Swiss Army Man

df2716_swissarmymanWhen it comes to quirky movies, Swiss Army Man stands alone. Hank (Paul Dano) is a castaway on a deserted island at his wit’s end. In an act of final desperation, he’s about to hang himself, when he discovers Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), a corpse that’s just washed up on shore. At this point the film diverges from the typical castaway/survival story into an absurdist comedy. Manny can talk and has “magical powers” that Hank uses to find his way back to civilization.

Swiss Army Man was conceived and directed by the writing and directing duo of Dan Kwan and Daniel Sheinert, who work under the moniker Daniels. This is their feature length film debut and was produced with Sundance in mind. The production company brought on Matthew Hannam to edit the film. Hannam (The OA, Enemy, James White) is a Canadian film and TV editor with numerous features and TV series under his belt. I recently spoke with Hannam about the post process on Swiss Army Man.

Hannam discussed the nature of the film. “It’s a very handmade film. We didn’t have a lot of time to edit and had to make quick decisions. I think that really helped us. This was the dozenth or so feature for me, so in a way I was the veteran. It was fun to work with these guys and experience their creative process. Swiss Army Man is a very cinematically-aware film, full of references to other famous films. You’re making a survival movie, but it’s very aware that other survival movies exist. This is also a very self-reflexive film and, in fact, the model is more like a romantic comedy than anything else. So I was a bit disappointed to see a number of the reviews focus solely on the gags in the film, particularly around Manny, the corpse. There’s more to it than that. It’s about a guy who wonders what it might be like had things been different. It’s a very special little film, because the story puts us inside of Hank’s head.”

Unlike the norm for most features, Hannam joined the team after the shooting had been completed. He says, “I came on board during the last few days of filming. They shot for something like 25 days. This was all single-camera work with Larkin Seiple (Cop Car, Bleed For This) as director of photography. They shot ARRI ALEXA XT with Cooke anamorphic lenses. It was shot ARRIRAW, but for the edit we had a special LUT applied to the dailies, so the footage was already beautiful. I got a drive in August and the film premiered at Sundance. That’s a very short post schedule, but our goal was always Sundance.”

Shifting to Adobe tools

Like many of this year’s Sundance films, Adobe Premiere Pro was the editing tool of choice. Hannam continues, “I’m primarily an Avid [Media Composer] editor and the Dans [Kwan and Sheinert] had been using [Apple] Final Cut Pro in the past for the shorts that they’ve edited themselves. They opted to go with Premiere on this film, as they thought it would be easiest to go back and forth with After Effects. We set up a ‘poor man’s’ shared storage with multiple systems that each had duplicate media on local drives. Then we’d use Dropbox to pass around project files and shared elements, like sound effects and temp VFX. While the operation wasn’t flawless – we did experience a few crashes – it got the job done.”

Swiss Army Man features quite a few visual effects shots and Hannam credits the co-directors’ music video background with making this a relatively easy task. He says, “The Dans are used to short turnarounds in their music video projects, so they knew how to integrate visual effects into the production in a way that made it easier for post. That’s also the beauty of working with Premiere Pro. There’s a seamless integration with After Effects. What’s amazing about Premiere is the quality of the built-in effects. You get effects that are actually useful in telling the story. I used the warp stabilizer and timewarp a lot. In some cases those effects made it possible to use shots in a way that was never possible before. The production company partnered with Method for visual effects and Company 3 [Co3] for color grading. However, about half of the effects were done in-house using After Effects. On a few shots, we actually ended up using After Effects’ stabilization after final assembly, because it was that much better than what was possible during the online assembly of the film.”

Another unique aspect of Swiss Army Man is its musical score. Hannam explains, “Due to the tight schedule, music scoring proceeded in parallel with the editing. The initial temp music pulled was quirky, but didn’t really match the nature of the story. Once we got the tone right with the temp tracks, scenes were passed on to the composers – Andy Hull and Robert McDowell – who Daniels met while making a video for their band Manchester Orchestra. The concept for the score was that it was all coming from inside of Hank’s head. Andy sang all the music as if Hank was humming his own score. They created new tracks for us and by the end we had almost no temp music in the edit. Once the edit was finalized, they worked with Paul [Dano] and Daniel [Radcliffe] to sing and record the parts themselves. Fortunately both are great singers, so the final a cappella score is actually the lead actors themselves.”

Structuring the edit

Matthew Hannam and I discussed his approach to editing scenes, especially with this foray into Premiere Pro. He responds, “When I’m on Media Composer, I’m a fan of ScriptSync. It’s a great way to know what coverage you have. There’s nothing like that in Premiere, although I did use the integrated Story app. This enables you to load the script into a tab for quick access. Usually my initial approach is to sit down and watch all the footage for the particular scene while I plan how I’m going to assemble it. The best way to know the footage is to work with it. You have to watch how the shoot progresses in the dailies. Listen to what the director says at the end of a take – or if he interrupts in the middle – and that will give you a good idea of the intention. Then I just start building the scene – often first from the middle. I’m looking for what is the central point of that scene and it often helps to build from the middle out.”

Although Hannam doesn’t use any tricks to organize his footage or create selects, he does use “KEM rolls”. This term stems from the KEM flatbed film editing table. In modern parlance, it means that the editor has strung out all the footage for a scene into a single timeline, making it easy to scrub through all the available footage quickly. He continues, “I’ll build a dailies reel and tuck it away in the bottom of the bin. It’s a great way to quickly see what footage you have available. When it’s time to revise a scene, it’s good to go back to the raw footage and see what options you have. It is a quick way to jog your memory about what was shot.”

A hybrid post workflow

Another integral member of the post team was assistant editor Kyle Gilbertson. He had worked with the co-directors previously and was the architect of the hybrid post workflow followed on this film. Gilbertson pulled all of the shots for VFX that were being handled in-house. Many of the more complicated montages were handled as effects sequences and the edit was rebuilt in DaVinci Resolve before re-assembly in After Effects. Hannam explains, “We had two stages of grading with [colorist] Sofie Borup at Co3. The first was to set looks and get an idea what the material was going to look like once finished. Then, once everything was complete, we combined all of the material for final grading and digital intermediate mastering. There was a real moment of truth when the 100 or so shots that Daniels did themselves were integrated into the final cut. Luckily it all came together fairly seamlessly.”

“Having finished the movie, I look back at it and I’m full of warm feelings. We kind of just dove into it as a big team. The two Dans, Kyle and I were in that room kind of just operating as a single unit. We shifted roles and kept everything very open. I believe the end product reflects that. It’s a film that took inspiration from everywhere and everyone. We were not setting out to be weird or gross. The idea was to break down an audience and make something that everyone could enjoy and be won over by. In the end, it feels like we really took a step forward with what was possible at home. We used the tools we had available to us and we made them work. It makes me excited that Adobe’s Creative Cloud software tools were enough to get a movie into 700 cinemas and win those boys the Sundance Directing prize. We’re at a point in post where you don’t need a lot of hardware. If you can figure out how to do it, you can probably make it yourself. That was our philosophy from start to finish on the movie.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Voice from the Stone

df0316_vfts_1_smAs someone who’s worked on a number of independent films, I find it exciting when an ambitious feature film project with tremendous potential comes from parts other than the mainstream Hollywood studio environment. One of these is Voice from the Stone, which features Emilia Clarke and Marton Csokas. Clarke has been a fan favorite in her roles as Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones and the younger Sarah Connor in Terminator Genisys. Csokas has appeared in numerous films and TV series, including Sons of Liberty and Into the Badlands.

In Voice from the Stone, Clarke plays a nurse in 1950s Tuscany who is helping a young boy, Jakob (played by Edward Ding), recover from the death of his mother. He hasn’t spoken since the mother, a renowned pianist, died. According to Eric Howell, the film’s director, “Voice from the Stone was a script that screamed to be read under a blanket with a flashlight. It plays as a Hitchcock fairy tale set in 1950s Tuscany with mysterious characters and a ghostly antagonist.” While not a horror film or thriller, it is about the emotional relationship between Clarke and the boy, but with a supernatural level to it.

df0316_vfts_15Voice from the Stone is Howell’s feature directorial debut. He has worked on numerous films as a director, assistant director, stuntman, stunt coordinator, and in special effects. Dean Zanuck (Road to Perdition, Get Low, The Zero Theorem) produced the film through his Zanuck Independent company. From there, the production takes an interesting turn towards the American heartland, as primary post-production was handled by Splice in Minneapolis. This is a market known for its high-end commercial work, but Splice has landed a solid position as the primary online facility for numerous film and TV series, such as History Channel’s America Unearthed and ABC-TV’s In An Instant.

Tuscany, Minneapolis, and more

Clayton Condit, who co-owns and co-manages Splice with his wife Barb, edited Voice from the Stone. We chatted about how this connection came about. He says, “I had edited two short films with Eric. One of these, Anna’s Playground, made the short list for the 2011 Oscars in the short films category. Eric met with Dean about getting involved with this film and while we were waiting for the financing to be secured, we finished another short, called Strangers. Eric sent the script to Emilia and she loved it. After that everything sort of fell into place. It’s a beautiful script that, along with Eric’s style of directing, fueled amazing performances from the entire cast.”

df0316_vfts_2The actual production covered about 35 days in the Tuscany region of Italy. The exterior location was filmed at one castle, while the interiors at another. This was a two-camera shoot, using ARRI Alexas recording to ARRIRAW. Anamorphic lenses were used to record in ARRI’s 3.5K 4:3 format, but the final product is desqueezed for a 2.39:1 “scope” final 2K master. The DIT on set created editorial and viewing dailies in the ProRes LT file format, complete with synced production audio and timecode burn-in. The assistant editor back at Splice was also loading and organizing the same dailies, so that everything was available there, as well.

df0316_vfts_8Condit explains the timeline of the project, “The production was filmed on location in Italy during November and December of 2014. I was there for the first half of it, cutting on my MacBook Pro on set and in my hotel room. Once I travelled back to Minneapolis, I continued to build a first cut. The director arrived back in the states by the end of January to see early rough assemblies, but it was around mid-February when I really started working a full cut with Eric on the film. By April of 2015 we had a cut ready to present to the producers. Then it took a few more weeks working with them to refine the cut. Splice is a full service post facility, so we kicked off visual effects in May and color starting mid-June. The composer, Michael Wandmacher, created an absolutely gorgeous score that we were able to record during the first week of July at Air Studios in London. We partnered with Skywalker Sound for audio post-production and mix, which took us through the middle of August.”

As with any film, getting to the final result takes time and experimentation. He continues, “We screened for various small groups listening to feedback and debated and tweaked. The film has a lot of beautiful subtleties to it. We did not want to cheapen it with cliché tricks that would diminish the relationships between characters. It really is first a love story between a mother and her child. The director and producers and I worked very closely together taking scenes out, working pacing, putting scenes back in, and really making sure we had an effective story.”

df0316_vfts_12Splice handled visual effects ranging from sky replacements to entire green screen composited sequences. Condit explains, “Our team uses a variety of tools including Nuke, Houdini, Maya, and Cinema 4D. Since this film takes place in the 1950s, there were a lot of modern elements that needed to be removed, like TV antennas and distant power lines, for example. There’s a rock quarry scene with a pool of water. When it came time to shoot there, the water was really murky, so that had to be replaced. In addition, Splice also handled a number of straight effects shots. In a couple scenes the boy is on the edge of the roof of the castle, which was a green screen composite, of course. We also shot a day in a pool for underwater shots.”

Pioneering the cut with Final Cut Pro X

df0316_vfts_5Clayton Condit is a definite convert to Apple’s Final Cut Pro X and Voice from the Stone was no exception. Condit says, “Splice originated as an Avid-based shop and then moved over to Final Cut Pro as our market shifted. We also do a lot of online finishing, so we have to be compatible with whatever the offline editor cuts in. As FCP 7 fades away we are seeing more jobs being done in [Adobe] Premiere Pro and we also are finishing with [Blackmagic Design] DaVinci Resolve. Today we are sort of an ‘all of the above’ shop; but for my offline projects I really think FCP X is the best tool. Eric also appreciated his experience with FCP X as the technology never got in the way. As storytellers, we are creatively free to try things very quickly [with Final Cut Pro X].”

df0316_vfts_7“Of course, like every FCP X editor, I have my list of features that I’d like to see; but as a creative editorial tool, hands down it’s the real deal. I really love audio roles, for example. This made it very easy to manage my temp mixes and to hand over scenes to the composer so that he could control what audio he worked with. It also streamlined turnovers. My assistant, Cody Brown, used X2Pro Audio Convert to prepare AAFs for Skywalker. Sound work in your offline is so critical when trying to ‘sell’ your edit and to make sure a scene is really working. FCP X makes that pretty easy and fun. We have an extensive sound library here at Splice. Along with early music cues from Wandmacher, I was able to do fairly decent temp mixes in surround for early screenings inside Final Cut.”

On location, Condit kept his media on a small G-RAID Thunderbolt drive for portability; but back in Minneapolis, Splice has a 600TB Xsan shared storage system for collaboration among departments. Condit’s FCP X library and cache files were kept on small dual-SSD Thunderbolt drives for performance and with mirrored media he could easily transition between working at home or at Splice.

df0316_vfts_9Condit explains his FCP X workflow, “We broke the film into separate libraries for each of the five reels. Each scene was its own event. Shots were renamed by scene and take numbers using different keyword assignments to help sort and search. The film was shot with two cameras, which Cody grouped as multicam clips in FCP X. He used Sync-N-Link X to bring in the production sound metadata. This enabled me to easily identify channel names. I tend to edit in timelines rather than a traditional source and record approach. I start with ‘stringouts’ of all the footage by scene and will use various techniques to sort and track best takes. A couple of the items I’d love to see return to FCP X are tabs for open timelines and dupe detection.”

df0316_vfts_11Final Cut Pro X also has other features to help truly refine the edit. Condit says, “I used FCP X’s retiming function extensively for pace and emotion of shots. With the optical flow technology, it delivers great results. For example, in the opening shot you see two hands – the boy and his mother – playing piano. The on-set piano rehearsal was recorded and used for playback for all takes. Unfortunately it was half the speed of the final cue used in the film. I had to retime that performance to match the final cue, which required putting a keyframe in for every finger push. Optical flow looks so good in FCP X that many of the final online retimes were actually done in FCP X.”

df0316_vfts_6Singer Amy Lee of the band Evanescence recorded the closing title song for the film during the sound sessions at Skywalker. Condit says, “Amy completely ‘got’ the film and articulated it back in this beautiful song. She and Wandmacher collaborated to create something pretty special to close the film with. Our team is fortunate enough now to be creating a music video for the song that was shot at the same castle.”

Zanuck Independent is currently arranging a domestic distribution schedule for Voice from the Stone, so look for it in theaters later this year.

If you want more details, click here for Steve Hullfish’s excellent Art of the Cut interview with Clayton Condit.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Film Editor Techniques

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Editing is a craft that each editor approaches with similarities and differences in style and technique. If you follow my editor interviews or those at Steve Hullfish’s Art of the Cut series, then you know that most of the top editors are more than willing to share how they do things. This post will go through a “baker’s dozen” set of tips and techniques that hopefully will help your next, large project go just a bit more smoothly.

Transcoding media. While editing with native media straight from the camera is all the rage in the NLE world, it’s the worst way to work on long-term projects. Camera formats vary in how files are named, what the playback load is on the computer, and so on. It’s best to create a common master format for all the media in your project. If you have really large files, like 4K camera media, you might also transcode editing proxies. Cut with these and then flip to the master quality files when it comes time to finish.

Transcode audio. In addition to working with common media formats, it’s a good practice to get all of your audio into a proper format. Most NLEs can deal with a mix of audio formats, bit depths and sample rates, but that doesn’t mean you should. It’s quite common to get VO and temp music as MP3 files with 44.1kHz sampling. Even though your NLE may work with this just fine, it can cause problems with sync and during audio post later. Before you start working with audio in your project, transcode it to .wav of .aif formats with 48kHz sampling and 16-bit or 24-bit bit-depth. Higher sampling rates and bit-depths are OK if your NLE can handle them, but they should be multiples of these values.

Break up your project files by reel. Most films are broken down into 20 minute “reels”. Typically a feature will have five or six reels that make up the entire film. This is an old-school approach that goes back to the film day, yet, it’s still a good way to work in the modern digital era. How this is done differs by NLE brand.

With Media Composer, the root data file is the bin. Therefore, each film reel would be a separate timeline, quite possibly placed into a separate bin. This facilitates collaboration among editors and assistants using different systems, but still accessing the same project file. Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro CC don’t work this way. You cannot share the exact same FCPX library or Premiere Pro project file between two editors at one time.

In Final Cut Pro X, the library file is the basic data file/container, so each reel would be in its own library with a separate master library that contains only the final edited sequence for each of the reels. Since FCPX editors can open multiple libraries, it’s possible to work across reels this way or to have different editors open and work on different libraries independent of each other.

With Premiere you can only have a single project file open at one time. When a film is broken into one reel per project, it becomes easy for editors and assistants to work collaboratively. Then a master project can be created to import the final version of each reel’s timeline to create the combined film timeline. Media Browser within Premiere Pro should be used to access sequences from within other project files and import them into a new project.

Show/hide, sifting and sorting. Each NLE has its own way of displaying or hiding clips and subclips. Learning how to use these controls will help you speed up the organization of the media. Final Cut Pro X has a sophisticated method of assigning “favorites” and “rejects” to clips and ranges within clips. You can also assign keywords. By selecting what to see and to hide, it’s easy to cull a mass of footage into the few, best options. Likewise with Media Composer and Premiere Pro, you can show and hide clips and also sort by custom column criteria. Media Composer includes a custom sift feature, which is a filtering solution within the bin. It is easy to sift a bin by specific data in certain columns. Doing so hides everything else and reveals only the matching set of media on a per-bin basis.

Stringouts. A stringout is a sequence of selected footage. Many editors use stringouts as the starting point and then whittle down the scene from there. For example, Kirk Baxter likes his assistants to create a stringout for a dialogue scene that is broken down by line and camera. For each line of dialogue, you would see every take and camera angle covering that line of dialogue from wide to tight. Then the next line of dialogue and so on. The result is a very long sequence for the scene, but he can quickly assess the performance and best angle for each portion of the scene. Then he goes through and picks his favorites by pushing the video clip up one track for quick identification. The assistant then cleans up the stringout by creating a second version containing only these selected clips. Now the real cutting can begin.

Julian Clarke has his assistants create a similar stringout for action scenes. All takes and angles are organized back-to-back matching the choreography of the action. So – every angle/take for each crash or blast or punch within the scene. From these he has a clear idea of coverage and how to proceed cutting the scene, which otherwise might have an overwhelming amount of footage at first glance.

I use stringouts a lot for interview-driven documentaries. One sequence per person with everything. The second and third stringouts are successive cutdowns from that initial all-inclusive stringout. At this stage I start combining portions of sequences based on topics for a second round of stringouts. These will get duplicated and then culled, trimmed and rearranged as I refine the story.

Pancakes and using sequences as sources. When you use stringouts, it’s common to have one sequence become the source for another sequence. There are ways to handle this depending on your NLE. Many will nest the source sequence as a single clip on the new timeline. I contend that nesting should be avoided. Media Composer only allows one sequence in the “record” window to be active at any one time (no tabbed timeline). However, you can also drag a sequence to the source window and its tracks and clips can be viewed by toggling the timeline display between source and record. At least this way you can mark ins and outs for sections. Both Final Cut Pro “legacy” and Premiere Pro enable several sequences to be loaded into the timeline window where they are accessible through tabs. Final Cut Pro X dropped this feature, replacing it with a timeline history button to step forward or backward through several loaded sequences. To go between these sequences in all three apps, using copy-and-paste functions are typically the best way to bring clips from one sequence into another.

One innovative approach is the so-called “pancake” timeline, popularized by editor/blogger Vashi Nedomansky. Premiere Pro permits you to stack two or more timelines into separate panels. The selected sequence becomes active in the viewer at any given time. By dragging between timeline panels, it is possible to edit from one sequence to another. This is a very quick and efficient way to edit from a longer stringout of selects to a shorting one with culled choices.

Scene wall. Walter Murch has become synonymous with the scene wall, but in fact, many editors use this technique. In a scene wall, a series of index cards for each scene is placed in story order on a wall or bulletin board. This provides a quick schematic of the story at any given time during the edit. As you remove or rearrange scenes, it’s easy to see what impact that will have. Simply move the cards first and review the wall before you ever commit to doing the actual edit. In addition, with the eliminated cards (representing scenes) moved off to the side, you never lose sight of what material has been cut out of the film. This is helpful to know, in case you want to go back and revisit those.

Skinning, i.e. self-contained files. Another technique Murch likes to use is what he calls adding a skin to the topmost track. The concept is simple. When you have a lot of mixed media and temp effects, system performance can be poor until rendered. Instead of rendering, the timeline is exported as a self-contained file. In turn, that is re-imported into the project and placed onto the topmost track, hiding everything below it. Now playback is smooth, because the system only has to play this self-contained file. It’s like a “skin” covering the “viscera” of the timeline clips below it.

As changes are made to add, remove, trim or replace shots and scenes, an edit is made in this self-contained clip and the ends are trimmed back to expose the area in which changes are being made. Only the part where “edit surgery” happens isn’t covered by the “skin”, i.e. self-contained file. Next a new export is done and the process is repeated. By seeing the several tracks where successive revisions have been made to the timeline, it’s possible to track the history of the changes that have been made to the story. Effectively this functions as a type of visual change list.

Visual organization of the bin. Most NLEs feature list and frame views of a bin’s contents. FCPX also features a filmstrip view in the event (bin), as well as a full strip for the selected clip at the top of the screen when in the list view. Unfortunately, the standard approach is for these to be arranged based on sorting criteria or computer defaults, not by manual methods. Typically the view is a tiled view for nice visual organization. But, of course, the decision-making process can be messy.

Premiere Pro at least lets you manually rearrange the order of the tiles, but none of the NLEs is as freeform as Media Composer. The bin’s frame view can be a completely messy affair, which editors use to their advantage. A common practice is to move all of the selected takes up to the top row of the bin and then have everything else pulled lower in the bin display, often with some empty space in between.

Multi-camera. It is common practice, even on smaller films, to shoot with two or more cameras for every scene. Assuming these are used for two angles of the same subject, like a tight and a wide shot on the person speaking, then it’s best to group these as multi-camera clips. This gives you the best way to pick among several options. Every NLE has good multi-camera workflow routines. However, there are times when you might not want to do that, such as in this blog post of mine.

Multi-channel source audio. Generally sound on a film shoot is recorded externally with several microphones being tracked separately. A multi-channel .wav file is recorded with eight or more tracks of materials. The location sound mixer will often mix a composite track of the microphones for reference onto channel one and/or two of the file. When bringing this into the edit, how you handle it will vary with each NLE.

Both Media Composer and Premiere Pro will enable you to merge audio and picture into synchronized clips and select which channels to include in the combined file. Since it’s cumbersome to drag along eight or more source channels for every edit in these track-based timelines, most editors will opt to only merge the clips using channel one (the mixed track) of the multi-channel .wav file. There will be times when you need to go to one of the isolated mics, in which case a match-frame will get you back to the source .wav, from which you can pull the clean channel containing the isolated microphone. If your project goes to a post-production mixer using Pro Tools, then the mixer normally imports and replaces all of the source audio with the multi-channel .wav files. This is common practice when the audio work done by the picture editor is only intended to be used as a temp mix.

With Final Cut Pro X, source clips always show up as combined a/v clips, with multi-channel audio hidden within this “container”. This is just as true with synchronized clips. To see all of the channels, expand the clip or select it and view the details in the inspector. This way the complexity doesn’t clog the timeline and you can still selectively turn on or off any given mic channel, as well as edit within each audio channel. No need to sync only one track or to match-frame back to the audio source for more involved audio clean-up.

Multi-channel mixing. Most films are completed as 5.1 surround mixes – left, center, right, left rear surround, right rear surround, and low-frequency emitter (subwoofer). Films are mixed so that the primary dialogue is mono and largely in the center channel. Music and effects are spread to the left and right channels with a little bit also in the surrounds. Only loud, low frequencies activate the subwoofer channel. Usually this means explosions or some loud music score with a lot of bottom. In order to better approximate the final mix, many editors advocate setting up their mixing rooms for 5.1 surround or at least an LCR speaker arrangement. If you’ve done that, then you need to mix the timeline accordingly. Typically this would mean mono dialogue into the center channel and effects and music to the left and right speakers. Each of these NLEs support sequence presets for 5.1, which would accommodate this edit configuration, assuming that your hardware is set up accordingly.

Audio – organizing temp sound. It’s key that you organize the sounds you use in the edit in such a way that it is logical for other editors with whom you may be collaborating. It should also make sense to the post-production mixer who might do the final mix. If you are using a track-based NLE, then structure your track organization on the timeline. For example, tracks 1-8 for dialogue, tracks 9-16 for sound effects, and tracks 17-24 for music.

If you are using Final Cut Pro X, then it’s important to spend time with the roles feature. If you correctly assign roles to all of your source audio, it doesn’t matter what your timeline looks like. Once properly assigned, the selection of roles on output – including when using X2Pro to send to Pro Tools – determines where these elements show up on an exported file or inside of a Pro Tools track sheet. The most basic roles assignment would be dialogue, effects and music. With multi-channel location recordings, you could even assign a role or subrole for each channel, mic or actor. Spending a little of this time on the front end will greatly improve efficiency at the back end.

For more ideas, click on the “tips and tricks” category or start at 12 Tips for Better Film Editing and follow the bread crumbs forward.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Deadpool

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Adobe has been on a roll getting filmmakers to adopt its Premiere Pro CC editing software for feature film post. Hot on the heels of its success at Sundance, where a significant number of the indie films we’re edited using Premiere Pro, February saw the release of two major Hollywood films that were cut using Premiere Pro – the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! and Tim Miller’s Deadpool.

Deadpool is one of Marvel Comics’ more unconventional superheroes. Deadpool, the film, is the origin story of how Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) becomes Deadpool. He’s a mercenary soldier that gains accelerated healing powers through a rogue experiment. Left disfigured, but with new powers, he sets off to rescue his girlfriend (Morena Baccarin) and find the person responsible. Throughout all of this, the film is peppered with Deadpool’s wise-cracking and breaking the fourth wall by addressing the audience.

This is the first feature film for director Tim Miller, but he’s certainly not new to the process. Miller and his company Blur Studios are known for their visual effects work on commercials, shorts, and features, including Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Thor: The Dark World. Setting out to bring as much of the post in-house, Miller consulted with his friend, director David Fincher, who recommended the Adobe Creative Cloud solution, based on Fincher’s experience during Gone Girl. Several editing bays were established within Blur’s facility – using new, tricked out Mac Pros connected to an Open Drives Velocity SSD 180TB shared storage solution.

Plugging new software into a large VFX film pipeline

df1016_deadpool_6Julian Clarke (Chappie, Elysium, District 9) came on board to edit the film. He explains, “I talked with Tim and was interested in the whole pioneering aspect of it. The set-up costs to make these permanent edit suites for his studio are attractive. I learned editing using [Apple] Final Cut Pro at version one and then I switched to Avid about four years later and have cut with it since. If you can learn [Avid] Media Composer, then [Adobe] Premiere Pro is fine. I was up to about 80% of my normal speed after just two days.”

To ease any growing pains of using a new editing tool on such a complex film, Miller and Adobe also brought in feature film editor Vashi Nedomansky (That Which I Love Destroys Me, Sharknado 2: The Second One, An American Carol) as a workflow consultant. Nedomansky’s job was to help establish a workflow pipeline and to get the editorial team up to speed with Premiere Pro. He had performed a similar role on Gone Girl. He says, “I’ve cut nine features and the last four have been using Premiere Pro. Adobe has called on me for that editor-to-editor interface and to help Blur set up five edit bays. I translated what we figured out with Gone Girl, but adapted it to Blur’s needs, as well as taking into consideration the updates made to the software since then. During the first few weeks of shooting, I worked with Julian and the assistant editors to customize their window layouts and keyboard shortcuts, since prior to this, the whole crew had primarily been using Avid.”

Deadpool was shot mostly with ARRI ALEXA cameras recording open gate 2.8K ARRIRAW. Additional footage also came from Phantom and RED cameras. Most scenes were recorded with two cameras. The original camera files were transcoded to 2K ProRes dailies in Vancouver. Back at Blur, first assistant editor Matt Carson would sync audio and group the clips into Premiere Pro multicam sequences.

Staying up with production

df1016_deadpool_2As with most features, Clarke was cutting while the production was going on. However, unlike many films, he was ready to show Miller edited scenes to review within 24 hours after the shoot had wrapped for the day. Not only a cut scene, but one already fleshed out with temporary sound effects and music. This is quite a feat, considering that Miller shot more than 500 hours of footage. Seeing a quick turnaround of edited scenes was very beneficial for Miller as a first-time feature director. Clarke adds, “My normal approach is to start cutting and see what works as a first draft. The assistant will add sound effects and temp music and if we hit a stumbling block, we move on to another scene. Blur had also created a lot of pre-vis shots for the effects scenes prior to the start of principal photography. I was able to cut these in as temp VFX. This way the scenes could play through without a lot of holes.”

df1016_deadpool_3To make their collaborative workflow function, Nedomansky, Clarke, and the assistants worked out a structure for organizing files and Premiere Pro projects. Deadpool was broken into six reels, based on the approximate page count in the script where a reel break should occur. Every editor had their own folder on the Open Drives SAN containing only the most recent version of whatever project that they were working on. If Julian Clarke was done working on Reel 1, then that project file could be closed and moved from Clarke’s folder into the folder of one of the assistants. They would then open the project to add temporary sound effects or create some temporary visual effects. Meanwhile, Clarke would continue on Reel 2, which was located in his folder. By keeping only the active project file in the various folders and moving projects among editors’ folders, it would mimic the bin-locking method used in shared Avid workflows.

In addition, Premiere Pro’s Media Browser module would also enable the editors to access and import sequences found within other project files. This is a non-destructive process. Older versions of the project files would be stored in a separate folder on the SAN in order to keep the active folders and projects uncluttered. Premiere Pro’s ability to work with folders as they were created in the Finder, let the editors do more of the organization at the Finder level than they normally would, had they been cutting with Avid systems.

Cutting an action film

df1016_deadpool_4Regardless of the software you use, each film presents a unique set of creative challenges. Clarke explains, “One scene that took a while was a long dialogue scene with Deadpool and Colossus on the highway. It’s quintessential Deadpool with a lot of banter and improv from Ryan. There’s not much story going on in the background at that time. We didn’t want to cut too much out, but at the same time we didn’t want to have the audience get lost in what’s supposed to be the bigger story. It took some time to strike the right balance. Overall the film was just about right. The director’s cut was about two hours, which was cut into the final length of one hour and 45 minutes. That’s just about the right amount to cut out, because you don’t end up loosing so much of the heart of the film.”

Many editors have a particular way they like their assistants to organize bins and projects. Clarke offers, “I tend to work in the frame view and organize my set-ups by masters, close-ups, and so on. Where I may be a little different than other editors is how I have my assistants organize action scenes. I’ll have them break down the choreography move-by-move and build a sequence of selected shots in the order of these moves. So for example, all the angles of the first punch, followed by all the angles of the next move – a punch, or block, or kick. Action scenes are often shot with so much coverage, that this lets me quickly zero in on the best stuff. It eliminates the scavenger hunt to find just the right angle on a move.”

df1016_deadpool_8The script was written to work in a nonlinear order. Clarke explains how that played out through the edit, “We stood by this intention in the editing. We found, in fact, that the film just didn’t work linearly at all. The tone of the two [scripted] timelines are quite different, with the more serious undertones of the origin story and the broad humor of the Deadpool timeline. When played sequentially, it was like oil and water – two totally different movies. By interweaving the timelines, the tone of the movie felt more coherent with the added bonus of being able to front load action into the movie to excite the audience, before getting into the heavier cancer part of the story.”

One editing option that might come to mind is that a character in a mask offers an interesting opportunity to change dialogue without difficult sync issues. However it wasn’t the sort of crutch some might assume. Clarke says, “Yes, the mask provided a lot of opportunity for ADR. Though this was used more for tweaking dialogue for plot clarity or to try out alternate jokes, than a wholesale replacement of the production track. If we liked the production performance we generally kept it, and embraced the fact that the mask Ryan was wearing would dull the audio a bit. I try to use as little ADR as possible, when it comes to it being used for technical reasons, rather than creative ones. I feel like there’s a magic that happens on set that is often hard to replicate in the ADR booth.”

Pushing the envelope

df1016_deadpool_7The editing systems proved to offer the performance needed to complete a film of this size and complexity. Vashi Nedomansky says, “There were 1400 effects shots handled by ten vendors. Thanks to the fact that Blur tricked out the bays, the editors could push 10 to 15 layers of 2K media at a time for temp effects – in real-time without rendering. When the film was locked, audio was exported as AAF for the sound facility along with an H.264 picture reference. Blur did many of the visual effects in-house. For final picture deliverables, we exported an XML from Premiere Pro, but also used the Change List tool from Intelligent Assistance. This was mainly to supply the list in a column format that would match Avid’s output to meet the studio’s requirements.”

df1016_deadpool_5I asked Clarke and Nedomansky what the team liked best about working with the Adobe solution. Nedomansky says, “I found that the editors really liked the tilde key [on the keyboard], which in Premiere Pro brings any window to fullscreen. When you have a timeline with 24 to 36 tracks of temp sound effects, it’s really nice to be able to make that fullscreen so that you can fine-tune them. They also liked what I call the ‘pancake timeline’. This is where you can stack two timelines over each other to compare or pull clips from one into the other. When you can work faster like this, there’s more time for creativity.” Clarke adds, “I used a lot of the time-remapping in After Effects. Premiere Pro’s sub-frame audio editing is really good for dialogue. When Avid and Apple were competing with Media Composer and Final Cut Pro it was very productive for both companies. So competition between Avid and Adobe is good, because Premiere Pro is very forward-thinking.”

Many NLE users may question how feature films apply to the work they do. Nedomansky explains, “When Kirk Baxter used Premiere Pro for Fincher’s Gone Girl, the team requested many features that they were used to from Final Cut Pro 7. About 200 of those suggestions have found their way as features into the current release that all Creative Cloud customers receive. Film editors will stress a system in ways that others won’t, and that information benefits all users. The important takeaway from the Deadpool experience is that after some initial adjustment, there were no showstoppers and no chaos. Deadpool is a monster film, but these are just tools. It’s the human in the chair making the decision. We all just want to work and not deal with technical issues. Whatever makes the computer invisible – that’s the power.”

Deadpool is certainly a fun rid, with a lot of inside jokes for veteran Marvel fans. Look for the Stan Lee cameo and be sure to stay all the way through the end credits!

Watch director Tim Miller discuss the choice to go with Adobe.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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As most readers know, “whiskey tango foxtrot” is the military way to communicate the letters WTF. Your imagination can fill in the rest. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the movie, is a dark comedy about the experiences of a female journalist in Afghanistan, based on Kim Barker’s memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Paramount Pictures tapped the writing/directing team of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (Focus, Crazy, Stupid, Love., I Love You Phillip Morris) to tackle the film adaptation, starring Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, and Alfred Molina.

df1116_wtf_2Glenn Ficarra explains the backstory, “When the military focus shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq there was a void in coverage. Barker was looking for a change in her life and volunteered to embed as a correspondent in Kabul. When she got there, she wasn’t quite ready for the high-adrenaline, partying lifestyle of many of the journalists. Most lived in dorms away from the general Afghan population. Since there weren’t that many females there, she found that there was a lot of interest in her.” This is the basis of both the book and the film – an Afghanistan story with a touch of Animal House and M*A*S*H.

Filming in Afghanistan would have been too dangerous, so production shifted to New Mexico, with Xavier Grobet (Focus, Enough Said, I Love You Phillip Morris) as the director of photography. The filmmakers also hired a female, Muslim journalist, Galereh Kiazand, as the second unit photographer to pick up B-roll in Kabul, which added to the authenticity. In addition, they also licensed stock shots originally filmed for The Kite Runner, but not used in that film. Ficarra adds, “We built two huge sets for Kabul and Kandahar, which were quite convincing, even to vets and Afghans who saw them.”

df1116_wtf_9With efficiencies realized during Focus, the team followed a similar course on this film. Ficarra explains, “We previously pulled the editing in-house. For Whiskey Tango Foxtrot we decided to do all the visual effects in-house, too. There are about 1,000 VFX shots in the film. It’s so great to simply bring on more artists as you need them and you only have to pay the crew. At its peak, we had about 20 Nuke artists working on shots. Doing it internally opens you up to more possibilities for minor effects that enhance shots. You would otherwise skip these if you were working with an outside effects house. We carried this approach into the filming as well. While traveling, it was great to quickly pick up a shot that you could use as B-roll. So our whole mentality has been very much like you work in film school.”

Adjusting the workflow for a new film

df1116_wtf_3The duo started production of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot on the heels of completing Focus. They brought along editor Jan Kovac, as well as use of Apple Final Cut Pro X for editing. This was the off-the-shelf version of Final Cut Pro X available to all customers at the time of the production – no special version or side build. Kovac explains what differed on this new film, “The biggest change was in camera formats. Instead of shooting [Apple] ProRes 4444, we switched to using the new ProRes 4444 XQ codec, which was deployed by ARRI on the ALEXAs. On Focus, we recorded ARRIRAW for the green screen shots. We did extensive testing with this XQ codec prior to production and it was perfect for even the green screen work. Most of the production was shot with two ALEXAs recording in a 2K theatrical format using the ProRes 4444 XQ codec.”

Light Iron provided a DIT on set who took the camera files, added a basic color LUT, synced production sound, and then generated viewing dailies, which were distributed to department heads on Apple iPads. The DIT also generated editorial files that were in the full 2K ProRes 4444 XQ resolution. Both the camera original files and the color-corrected editorial files were stored on a 160TB Accusys ExaSAN system back at the film’s post headquarters. Two Mac Minis served as metadata controllers. Kovac explains, “By always having the highest quality image to edit with, it meant that we could have the highest quality screenings at any given time. You always see the film in a state that is very close to the final product. Since visual effects were being handled in-house, it made sense to have the camera original files on the SAN. This way shots could quickly be pulled for VFX work, without the usual intermediate step of coordinating with the lab or post house that might otherwise store these files.”

df1116_wtf_6Another change was that audio was re-synced by the editing team. First assistant editor Kevin Bailey says, “The DIT would sync the production mix, but when it got here, I would sync up all the audio tracks using Sync-N-Link X. This syncs by timecode, making the process fast. I would group the cameras into multicam clips, but as many as 12 isolated audio tracks were also set up as separate angles. This way, Jan could easily switch between the production mix and individual mics. The only part that wasn’t as automatic was that the crew also used a Blackmagic Pocket Camera and a Sony A7 for some of the shots. The production was running at a true 24.0 fps frame rate, while these smaller cameras only shot 24 frames at a video rate of 23.98. These shots required adjustment and manual syncing. The reason for a true 24.0 frame rate was to make it easy to work with 48fps material. Sometimes the A-camera would run at 24fps while the B-camera ran at 48fps. Speeding up the B-camera by a 2X factor gets it into sync, without worrying about more complicated speed offsets.” In addition to these formats, the Afghanistan second unit footage was shot on a RED camera.

df1116_wtf_5Bailey is an experienced programmer who created the program Shot Notes X, which was used on this film. He continues, “Our script supervisor used Filemaker Pro, which exports a .csv file. Using Shot Notes X, I could combine the FCPXML from Final Cut with the .csv file and then generate a new FCPXML file. When imported back into Final Cut, the event would be updated to display scenes and takes, along with the script notes in the browser’s notes column. Common script codes would be used for close-ups, dolly shots, and so on. Filtering the list view by one of these codes in Final Cut would then display only the close-ups or only the dolly shots for easy access.” Bailey helped set up this pipeline during the first few weeks of production, at which point apprentice editor Esther Sokolow took over the dailies processing. Bailey shifted over to assist with sound and Sokolow later moved into a VFX editor role as one of several people doing temp VFX.

From trailer to home base

df1116_wtf_8During production in New Mexico, Kovac worked out of an editorial trailer equipped with a single Mac Pro and an 8TB G-Raid drive. There he was cutting using the proxy files that Final Cut Pro X can generate internally. During that 47-day period, Kovac was doing 90% of the editing. The amount of footage averaged about three hours and 40 minutes per day. In April, the unit moved back to home base in Los Angeles, where the team had two Mac Pro edit suites set up for the editors, as well as iMacs for the assistants.

John Requa and Glenn Ficarra are “hands-on” participants in the editing process. Kovac would cut in one room, while Ficarra and Requa would cut in the other. After the first preview, their collaboration slowly changed into a more traditional editor-director format. Even towards the end, Ficarra would still edit when he found time to do so. Post ended just before Christmas after a 35-week post schedule. Glenn Ficarra explains, “John and I have worked together for 30 years, so we are generally of one mind when we write, direct, or edit. Sometimes John would cut with me and I’d be the ‘fingers’ and other times he’d work with Jan. Or maybe I’d work with Jan and John would review and pick takes. So our process is very fluid.”

df1116_wtf_4The Whiskey Tango Foxtrot team worked deeper into temp sound and visual effects than before. Kovac explains, “Kevin is very comfortable with sound design during the edit. And he’s a good Nuke artist, too. While I was working on one reel, Kevin could work on a different reel adding in sound effects and creating monitor comps and screen replacements. A lot of this work was done inside of Final Cut using the SliceX and TrackX plug-ins from CoreMelt. We were able to work in a 5.1 surround project and did all of our temp mixes in 5.1.” The power of the plug-ins let more of the temp effects be done inside Final Cut  Pro X, resulting in a more efficient workflow with less need for roundtrips to other applications.

All media and render files were kept on the ExaSAN storage, but external of the Final Cut Pro X library files, thus keeping those small. The library files were stored on a separate NFS server (a Mac Mini using NFS Manager) with a separate FCPX library file for each reel of the film. This enabled the editors and assistants to all access any FCPX library file, as long as someone else wasn’t using it at that time. A shared iTunes library for temporary sound effects and music selections was stored on the SAN with all machines pointing to that location. From within Final Cut, any editor could browse the iTunes library for music and sound effects.

When it came time for sound and picture turnovers, X2Pro Audio Convert was used to pass audio to the sound design team as an AAF file. Light Iron’s Ian Vertovec handled final color correction on their Quantel Pablo Rio system. He was working off of camera original media, which Light Iron also stored at their facility after the production. Effects shots were sent over as DPX image sequences.

Thoughts on the cut

df1116_wtf_7The director’s cut for Whisky Tango Foxtrot ran about three hours, although the final length clocked in at 1:52:00 with credits. Kovac explains, “There were 167 scripted scenes in the original script, requiring a fair amount of trimming. Once you removed something it had consequences that rippled throughout. It took time to get it right. While it was a tougher film from that standpoint, it was easier, because no studio approval process was needed for the use of Final Cut Pro X. So it built upon the shoulders of Focus. Final Cut has proven itself as a valuable member of the NLE community. Naturally anything can be improved. For example, optical flow and auditions don’t work with multicam clips. Neither do the CoreMelt plug-ins.” Bailey adds, “For me the biggest selling point is the magnetic timeline. In areas where I would build up temp sound design, these would be the equivalent of ten tracks deep. It’s far easier to trim sections and have the audio follow along than in any other NLE.”

Glenn Ficarra wrapped up with these thoughts. He says, “A big step forward on this film was how we dealt with audio. We devised a method to keep as much as possible inside FCPX, for as long as possible – especially for screenings. This gave us more cutting time, which was nice. There was no need for any of the in-between turnovers I’ve gone through on other systems, just to prepare the movie for screenings. I like the robust third-party approach with Final Cut. It’s a small, tight-knit community. You can actually get in touch with a developer without going through a large corporation. I’d like to see Apple improve some features, like better match-back. I feel they’ve only scratched the surface with roles, so I’d like to see them develop that more.”

He concludes, “A lot of directors would like to cut for themselves, but find a tool like Avid impenetrable. It doesn’t have to be that way. My 12-year-old daughter is perfectly comfortable with Final Cut Pro X. Many of the current workflows stem from what was built up around film and we no longer work that way. Why adhere to the old film methods and rules? Filmmakers who are using new methods are those that aren’t satisfied with the status quo. They are willing to push the boundaries.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Hail, Caesar!

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Combine kidnapping, mystery, farce, and a good measure of quirkiness, and you’ve defined the quintessential Coen Brothers script. Complete with a cast of Coen alums, Hail, Caesar! is just such a film. Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest is set in the motion picture factory town of Hollywood in the 1950s. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a studio fixer tasked with finding Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), one of the studio’s biggest money-makers. Whitlock has been kidnapped in the middle of production of a Bible epic by a group called “The Future”. Of course, that’s not Mannix’s only dilemma, as he has other studio problems he needs to deal with, such as disgruntled director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) and personal issues by starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson).

The Hail, Caesar! story idea has been kicking around for over a decade before the Coens finally brought it into production. Along with being a concept that fits right into their wheelhouse, it’s also a complex production. In this story about the Golden Age of Hollywood, much of the film involves movies within the movie. The tale weaves in and out of multiple productions being filmed on the fictional Capitol Pictures lot.

In keeping with the texture of films of that era, Hail, Caesar! was shot on film by long-time Coen director of photography, Roger Deakins (True Grit, No Country for Old Men, The Ladykillers). Deakins’ first choice might have been the ARRI ALEXA, but agreed that film was the appropriate solution and so shot with an ARRI 535-B to Kodak Vision3 negative stock. Fotokem handled development with EFILM covering telecine transfer, finishing, and digital intermediate color correction.

Time for a fresh change

Although they are lovers of the film image, Joel and Ethan Coen were also among the first to embrace Apple Final Cut Pro in their transition to digital editing for the film Intolerable Cruelty. They had been using Final Cut Pro up until Inside Llewyn Davis; however, it had become sufficiently “long in the tooth” that it was time for a change. This brought them to Adobe Premiere Pro CC. I recently interviewed Katie McQuerrey about this shift. She is credited as an additional or associate editor of numerous Coen films (Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit, Burn After Reading) – a role which she describes as being Joel and Ethan’s right-hand person in the cutting room. For Hail, Caesar!, this included interfacing with Adobe and handling the general workflow so that Premiere Pro was a functional editing tool for the filmmakers.

df0916_hailcaesar_6McQuerrey explains, “After Apple stopped supporting Final Cut Pro 7 we knew it was time to change. We looked at Final Cut Pro X, but because of its lack of audio editing functions, we knew that it wasn’t right for us. So, we decided to give Premiere Pro a try. David Fincher had a successful experience with Gone Girl and we knew that Walter Murch, who is a friend of the Joel and Ethan’s, was using it on his next film. I’ve edited on Avid, Final Cut, and now Premiere Pro and they all make you adjust your editing style to adapt to the software. Joel and Ethan had only ever edited digitally on Final Cut Pro, so Premiere Pro provided the easiest transition. [Avid] Media Composer is very robust for the assistant editor, but a bit restrictive for the editor. I’m on an Avid job right now after a year away from it and miss some of the flexibility that Premiere Pro offers. You really come to appreciate how fluid it is to edit with. I think both Final Cut Pro 7 and Premiere Pro are better for the editor, but they do add a bit more stress on the assistants. Of course, Joel and Ethan were generally shielded from that.”

df0916_hailcaesar_2One of the unknowns with Premiere Pro was the fact that Hail, Caesar! was being shot on film. Avid has tried-and-true methods for tracking film keycode, but that was never part Premiere Pro’s architecture. Assistant editor David Smith explains, “EFILM scanned all of the negative at 2K resolution to ProRes for our cutting purposes. On an Avid job, they would have provided a corresponding ALE (Avid Log Exchange list) for the footage and you would be able to track keycode and timecode for the dailies. For this film, EFILM sync’ed the dailies and provided us with the media, as well as a Premiere Pro project file for each day. We were concerned about tracking keycode to turn over a cut list at the end of the job. Adobe even wrote us a build that included a metadata column for keycode. EFILM tracks their transfers internally, so their software would reference timecode back to the keycode in order to pull selects for the final scan and conform. At their suggestion, we used Change List software from Intelligent Assistance to provide a cut list, plus a standard EDL generated from Premiere Pro. In the end, the process wasn’t that much different after all.” EFILM scanned the selected negative clips at 4K resolution and the digital intermediate color correction was handled by Mitch Paulson under Roger Deakins’ supervision.

Adapting Premiere Pro to the Coen Brothers workflow

df0916_hailcaesar_3It was Katie McQuerrey’s job to test drive Premiere Pro ahead of the Coens and provide assistance as needed to get them up to speed. She says, “Joel was actually up to speed after a day or so. Initially we all wanted to make Premiere Pro work just like Final Cut, because it appears similar. Of course, many functions are quite different, but the longer we worked with it, the more we got used to some of  the Premiere Pro ways of doing things. As functionality issues came up, Adobe would make adjustments and send new software builds. I would test these out first. When I thought they would be ready for Joel and Ethan to use, we’d install it on their machines. I needed to let them concentrate on the edit and not worry about software.”

Joel and Ethan Coen developed a style of working that stems from their film editing days and that carried over into their use of Final Cut Pro. This was adjusted for Premiere Pro. McQuerrey continues, “Ethan and Joel work on different computers. Ethan will pick selected takes and mark ins and outs. Then he saves the project and dings a bell. Joel opens that project up to use as he assembles scenes. With FCP you could have multiple projects open at once, but not so with Premiere. We found out from Adobe that the way to handle this was through the Media Browser module inside of Premiere. Joel could browse the drive for Ethan’s project and then access it for specific sequences or selected shots. Joel could import these through Media Browser into his project as a non-destructive copy, letting Ethan continue on. Media Browser is the key to working collaboratively among several editors on the same project.” Their edit system consisted of several Mac Pro “tube” models connected to Open Drives shared storage. This solution was developed by workflow engineer Jeff Brue for Gone Girl and is based on using solid state drives, which enable fast media access.

df0916_hailcaesar_5As with all films, Hail, Caesar! posed creative challenges that any application must be able to deal with. McQuerrey explains, “Unlike other directors, Joel and Ethan wait until all the shooting is done before anything is cut. I wasn’t cutting along with dailies as is the case with most other directors. This gave me time to get comfortable with Premiere and to organize the footage. Because the story includes movies within the movie, there are different aspect ratios, different film looks and color and black-and-white film material. Editorially it was an exciting project because of this. For example, if a scene in the film was being ‘filmed’ by the on-camera crew, it was in color and should appear to play out in real-time as you see the take being filmed. This same sequence might also appear later in a Moviola viewer, as black-and-white, edited film. This affected how sequences were cut. Some shots that were supposed to be real-time needed to look like one continuous take. Or someone in the film may be watching a rough cut, therefore that part had to be cut like a rough cut. This is a film that I think editors will like, because there are a lot of inside jokes they’ll appreciate.”

Fine tuning for the feature film world

df0916_hailcaesar_4One criticism of Adobe Premiere Pro CC has been how it handles large project files, particularly when it comes to load times. McQuerrey answers, “The Open Drives system definitely helped with that. We had to split the film up into a separate projects, for cuts, sound, visual effects, music, etc. in order to work efficiently. However, as we got later into the post we found that even the smaller projects had grown to the size that load times got much slower. The remedy was to cull out old versions of sequences, so that these didn’t require indexing each time the project was opened. Periodically I would create archive projects to keep the oldest sequences and then delete most of the oldest sequences from the active project. This improved performance.”

The filmmaking team finished Hail, Caesar! with a lot of things they liked about their new software choice. McQuerrey says, “Joel likes some of the effects features in Premiere Pro to build transitions and temp comps. This film has more visual effects than a usual Coen Brothers film, including green screens, split screens, and time remaps. Many of the comps were done in Premiere, rather than After Effects. Ethan and Joel both work differently. Ethan would leave his bins in list view and do his mark-ups. On the other hand, Joel also really liked the icon view and hover scrubbing a lot. Temp sound editing while you are picture editing is very critical to their process. They’ll often use different takes or readings for the audio than for the picture, so how an application edits sound is as important – if not more so – than how it edits picture. We had a couple of bumps in the road getting the sound  tracks interface working to our liking, but with Adobe’s help in building new versions of software for us, we got to the place where we really appreciated Premiere’s sound tools.”

Katie McQuerrey and I wrapped up the interview with an anecdote about the Coens’ unique approach to their new editing tool. McQuerrey explains, “With any application, there are a number of repetitive keystrokes. At one point Joel joked about using a foot pedal, like on an old upright Moviola. At first we laughed it off, but then I checked around and found that you could buy custom control devices for video game play, including special mice and even foot controls. So we ordered a foot pedal and hooked it up to the computer. It came with it own software that let us map command functions to the pedal. We did this with Premiere’s snapping control, because Joel constantly toggles it on and off!” It’s ironic, given the context of the Hail, Caesar! story, but here you have something straight out of the Golden Age of film that’s found itself useful in the digital age.

Click here for Adobe’s behind-the-scenes look.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Vinyl

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The decade of the 1970s was the heyday of the rock music business when a hit record nearly made you a king. It was the time right after Woodstock. Top bands like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones commanded huge stadium shows. The legendary excesses of the music industry are most often encapsulated as “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll”. Now the New York music and record company scene of that era has been brought to the screen in the new HBO series, Vinyl. The series was created by Mick Jagger & Martin Scorsese & Rich Cohen and Terence Winter.

Vinyl is told largely through the eyes of Richie Finestra (played by Bobby Cannavale, Daddy’s Home, Ant-Man), the founder and president of the fictional American Century Records. He’s a rags-to-riches guy with a gift for discovering music acts. In the pilot episode, the company is about to be sold to Polygram, but a series of events changes the course of Finestra’s future, which sets up the basis for the series. It’s New York in the 70s at the birth of hip-hop, disco, and punk rock with a lot of cultural changes going on as the backdrop. The series features an eclectic cast, including James Jagger (Mick’s son) as the leader singer of a raw, New York punk band, The Nasty Bits.

The pilot teleplay was written by Terence Winter and George Mastras, based on a story developed by Cohen, Scorsese, Jagger, and Winter. This feature-length series kick-off was directed by Scorsese with Rodrigo Prieto (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Wolf of Wall Street) as director of photography. Martin Scorsese is certainly no stranger to the music industry with projects like Woodstock, The Last Waltz, The Blues, and Shine A Light to his credit. Coupled with his innate ability to tell entertaining stories about the underbelly of life in New York, Vinyl makes for an interesting stew. The pilot was a year in production and post and sets the tone for the rest of the series, which will be directed by seven other directors. This is the same model as with Boardwalk Empire. Scorsese and Jagger are part of the team of executive producers, with Winter as the show runner.

Producing a pilot like a feature film

df0816_VINYL_2I recently interviewed David Tedeschi (George Harrison: Living in the Material World, Public Speaking), editor for the pilot episode of Vinyl. Kate Sanford and Tim Streeto are the editors for the series. Tedeschi has edited both documentary and narrative films prior to working with Martin Scorsese, for whom he’s edited a number of documentaries, such as No Direction Home and Shine A Light. But the Vinyl pilot is his first narrative project with Scorsese. Tedeschi explains, “The concept started out as an idea for a feature film. It landed at HBO, who was willing to green-light it as a full series. We were able to treat the pilot like a feature and had the luxury of being able to spend nearly a year in post, with some breaks in between.”

Even though Scorsese’s Sikelia Productions approached it like a feature, the editorial staff was small, consisting mainly of Tedeschi and one associate editor, Alan Lowe. Tedeschi talks about the post workflow, “The film was shot digitally with a Sony F55, but Scorsese and Prieto wanted to evoke a 16mm film look to be in keeping with the era. Deluxe handled the dailies – adding a film look emulation that included grain. They provided us with Avid DNxHD 115 media. Since most scenes were shot with two or three cameras, Alan would sync the audio by slate and then create multicam clips for me, before I’d start to edit. We were working on two Avid Media Composers connected to Avid ISIS shared storage. For viewing, we installed 50” Panasonic plasma displays that were calibrated by Deluxe. The final conform and color correction was  handed by Deluxe with Steve Bodner as colorist.”

df0816_VINYL_3He continues, “Scorsese had really choreographed the scenes precisely, with extensive notes. In the dailies process we would review every scene, and he would map out selects and then we’d work through it. In spite of being very specific about how he’d planned out a scene, he would often revisit a scene and look at other options in order to improve it. He was very open minded to new ways of looking at the material. Overall, it was a pretty tight script and edit. The first director’s cut was a little over two hours and the final came in at one hour and fifty-two minutes plus end credits.”

Story and structure

The pilot episode of Vinyl moves back and forth through a timeline of Finestra’s life and punctuates moments with interstitial elements, such as a guitar cameo by a fictionalized Bo Diddley. It’s easy to think these are constructs devised during editing, but Tedeschi says no. He explains, “I would love to take credit for that, but moving back and forth through eras was how the script was written. The interstitial elements weren’t in the script, but were Marty’s idea. He found extra time in the shooting schedule to film those and they worked beautifully in the edit.”

df0816_VINYL_4Many film editors have very specific ways they like to set up their bins in order to best sort and organize elected footage. Tedeschi’s approach is more streamlined. He explains, “My method is usually pretty simple. I don’t do special things in the bins. I will usually assemble a sequence of selected dailies for each scene. Then I’ll mark it up with markers and sometimes may color-code a few clips. On Vinyl, Alan would do the initial pass to composite some of the visual effects, like green screen window composites. He also handled a lot of the sound design for me.”

Vinyl is very detailed in how actual events, bands, people, and elements of the culture are represented and integrated into the story – although, in a fictionalized way. It’s a historical snapshot of the New York in the 70s and the culture of that time. Little elements like The King Biscuit Flower Hour (a popular radio show on progressive rock radio stations back then) playing on a radio or a movie marquee for Deep Throat easily pin-point the time and place. Anyone who’s seen the Led Zeppelin concert documentary, The Song Remains the Same, will remember one of the Madison Square Garden backstage scenes with an angry and colorful Peter Grant (Led Zeppelin’s manager). His persona and a similar event also made it into the story, but modified to be integral to the plot.

df0816_VINYL_5Accuracy is very important to Scorsese. Tedeschi says, “We have done documentaries about music and some of these people are part of our lives. We would all hear stories about some pretty over-the-top things, so a lot of this comes directly from their memories. The biggest challenge was to be faithful to New York in 1973.  It’s become this mythical place, but in Vinyl that’s the New York of Scorsese’s memory. We’ve certainly altered many actual facts, but even the most outrageous events that happen in the pilot and the series are rooted in true, historical events. We even reviewed historical footage. There was a very methodical approach.” Aside from the entertaining elements, it’s also a pretty solid story about how record companies actually operate.  He adds, “We had a screening towards the end of the editing process for the consultants, who had all worked in the record business. I knew we had done well, because they immediately launched into a lively discussion about contracts and industry standards and what names had been changed.”

This is a story about music and the music itself is a driving influence. Tedeschi concludes, “There is almost constant source music in the background. Scorsese went through each scene and we painstakingly auditioned many songs. One thing folks might not realize is that we sourced all of the recorded music that was used in their original formats. If a hit song was originally released as a 45 RPM record or an LP, then we’d track down a copy and try to use that. A few songs even came from 78 RPM records. We found a place that could handle high-quality transfers from such media and provide us with a digital file, which we used in the final mix. Often, a song may have been remastered, but we would compare our transfer with the remaster. The objective was to be faithful to the original sound – the way people heard it when it was released. After all, the series is called Vinyl for a reason. This was the director’s vision and how he remembered it.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters