Unbroken

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Some films might be hard to believe if it weren’t for the fact that the stories are true. Such is the case with Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s largest studio film to date as a director. Unbroken tells the amazing true life story of Louis Zamperini, who participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and then went on to serve as a bombardier on a B-24 in the Pacific during World War II. The plane went down and Zamperini plus two other crew members (one of whom subsequently died) were adrift at sea for 47 days. They were picked up by the Japanese and spent two years in brutal prisoner-of-war camps until the war ended. Zamperini came home to a hero’s welcome, but struggled with what we now know as post traumatic stress disorder. Through his wife, friends and attending a 1949 Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles, Zamperini was able to turn his life around by finding the path of forgiveness, including forgiving his former prison guards.df0315_unbroken_8_sm

Since Zamperini’s full life story could easily take up several films, Unbroken focuses on his early years culminating with his heroic return home. Jack O’Connell (300: Rise of an Empire, Starred Up) plays the lead role as Louis Zamperini. Jolie pulled in a “dream team” of creative professionals to help her realize the vision for the film, including Roger Deakins (Prisoners, Skyfall, True Grit) as director of photographer, Alexandre Desplat (The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Monuments Men) to compose the score and Joel and Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis, True Grit, No Country for Old Men) to polish the final draft of the screenplay.  ILM was the main visual effects house and rounding out this team were Tim Squyres (Life of Pi, Lust Caution, Syrianna) and William Goldenberg (The Imitation Game, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Argo) who co-edited Unbroken.

Australia to New York

df0315_unbroken_3_smThe film was shot entirely in Australia during a 67-day period starting in October 2013. The crew shot ARRIRAW on Alexa XT cameras and dailies were handled by EFILM in Sydney. Avid DNxHD 115 files were encoded and sent to New York via Aspera for the editors. Dailies for the studio were sent via the PIX system and to Roger Deakins using the eVue system.

Tim Squyres started with the project in October as well, but was based in New York, after spending the first week in Australia. According to Squyres, “This was mainly a single camera production, although about one-third of the film used two cameras. Any takes that used two cameras to cover the same action where grouped in the Avid. Angie and Roger were very deliberate in what they shot. They planned carefully, so there was a modest amount of footage.” While in New York, Squyres and his assistants used three Avid Media Composer 7 systems connected to Avid Isis shared storage. This grew to five stations when the production moved to the Universal lot in Los Angeles and eventually eight when William Goldenberg came on board.

df0315_unbroken_6_smDuring production Squyres was largely on his own to develop the first assembly of the film. He continues, “I really didn’t have extensive contact with Angie until after she got back to LA. After all, directing on location is a full-time job, plus there’s a big time zone difference. Before I was hired, I had a meeting with her to discuss some of the issues surrounding shooting in a wave tank, based on my experiences with Life of Pi. This was applicable to the section of Unbroken when they are lost at sea in a life raft. While they were in Australia, I’d send cut scenes and notes to her over PIX. Usually this would be a couple of versions of a scene. Sometimes I’d get feedback, but not always. This is pretty normal, since the main thing the director wants to know is if they have the coverage and to be alerted if there are potential problems.”

Editor interaction

The first assembly of the film was finished in February and Squyres continued to work with Jolie to hone and tighten the film. Squyres says, “This was my first time working with an actor/director. I really appreciated how much care she took with performances. That was very central to her focus. Even though there’s a lot of action in some of the scenes, it never loses sight of the characters. She’s also a very smart director and this film has hundreds of visual effects. She quickly picked up on how effects could be used to enhance a shot and how an effect, like CG water, needed to be tweaked to make it look realistic.”

df0315_unbroken_2_smWilliam Goldenberg joined the team in June and stayed with it until October 2014. This was Tim Squyres’ first time working with a co-editor and since the film was well past the first cut stage, the two handled their duties differently than two editors might on other films. Goldenberg explains, “Since I wasn’t on from the beginning, we didn’t split up the film between us, with one editor doing the action scenes and the other the drama. Instead, we both worked on everything very collaboratively. I guess I was brought in to be another set of eyes, since this was such a huge film. I’d review a section and tweak the cut and then run it by Tim. Then the two of us would work through the scene with Angie, kicking around ideas. She’s a very respectful person and wanted to make sure that everyone’s opinion was heard.” Squyres adds, “Each editor would push the other to make it better.”

This is usually the stage at which a film might be completely rearranged in the edit and deviate significantly from the script. That wasn’t the case with Unbroken. Goldenberg explains, “The movie is partly told through flashbacks, but these were scripted and not a construct created during editing. We experimented with rearranging some of the scenes, but in the end, they largely ended up back as they were scripted.”

The art of cutting dialogue scenes

df0315_unbroken_1_smBoth editors are experienced Media Composer users and one unique Avid tool used on Unbroken was Script Integration, often referred to as ScriptSync. This feature enables the editor to see the script as text in a bin with every take synced to the individual dialogue lines. Squyres says, “It had already been set up when I came on board to cut a previous film and was handy for me there to learn the footage. So I decided to try it on this film. Although handy, I didn’t find it essential for me, because of how I go through the dailies. I typically build a sequence out of pieces of each take, which gives me a set of ‘pulls’ – my favorite readings from each setup strung together in script order. Then I’ll cut at least two versions of a scene based on structure or emotion – for example, a sad version and an angry version. When I’ve cut the first version, I try not to repeat shots in building the second version. By using the same timeline and turning on dupe detection, it’s easy to see if you’ve repeated something. Assembling is about getting a good cut, but it’s also about learning all the options and getting used to the footage. By having a few versions of each scene, you are already prepared when the director wants to explore alternatives.”

Goldenberg approaches the raw footage in a similar fashion. He says, “I build up my initial sequences in a way that accomplishes the same thing that ScriptSync does. The sequence will have each line reading from each take in scene order going from wide to tight. This results in a long sequence for a scene, with each line repeated, but I can immediately see what all the coverage is for that scene. When a director wants to see alternates for any reading, I can go back to this sequence and then it’s easy to evaluate the performance options.”

Building up visual effects and the score

df0315_unbroken_5_smUnbroken includes approximately 1100 visual effects shots, ranging from water effects, composites and set extensions to invisible split screens used to adjust performance timing. Squyres explains, “Although the editing was very straightforward, we did a lot of temporary compositing. I would identify a shot and then my assistant would do the work in either Media Composer or After Effects. The spilt screens used for timing is a common example. We had dozens of those. On the pure CG shots, we had pre-vis clips in the timeline and then, as more and more polished versions of the effects came in, these would be replaced in the sequence.” Any temp editorial effects were redone in final form by one of the VFX suppliers or during the film’s digital intermediate finishing at EFILM in Hollywood.

In addition to temp effects, the editors also used temp music. Squyres explains, “At the beginning we used a lot of temp music pulled from other scores. This helps you understand what a scene is going to be, especially if it’s a scene designed for music. As we got farther into the cut, we started to receive some of Alexandre’s temp cues. These were recorded with synth samples, but still sounded great and gave you an good sense of the music. The final score was recorded using an orchestra at Abbey Road Studios, which really elevated the score beyond what you can get with samples.”

