”

“At the start, the only way to really ascertain the success of our efforts was to see Act 1, as close to screen-ready as we could come. So I put together an assemblage and Danny, the producers, and I viewed it. Not only did we want to see how it all worked together before moving on, we wanted to see that we had achieved the tone and quality we were after, because each act needed to feel completely different. And since Danny was shooting each piece a bit differently, I was cutting each one differently. For example, there’s a lot of energy, almost frenetic, to the camera movements in Act 1, plus it was shot on 16mm, so it gives it this cinema verité feel and harkens back to a less technically-savvy time. Act 2 has a more classical technique to it, so the cutting becomes a little slower in pacing. By getting a sense of what was working and maybe what wasn’t, it helped define how we were going to shoot the subsequent two acts and ensure we were creating an evolution for the character and the story. We would not have been able to do this if we had shot this film chronologically out of order, the way most features are.”

It’s common for a film’s scene structure to be re-arranged during the edit, but that’s harder to do with a film like Steve Jobs. There’s walking-talking dialogue that moves from one room to the next, which means the written script forces a certain linear progression. It’s a bit like the challenge faced in Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), except without the need to present the story as a continuous, single take. Graham says, “We did drop some scenes, but it was tricky, because you have to bridge the gap without people noticing. One of the scenes that was altered a lot from how it was written was the fight between John Scully (Jeff Daniels) and Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender). This scene runs about eleven minutes and Danny and I felt it lost momentum. So we spent about 48 hours recutting the scene. Instead of following the script literally, we followed the change in emotion of the actors’ performances. This led to a better emotional climax, which made the scene work.”

From San Francisco to London

df0216_sj4Steve Jobs was shot in San Francisco from January to April of this year and then post shifted to London from April until October. The editorial team worked with two Avid Media Composers connected to Avid ISIS shared storage. The film elements were scanned and then all media transcoded to Avid DNxHD for the editing team. Graham explains, “From the standpoint of the edit, it didn’t matter whether it was shot on film or digitally – the different formats didn’t change our workflow. But it was still exciting to have part of this on film, because that’s so rare these days. Danny likes a very collaborative process, so Aaron and the producers were all involved in reviewing the cuts and providing their creative input. As a director, Danny is very involved with the edit. He’d go home and review all the dailies again on DVD just to make sure we weren’t missing anything. This wasn’t an effects-heavy film like a superhero film, yet there were still several hundred visual effects. These were mostly clean-ups, like make-up fixes, boom removals, but also composites, like wall projections.”

Various film editors have differing attitudes about how much sound they include in their cut. For Elliot Graham it’s an essential part of the process. He says, “I love working with sound and temp music, because it changes your perception and affects how you approach the cut. For Steve Jobs, music was a huge part of the process from the beginning. Unlike other films, we received a lot of pieces of music from Daniel Pemberton (composer, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Cuban Fury, The Counselor) right at the start. He had composed a number of options based on his reading of the script. We tried different test pieces even before the shoot. Once some selections were made, Daniel gave us stems so that I could really tailor the music to the scene. This helped to define the flashbacks musically. The process was much more collaborative between the director and composer than on other films and it was a really unique way to work.”

Getting the emotion right

Elliot Graham joined the project after Michael Fassbender was signed to play Steve Jobs. Graham comments, “I’ve always thought Michael was a brilliant actor and I’d much rather have that to work with than someone who just looks like Jobs. Steve Wozniak (who is played by actor Seth Rogan in the film) watched the film several times and he commented that although the actual events were slightly different, the feeling behind what’s in the film was right. He’s said that to him, it was like seeing the real Steve.  So Michael was in some way capturing the essence of this guy.  I’m biased, of course, but Danny’s aim was to get the emotional approach right and I think he succeeded.”

“I’m a big Apple fan, so the whole process felt a bit strange – like I was in some sort of wonderful Charlie Kaufman wormhole. Here I was working on a Mac and using an iPhone to communicate while cutting a film about the first Mac and the person who so impacted the world through these innovations. I felt that by working on this film, I could understand Jobs just a little bit better. You get a sense of Jobs through his coming into contact with all of these people and his playing out whatever conflicts that existed. I think it’s more of a ‘why’ and ‘who’ story – rather than a point for point biography – why this person, whose impact on our lives is immeasurable, was the way he was. It’s my feeling that we were trying to look at his soul much more than track his life story.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Fear the Walking Dead

df3615_ftwd_1_sm

When AMC cable network decided to amp up the zombie genre with The Walking Dead series, it resulted in a huge hit. Building upon that success, they’ve created a new series that could be viewed as a companion story, albeit without any overlapping characters. Fear the Walking Dead is a new, six-episode series that starts season one on August 23. The story takes place across the country in Los Angeles and chronologically just before the outbreak in the original series. The Walking Dead was based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels by the same name and he has been involved in both versions as executive producer.

Unlike the original series, which was shot on 16mm film, Fear the Walking Dead is being shot digitally with ARRI ALEXA cameras and anamorphic lenses. That’s in an effort to separate the two visual styles, while maintaining a cinematic quality to the new series. I recently spoke with Tad Dennis, the editor of two of the six episodes in season one, about the production.

Tad Dennis started his editing career as an assistant editor on reality TV shows. He says, “I started in reality TV and then got the bump-up to full-time editing (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, America’s Next Top Model, The Voice). However, I realized my passion was elsewhere and made the shift to scripted television. I started there again as an assistant and then was bumped back up to editing (Fairly Legal, Manhattan, Parenthood). Both types of shows really do have a different workflow, so when I shifted to scripted TV, it was good to start back as an assistant. That let me be very grounded in the process.”

Creating a new show with a shared concept

Dennis started with these thoughts on the new show, “We think of this series as more of a companion show to the other and not necessarily a spin-off or prequel. The producers went with different cameras and lenses for a singular visual aesthetic, which affects the style. In trying to make it more ‘cinematic’, I tend linger on wider shots and make more selective use of tight facial close-ups. However, the material really has to dictate the cut.”

df3615_ftwd_3Three editors and three assistant editors work on the Fear the Walking Dead series, with each editor/assistant team cutting two of the six shows of season one. They are all working on Avid Media Composer systems connected to an Avid Isis shared storage solution. Scenes were shot in both Vancouver and in Los Angeles, but the editing teams were based in Los Angeles. ALEXA camera media was sent to Encore Vancouver and Encore Hollywood, depending on the shooting location. Encore staff synced sound and provided the editors with Avid DNxHD editorial media. The final color correction, conform, and finishing was also handled at Encore Hollywood.

Dennis described how post on this show differed from other network shows he’s worked on in the past. He says, “With this series, everything was shot and locked for the whole season by the first airdate. On other series, the first few shows will be locked, but then for the rest of the season, it’s a regular schedule of locking a new show each week until the end of the season. This first season was shot in two chunks for all six episodes – the Vancouver settings and then the Los Angeles scenes. We posted everything for the Vancouver scenes and left holes for the LA parts. The shows went all the way through director cuts, producer cuts, and network notes with these missing sections. Then when the LA portions came in, those scenes were edited and incorporated. This process was driven by the schedule. Although we didn’t have the pressure of a weekly airdate, the schedule was definitely tight.” Each of the editors had approximately three to four days to complete their cut of an episode after receiving the last footage. Then the directors got another four days for a director’s cut.

df3615_ftwd_5Often films and television shows go through adjustments as they move from script to actual production and ultimately the edit. Dennis feels this is more true of the first few shows in a new series than with an established series. He explains, “With a new series, you are still trying to establish the style. Often you’ll rethink things in the edit. As I went through the scenes, performances that were coming across as too ‘light’ had to be given more ‘weight’. In our story, the world is falling apart and we wanted every character to feel that all the way throughout the show. If a performance didn’t convey a sense of that, then I’d make changes in the takes used or mix takes, where picture might be better on one and audio better on the other.”

Structure and polish in post

In spite of the tight schedule, the editors still had to deal with a wealth of footage. Typical of most hour-long dramas, Fear the Walking Dead is shot with two or three cameras. For very specific moments, the director would have some of the footage shot on 48fps. In those cases, where cameras ran at different speeds, Dennis would treat these as separate clips. When cameras ran at the same speed (for example, at 24fps for sync sound), such as in dialogue scenes, Susan Vinci (assistant editor) would group the clips as multicam clips. He explains, “The director really determines the quality of the coverage. I’d often get really necessary options on both cameras that weren’t duplicated otherwise. So for these shows, it helped. Typically this meant three to four hours of raw footage each day. My routine is to first review the multicam clips in a split view. This gives me a sense of what the coverage is that I have for the scene. Then I’ll go back and review each take separately to judge performance.”

df3615_ftwd_4Dennis feels that sound is critical to his creative editing process. He continues, “Sound is very important to the world of Fear the Walking Dead. Certain characters have a soundscape that’s always associated with them and these decisions are all driven by editorial. The producers want to hear a rough cut that’s as close to airable as possible, so I spend a lot of time with sound design. Given the tight schedule on this show, I would hand off a lot of this to my long-time assistant, Susan. The sound design that we do in the edit becomes a template for our sound designer. He takes that, plus our spotting notes, and replaces, improves, and enhances the work we’ve done. The show’s music composer also supplied us with a temp library of past music he’d composed for other productions. We were able to use these as part of our template. Of course, he would provide the final score customized to the episode. This score would be based on our template, the feelings of the director, and of course the composer’s own input for what best suited each show.”

df3615_ftwd_2Dennis is an unabashed Avid Media Composer proponent. He says, “Over the past few years, the manufacturers have pushed to consolidate many tools from different applications. Avid has added a number of Pro Tools features into Media Composer and that’s been really good for editors. There are many tools I rely on, such as those audio tools. I use the Audiosuite and RTAS filters in all of my editing. I like dialogue to sound as it would in a live environment, so I’ll use the reverb filters. In some cases, I’ll pitch-shift audio a bit lower. Other tools I’ll use include speed-ramping and invisible split-screens, but the the trim tool is what defines the system for me. When I’m refining a cut, the trim tool is like playing a precise instrument, not just using a piece of software.”

Dennis offered these parting suggestions for young editors starting out. “If you want to work in film and television editing, learn Media Composer inside and out. The dominant tool might be Final Cut or Premiere Pro in some markets, but here in Hollywood, it’s largely Avid. Spend as much time as possible learning the system, because it’s the most in-demand tool for our craft.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork

©2015 Oliver Peters

Tips for Production Success – Part 2

df2015_prodtips_2_smPicking up from my last post (part 1), here are 10 more tips to help you plan for a successful production.

Create a plan and work it. Being a successful filmmaker – that is, making a living at it – is more than just producing a single film. Such projects almost never go beyond the festival circuit, even if you do think it is the “great American film”. An indie producer may work on a project for about four years, from the time they start planning and raising the funds – through production and post – until real distribution starts. Therefore, the better approach is to start small and work your way up. Start with a manageable project or film with a modest budget and then get it done on time and in budget. If that’s a success, then start the next one – a bit bigger and more ambitious. If it works, rinse and repeat. If you can make that work, then you can call yourself a filmmaker.

Budget. I have a whole post on this subject, but in a nutshell, an indie film that doesn’t involve union talent or big special effects will likely cost close to one million dollars, all in. You can certainly get by on less. I’ve cut films that were produced for under $150,000 and one even under $50,000, but that means calling in a lot of favors and having many folks working for free or on deferment. You can pull that off one time, but it’s not a way to build a business, because you can’t go back to those same resources and ask to do it a second time. Learn how to raise the money to do it right and proceed from there.

Contingencies at the end. Intelligent budgeting means leaving a bit for the end. A number of films that I’ve cut had to do reshoots or spend extra days to shoot more inserts, establishing shots, etc. Plan for this to happen and make sure you’ve protected these items in the budget. You’ll need them.

Own vs. rent. Some producers see their film projects as a way to buy gear. That may or may not make sense. If you need a camera and can otherwise make money with it, then buy it. Or if you can buy it, use it, and then resell it to come out ahead – by all means follow that path. But if gear ownership is not your thing and if you have no other production plans for the gear after that one project, then it will most likely be a better deal to work out rentals. After all, you’re still going to need a lot of extras to round out the package.

Shooting ratios. In the early 90s I worked on the post of five half-hour and hourlong episodic TV series that were shot on 35mm film. Back then shooting ratios were pretty tight. A half-hour episode is about 20-22 minutes of content, excluding commercials, bumpers, open, and credits. An hourlong episode is about 44-46 minutes of program content. Depending on the production, these were shot in three to five days and exposed between 36,000 and 50,000 feet of negative. Therefore, a typical day meant 50-60 minutes of transferred “dailies” to edit from – or no more than five hours of source footage, depending on the series. This would put them close to the ideal mark (on average) of approximately a 10:1 shooting ratio.

Today, digital cameras make life easier and with the propensity to shoot two or more cameras on a regular basis, this means the same projects today might have conservatively generated more than 10 hours of source footage for each episode. This impacts post tremendously – especially if deadline is a factor. As a new producer, you should strive to control these ratios and stay within the goal of a 10:1 ratio (or lower).

Block and rehearse. The more a scene is buttoned down, the fewer takes you’ll need, which leads to a tighter shooting ratio. This means rehearse a scene and make sure the camera work is properly blocked. Don’t wing it! Once everything is ready, shoot it. Odds are you’ll get it in two to three takes instead of the five or more that might otherwise be required.

Control the actors. Unless there’s a valid reason to let your actors improvise, make sure the acting is consistent. That is, lines are read in the same order each take, props are handled at the same point, and actors consistently hit their marks each take. If you stray from that discipline, the editorial time becomes longer. If allowed to engage in too much freewheeling improvisation, actors may inadvertently paint you into a corner. To avoid that outcome, control it from the start.

Visual effects planning. Most films don’t require special effects, but there are often “invisible” fixes that can be created through visual effects. For example, combining elements of two takes or adding items to a set. A recent romantic drama I post-supervised used 76 effects shots of one type or another. If this is something that helps the project, make sure to plan for it from the outset. Adobe After Effects is the ubiquitous tool that makes such effects affordable. The results are great and there are plenty of talented designers who can assist you within almost any budget range.

Multiple cameras vs. single camera vs. 4K. Some producers like the idea of shooting interviews (especially two-shots) in 4K (for a 1080 finish) and then slice out the frame they want. I contend that often 4K presents focus issues, due to the larger sensors used in these cameras. In addition, the optics of slicing a region out of a 4K image are different than using another camera or zooming in to reframe the shot. As a result, the look that you get isn’t “quite right”. Naturally, it also adds one more component that the editor has to deal with – reframing each and every shot.

Conversely, when shooting a locked-off interview with one person on-camera, using two cameras makes the edit ideal. One camera might be placed face-on towards the speaker and the other from a side angle. This makes cutting between the camera angles visually more exciting and makes editing without visible jump cuts easier.

In dramatic productions, many new directors want to emulate the “big boys” and also shoot with two or more cameras for every scene. Unfortunately this isn’t always productive, because the lighting is compromised, one camera is often in an awkward position with poor framing, or even worse, often the main camera blocks the secondary camera. At best, you might get 25% usability out of this second camera. A better plan is to shoot in a traditional single-camera style. Move the camera around for different angles. Tweak the lighting to optimize the look and run the scene again for that view.

The script is too long. An indie film script is generally around 100 pages with 95-120 scenes. The film gets shot in 20-30 days and takes about 10-15 weeks to edit. If your script is inordinately long and takes many more days to shoot, then it will also take many more days to edit. The result will usually be a cut that is too long. The acceptable “standard” for most films is 90-100 minutes. If you clock in at three hours, then obviously a lot of slashing has to occur. You can lose 10-15% (maybe) through trimming the fat, but a reduction of 25-40% (or more) means you are cutting meat and bone. Scenes have to be lost, the story has to be re-arranged, or even more drastic solutions. A careful reading of the script and conceiving that as a finished concept can head off issues before production ever starts. Losing a scene before you shoot it can save time and money on a large scale. So analyze your script carefully.

Click here for Part 1.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Tips for Production Success – Part 1

df1915_prodtips_1_smThroughout this blog, I’ve written numerous tips about how to produce projects, notably indie features, with a successful outcome in mind. I’ve tried to educate on issues of budget and schedule. In these next two entries, I’d like to tackle 21 tips that will make your productions go more smoothly, finish on time, and not become a disaster during the post production phase. Although I’ve framed the discussion around indie features, the same tips apply to commercials, music videos, corporate presentations, and videos for the web.

Avoid white. Modern digital cameras handle white elements within a shot much better than in the past, but hitting a white shirt with a lot of light complicates your life when it comes to grading and directing the eye of the viewer. This is largely an issue of art direction and wardrobe. The best way to handle this is simply to replace whites with off-whites, bone or beige colors. The sitcom Barney Miller, which earned DP George Spiro Dibie recognition for getting artful looks out of his video cameras, is said to have had the white shirts washed in coffee to darken them a bit. The whiteness was brought back once the cameras were set up. The objective in all of this is to get the overall brightness into a range that is more controllable during color correction and to avoid clipping.

Expose to the right. When you look at a signal on a histogram, the brightest part is on the righthand side of the scale. By pushing your camera’s exposure towards a brighter, slightly over-exposed image (“to the right”), you’ll end up with a better looking image after grading (color correction). That’s because when you have to brighten an image by bringing up highlights or midtones, you are accentuating the sensor noise from the camera. If the image is already brighter and the correction is to lower the levels, then you end up with a cleaner final image. Since most modern digital cameras use some sort of log or hyper gamma encoding to record a flatter signal, which preserves latitude, opening up the exposure usually won’t run the risk of clipping the highlights. In the end, a look that stretches the shadow and mids to expose more detail to the eye gives you a more pleasing and informative image than one that places emphasis on the highlight portion.

Blue vs. green-screen. Productions almost ubiquitously use green paint, but that’s wrong. Each paint color has a different luminance value. Green is brighter and should be reserved for a composite where the talent should appear to be outside. Blue works best when the composited image is inside. Paint matters. The correct paint to use is still the proper version of Ultimatte blue or green paint, but many people try to cut corners on cost. I’ve even had producers go so far as to rig up a silk with a blue lighting wash and expect me to key it! When you light the subject, move them as far away from the wall as possible to avoid contamination of the color onto their hair and wardrobe. This also means, don’t have your talent stand on a green or blue floor, when you aren’t intending to see the floor or see them from their feet to their head.

Rim lighting. Images stand out best when your talent has some rim lighting to separate them from the background. Even in a dark environment, seek to create a lighting scheme that achieves this rimming effect around their head and shoulders.

Tonal art direction. The various “blockbuster” looks are popular – particularly the “orange and teal” look. This style pushes skin tones warm for a slight orange appearance, while many darker background elements pick up green/blue/teal/cyan casts. Although this can be accentuated in grading, it starts with proper art direction in the set design and costuming. Whatever tonal characteristic you want to achieve, start by looking at the art direction and controlling this from step one.

Rec. 709 vs. Log. Digital cameras have nearly all adopted some method of recording an image with a flat gamma profile that is intended to preserve latitude until final grading. This doesn’t mean you have to use this mode. If you have control over your exposure and lighting, there’s nothing wrong with recording Rec. 709 and nailing the final look in-camera. I highly recommend this for “talking head” interviews, especially ones shot on green or blue-screen.

Microphone direction/placement. Every budding recording engineer working in music and film production learns that proper mic placement is critical to good sound. Pay attention to where mics are positioned, relative to where the person is when they speak. For example, if you have two people in an interview situation wearing lavaliere mics on their lapels, the proper placement would be on each’s inner lapel – the side closer to the other person. That’s because each person will turn towards the other to address them as they speak and thus talk over that shoulder. Having the mic on this side means they are speaking into the mic. If it were on their outer lapel, they would be speaking away from the mic and thus the audio would tend to sound hollow. For the same reasons, when you use a boom or fish pole overhead mic, the operator needs to point the mic in the direction of the person talking. They will need to shift the mic’s direction as the conversation moves from one person to the next to follow the sound.

Multiple microphones/iso mics. When recording dialogue for a group of actors, it’s best to record their audio with individual microphones (lavs or overhead booms) and to record each mic on an isolated track. Cameras typically feature on-board recording of two to four audio channels, so if you have more mics than that, use an external multi-channel recorder. When external recording is used, be sure to still record a composite track to your camera for reference.

Microphone types. There are plenty of styles and types of microphones, but the important factors are size, tonal quality, range, and the axis of pick-up. Make sure you select the appropriate mic for the task. For example, if you are recording an actor with a deep bass voice using a lavaliere, you’d be best to use a type that gives you a full spectrum recording, rather than one that favors only the low end.

Sound sync. There are plenty of ways to sync sound to picture in double-system sound situations. Synchronizing by matched timecode is the most ideal, but even there, issues can arise. Assure that the camera’s and sound recorder’s timecode generators don’t drift during the day – or use a single, common, external timecode generator for both. It’s generally best to also include a clapboard and, when possible, also record reference audio to the camera. If you plan to sync by audio waveforms (PluralEyes, FCP X, Premiere Pro CC), then make sure the reference signal on the camera is of sufficient quality to make synchronization possible.

Record wild lines on set. When location audio is difficult to understand, ADR (automatic dialogue replacement, aka “looping”) is required. This happens because the location recording was not of high quality due to outside factors, like special effects, background noise, etc. Not all actors are good at ADR and it’s not uncommon to watch a scene with ADR dialogue and have it jump out at you as the viewer. Since ADR requires extra recording time with the actor, this drives up cost on small films. One workaround in some of these situations is for the production team to recapture the lines separately – immediately after the scene was shot – if the schedule permits. These lines would be recorded wild and may or may not be in sync. The intent is to get the right sonic environment and emotion while you are still there on site. Since these situations are often fast-paced action scenes, sync might not have to be perfect. If close enough, the sound editors can edit the lines into place with an acceptable level of sync so that viewers won’t notice any issues. When it works, it saves ADR time down the road and sounds more realistic.

Click here for Part 2.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Fresh Dressed

df0515_frdress_2_smThe Sundance Film Festival is always a great event to showcase not just innovative dramas and comedies, but also new documentaries. This year brought good news for Adobe, because 21 of the documentaries to be shown were edited on Premiere Pro, which is more than double last year’s count. One such film is Fresh Dressed, which chronicles the history of hip-hop fashion from its birth in the Bronx during the 1970s to its evolution into a mainstream industry. It digs underneath the surface to look into other factors, like race and the societal context. Fresh Dressed was the first film written and directed by veteran producer Sacha Jenkins (Being Terry Kennedy, 50 Cent: The Power and the Money). The film features interviews with Pharrell Williams, Nas, Daymond John, Damon Dash, and Karl Kani, among others. It includes archival footage and some animation.

I recently spoke with Andrea B. Scott (Florence Arizona, A Place at the Table), who was brought in to complete the editing of the film to get it ready in time for Sundance submission. Scott explains, “Sacha and the team started shooting interviews in September of 2013. Initially there was another editor on board, who handled the first pass of cutting and organization of the project. I came to the film in May of 2014 after a basic assembly had been completed. This film was being produced by CNN and they recommended me. I definitely agree with the sentiment that editing is a lot like ‘writing with pictures’. It was my job to streamline the film and help craft the narrative, and bring Sacha’s vision to life as a moving story.”

df0515_frdress_1_smScott has worked on several documentaries before and has her own routine for learning the material. She says, “I usually start by watching the interviews through a couple of times, making notes with markers, and also by reading interview transcripts and highlighting certain passages. Then, I’ll pull selects to whittle down the interview to the parts that are most likely to be used in any given section. On Fresh Dressed, because I started with an assembly and needed to work quickly to get to a rough cut, I relied heavily on interview transcripts – going through the film section-by-section and interview-by-interview, and pulling selects – going back and forth from reading the transcript to watching the interview. Fresh Dressed involved about 30 interviews and totaled approximately 200 hours of raw footage. A lot of the archival search had already been done by the time I came on board, so I also had to watch through that footage and had a lot of good material to pull from.”

All film editing involves a working relationship between the editor and the director and Fresh Dressed was no exception. Scott continues, “It’s always a process of gaining the trust of the director. I come from the suburbs and I’m a bit younger than some of the crew, so it was a steep learning curve for me to understand the history of the hip-hop culture and fashion. It basically evolved from the urban gang culture of the 1970s, moved out from New York City, and went global from there. Inevitably, as the editor, you bring fresh eyes to the project and part of the editing process is to refine. The goal was to tell the story without voice-over, so we used the interviews to create that narrative thread. I put in a lot more archival material than was there before, which served to enliven the film with moments of nostalgia and infuse it with a fun energy. In a written script or book there can be a lot of side stories, which make sense on paper and are easy for the reader to follow and digest. But, the film we were making had to be more direct, with a linear timeline. Part of what I did was to strip away tangents that take you away from the main story.”df0515_frdress_3_sm

Scott’s touch also extended to the music. “The film was originally delivered to me with wall-to-wall music,” she explains. “I stripped out the music at first, so I could really think about story. Then I added temp score back in places to help steer the audience and underscore certain moments with another level of meaning.  In the end, we hired a talented composer, Tyler Strickland, to write the bulk of the score, and we also used some popular tracks from critical moments in the history of hip-hop.”

This was Scott’s first experience with Adobe Premiere Pro CC. Her prior experience had been with Apple Final Cut Pro (the “legacy” version). She found it to be a relatively easy transition. “The production company had already started the edit on Premiere Pro and so I continued with it. I welcomed being pushed to a new editing platform. It took about a week for me to get the hang of it. Since we were on a short deadline by that time, I simply ran it like I was used to running Final Cut. I really didn’t have the time to learn all of its nuances. I used the FCP keyboard settings, so everything felt natural to me. There’s a lot about Premiere Pro that I really like now. For example, the way it works with native media and using Adobe Media Encoder to export files.” The workstations were connected to shared storage, allowing the Scott to access material from any computer in the production office.

df0515_frdress_4_smEditors considering a shift to Premiere Pro CC sometimes question how its performance is with long-form project. Scott responds, “I was editing on an iMac and performance was fine. One tip I found that helps to speed up the loading of a large project is to discard old sequences. When I edit, I generally duplicate sequences and continue on those as I make changes. So on a large project you tend to build up a lot of sequences that way. While it’s good to save the past few versions in case you need to go back, you still have a lot of the oldest ones that simply aren’t ever needed again. These tend to slow down the speed of loading the project as all the media is relinked each time you launch it. By simply getting rid of a lot of these, you can improve performance.”

To handle the final stages of post, Scott exported an OMF file from Premiere Pro CC to be used by the audio mixer and and an XML file for the colorist. The final color correction of Fresh Dressed is being handled by Light of Day in New York. They will also complete the conform and recreate all moves on archival stills.

Scott concludes, “The film was, for the most part, made in New York, which makes sense, because Fresh Dressed really is a New York story at its heart.  Working on this film, I gained another level of love for New York, a deeper appreciation for all the many stories that start in this city, and for the deeper context that surrounds those individual stories.  Plus I had a lot of fun along the way.”

Read more about Fresh Dressed at Adobe’s Premiere Pro blog.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters