Downsizing

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

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

Sci-fi and satire

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

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

Digital production to aid the process

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

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

Tools and tips

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

© 2017, 2018 Oliver Peters

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Stocking Stuffers 2017

It’s holiday time once again. For many editors that means it’s time to gift themselves with some new tools and toys to speed their workflows or just make the coming year more fun! Here are some products to consider.

Just like the tiny house craze, many editors are opting for their laptops as their main editing tool. I’ve done it for work that I cut when I’m not freelancing in other shops, simply because my MacBook Pro is a better machine than my old (but still reliable) 2009 Mac Pro tower. One less machine to deal with, which simplifies life. But to really make it feel like a desktop tool, you need some accessories along with an external display. For me, that boils down to a dock, a stand, and an audio interface. There are several stands for laptops. I bought both the Twelve South BookArc and the Rain Design mStand: the BookArc for when I just want to tuck the closed MacBook Pro out of the way in the clamshell mode and the mStand for when I need to use the laptop’s screen as a second display. Another option some editors like is the Vertical Dock from Henge Docks, which not only holds the MacBook Pro, but also offers some cable management.

The next hardware add-on for me is a USB audio interface. This is useful for any type of computer and may be used with or without other interfaces from Blackmagic Design or AJA. The simplest of these is the Mackie Onyx Blackjack, which combines interface and output monitor mixing into one package. This means no extra small mixer is required. USB input and analog audio output direct to a pair of powered speakers. But if you prefer a separate small mixer and only want a USB interface for input/output, then the PreSonus Audiobox USB or the Focusrite Scarlett series is the way to go.

Another ‘must have’ with any modern system is a Thunderbolt dock in order to expand the native port connectivity of your computer. There are several on the market but it’s hard to go wrong with either the CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 2 or the OWC Thunderbolt 2 Dock. Make sure you double-check which version fits for your needs, depending on whether you have a Thunderbolt 2 or 3 connection and/or USB-C ports. I routinely use each of the CalDigit and OWC products. The choice simply depends on which one has the right combination of ports to fit your needs.

Drives are another issue. With a small system, you want small portable drives. While LaCie Rugged and G-Technology portable drives are popular choices, SSDs are the way to go when you need true, fast performance. A number of editors I’ve spoken to are partial to the Samsung Portable SSD T5 drives. These USB3.0-compatible drives aren’t the cheapest, but they are ultraportable and offer amazing read/write speeds. Another popular solution is to use raw (uncased) drives in a drive caddy/dock for archiving purposes. Since they are raw, you don’t pack for the extra packaging, power supply, and interface electronics with each, just to have it sit on the shelf. My favorite of these is the HGST Deckstar NAS series.

For many editors the software world is changing with free applications, subscription models, and online services. The most common use of the latter is for review-and-approval, along with posting demo clips and short films. Kollaborate.tv, Frame.io, Wipster.io, and Vimeo are the best known. There are plenty of options and even Vimeo Pro and Business plans offer a Frame/Wipster-style review-and-approval and collaboration service. Plus, there’s some transfer ability between these. For example, you can publish to a Vimeo account from your Frame account. Another expansion of the online world is in team workgroups. A popular solution is Slack, which is a workgroup-based messaging/communication service.

As more resources become available online, the benefits of large-scale computing horsepower are available to even single editors. One of the first of these new resources is cloud-based, speech-to-text transcription. A number of online services provide this functionality to any NLE. Products to check out include Scribeomatic (Coremelt), Transcriptive (Digital Anarchy), and Speedscriber (Digital Heaven). They each offer different pricing models and speech analysis engines. Some are still in beta, but one that’s already out is Speedscriber, which I’ve used and am quite happy with. Processing is fast and reasonably accurate, given a solid audio recording.

Naturally free tools make every user happy and the king of the hill is Blackmagic Design with DaVinci Resolve and Fusion. How can you go wrong with something this powerful and free with ongoing company product development? Even the paid versions with some more advanced features are low cost. However, at the very least the free version of Resolve should be in every editor’s toolkit, because it’s such a Swiss Army Knife application.

On the other hand, editors who have the need to learn Avid Media Composer, need look no further than the free Media Composer | First. Avid has tried ‘dumbed-down’ free editing apps before, but First is actually built off of the same code base as the full Media Composer software. Thus, skills translate and most of the core functions are available for you to use.

Many users are quite happy with the advantages of Adobe’s Creative Cloud software subscription model. Others prefer to own their software. If you work in video, then it’s easy to put together alternative software kits for editing, effects, audio, and encoding that don’t touch an Adobe product. Yet for most, the stumbling block is Photoshop – until now. Both Affinity Photo (Serif) and Pixelmator Pro are full-fledged graphic design and creation tools that rival Photoshop in features and quality. Each of these has its own strong points. Affinity Photo offers Mac and Windows versions, while Pixelmator Pro is Mac only, but taps more tightly into macOS functions.

If you work in the Final Cut Pro X world, several utilities are essential. These include SendToX and XtoCC from Intelligent Assistance, along with X2Pro Audio Convert from Marquis Broadcast. Marquis’ newest is Worx4 X – a media management tool. It takes your final sequence and creates a new FCPX library with consolidated (trimmed) media. No transcoding is involved, so the process is lighting fast. Although in some cases media is copied without being trimmed. This can reduce the media to be archived from TBs down to GBs. They also offer Worx4 Pro, which is designed for Premiere Pro CC users. This tool serves as a media tracking application, to let editors find all of the media used in a Premiere Pro project across multiple volumes.

Most editors love to indulge in plug-in packages. If you can only invest in a single, large plug-in package, then BorisFX’s Boris Continuum Complete 11 and/or their Sapphire 11 bundles are the way to go. These are industry-leading tools with wide host and platform support. Both feature mocha tracking integration and Continuum also includes the Primatte Studio chromakey technology.

If you want to go for a build-it-up-as-you-need-it approach – and you are strictly on the Mac – then FxFactory will be more to your liking. You can start with the free, basic platform or buy the Pro version, which includes FxFactory’s own plug-ins. Either way, FxFactory functions as a plug-in management tool. FxFactory’s numerous partner/developers provide their products through the FxFactory platform, which functions like an app store for plug-ins. You can pick and choose the plug-ins that you need when the time is right to purchase them. There are plenty of plug-ins to recommend, but I would start with any of the Crumplepop group, because they work well and provide specific useful functions. They also include the few audio plug-ins available via FxFactory. Another plug-in to check out is the Hawaiki Keyer 4. It installs into both the Apple and Adobe applications and far surpasses the built-in keying tools within these applications.

The Crumplepop FxFactory plug-ins now includes Koji Advance, which is a powerful film look tool. I like Koji a lot, but prefer FilmConvert from Rubber Monkey Software. To my eyes, it creates one of the more pleasing and accurate film emulations around and even adds a very good three-way color corrector. This opens as a floating window inside of FCPX, which is less obtrusive than some of the other color correction plug-ins for FCPX. It’s not just for film emulation – you can actually use it as the primary color corrector for an entire project.

I don’t want to forget audio plug-ins in this end-of-the-year roundup. Most editors don’t feel too comfortable with a ton of surgical audio filters, so let me stick to suggestions that are easy-to-use and very affordable. iZotope is a well-known audio developer and several of its products are perfect for video editors. These fall into repair, mixing, and mastering needs. These include the Nectar, Ozone, and RX bundles, along with the RX Loudness Control. The first three groups are designed to cover a wide range of needs and, like the BCC video plug-ins, are somewhat of an all-encompassing product offering. But if that’s a bit rich for the blood, then check out iZotope’s various Elements versions.

The iZotope RX Loudness Control is great for accurate loudness compliance, and best used with Avid or Adobe products. However, it is not real-time, because it uses analysis and adaptive processing. If you want something more straightforward and real-time, then check out the LUFS Meter from Klangfreund. It can be used for loudness control on individual tracks or the master output. It works with most of the NLEs and DAWs. A similar tool to this is Loudness Change from Videotoolshed.

Finally, let’s not forget the iOS world, which is increasingly becoming a viable production platform. For example, I’ve used my iPad in the last year to do location interview recordings. This is a market that audio powerhouse Apogee has also recognized. If you need a studio-quality hardware interface for an iPhone or iPad, then check out the Apogee ONE. In my case, I tapped the Apogee MetaRecorder iOS application for my iPad, which works with both Apogee products and the iPad’s built-in mic. It can be used in conjunction with FCPX workflows through the integration of metadata tagging for Keywords, Favorites, and Markers.

Have a great holiday season and happy editing in the coming year!

©2017 Oliver Peters

Avid Media Composer | First

They’ve teased us for two years, but now it’s finally out. Avid Technology has released its free nonlinear editing application, Media Composer | First. This is not dumbed-down, teaser software, but rather a partially-restricted version of the full-fledged Media Composer software and built upon the same code. With that comes an inherent level of complexity, which Avid has sought to minimize for new users; however, you really do want to go through the tutorials before diving in.

It’s important to understand who the target user is. Avid didn’t set out to simply add another free, professional editing tool to an increasingly crowded market. Media Composer | First is intended as a functional starter tool for users who want to get their feet wet in the Avid ecosystem, but then eventually convert to the full-fledged, paid software. That’s been successful for Avid with Pro Tools | First. To sweeten the pot, you’ll also get 350 sound effects from Pro Sound Effects and 50 royalty-free music tracks from Sound Ideas (both sets are also free).

Diving in

To get Media Composer | First, you must set up an Avid master account, which is free. Existing customers can also get First, but the software cannot be co-installed on a computer with the full version. For example, I installed Media Composer | First on my laptop, because I have the full Media Composer application on my desktop. You must sign into the account and stay signed in for Media Composer | First to lunch and run. I did get it to work if I signed in, but then disconnected the internet. There was a disconnection prompt, but nevertheless, the application worked, saved, and exported properly. It doesn’t seem mandatory to be constantly connected to Avid over the internet. All project data is stored locally, so this is not a cloud application.

The managing of the account and future updates are handled through Application Manager, an Avid desktop utility. It’s not my favorite, as at times it’s unreliable, but it does work most of the time. Opening the installer .dmg file will take a long time to verify. This seems to be a general Avid quirk, so be patient. When you first open the application, you may get a disk drive write permissions error message. On macOS you normally set drive permissions for “system”, “wheel”, and “everyone”. Typically I have the last two set to “read only”, which works for every other application, except Avid’s. Therefore, if you want to store Avid media on your internal system hard drive, then “everyone” must be changed to “read & write”.

The guided tour

The Avid designers have tried to make the Media Composer | First interface easy to navigate for new users – especially those coming from other NLEs, where media and projects are managed differently than in Media Composer. Right at the launch screen you have the option to learn through online tutorials. These will be helpful even for experienced users who might try to “out-think” the software. The interface includes a number of text overlays to help you get started. For example, there is no place to set project settings. The first clip added to the first sequence sets the project settings from there on. So, don’t drop a 25fps clip onto the timeline as your first clip, if you intend to work in a 23.98fps project. These prompts are right in front of you, so if you follow their guidance, you’ll be OK.

The same holds true for importing media through the Source Browser. With Media Composer you either transcode a file, which turns it into Avid-managed media placed into the Avid MediaFiles folder, or simply link to the file. If you select link, then the file stays in place and it’s up to the user not to move or delete that file on the hard drive. Although the original Avid paradigm was to only manage media in its MediaFiles hard drive folders, the current versions handle linking just fine and act largely the same as other NLEs.

Options, restrictions, and limitations

Since this is a free application, a number of features have been restricted. There are three biggies. Tracks are limited to four video tracks and eight audio tracks. This is actually quite workable, however, I think a higher audio track count would have been advisable, because of how Avid handles stereo, mono, and multichannel files. On a side note, if you use the “collapse” function to nest video clips, it’s possible to vertically stack more than just four clips on the timeline.

The application is locked to a maximum project size of 1920×1080 (Rec. 709 color space only) and up to 59.94fps. Source files can be larger (such as 4K) and you can still use them on the timeline, but you’ll have to pan-and-scan, crop, or scale them. I hope future versions will permit at least UltraHD (4K) project sizes.

Finally, Media Composer | First projects cannot be interchanged with full fledged Media Composer projects. This means that you cannot start in Media Composer | First and then migrate your project to the paid version. Hopefully this gets fixed in a future update. If not, it will negatively impact students and indie producers using the application for any real work.

As expected, there are no 3D stereoscopic tools, ScriptSync (automatic speech-to-text/sync-to-script), PhraseFind (phonetic search engine), or Symphony (advanced color correction) options. One that surprised me, though, was the removable of the superior Spectramatte keyer. You are left with the truly terrible RGB keyer for blue/green-screen work.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty of horsepower left. For example, FrameFlex to handle resizing and Timewarps for retiming clips, which is how 4K and off-speed frame rates are handled. Color correction (including scopes), multicam, IllusionFX, source setting color LUTs, Audiosuite, and Pro Tools-style audio track effects are also there. Transcoding allows for the use of a wide range of codecs, including ProRes on a Mac. 4K camera clips will be transcoded to 1080. However, exports are limited to Avid DNxHD and H.264 QuickTime files at up to 1920×1080. The only DNxHD export flavor is the 100Mbps variant (at 29.97, 80Mbps for 23.98), which is comparable to ProResLT. It’s good quality, but not at the highest mastering levels.

Conclusion

This is a really good first effect, no pun intended. As you might expect, it’s a little buggy for a first version. For example, I experienced a number of crashes while testing source LUTs. However, it was well-behaved during standard editing tasks. If Media Composer | First files can become compatible with the paid systems and the 1080 limit can be increased to UHD/4K, then Avid has a winner on its hands. Think of the film student who starts on First at home, but then finishes on the full version in the college’s computer lab. Or the indie producer/director who starts his or her own rough cut on First, but then takes it to an editor or facility to complete the process. These are ideal scenarios for First. I’ve cut tons of short and long form projects, including a few feature films, using a variety of NLEs. Nearly all of those could have been done using Media Composer | First. Yes, it’s free, but there’s enough power to get the job done and done well.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

Suburbicon

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

Calibrating the tone

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

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

Traveling light

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

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

Suiting the edit tool to your needs

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

Baby Driver

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

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

From Smoke to baptism by fire

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

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

Music drives the film

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

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

Editor on the front lines

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

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

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

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

The challenge of sound

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

Working with Avid in a new way

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

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

(For more with Paul Machliss, check out these interviews at Studio Daily, ProVideoCoalition, and FrameIO.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

The Handmaid’s Tale

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

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

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

Cutting a dystopian future

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

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

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

Tackling the workload

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

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

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

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

Post feelings

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

Voyage of Time

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

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

Eight years in the making

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

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

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

The art of picture and sound composition

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

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters