Baby Driver

You don’t have to be a rabid fan of Edgar Wright’s work to know of his films. His comedy trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) and cult classics like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World loom large in pop culture. His films have earned a life beyond most films’ brief release period and earned Wright a loyal following. The latest film from Wright is Baby Driver, a musically-fueled action film written and directed by Wright, which just made a big splash at SXSW. It stars Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Eiza Gonzalez.

At NAB, Avid brought in a number of featured speakers for its main stage presentations, as well as its Avid Connect event. One of these speakers was Paul Machliss (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The World’s End, Baby Driver), who spoke to packed audiences about the art of editing these films. I had a chance to go in-depth with Machliss about the complex process of working on Baby Driver.

From Smoke to baptism by fire

We started our conversation with a bit of the backstory of the connection between Wright and Machliss. He says, “I started editing as an online editor and progressed from tape-based systems to being one of the early London-based Smoke editors. My boss at the time passed along a project that he thought would be perfect for Smoke. That was onlining the sitcom Spaced, directed by Edgar Wright. Edgar and I got on well. Concurrent to that, I had started learning Avid. I started doing offline editing jobs for other directors and had a ball. A chance came along to do a David Beckham documentary, so I took the plunge from being a full-time online editor to taking my chances in the freelance world. On the tail end of the documentary, I got a call from Edgar, offering me the gig to be the offline editor for the second season of Spaced, because Chris Dickens (Hot Fuzz, Berberian Sound Studio, Slumdog Millionaire) wasn’t available to complete the edit. And that was really jumping into the deep end. It was fantastic to be able to work with Edgar at that level.”

Machliss continues, “Chris came back to work with Edgar on Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, so over the following years I honed my skills working on a number of British comedies and dramas. After Slumdog Millionaire came out, which Chris cut and for which he won a number of awards, including an Oscar, Chris suddenly found himself very busy, so the rest of us working with Edgar all moved up one in the queue, so to speak. The opportunity to edit Scott Pilgrim came up, so we all threw ourselves into the world of feature films, which was definitely a baptism by fire. We were very lucky to be able to work on a project of that nature during a time where the industry was in a bit of a slump due to the recession. And it’s fantastic that people still remember it and talk about it seven years on. Which brings us to Baby Driver. It’s great when a studio is willing to invest in a film that isn’t a franchise, a sequel, or a reboot.”

Music drives the film

In Baby Driver, Ansel Elgort plays “Baby”, a young kid who is the getaway driver for a gang. At a young age, he was in a car accident which leaves him with tinnitus, so it takes listening to music 24/7 to drown out the tinnitus. Machliss explains, “His whole life becomes regimented to whatever music he is listening to – different music for different moods or occasions. Somehow everything falls magically into sync with whatever he is listening to – when he’s driving, swerving to avoid a car, making a turn – it all seems to happen on the beat. Music drives every single scene. Edgar deliberately chose commercial top-20 tracks from the 1960s up to today. Each song Baby listens to also slyly comments on whatever is happening at the time in the story. Everything is seemingly choreographed to musical rhythms. You’re not looking at a musical, but everything is musically driven.”

Naturally, building a film to popular music brings up a whole host of production issues. Machliss tells how this film had been in the planning for years, “Edgar had chosen these tracks years ago. I believe it was in 2011 that Edgar and I tried to sequence the tracks and intersperse them with sound effects. A couple of months later, he did a table read in LA and sent me the sound files. In the Avid, I combined the sound files, songs, and some sound effects to create effectively a 100-minute radio play, which was, in fact, the film in audio form. The big thing is that we had to clear every song before we could start filming. Eventually we cleared 30-odd songs for the film. In addition, Edgar worked with his stunt team and editor Evan Schiff in LA to create storyboards and animatics for all of the action scenes.”

Editor on the front lines

Unlike most films, a significant amount of the editing took place on-set with Machliss working from a portable set-up. He says, “Based on our experiences with Scott Pilgrim and World’s End, Edgar decided it would be best to have me on-set during most of the Atlanta shoot for Baby Driver. Even though a cutting room was available, I was in there maybe ten percent of the time. The rest of the time I was on set. I had a trolley with a laptop, monitor, an Avid Mojo, and some hard drives and I would connect myself via ethernet to the video assist’s hard drive. Effectively I was crew in the front lines with everyone else. Making sure the edit worked was as important as getting a good take in the can. If I assured Edgar that a take would work, then he knew it wasn’t going to come back and cause problems for us six months later. We wanted things to work naturally in camera without a lot of fiddling in post. We didn’t want to have to fall back on frame-cutting and vari-speeding if we didn’t have to. There was a lot of prep work in making sure actions correctly coincided with certain lyrics without the action seeming mechanical.”

The nature of the production added to the complexity of the production audio configuration, too. Machliss explains, “Sound-wise, it was very complicated. We had playback going to earwigs in the actors’ ears, Edgar wanted to hear music plus the dialogue in his cans, and then I needed to get a split feed of the audio, since I already had the clean music on my timeline. We shot this mostly on 35mm film. Some days were A-camera only, but usually two cameras running. It was a combination of Panavision, Arricams, and occasionally Arri Alexas. Sometimes there were some stunt shots, which required nine or ten cameras running. Since the action all happened against playback of a track, this allowed me to use Avid’s multicam tools to quickly group shots together. Avid’s AMA tools have really come of age, so I was able to work without needing to ingest anything. I could treat the video assist’s hard drive as my source media, as long as I had the ethernet connection to it. If we were between set-ups, I could get Avid to background-transcode the media, so I’d have my own copy.”

Did all of this on-set editing speed up the rest of the post process? He continues, “All of the on-set editing helped a great deal, because we went into the real post-production phase knowing that all the sequences basically worked. During that time, as I’d fill up a LaCie Rugged drive, I would send that back to the suites. My assistant, Jerry Ramsbottom, would then patiently overcut my edits from the video assist with the actual scanned telecine footage as it came in. We shot from mid-February until mid-May and then returned to England. Jonathan Amos came on board a few weeks into the director’s cut edit and worked on the film with Edgar and myself up until the director’s cut picture lock. He did a pass on some of the action scenes while Edgar and myself concentrated on dialogue and the overall shape of the film. He stayed on board up until the final picture lock and made an incredible contribution to the action and the tension of the film. By the end of the year we’d locked and then we finished the final mix mid-February of this year. But the great thing was to be able to come into the edit and have those sequences ready to go.”

Editing from set is something many editors try to avoid. They feel they can be more objective that way. Machliss sees it a bit differently, “Some editors don’t like being on set, but I like the openness of it – taking it all in. Because when you are in the edit, you can recall the events of the day a particular scene was shot – ‘I can remember when Kevin Spacey did this thing on the third take, which could be useful’. It’s not vital to work like this, but it does preclude to a kind of short-hand, which is something Edgar and I have developed over these years anyway. The beauty of it is that Edgar and I will take the time to try every option. You can never hit on the perfect cut the first time. Often you’ll get feedback from screenings, such as ‘we’d like to see more emotion between these characters’. You know what’s available and sometimes four extra shots can make all the difference in how a scene reads without having to re-imagine anything. We did drop some scenes from the final version of the film. Of course, you go ‘that’s a shame’, but at least these scenes were given a chance. However, there are always bits where upon the 200th viewing you can decide, ‘well, that’s completely redundant’ – and it’s easy to drop. You always skate as close to the edge of making a film shorter without doing any damage to it.”

The challenge of sound

During sound post, Baby Driver also presented some unique challenges. Machliss says, “For the sound mix – and even for the shoot – we had to make sure we were working with the final masters of the song recordings to make sure the pitch and duration remained constant throughout. Typically these came in as mono or stereo WAVs. Because music is such an important element to the film, the concept of perceived direction becomes important. Is the music emanating from Baby’s earbuds? What happens to it when the camera moves or he turns his head? We had to work out a language for the perception of sound. This was Edgar’s first film mixed in Dolby ATMOS and we were the second film in Goldcrest London’s new Atmos-certified dubbing theater. Then we did a reduction to 7.1 and 5.1. Initially we were thinking this film would have no score other than the songs. Invariably you need something to get from A to B. We called on the services of Steven Price (Gravity, Fury, Suicide Squad), who provided us with some original cues and some musical textures. He did a very clever thing where he would match the end pitch or notes of a commercial song and then by the time he came to the end of his cue, it would match to the incoming note or key of the next song. And you never notice the change.”

Working with Avid in a new way

To wrap up the conversation, we talked a bit about using Avid Media Composer on his work. Machliss has used numerous other systems, but Media Composer still fits the bill for his work today. He says, “For me, the speed of working with AMA in Avid in the latest software was a real benefit. I could actually keep up with the speed of the shoot. You don’t want to be the one holding up a crew of 70. I also made good use of background transcoding. On a different project (Fleabag), I was able to work with native 2K Alexa ProRes camera files at full resolution. It was fantastic to be able to use Frameflex and apply LUTs – doing the cutting, but then bringing back my old skills as an online editor to paint out booms and fix things up. Once we locked, I could remove the LUTs and export DPX files, which went straight to the grading facility. That was exciting to work in a new way.”

Baby Driver opened at the start of July in the US and is a fun ride. You can certainly enjoy a film like this without knowing the nitty gritty of the production that goes into it. However, after you’ve read this article, you just might need to see it at least twice – once to just enjoy and once again to study the “invisible art” that’s gone into bringing it to screen.

(For more with Paul Machliss, check out this interview at Studio Daily.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

The Handmaid’s Tale

With tons of broadcast, web, and set-top outlets for dramatic television, there’s a greater opportunity than ever for American audiences to be exposed to excellent productions produced outside of Hollywood or New York. Some of the most interesting series come out of Canada from a handful of production vendors. One such company is Take 5 Productions, which has worked on such co-productions as Vikings, American Gothic, Penny Dreadful, and others. One of their newest offerings is The Handmaid’s Tale, currently airing in ten, hourlong episodes on Hulu, as well as being distributed internationally through MGM.

The Handmaid’s Tale is based on a dystopian novel written in 1985 by Margaret Atwood. It’s set in New England during the near future, when an authoritarian theocracy has overthrown the United States government and replaced it with the Republic of Gilead. The population has had declining births due to pollution and disease, so a class of women (the handmaids), who are considered fertile, are kept by the ruling class (the Commanders) as concubines for the purpose of having their children. This disturbing tale and series, with its nods to Nazi Germany and life behind the Iron Curtain, not to mention Orwell and Kubrick, stars Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men, The One I Love, Girl, Interrupted) as Offred, one of the handmaids, as she tries to survive her new reality.

The tone of the style and visuals for The Handmaid’s Tale was set by cinematographer-turned-director, Reed Morano (Frozen River, Meadowland, The Skeleton Twins). She helmed three of the episodes, including the pilot. As with many television series, a couple of editors traded off the cutting duties. For this series, Julian Clarke (Deadpool, Chappie, Elysium) started the pilot, but it was wrapped up by Wendy Hallam Martin (Queer As Folk, The Tudors, The Borgias). Hallam Martin and Christopher Donaldson (Penny Dreadful, Vikings, The Right Kind of Wrong) alternated episodes in the series, with one episode cut by Aaron Marshall (Vikings, Penny Dreadful, Warrior).

Cutting a dystopian future

I recently spoke with Wendy Hallam Martin about this series and working in the Toronto television scene. She says, “As a Canadian editor, I’ve been lucky to work on some of the bigger shows. I’ve done a lot of Showtime projects, but Queer As Folk was really the first big show for me. With the interest of outlets like Netflix and Hulu, budgets have increased and Canadian TV has had a chance to produce better shows, especially the co-productions. I started on The Handmaid’s Tale with the pilot, which was the first episode. Julian [Clarke] started out cutting the pilot, but had to leave due to his schedule, so I took over. After the pilot was shot (with more scenes to come), the crew took a short break. Reed [Morano] was able to start her director’s cut before she shot episodes two and three to set the tone. The pilot didn’t lock until halfway through the season.”

One might think a mini-series that doesn’t run on a broadcast network would have a more relaxed production and post schedule, akin to a feature film. But not so with The Handmaid’s Tale, which was produced and delivered on a schedule much like other television dramatic series. Episodes were shot in blocks of two episodes at a time with eight days allotted per episode. The editor’s assembly was due five days later followed by two weeks working with the director for a director’s cut. Subsequent changes from Hulu and MGM notes result in a locked cut three months after the first day of production for those two episodes. Finally, it’s three days to color grade and about a month for sound edit and mix.

Take 5 has its own in-house visual effects department, which handles simple VFX, like wire removals, changing closed eyes to open, and so on. A few of the more complex VFX shots are sent to outside vendors. The episodes average about 40 VFX shots each, however, the season finale had 70 effects shots in one scene alone.

Tackling the workload

Hallam Martin explained how they dealt with the post schedule. She continues, “We had two editors handling the shows, so there was always some overlap. You might be cutting one show while the next one was being assembled. This season we had a first and second assistant editor. The second would deal with the dailies and the first would be handling visual effects hand-offs, building up sound effects, and so on. For the next season we’ll have two firsts and one second assistant, due to the load. Reed was very hands-on and wanted full, finished tracks of audio. There were always 24 tracks of sound on my timelines. I usually handle my own temp sound design, but because of the schedule, I handed that off to my first assistant. I would finish a scene and then turn it over to her while I moved on to the next scene.”

The Handmaid’s Tale has a very distinctive look for its visual style. Much of the footage carries a strong orange-and-teal grade. The series is shot with an ARRI ALEXA Mini in 4K (UHD). The DIT on set applies a basic look to the dailies, which are then turned into Avid DNxHD36 media files by Deluxe in Toronto to be delivered to the editors at Take 5. Final color correction is handled from the 4K originals by Deluxe under the supervision of the series director of photography, Colin Watkinson (Wonder Woman, Entourage, The Fall). A 4K (UHD) high dynamic range master is delivered to Hulu, although currently only standard dynamic range is streamed through the service. Hallam Martin adds, “Reed had created an extensive ‘look book’ for the show. It nailed what [series creator] Bruce Miller was looking for. That, combined with her interview, is why the executive producers hired her. It set the style for the series.”

Another departure from network television is that episodes do not have a specific duration that they must meet. Hallam Martin explains, “Hulu doesn’t dictate exact lengths like 58:30, but they did want the episodes to be under an hour long. Our episodes range from about 50 to 59 minutes. 98% of the scenes make it into an episode, but sometimes you do have to cut for time. I had one episode that was 72 minutes, which we left that long for the director’s cut. For the final version, the producers told me to ‘go to town’ in order to pace it up and get it under an hour. This show had a lot of traveling, so through the usual trimming, but also a lot of jump cuts for the passage of time, I was able to get it down. Ironically the longest show ended up being the shortest.”

Adam Taylor (Before I Fall, Meadowland, Never a Neverland) was the series composer, but during the pilot edit, Morano and Hallam Martin had to set the style. Hallam Martin says, “For the first three episodes, we pulled a lot of sources from other film scores to set the style. Also a lot of Trent Reznor stuff. This gave Adam an idea of what direction to take. Of course, after he scored the initial episodes, we could use those tracks as temp for the next episodes and as more episode were completed, that increased the available temp library we had to work with.”

Post feelings

Story points in The Handmaid’s Tale are often exposed through flashbacks and Moss’ voice over. Naturally voice over pieces affect the timing of both the acting and the edit. I asked Hallam Martin how this was addressed. She says, “The voice over was recorded after the fact. Lizzie Moss would memorize the VO and act with that in mind. I would have my assistant do a guide track for cutting and when we finally received Lizzie’s, we would just drop it in. These usually took very little adjustment thanks to her preparation while shooting. She’s a total pro.” The story focuses on many ideas that are tough to accept and watch at times. Hallam Martin comments, “Some of the subject matter is hard and some of the scenes stick with you. It can be emotionally hard to watch and cut, because it feels so real!”

Wendy Hallam Martin uses Avid Media Composer for these shows and I asked her about editing style. She comments, “I watch all the dailies from top to bottom, but I don’t use ScriptSync. I will arrange my bins in the frame view with a representative thumbnail for each take. This way I can quickly see what my coverage is. I like to go from the gut, based on my reaction to the take. Usually I’ll cut a scene first and then compare it against the script notes and paperwork to make sure I haven’t overlooked anything that was noted on set.” In wrapping up, we talked about films versus TV projects. Hallam Martin says, “I have done some smaller features and movies-of-the-week, but I like the faster pace of TV shows. Of course, if I were asked to cut a film in LA, I’d definitely consider it, but the lifestyle and work here in Toronto is great.”

The Handmaid’s Tale continues with season one on Hulu and a second season has been announced.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

A Conversation with Thomas Grove Carter

The NAB Show is a great place to see the next level of media hardware and software. Even better, it’s also a great place to meet old friends, make new ones, and pick up the tips and tricks of your craft through the numerous tutorials, seminars, and off-site events that accompany the show.

This year I had the chance to interview Thomas Grove Carter, an editor at Trim Editing, which is a London-based creative editorial shop. He appeared at several sessions to present his techniques for maximizing the power of Final Cut Pro X. These sessions were moderated by Apple and FCPWORKS.

Thomas Grove Carter has a number of high-profile projects on his reel, including work for Honda, Game of Thrones, Audi, and numerous music artists. Carter is a familiar name in the Final Cut Pro X editing community. He first came to prominence with Honda’s “The Other Side” long-form web commercial. In it, Carter juxtaposes parallel day and night driving scenarios covering the main actor – dad by day, undercover police officer by night. On the interactive website, you can toggle in-sync between the two versions. Thanks to FCPX’s way of connecting clips and the nature of its magnetic timeline, Carter could use this then-young application to build the commercial, as well as preview the interactivity for the client – all on a very tight deadline.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Carter in a semi-quiet corner of the NAB Press Room shortly after his Post Production World keynote session on Sunday evening.

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[Oliver Peters]: We first started hearing your name when Honda’s “The Other Side” long-form commercial hit the web. That fit ideally with Final Cut Pro X’s unique ability to connect clips above and below the primary storyline on the timeline. Was that something you came up with intuitively?

[Thomas Grove Carter]: I knew that Final Cut Pro X was going to be good for this interactive piece. As you’re playing back in FCPX you can enable and disable layers. This meant I could actually do a rough preview of what it’s going to look like. I knew that I was going to have these two layers of video, but I didn’t exactly know what it was going to be until the edit, so I started to assemble each story separately. Then at some point, once I had each narrative roughly built, I put them both together on the same timeline and started adding the sound. From then on I was able to play it ‘interactively’ right inside FCPX.  Back then, I split the day and night audio above and below the primary storyline. Today though, I’d probably assign a role for the day and a role for all of the night. Because, you can’t add audio-only above the primary storyline anymore. So that’s what I’d do to divide it out. All the audio and video still connects in exactly the same way – it just looks slightly different. Another great advantage of doing this in X was clip connections. For any given shot, there was the day and night version, and then, all the audio for the day and all the audio for the night. Just by grabbing the one clip in the primary and moving it or trimming it – everything for day and night – picture and audio – both would move together.

[OP]: Tell me a bit about your relationship with Trim Editing.

[TGC]: There are three partners, who are the most senior three editors. Then there are four or five other main editors and two or three junior editors, plus a number of assistants and runners.

It’s been running over 12 years and I joined the team just over 4 years ago.

[OP]: Are all of you using Final Cut Pro X?

[TGC]: Originally, before anyone started using Final Cut Pro X, we had a mix of Avid and Final Cut Pro 7. Then we began to move to Avid as we saw that Final Cut Pro 7 was not going to be improved. So I started to move to Avid, too. But, I was using Final Cut Pro X on my own personal projects. I began to use it on smaller jobs and one of the other editors said, “That’s cool, that thing you’re doing there.” And he started to try it out. Now we’re kind of at a point where most of the editors are on Final Cut Pro X. One is using Avid, so our assistants need to be able to work with both.

[OP]: Have you been able to convert the last hold-out?

[TGC]: He’s always been Avid. That’s what he uses. The company doesn’t dictate what we use to edit with. It’s all about making the best work. If I decided tomorrow that I wanted to cut in Avid or Premiere – it wouldn’t be an issue. Anyone can cut with anything they like.

[OP]: Any thoughts of going to Premiere?

[TGC]: We’ve fallen in love with the way FCPX works – the browser and the timeline. I think Premiere is good, because it feels very much like a continuation of where Final Cut Pro 7 was, which is why loads of people have moved to it. I understand that. It’s an easy move. But it’s the core way that X functions that I love. That stuff just isn’t in any other NLE. What I’ve found with everyone who has moved to it, including myself – there were always a few little hooks that keep people coming back, even if you don’t like the whole app initially. For me, the first thing I liked is how you can pull out the audio clips and things move out of the way automatically. And I always just thought ‘I can’t make this thing work, but that feature is cool’. And then I kept coming back to it and slowly fell I love with the rest of it. One of the other editors loved the way of making dynamic selects in the browser and said, “I’m going to do this job in X.” He’d select in the browser using favorites and rejects and he absolutely loved it. Loved the way it was so fluid with the thumbnails and he felt immersed in his rushes. Then he gets to the timeline. “Oh, I can’t make this work.” He sent it back to Final Cut Pro 7 and finished up there. He did that on two or three jobs, because it takes time to get comfortable with the timeline. It’s strange when you come from track-based. But once it clicks, it’s amazing.

[OP]: How do your assistant editors fit into the workflow?

[TGC]: Generally I go from one job to the next. It might be two weeks or a month and a quick turnaround. Occasionally there might be an overlap – like, the next job has already started shooting and I haven’t finished the last one off yet. So it might be that I need an assistant editor to load my stuff. Or maybe I have to move on to the next job and I’ve got an assistant doing final tweaks on the last one. It’s much simpler to load projects in X than it is in Avid and one thing I’ve heard in the industry is, “Oh, does that mean you’re going to fire a lot of assistants, because you don’t need them?” No! Of course, we’re going to employ them, but we’ll actually give them editing work to do whenever we can – not just grunt work. Let them do the cut-downs, versions, first assemblies. There’s more time now for them to be doing creative work.

We also try to promote from within. I was the first person who was hired from outside of the company. Almost all the other editors, apart from the partners, have been people who’ve moved up from within. Yes, we could be paying this assistant to be loading all our stuff and making QuickTimes. But if you can be paying the assistant and they can be doing another job, why wouldn’t you do that? It’s another revenue stream for the company. So it’s great to be able to get them up to a level where they can pick up work and build up their own reels and creative chops.

[OP]: Are you primarily working with proxy media?

[TGC]: Not ‘Final Cut Pro X proxy media’, but we use ProRes Proxy or  LT files, which are often transcoded by a DIT on set. They look great, but the post house always goes back to the camera originals for the grade. Sometimes if it’s a smaller job – a low budget music video, for example – I’ll get the ARRI files if they shooting ProRes and just take them into Final Cut straight away- just to get working quicker.

[OP]: Since you work in the area of high-end commercials, do you typically send out audio, color and effects to outside post facilities?

[TGC]: Sound and post work is finished off elsewhere. We work with all the big post facilities –  The Mill, Framestore, and MPC, for example. The directors we work with have their favorite colorists. They’re hiring them because they have the right eye, the right creative skills – not just because they can push the buttons. But we’re doing more and more in the offline now. Clients aren’t used to seeing things as ‘offline’ these days. They’re used to things looking slick. I do a lot of sound design, because it goes so hand in hand with the picture edit. Sometimes the picture doesn’t work without any of the sound, so I do quite a lot of it – get it sounding really great, but it will ultimately be remixed later. I might be working on a project for a month and the sound becomes a very integral creative element. And then the sound mixer only gets a day to pull it all together. They do a great job, but it’s really important to give them as much as we can to work with – to really set the creative direction of the audio.

[OP]: In your presentations, you’ve mentioned Trim’s light hardware footprint. How is the facility configured?

[TGC]: Well, we’ve got ‘cylinder’ Mac Pros, Retina iMacs, and more recently we’ve been trying out a few of the new MacBook Pros, alongside the LG 5K displays. I’ve actually been cutting with that set up a lot recently. I really like it, because I turn up at the suite with my laptop, plug two cables in and that’s it! One cable for the 5K display, power and audio. The second cable goes out to HDMI. It runs the client monitor (HD/4K TV) and a USB hub. It’s a really slick and flexible set up.

For storage, we’re currently using Samsung T3 SSD drives, which are so fast and light, they can handle most things we throw at them. It’s a really slick and flexible set up. But with a few potential feature films in the near future, we are looking again at shared storage. I think that’s an interesting area of the market these days. There are some really amazing new products, which don’t come from the same old vendors.

[OP]: How do clients react to this modular suite approach?

[TGC]: If were doing our jobs, clients shouldn’t really notice the tech were using to drive the edit. And people love the space we’ve created. We’ve got really nice rooms – none of our suites are small. Clients are looking at a 50″ to 60” TV, which is 4K in some of our suites. And we’ve got really great sound systems. So, in terms of what clients are seeing and hearing, it doesn’t get much better in an edit suite.

Sometimes directors will come by even when they’re not editing with us. They’ll come by and write their treatments and just hang out, which is really nice. There’s a lot of common space with areas to work and meet.

There’s a lot of art all over the place and when anyone sees a sign that has the word ‘trim’ in it – they buy it. It might be a street sign or a ‘trim something’ logo. So, you see these signs all over the building. It adds a really nice character to the place. When I joined the company, I wanted to bring something to it – and I love LEGO – so I built our logo using it. That’s mounted at our entrance now.

[OP]: There’s a certain mentality in working with agencies. How does Trim approach that?

[TGC]: We tend to focus on the directors. That’s where you develop the greatest relationships, which is where the best work comes from. Not that I dislike working with an agency, but you build a much closer creative bond with your directors.

One small way we help build a good working environment for directors and agencies is to all have lunch together, every single day. We have lunch rather than editing and eating at our desks. One of the great things about this is that directors get to meet other agencies and editors get to meet other directors. It’s really good to be able to socialize like that. It also helps build different relationships than what would ever happen if we we’re all locked away in a suite all day.

[OP]: At what point do you typically get involved with a job?

[TGC]: I’ll usually get pencilled on a job while the director is still pitching it. And then I’ll start work straight after the shoot. Occasional we’ll be on set, but only if it’s a really tight deadline. On that Honda job, that was a six-day shoot to make two, 2 1/2 minute films and then they needed to see it really soon after the shoot. So, I had to be on set. But typically I like not being on set, because when you’re on set you’re suddenly part of the, “Oh, this shot was amazing. It took us four hours to get in the pouring rain.” You’re invested in that baggage. Whereas, when you just view it coldly in the edit, you don’t know what happened on set. You can go, “This shot doesn’t work – let’s lose it.” That fresh vision is a great reason for the editor to be as far from a shoot as possible.

[OP]: One of the projects on your reel is a Games of Thrones promo. How did that job come your way?

[TGC]: That was actually a director I hadn’t worked with – but, just a director who wanted to work with me. He’d been trying to get me on a few jobs that I hadn’t been able to do. It was an outside director that HBO brought in to shoot. It wasn’t a trailer made of footage from the show. They brought in a commercials and music director to shoot the piece and he wanted to work with me. So, it came down like that and then I worked with him and HBO to bring it all together.

[OP]: Do you have any preferences for the types of projects you work on?

[TGC]: Things like the Audi commercial are really fun, because there’s a lot of sound design. A lot of commercials are heavily storyboarded, but it can often be more satisfying if the director has been a bit more loose in the filming. It might be a montage of different people doing activities, for example. And those can be quite fun, because the final thing – you’ve come up with it and you’ve created the narrative and the flow of it. I say that with hindsight, because they turn out to be the most creatively satisfying. But, the process can be much harder when you’re in the thick of it – because it’s on your shoulders and you haven’t got a really locked storyboard to fall back on. I’ll happily do really long hours and work really hard, if it’s a good bit of work – and, at the end of the day, I’ve worked with nice people.

[OP]: With Final Cut Pro X – anything that you’d like to see different?

[TGC]: Maybe collaboration is one thing that would be interesting to see if there’s a new and interesting take on it. Avid bin-locking is great, but actually when you boil it down, it’s quite a simple thing. It locks this bin, you can’t go in there. You can make a copy of it. That’s all it’s doing, but it’s simple and it works really well. All the cloud-based things I’ve seen so far – they’ve not really gotten me excited. I don’t feel like anyone has really nailed what that is yet. Everyone is just doing it because they can, not because it works really well, or is actually useful. I’d be interested to see if there’s something that can be done there.

In the timeline, I’d like to be able to look inside compound clips without stepping into them. I often use compound clips to combine sound effects or music stems. I’d like to be able to open them in context in the timeline and edit the contents inline with the master timeline. And I’d love some kind of dupe detection in the timeline. But otherwise, I’m really enjoying the new version.

Click this link to watch Thomas Grove Carter in action with FCPX at this year’s Las Vegas SuperMeet at NAB.

____________________________________

I certainly appreciated the time Thomas Grove Carter spent with me to do this interview. Along with a few other interviews, it made for a better-than-average Vegas trip. As a side note, I recorded my interviews (for transcription only) on my iPad, with the aid of the Apogee MetaRecorder app. This works with iPhones and iPads and starts at free, however, you should spend the $4.99 in-app upgrade to be able to do anything useful with it. It can use the built-in mic and records full quality audio WAV files – and – it features a connection to FCPX with fcpxml. Finally, to aid in generating a text transcript, I used Digital Heaven’s SpeedScriber. Although still in beta, it worked well for what I needed. As with all audio-to-text transcription applications, there’s no such thing as perfect. I did need to do a fair amount of clean-up, however, that’s not uncommon.

©2017 Oliver Peters

Five Came Back

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

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

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

An editor’s medium

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

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

Editing is paleontology

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

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

From Moviola to Premiere Pro

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

Voyage of Time

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

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

Eight years in the making

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

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

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

The art of picture and sound composition

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

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

Nocturnal Animals

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

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

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

Theme and structure

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

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

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

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

Tools of the trade

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network.

©2017 Oliver Peters

La La Land

df0117_lalaland_01_sm

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

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

Playing with tone and time

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

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

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

Tricks and tools

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters