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

American Hustle

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Hot off of his success with Silver Linings Playbook, writer/director David O. Russell is back with the year-end release of American Hustle. The film (co-written with Eric Singer) was inspired by the true life FBI ABSCAM sting operation of the late 1970s. It tells the story of how FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) recruits con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to pull the sting off. While the film builds on many of the facts of the actual events, Russell chose to make this a work of fiction to allow himself to infuse the characters with his usual unconstrained depth and richness. It’s not as much about politicians who take bribes, but rather about the personalities who develop the con that’s at the heart of the sting operation.

I interviewed Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers and Alan Baumgarten, American Hustle’s editing trio, at the beginning of November – just a few days after the cut was locked. Jay Cassidy pointed out the compressed time frame they were under. He explained, “American Hustle had a longer shoot and shorter post schedule than David’s usual films. This project was always intended as coming straight on the heels of Silver Linings Playbook, which Crispin and I had both worked on. In fact, we read through the first draft of the script while still cutting Silver Linings. Thanks to the awards season and the success of that film, the transition into this film became more compressed with less prep. However, the actors that David wanted for American Hustle were scheduled, so if the film was to be made this year with this cast, then the production company had to move forward. They started shooting in mid-March and wrapped in mid-May after a 42-day shoot schedule. We’ve been in post since then. I started at the beginning of principal photography, Crispin came on board four weeks later and Alan six weeks later.”

df_ah_06This accelerated schedule with a December release target was facilitated by the post production sound team getting an early jump on things.  Headed up by sound editor/re-recording mixer John Ross, dialogue clean-up, sound design and music editing had already been happening throughout the period from May until November. Therefore, it wasn’t a matter of starting final sound editing and mixing from scratch, once the cut was finally locked in November.

 Bucking the digital trend, Russell shot American Hustle on film. Cassidy explained, “David likes to shoot 2-perf 35mm. Film was the right look for this drama and 2-perf gives him 22-minute runs on the camera. This means he can keep rolling with fewer stops, so he gets longer production time before the magazine needs to be reloaded. Although, film’s days are definitely numbered. We used Fuji stock and during the filming were informed by Fuji that they were discontinuing film manufacturing. Of course, they did reassure us that there would be enough negative stock available for us to complete the film without any worries!” Deluxe Labs in New York handled film processing. Company 3 in New York transferred the film for dailies and then delivered digital files to the editing team on hard drives for editing.

df_ah_02Struthers continued, “David likes to dive right into post after production. We don’t watch a first assembly of the full movie as with many other directors. We tend to cut individual scenes and then David reviews those and works with us to build the scenes moment by moment. David is very confident about the editing process, so he’s covered himself in order to have options. He likes to shoot the performances with different ‘calibrations’ to the actors’ emotions to give himself choices in the cutting room.”

Cassidy added, “With David, we’ve all learned that you can’t presume to know which is the best version of an actor’s performance, because of the context around it. It’s usually better to take a scene with three variations to the performance and cut three versions of the scene. This gives David a good starting point with the dialogue and lets him see how the options work.”

df_ah_05Editors often face creative challenges from a film’s length or structure and American Hustle was no exception. Baumgarten explained, “We used a pattern of parallel and overlapping action to condense the film. Rather than drop whole scenes, we found that many of the important story points from those scenes could be preserved by inserting pieces of them into other scenes. This let us tell a more succinct and better story, plus frame the information into a context that makes sense for the audience. Once we did that on a few scenes and saw that it worked well for this film, we decided to find other sections where we could use the same pattern.”

df_ah_03Visual effects were handled in a unique fashion. Cassidy said, “This film has a surprising number of effects, including green screen composites and period fixes. Also the characters wear sunglasses. Many of those shots ended up needing some touch-up to remove unwanted reflections. The production company set up an in-house team and hired the compositors to do most of the effects. They were divided up into two groups, running [Adobe] After Effects and [The Foundry’s] Nuke software. This proved to be very cost-effective, because they handled both temp effects for screenings, as well as final effects. Towards the end, some of the more time-consuming or complex shots were sent to outside vendors, but the bulk of the work was done in-house. We had quicker turnaround for effects, because the compositors were right next door. It was a very interactive process. You could ask for an effect in the morning and have it by the end of the day.”

df_ah_04American Hustle was edited using Avid Media Composer systems connected to an Avid ISIS shared storage network. There were seven Avid systems in the cutting rooms for editors and assistants, one for visual effects, and one in the mix stage. John Ross also used Avid Pro Tools connected with the video satellite system. Cassidy offered his take on the technology side, “It was great working with the ISIS system. It’s Ethernet-based, so this makes it easy to add on more machines, as needed – like my laptop for editing. We were cutting with version 6.5.3 of the Media Composer software and I really like the improvements Avid made. For example, the ability to copy-and-paste audio keyframes and the new ‘select-to-the-right’ function without also grabbing timeline filler media.”

Jay Cassidy concluded, “I’m a big proponent of [Avid] Script Sync. Our first assistant, Mike Azevedo did a great job getting this all loaded and organized. Script Sync was a real time-saver on this film. Sometimes the media was organized by the script and sometimes we had to use transcriptions. There was a lot of coverage on the film mags and this was often not in scene order, but rather, all over the reel. Using Script Sync made it possible to have all of the performances grouped together by the dialogue lines of the scene. In the past, David had been used to the little bit of time it might take to find some of the coverage when he’d ask for alternates. With Script Sync it was all right there, so David could be assured that he had truly seen all of the available coverage for a scene.”

Originally written for DV magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Inside Llewyn Davis

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Fans of Joel and Ethan Coen’s eclectic brand of filmmaking should be thrilled with their latest effort, Inside Llewyn Davis. The story follows Llewyn Davis as a struggling folk singer in the Greenwich Village folk scene at about 1960 – just before Bob Dylan’s early career there. Davis is played by Oscar Isaac, who most recently appeared in The Bourne Legacy. The story was inspired by the life of musician Dave Van Ronk, as chronicled in the book “The Mayor of MacDougal Street”. Although this is the Coen bothers’ most recent release, the film was actually produced in 2012 in true indie filmmaking fashion – without any firm commitment for distribution. It was picked up by CBS Films earlier this year.

df_ild_02The Coen brothers tackle post with a workflow that is specific to them. I had a chance to dig into that world with Katie McQuerrey, who is credited as an additional editor on Inside Llewyn Davis. McQuerrey started with the Coen brothers as they transitioned into digital post, helping to adapt their editorial style to Apple Final Cut Pro. For many of their films, she’s worn a number of hats – helping to coordinate the assistant editors, acting as a conduit to other departments and, in general, serving as another set of eyes, ears and brain while Ethan and Joel are cutting their films.

df_ild_07McQuerrey explained, “Ethan and Joel adapted their approach from how they used to cut on film. Ethan would pull selects from film workprint on a Moviola and then Joel would assemble scenes from these selects using a KEM. With Final Cut Pro, they each have a workstation and these are networked together. No fancy SAN management. Just Apple file sharing and a Promise storage array for media. Ethan will go through a project, review all the takes, make marks, add markers or written notes and pass it over to Joel. Ethan doesn’t actually assemble anything to a timeline. He’s only working within the bins of the broader project. All of the timeline editing of these scenes is then done by Joel.” (Although there’s been press about the Coen brothers planning to use Adobe Premiere Pro in the future, this film was still edited using Apple Final Cut Pro 7.)

df_ild_06Inside Llewyn Davis was filmed on 35mm over the course of a 45-day production in 2012. It wrapped on April 4th and was followed by a 20 to 24-week post schedule, ending in a final mix by the end of September. Technicolor in New York provided lab and transfer services for the production. They scanned in all of the raw 35mm negative one time to DPX files with a 2K resolution and performed a “best light” color correction pass of the DPX files for dailies. In addition, Technicolor also synced the sound from the mono mix of production mixer Peter Kurland’s location recordings. These were delivered to the editorial team as synced ProRes files.

df_ild_05McQuerrey said, “Ethan and Joel don’t cut during the shooting. That doesn’t start until the production wraps. Inside Llewyn Davis has a look for many of the scenes reminiscent of the era. [Director of photography] Bruno Delbonnel worked closely with [colorist] Peter Doyle to establish a suggested look during the dailies. These would be reviewed on location in a production trailer equipped with a 50” Panasonic plasma that Technicolor had calibrated. Once the film was locked, then Technicolor conformed the DPX files and Bruno, Ethan and Joel supervised the DI mastering of the film. Peter graded both the dailies and the final version using a [Filmlight] Baselight system. Naturally, the suggested look was honed and perfected in the final DI.”

df_ild_04Inside Llewyn Davis is about a musician and music is a major component of the film. The intent was to be as authentic as possible. There was no lip-syncing to the playback of a recorded music track. Peter [Kurland] recorded all of these live on set and that’s what ended up in the final mix. For editing, if we ever needed to separate tracks, then we’d go back to Peter’s broadcast wave file multi-track recordings, bring those into Final Cut and create ‘merged clips’ that were synced. Since Ethan and Joel’s offices are in a small building, the assistants had a separate cutting room at Post Factory in New York. We mirrored the media at both locations and I handled the communication between the two offices. Often this was done using Mac screen sharing between the computers.”

df_ild_03The Coen brothers approach their films in a very methodical fashion, so editing doesn’t present the kinds of challenges that might be the case with other directors. McQuerrey explained, “Ethan and Joel have a very good sense of script time to film time. They also understand how the script will translate on screen. They’ll storyboard the entire film, so there’s no improvisation for the editor to deal with. Most scenes are filmed with a traditional, single-camera set-up. This film was within minutes of the right length at the first assembly, so most of the editorial changes were minor trims and honing the cut. No significant scene lifts were made. Joel’s process is usually to do a rough cut and then a first cut. Skip Lievsay, our supervising sound editor, will do a temp mix in [Avid] Pro Tools. This cut with the temp mix will be internally screened for ‘friends and family’, plus the sound team and visual effects department. We then go back through the film top to bottom, creating a second cut with another temp mix.”

“At this stage, some of the visual effects shots have been completed and dropped into the cut. Then there’s more honing, more effects in place and finally another temp mix in 5.1 surround. This will be output to D5 for more formal screenings. Skip builds temp mixes that get pretty involved, so each time we send OMF files and change lists. Sound effects and ADR are addressed at each temp mix. The final mix was done in five days at Sony in Los Angeles with Skip and Greg Orloff working as the re-recording mixers.”

df_ild_08Even the most organized production includes some elements that are tough to cut. For Inside Llewyn Davis, this was the cross-country driving sequence that covers about one-and-a-half reels of the film. It includes another Coen favorite, John Goodman. McQuerrey described, “The driving scenes were all shot as green-screen composites. There are constantly three actors in the car, plus a cat. It’s always a challenge to cut this type of scene, because you are dealing with the continuity from take to take of all three actors in a confined space. The cat, of course, is less under anyone’s control. We ‘cheated’ that a bit using seamless split-screens to composite the shots in a way that the cat was in the right place. All of the windows had to be composited with the appropriate background scenery.”

“The most interesting part of the cut was how the first and last scenes were built. The beginning of the movie and the ending are the same event, but the audience may not realize at first that they are back at the beginning of the story. This was filmed only one time, but each scene was edited in a slightly different way, so initially you aren’t quite sure if you’ve seen this before or not. Actions in the first scene are abbreviated, but are then resolved with more exposition at the end.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

Particle Fever

df_pf_1Filmmaking isn’t rocket science, but sometimes they are kissing cousins. Such is the case of the documentary Particle Fever, where the credentials of both producer David Kaplan and director Mark Levinson include a Doctorate in particle physics. Levinson has been involved in filmmaking for 28 years, starting after his graduation from Berkeley, when he found the job prospects for physics in a slump. Instead he turned to his second passion – films. Levinson worked as an ADR specialist on such films as The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain, and The Rainmaker. While working on those films, he built up a friendship with noted film editor Walter Murch (The Conversation, Julia, Apocalypse Now, K-19: The Widowmaker). In addition, Levinson was writing screenplays and directing some of his own independent films (Prisoner of Time). This ultimately led him to combine his two interests and pursue Particle Fever, a documentary about the research, construction and goals of building the Large Hadron Collider.

When it came time to put the polish on his documentary, Mark Levinson tapped Walter Murch as the editor. Murch explained, “I was originally only going to be on the film for three months, because I was scheduled to work on another production after that. I started in March 2012, but the story kept changing with each breaking news item from the collider. And my other project went away, so in the end, I worked on the film for 15 months and just finished the mix a few weeks ago [June 2013].” At the start of the documentary project, the outcome of the research from the Large Hadron Collider was unknown. In fact, it wasn’t until later during the edit, that the scientists achieved a major success with the confirmation of the discovery of the Higgs boson as an elementary particle in July 2012. This impacted science, but also the documentary in a major way.

Finding the story arc

df_pf_6Particle Fever is the first feature-length documentary that Walter Murch has edited, although archival and documentary footage has been part of a number of his films. He’d cut some films for the USIA early in his career and has advised and mixed a number of documentaries, including Crumb, about the controversial cartoonist Robert Crumb. Murch is fond of discussing the role of the editor as a participatory writer of the film in how he crafts the story through pictures and sound. Nowhere is this more true than in documentaries. According to Murch, “Particle Fever had a natural story arc by the nature of the events themselves. The machine [the Large Hadron Collider] provided the spine. It was turned on in 2008 and nine days later partly exploded, because a helium relief valve wasn’t strong enough. It was shut down for a year of repairs. When it was turned on again, it was only at half power and many of the scientists feared this was inadequate for any major discoveries. Nevertheless, even at half power, the precision was good enough to see the evidence that they needed. The film covers this journey from hope to disaster to recovery and triumph.”

Due to the cost of constructing large particle accelerators, a project like the Large Hadron Collider is a once-in-a-generation event. It is a seminal moment in science akin to the Manhattan Project or the moon launch. In this case, 10,000 scientists from 100 countries were involved in the goal of recreating the conditions just after the Big Bang and finding the Higgs boson, often nicknamed “the God particle”. Murch explained the production process, “Mark and David picked a number of scientists to follow and we told the story through their eyes without a narrator. They were equipped with small consumer cameras to self-record intermittent video blogs, which augmented the formal interviews. Initially Mark was following about a dozen scientists, but this was eventually narrowed down to the six that are featured in the film. The central creative challenge was to balance the events while getting to know the people and their roles. We also had to present enough science to understand what is at stake without overwhelming the audience. These six turned out to be the best at that and could convey their passion in a very charismatic and understandable way with a minimum of jargon.”

Murch continued, “Our initial cut was two-and-a-half hours, which was ultimately reduced to 99 minutes. We got there by cutting some people, but also some of the ‘side shoots’ or alternate research options that were explored. For example, there was a flurry of excitement related to what was thought to be discoveries of particles of ‘dark matter’ at a Minnesota facility. This covered about 20 minutes of the film, but in the final version there’s only a small trace of that material.”

Sifting to find the nuggets

df_pf_2As in most documentaries, the post team faced a multitude of formats and a wealth of material, including standard definition video recorded in 2007, the HDV files from the scientists’ “webcams” and Panasonic HD media from the interviews. In addition, there was a lot of PAL footage from the media libraries at CERN, the European particle accelerator. During the production, news coverage focused on the theoretical, though statistically unlikely, possibility that the Large Hadron Collider might have been capable of producing a black hole. This yielded even more source material to sift through. In total, the production team generated 300 hours of content and an additional 700 hours were available from CERN and the various news pieces produced about the collider.

Murch is known for his detailed editor’s codebook for scenes and dailies that he maintains for every film in a Filemaker Pro database. Particle Fever required a more streamlined approach. Murch came in at what initially appeared to be the end of the process after Mona Davis (Fresh, Advise & Consent) had worked on the film. Murch said, “I started the process later into the production, so I didn’t initially use my Filemaker database. Mark was both the director and my assistant editor, so for the first few months I was guided by his knowledge of the material. We maintained two mirrored workstations with Final Cut Pro 7 and Mark would ingest any new material and add his markers for clips to investigate. When these bins were copied to my station, I could use them as a guide of where to start looking for possible material.”

Mapping the sound

df_pf_4The post team operated out of Gigantic Studios in New York, which enabled an interactive workflow between Murch and sound designer Tom Paul (on staff at Gigantic) and with composer Robert Miller. Walter Murch’s editorial style involves building up a lot of temporary sound effects and score elements during the rough cut phase and then, piece-by-piece, replacing those with finished elements as he receives them. His FCP sequence on Particle Fever had 42 audio tracks of dialogue, temp sound effects and music elements. This sort of interaction among the editor, sound designer and composer worked well with a small post team all located in New York City. By the time the cut was locked in May, Miller had delivered about an hour of original score for the film and supplied Murch with seven stereo instrumentation stems for that score to give him the most versatility in mixing.

Murch and Paul mixed the film on Gigantic’s Pro Tools ICON system. Murch offered this post trick, “When I received the final score elements from Robert, I would load them into Final Cut and then was able to copy-and-paste volume keyframes I had added to Robert’s temp music onto the final stems, ducking under dialogue or emphasizing certain dynamics of the music. This information was then automatically transferred to the Pro Tools system as part of the OMF output. Although we’d still adjust levels in the mix, embedding these volume shifts gave us a better starting point. We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. In the end, the final mix took four days. Long days!”

df_pf_3Gigantic Post offered the advantage of an on-site screening room, which enabled the producers to have numerous in-progress screenings for both scientific and industry professionals, as well as normal interested viewers. Murch explained, “It was important to get the science right, but also to make it understandable to the layman. I have more than a passing interest in the subject, but both Mark and David have Ph.D.s in particle physics, so if I ever had a question about something, all I had to do was turn around and ask. We held about 20 screenings over the course of a year and the scientists who attended our test screenings felt that the physics was accurate. But, what they also particularly liked was that the film really conveys the passion and experience of what it’s like to work in this field.” Final Frame Post, also in New York, handled the film’s grading and digital intermediate mastering.

Graphic enhancements

df_pf_5To help illustrate the science, the producers tapped MK12, a design and animation studio, which had worked on such films as The Kite Runner and Quantum of Solace. Some of the ways in which they expressed ideas graphically throughout the film could loosely be described as a cross between A Beautiful Mind and Carl Sagan’s PBS Cosmos series. Murch described one example, “For instance, we see Nima (one of our theorists) walking across the campus of the Institute for Advanced Study while we hear his voice-over. As he talks, formulas start to swirl all around him. Then the grass transforms into a carpet of number-particles, which then transform into an expanding universe into which Nima disappears. Eventually, this scene resolves and Nima emerges, returning on campus and walking into a building, the problematic formulas falling to the ground as he goes through the door.”

Although this was Walter Murch’s first feature documentary, his approach wasn’t fundamentally different from how he works on a dramatic film. He said, “Even on a scripted film, I try to look at the material without investing it with intention. I like to view dailies with the fresh-eyed sense of ‘Oh, where did this come from? Let’s see where this will take the story’.  That’s also from working so many years with Francis [Ford Coppola], who often shoots in a documentary style. The wedding scene in The Godfather, for instance; or the Union Square conversation in The Conversation; or any of the action scenes in Apocalypse Now all exemplify that. They are ongoing events, with their own internal momentum, which are captured by multiple cameras. I really enjoyed working on this film, because there were developments and announcements during the post which significantly affected the direction of the story and ultimately the ending. This made for a real roller coaster ride!”

Particle Fever premiered at Doc/Fest Sheffield on June 14th, and won the Audience Award (split with Act of Killing). It is currently in negotiations for distribution.

NOTE: The film will open in New York on Ma5, 2014. In October 2013Peter W. Higgs – who theorized about the boson particle named after him – was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, together with Francois Englert. For more on Walter Murch’s thoughts about editing, click here.

And finally, an interesting look at Murch’s involvement in the Rolex Mentor Protege program.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

The East

df_east_1Director Zal Batmanglij’s The East caught the buzz at Sundance and SXSW. It was produced by Scott Free Productions with Fox Searchlight Pictures. Not bad for the young director’s sophomore outing. The film takes its name from The East, a group of eco-terrorists and anarchists led by Benji, who is played by Alexander Skarsgard (True Blood). The group engages in “jams” – their term for activist attacks on corporations, which they tape and put out on the web. Sarah, played by Brit Marling (Arbitrage), is a corporate espionage specialist who is hired to infiltrate the group. In that process, she comes to sympathize with the group’s ideals, if not its violent tactics. She finds herself both questioning her allegiances and is falling in love with Benji. Marling also co-wrote the screenplay with Batmanglij.

In addition to a thriller plot, the film’s production also had some interesting twists along the way to completion. First, it was shot with an ARRI ALEXA, but unlike most films that use the ALEXA, the recording was done as ProRes4444 to the onboard SxS cards, instead of ARRIRAW to an external recorder. That will make it one of the few films to date in mainstream release to do so. ProRes dailies were converted into color-adjusted Avid DNxHD media for editing.

Second, the film went through a change of editors due to prior commitments. After the production wrapped and a first assembly of the film was completed, Andrew Weisblum (Moonrise Kingdom, Black Swan) joined the team to cut the film. Weisblum’s availability was limited to four months, though, since he was already committed to editing Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. At that stage, Bill Pankow (The Black Dahlia, Carlito’s Way) picked up for Weisblum and carried the film through to completion.

df_east_2Andrew Weisblum explained, “When I saw the assembly of The East, I really felt like there was a good story, but I had already committed to cut Noah. I wasn’t quite sure how much could be done in the four months that I had, but left the film at what we all thought was a cut that was close to completion. It was about 80% done and we’d had an initial preview. Bill [Pankow] was a friend, so I asked if he would pick it up for me there, assuming that the rest would be mainly just a matter of tightening up the film. But it turned out to be more involved than that.”

Bill Pankow continued, “I came on board June of last year and took the picture through to the locked cut and the mix in November. After that first screening, everyone felt that the ending needed some work. The final scene between the main characters wasn’t working in the way Zal and Brit had originally expected. They decided to change some things to serve the drama better and to resolve the relationship of the main characters. This required shooting additional footage, as well as reworking some of the other scenes. At that point we took a short hiatus while Zal and Brit  rewrote and reshot the last scene. Then another preview and we were able to lock the cut.”

df_east_3Like nearly all films, The East took on a life of its own in the cutting room. According to Weisblum, “The film changed in the edit from the script. Some of what I did in the cut was to bring in more tension and mystery in the beginning to get us to the group [The East] more quickly. We also simplified a number of story points. Nothing really radical – although it might have felt like that at the time – but just removing tangents that distracted from the main story.” Pankow added, “We didn’t have any length constraints from Fox, so we were able to optimize each scene. Towards the end of the film, there were places that needed extra ‘moments’ to accentuate some of the emotion of what the Sarah character was feeling. In a few cases, this meant re-using shots that might have appeared earlier. In addition to changing the last scene, a few other areas were adjusted. One or two scenes were extended, which in some cases replaced other scenes.”

Since the activists document their activities with video cameras, The East incorporates a number of point-of-view shots taken with low-res cameras. Rather than create these as visual effects shots, low-res cameras were used for the actual photography of that footage. Some video effects were added in the edit and some through the visual effects company. Weisblum has worked as a VFX editor (The Fountain, Chicago), so creating temporary visual effects is second nature. He said, “I usually do a number of things either in the Avid or using [Adobe] After Effects. These are the typical ‘split screen’ effects where takes are mixed to offset the timing of the performances. In this film, there was one scene where two characters [Tim and Sarah] are having a conversation on the bed. I wanted to use a take where Tim is sitting up, but of course, he’s partially covered by Sarah. This took a bit more effort, because I had to rotoscope part of one shot into the other, since the actors were overlapping each other. I’ll do these things whenever I can, so that the film plays in as finished a manner as possible during screening. It also gives the visual effects team a really good roadmap to follow.”

df_east_4Bill Pankow has worked as an editor or assistant on over forty features and brings some perspective to modern editing. He said, “I started editing digitally on Lightworks, but then moved to Avid. At the time, Lightworks didn’t keep up and Avid gave you more effects and titling tools, which let editors produce a more polished cut. On this film the set-up included two Avid Media Composer systems connected to shared storage. I typically like to work with two assistants when I can. My first assistant will add temporary sound effects and clean up the dialogue, while the second assistant handles the daily business and paperwork of the cutting room. Because assistants tend to have their own specialties these days, it’s harder for assistants to learn how to edit. I try to make a point of involving my assistants in watching the dailies, reviewing a scene when it’s cut and so on. This way they have a chance to learn and can someday move into the editor’s chair themselves.”

Both editors agree that working on The East was a very positive experience. Weisblum said, “Before starting, I had a little concern for how it would be working with Zal and Brit, especially since Brit was the lead actress, but also co-writer and producer. However, it was very helpful to have her involved, as she really helped me to understand the intentions of the character. It turned out to be a great collaboration.” Pankow concluded, “I enjoyed the team, but more so, I liked the fact that this film resonates emotionally, as well as politically, with the current times. I was very happy to be able to work on it.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

The Hobbit

df_hobbit_1Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was one of the most anticipated films of 2012. It broke new technological boundaries and presented many creative challenges to its editor. After working as a television editor, Jabez Olssen started his own odyssey with Jackson in 2000 as an assistant editor and operator on The Lord of the Rings trilogy. After assisting again on King Kong, he next cut Jackson’s Lovely Bones as the first feature film on which he was the sole editor. The director tapped Olssen again for The Hobbit trilogy, where unlike the Rings trilogy, he will be the sole editor on all three films.

Much like the Rings films, all production for the three Hobbit films was shoot in a single eighteen month stretch. Jackson employed as many as 60 RED Digital Cinema EPIC cameras rigged for stereoscopic acquisition at 48fps – double the standard rate of traditional feature photography. Olssen was editing the first film in parallel with the principal photography phase. He had a very tight schedule that only allowed about five months after the production wrapped to lock the cut and get the film ready for release.

To get The Hobbit out on such an aggressive schedule, Olssen leaned hard on a post production infrastructure built around Avid’s technology, including 13 Media Composers (10 with Nitris DX hardware) and an ISIS 7000 with 128TB of storage. Peter Jackson’s production facilities are located in Wellington, New Zealand, where active fibre channel connections tie Stone Street Studio, Weta Digital, Park Road Post Production and the cutting rooms to the Avid ISIS storage. The three films combined, total 2200 hours (1100 x two eyes) of footage, which is the equivalent of 24 million feet of film. In addition, an Apace active backup solution with 72TB of storage was also installed, which could immediately switch over if ISIS failed.

The editorial team – headed up by first assistant editor Dan Best – consisted of eight assistant editors, including three visual effects editors. According to Olssen, “We mimicked a similar pipeline to a film project. Think of the RED camera .r3d media files as a digital negative. Peter’s facility, Park Road Post Production, functioned as the digital lab. They took the RED media from the set and generated one-light, color-corrected dailies for the editors. 24fps 2D DNxHD36 files were created by dropping every second frame from the files of one ‘eye’ of a stereo recording. For example, we used 24fps timecode with the difference between the 48fps frames being a period instead of a colon. Frame A would be 11.22.21.13 and frame B would be 11:22:21:13. This was a very natural solution for editing and a lot like working with single-field media files on interlaced television projects. The DNxHD files were then delivered to the assistant editors, who synced, subclipped and organized clips into the Avid projects. Since we were all on ISIS shared storage, once they were done, I could access the bins and the footage was ready to edit, even if I were on set. For me, working with RED files was no different than a standard film production.”

df_hobbit_2Olssen continued, “A big change for the team since the Rings movies is that the Avid systems have become more portable. Plus the fibre channel connection to ISIS allows us to run much longer distances. This enabled me to have a mobile cart on the set with a portable Media Composer system connected to the ISIS storage in the main editing building. In addition, we also had a camper van outfitted as a more comfortable mobile editing room with its own Media Composer; we called it the EMC – ‘Editorial Mobile Command’. So, I could cut on set while Peter was shooting, using the cart and, as needed, use the EMC for some quick screening of edits during a break in production. I was also on location around New Zealand for three months and during that time I cut on a laptop with mirrored media on external drives.”

The main editing room was set up with a full-blown Nitris DX system connected to a 103” plasma screen for Jackson. The original plan was to cut in 2D and then periodically consolidate scenes to conform a stereo version for screening in the Media Composer suite. Instead they took a different approach. Olssen explained, “We didn’t have enough storage to have all three films’ worth of footage loaded as stereo media, but Peter was comfortable cutting the film in 2D. This was equally important, since more theaters displayed this version of the film. Every few weeks, Park Road Post Production would conform a 48fps stereo version so we could screen the cut. They used an SGO Mistika system for the DI, because it could handle the frame rate and had very good stereo adjustment tools. Although you often have to tweak the cuts after you see the film in a stereo screening, I found we had to do far less of that than I’d expected. We were cognizant of stereo-related concerns during editing. It also helped that we could judge a cut straight from the Avid on the 103” plasma, instead of relying on a small TV screen.”

df_hobbit_3The editorial team was working with what amounted to 24fps high-definition proxy files for stereo 48fps RED .r3d camera masters. Edit decision lists were shared with Weta Digital and Park Road Post Production for visual effects, conform and digital intermediate color correction/finishing at a 2K resolution. Based on these EDLs, each unit would retrieve the specific footage needed from the camera masters, which had been archived onto LTO data tape.

The Hobbit trilogy is a heavy visual effects production, which had Olssen tapping into the Media Composer toolkit. Olssen said, “We started with a lot of low resolution, pre-visualization animations as placeholders for the effects shots. As the real effects started coming in, we would replace the pre-vis footage with the correct effects shots. With the Gollum scenes we were lucky enough to have Andy Serkis in the actual live action footage from set, so they were easy to visualize how the scene would look. But other CG characters, like Azog, were captured separately on a Performance Capture stage. That meant we had to layer separately-shot material into a single shot. We were cutting vertically in the timeline, as well as horizontally. In the early stages, many of the scenes were a patchwork of live action and pre-vis, so I used PIP effects to overlay elements to determine the scene timing. Naturally, I had to do a lot of temp green-screen composites. The dwarves are full-size actors and for many of the scenes, we had to scale them down and reposition them in the shot so we could see how the shots were coming together.”

As with most feature film editors, Jabez Olssen likes to fill out his cut with temporary sound effects and music, so that in-progress screenings feel like a complete film. He continued, “We were lucky to use some of Howard Shore’s music from the Rings films for character themes that tie The Hobbit back into The Lord of the Rings. He wrote some nice ‘Hobbity’ music for those. We couldn’t use too much of it, though, because it was so familiar to us! The sound department at Park Road Post Production uses Avid Pro Tools systems. They also have a Media Composer connected to the same ISIS storage, which enabled the sound editors to screen the cut there. From it, they generated QuickTime files for picture reference and audio files so the sound editors could work locally on their own Pro Tools workstations.”

Audiences are looking forward to the next two films in the series, which means the adventure continues for Jabez Olssen. On such a long term production many editors would be reluctant to update software, but not this time. Olssen concluded, “I actually like to upgrade, because I look forward to the new features. Although, I usually wait a few weeks until everyone knows it’s safe. We ended up on version 6.0 at the end of the first film and are on 6.5 now. Other nonlinear editing software packages are more designed for one-man bands, but Media Composer is really the only software that works for a huge visual effects film. You can’t underestimate how valuable it is to have all of the assistant editors be able to open the same projects and bins. The stability and reliability is the best. It means that we can deliver challenging films like The Hobbit trilogy on a tight post production schedule and know the system won’t let us down.”

Originally written for Avid Technology, Inc.

©2013 Oliver Peters