Beyond the Supernova

No one typifies hard driving, instrumental, guitar rock better than Joe Satriani. The guitar virtuoso – known to his fans as Satch – has sixteen studio albums under his belt, along with several other EPs, live concert and compilation recordings. In addition to his solo tours, Satriani founded the “G3”, a series of short tours that feature Satriani along with a changing cast of two other all-star, solo guitarists, such as Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, Guthrie Govan, and others. In another side project, Satriani is the guitarist for the supergroup Chickenfoot, which is fronted by former Van Halen lead singer, Sammy Hagar.

The energy behind Satriani’s performances was captured in the new documentary film, Beyond the Supernova, which is currently available on the Stingray Qello streaming channel. This documentary grew out of the general behind-the-scenes coverage of Satriani’s 2016 and 2017 tours in Asia and Europe, to promote his 15th studio album, Shockwave Supernova. Tour filming was handled by Satriani’s son, ZZ (Zachariah Zane) – an up-and-coming, young filmmaker. The tour coincided with Joe Satriani’s 60th birthday and 30 years after the release of his multi-platinum-selling album Surfing with the Alien. These elements, as well as capturing Satriani’s introspective nature, provided the ingredients for a more in-depth project, which ZZ Satriani produced, directed and edited.

According to Joe Satriani in an interview on Stingray’s PausePlay, “ZZ was able to capture the real me in a way that only a son would understand how to do; because I was struggling with how I was going to record a new record and go in a new direction. So, as I’m on the tour bus and backstage – I guess it’s on my face. He’s filming it and he’s going ‘there’s a movie in here about that. It’s not just a bunch of guys on tour.’”

From music to filmmaking

ZZ Satriani graduated from Occidental College in 2015 with a BA in Art History and Visual Arts, with a focus on film production. He moved to Los Angeles to start a career as a freelance editor. I spoke with ZZ Satriani about how he came to make this film. He explained, “For me it started with skateboarding in high school. Filmmaking and skateboarding go hand-in-hand. You are always trying to capture your buddies doing cool tricks. I gravitated more to filmmaking in college. For the 2012 G3 Tour, I produced a couple of web videos that used mainly jump cuts and were very disjointed, but fun. They decided to bring me on for the 2016 tour in order to produce something similar. But this time, it had to have more of a story. So I recorded the interviews afterwards.”

Although ZZ thinks of himself as primarily an editor, he handed all of the backstage, behind-the-scenes, and interview filming himself, using a Sony PXW-FS5 camera. He comments, “I was learning how to use the camera as I was shooting, so I got some weird results – but in a good way. I wanted the footage to have more of a filmic look – to have more the feeling of a memory, than simply real-time events.”

The structure of Beyond the Supernova intersperses concert performances with events on the tour and introspective interviews with Joe Satriani. The multi-camera concert footage was supplied by the touring support company and is often mixed with historical footage provided by Joe Satriani’s management team. This enabled ZZ to intercut performances of the same song, not only from different locations, but even different years, going back to Joe Satriani’s early career.

The style of cutting the concert performances is relatively straightforward, but the travel and interview bridges that join them together have more of a stream-of-consciousness feel to them and are often quite psychedelic. ZZ says, “I’m not a big [Adobe] After Effects guy, so all of the ‘effects’ are practical and built up in layers within [Adobe] Premiere Pro. The majority of ‘effects’ dealt with layering, blending and cropping different clips together. It makes you think about the space within the frame – different shapes, movement, direction, etc. I like playing around that way – you end up discovering things you wouldn’t have normally thought of. Let your curiosity guide you, keep messing with things and you will look at everything in a new way. It keeps editing exciting!”

Premiere Pro makes the cut

Beyond the Supernova was completely cut and finished in Premiere Pro. ZZ explains why,  “Around 2011-12, I made the switch from [Apple] Final Cut Pro to Premiere Pro while I was in a film production class. They informed us that was the new standard, so we rolled with it and the transition was very smooth. I use other apps in the Adobe suite and I like the layout of everything in each one, so I’ve never felt the need to switch to another NLE.”

ZZ Satriani continues, “We had a mix of formats to deal with, including the need to upscale some of the standard definition footage to HD, which I did in software. Premiere handled the PXW-FS5’s XAVC-L codec pretty well in my opinion. I didn’t transcode to Pro Res, since I had so much footage, and not a lot of external hard drive space. I knew this might make things go more slowly – but honestly, I didn’t notice any significant drawbacks. I also handled all of the color correction, using Premiere’s Lumetri color controls and the FilmConvert plug-in.” Satriani created the sound design for the interview segments, but John Cuniberti (who has also mixed Joe Satriani’s albums) re-mixed the live concert segments in his studio in London. The final 5.1 surround mix of the whole film was handled at Skywalker Sound.

The impetus pushing completion was entry into the October 2017 Mill Valley Film Festival. ZZ says, “I worked for a month putting together the trailer for Mill Valley. Because I had already organized the footage for this and an earlier teaser, the actual edit of the film came easily. It took me about two months to cut – working by myself in the basement on a [2013] Mac Pro. Coffee and burritos from across the street kept me going.” 

Introspection brings surprises

Fathers and sons working together can often be an interesting dynamic and even ZZ learned new things during the production. He comments, “The title of the film evolved out of the interviews. I learned that Joe’s songs on an album tend to have a theme tied to the theme of the album, which often has a sci-fi basis to it. But it was a real surprise to me when Joe explained that Shockwave Supernova was really his character or persona on stage. I went, ‘Wait! After all these years, how did I not know that?’”

As with any film, you have to decide what gets cut and what stays. In concert projects, the decision often comes down to which songs to include. ZZ says, “One song that I initially thought shouldn’t be included was Surfing with the Alien. It’s a huge fan favorite and such an iconic song for Joe. Including it almost seemed like giving in. But, in a way it created a ‘conflict point’ for the film. Once we added Joe’s interview comments, it worked for me. He explained that each time he plays it live that it’s not like repeating the past. He feels like he’s growing with the song – discovering new ways to approach it.”

The original plan for Beyond the Supernova after Mill Valley was to showcase it at other film festivals. But Joe Satriani’s management team thought that it coincided beautifully with the release of his 16th studio album, What Happens Next, which came out in January of this year. Instead of other film festivals, Beyond the Supernova made its video premiere on AXS TV in March and then started its streaming run on Stingray Qello this July. Qello is known as a home for classic and new live concerts, so this exposes the documentary to a wider audience. Whether you are a fan of Joe Satriani or just rock documentaries, ZZ Satriani’s Beyond the Supernova is a great peek behind the curtain into life on the road and some of the thoughts that keep this veteran solo performer fresh.

Images courtesy of ZZ Satriani.

©2018 Oliver Peters

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Wild Wild Country

Sometimes real life is far stranger than fiction. Such is the tale of the Rajneeshees – disciples of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh – who moved to Wasco County, Oregon in the 1980s. Their goal was to establish a self-contained, sustainable, utopian community of spiritual followers, but the story quickly took a dark turn. Conflicts with the local Oregon community escalated, including the first and single, largest bioterror attack in the United States, when a group of followers poisoned 751 guests at ten local restaurants through intentional salmonella contamination. 

Additional criminal activities included attempted murder, conspiracy to assassinate the U. S. Attorney for the District of Oregon, arson, and wiretapping. The community was largely controlled by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s personal secretary, Sheela Silverman (Ma Anand Sheela), who served 29 months in federal prison on related charges. She moved to Switzerland upon her release. Although the Rajneeshpuram community is no more and its namesake is now deceased, the community of followers lives on as the Osho International Foundation. This slice of history has now been chronicled in the six-part Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country, directed by Chapman and Maclain Way.

Documentaries are truly an editor’s medium. More so than any other cinematic genre, the final draft of the script is written in the cutting room. I recently interviewed Wild Wild Country’s editor, Neil Meiklejohn, about putting this fascinating tale together.

Treasure in the archives

Neil Meiklejohn explains, “I had worked with the directors before to help them get The Battered Bastards of Baseball ready for Sundance. That is also an Oregon story. While doing their research at the Oregon Historical Society, the archivist turned them on to this story and the footage available. The 1980s was an interesting time in local broadcast news, because that was a transition from film to video. Often stories were shot on film and then transferred to videotape for editing and airing. Many times stations would simply erase the tape after broadcast and reuse the stock. The film would be destroyed. But in this case, the local stations realized that they had something of value and held onto the footage. Eventually it was donated to the historical society.”

“The Rajneeshees on the ranch were also very proud of what they were doing – farming and building a utopian city – so, they would constantly invite visitors and media organizations onto the ranch. They also had their own film crews documenting this, although we didn’t have as much access to that material. Ultimately, we accumulated approximately 300 hours of archival media in all manner of formats, including Beta-SP videotape, ripped DVDs, and the internet. It also came in different frame rates, since some of the sources were international. On top of the archival footage, the Ways also recorded another 100 hours of new interviews with many of the principals involved on both sides of this story. That was RED Dragon 6K footage, shot in two-camera, multi-cam set-ups. So, pretty much every combination you can think of went into this series. We just embraced the aesthetic defects and differences – creating an interesting visual texture.”

Balancing both sides of the story

“Documentaries are an editor’s time to shine,” continues Meiklejohn. “We started by wanting to tell the story of the battle between the cult and the local community without picking sides. This really meant that each scene had to be edited twice. Once from each perspective. Then those two would be combined to show both sides as point-counterpoint. Originally we thought about jumping around in time. But, it quickly became apparent that the best way to tell the story was as a linear progression, so that viewers could see why people did what they did. We avoided getting tricky.”

“In order to determine a structure to our episodes, we first decided the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ for each and then the story points to hit within. Once that was established, we could look for ‘extra gold’ that might be added to an episode. We would share edits with our executive producers and Netflix. On a large research-based project like this, their input was crucial to making sure that the story had clarity.”

Managing the post production

Meiklejohn normally works as an editor at LA post facility Rock Paper Scissors. For Wild Wild Country, he spent ten months in 2017 at an ad hoc cutting room located at the offices of the film’s executive producers, Jay and Mark Duplass. His set-up included Apple iMacs running Adobe Creative Cloud software, connected to an Avid ISIS shared storage network. Premiere Pro was the editing tool of choice.

Meiklejohn says, “The crew was largely the directors and myself. Assistant editors helped at the front end to get all of the media organized and loaded, and then again when it came time to export files for final mastering. They also helped to take my temp motion graphics – done in Premiere – and then polish them in After Effects. These were then linked back into the timeline using Dynamic Link between Premiere and After Effects. Chapman and Maclain [Way] were very hands-on throughout, including scanning in stills and prepping them in Photoshop for the edit. We would discuss each new segment to sort out the best direction the story was taking and to help set the tone for each scene.”

“Premiere Pro was the ideal tool for this project, because we had so many different formats to deal with. It dealt well with the mess. All of the archival footage was imported and used natively – no transcoding. The 6K RED interview footage was transcoded to ProRes for the ‘offline’ editing phase. A lot of temp mixing and color correction was done within Premiere, because we always wanted the rough cuts to look smooth with all of the different archival footage. Nothing should be jarring. For the ‘online’ edit, the assistants would relink to the full-resolution RED raw files. The archival footage was already linked at its native resolution, because I had been cutting with that all along. Then the Premiere sequences were exported as DPX image sequences with notched EDLs and sent to E-Film, where color correction was handled by Mitch Paulson. Unbridled Sound handled the sound design and mix – and then Encore handled mastering and 1080p deliverables.”

Working with 400 hours of material and six hour-long episodes in Premiere might be a concern for some, but it was flawless for Meiklejohn. He continues, “We worked the whole series as one large project, so that at any given time, we could go back to scenes from an earlier episode and review and compare. The archival material was organized by topic and story order, with corresponding ‘selects’ sequences. As the project became bigger, I would pare it down by deleting unnecessary sequences and saving a newer, updated version. So, no real issue by keeping everything in a single project.”

As with any real-life event, where many of the people involved are still alive, opinions will vary as to how balanced the storytelling is. Former Rajneeshees have both praised and criticized the focus of the story. Meiklejohn says, “Sheela is one of our main interview subjects and in many ways, she is both the hero and the villain of this story. So, it was interesting to see how well she has been received on social media and in the public screenings we’ve done.”

Wild Wild Country shares a pointed look into one of the most bizarre clashes in the past few decades. Meiklejohn says, “Our creative process was really focused on the standoff between these two groups and the big inflection points. I tried to let the raw emotions that you see in these interviews come through and linger a bit on-screen to help inform the events that were unfolding. The story is sensational in and of itself, and I didn’t want to distract from that.”

Originally written for CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2018 Oliver Peters

Editing the FX Series Atlanta

Atlanta just wrapped its second season on the FX Network. The brainchild of actor/writer/producer/director Donald Glover, Atlanta is the story of Earn Marks, a Princeton drop-out who returns home to Atlanta, where he decides to manage his cousin’s rap career. The show is very textural and plot is secondary. It loosely follows Earn and the people in his life – specifically his cousin, Paper Boi – an up and coming rapper – and his friend and posse-mate, Darrius.

The visual architect of the show is director Hiro Murai, who has directed the majority of the episodes. He has set an absurdist tone for much of the story. Any given episode can be wildly different from the episodes that come on either side of it. The episodes taken as a whole make up what the series is about.

I recently had a chance to interview the show’s editors, Kyle Reiter and Isaac Hagy, about working on Atlanta and their use of Adobe Premiere Pro CC to edit the series.

Isaac Hagy: “I have been collaborating with Hiro for years. We went to college together and ever since then, we’ve been making short films and music videos. I started out doing no-budget music videos, then eventually moved into documentaries and commercials, and now television. A few years ago, we made a short film called Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, starring Donald. That became kind of an aesthetic precursor that we used in pitching this show. It served as a template for the tone of Atlanta.”

“I’ve used pretty much every editing software under the sun – cutting short films in high school on iMovie, then Avid in college when I went to film school at USC. Once I started doing short film projects, I found Final Cut Pro to be more conducive to quick turnarounds than Avid. I used that for five or six years, but then they stopped updating it, so I needed to switch over to a more professional alternative. Premiere Pro was the easiest transition from Final Cut Pro and, at that time, Premiere was starting to be accepted as a professional platform. A lot of people on the show come from a very DIY background, where we do everything ourselves. Like with the early music videos – I would color and Hiro would do effects in After Effects. So, Premiere was a much more natural fit. I am on a show using [Avid] Media Composer right now and it feels like a step backwards.”

With a nod to their DIY ethos, post-production for Atlanta also follows a small, collective approach. 

Kyle Reiter: “We rent a post facility that is just a single-story house. We have a DIY server called a NAS that one of our assistants built and all the media is stored there. It’s just a tower. We brought in our own desktop iMacs with dual monitors that we connect to the server over Ethernet. The show is shot with ARRI Amira cameras in a cinema 2K format. Then that is transcoded to proxy media for editing, which makes it easy to manage. The color correction is done in Resolve. Our assistant editors online it for the colorist, so there’s no grading in-house.” Atlanta airs on the FX Network in the 720p format.

The structure and schedule of this production make it possible to use a simple team approach. Projects aren’t typically shared among multiple editors and assistants, so a more elaborate infrastructure isn’t required to get the job done. 

Isaac Hagy: “It’s a pretty small team. There’s Kyle and myself. We each have an assistant editor. We just split the episodes, so I took half of the season and Kyle the other half. We were pretty self-contained, but because there were an odd number of episodes, we ended up sharing the load on one of them. I did the first cut of that episode and Kyle took it through the director’s cut. But other than that, we each had our individual episodes.”

Kyle Reiter: “They’re in Atlanta for several months shooting. We’ll spend five to seven days doing our cut and then typically move on to the next thing, before we’re finished. That’s just because they’re out of town for several months shooting and then they’ll come back and continue to work. So, it’s actually quite a bit of time calendar-wise, but not a lot of time in actual work hours. We’ll start by pulling selects and marking takes. I do a lot of logging within Premiere. A lot of comments and a lot of markers about stuff that will make it easy to find later. It’s just breaking it down to manageable pieces. Then from there, going scene-by-scene, and putting it all together.”

Many scripted television series that are edited on Avid Media Composer rely on Avid’s script integration features. This led me to wonder whether Reiter and Hagy missed such tools in Premiere Pro.

Isaac Hagy: “We’re lucky that the way in which the DP [Christian Sprenger] and the director shoot the series is very controlled. The projects are never terribly unwieldy, so really simple organizing usually does the trick.”

Kyle Reiter: “They’re never doing more than a handful of takes and there aren’t more than a handful of set-ups, so it’s really easy to keep track of everything. I’ve worked with editors that used markers and just mark every line and then designate a line number; but, we don’t on this show. These episodes are very economical in how they are written and shot, so that sort of thing is not needed. It would be nice to have an Avid ScriptSync type of thing within Premiere Pro. However, we don’t get an unwieldy amount of footage, so frankly it’s almost not necessary. If it were on a different sort of show, where I needed that, then absolutely I would do it. But this is the sort of show I can get away with not doing it.”

Kyle Reiter: “I’m on a show right now being cut on Media Composer, where there are 20 to 25 takes of everything. Having ScriptSync is a real lifesaver on that one.”

Both editors are fans of Premiere Pro’s advanced features, including the ability to use it with After Effects, along with the new sound tools added in recent versions.

Isaac Hagy: “In the offline, we create some temp visual effects to set the concepts. Some of the simpler effects do make it into the show. We’ll mock it up in Premiere and then the AE’s will bring it into After Effects and polish the effect. Then it will be Dynamic Link-ed back into the Premiere timeline.”

“We probably go deeper on the sound than any other technical aspect of the show. In fact, a lot of the sound that we temp for the editor’s cut will make it to the final mix stage. We not only try to source sounds that are appropriate for a scene, but we also try to do light mixing ourselves – whether it’s adding reverb or putting the sound within the space – just giving it some realism. We definitely use the sound tools in Premiere quite a bit. Personally, I’ve had scenes where I was using 30 tracks just for sound effects.”

“I definitely feel more comfortable working in sound in Premiere than in Media Composer -and even than I felt in Final Cut. It’s way easier working with filters, mixing, panning, and controlling multiple tracks at once. This season we experimented with the Essential Sound Panel quite a bit. It was actually very good in putting a song into the background or putting sound effects outside of a room – just creating spaces.”

When a television series or film is about the music industry, the music in the series plays a principal role. Sometimes that is achieved with a composed score and on other shows, the soundtrack is built from popular music.

Kyle Reiter: “There’s no score on the show that’s not diegetic music, so we don’t have a composer. We had one episode this year where we did have score. Flying Lotus and Thundercat are two music friends of Donald’s that scored the episode. But other than that, everything else is just pop songs that we put into the show.”

Isaac Hagy: “The decision of which music to use is very collaborative. Some of the songs are written in the script. A lot are choices that Kyle and I make. Hiro will add some. Donald will add some. We also have two great music supervisors. We’re really lucky that we get nearly 90% of the music that we fall in love with cleared. But when we don’t, our music supervisors recommend some great alternatives. We’re looking for an authenticity to the world, so we try to rely on tracks that exist in the real world.”

Atlanta provides an interesting look of the city’s hip-hop culture on the fringe. A series that has included an alligator and Donald Glover in weird prosthetic make-up – and where Hiro Murai takes inspiration from The Shining certainly isn’t your run-of-the-mill television series. It definitely leaves fans wanting more, but to date, a third season has not yet been announced.

This interview was recorded using the Apogee MetaRecorder for iOS application and transcribed thanks to Digital Heaven’s SpeedScriber.

Originally written for CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2018 Oliver Peters

Molly’s Game

Molly Bloom’s future looked extremely bright. A shot at Olympic skiing glory leading to entry into a leading law school. But an accident during qualifying trials for the U. S. ski team knocked her out of the running for the Salt Lake City games. (Bloom notes in her own memoir that it was her decision to retire and change the course of her life, rather than the minor accident.) She moved to Los Angeles and ended up running high stakes, private poker games with her boss at the time. These games included A-list celebrities, hedge fund managers, and eventually, members of the Russian mob. Bloom quickly earned the nickname as the “poker princess”. This all came crashing down when Bloom was busted by the FBI and sentenced for her role in the gambling ring.

Bloom’s memoir came to the attention of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Moneyball, Steve Jobs), who not only made this his next film script, but also his debut as a film director. Sorkin stayed close to the facts that Bloom described in her own memoir and consulted her during the writing of the screenplay. The biggest departure is that Bloom named some celebrities at these games, who had previously been revealed in released court documents. Sorkin opted to fictionalize them, explaining that he would rather focus the story on Bloom’s experiences and not on Hollywood gossip. Jessica Chastain (The Zookeeper’s Wife, A Most Violent YearZero Dark Thirty) stars as Molly Bloom.

Although three editors are credited for Molly’s Game, the back story is that a staggered schedule had to be worked out. The post production of Steve Jobs connected feature film editor Elliot Graham (Milk, 21, Superman Returns) with that film’s writer and director – Sorkin and Danny Boyle (T2 Trainspotting, 127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire). Graham was tapped to cut Molly’s Game later into the process, replacing its original editor. He brought Josh Schaeffer (The Last Man on Earth, Detroiters, You’re the Worst) on as associate editor to join him. Graham started the recut with Schaeffer, but a prior schedule commitment to work on Trust for Boyle, saw him exiting the film early. (Trust is the BBC’s adaptation of the Getty kidnapping story.) Graham was able to bring the film about 50% of the way through post. Alan Baumgarten (Trumbo, American Hustle, Gangster Squad) picked up for Graham and edited with Schaeffer to the finish, thus earning all three an editing credit.

Working with a writer on his directorial debut

It can always be a challenge when a writer is close to the editing process. Scenes that may be near and dear to the writer are often cut, leading to tension. I asked the three about this situation. Graham says, “Aaron has always been on set with his other films and worked very closely with the director. So, he understands the process, having learned from some of the best directors in the business. I had a great time with Aaron on Steve Jobs. He’s an incredibly lovely and generous collaborator who brings out the best in his team.”

Baumgarten expands, “Working with Aaron was fun, because he appreciates being challenged. He’s open to seeing what an editor brings to the film. Aaron wrote a tight script that didn’t need to be re-arranged. Only about 20 minutes came out. We cut one small scene, but it was mostly trimming here and there. You want to be careful not to ruin the rhythm of his writing.”

Graham continues, “Aaron also found his own visual vocabulary. A lot of the story is told in time jumps, from present day to the past in flashbacks. Aaron always is looking for rapid fire, overlapping dialogue. It’s part of his uniqueness and it’s a joy to cut. What was new for Aaron was using voice over to drive things.”

 Another new challenge was the use of stock footage. About 150 stock shots were used for cutaways and mini-montages throughout the film. Most of these were never originally scripted. Graham says, “Stock footage was something I chose to start injecting into the film with Aaron’s collaboration when I came on. We felt it was useful to have visual references for some of the voice overs – to connect visuals with words, which helps to land Aaron’s linguistic ideas for viewers. This began with the opening ski sequence – the first thing I cut when I came on board.”

The editors would pull down shots from a variety of internet sources and then the actual footage had to be found and cleared. The editors ultimately partnered with STALKR to find and clear all of the stock shots that were used. Visual effects were handled by Mr. X in Toronto. Originally, only 90 shots were budgeted (for example, snow falling in the ski sequences), but in the end, there were almost 600 visual effects shots in the final film.

Musicality of the performance

Baumgarten explains the musicality of Sorkin’s style. He says, “Aaron knew the film he wanted and had that in his head. Part of his writing process is to read his dialogue out loud and listen for the cadence of the performance. As you go through takes, the film is always moving in the right direction. As a writer/director, he doesn’t need variations or ad libs in an actor’s performance from one take to another, because he knows what the intention of the line is. As editors, we didn’t need to experiment with different calibrations of the performance. The experimentation came in with how we wove in the voice-over and played with the general rhythm.”

Graham adds, “Daniel Pemberton is the composer I worked with on Steve Jobs. I brought on Carl Kaller, a great music editor, when I came on. I knew that the music and dialogue had to dance a beautiful rhythm together for the film to be its best. With a compressed schedule to finish the film, we needed someone like Carl to help choreograph that dance.”

Baumgarten continues, “Daniel was involved early and provided us with temp tracks, which was a great gift. We didn’t have to use scores from other composers as temp music. Carl was just down the hall, so it was easy to weave Daniel’s temp elements in and around the dialogue and voice-over during the editing stage. There is interplay between the voice-over and the music, and the VO is like another musical element.”

Avid for the post

The post operation followed a standard feature film set-up. Avid Media Composer for the editing work stations, tied to Avid ISIS shared storage. The film was shot digitally using ARRI Alexas.

Production covered 48 days ending in February [2017]. It took 10 weeks to get to a director’s cut and then editing on Molly’s Game continued for about six months, which included visual effects, final sound mix and color correction. Schaeffer explains, “The dialogue scenes were scripted using [Avid] ScriptSync. Aaron was familiar with ScriptSync from The Newsroom, and it was a great help for us on this film. It’s the best way to have everything readily available and it allows us to be extremely thorough. If Aaron wanted to change a single word in a take, we were always able to find all of the alternates and make the change quite easily.”

Schaeffer continues, “Aaron methodically worked in a reel-by-reel order. We would divide up sequences between us at breaks that made sense. But when it came time to review the cut on a sequence, we would all review together. A lot people think that you have three editors on a film because the project is so difficult. The truth is that it lets you be more creative. Productions shoot so much footage these days, that it’s great to be able to experiment. Having multiple editors on a film enables you to take the time to be creative. We were all glad that Aaron set up an environment, which made that possible.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2018 Oliver Peters

Downsizing

The bond between a film director and the editor is often a long-lasting one. The industry is full of pairings that continue film after film. One such duo is director Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants, Sideways) and editor Kevin Tent (Welcome to Me, Girl Interrupted, Election). Tent has edited every film that Payne directed, with the exception of Payne’s short film Paris, je t’aime. In fact, Payne also served as producer for Crash Pad, a film directed by Tent.

The latest Alexander Payne film to hit the cinemas is Downsizing, a sci-fi satire starring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, and Kristen Wig. In the film, scientists discover human miniaturization as a way to combat overpopulation. Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wig) decide to give it a try, exchanging their average life in Omaha for Leisure Land, one of the ‘micro-communities’ sprouting up. Their modest $150,000 in personal assets will make them multimillionaires, so they take the plunge.

Sci-fi and satire

The sci-fi genre is a new approach for Payne, which is where I started my conversation with Kevin Tent. He explains, “The sci-fi theme is a departure for Alexander, but this is still very much an ‘Alexander Payne movie’. It’s still about the human experience. In the plot, shrinking is seen as a way to save the human race, but people get greedy. They can make themselves instantly rich, save money on food, medicine, and move into big ‘McMansions’. Human nature takes over, which makes the film funny and also thought-provoking. It covers a lot of ground and politics.”

“It’s easy to ask, why sci-fi,” Tent continues. “Alexander Payne is an artist who is always looking for ways to challenge himself. He co-wrote the script ten years ago, but it took this long to get it made. For one thing, Downsizing is more expensive than his past films. As an editor, I first looked at the cutting differently, because of working with the visual effects; but, I quickly realized that this film, like Alexander’s others, was about the characters and the story.  [Those are] still the most important elements of the movie. I had recently worked on The Audition, which was shot mostly with green screen – and a while back, The Golden Compass, which was a serious visual effects movie.  I had enough knowledge about the process to know one thing. These people can do anything! We had a terrific VFX team, headed by our creative guru, Jamie Price. ILM and Framestore did most of the visual effects.”

Digital production to aid the process

Alexander Payne shifted to digital acquisition with Nebraska and has followed suit with his latest, Downsizing. According to Tent, “Alexander shoots a lot of coverage, so he likes digital for that. It’s also easier to deal with when compositing visual effects. We had over 130 hours of total footage. Of course, a fairly good chunk was plates for VFX and 2nd unit footage. Most of the scenes were shot with single camera, but sometimes with multi-cam. Especially for some of the big speeches, which were covered with two and sometimes three cameras. We synced up the takes in the Avid, which makes it so easy to switch from camera to camera. Mindy Elliot is our amazing first assistant. She’s a total pro and a total joy to work with. She’s been running our cutting rooms since The Descendants. Angela Latimer was our second. She did 99% of the scripting [for Avid’s ScriptSync feature] and also helped cut early versions of Paul’s drug montage [scene in Downsizing]. Joe Carson was our VFX editor. I met him while working on Sponge Bob The Movie. I was one of the live action CGI editors on that film. Joe is awesome. He not only kept all of our visual effects organized, but he was also kept busy with the countless comps, morphs, and speed-ups that we tossed at him on a daily basis.”

Production wrapped in mid-August 2016 and then Tent started cutting with Payne right after Labor Day. Tent continues, “When I cut with Alexander, we basically start from scratch. I do create an editor’s cut during production, which we go back to for reference during our time together cutting, but it isn’t the starting point when I begin with Alexander. He’s a good editor, so when we work together, it’s really like having two editors in the room. We start watching dailies and start building scenes. We often look back at my editor’s cut and realize the scene or a part of it was better in that earlier version. Or maybe not. If there is something we like, we’ll put it back into the current cut.  We completed our first pass (kind of a director’s assembly) in January to show the studio. By early to mid-July we had a locked cut with about 80% of the completed VFX shots. The remainder trickled in afterwards. All together, that’s about ten or eleven months of cutting and finishing. Our DI/color grading was handled by the amazing Skip Kimball at Technicolor.”

Tools and tips

As a fellow editor, it’s always fun to talk about the tools and how to use them on a feature film project. Kevin Tent is a committed Avid Media Composer user. (Pacific Post provided the Avid systems used by the editing team.) According to Tent, “This was a huge project and Media Composer never had a problem with it.” One unique hallmark of Media Composer is Avid’s Script Integration. Notable within it is ScriptSync, Media Composer’s ability to automatically analyze waveforms and synchronize them – and, therefore, the associated clip – against text that has been input, like a film script. When correctly indexed, simply clicking on a line of dialogue in the on-screen script brings up all of the corresponding coverage. An ongoing licensing dispute limited its use to older versions of Media Composer, until the issue was finally resolved this year. That is great news for devotees of Avid’s powerful ScriptSync capability.

Many film editors swear by Avid’s Script Integration tools, yet some never use them at all. Was Tent a ScriptSync user? “Hell, ya!,” is his instant reply. “We stayed on Media Composer 7.0.6, because of the ScriptSync licensing issue, just so we could use it. I had Angela mark a lot of extra material and ad libs in addition to the scripted dialog. For example, an action like Paul opening a door or something like that. That would help, especially if they shot a lot of takes or resets within one bigger take, which tends to happen a lot when the shooting is on digital. There’s a massive party scene midway through the movie with people dancing, smoking pot, that kind of thing, and I asked Angela to add a ton of detail describing the scene. It made finding specific actions so quick. It’s also an especially great aid at re-cutting scenes when you are looking for alternate coverage.”

Another aid that editors like is to place scene cards on the wall. Typically these are 3”x5” note cards with written scene descriptions – one for each scene – that can be pinned to the wall in the order of the ongoing edit. Although Tent is also a proponent of these – a remnant practice from the old film days – his Downsizing cutting room didn’t have enough wall space to accommodate cards.

The Downsizing script clocked in a tad long and the first assembly that Payne and Tent cut was 2:45 (final length was 2:08). Obviously the team needed to do a bit of “downsizing” themselves. Tent explains, “The biggest lost scenes were bookending storyteller elements to open and close the film. There was an old caveman from far in the future telling a group of children about the events within the film and how once giants roamed the world. This story element was painful to lose, because it was very funny and effective emotionally. But it took an added three or four minutes to get to Matt Damon’s character and that hurt us.  The audience wants you to get to your main characters and understand what they’re seeing within a reasonable amount of time. Fortunately, Alexander hadn’t shot it yet as part of the main production. We previewed with storyboards, temp music, and voice over. While it was tough to lose it from the point of view of the script, we weren’t leaving produced material ‘on the cutting room floor’. Ultimately if you don’t know it was there, you won’t miss not having it.”

Downsizing opened in cinemas on December 21. Whether you are in it for the thought-provoking concepts or simply a lot of laughs and a wild ride, it’s a film to enjoy. Alexander Payne is bound to have another success on his hands.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

© 2017, 2018 Oliver Peters

Suburbicon

George Clooney’s latest film, Suburbicon, originated over a decade ago as a screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen. Clooney picked it up when the Coens decided not to produce the film themselves. Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov (The Monuments Men, The Ides of March, Good Night, and Good Luck), rewrote it as taking place in the 1950s and added another story element. In the summer of 1957, the Myers, an African-American couple, moved into a largely white suburb in Levittown, Pennsylvania, setting off months of violent protests. The rewritten script interweaves the tale of the black family with that of their next-door neighbors, Gardner (Matt Damon) and Margaret (Julianne Moore). In fact, a documentary was produced about the historical events and shots from that documentary were used in Suburbicon.

Calibrating the tone

During the production and editing of the film, the overall tone was adjusted as a result of the actual, contemporary events occurring in the country. I spoke with the film’s editor, Stephen Mirrione (The Revenant, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), The Monuments Men) about this. Mirrione explains, “The movie is presented as over-the-top to exaggerate events as satire. In feeling that out, George started to tone down the silliness, based on surrounding events. The production was being filmed during the time of the US election last year, so the mood on the set changed. The real world was more over-the-top than imagined, so the film didn’t feel quite right. George started gravitating towards a more realistic style and we locked into that tone by the time the film moved into post.”

The production took place on the Warner Brothers lot in September 2016 with Mirrione and first assistant editor Patrick Smith cutting in parallel with the production. Mirrione continues, “I was cutting during this production period. George would come in on Saturdays to work with me and ‘recalibrate’ the cut. Naturally some scenes were lost in this process. They were funny scenes, but just didn’t fit the direction any longer. In January we moved to England for the rest of the post. Amal [Clooney, George’s wife] was pregnant at the time, so George and Amal wanted to be close to her family near London. We had done post there before and had a good relationship with vendors for sound post. The final sound mix was in the April/May time frame. We had an editing room set up close to George outside of London, but also others in Twickenham and at Pinewood Studios. This way I could move around to work with George on the cut, wherever he needed to be.”

Traveling light

Mirrione is used to working with a light footprint, so the need for mobility was no burden. He explains, “I’m accustomed to being very mobile. All the media was in the Avid DNxHD36 format on mobile drives. We had an Avid ISIS shared storage system in Twickenham, which was the hub for all of the media. Patrick would make sure all the drives were updated during production, so I was able to work completely with standalone drives. The Avid is a bit faster that way, although there’s a slight trade-off waiting for updated bins to be sent. I was using a ‘trash can’ [2013] Mac Pro plus AJA hardware, but I also used a laptop – mainly for reference – when we were in LA during the final steps of the process.” The intercontinental workflow also extended to color correction. According to Mirrione, “Stefan Sonnenfeld was our digital intermediate colorist and Company 3 [Co3] stored a back-up of all the original media. Through an arrangement with Deluxe, he was able to stream material to England for review, as well as from England to LA to show the DP [Robert Elswit].”

Music was critical to Suburbicon and scoring fell to Alexandre Desplat (The Secret Life of Pets, Florence Foster Jenkins, The Danish Girl). Mirrione explains their scoring process. “It was very important, as we built the temp score in the edit, to understand the tone and suspense of the film. George wanted a classic 1950s-style score. We tapped some Elmer Bernstein, Grifters, The Good Son, and other music for our initial style and direction. Peter Clarke was brought on as music editor to help round out the emotional beats. Once we finished the cut, Alexandre and George worked together to create a beautiful score. I love watching the scenes with that score, because his music makes the editing seem much more exciting and elegant.”

Suiting the edit tool to your needs

Stephen Mirrione typically uses Avid Media Composer to cut his films and Suburbicon is no exception. Unlike many film editors who rely on unique Avid features, like ScriptSync, Mirrione takes a more straightforward approach. He says, “We were using Media Composer 8. The way George shoots, there’s not a lot of improv or tons of takes. I prefer to just rely on PDFs of the script notes and placing descriptions into the bins. The infrastructure required for ScriptSync, like extra assistants, is not something I need. My usual method of organization is a bin for each day of dailies, organized in shooting order. If the director remembers something, it’s easy to find in a day bin. During the edit, I alternate my bin set-ups between the script view and the frame view.”

With a number of noted editors dabbling with other software, I wondered whether Mirrione has been tempted. He responds, “I view my approach as system-agnostic and have cut on Lightworks and the old Laser Pacific unit, among others. I don’t want to be dependent on one piece of software to define how I do my craft. But I keep coming back to Avid. For me it’s the trim mode. It takes me back to the way I cut film. I looked at Resolve, because it would be great to skip the roundtrip between applications. I had tested it, but felt it would be too steep a learning curve, and that would have impacted George’s experience as the director.”

In wrapping our conversation, Mirrione concluded with this take away from his Suburbicon experience. He explains, “In our first preview screening, it was inspiring to see how seriously the audience took to the film and the attachment they had to the characters. The audiences were surprised at how biting and relevant it is to today. The theme of the film is really talking about what can happen when people don’t speak out against racism and bullying. I’m so proud and lucky to have the opportunity to work with someone like George, who wants to do something meaningful.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

Mindhunter

The investigation of crime is a film topic with which David Fincher is very familiar. He returns to this genre in the new Netflix series, Mindhunter, which is executive produced by Fincher and Charlize Theron. The series is the story of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit and how it became an elite profiling team, known for investigating serial criminals. The TV series is based on the nonfiction book Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, co-written by Mark Olshaker and John Douglas, a former agent in the unit who spent 25 years with the FBI. Agent Douglas interviewed scores of serial killers, including Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and Ed Gein, who dressed himself in his victims’ skin. The lead character in the series, Holden Ford (played by Jonathan Groff) is based on Douglas. The series takes place in 1979 and centers on two FBI agents, who were among the first to interview imprisoned serial killers in order to learn how they think and apply that to other crimes. Mindhunter is about the origins of modern day criminal profiling.

As with other Fincher projects, he brought in much of the team that’s been with him through the various feature films, like Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Zodiac. It has also given a number in the team the opportunity to move up in their careers. I recently spoke with Tyler Nelson, one of the four series editors, who was given the opportunity to move from the assistant chair to that of a primary editor. Nelson explains, “I’ve been working with David Fincher for nearly 11 years, starting with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I started on that as an apprentice, but was bumped up to an assistant editor midway through. There was actually another series in the works for HBO called Videosyncrasy, which I was going to edit on. But that didn’t make it to air. So I’m glad that everyone had the faith in me to let me edit on this series. I cut the four episodes directed by Andrew Douglas and Asif Kapadia, while Kirk Baxter [editor on Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network] cut the four shows that David directed.”

Pushing the technology envelope

The Fincher post operation has a long history of trying new and innovative techniques, including their selection of editing tools. The editors cut this series using Adobe Premiere Pro CC. Nelson and the other editors are no stranger to Premiere Pro, since Baxter had cut Gone Girl with it. Nelson says, “Of course, Kirk and I have been using it for years. One of the editors, Byron Smith, came over from House of Cards, which was being cut on [Apple] Final Cut Pro 7. So that was an easy transition for him. We are all fans of Adobe’s approach to the entertainment industry and were onboard with using it. In fact, we were running on beta software, which gave us the ability to offer feedback to Adobe on features that will hopefully make it into released products and benefit all Premiere users.”

Pushing the envelope is also a factor on the production side. The series was shot with custom versions of the RED Weapon camera. Shots were recorded at 6K resolution, but framed for a 5K extraction, leaving a lot of “padding” around the edges. This allowed room for reposition and stabilization, which is done a lot on Fincher’s projects. In fact, nearly all of the moving footage is stabilized. All camera footage is processed into EXR image sequences in addition to ProRes editing files for “offline” editing. These ProRes files also get an added camera LUT so everyone sees a good representation of the color correction during the editing process. One change from past projects was to bring color correction in-house. The final grade was handled by Eric Weidt on a FilmLight Baselight X unit, which was sourcing from the EXR files. The final Netflix deliverables are 4K/HDR masters. Pushing a lot of data through a facility requires robust hardware systems. The editors used 2013 (“trash can”) Mac Pros connected to an Open Drives shared storage system. This high-end storage system was initially developed as part of the Gone Girl workflow and uses storage modules populated with all SSD drives.

The feature film approach

Unlike most TV series, where there’s a definite schedule to deliver a new episode each week, Netflix releases all of their shows at once, which changes the dynamic of how episodes are handled in post. Nelson continues, “We were able to treat this like one long feature film. In essence, each episode is like a reel of a film. There are 10 episodes and each is 45 minutes to an hour long. We worked it as if it was an eight-and-a-half to nine hour long movie.” Skywalker Sound did all the sound post after a cut was locked. Nelson adds, “Most of the time we handed off locked cuts, but sometimes when you hear the cleaned up sound, it can highlight issues with the edit that you didn’t notice before. In some cases, we were able to go back into the edit and make some minor tweaks to make it flow better.”

As Adobe moves more into the world of dialogue-driven entertainment, a number of developers are coming up with speech-to-text solutions that are compatible with Premiere Pro. This potentially provides editors a function similar to Avid’s ScriptSync. Would something like this have been beneficial on Mindhunter, a series based on extended interviews? Nelson replies, “I like to work with the application the way it is. I try not to get too dependent on any feature that’s very specific or unique to only one piece of software. I don’t even customize my keyboard settings too much, just so it’s easier to move from one workstation to another that way. I like to work from sequences, so I don’t need a special layout for the bins or anything like that.”

“On Mindhunter we used the same ‘KEM roll’ system as on the films, which is a process that Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall [editor on Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network] prefer to work in,” Nelson continues. “All of the coverage for each scene set-up is broken up into ‘story beats’. In a 10 minute take for an interview, there might be 40 ‘beats’. These are all edited in the order of last take to first take, with any ‘starred’ takes at the head of the sequence. This way you will see all of the coverage, takes, and angles for a ‘beat’ before moving on to the group for the next ‘beat’. As you review the sequence, the really good sections of clips are moved up to video track two on the sequence. Then create a new sequence organized in story order from these selected clips and start building the scene. At any given time you can go back to the earlier sequences if the director asks to see something different than what’s in your scene cut. This method works with any NLE, so you don’t become locked into one and only one software tool.”

“Where Adobe’s approach is very helpful to us is with linked After Effects compositions,” explains Nelson. “We do a lot of invisible split screen effects and shot stabilization. Those clips are all put into After Effects comps using Dynamic Link, so that an assistant can go into After Effects and do the work. When it’s done, the completed comp just pops back into the timeline. Then ‘render and replace’ for smooth playback.”

The challenge

Certainly a series like this can be challenging for any editor, but how did Nelson take to it? He answers, “I found every interview scene to be challenging. You have an eight to 10 minute interview that needs to be interesting and compelling. Sometimes it takes two days to just get through looking at the footage for a scene like that. You start with ‘How am I going to do this?’ Somewhere along the line you get to the point where ‘This is totally working.’ And you don’t always know how you got to that point. It takes a long time approaching the footage in different ways until you can flesh it out. I really hope people enjoy the series. These are dramatizations, but real people actually did these terrible things. Certainly that creeps me out, but I really love this show and I hope people will see the craftsmanship that’s gone into Mindhunter and enjoy the series.”

In closing, Nelson offered these additional thoughts. “I’d gotten an education each and every day. Lots of editors haven’t figured it out until well into a long career. I’ve learned a lot being closer to the creative process. I’ve worked with David Fincher for almost 11 years. You think you are ready to edit, but it’s still a challenge. Many folks don’t get an opportunity like this and I don’t take that lightly. Everything that I’ve learned working with David has given me the tools and I feel fortunate that the producers had the confidence in me to let me cut on this amazing show.”

Click here for Steve Hullfish’s Art of the Cut interview with Tyler Nelson and Kirk Baxter.

Click here for Scott Simmons’ interview from NAB 2018.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters