Terminator: Dark Fate

“I’ll be back,” has turned out to be more than simply an iconic movie line. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) are indeed back to save humanity from a dystopian future in this latest installment of the Terminator franchise. James Cameron is back on board, as well, with writing and producing credits. Terminator: Dark Fate is in essence Cameron’s sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Tim Miller (Deadpool) is at the helm to direct the tale. It’s roughly two decades after the time of T2 and a new Rev-9 machine has been sent from an alternate future to kill Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), an unsuspecting auto plant worker in Mexico. But the new future’s resistance has sent back Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an enhanced super-soldier, to combat the Rev-9 and save her. They cross paths with Connor and the story sets off for a mad dash to the finale at Hoover Dam.

Miller brought back much of his Deadpool team, including his VFX shop Blur, DP Ken Seng, and editor Julian Clarke. This is also the second pairing of Miller and Clarke with Adobe. Both Deadpool and Terminator: Dark Fate were edited using Premiere Pro. In fact, Adobe was also happy to tie in with the film’s promotion through their own CreateYourFate trailer remix challenge. Participants could re-edit their own trailer using supplied content from the film.

I recently spoke with Julian Clarke about the challenges and fun of cutting this latest iteration of such an iconic film franchise.

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[OP] The Terminator: Dark Fate picks up two decades after Terminator 2, leaving out the timelines of the subsequent sequels. Was that always the plan or did it evolve out of the process of making the film?

[JC] That had to do with the screenplay. You were written into a corner by the various sequels. We really wanted to bring Linda Hamilton’s character back. With Jim involved, we wanted to get back to first principles and have it based on Cameron’s mythology alone. To get back to the Linda/Arnold character arcs and then add some new stuff to that.

[OP] Many fans were attracted to the franchise by Cameron’s two original Terminator films. Was there a conscious effort at integrating that nostalgia?

[JC] I come from a place of deep fandom for Terminator 2. As a teenager I had VHS copies of Aliens and Terminator 2 and watched them on repeat after school! Those films are deeply embedded in my psyche and both of them have aged well – they still hold up. I watched the sequels and they just didn’t feel like a Terminator film to me. So the goal was definitely to make it of the DNA of those first two movies. There’s going to be a chase. It’s going to be more grounded. It’s going to get back into the Sarah Connor character and have more heart.

[OP] This film tends to have elements of humor unlike most other action films. That must have posed a challenge to set the right tone without getting campy.

[JC] The humor thing is interesting. Terminator 2 has a lot of humor throughout. We have a little bit of humor in the first half and then more once Arnold shows up, but that’s really the way it had to be. The Dani Ramos character – who’s your entry point into the movie – is devastated when her whole family is killed. The idea that you can have a lot of jokes happening would be terrible. It’s not the same in Terminator 2, because John Connor’s step-parents get very little screen time and they don’t seem that nice. You feel bad for them, but it’s OK that you get into this funny stuff right off the bat. On this one we had to ease into the humor so you could live into the gravity of the situation at the start of the movie.

[OP] Did you have to do much to alter that balance during the edit?

[JC] There were one or two jokes that we nipped out, but it wasn’t like that whole first act was chock full of jokes. The tone of the first act is more like Terminator, which is more of a thriller or horror movie. Then it becomes more like T2 as the action gets bigger and the jokes come in. So the first half is like a bigger Terminator and the second half more like T2.

[OP] Deadpool, which Tim Miller also directed, used a very nonlinear story structure, balancing action, comedic moments, and drama. Terminator was always designed with a linear, straight-forward storyline. Right?

[JC] A movie hands you certain editing tools. Deadpool was designed to be nonlinear with characters in different places, so there are a whole bunch of options for you. Terminator: Dark Fate is more like a road movie. The detonation of certain paths along the road are predetermined. You can’t be in Texas before Mexico. So the structural options you had were where to check in with the Rev-9, as well as, the inter-scene structure. Once you are in the detention center, where are you cutting to Sarah or where to cut to Dani? However, where that is placed in the movie is pretty much set. All you can do is pace it up, pace it down, adjust how to get there. There aren’t a lot of mobile pieces that can be swapped around.

[OP] When we had talked after Deadpool, you discussed how you liked the assistants to build string-outs – what some call a KEM roll. Similar action is assembled back-to-back in order from every take into a sequence. Did you use that same organizational method on Terminator: Dark Fate?

[JC] Sometimes we were so swamped with material that there wasn’t time to create string-outs. I still like to have those. It’s a nice way to quickly see all the pieces that cover a moment. If you are trying to find the one take or action that’s five percent better than another, then it’s good to see them all in a row, rather than trying to keep it all in your head for a five minute take. There was a lot of footage that we shot in the action scenes, but we didn’t do 11 or 12 takes for a dialogue scene. I didn’t feel like I needed some tool to quickly navigate through the dialogue takes. We would string-out the ones that were more complicated.

[OP] Depending on the directing style, a series of takes may have increasingly calibrated performances with successive takes. With other directors, each take might be a lot different than the one before and after it. What is your approach to evaluating which is the best take to use?

[JC] It’s interesting when you use the earlier takes versus the later takes and what you get from them. The later takes are usually the ones that are most directed. The actors are warmed up and most closely nail what the director has in mind. So they are strong in that regard. But sometimes they can become more self-conscious. And so sometimes the first take is more thrown away and may have less power, but feels more real – more off the cuff. Sometimes a delivered dialogue line feels less written and you’ll buy it more. Other times you’ll want that more dramatic quality of the later takes. My instinct is to first use the later takes, but as you start to revise a scene, you often go back to pieces of the earlier takes to ground it a little more.

[OP] Hold long did the production and post take?

[JC] It took a little over 100 days of shooting with a lot of units. I work on a lot of mid-budget films, so this seemed like a really long shoot. It was a little relentless for everyone – even squeezing it into those 100 days. Shooting action with a lot of VFX is slow, due to the reset time needed between takes. The ending of the movie is 30 minutes of action in a row. That’s a big job shooting all of that stuff. When they have a couple of units cranking through the dialogue scenes plus shooting action sequences – that’s when I have to really work hard to keep up. Once you hit the roadblocks of shooting just those little action pieces, you get a little time to catch up.

We had the usual director’s cut period and finished by the end of this September. The original plan was to finish by the beginning of September, but we needed the time for VFX. So everything piled up with the DI and the mix in order to still hit the release date. September got a little crazy.  It seems like a long time – a total of 13 or 14 months – but it still was an absolute sprint to get the movie in shape and get the VFX into the film in time. This is maybe normal for some of these film, but compared to the other VFX movies I’ve done, it was definitely turning things up a notch!

[OP] I imagine that there was a fair amount of pre-viz required to layout the action for the large VFX and CG scenes. Did you have that to work with as placeholder shots? How did you handle adjusting the cut as the interim and final shots were delivered?

[JC] Tim is big into pre-viz with his background in VFX and animation and owning his own VFX company. We had very detailed animatics going into production. Depending on a lot of factors, you still abandon a lot of things. For example, the freeway chases are quite a bit different, because when you go there and do it with real cars, they do different things. Or only part of the cars look like they are going fast enough. Those scenes became quite different than the pre-viz.

Others are almost 100% CG, so you can drop in the pre-viz as placeholders. Although, even in those cases, sometimes the finished shot doesn’t feel real enough. In the “cartoon” world of pre-viz you can do wild camera moves and say, “Wow, that seems cool!” But when you start doing it at photoreal quality, then you go, “This seems really fake.” And so we tried to get ahead of that stuff and find what to do with the camera to ground it. Kind of mess it up so it’s not too dynamic and perfect.

[OP] How involved were you with shaping the music? Did you use previous Terminator films scores as a temp track to cut with?

[JC] I was very involved with the music production. I definitely used a lot of temp music. Some of it ripped from old Terminator movies, but there’s only so much Terminator 2 music you can put in. Those scores used a lot of synthesizers that date the sound. I did use “Desert Suite” from Terminator 2 when Sarah is in the hotel room. I loved having a very direct homage to a Sarah Connor moment while she’s talking about John. Then I begged our composer, Tom Holkenborg [Junkie XL], to consider doing a version of it for our movie. So it is essentially the same chord progression.

That was an interesting musical and general question about how much do you lean into the homage thing. It’s powerful when you do it, but if you do it too much, it starts to feel artificial or pandering. And so, I tried to hit the sweet spot so you knew you were watching a Terminator movie, but not so much that it felt like Terminator karaoke. How many times can you go da-dum-dum-da-da-dum? You have to pick your moments for those Terminator motifs. It’s diminishing returns if you do it too much.

Another inspirational moment for me was another part in Terminator 2. There’s a disturbing industrial sound for the T-1000. It sounds more like a foghorn or something in a factory rather than music and it created this unnerving quality to the T-1000 scenes when he’s just scoping things out. So we came up with a modern day electronic equivalent for the Rev-9 character and that was very potent.

[OP] Was James Cameron involved much in the post-production?

[JC] He’s quite busy with his Avatar movies. Some of the time he was in New Zealand, some of the time he was in Los Angeles. Depending on where he was and where we were in the process, we would hit milestones, like screenings or the first cut. We would send him versions and download a bunch of his thoughts.

Editing is very much a part of his wheelhouse. Unlike many other directors, he really thinks about this shot, then that shot, then the next shot. His mind really works that way. Sometimes he would give us pretty specific, dialed-in notes on things. Sometimes it would just be bigger suggestions, like, “Maybe the action cutting pattern could be more like this…” So we’d get his thoughts – and, of course, he’s Jim Cameron and he knows the business and the Terminator franchise – so I listened pretty carefully to that input.

[OP] This is the second film that you’ve cut with Premiere Pro. Deadpool was first and there were challenges using it on such a complex project. What was the experience like this time around?

[JC] Whenever you set out to use a new workflow – – Not to say Premiere is new. It’s been around a long time and has millions of users, but it’s unusual to use it on large VFX movies for specific reasons. On Deadpool, that led to certain challenges and that’s just what happens when you try to do something new. The fact that we had to split the movie into separate projects for each reel, instead of one large project. Even so, the size of our project files made it tough. They were so full of media that they would take five minutes to open. Nevertheless, we made it work and there are lots of benefits to using Adobe over other applications.

In comparison, the interface to Avid [Media Composer] looks like it was designed 20 years ago; but they have multi-user collaboration nailed and I love the trim tool. Yet, some things are old and creaky. Adobe’s not that at all. It’s nice and elegant in terms of the actual editing process. We got through it and sat down with Adobe to point out things that needed work and they worked on them. When we started up Terminator, they had a whole new build for us. Project files now opened in 15 seconds. They are about halfway there in terms of multi-user editing. Now everyone can go into a big shared project and you can move bins back and forth. Although only one user at a time has write access to the master project.

This is not simple software they are writing. Adobe is putting a lot of work into making it a more fitting tool for this type of movie. Even though this film was exponentially larger than Deadpool, from the Adobe side it was a smoother process. Props to them for doing that! The cool part about pioneering this stuff is the amount of work that Adobe is on board to do. They’ll have people work on stuff that is helpful to us, so we get to participate a little in how Adobe’s software gets made.

[OP] With two large Premiere Pro projects under your belt, what sort of new features would you like to see Adobe add to the application to make it even better for feature film editors?

[JC] They’ve built out the software from being a single-user application to being a multi-user software, but the inherent software at the base level is still single-user. Sometimes your render files get unlinked when you go back and forth between multiple users. There’s probably stuff where they have to dig deep into the code to make those minor annoyances go away. Other items I’d like to see – let’s not use third party software to send change lists to the mix stage.

I know Premiere Pro integrates beautifully with After Effects, but for me, After Effects is this precise tool for executing shots. I don’t want a fine tool for compositing – I want to work in broad strokes and then have someone come back and clean it up. I would love to have a tracking tool to composite two shots together for a seamless, split screen of two combined takes – features like that.

The After Effects integration and the color correction are awesome features for a single user to execute the film, but I don’t have the time to be the guy to execute the film at that high level. I just have to keep going. I want to be able to do a fast and dirty version so I know it’s not a terrible idea and then turn to someone else, “OK, make that good.” After Effects is cool, but it’s more for the VFX editor or the single-user who is trying to make a film on their own.

[OP] After all of these action films, are you ready to do a different type of film, like a period drama?

[JC] Funny you should say that. After Deadpool I worked on The Handmaid’s Tale pilot and it was exactly that. I was working on this beautifully acted, elegant project with tons of women characters and almost everything was done in camera. It was a lot of parlor room drama and power dynamics. And that was wonderful to work on after all of this VFX/action stuff. Periodically it’s nice to flex a different creative muscle.

It’s not that I only work on science fiction/VFX projects – which I love – but, in part, people start associating you with a certain genre and then that becomes an easy thing to pursue and get work for. Much like acting, if you want to be known for doing a lot of different things you have to actively pursue it. It’s easy to go with where momentum will take you. If you want to be the editor who can cut any genre, you have to make it a mission to pursue those projects that will keep your resume looking diverse. For a brief moment after Deadpool, I might have been able to pivot to a comedy career (laughs). That was a real hybrid, so it was challenging to thread the needle of the different tones of the film and making it feel like one piece.

[OP] Any final thoughts on the challenges of editing Terminator: Dark Fate?

[JC] The biggest challenge of the film was that in a way the film was an ensemble with the Dani character, the Grace character,  the Sarah character, and Arnold’s character – the T-800. All of these characters are protagonists that all have their individual arcs. Feeling that you were adequately servicing those arcs without grinding the movie to a halt or not touching bases with a character often enough – finding out how to dial that in was the major challenge of the movie, plus the scale of the VFX and finessing all the action scenes. I learned a lot.

The article also available at postPerspective.

And more from Julian Clarke in this interview with Steve Hullfish.

©2019 Oliver Peters

A Conversation with Steve Bayes

As an early adopter of Avid systems at a highly visible facility, I first got to know Steve Bayes through his on-site visits. He was the one taking notes about how a customer used the product and what workflow improvements they’d like to see. Over the years, as an editor and tech writer, we’ve kept in touch through his travels from Avid to Media 100 and on to Apple. It was always good to get together and decompress at the end of a long NAB week.

With a career of using as well as helping to design and shepherd a wide range of post-production products, Steve probably knows more about a diverse field of editing systems than most other company managers at editing systems manufacturers. Naturally many readers will know him as Apple’s Senior Product Manager for Final Cut Pro X, a position he held until last year. But most users have little understanding of what a product manager actually does or how the products they love and use every day get from the drawing board into their hands. So I decided to sit down with Steve over Skype and pull back the curtain just a little on this very complex process.

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[OP]  Let’s start this off with a deep dive into how a software product gets to the user. What part does a product manager play in developing new features and where does engineering fit into that process?

[SB]  I’m a little unconventional. I like to work closely with the engineers during their design and development, because I have a strong technical and industry background. More traditional product managers are product marketing managers who take a more hands-off, marketing-oriented approach. That’s important, but I never worked liked that.

My rule of thumb is that I will tell the engineers what the problem is, but I won’t tell them how to solve it. In many cases the engineers will come back and say, “You’ve told us that customers need to do this ‘thing.’ What do they really want to achieve? Are you telling us that they need to achieve it exactly like this?” And so you talk that out a bit. Maybe this is exactly what the customers really want to do, because that’s what they’ve always done or the way everyone else does it. Maybe the best way to do it is based on three other things in emerging technology that I don’t know about.

In some cases the engineers come back and say, “Because of these other three things you don’t know about, we have some new ideas about how to do that. What do you think?” If their solution doesn’t work, then you have to be very clear about why and be consistent throughout the discussion, while still staying open to new ways of doing things. If there is a legitimate opportunity to innovate, then that is always worth exploring.

Traveling around the world talking to post-production people for almost 30 years allowed me to act as the central hub for that information and an advocate for the user. I look at it as working closely in partnership with engineering to represent the customer and to represent the company in the bigger picture. For instance, what is interesting for Apple? Maybe those awesome cameras that happen to be attached to a phone. Apple has this great hardware and wonderful tactile devices. How would you solve these issues and incorporate all that? Apple has an advantage with all these products that are already out in the world and they can think about cool ways to combine those with professional editing.

In all the companies I’ve worked for, we work through a list of prioritized customer requests, bug fixes, and things that we saw on the horizon within the timeframe of the release date or shortly thereafter. You never want to be surprised by something coming down the road, so we were always looking farther out than most people. All of this is put together in a product requirements document (PRD), which lays out everything you’d like to achieve for the next release. It lists features and how they all fit together well, plus a little bit about how you would market that. The PRD creates the starting point for development and will be updated based on engineering feedback.

You can’t do anything without getting sign-off by quality assurance (QA). For example, you might want to support all 10,000 of the formats coming out, but QA says, “Excuse me? I don’t think so!” [laughs] So it has to be achievable in that sense – the art of the possible. Some of that has to do with their resources and schedule. Once the engineers “put their pencils down,” then QA starts seriously. Can you hit your dates? You also have to think about the QA of third parties, Apple hardware, or potentially a new operating system (OS). You never, ever want to release a new version of Final Cut and two weeks later a new OS comes out and breaks everything. I find it useful to think about the three points of the development triangle as: the number of features, the time that you have, and the level of stability. You can’t say, “I’m going to make a really unstable release, but it’s going to have more features than you’ve ever seen!” [laughs] That’s probably a bad decision.

Then I start working with the software in alpha. How does it really work? Are there any required changes? For the demo, I go off and shoot something cool that is designed specifically to show the features. In many ways you are shooting things with typical problems that are then solved by whatever is in the new software. And there’s got to be a little something in there for the power users, as well as the new users.

As you get closer to the release, you have to make decisions about whether things are stable enough. If some feature is not going to be ready, then you could delay it to a future release — never ideal, but better than a terrible user experience. Then you have to re-evaluate the messaging. I think FCP X has been remarkably stable for all the releases of the last eight years.

You also have to bring in the third parties, like developers, trainers, or authors, who provide feedback so we can make sure we haven’t broken anything for them. If there was a particularly important feature that required third parties to help out, I would reach out to them individually and give them a little more attention, making sure that their product worked as it should. Then I would potentially use it in my own presentation. I worked closely with SpeedScriber transcription software when Apple introduced subtitling and I talked every day with Atomos while they were shooting the demo in Australia on ProRes RAW. 

[OP]  What’s the typical time frame for a new feature or release – from the germ of an idea until it gets to the user?

[SB]  Industry-wide, companies tend to have a big release and then a series of smaller releases afterwards that come relatively quickly. Smaller releases might be to fix minor, but annoying bugs that weren’t bad enough to stop the larger release. You never ship with “priority one” (P1) bugs, so if there are some P2s or P3s, then you want to get to them in a follow-up. Or maybe there was a new device, codec, camera, or piece of hardware that you couldn’t test in time, because it wasn’t ready. Of course, the OS is changing while you are developing your application, as well. One of my metaphors is that “you are building the plane while you are flying it.” [laughs]

I can’t talk about the future or Apple specifically, but historically, you can see a big release might take most of a year. By the time it’s agreed upon, designed, developed, “pencils down – let’s test it” – the actual development time is not as long as you might think. Remember, you have to back-time for quality assurance. But, there are deeper functions that you can’t develop in that relatively short period of time. Features that go beyond a single release are being worked on in the background and might be out in two or three releases. You don’t want to restrict very important features just to hit a release date, but instead, work on them a bit longer.

Final Cut is an excellent application to demonstrate the capabilities of Apple hardware, ease of use, and third party ecosystem. So you want to tie all these things together as much as you can. And every now and then you get to time things so they hit a big trade show! [laughs]

[OP]  Obviously this is the work of a larger team. Are the romanticized tales of a couple of engineers coming out of the back room with a fully-cooked product more myth than reality?

[SB]  Software development is definitely a team effort. There are certain individuals that stand out, because they are good at what they do and have areas of specialty. They’ll come back and always give you more than you asked for and surprise you with amazing results. But, it’s much more of a coordinated effort – the customer feedback, the design, a team of managers who sign off on all that, and then initial development.

If it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, you may call in extra engineers to deal with the issues or to help solve those problems. Maybe you had a feature that turned out more complicated than first thought. It’s load balancing – taking your resources and moving them to where they do the most good for the product. Plus, you are still getting excellent feedback from the QA team. “Hey, this didn’t work the way we expected it to work. Why does it work like that?” It’s very much an effort with those three parts: design, engineering, and QA. There are project managers, as well, who coordinate those teams and manage the physical release of the software. Are people hitting their dates for turning things in? They are the people banging on your door saying, “Where’s the ‘thing with the stuff?'” [laughs]

There are shining stars in each of these areas or groups. They have a world of experience, but can also channel the customer – especially during the testing phase. And once you go to beta, you get feedback from customers. At that point, though, you are late in the process, so it’s meant to fix bugs, not add features. It’s good to get that feature feedback, but it won’t be in the release at that point.

[OP]  Throughout your time at various companies, color correction seems to be dear to you. Avid Symphony, Apple Color when it was in the package, not to mention the color tools in Final Cut Pro X. Now nearly every NLE can do color grading and the advanced tools like DaVinci Resolve are affordable to any user. Yet, there’s still that very high-end market for systems like Filmlight’s Baselight. Where do you see the process of color correction and grading headed?

[SB]  Color has always meant the difference for me between an OK project and a stellar project. Good color grading can turn your straw into gold. I think it’s an incredibly valuable talent to have. It’s an aesthetic sense first, but it’s also the ability to look at an image and say, “I know what will fix that image and it will look great.” It’s a specialized skill that shouldn’t be underrated. But, you just don’t need complex gear anymore to make your project better through color grading.

Will you make it look as good as a feature film or a high-end Netflix series? Now you’re talking about personnel decisions as much as technology. Colorists have the aesthetic and the ability to problem-solve, but are also very fast and consistent. They work well with customers in that realm. There’s always going to be a need for people like that, but the question is what chunk of the market requires that level of skill once the tools get easier to use?

I just think there’s a part of the market that’s growing quickly – potentially much more quickly – that could use the skills of a colorist, but won’t go through a separate grading step. Now you have look-up tables, presets, and plug-ins. And the color grading tools in Final Cut Pro X are pretty powerful for getting awesome results even if you’re not a colorist. The business model is that the more you can do in the app, the easier it is to “sell the cut.” The client has to see it in as close to the finished form as possible. Sometimes a bad color mismatch can make a cut feel rough and color correction can help smooth that out and get the cut signed off. As you get better using the color grading tools in FCP X, you can improve your aesthetic and learn how to be consistent across hundreds of shots. You can even add a Tangent Wave controller if you want to go faster. We find ourselves doing more in less time and the full range of color grading tools in FCP X and the FX Plug plug-ins can play a very strong roll in improving any production. 

[OP]  During your time at Apple, the ProRes codec was also developed. Since Apple was supplying post-production hardware and software and no professional production cameras, what was the point in developing your own codec?

[SB]  At the time there were all of these camera codecs coming out, which were going to be a very bad user experience for editing – even on the fastest Mac Pros at the time. The camera manufacturers were using compression algorithms that were high quality, but highly compressed, because camera cards weren’t that fast or that big. That compression was difficult to decode and play back. It took more processing power than you could get from any PC at that time to get the same number of video streams compared with digitizing from tape. In some cases you couldn’t even play the camera original video files at all, so you needed to transcode before you could start editing. All of the available transcoding codecs weren’t that high in quality or they had similar playback problems.

Apple wanted to make a better user experience, so ProRes was originally designed as an intermediate codec. It worked so well that the camera manufacturers wanted to put it into their cameras, which was fine with Apple, as long as you met the quality standards. Everyone has to submit samples and work with the Apple engineers to get it to the standard that Apple expects. ProRes doesn’t encode into as small file sizes as some of the other camera codecs; but given the choice between file size, quality, and performance, then quality and performance were more important. As camera cards and hard drives get bigger, faster, and cheaper, it’s less of an issue and so it was the right decision.

[OP]  The launch of Final Cut Pro X turned out to be controversial. Was the ProApps team prepared for the industry backlash that happened?

[SB] We knew that it would be disruptive, of course. It was a whole new interface and approach. It integrated a bunch of cutting edge technology that people weren’t familiar with. A complete rewrite of  the codebase was a huge step forward as you can see in the speed and fluidity that is so crucial during the creative process. Metadata driven workflows, background processing, magnetic timeline — in many ways people are still trying to catch up eight years later. And now FCP X is the best selling version of Final Cut Pro ever.

[OP]  When Walter Murch used Final Cut Pro to edit the film, Cold Mountain, it gained a lot of attention. Is there going to be another “Cold Mountain moment” for anyone or is that even important anymore?

[SB]  Post Cold Mountain? [chuckle] You have to be careful — the production you are trying to emulate might have nothing to do with your needs on an everyday basis. It may be aspirational, but by adopting Hollywood techniques, you aren’t doing yourself any favors. Those are designed with budgets, timeframes, and a huge crew that you don’t have. Adopt a workflow that is designed for the kind of work you actually do.

When we came up in the industry, you couldn’t make a good-looking video without going to a post house. Then NLEs came along and you could do a bunch of work in your attic, or on a boat, or in a hotel room. That creative, rough-cut market fractured, but you still had to go to an online edit house. That was a limited world that took capital to build and it was an expense by the hour. Imagine how many videos didn’t get made, because a good post house cost hundreds of dollars an hour.

Now the video market has fractured into all these different outlets – streaming platforms, social media, corporate messaging, fast-turnaround events, and mobile apps. And these guys have a ton of powerful equipment, like drones, gimbals, and Atomos ProRes RAW recorders – and it looks great! But, they’re not going to a post house. They’re going to pick up whatever works for them and at the end of the day impress their clients or customers. Each one is figuring out new ways to take advantage of this new technology.

One of the things Sam Mestman teaches in his mobile filmmaking class is that you can make really high-quality stuff for a fraction of the cost and time, as long as you are going to be flexible enough to work in a non-traditional way. That is the driving force that’s going to create more videos for all of these different outlets. When I started out, the only way you could distribute directly to the consumer was by mailing someone a VHS tape. That’s just long gone, so why are we using the same editing techniques and workflows?

I can’t remember the last time I watched something on broadcast TV. The traditional ways of doing things are a sort of assembly line — every step is very compartmentalized. This doesn’t stand to benefit from new efficiencies and technological advances, because it requires merging traditional roles, eliminating steps, and challenging the way things are charged for. The rules are a little less strict when you are working for these new distribution platforms. You still have to meet the deliverable requirements, of course. But if you do it the way you’ve always done it, then you won’t be able to bring it in on time or on budget in this emerging world. If you want to stay competitive, then you are forced to make these changes — your competition maybe already has. How can you tell when your phone doesn’t ring? And that’s why I would say there are Cold Mountain moments all the time when something gets made in a way that didn’t exist a few years ago. But, it happens across this new, much wider range of markets and doesn’t get so much attention.

[OP]  Final Cut Pro X seems to have gained more professional users internationally than in the US. In your writings, you’ve mentioned that efficiency is the way local producers can compete for viewers and maintain quality within budget. Would you expand upon that?

[SB]  There are a range of reasons why FCP X and new metadata-driven workflows are expanding in Europe faster than the US. One reason is that European crews tend to be smaller and there are fewer steps between the creatives and decision-making execs. The editor has more say in picking their editing system. I see over and over that editors are forced to use systems they don’t like in larger projects and they love to use FCP X on their own projects. When the facilities listen to and trust the editors, then they see the benefits pretty quickly. If you have government funded TV (like in many countries in Europe), then they are always under public pressure to justify the costs. Although they are inherently conservative, they are incentivized to always be looking for new ways to improve and that involves risks. With smaller crews, Europeans can be more flexible as to what being “an editor” really means and don’t have such strict rules that keep them from creating motion graphics – or the photographer from doing the rough cut. This means there is less pressure to operate like an assembly line and the entire production can benefit from efficiencies.

I think there’s a huge amount of money sloshing around in Europe and they have to figure out how to do these local-language productions for the high quality that will compete with the existing broadcasters, major features, and the American and British big-budget shows. So how are you going to do that? If you follow the rules, you lose. You have to look at different methods of production. 

Subscription is a different business model of continuing revenue. How many productions will the subscription model pay for? Netflix is taking out $2 billion in bonds on top of the $1 billion they already did to fund production and develop for the local languages. I’ve been watching the series Criminal on Netflix. It’s a crime drama based on police interrogations, with separate versions done in four different countries. English, French, German, and Spanish. Each one has its own cultural biases in getting to a confession (and that’s why I watched them all!). I’ve never seen anything like it before.

The guys at Metronome in Denmark used this moment as an opportunity to take some big chances with creating new workflows with FCP X and shared storage. They are using 1.5 petabytes of storage, six Synology servers, and 30 shows being edited right now in FCP X. They use the LumaForge Jellyfish for on-location post-production. If someone says it can’t be done, you need to talk to these guys and I’m happy to make the introduction.

I’m working with another company in France that shot a series on the firefighters of Marseilles. They shot most of it with iPhones, but they also used other cameras with longer lenses to get farther away from the fires. They’re looking at a series of these types of productions with a unique mobile look. If you put a bunch of iPhones on gimbals, you’ve got a high-quality, multi-cam shoot, with angles and performances that you could never get any other way. Or a bunch of DSLRs with Atomos devices and the Atomos sync modules for perfect timecode sync. And then how quickly can you turn out a full series? Producers need to generate a huge amount of material in a wide range of languages for a wide range of markets and they need to keep the quality up. They have to use new post-production talent and methods and, to me, that’s exciting.

[OP]  Looking forward, where do you see production and post technology headed?

[SB]  The tools that we’ve developed over the last 30 years have made such a huge difference in our industry that there’s a part of me that wants to go back and be a film student again. [laughs] The ability for people to turn out compelling material that expresses a point of view, that helps raise money for a worthy cause, that helps to explain a difficult subject, that raises consciousness, that creates an emotional engagement – those things are so much easier these days. It’s encouraging to me to see it being used like this.

The quality of the iPhone 11 is stunning. With awesome applications, like Mavis and FiLMiC Pro, these are great filmmaking tools. I’ve been playing around with the DJI Osmo Pocket, too, which I like a lot, because it’s a 4K sensor on a gimbal. So it’s not like putting an iPhone on a gimbal – it’s all-in-one. Although you can connect an iPhone to it for the bigger screen. 

Camera technology is going in the direction of more pixels and bigger sensors, more RAW and HDR, but I’d really like to see the next big change come in audio. It’s the one place where small productions still have problems. They don’t hire the full-time sound guy or they think they can shoot just with the mic attached to the hot shoe of the camera. That may be OK when using only a DSLR, but the minute you want to take that into a higher-end production, you’re going to need to think about it more.

Again, it’s a personnel issue. I can point a camera at a subject and get a pretty good recording, but to get a good sound recording – that’s much harder for me at this point. In that area, Apogee has done a great job with MetaRecorder for iOS. It’s not just generating iXML to automatically name the audio channels when you import into FCP X — you can actually label the FCP X roles in the app. It uses Timecode Systems (now Atomos) for multiple iOS recording devices to sync with rock-solid timecode and you can control those multiple recorders from a single iOS device. I would like to see more people adopt multiple microphones synced together wirelessly and controlled by an iPad.

One of the things I love about being “semi-retired” is if something’s interesting to me, I just dig into it. It’s exciting that you can edit from an iPad Pro, you can back up to a Gnarbox, you can shoot high-quality video with your iPhone or a DJI Osmo Pocket, and that opens the world up to new voices. If you were to graph it – the cost of videos is going down and to the right, the number of videos being created in going up and to the right, and at some point they cross over. That promises a huge increase in the potential work for those who can benefit from these new tools. We are close to that point.

It used to be that if your client went to another post house, you lost that client. It was a zero sum game — I win — you lose. Now there are so many potential needs for video we would never have imagined. Those clients are coming out of the woodwork and saying, “Now I can do a video. I’ll do some of it myself, but at some point I’ll hand it off to you, because you are the expert.” Or they feel they can afford your talent, because the rest of the production is so much more efficient. That’s a growing demand that you might not see until your market hits that crossover point.

This article also appears at FCPco.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Rocketman

The last two of years have been rich for film audiences interested in the lives of rock legends. Rocketman was this year’s stylized biography about Elton John. Helmed by British actor/director Dexter Fletcher and starring Taron Egerton of the Kingsman film series, Rocketman tells John’s life through his songs. Astute film buffs also know that Fletcher was the uncredited, additional director who completed Bohemian Rhapsody through the end of principal photography and post, which will invite obvious comparisons between the two rock biopics.

Shepherding Rocketman through the cut was seasoned film editor, Chris Dickens. With experience cutting comedies, dramas, and musicals, it’s impossible to pin Dickens down to any particular film genre. I had recently interviewed him for Mary Queen of Scots, which was a good place to pick up this conversation about editing Rocketman.

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[OP] Our last conversation was about Mary Queen of Scots. I presume you were in the middle of cutting Rocketman at that time. Those are two very different films, so what brought you to edit Rocketman?

[CD] I made a quick shift onto Rocketman after Mary Queen of Scots. It was a fast production with eight or nine months filming and editing. The project had been in the cards a year before and I had met with Dexter to discuss doing the film. But, it didn’t happen, so I had forgotten about it until it got greenlit. I like musicals and have done one before – Les Miserables. This one was more ambitious creatively. Right from the beginning I liked the treatment of it. Rocketman was a classic kind of musical, but it was different in that the themes were adult and had a strong visual sense. Also the treatment using Elton John’s songs and illustrating his life with those was interesting.

[OP] The director had a connection with both Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody. Both films are about rock legends, so audiences may draw an obvious comparison. What’s your feeling about the contrast between these two films?

[CD] Obviously, there are a lot of similarities. Both films are essentially rock biopics about a musical figure. Both Freddie and Elton were gay. So that theme is similar, but that’s where it ends. Bohemian Rhapsody was aimed at a wider audience, i.e. less adult material – sex and drug-taking – things like that. And secondly, it’s about music, but it’s not a musical. It’s always grounded in reality. Characters don’t get up and sing to the camera. It’s about Freddie Mercury and Queen and their music. So the treatment of it is very different. Another fundamental difference is that Elton John is still alive and Freddie Mercury is not, so that was right at the film’s core. From the start you know that, so it has a different kind of power.

[OP] Whenever a film deals with popular music – especially when the rights-owners are still alive and active – the treatment and use of that music can be a sticking point. Were Elton John or Bernie Taupin actively involved in the production of Rocketman?

[CD] Yes, they were. Bernie less so – mainly Elton. He didn’t come in the edit room that much, but his husband, David Furnish, was a bit more involved. Elton is not someone who goes out in public that much, except to perform. He’s such a massive star. But, he did watch cuts of the film and had notes – not at every stage – but, David Furnish was the conduit between us and him. Naturally, Elton sanctioned all of the music tracks that were used. But the film was not made by them, i.e. we were making the film and they were giving us notes.

[OP] How were the tracks handled? Was the music remixed from the original studio masters with Taron lip-syncing to Elton’s voice – or was it different?

[CD] The music was radically changed in some cases from the original – the arrangements, the scoring. The music was completely re-recorded and sung by Taron, the actor playing Elton. We evolved the choices made at the beginning during the edit. So alongside of the picture edit was a music edit and a music mix going on constantly. In some cases Taron was singing on-set and we used that for about a quarter of the tracks. These were going in and out of scenes that had natural dialogue. Taron would start singing and we would play the track underneath. Then at that point perhaps, he would start lip-syncing, so it was a combination. On some tracks he was completely lip-syncing to what he had recorded before. This set the tempo for those scenes, but the arrangements evolved during the edit.

Even when he was lip-syncing, it was to his own voice. The whole idea was that the singing would not be Elton, except at the end where we have a track with both singing in the credits roll. So it’s a key thing that these were new recordings. Giles Martin, son of the legendary George Martin, was the music producer who took care of everything and put up with our constant changes. We had a team of two music editors who worked alongside us and a score as well, written by Matt Margeson, which we were rolling into the film in places. It was a real team process of building the film slowly.

[OP] Please expand on the structure of a film musical and what it takes to edit one.

[CD] The editing process was challenging, because of the complex structure. It was fundamentally a musical, with fifteen or sixteen tracks – meaning songs or music numbers – that were initially planned to be shot. Some of these were choreographed song-and-dance sequences. Combined with that was a sort of kitchen sink drama about Elton’s life, his childhood, his teenage years, and then into manhood. And then becoming a superstar. The script has the songs and then long sequences of more classic storytelling. What I found – slowly, as we were putting the film together, even during the shoot – was that we needed to unify those two things within the edit.

For instance, the first song number in the movie is “The Bitch is Back.” It’s a dance sequence with Elton as a boy walking down the street while people are singing and dancing around him. Then his adult self is chasing him around. It’s a very stylized sequence, which then went into about an eight minute sequence of storytelling about his childhood. We needed to give the film the same tone all the way through, i.e. that slightly fantastical feel of a musical. We screened it a few times for some of the core people and it became clear that we wanted to go with the fantastical elements of the film, not the more down-to-earth, realistic elements. Obviously, you could have made the choice to cut back on the music, but that seemed counter-intuitive. So we had to make some deep cuts in the sections between the musical pieces to get the story to flow and have that same kind of tone.

There was also a flashback structure. The film starts with Elton later on as an adult in rehab, after having fallen into drug and alcohol addiction. We framed the film with this device, so it was another element that we had to make work in the edit to get it to feel as an organic part of the story. We found that we didn’t have enough of these rehab sequences and had to shoot a few more of them during the edit to knit the film together in this way in order to remind you that he was telling this story – looking back on his past.

Cutting back sections between the musical numbers wasn’t our only solution to get the right tone. We had to work out how to get in and out of the musical sequences and that’s where the score comes in. I played with this quite a lot with the composer and Giles to have themes from Elton’s song coming throughout the film. For example, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” had some musical themes in it that we started using as the theme that went with his rehab. The theme of the film is that Elton lost any sense of where he came from as a person, because of his stardom and “Goodby Yellow Brick Road” – the song – is about that. It’s actually about going back to the farm and your roots. The song isn’t actually in the film until the very end when he performs it. So we found that using this musical theme as a motif throughout the film is very powerful and helped to combine the classical storytelling scenes with the musical scenes.

[OP] Was this process of figuring out the right balance something that happened at the beginning and then became a type of template for the rest of the film? Or was is a constant adjustment process throughout the cutting of Rocketman?

[CD] It was a constant thing trying to make the film work as a whole so people wouldn’t be confused about the tone. At one point we had far too much music and had to take some out. It became very minimal in some areas. In others, it led you more. It was about getting that balance right all the way through. I’m primarily a picture editor, but on this film you couldn’t just concentrate on the picture and then leave the music to the music editors and composer, because it was absolutely a fundamental part of the film. It was about music and so how you were using music was very key within the edit. Sometimes we had to cut longer songs down. Very few are at their original length. Some are half their recorded length.

[OP] This process sounds intriguing, since the scenes use a song as the underlying building block. Elton John’s songs tend to be pop songs – or at least they received a lot of radio airplay – so did those recorded lengths tend to drive the film?

[CD] No. At first I thought we’d have to be very faithful, but as we started cutting, the producers -and particularly Elton John’s side of it – didn’t care whether we cut things down or made them longer or added bits. They weren’t precious about it. In fact, they wanted us to be creative. The producers would say, “Don’t worry about cutting that down, Giles will deal with it.” Of course he would. Although sometimes he’d come back to me and say, “Look, this doesn’t quite work musically. You need to add a bit more time to this, or another couple of bars of music.” So we had a whole back-and-forth process like that.

For instance, in the track “Rocketman,” which is the film’s centerpiece, Elton tries to commit suicide. He’s at a party, gets drunk, and jumps into the swimming pool. While he’s underneath he starts seeing visions of himself as a child under there. He starts singing and gets fished out of the pool and then put on stage in a stadium. It’s a whole sequence that’s been planned to play like that. Of course, I couldn’t fit what they’d shot into the song – there wasn’t enough time. It was all good stuff, so I added a few bars. I’d give it to music and they’d say, “Oh, you can’t add that in that way.” So I’d go back and try different ways of doing it.

At the end, when he’s put back on stage at Dodger Stadium, he’s in a baseball uniform and then fires into the air like a rocket. They shot it in a studio without a big crowd and it looked okay. As soon as we started getting the visual effects, we thought, “Wow. This looks great.” So we doubled the length of that – added on, repeated the chorus, and all of that – because we thought people were going to love this. It looked and sounded great. But, when we then tested the film, it was way too long. It had just outstayed its welcome. We then had to cut it down again, although it was still longer than they’d originally planned it.

[OP] With a regular theatrical musical, the song are written to tell the story. Here, you are using existing songs that weren’t written with that story in mind. I presume you have to be careful that you don’t end up with just a bunch of music videos strung back-to-back.

[CD] Exactly. I don’t think we ever strayed into that. It was always about – does it make its point? These songs were written at all times in his career, but we didn’t use them in their original chronological order. “Honky Cat” was written later than when we used it. He’s just getting successful and at the end of “Honky Cat” they are buying Rolls Royces and clothes and football teams. At the end of that there was a great song-and-dance routine with them dancing on a record – Elton and John Reid, his manager and also a kind of boyfriend. That part went on for two minutes and we ended cutting it out. Partly because people and the producers who saw it thought it wasn’t the right style. It had a kind of 1920s or 1930s style with lots of dancers. It was a big number and took a long time to edit, but we took it out. I thought it was quite a nice sequence, but most people thought the film was better without it, because it wasn’t moving the story on.

[OP] Other than adjusting scenes and length, did friends-and-family and test audience screenings change your edit significantly?

We did three big screenings in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Kansas City, plus a number of smaller ones in England. The audiences were a mix of people who were Elton John fans, as well as those that weren’t. Essentially people liked the film right from the start, but the audiences weren’t getting some parts, like the flashback structure with the rehab scenes – particularly at the beginning. They didn’t really understand what he was singing about. 

That first song [“The Bitch Is Back”] caused a lot of difficulty, because it starts the film and says this is a musical. You have to handle that the right way. I think the initial problems were partly in how I had cut the sequence originally. I tried to show too much of the crowd around him and the dancers and I thought that was the way to go with it. Actually what it turned out was the way to go was the relationship between the two of them – Elton and Elton as the little boy – because that’s what the song was about. I then readjusted the edits, taking out a lot of the wide shots.

Also Taron had done some improvised dialogue to the little boy rather than just singing all the way through – dialogue lines like, “Stop doing that.” That was in the film a long time, but people didn’t like it and didn’t understand why he was angry with the boy. So we cut that out completely. Another issue was that right at the start, the little boy starts singing to Taron as Elton first, but audiences did not feel comfortable with it. We discussed it a lot and decided that the lead actor should be the one we hear singing first. We did a reshoot of that beginning portion of the scene. You have to let the audience into it more slowly than we had originally done. That’s a prime example of how editing decisions can lead to additional filming to really make it work.

[OP] You mentioned visual effects to complete the “Rocketman” scene. Were there a lot of effects used to make the film period-accurate or just for visual style?

[CD] Quite a lot, though not excessively, like a comic book movie. I imagine it was similar to Bohemian Rhapsody that had to shoot gigs and concerts and places were you couldn’t go now and film that. But our visual effects weren’t as fundamental in that I didn’t need them to cut with. The boy underwater was all created, of course. Taron in the pool was actually him underwater, because he had breathing apparatus. But the little boy couldn’t, so he was singing ‘dry for wet’ – shot in the studio and put into the scene later. There were different evolutions of that scene. In one version we took the boy out completely and just had Taron singing.

The end of the film as written was going to be a re-imagined version of Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” music video, which is on the beach in Cannes, shot in the 80s. The idea was to go there and shoot it with a lot more dancers. By the time the film was being shot, the weather changed and we couldn’t shoot that sequence. That whole ending was shot later, partly in a studio. Because we couldn’t afford to go to Cannes and reshoot the whole thing, someone was able to get the original rushes from that music video, which had been shot on 16mm film, but edited on videotape. We had to get permission from the original director of that music video and he was very happy for us to do it. We had the 16mm film rescanned and also removed the grain. Instead of Elton, we put Taron into it.  In every shot with Elton, we replaced his head with Taron’s and that became the ending sequence of the film. As a visual effect, that took quite a leap of faith, but it did work in the end. That wasn’t the original plan, but I think it’s better.

[OP] In Bohemian Rhapsody there was a conscious consideration of matching the Live Aid concert angles and actions. Was there anything like that in Rocketman?

[CD] There was no point in trying to do that on Rocketman. It was always going to be stylized and different from reality. We staged Dodger Stadium the way it looked, but we didn’t try to match it. The original concert was late afternoon and ours is more towards night, which was visually better. The visual inspiration came from the stills taken by a famous rock photographer and they look a little more night. At one point we talked about having a concert at the end and we tried shooting something, but it just didn’t feel right. We were going to get compared to BoRhap anyway, so we didn’t want to even try and do something the same way.

[OP] Any final thoughts or advice on how to approach a film like Rocketman?

[CD] Every movie is different. Every single time you come to a story, you nearly have to start again. The director wants to do it a certain way and you have to adapt to that. With some of the dramas or comedies that I’ve cut, it’s a less immediate process. You don’t really know how the whole thing is coming together until you get a sense of it quite late. With this, they shot a few of the song sequences early and as soon as I saw that, I thought right away, “Oh, this is great.” You can build a quick three-minute sequence to show people and you get a feel for the whole film. You can get excited about it. On a drama or even worse, on a thriller, you’re guessing how it’s coming together and you’re using all of your skills to do that.

The director and the story are the differences and I try to adapt. Dexter wanted the film to be popular, but also distinctive. He wanted to see very quickly how it was coming together. As soon as he was done filming he wanted to go to the edit and see how it was coming along. In that scenario you try to get some things done more quickly. So I would try to get some sequences put together knowing that, and then come back to them later if you’ve rushed them.

Since it’s a musical you could string together the songs and get a feel, but that would be misleading. When you start off you can produce a sequence very quickly that looks good, because you’ve got the music that makes it feel almost finished and that it’s working. But that can lead you into a dead end if you’re not careful – if you are too precious about the music – the length of it and such. You still have to be hard about the storytelling element. Ultimately all of the decisions come from the story – how long the scene is, whether you start on a close-up or a wide – I always try to approach everything like that. If you keep that in your head, you’ll make the right decisions.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Free Solo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images courtesy of National Geographic and Bob Eisenhardt.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Bandersnatch was initially conceived as an interactive episode within the popular Black Mirror anthology series on Netflix. Instead, Netflix decided to release it as a standalone, spin-off film in December 2018. It’s the story of programmer Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) as he adapts a choose-your-own-adventure novel into a video game. Set in 1984, the viewers get to make decisions for Butler’s actions, which then determine the next branch of the story shown to the viewer. They can go back though Bandersnatch and opt for different decisions, in order to experience other versions of the story.

Bandersnatch was written by show creator Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror, Cunk on Britain, Cunk on Shakespeare), directed by David Slade (American Gods, Hannibal, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), and edited by Tony Kearns (The Lodgers, Cardboard Gangsters, Moon Dogs). I recently had a chance to interview Kearns about the experience of working on such a unique production.

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[OP] Please tell me a little about your editing background leading up to cutting Bandersnatch.

[TK] I started out almost 30 years ago editing music videos in London. I did that full-time for about 15 years working for record companies and directors. At the tail end of that a lot of the directors I was working with moved into doing commercials, so I started editing commercials more and more in Dublin and London. In Dublin I started working on long form, feature film projects and cut about 10 projects that were UK or European co-productions with the Irish Film Board.

In 2017 I got a call from Black Mirror to edit the Metalhead episode, which was directed by David Slade. He was someone I had worked with on music videos and commercials 15 years previously, before he had moved to the United States. That was a nice circularity. We were together working again, but on a completely different type of project – drama, on a really cool series, like Black Mirror. It went very well, so David and I were asked to get involved with Bandersnatch, which we jumped at, because it was such an amazing, different kind of project. It was unlike anything either of us – or anyone else, for that matter – has ever done to that level of complexity.

[OP] Other attempts at interactive storytelling – with the exception of the video game genre – have been a hit-or-miss. What were your initial thoughts when you read the script for the first time?

[TK] I really enjoyed the script. It was written like a conventional script, but with software called Twine, so you could click on it and go down different paths. Initially I was overwhelmed at the complexity of the story and the structure. It wasn’t that I was like a deer in the headlights, but it gave me a sense of scale of the project and [writer/show runner] Charlie Brooker’s ambition to take the interactive story to so many layers.

On my own time I broke down the script and created spreadsheets for each of the eight sections in the script and wrote descriptions of every possible permutation, just to give me a sense of what was involved and to get it in my head what was going on. There are so many different narrative paths – it was helpful to have that in my brain. When we started editing, that would also help me to keep a clear eye at any point.

[OP] How long of a schedule did you have to post Bandersnatch?

[TK] 17 weeks was the official edit time, which isn’t much longer than on a low-budget feature. When I mentioned that to people, they felt that was a really short amount of time; but, we did a couple of weekends, we were really efficient, and we knew what we were doing.

[OP] Were you under any running length constraints, in the same way that a TV show or a feature film editor often wrestles with on a conventional linear program?

[TK] Not at all. This is the difference – linear doesn’t exist. The length depends on the choices that are made. The only direction was for it not to be a sprawling 15-hour epic – that there would be some sort of ball park time. We weren’t constrained, just that each segment had to feel right – tight, but not rushed.

[OP] With that in mind, what sort of process did you do through to get it to feel right?

[TK] Part of each edit review was to make it as tight or as lean as it needed to be. Netflix developed their own software, called Branch Manager, which allowed people to review the cut interactively by selecting the choice points. My amazing assistant editor, John Weeks, is also a coder, so he acquired an extra job, which was to take the exports and do the coding in order to have everything work in Branch Manager. He’s a very robust person, but I think we almost broke him (laughs), because there were up to 100 Branch Manager versions by the end. The coding was hanging on by a thread. He was a bit like Scotty in Star Trek, “The engines can’t hold it anymore, Captain!”

By using Branch Manager, people could choose a path and view it and give notes. So I would take the notes, make the changes, and it would be re-exported. Some segments might have five cuts while others would be up to 13 or 14. Some scenes were very straightforward, but others were more difficult to repurpose.

Originally there were more segments in the script, but after the first viewings it was felt that there were too many in there. It was on the borderline of being off-putting for viewers. So we combined a few, but I made sure to keep track of that so it was in the system. There was a lot of reviewing, making notes, updating spreadsheets, and then making sure John had the right version for the next Branch Manager creation. It was quite an involved process.

[OP] How were you able to keep all of this straight? Did you use the common technique of scenes cards on the wall or something different?

[TK] If you looked at flowcharts your head would explode, because it would be like looking at the wiring diagram of an old-fashioned telephone exchange. There wouldn’t have been enough room on the wall. For us, it would just be on paper – notebooks and spreadsheets. It was more in our heads – our own sense of what was happening – that made it less confusing. If you had the whole thing as a picture, you just wouldn’t know where to look.

[OP] In a conventional production an editor always has to be mindful that when something is removed, it may have ramifications to the story later on. In this case, I would imagine that those revisions affected the story in either direction. How were you able to deal with that?

[TK] I have been asked about how did we know that each path would have a sense of a narrative arc. We couldn’t think of it as one, total narrative arc. That’s impossible. You’d have to be a genius to know that it’s all going to work. We felt the performances were great, the story was strong, but it doesn’t have a conventional flow. There are choice points, which act as a propellant into the next part of the film thus creating an unconventional experience to the straight story arc of conventional films or episodes. Although there wasn’t a traditional arc, it still had to feel like a well-told story. And that you would have empathy and a sense of engagement – that it wasn’t a gimmick.

[OP] How did the crew and actors mange to keep the story straight in their minds as scenes were filmed?

[TK] As with any production, the first few days are finding out what you’ve let yourself in for. This was a steep learning curve in that respect. Only three weeks of the seven-week shoot was in the same studio complex where I was working, so I wasn’t present. But there was a sense that they needed to make it easier for the actors and the crew. The script supervisor, Marilyn Kirby, was amazing. She was the oracle for the whole shoot. She kept the whole show on the road, even when it was quite complicated. The actors got into the swing of it quickly, because I had no issues with the rushes. They were fantastic.

[OP] What camera formats were used and what is your preparation process for this footage prior to editing?

[TK] It’s the most variety of camera formats I’ve ever worked on. ARRI Alexa 65 and RED, but also 1980s Ikegami TV cameras, Super 8mm, 35mm, 16mm, and VHS. Plus, all of the print stills were shot on black-and-white film. The data lab handled the huge job to keep this all organized and provide us with the rushes. So, when I got them, they were ready to go. The look was obviously different between the sources, but otherwise it was the same as a regular film. Each morning there was a set of ProRes Proxy rushes ready for us. John synced and organized them and handed them over. And then I started cutting. Considering all the prep the DIT and the data lab had to go through, I think I was in a privileged position!

[OP] What is your method when first starting to edit a scene?

[TK] I watch all of the rushes and can quickly see which take might be the bedrock framing for a scene – which is best for a given line. At that point I don’t just slap things together on a timeline. I try to get a first assembly to be as good as possible, because it just helps anyone who sees it. If you show a director or a show runner a sloppy cut, they’ll get anxious and I don’t want that to happen. I don’t want to give the wrong impression.

When I start a scene, I usually put the wide down end-to-end, so I know I have the whole scene. Then I’ll play it and see what I have in the different framings for each line – and then the next line and the next and so on. Finally, I go back and take out angles where I think I may be repeating a shot too much, extend others, and so on. It’s a built-it-up process in an effort to get to a semi-fine cut as quickly as possible.

[OP] Were you able to work with circle takes and director’s notes on Bandersnatch?

[TK] I did get circle takes, but no director’s notes. David and I have an intuitive understanding, which I hope to fulfill each time – that when I watch the footage he shoots, that I’ll get what he’s looking for in the scene. With circles takes, I have to find out very quickly whether the script supervisor is any good or not. Marilyn is brilliant so whenever she’s doing that, I know that take is the one. David is a very efficient director, so there weren’t a massive number of takes – usually two or three takes for each set-up. Everything was shot with two cameras, so I had plenty of coverage. I understand what David is looking for and he trusts me to get close to that.

[OP] With all of the various formats, what sort of shooting ratio did you encounter? Plus, you had mentioned two-camera scenes. What is your approach to that in your edit application?

[TK] I believe the various story paths totaled about four-and-a-half hours of finished material. There was a 3:1 shooting ratio, times two cameras – so maybe 6:1 or even 9:1. I never really got a final total of what was shot, but it wasn’t as big as you’d expect. 

When I have two-camera coverage I deal with it as two individual cameras. I can just type in the same timecode for the other matching angle. I just get more confused with what’s there when I use multi-cam. I prefer to think of it as that’s the clip from the clip. I hope I’m not displaying an anti-technology thing, but I’m used to it this way from doing music videos. I used to use group clips in Avid and found that I could think about each camera angle more clearly by dealing with them separately.

[OP] I understand that you edited Bandersnatch on Adobe Premiere Pro. Is that your preferred editing software?

[TK] I’ve used Premiere Pro on two feature films, which I cut in Dublin, and a number of shorts and TV commercials. If I am working where I can set up my own cutting room, then I’m working with Premiere. I use both Avid and Adobe, but I find I’m faster on Premiere Pro than on Media Composer. The tools are tuned to help me work faster.

The big thing on this job was that you can have multiple sequences open at the same time in Premiere. That was going to be the crunch thing for me. I didn’t know about Branch Manager when I specified Premiere Pro, so I figured that would be the way we work need to review the segments – simply click on a sequence tab and play it as a rudimentary way to review a story path. The company that supplied the gear wasn’t as familiar with Premiere [as they were with Avid], so there were some issues, but it was definitely the right choice.

[OP] Media Composer’s strength is in multi-editor workflows. How did you handle edit collaboration in Premiere Pro?

[TK] We used Adobe’s shared projects feature, which worked, but wasn’t as efficient as working with Avid in that version of Premiere. It also wasn’t ideal that we were working from Avid Nexis as the shared storage platform. In the last couple of months I’ve been in contact with the people at Adobe and I believe they are sorting out some of the issues we were having in order to make it more efficient. I’m keen for that to happen.

In the UK and London in particular, the big player is Avid and that’s what people know, so anything different, like Premiere Pro, is seen with a degree of suspicion. When someone like me comes in and requests something different, I guess I’m viewed as a bit of a pain in the ass. But, there shouldn’t just be one behemoth. If you had worked on the old Final Cut Pro, then Premiere Pro is a natural fit – only more advanced and supported by a company that didn’t want to make smart phones and tablets.

[OP] Since Adobe Creative Cloud offers a suite of compatible software tools, did you tap into After Effects or other tools for your edit?

[TK] That was another real advantage – the interaction with the graphics user interface and with After Effects. When we mocked up the first choice points, it was so easy to create, import, and adjust. That was a huge advantage. Our VFX editor was able to build temp VFX in After Effects and we could integrate that really easily. He wasn’t just using an edit system’s effects tool, but actual VFX software, which seamlessly integrated with Premiere. Although these weren’t final effects at full 4K resolution, he was able to do some very complex things, so that everyone could go, “Yes, that’s it.”

[OP] In closing, what take-away would you offer an editor interested in tackling an interactive story as compared to a conventional linear film?

[TK] I learned to love spreadsheets (laugh). I realized I had to be really, really organized. When I saw the script I knew I had to go through it with a fine-tooth comb and get a sense of it. I also realized you had to unlearn some things you knew about conventional episodic TV. You can’t think of some things in the same way. A practical thing for the team is that you have to have someone who knows coding, if you are using a similar tool to Branch Manager. It’s the only way you will be able to see it properly.

It’s a different kind of storytelling pressure that you have to deal with, mostly because you have to trust your instincts even more that it will work as a coherent story across all the narrative paths. You also have to be prepared to unlearn some of the normal methods you might use. One example is that you have to cut the opening of different segments differently to work with the last shot of the previous choice point, so you can’t just go for one option, you have to think more carefully what the options are. The thing is not to walk in thinking it’s going to be the same as any other production, because it ain’t.

For more on Bandersnatch, check out these links: postPerspective, an Art of the Guillotine interview with Tony Kearns, and a scene analysis at This Guy Edits.

Images courtesy of Netflix and Tony Kearns.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Good Omens

Fans of British television comedies have a new treat in Amazon Prime’s Good Omens. The six-part mini-series is a co-production of BBC Studios and Amazon Studios. It is the screen adaptation of the 1990 hit novel by the late Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, entitled Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. Just imagine if the Book of Revelation had been written by Edgar Wright or the Coen brothers. Toss in a bit of The Witches of Eastwick and I think you’ll get the picture.

The series stars Michael Sheen (Masters of Sex, The Good Fight) as Aziraphale (an angel) and David Tennant (Mary Queen of Scots, Doctor Who) as Crowley (a demon). Although on opposing sides, the two have developed a close friendship going back to the beginning of humanity. Now it’s time for the Antichrist to arrive and bring about Armageddon. Except that the two have grown fond of humans and their life on Earth, so Crowley and Aziraphale aren’t quite ready to see it all end. They form an unlikely alliance to thwart the End Times. Naturally this gets off to a bad start, when the Antichrist child is mixed up at birth and ends up misplaced with the wrong family. The series also stars an eclectic supporting cast, including Jon Hamm (Baby Driver, Mad Men), Michael McKean (Veep, Better Call Saul), and Frances McDormand (Hail, Caesar!, Fargo) as the voice of God.

Neil Gaiman (Lucifer, American Gods) was able to shepherd the production from novel to the screen by adapting the screenplay and serving as show runner. Douglas Mackinnon (Doctor Who, Sherlock) directed all six episodes. I recently had a chance to speak with Will Oswald (Doctor Who, Torchwood: Children of Earth, Sherlock) and Emma Oxley (Lair, Happy Valley), the two editors who brought the production over the finish line.

(Click any image to see an enlarged view.)

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[OP] Please tell me a bit about your editing backgrounds and how you landed this project.

[Will] I was the lead editor for Doctor Who for a while and got along well with the people. This led to Sherlock. Douglas had worked on both and gave me a call when this came up.

[Emma] I’ve been mainly editing thrillers and procedurals and was looking for a completely different script, and out of the blue I received a call from Douglas. I had worked with him as an assistant editor in 2007 on an adaptation of the Jekyll and Hyde story and I was fortunate that a couple of Douglas’s main editors were not available for Good Omens. When I read the script I thought this is a dream come true.

[OP] Had either of you read the book before?

[Will] I hadn’t, but when I got the gig, I immediately read the book. It was great, because this is a drama-comedy. How good a job is that? You are doing everything you like. It’s a bit tricky, but it’s a great atmosphere to work in.

[Emma] I was the same, but within a week I had read it. Then the scripts came through and they were pretty much word for word – you don’t expect that. But since it was six hours instead of feature length the book could remain intact.

[OP] I know that episodic series often divide up the editorial workload in many different ways. Who worked on which episode and how was that decided?

[Will] Douglas decided that I would do the first three episodes and Emma would edit the last three. The series happened to split very neatly in the middle. The first three episodes really set up the back story and the relationship between the characters and then the story shifts tone in the last three episodes.

[Emma] Normally in TV the editors would leapfrog each other. In this case, as Will said, the story split nicely into two, three-hour sections. It was a nice experience not to have to jump backwards and forwards.

[Will] The difficult thing for me in the first half is that the timeline is so complicated. In the first three episodes you have to develop the back story, which in this case goes back and forth through the centuries – literally back to the beginning of time. You also have to establish the characters’ relationship to each other. By the end of episode three, they really start falling apart, even though they do really like each other. It’s a bit like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Of course, Emma then had to resolve all the conflicts in her episodes. But it was nice to go rocking along from one episode to the next.

[OP] What was the post-production schedule like?

[Emma] Well, we didn’t really have a schedule. That’s why it worked! (laugh) Will and I were on it from the very start and once we decided to split up the edit as two blocks of three episodes, there were days when I wouldn’t get any rushes, so could focus on getting a cut done and vice versa with Will. When Douglas came in, we had six pretty good episodes that were cut according to the script. Douglas said he wanted to treat it like a six hour film, so we did a full pass on all six episodes before Neil came in and then finally the execs. They allowed us the creative freedom to do that.

[Will] When Douglas came back, we basically had a seven and a half hour movie, which we ran in a cinema on a big screen. Then we went through and made adjustments in order. It was the first time I’ve had both the show runner and the director in with me every day. Neil had promised Terry that he would make sure it happened. Terry passed away before the production, but he had told Neil – and I’m paraphrasing here – don’t mess it up! So this was a very personal project for him. That weighed heavily on me, because when I reread the book, I wanted to make sure ‘this’ was in and ‘that’ was in as I did my cut.

[OP] What sort of changes were made as you were refining the episodes?

[Will] There were a lot of structural changes in episodes one and two that differed a lot from the script. It was a matter of working out how best to tell the story. Episode one was initially 80 minutes long. There was quite a lot of work to get down to the hourlong final version. Episode three was much easier. 

[Emma] By the time it got to episode four, the pattern had been established, so we had to deal more with visual effects challenges in the second half. We had a number of large set pieces and a limited visual effects budget. So we had to be clever about using visual effects moments without losing the impact, but still maximizing the effects we did have. And at the same time keeping it as good as we could. For example, there’s a flying saucer scene, but the plate shot didn’t match the saucer shot and it was going to take a ton of work to match everything. So we combined it with a shot intended for another part of the scene. Instead of a full screen effects shot, it’s seen through a car window. Not only did it save a lot of money, but more importantly, it ended up being a better way for the ship to land and more in the realm of Good Omens storytelling. I love that shot.

[Will] Visual effects are just storytelling points. You want to be careful not to lose the plot. For example, the Hellhound changes into a puppy dog and that transformation was originally intended to be a big visual effect. But instead, we went with a more classic approach. Just a simple cut and the camera tilts down to reveal the smaller dog. It turned out to be a much better way of doing it and makes me laugh every time I see it.

[OP] I noticed a lot of music from Queen used throughout. Any special arrangement to secure that for the series?

[Will] Queen is in the book. Every time Crowley hears music, even if it’s Mozart, it turns into Queen. Fortunately Neil knows everybody!

[Emma] And it’s one of Douglas’ favorite bands of all time, so it was a treat for him to put as much Queen music in as possible. At one point we had it over many more moments.

[Will] Also working with David Arnold [series composer] was great. There’s a lot of his music as well and he really understands what we do in editing.

[OP] Since this is a large effort and a lot of complex work involved, did you have a large team of assistant editors on the job with you?

[Emma] This is the UK. We don’t have a huge team! (laugh)

[Will] We had one assistant, Cat Gregory, and then much later on, a couple more for visual effects.

[Emma] They were great. Cat, our first assistant, had an adjoining room to us and she was our ‘take barometer.’ If you put in an alt line and she didn’t laugh, you knew it wasn’t as good. But if there was a chuckle coming out of her room, it would more often stay.

[OP] How do you work with your assistants? For example, do you let assistants assemble selects, or cut in sound effects or music?

[Will] It was such a heavy schedule with a huge amount of material, so there was a lot of work just to get that in and organized. Just giving us an honest opinion was invaluable. But music and sound effects – you really have to do that yourself.

[Emma] Me, too. I cut my own music and assemble my own rushes.

[OP] Please tell me a bit about your editorial set-up and editing styles.

[Will] We were spread over two or four upstairs/downstairs rooms at the production company’s office in Soho. These were Avid Media Composer systems with shared storage. We didn’t have the ScriptSync option. We didn’t even have Sapphire plug-ins until late in the day, although that might have been nice with some of the bigger scenes with a lot of explosions. I don’t really have an editing style, I think it’s important not to have one as an editor. Style comes out of the content. I think the biggest challenge on this show was how do you get the English humor across to an American audience.

[Emma] I wouldn’t say I have an editing style either. I come in, read the notes, and then watch the rushes with that information in my head. There wasn’t a lot of wild variation in the takes and David’s and Michael’s performances were just dreamy. So the material kind of cut itself.

[Will] The most important thing is to familiarize yourself with the material and review the selected takes. Those are the ones the director wanted. That also gives you a fixed point to start from. The great thing about software these days is that you can have multiple versions.

[OP] I know some directors like to calibrate their actors’ performances, with each take getting more extreme in emotion. Others like to have each take be very different from the one before it. What was Mackinnon’s style on this show as a director?

[Emma] In the beginning you always want to figure out what they are thinking. With Douglas it’s easy to see from the material he gives you. He’s got it all planned. He really gets the performance down to a tee in the rehearsal.

[Will] Douglas doesn’t push for a wide range in the emotion from one take to the next. As Emma mentioned, Douglas works through that in rehearsal. Someone like David and Michael work that out, too, and they’re bouncing off each other. Douglas has a fantastic visual sense. You can look at the six episodes and go, “Wow, how did you get all of that in?” It’s a lot of material and he found a way to tell that story. There’s a very natural flow to the structure.

[OP] Since both Douglas Mackinnon and Will worked on Doctor Who, and David Tennant was one of the Doctors during the series, was there a conscious effort to stay away from anything that smacked of Doctor Who in Good Omens?

[Will] It never crossed my mind. I always try to do something different, but as I said, the style comes out of the material. It has jeopardy and humor like Doctor Who, but it’s really quite different. I did 32 episodes of Doctor Who and each of those was very different from the other. David Tennent is in it, of course, but he is not even remotely playing the Doctor. Crowley is a fantastic new character for him.

[OP] Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share about working on Good Omens?

[Will] It was a pleasure to work on a world-famous book and it is very funny. To do it justice was really all we were doing. I was going back every night and reading the book marking up things. Hopefully the fans like it. I know Neil does and I hope Terry is watching it.

[Emma] I’m just proud that the fans of the book are saying that it’s one of the best adaptations they’ve ever watched on the screen. That’s a success story and it gives me a warm feeling when I think about Good Omens. I’d go back and cut it again, which I rarely say about any other job.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Glass – Editing an Unconventional Trilogy

Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has become synonymous with films about the supernatural that end with a twist. He first gained broad attention with The Sixth Sense and in the two decades since, has written, produced, and directed a range of large and small films. In recent years, he has taken a more independent route to filmmaking, working with lower budgets and keeping close control of production and post.

His latest endeavor, Glass, also becomes the third film in what is now an unconventional trilogy, starting first with Unbreakable, released 19 years ago. 2017’s Split was the second in this series. Glass combines the three principal characters from the previous two films – David Dunn/The Overseer (Bruce Willis), Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), and Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), who has 23 multiple personalities.

Shyamalan likes to stay close to his northeastern home base for production and post, which has afforded an interesting opportunity to young talent. One of those is Luke Ciarrocchi, who edited the final two installments of the trilogy, Split and Glass. This is only his third film in the editor’s chair. 2015’s The Visit was his first. Working with Shyamalan has provided him with a unique opportunity, but also a master class in filmmaking. I recently spoke with Luke Ciarrocchi about his experience editing Glass.

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[OP] You’ve had the enviable opportunity to start your editing career at a pretty high level. Please tell me a bit about the road to this point.

[LC] I live in a suburb of Philadelphia and studied film at Temple University. My first job after college was as a production assistant to the editing team on The Happening with editor Conrad Buff (The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Last Airbender) and his first assistant Carole Kenneally. When the production ended, I got a job cutting local market commercials. It wasn’t glamorous stuff, but it is where I got my first experience working on Avid [Media Composer] and really started to develop my technical knowledge. I was doing that for about seven months when The Last Airbender came to town.

I was hired as an apprentice editor by the same editing crew that I had worked with on The Happening. It was on that film that I started to get onto Night’s radar. I was probably the first Philly local to break into his editing team. There’s a very solid and talented group of local production crew in Philly, but I think I was the first local to join the Editors Guild and work in post on one of his films. Before that, all of the editing crew would come from LA or New York. So that was a big ‘foot in the door’ moment, getting that opportunity from Conrad and Carole.  I learned a lot on Airbender. It was a big studio visual effects film, so it was a great experience to see that up close – just a really exciting time for me.

During development of After Earth, even before preproduction began, Night asked me to build a type of pre-vis animatic from the storyboards for all the action sequences. I would take these drawings into After Effects and cut them up into moveable pieces, animate them, then cut them together into a scene in Avid. I was putting in music and sound effects, subtitles for the dialogue, and really taking them to a pretty serious and informative level. I remember animating the pupils on one of the drawings at one point to convey fear (laughs). We did this for a few months. I would do a cut, Night would give me notes, maybe the storyboard artist would create a new shot, and I would do a recut. That was my first back-and-forth creative experience with him.

Once the film began to shoot, I joined the editing team as an assistant editor. At the end of post – during crunch time – I got the opportunity to jump in and cut some actual scenes with Night. It was surreal. I remember sitting in the editing room auditioning cuts for him and him giving notes and all the while I’m just repeating in my head, ‘Don’t mess this up, don’t mess this up.’ I feel like we had a very natural rapport though, besides the obvious nervousness that would come from a situation like that. We really worked well together from the start. We both had a strong desire to dig deep and really analyze things, to not leave anything on the table. But at the same time we also had the ability to laugh at things and break the seriousness when we needed to. We have a similar sense of humor that to this day I think helps us navigate the more stressful days in the editing room. Personality plays a big roll in the editing room. Maybe more so then experience. I may owe my career to my immature sense of humor. I’m not sure.     

After that, I assisted on some other films passing through Philly and just kept myself busy. Then I got a call from Night’s assistant to come by to talk about his next film, The Visit. I got there and he handed me a script and told me he wanted me to be the sole editor on it. Looking back it seems crazy, because he was self-financing the film. He had lot on the line and he could have gotten any editor, but he saw something. So that was the first of the three films I would cut for him. The odds have to be one-in-a-million for that to pan out the way that it did in the suburbs of Philly. Right place, right time, right people. It’s a lot of luck, but when you find yourself in that situation, you just have to keep telling yourself, ‘Don’t mess this up.’

[OP] These three films, including Glass, are being considered a trilogy, even though they span about two decades. How do they tie together, not just in story, but also style?

[LC] I think it’s fair to call Glass the final installment of a trilogy – but definitely an untraditional one. First Unbreakable, then 19 years later Split, and now Glass. They’re all in the same universe and hopefully it feels like a satisfying philosophical arc through the three. The tone of the films is ingrained in the scripts and footage. Glass is sort of a mash-up of what Unbreakable was and what Split was. Unbreakable was a drama that then revealed itself as a comic book origin story. Split was more of a thriller – even horror at times – that then revealed itself as part of this Unbreakable comic book universe. Glass is definitely a hybrid of tone and genre representing the first two films. 

[OP] Did you do research into Unbreakable to study its style?

[LC] I didn’t have to, because Unbreakable has been one of my favorite films since I was 18. It’s just a beautiful film. I loved that in the end it wasn’t just about David Dunn accepting who he was, but also Elijah finding his place in the world only by committing these terrible crimes to discover his opposite. He had to become a villain to find the hero. It’s such a cool idea and for me, very rewatchable. The end never gets old to me. So I knew that film very, very well. 

[OP] Please walk me through your schedule for post-production.

[LC] We started shooting in October of 2017 and shot for about two month. I was doing my assembly during that time and the first week of December. Then Night joined me and we started the director’s cut. The way that Night has set up these last three films is with a very light post crew. It’s just my first assistant, Kathryn Cates, and me set up at Night’s offices here in the suburbs of Philadelphia with two Avids. We had a schedule that we were aiming for, but the release date was over a year out, so there was wiggle room if it was needed. 

Night’s doing this in a very unconventional way. He’s self-financing, so we didn’t need to go into a phase of a studio cut. After his director’s cut, we would go into a screening phase – first just for close crew, then more of a friends-and-family situation. Eventually we get to a general audience screening. We’re working and addressing notes from these screenings, and there isn’t an unbearable amount of pressure to lock it up before we’re happy. 

[OP] I understand that your first cut was about 3 1/2 hours long. It must take a lot of trimming and tweaking to get down to the release length of 129 minutes. What sort of things did you do to cut down the running time from that initial cut?

[LC] One of our obstacles throughout post was that initial length. You’re trying to get to the length that the film wants to be without gutting it in the process. You don’t want to overcut as much as you don’t want to undercut. We had a similar situation on Split, which was a long assembly as well. The good news is that there’s a lot of great stuff to work with and choose from.

We approach it very delicately. After each screening we trimmed a little and carefully pulled things out, so each screening was incrementally shorter, but never dramatically so. Sometimes you will learn from a screenings that you pulled the wrong thing out and it needed to go back in. Ultimately no major storyline was cut out of Glass. It was really just finding where we are saying the same thing twice, but differently – diagnosing which one of those versions is the more impactful one – then cutting the others. And so, we just go like that. Pass after pass. Reel by reel.

An interesting thing I’ve found is that when you are repeating things, you will often feel that the second time is the offensive moment of that information and the one to remove, because you’ve heard it once before. But the truth is that the first telling of that information is more often what you want to get rid of. By taking away the first one, you are saving something for later. Once you remove something earlier, it becomes an elevated scene, because you are aren’t giving away so much up front. 

[OP] What is your approach to getting started when you are first confronted with the production footage? What is your editing workflow like?

[LC] I’m pretty much paper-based. I have all of the script supervisor’s notes. Night is very vocal on set about what he likes and doesn’t like, and Charlie Rowe, our script supervisor, is very good at catching those thoughts. On top of that, Night still does dailies each day – either at lunch or the end of the day. As a crew, we get together wherever we are and screen all of the previous day’s footage, including B-roll. I will sit next to Night with a sheet that has all of the takes and set-ups with descriptions and I’ll take notes both on Night’s reactions, as well as my own feelings towards the footage. 

With that information, I’ll start an assembly to construct the scene in a very rough fashion without getting caught up in the small details of every edit. It starts to bring the shape of the scene out for me. I can see where the peaks and valleys are. Once I have a clearer picture of the scene and its intention, I’ll go back through my detailed notes – there’s a great look for this, there’s a great reading for that – and I find where those can fit in and whether they serve the edit. You might have a great reaction to something, but the scene might not want that to be on-camera. So first I find the bones of the scene and then I dress it up. 

Night gets a lot range from the actors from the first take to the last take. It is sometimes so vast that if you built a film out of only the last takes, it would be a dramatically different movie than if you only used take one. With each take he just pushes the performances further. So he provides you with a lot of control over how animated the scene is going to be. In Glass, Elijah is an eccentric driven by a strong ideology, so in the first take you get the subdued, calculated villain version of him, but by the last take it’s the carnival barker version. The madman. 

[OP] Do you get a sense when screening the dailies of which way Night wants to go with a scene?

[LC] Yes, he’ll definitely indicate a leaning and we can boil it down to a couple of selects. I’ll initially cut a scene with the takes that spoke to him the most during the dailies and never cut anything out ahead of time. He’ll see the first cuts as they were scripted, storyboarded, and shot. I’ll also experiment with a different take or approach if it seems valid and have that in my back pocket. He’s pretty quick to acknowledge that he might have liked a raw take on set and in dailies, but it doesn’t work as well when cut together into a scene. So then we’ll address that. 

[OP] As an Avid editor, have you used Media Composer’s script integration features, like ScriptSync?

[LC] I just had my first experience with it on a Netflix show. I came on later in their post, so the show had already been set up for ScriptSync. It was very cool and helpful to be able to jump in and quickly compare the different takes for the reading of a line. It’s a great ‘late in the game’ tool. Maybe you have a great take, but just one word is bobbled and you’d like to find a replacement for just that word. Or the emotion of a key word isn’t exactly what you want. It could be a time-saver for a lot of that kind of polishing work.

[OP] What takeaways can you share from your experiences working with M. Night Shyamalan?

[LC] Night works in the room with you everyday. He doesn’t just check in once a week or something like that. It’s really nice to have that other person there. I feel like often times the best stuff comes from discussing it and talking it through. He loves to deconstruct things and figure out the ‘why’. Why does this work and this doesn’t? I enjoy that as well. After three films of doing that, you learn a lot. You’re not aware of it, but you’re building a toolkit. These tools and choices start to become second nature. 

On the Netflix show that I just did, there were times where I didn’t have anyone else in the room for long stretches and I started to hear those things that have become inherent in my process clearer. I started to take notice of what had become my second nature – what the last decade had produced. Editing is something you just have to do to learn. You can’t just read about it or study a great film. You have to do it, do it again, and struggle with it. You need to mess it up to get it right.

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This interview is going online after Glass has scored its third consecutive weekend in the number one box office slot. Split was also number one for three weeks in a row. That’s a pretty impressive feat and fitting for the final installment of a trilogy.

Be sure to also check out Steve Hullfish’s AOTC interview with Luke Ciarrocchi here.

©2019 Oliver Peters