Finding the pace

In a performance-driven film, the editing is all about drama and pacing. Naturally Squires and Goldenberg have certain scenes that stand out to them. Squyres says, “A big scene in the film is when Louis meets the head guard for the first time. You have to set up that slow burn as they trade lines. Later in the film, there’s a second face-off, but now the dynamic between them is completely different. It’s a large, complex scene without spoken dialogue, so you have to get the pacing right, based on feel, not on the rhythm of the dialogue. The opening scene is an action air battle. It was shot in a very measured fashion, but you had to get the right balance between the story and the characters. You have to remember that the film is personal and you can’t lose sight of that.”

For Goldenberg, the raft sequence was the most difficult to get right. He says, “You want it to feel epic, but in reality – being lost at sea on a raft – there are long stretches of boredom and isolation, interrupted by some very scary moments. You have to find the right balance without the section feeling way too long.”

Both editors are fans of digital editing. Goldenberg puts it this way, “Avid lets you be wrong a lot of the time, because you can always make another version without physical constraints. I feel lucky, though, in having learned to work in the ‘think before you edit’ era. The result – more thinking – means you know where you are going when you start to cut a scene. You are satisfied that you know the footage well. I like to work in reels to keep the timeline from getting too cumbersome and I do keep old versions, in case I need to go back and compare or restore something.”

The film was produced with involvement by Louis Zamperini and his family, but unfortunately he died before the film was completed. Goldenberg sums it up, “It was a thrill. Louie was the type of person you hope your kids grow up to be. We were all proud to be part of telling the story for Louie.” The film opened its US release run on Christmas Day 2014.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Birdman

Birdman-PosterIt’s rare, but exhilarating, when you watch a movie with a unique take on film’s visual language, without the crutch of extensive computer generated imagery. That’s precisely the beauty of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). The film is directed and co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Biutiful, Babel, 21 Grams) and features a dynamic ensemble cast dominated by Michael Keaton’s lead performance as Riggan Thomson. While most films are constructed of intercutting master shots, two-shots and singles, Birdman is designed to look like a continuous, single take. While this has been done before in films, approximately 100 minutes out of the two-hour movie appear as a completely seamless composite of lengthy Steadicam and hand-held takes.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is a movie star who rode to fame as the comic book super hero Birdman; but, it’s a role that he walked away from. Searching for contemporary relevance, Riggan has decided to mount a Broadway play, based on the real-life Raymond Carter short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The film takes place entirely at the historic St. James Theater near Times Square and the surrounding area in New York. Principal photography occurred over a 30-day period, both at the real theater and Times Square, as well as at Kaufman Astoria Studios. The soundstage sets were for the backstage and dressing room portions of the theater. Throughout the film, Riggan struggles with the challenges of getting the play to opening day and dealing with his fellow cast members, but more notably confronting his super ego Birdman, seen in person and heard in voice-over. This is, of course, playing out in Riggan’s imagination. The film, like the play within the film, wrestles with the overall theme of the confusion between love and affection.

Bringing this ambitious vision to life fell heavily upon the skills of the director of photography and the editors. Emmanuel Lubezki, known as Chivo, served as DoP. He won the 2014 Cinematography Oscar for Gravity, a film that was also heralded for its long, seemingly continuous shots. Stephen Mirrione (The Monuments Men, Ocean’s Thirteen, Traffic) and Douglas Crise (Arbitrage, Deception, Babel) teamed up for the edit. Both editors had worked together before, as well as with the director. Mirrione started during the rehearsal process. At the time of production, Crise handled the editing in New York, while Mirrione, who was back LA at this time, was getting dailies and checking in on the cut as well as sending scenes back and forth with changes every day.

It starts with preparation

Stephen Mirrione explains, “When I first saw what they wanted to do, I was a bit skeptical that it could be pulled off successfully. Just one scene that didn’t work would ruin the whole film. Everything really had to align. One of the things that was considered, was to tape and edit all of the rehearsals. This was done about two months before the principal photography was set to start. The rehearsals were edited together, which allowed Alejandro to adjust the script, pacing and performances. We could see what would work and what wouldn’t. Before cameras even rolled, we had an assembly made up of the rehearsal footage and some of the table read. So, together with Alejandro, we could begin to gauge what the film would look and sound like, where a conversation was redundant, where the moves would be. It was like a pre-vis that you might create for a large-scale CGI or animated feature.”

Once production started in New York, Douglas Crise picked up the edit. Typically, the cast and crew would rehearse the first half of the day and then tape during the second half. ARRI ALEXA cameras were used. The media was sent to Technicolor, who would turn around color corrected Avid DNxHD36 dailies for the next day. The team of editors and assistants used Avid Media Composer systems. According to Crise, “I would check the previous day’s scenes and experiment to see how the edit points would ‘join’ together. You are having to make choices based on performance, but also how the camera work would edit together. Alejandro would have to commit to certain editorial decisions, because those choices would dictate where the shot would pick up on the next day. Stephen would check in on the progress during this period and then he picked up once the cut shifted to visual effects.”

Naturally the editing challenge was to make the scenes flow seamlessly in both a figurative and literal sense. “The big difference with this film was that we didn’t have the conventional places where one scene started and another ended. Every scene walks into the next one. Alejandro described it as going down a hill and not stopping. There wasn’t really a transition. The characters just keep moving on,” Crise says.

“I think we really anticipated a lot of the potential pitfalls and really prepared, but what we didn’t plan on were all the speed changes,” Mirrione adds. “At certain points, when the scene was not popping for us, if the tempo was a little off, we could actually dial up the pace or slow it down as need be without it being perceptible to the audience and that made a big difference.”

Score and syncopation

To help drive pace, much of the track uses a drum score composed and performed by Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez. In some scenes within the film, the camera also pans over to a drummer with a kit who just happens to be playing in an alley or even in a backstage hallway. Sanchez and Iñárritu went into a studio and recorded sixty improvised tracks based on the emotions that the film needed. Mirrione says, “Alejandro would explain the scene to the drummer in the studio and then he’d create it.” Crise continues, “Alejandro had all these drum recordings and he told me to pick six of my favorites. We cut those together so that he could have a track that the drummer could mimic when they shot that scene. He had the idea for the soundtrack from the very beginning and we had those samples cut in from the start, too.”

“And then Martín [Hernández, supervising sound editor] took it to another level. Once there was an first pass at the movie, with a lot of those drum tracks laid in as an outline, he spent a lot of time working with Alejandro, to strip layers away, add some in, trying a lot of different beats. Obviously, in every movie, music will have an impact on point of view and mood and tone. But with this, I think it was especially important, because the rhythm is so tied to the camera and you can’t make those kinds of cadence adjustments with as much flexibility as you can with cuts. We had to lean on the music a little more than normal at times, to push back or pull forward,” Mirrione says.

The invisible art

The technique of this seamless sequence of scenes really allows you to get into the head of Riggan more so than other films, but the editors are reserved in discussing the actual editing technique. Mirrione explains, “Editing is often called the ‘invisible art’. We shape scenes and performances on every film. There has been a lot of speculation over the internet about the exact number and length of shots. I can tell you it’s more than most people would guess. But we don’t want that to be the focus of the discussion. The process is still the same of affecting performance and pace. It’s just that the dynamic has been shifted, because much of the effort was front-loaded in the early days. Unlike other films, where the editing phase after the production is completed, focuses on shaping the story – on Birdman it was about fine-tuning.”

Crise continues, “Working on this film was a different process and a different way to come up with new ideas. It’s also important to know that most of the film was shot practically. Michael [Keaton] really is running through Times Square in his underwear. The shots are not comped together with green screen actors against CGI buildings.” There are quite a lot of visual effects used to enhance and augment the transitions from one shot to the next to make these seamless. On the other hand, when Riggan’s Birdman delusions come to life on screen, we also see more recognizable visual effects, such as a brief helicopter and creature battle playing out over the streets of New York.

Winking at the audience

The film is written as a black comedy with quite a few insider references. Clearly, the casting of Michael Keaton provides allusion to his real experiences in starting the Batman film franchise and in many ways the whole super hero film genre. However, there was also a conscious effort during rehearsals and tapings to adjust the dialogue in ways that kept these references as current as possible. Crise adds, “Ironically, in the scenes on the rooftop there was a billboard in the background behind Emma Stone and Edward Norton, with a reference to Tom Hanks. We felt that audiences would believe that we created it on purpose, when if fact it was a real billboard. It was changed in post, just to keep from appearing to be an insider reference that was too obvious.”

The considerations mandated during the edit by a seamless film presented other challenges, too. For example, simple concerns, like where to structure reel breaks and how to hand off shots for visual effects. Mirrione points out, “Simple tasks such as sending out shots for VFX, color correction, or even making changes for international distribution requirements were complicated by the fact that once we finished, there weren’t individual ‘shots’ to work with – just one long never ending strand.  It meant inventing new techniques along the way.  Steven Scott, the colorist, worked with Chivo at Technicolor LA to perfect all the color and lighting and had to track all of these changes across the entire span of the movie.  The same way we found places to hide stitches between shots, they had to hide these color transitions which are normally changed at the point of a cut from one shot to the next.”

In total, the film was in production and post for about a year, starting with rehearsals in early 2013. Birdman was mixed and completed by mid-February 2014. While it posed a technical and artistic challenge from the start, everything amazingly fell into place, highlighted by perfect choreography of cast, crew and the post production team. It will be interesting to see how Birdman fares during awards season, because it succeeds on so many levels.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork

©2014, 2015 Oliver Peters

Gone Girl

df_gg_4David Fincher is back with another dark tale of modern life, Gone Girl – the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel. Flynn also penned the screenplay.  It is the story of Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) – writers who have been hit by the latest downturn in the economy and are living in America’s heartland. Except that Amy is now mysteriously missing under suspicious circumstances. The story is told from each of their subjective points of view. Nick’s angle is revealed through present events, while Amy’s story is told through her diary in a series of flashbacks. Through these we learn that theirs is less than the ideal marriage we see from the outside. But whose story tells the truth?

To pull the film together, Fincher turned to his trusted team of professionals including director of photography Jeff Cronenweth, editor Kirk Baxter and post production supervisor Peter Mavromates. Like Fincher’s previous films, Gone Girl has blazed new digital workflows and pushed new boundaries. It is the first major feature to use the RED EPIC Dragon camera, racking up 500 hours of raw footage. That’s the equivalent of 2,000,000 feet of 35mm film. Much of the post, including many of the visual effects, were handled in-house.

df_gg_1Kirk Baxter co-edited David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with Angus Wall – films that earned the duo two best editing Oscars. Gone Girl was a solo effort for Baxter, who had also cut the first two episodes of House of Cards for Fincher. This film now becomes the first major feature to have been edited using Adobe Premiere Pro CC. Industry insiders consider this Adobe’s Cold Mountain moment. That refers to when Walter Murch used an early version of Apple Final Cut Pro to edit the film Cold Mountain, instantly raising the application’s awareness among the editing community as a viable tool for long-form post production. Now it’s Adobe’s turn.

In my conversation with Kirk Baxter, he revealed, “In between features, I edit commercials, like many other film editors. I had been cutting with Premiere Pro for about ten months before David invited me to edit Gone Girl. The production company made the decision to use Premiere Pro, because of its integration with After Effects, which was used extensively on the previous films. The Adobe suite works well for their goal to bring as much of the post in-house as possible. So, I was very comfortable with Premiere Pro when we started this film.”

It all starts with dailies

df_gg_3Tyler Nelson, assistant editor, explained the workflow, “The RED EPIC Dragon cameras shot 6K frames (6144 x 3072), but the shots were all framed for a 5K center extraction (5120 x 2133). This overshoot allowed reframing and stabilization. The .r3d files from the camera cards were ingested into a FotoKem nextLAB unit, which was used to transcode edit media, viewing dailies, archive the media to LTO data tape and transfer to shuttle drives. For offline editing, we created down-sampled ProRes 422 (LT) QuickTime media, sized at 2304 x 1152, which corresponded to the full 6K frame. The Premiere Pro sequences were set to 1920 x 800 for a 2.40:1 aspect. This size corresponded to the same 5K center extraction within the 6K camera files. By editing with the larger ProRes files inside of this timeline space, Kirk was only viewing the center extraction, but had the same relative overshoot area to enable easy repositioning in all four directions. In addition, we also uploaded dailies to the PIX system for everyone to review footage while on location. PIX also lets you include metadata for each shot, including lens choice and camera settings, such as color temperature and exposure index.”

Kirk Baxter has a very specific way that he likes to tackle dailies. He said, “I typically start in reverse order. David tends to hone in on the performance with each successive take until he feels he’s got it. He’s not like other directors that may ask for completely different deliveries from the actors with each take. With David, the last take might not be the best, but it’s the best starting point from which to judge the other takes. Once I go through a master shot, I’ll cut it up at the points where I feel the edits will be made. Then I’ll have the assistants repeat these edit points on all takes and string out the line readings back-to-back, so that the auditioning process is more accurate. David is very gifted at blocking and staging, so it’s rare that you don’t use an angle that was shot for a scene. I’ll then go through this sequence and lift my selected takes for each line reading up to a higher track on the timeline. My assistants take the selects and assemble a sequence of all the angles in scene order. Once it’s hyper-organized, I’ll send it to David via PIX and get his feedback. After that, I’ll cut the scene. David stays in close contact with me as he’s shooting. He wants to see a scene cut together before he strikes a set or releases an actor.”

Telling the story

df_gg_5The director’s cut is often where the story gets changed from what works on paper to what makes a better film. Baxter elaborated, “When David starts a film, the script has been thoroughly vetted, so typically there isn’t a lot of radical story re-arrangement in the cutting room. As editors, we got a lot of credit for the style of intercutting used in The Social Network, but truthfully that was largely in the script. The dialogue was tight and very integral to the flow, so we really couldn’t deviate a lot. I’ve always found the assembly the toughest part, due to the volume and the pressure of the ticking clock. Trying to stay on pace with the shoot involves some long days. The shooting schedule was 106 days and I had my first cut ready about two weeks after the production wrapped. A director gets around ten weeks for a director’s cut and with some directors, you are almost starting from scratch once the director arrives. With David, most of that ten week period involves adding finesse and polish, because we have done so much of the workload during the shoot.”

df_gg_9He continued, “The first act of Gone Girl uses a lot of flashbacks to tell Amy’s side of the story and with these, we deviated a touch from the script. We dropped a couple of scenes to help speed things along and reduced the back and forth of the two timelines by grouping flashbacks together, so that we didn’t keep interrupting the present day; but, it’s mostly executed as scripted. There was one scene towards the end that I didn’t feel was in the right place. I kept trying to move it, without success. I ended up taking another pass at the cut of the scene. Once we had the emotion right in the cut, the scene felt like it was in the right place, which is where it was written to be.”

“The hardest scenes to cut are the emotional scenes, because David simplifies the shooting. You can’t hide in dynamic motion. More complex scenes are actually easier to cut and certainly quite fun. About an hour into the film is the ‘cool girls’ scene, which rapidly answers lots of question marks that come before it. The scene runs about eight minutes long and is made up of about 200 set-ups. It’s a visual feast that should be hard to put together, but was actually dessert from start to finish, because David thought it through and supplied all the exact pieces to the puzzle.”

Music that builds tension

df_gg_6Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails fame are another set of Fincher regulars. Reznor and Ross have typically supplied Baxter with an album of preliminary themes scored with key scenes in mind. These are used in the edit and then later enhanced by the composers with the final score at the time of the mix. Baxter explained, “On Gone Girl we received their music a bit later than usual, because they were touring at the time. When it did arrive, though, it was fabulous. Trent and Atticus are very good at nailing the feeling of a film like this. You start with a piece of music that has a vibe of ‘this is a safe, loving neighborhood’ and throughout three minutes it sours to something darker, which really works.”

“The final mix is usually the first time I can relax. We mixed at Skywalker Sound and that was the first chance I really had to enjoy the film, because now I was seeing it with all the right sound design and music added. This allows me to get swallowed up in the story and see beyond my role.”

Visual effects

df_gg_7The key factor to using Premiere Pro CC was its integration with After Effects CC via Adobe’s Dynamic Link feature. Kirk Baxter explained how he uses this feature, “Gone Girl doesn’t seem like a heavy visual effects film, but there are quite a lot of invisible effects. First of all, I tend to do a lot of invisible split screens. In a two-shot, I’ll often use a different performance for each actor. Roughly one-third of the timeline contains such shots. About two-thirds of the timeline has been stabilized or reframed. Normally, this type of in-house effects work is handled by the assistants who are using After Effects. Those shots are replaced in my sequence with an After Effects composition. As they make changes, my timeline is updated.”

“There are other types of visual effects, as well. David will take exteriors and do sky replacements, add flares, signage, trees, snow, breath, etc. The shot of Amy sinking in the water, which has been used in the trailers, is an effects composite. That’s better than trying to do multiple takes with the real actress by drowning her in cold water. Her hair and the water elements were created by Digital Domain. This is also a story about the media frenzy that grows around the mystery, which meant a lot of TV and computer screen comps. That content is as critical in the timing of a scene as the actors who are interacting with it.”

Tyler Nelson added his take on this, “A total of four assistants worked with Kirk on these in-house effects. We were using the same ProRes editing files to create the composites. In order to keep the system performance high, we would render these composites for Kirk’s timeline, instead of using unrendered After Effects composites. Once a shot was finalized, then we would go back to the 6K .r3d files and create the final composite at full resolution. The beauty of doing this all internally is that you have a team of people who really care about the quality of the project as much as everyone else. Plus the entire process becomes that much more interactive. We pushed each other to make everything as good as it could possibly be.”

Optimization and finishing

df_gg_2A custom pipeline was established to make the process efficient. This was spearheaded by post production consultant Jeff Brue, CTO of Open Drives. The front end storage for all active editorial files was a 36TB RAID-protected storage network built with SSDs. A second RAID built with standard HDDs was used for the .r3d camera files and visual effects elements. The hardware included a mix of HP and Apple workstations running with NVIDIA K6000 or K5200 GPU cards. Use of the NVIDIA cards was critical to permit as much real-time performance as possible doing the edit. GPU performance was also a key factor in the de-Bayering of .r3d files, since the team didn’t use any of the RED Rocket accelerator cards in their pipeline. The Macs were primarily used for the offline edit, while the PCs tackled the visual effects and media processing tasks.

In order to keep the Premiere Pro projects manageable, the team broke down the film into eight reels with a separate project file per reel. Each project contained roughly 1,500 to 2,000 files. In addition to Dynamic Linking of After Effects compositions, most of the clips were multi-camera clips, as Fincher typically shoots scenes with two or more cameras for simultaneous coverage. This massive amount of media could have potentially been a huge stumbling block, but Brue worked closely with Adobe to optimize system performance over the life of the project. For example, project load times dropped from about six to eight minutes at the start down to 90 seconds at best towards the end.

The final conform and color grading was handled by Light Iron on their Quantel Pablo Rio system run by colorist Ian Vertovec. The Rio was also configured with NVIDIA Tesla cards to facilitate this 6K pipeline. Nelson explained, “In order to track everything I used a custom Filemaker Pro database as the codebook for the film. This contained all the attributes for each and every shot. By using an EDL in conjunction with the codebook, it was possible to access any shot from the server. Since we were doing a lot of the effects in-house, we essentially ‘pre-conformed’ the reels and then turned those elements over to Light Iron for the final conform. All shots were sent over as 6K DPX frames, which were cropped to 5K during the DI in the Pablo. We also handled the color management of the RED files. Production shot these with the camera color metadata set to RedColor3, RedGamma3 and an exposure index of 800. That’s what we offlined with. These were then switched to RedLogFilm gamma when the DPX files were rendered for Light Iron. If, during the grade, it was decided that one of the raw settings needed to be adjusted for a few shots, then we would change the color settings and re-render a new version for them.” The final mastering was in 4K for theatrical distribution.

df_gg_8As with his previous films, director David Fincher has not only told a great story in Gone Girl, but set new standards in digital post production workflows. Seeking to retain creative control without breaking the bank, Fincher has pushed to handle as many services in-house as possible. His team has made effective use of After Effects for some time now, but the new Creative Cloud tools with Premiere Pro CC as the hub, bring the power of this suite to the forefront. Fortunately, team Fincher has been very eager to work with Adobe on product advances, many of which are evident in the new application versions previewed by Adobe at IBC in Amsterdam. With a film as complex as Gone Girl, it’s clear that Adobe Premiere Pro CC is ready for the big leagues.

Kirk Baxter closed our conversation with these final thoughts about the experience. He said, “It was a joy from start to finish making this film with David. Both he and Cean [Chaffin, producer and David Fincher’s wife] create such a tight knit post production team that you fall into an illusion that you’re making the film for yourselves. It’s almost a sad day when it’s released and belongs to everyone else.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

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Needless to say, Gone Girl has received quite a lot of press. Here are just a few additional discussions of the workflow:

Adobe panel discussion with the post team

PostPerspective

FxGuide

HDVideoPro

IndieWire

IndieWire blog

ICG Magazine

RedUser

Tony Zhou’s Vimeo take on Fincher 

©2014 Oliver Peters

The Zero Theorem

df_tzt_1Few filmmakers are as gifted as Terry Gilliam when it comes to setting a story inside a dystopian future. The Monty Python alum, who brought us Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, to name just a few, is back with his newest, The Zero Theorem. It’s the story of Qohen Leth – played by Christoph Walz (Django Unchained, Water for Elephants, Inglorious Basterds) – an eccentric computer programmer who has been tasked by his corporate employer to solve the Zero Theorem. This is a calculation, that if solved, might prove that the meaning of life is nothingness.

The story is set in a futuristic London, but carries many of Gilliam’s hallmarks, like a retro approach to the design of technology. Qohen works out of his home, which is much like a rundown church. Part of the story takes Qohen into worlds of virtual reality, where he frequently interacts with Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), a webcam stripper that he met at a party, but who may have been sent by his employer, Mancom, to distract him. The Zero Theorem is very reminiscent of Brazil, but in concept, also of The Prisoner, a 1960s-era television series. Gilliam explores themes of isolation versus loneliness, the pointlessness of mathematical modeling to derive meaning and privacy issues.

I recently had a Skype chat with Mick Audsley, who edited the film last year. Audsley is London-based, but is currently nearing completion of a director’s cut of the feature film Everest in Iceland. This was his third Gilliam film, having previously edited Twelve Monkeys and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Audsley explained, “I knew Terry before Twelve Monkeys and have always had a lot of admiration for him. This is my third film with Terry, as well as a short, and he’s an extraordinarily interesting director to work with. He still thinks in a graphic way, since he is both literally and figuratively an artist. He can do all of our jobs better than we can, but really values the input from other collaborators. It’s a bit like playing in a band, where everyone feeds off of the input of the other band members.”df_tzt_5

The long path to production

The film’s screenplay writer Pat Rushin teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida. He originally submitted the script for The Zero Theorem to the television series Project Greenlight, where it made the top 250. The script ended up with the Zanuck Company. It was offered to Gilliam in 2008, but initially other projects got in the way. It was revived in June 2012 with Gilliam at the helm. The script was very ambitious for a limited budget of under $10 million, so production took place in Romania over a 37-day period. In spite of the cost challenges, it was shot on 35mm film and includes 250 visual effects.

df_tzt_6Audsley continued, “Nicola [Pecorini, director of photography] shot a number of tests with film, RED and ARRI ALEXA cameras . The decision was made to use film. It allowed him the latitude to place lights outside of the chapel set – Qohen’s home – and have light coming in through the windows to light up the interior. Kodak’s lab in Bucharest handled the processing and transfer and then sent Avid MXF files to London, where I was editing. Terry and the crew were able to view dailies in Romania and then we discussed these over the phone. Viewing dailies is a rarity these days with digitally-shot films and something I really miss. Seeing the dailies with the full company provides clarity, but I’m afraid it’s dying out as part of the filmmaking process.”df_tzt_7

While editing in parallel to the production, Audsley didn’t upload any in-progress cuts for Gilliam to review. He said, “It’s hard for the director to concentrate on the edit, while he’s still in production. As long as the coverage is there, it’s fine. Certainly Terry and Nicola have a supreme understanding of film grammar, so that’s not a problem. Terry knows to get those extra little shots that will make the edit better. So, I was editing largely on my own and had a first cut within about ten days of the time that the production wrapped. When Terry arrived in London, we first went over the film in twenty-minute reels. That took us about two to three weeks. Then we went through the whole film as one piece to get a sense for how it worked as a film.”

Making a cinematic story

df_tzt_4As with most films, the “final draft” of the script occurs in the cutting room. Audsley continued, “The film as a written screenplay was very fluid, but when we viewed it as a completed film, it felt too linear and needed to be more cinematic – more out of order. We thought that it might be best to move the sentences around in a more interesting way. We did that quite easily and quickly. Thus, we took the strength of the writing and realized it in cinematic language. That’s one of the big benefits of the modern digital editing tools. The real film is about the relationship between Bainsley and Qohen and less about the world they inhabit. The challenge as filmmakers in the cutting room is to find that truth.”

df_tzt_8Working with visual effects presents its own editorial challenge. “As an editor, you have to evaluate the weight and importance of the plate – the base element for a visual effect – before committing to the effect. From the point-of-view of cost, you can’t keep undoing shots that have teams of artists working on them. You have to ensure that the timing is exactly right before turning over the elements for visual effects development. The biggest, single visual challenge is making Terry’s world, which is visually very rich. In the first reel, we see a futuristic London, with moving billboards. These shots were very complex and required a lot of temp effects that I layered up in the timeline. It’s one of the more complex sequences I’ve built in the Avid, with both visual and audio elements interacting. You have to decide how much can you digest and that’s an open conversation with the director and effects artists.”

The post schedule lasted about twenty weeks ending with a mix in June 2013. Part of that time was tied up in waiting for the completion of visual effects. Since there was no budget for official audience screenings, the editorial team was not tasked with creating temp mixes and preview versions before finishing the film. Audsley said, “The first cut was not overly long. Terry is good in his planning. One big change that we made during the edit was to the film’s ending. As written, Qohen ends up in the real world for a nice, tidy ending. We opted to end the film earlier for a more ambiguous ending that would be better. In the final cut the film ends while he’s still in a virtual reality world. It provides a more cerebral versus practical ending for the viewer.”

Cutting style 

df_tzt_9Audsley characterizes his cutting style as “old school”. He explained, “I come from a Moviola background, so I like to leave my cut as bare as possible, with few temp sound effects or music cues. I’ll only add what’s needed to help you understand the story. Since we weren’t obliged on this film to do temp mixes for screenings, I was able to keep the cut sparse. This lets you really focus on the cut and know if the film is working or not. If it does, then sound effects and music will only make it better. Often a rough cut will have temp music and people have trouble figuring out why a film isn’t working. The music may mask an issue or, in fact, it might simply be that the wrong temp music was used. On The Zero Theorem, George Fenton, our composer, gave us representative pieces late in the  process that he’d written for scenes.” Andre Jacquemin was the sound designer who worked in parallel to Audsley’s cut and the two developed an interactive process. Audsley explained, “Sometimes sound would need to breath more, so I’d open a scene up a bit. We had a nice back-and-forth in how we worked.”

df_tzt_3Audsley edited the film using Avid Media Composer version 5 connected to an Avid Unity shared storage system. This linked him to another Avid workstation run by his first assistant editor, Pani Ahmadi-Moore. He’s since upgraded to version 7 software and Avid ISIS shared storage. Audsley said, “I work the Avid pretty much like I worked when I used the Moviola and cut on film. Footage is grouped into bins for each scene. As I edit, I cut the film into reels and then use version numbers as I duplicate sequences to make changes. I keep a daily handwritten log about what’s done each day. The trick is to be fastidious and organized. Pani handles the preparation and asset management so that I can concentrate on the edit.”

df_tzt_2Audsley continued, “Terry’s films are very much a family type of business. It’s a family of people who know each other. Terry is supremely in control of his films, but he’s also secure in sharing with his filmmaking family. We are open to discuss all aspects of the film. The cutting room has to be a safe place for a director, but it’s the hub of all the post activity, so everyone has to feel free about voicing their opinions.”

Much of what the editor does, proceeds in isolation. The Zero Theorem provided a certain ironic resonance for Audsley, who commented, “At the start, we see a guy sitting naked in front of a computer. His life is harnessed in manipulating something on screen, and that is something I can relate to as a film editor! I think it’s very much a document of our time, about the notion that in this world of communication, there’s a strong aspect of isolation. All the communication in the world does not necessarily connect you spiritually.” The Zero Theorem is scheduled to open for limited US distribution in September.

For more thoughts from Mick Audsley, read this post at Avid Blogs.

Originally written for DV magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Cold In July

df_cij_2_smJim Mickle started his career as a freelance editor in New York, working on commercials and corporate videos, like so many others. Bitten by the filmmaking bug, Mickle has gone on to successfully direct four indie feature films, including his latest, Cold in July. Like his previous film, We Are What We Are, both films had a successful premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

Cold In July, which is based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, is a noir crime drama set in 1980s East Texas. It stars Michael C. Hall (Dexter), Sam Shepard (Out of the Furnace, Killing Them Softly) and Don Johnson (Django Unchained, Miami Vice). Awakened in the middle of the night, small town family man Richard Dane (Hall) kills a burglar in his house. Dane soon fears for his family’s safety when the burglar’s ex-con father, Ben (Shepard), comes to town, bent on revenge. However, the story takes a twist into a world of corruption and violence. Add Jim Bob (Johnson) to this mix, as a pig-farming, private eye, and you have an interesting trio of characters.

According to Jim Mickle, Cold In July was on a fast-track schedule. The script was optioned in 2007, but production didn’t start until 2013. This included eight weeks of pre-production beginning in May and principal photography starting in July (for five weeks) with a wrap in September. The picture was “locked” shortly after Thanksgiving. Along with Mickle, John Paul Hortsmann (Killing Them Softly) shared editing duties.

df_cij_1_smI asked Mickle how it was to work with another editor. He explained, “I edited my last three films by myself, but with this schedule, post was wedged between promoting We Are What We Are and the Sundance deadline. I really didn’t have time to walk away from it and view it with fresh eyes. I decided to bring John Paul on board to help. This was the first time I’ve worked with another editor. John Paul was cutting while I was shooting and edited the initial assembly, which was finished about a week before the Sundance submission deadline. I got involved in the edit about mid-October. At that point, we went back to tighten and smooth out the film. We would each work on scenes and then switch and take a pass at each other’s work.”

df_cij_4_smMickle continued, “The version that we submitted to Sundance was two-and-a-half hours long. John Paul and I spent about three weeks polishing and were ready to get feedback from the outside. We held a screening for 20 to 25 people and afterwards asked questions about whether the plot points were coherent to them. It’s always good for me, as the director, to see the film with an audience. You get to see it fresh – with new eyes – and that helps you to trim and condense sections of the film. For example, in the early versions of the script, it generally felt like the middle section of the film lost tension. So, we had added a sub-plot element into the script to build up the mystery. This was a car of agents tailing our hero that we could always reuse, as needed. When we held the screening, it felt like that stuff was completely unnecessary and simply put on top of the rest of the film. The next day we sliced it all out, which cut 10 minutes out of the film. Then it finally felt like everything clicked.”

df_cij_3_smThe director-editor relationship always presents an interesting dynamic, since the editor can be objective in cutting out material that may have cost the director a lot of time and effort on set to capture. Normally, the editor has no emotional investment in production of the footage. So, how did Jim Mickle as the editor, treat his own work as the director? Mickle answered, “As an editor, I’m more ruthless on myself as the director. John Paul was less quick to give up on scenes than I. There are things I didn’t think twice about losing if they didn’t work, but he’d stay late to fix things and often have a solution the next day. I shoot with plenty of coverage these days, so I’ll build a scene and then rework it. I love the edit. It’s the first time you really feel comfortable and can craft the story. On the set, things happen so quickly, that you always have to be reactive – working and thinking on your feet.”

df_cij_5_smAlthough Mickle had edited We Are What We Are with Adobe Premiere Pro, the decision was made to shift back to Apple Final Cut Pro 7 for the edit of Cold In July. Mickle explained, “As a freelance editor in New York, I was very comfortable with Final Cut, but I’m also an After Effects user. When doing a lot of visual effects, it really feels tedious to go back and forth between Final Cut and After Effects. The previous film was shot with RED cameras and I used a raw workflow in post, cutting natively with Premiere Pro. I really loved the experience – working with raw files and Dynamic Link between Premiere and After Effects. When we hired John Paul as the primary editor on the film, we opted to go back to Final Cut, because that is what he is most comfortable with. That would get the job done in the most expedient fashion, since he was handling the bulk of the editing.”

df_cij_6_sm“We shot with RED cameras again, but the footage was transcoded to ProRes for the edit. I did find the process to be frustrating, though, because I really like the fluidness of using the raw files in Premiere. I like the editing process to live and breath and not be delineated. Having access to the raw films, lets me tweak the color correction, which helps me to get an idea of how a scene is shaping up. I get the composer involved early, so we have a lot of the real music in place as a guide while we edit. This way, your cutting style – and the post process in general – are more interactive. In any case, the ProRes files were only used to get us to the locked cut. Our final DI was handled by Light Iron in New York and they conformed the film from the original RED files for a 2K finish.”

The final screening with mix, color correction and all visual effects occurred just before Sundance. There the producers struck a distribution deal with IFC Films. Cold In July started its domestic release in May of this year.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine/CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Lone Survivor

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The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have already spawned a number of outstanding films, but one that is bound to set the bar higher is the recently-released Lone Survivor, starring Mark Wahlberg as US Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. In early screenings, a number of critics have already compared the film favorably with Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down.

df_ls_06Skip ahead a paragraph if you are concerned about spoilers. The story is based on Luttrell’s best-selling memoir by the same name. It focuses on the failed 2005 Operation Red Wings in which a four-man SEAL team that included Luttrell was sent to retrieve an Al Queda-aligned Taliban leader. Their position was discovered by local shepherds and the SEALs had to decide whether to let them go or kill them. After a unit discussion, the locals were released, which presumably compromised the SEAL unit’s position. Finding themselves surrounded and outnumbered, a firefight ensued. A helicopter sent to extract the team was shot down resulting in the deaths of sixteen, including SEAL and Army special operations units. In the fight, Luttrell’s three teammates were also killed. The story continues with the unusual circumstances that led to his survival through the help of local tribesmen and subsequent rescue. The team leader, Lt. Michael P. Murphy, received a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on that day.

Making this film was entrusted to writer/director Peter Berg (Battleship, Hancock, The Kingdom, Friday Night Lights). For the edit, Berg tapped Colby Parker, Jr., who has cut seven films with Berg. Parker works on a mix of films, music videos and commercials. In fact, he first met Berg doing a Limp Bizkit music video. For commercials, Parker works out of LA’s Rock Paper Scissors editorial company, also home to Academy Award-winning editors, Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network).

df_ls_07I recently spoke with Parker about his experiences on Lone Survivor. Parker explained, “While we were working on Hancock, Peter brought in Marcus and introduced him. We were going to go full speed into Lone Survivor, but then Battleship came up first, so that had to be put on the back burner. After Battleship, it was back to Lone Survivor, but Peter had to find independent financing for it. He had to work really hard to make it happen. Peter has a great affection for three things – his son, football and the military. His father was a Navy historian, so this was a passion project for him.”

Marcus Luttrell was instrumental in the film staying technically accurate. Parker continues, “Marcus was involved in approving the locations, as well as the edit. In a typical war movie, you see a lot of yelling in a battle as commands are issued back and forth. That’s completely different from how the SEALs operate. They are very disciplined units and each member knows what each person’s role is and where there should be. Communication is often silent through signals and there’s a lot of flanking. The SEALs call it ‘water through trees’. The SEALs tend to shoot sparsely and then wait for a response, so the enemy will reveal their position. I had to recut some scenes, to minimize the yelling that wasn’t correctly portrayed.”

df_ls_05Lone Survivor involved a 44-day shoot in New Mexico, where the mountains were a sufficient substitute for Afghanistan. Tobias Schliessler (The Fifth Estate, Hancock) was the director of photography, working with RED cameras. According to Parker, they watched a lot of other war films for the right frame of mind. He explained, “As a reference for how the environment should look, the guideline was the documentary Restrepo about the Afghanistan war. This was his basis for sky, lighting and terrain.”

Editing took about six months. Parker said, “Peter likes to shoot with three cameras all the time, so there’s a lot of coverage. I edit while they are shooting, but I wasn’t on location. I like to blast through the footage to keep up with the camera. This way I can let Peter know if any extra coverage is needed. Often I’ll get word to the 1st AD and he’ll sneak in extra shots if the schedule permits. Although I will have a first assembly when the production wraps, Peter will never sit though a complete viewing of that. He works in a very linear manner, so as we start to view a scene, if there’s something that bothers him, we’ll stop and address it. My first cut was about two-and-a-half hours and the final length came in at two hours.”

df_ls_03Parker continued, “There were a number of scenes that paced well when we intercut them, rather than let them play as written in a linear fashion. For instance, we wanted to let the mission briefing scene play normally. This is where the SEAL team is briefed on their target.  That scene was followed by a scene of the target beheading a local. However, we realized that an actual briefing is very technical and rote – so intercutting these scenes helped keep the audience engaged.” In a film that is intended to accurately portray the frenetic events and chaos of a battle, continuity becomes a challenge for the editor. Parker explained, “In some of the key scenes, the cameras would be on the stars for their takes and then would be turned around to cover the side of the scene showing the Taliban. It was always an issue of matching the energy.”

df_ls_04“I purposefully wanted to make the battlefield clear for the audience. I didn’t want it to be a messy confusing battle. I wanted the audience to experience exactly what the SEALs felt, which was the Taliban closing in on them. I slowed down the pacing so the audience could really track the scene. I’ve had people tell me after screenings that they appreciated the way the first battle is presented, because they’re never lost or confused. In the key scene, where the seal team is debating about what to do with the goat herders, there was a lot of improvisation and a lot of coverage. There was so much strong footage that it was overwhelming. I ended up transcribing every line of dialogue to index cards, then I would lay them on the floor and edit the scene together with these cards.”

Another struggle was how much violence to show. Parker continued, “During the battle, there are scenes with long falls and jumps down the mountainside as the SEALS are looking for cover. These were very brutal visually and I had to be conscious of whether I was getting desensitized to the brutality and needed to dial it back some. One scene that I fought hard to keep in the way I’d cut it, was when Marcus breaks his leg. There’s a bone sticking out through the skin and he has to push it back in. Some folks thought that showing this was just too much, because it was too gruesome. That’s obviously extremely painful, but it’s accurate to what happened and tells a lot about what sort of people become SEALs. I’m glad it stayed in.”

df_ls_02Visual effects played a large role in making Lone Survivor. Image Engine Design (Elysium, Zero Dark Thirty, District 9) in Vancouver handled the majority of effects. The Chinook helicopter crash sequence was completed by ILM. Parker said, “There were a lot of practical visual effects done on location, but these were augmented by Image Engine. The crew did trek up into the upper mountains in New Mexico into some difficult places, so that created a realistic starting point. Muzzle flashes were added or enhanced and mountains were added to some backgrounds. The sets of the villages were only one or two huts and then Image Engine built everything around those. Same for the SEAL base. There were only a few real buildings and from that, they built out a larger base.”

Sound was also a key part of the experience. Parker explained, “Wylie Stateman (Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds) was the supervising sound editor and working with him was very inspiring. He uses a lot of foley, rather than canned effects, and was able to build up a whole sound design ‘language’ for the environment of each scene. It was very collaborative. Wylie and I would discuss our ideas and massage edits to make the sound design more effective.”

The editorial department was set up with four Avid Media Composer systems connected via Unity shared storage. Parker is a big proponent of Avid. He said, “I strictly cut on Avid, but I like some of the improvements they made, thanks for the pressure put on them by Final Cut Pro. This includes some of the timeline-based editing changes, like the ability to copy and paste within the timeline.” The final DI and color grading was handled by Company 3 in Los Angeles.

Originally written for DV magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

 

The Wolf of Wall Street

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Few directors have Martin Scorsese’s talent to tell entertaining stories about the seamier side of life. He has a unique ability to get us to understand and often be seduced by the people who live outside of the accepted norms. That’s an approach he’s used with great success in films like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York and others. Following this path is Scorsese’s newest, The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the memoir of stock broker Jordan Belfort.

Belfort founded the brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont in the 1990s, which eventually devolved into an operation based on swindling investors. The memoir chronicles Belfort’s excursions into excesses and debauchery that eventually led to his downfall and federal prosecution for securities fraud and money laundering. He served three years in federal prison and was sentenced to pay $110 million in restitution after cooperating with the FBI. The film adaptation was written by Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire, Sopranos), who himself spent some time working in a tamer environment at Merrill Lynch during law school. Leo DiCaprio stars as Belfort, along with Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughy as fellow brokers. ( Note: Due to the damage caused by the real Belfort and Stratton Oakmont to its investors, the release of the film is not without its critics. Click here, here and here for some reactions.)

df_wows_04I recently spoke with Thelma Schoonmaker, film editor for The Wolf of Wall Street. Schoonmaker has been a long-time collaborator with Martin Scorsese, most recently having edited Hugo. I asked her how it was to go from such an artistic and technically complex film, like Hugo, to something as over-the-top as The Wolf of Wall Street. She explained, “When I encounter people outside of this industry and they learn I had some connection with Hugo, they make a point of telling me how much they loved that film. It really touched them. The Wolf of Wall Street is a completely different type of film, of course.”

df_wows_01“I enjoyed working on it, because of its unique humor, which no one but Scorsese expected. It’s highly entertaining. Every day I’d get these fantastically funny scenes in dailies. It’s more of an improvisational film like Raging Bull, Casino or Goodfellas. We haven’t done one of those in awhile and I enjoyed getting back to that form. I suppose I like the challenge, because of the documentary background that Marty and I have from our early careers. Continuity doesn’t always match from take to take, but that’s what makes the editing great fun, but also hard.  You have to find a dramatic shape for the improvised scenes, just as you do in a documentary.”

Schoonmaker continued, “The scenes and dialogue are certainly scripted and Scorsese tells the actors that they need to start ‘here’ and end up ‘there’. But then, ‘have fun with the part in the middle’. As an editor, you have to make it work, because sometimes the actors go off on wonderful tangents that weren’t in the script. The cast surrounding Belfort and his business partner, Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill), very quickly got into creating the group of brokers who bought into the method Belfort used to snag investors into questionable stock sales. They are portrayed as not necessarily the smartest folks and Belfort used that to manipulate them and become their leader.  This is fertile ground for comedy and everyone dove into their parts with incredible gusto – willing to do anything to create the excess that pervaded Belfort’s company.  They also worked together perfectly as an ensemble – creating jealousies between themselves for the film.”

df_wows_03The Wolf of Wall Street is in many ways a black comedy. Schoonmaker addressed the challenges of working with material that portrayed some pretty despicable behavior. “Improvisation changed the nature of this film. You could watch the actors say the most despicable things in a take and then they’d crack up afterwards. I asked Leo at one point how he could even say some of the lines with a straight face! Some of it is pretty bizarre, like talking about how to create a dwarf-tossing contest, which Belfort organized as morale boosting for his office parties. Or offering a woman $10,000 to shave her head. And this was actually done in dead seriousness, just for sport.”

In order to get the audience to follow the story, you can’t avoid explaining the technical intricacies of the stock market. Schoonmaker explained, “Belfort started out selling penny stocks. Typically these have a fifty percent profit compared with blue chips stocks that might only have a one percent profit margin. Normally poorer investors buy penny stocks, but Belfort got his brokers to transfer those sales techniques to richer clients, who were first sold a mix of blue chip and penny stocks. From there, he started to manipulate the penny stocks for his own gain, ultimately leading to his downfall. We had to get some of that information across, without getting too technical. Just enough – so the audience could follow the story. Not everything is explained and there are interesting jumps forward. Leo fills in a lot of this information with his voice-overs. These gave Leo’s character additional flavor, reinforcing his greed and callousness because of the writing.  A few times Scorsese would have Leo break the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience to explain a concept.”

The Wolf of Wall Street started production in 2012 for a six-month-long shoot and completed post in November 2013. It was shot primarily on 35mm film, with additional visual effects and low-light material recorded on an ARRI ALEXA. The negative was scanned and delivered as digital files for editing on a Lightworks system.

df_wows_06Schoonmaker discussed the technical aspects. “[Director of Photography] Rodrigo Prieto did extensive testing of both film and digital cameras before the production. Scorsese had shot Hugo with the ALEXA, and was prepared to shoot digitally, but he kept finding he liked the look of the film tests best. Rob Legato was our visual effects supervisor and second unit director again. This isn’t an effects film, of course, but there are a lot of window composites and set extensions. There were also a lot of effects needed for the helicopter shots and the scenes on the yacht. Rob was a great collaborator, as always.

Scott Brock, my associate editor, helped me with the temp sound mixes on the Lightworks and Red Charyszyn was my assistant handling the complex visual effects communication with Rob. They both did a great job.” Scott Brock added some clarification on their set-up. According to Brock, “The lab delivered the usual Avid MXF media to us on shuttle drives, which we copied to our EditShare Xstream server.  We used two Avids and three Lightworks for Wolf, all of which were networked to the Xstream server.  We would use one of the Avids to put the media into Avid-style folders, then our three Lightworks could link to that media for editing.”

Schoonmaker continued, “I started cutting right at the beginning of production. As usual, screening dailies with Scorsese was critical, for he talks to me constantly about what he has shot. From that and my own feelings, I start to edit. This was a big shoot with a very large cast of extras playing the brokers in the brokerage bullpens. These extras were very well-trained and very believable, I think. You really feel immersed in the world of high-pressure selling. The first cut of the film came in long, but still played well and was very entertaining. Ultimately we cut about an hour out to get to the final length of just under three hours with titles.”

df_wows_05“The main ‘rewriting of the scenes’ that we did in the edit was because of the improvisations and the occasional need for different transitions in some cases.  We had to get the balance right between the injected humor and the scripted scenes. The center of the film is the big turning point. Belfort turns a potentially damaging blow to an IPO that the company is offering into a triumph, as he whips up his brokers to a fever pitch. We knew we had to get to that earlier than in the first cut. Scorsese didn’t want to simply do a ‘rise and fall’ film. It’s about the characters and the excesses that they found themselves caught up in and how that became so intoxicating.”

An unusual aspect of The Wolf of Wall Street is the lack of a traditional score. Schoonmaker said, “Marty has a great gift for putting music to film. He chose  unexpected pre-recorded pieces to reflect the intensity and craziness of Belfort’s world. Robbie Robertson wrote an original song for the end titles, but the rest of the film relies completely on existing songs, rather than score. It’s not intended to be period-accurate, but rather music that Scorsese feels is right for the scene. He listens to [SiriusXM] The Loft while he’s shaving in the morning and often a song he hears will just strike him as perfect. That’s where he got a lot of his musical inspiration for Wolf.”

Originally written for DV magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters