Reliving the Zoetrope tradition – Walter Murch and Tetro

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Age can sometimes be an impediment to inspired filmmaking, but Francis Ford Coppola, who recently turned 70, has tackled his latest endeavor with the enthusiasm and creativity of a young film school graduate. The film Tetro opened June 11th in New York and Los Angeles and will enter wider distribution in the weeks that follow. Coppola set up camp in a two-story house in Buenos Aires and much of the film was produced in Argentina. This house became the film’s headquarters for production and post in the same approach to filmmaking that the famed director adopted on Youth Without Youth (2007) in Romania.

 

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Tetro is Francis Ford Coppola’s first original screenplay since The Conversation (1974) and is very loosely based on the dynamics within his own family. It is not intended to be autobiographical, but explores classic themes of sibling rivalry, as well as the competition between father and son. Coppola’s own father, Carmine (who died in 1991), was a respected musician and composer who also scored a number of his son’s films. One key figure in Tetro is the family patriarch Carlo (Klaus Brandauer), an acclaimed symphony conductor, who moved as a young music student from the family home in Argentina to Berlin and then to New York. Carlo’s younger son Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich) decided to head back to Buenos Aires in search of his older brother, the brooding poet Tetro (Vincent Gallo) – only to discover a different person than he’d expected.

 

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Coppola put together a team of talented Argentine actors and crew, but also brought back key collaborators from his previous films, including Mihai Malaimare, Jr.(director of photography), Osvaldo Golijov (composer) and Walter Murch (editor and re-recording mixer). I caught up with Walter Murch via phone in London, where he spoke at the 1st Annual London Final Cut Pro User Group SuperMeet.

 

Embracing the American Zoetrope tradition

 

Tetro has a definite style and vision that sets it apart from current studio fare. According to Walter Murch, “Francis funded Tetro in the same fashion as his previous film Youth Without Youth. He has personal money in it from his Napa Valley winery, as well as that of a few other investors. This lets him make the film the way he wants to, without studio interference. Francis’s directing style is process-oriented – he likes to let the film evolve during the production – to make serendipitous discoveries based on the actors, the sets, the atmosphere of a new city. Many directors work this way, but Francis embraces it more than any other. In Coppola’s own words: ‘The director is the ringmaster of a circus that is inventing itself.’ I think that’s why, at age 69, he was enthusiastic about jumping into a country that was new to him and working with talented young local filmmakers.”

 

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This filmmaking approach is reminiscent of Coppola’s original concept for American Zoetrope Studios . There Coppola pioneered early concepts in electronic filmmaking, hallmarked by the “Silverfish”, an AirStream trailer that provided on-set audio and editing support. Murch continued, “Ideally everything needed to make a Zoetrope film on location should be able to be loaded into two vans. The Buenos Aires building that was our base of operations reminded me of the Zoetrope building in San Francisco 40 years ago. The central idea was to break down the separation between tasks and to be as efficient and collaborative as possible. In other words, to operate more like a film-school crew. Zoetrope also has always embraced new technology – the classic ‘early adopter’ profile. Our crew in Buenos Aires was full of young, enthusiastic local film technicians and artists and on a number of occasions, rounding a corner, I felt like I was bumping into a 40-year-younger version of myself.”

 

A distinctive visual style

 

Initial Tetro reviews have commented on the striking visual style of the film. All modern day scenes are in 2.35 wide-screen black-and-white, while flashbacks appear in more classically-formatted 1.77 color. This is Coppola’s second digital film and it followed a similar workflow to that used on Youth Without Youth, shooting with two of the director’s own Sony F900 CineAlta HD cameras. As in the earlier film, the signals from both F900s were recorded onto one Sony SRW field recorder in the HDCAM-SR format. This deck recorded two simultaneous 4:2:2 video streams onto a single tape, which functioned as the “digital negative” for both the A and B cameras.

 

Simultaneously, another backup recording was made in the slightly more compressed 3:1:1 HDCAM format, using the onboard recorders of the Sony cameras. These HDCAM tapes provided safety backup as well as the working copies to be used for ingest by the editorial team. The HDCAM-SR masters, on the other hand, were set aside until the final assembly at the film’s digital intermediate finish at Deluxe.

 

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Did the fact that this was a largely black-and-white film impact Murch’s editing style? “Not as much as I would have thought,” Murch replied. “The footage was already desaturated before I started cutting, so I was always looking at black-and-white material. However, a few times when I’d match-frame a shot, the color version of the source media would pop up and then that was quite a shock! But the collision between color and black-and-white ultimately provoked the decision to frame the color material with black borders and in a different ‘squarer’ aspect ratio – 1.77 vs. 2.35.”

 

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Changes in the approach

 

Walter Murch continued to describe the post workflow, “It was similar to our methods in Romania on Youth Without Youth, although with a couple of major differences. Tetro was assembled and screened in 720p ProRes, instead of DV. We had done a ‘bake-off’ of different codecs to see which looked the best for screening without impacting the system’s responsiveness. We compared DVCPRO HD 720 and 1080 with ProRes 720 and 1080, as well as the HQ versions of ProRes. Since I was cutting on Final Cut Pro, we felt naturally drawn to the advantages of ProRes, and as it turned out for our purposes, the 720 version of ProRes seemed to give us the best quality balanced against rendering time. My cutting room also doubled as the screening room and, as we were using the Sim2 digital projector, I had the luxury of being able to cut and look at a 20-foot wide screen as I did so. Another change for me was that my son [Walter Slater Murch] was my first assistant editor. Sean Cullen, my assistant since 2000, was in Paris cutting a film for the first time as the primary editor. Ezequiel Borovinsky and Juan-Pablo Menchon from Buenos Aires rounded out the editorial department as second assistant and apprentice respectively.”

 

The RED camera has had all the buzz of late, so I asked Murch if Coppola had considered shooting the film with RED, instead of his own Sonys. Murch replied, “Francis is very happy with the look of his cameras, and of course, he owns them, so there’s also a budget consideration. Mihai [Malaimare, DP] brought in a RED for a few days when we needed to shoot with three cameras. The RED material integrated well with the Sony footage, but there is a significantly different workflow, because the RED is a tapeless camera. In the end, I would recommend shooting with one camera or the other if possible. A production shouldn’t mix up workflows unnecessarily.”

 

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Walter Murch discusses future technology

 

It’s hard to talk film with Walter Murch and not discuss trends, philosophy and technology. He’s been closely associated with a number of digital advances, so I wondered if he saw a competitor coming to challenge either Avid Media Composer or Apple Final Cut Pro for film editing. “It’s hard to see into the future more than about three years,” he answered. “Avid is an excellent system and studios and rental operations have capital investment in equipment, so for the foreseeable future, I think Avid and Final Cut will continue to be the two primary editing tools. Four years from now, who knows? I see more possibility for sooner changes in the area of sound editing and mixing. I’ve done some promising work with Apple’s Soundtrack Pro. The Nuendo-Euphonix combination is also very interesting; but, for Tetro it seemed best to stay compatible with what the sound team was familiar using. Also, [fellow re-recording mixer] Pete Horner and I mixed on the ICON and that’s designed to work with Pro Tools.”

 

Murch continued, “I’d really like to see some changes in how timelines are handled. I’ve used a Filemaker database for all of my notes now for more than twenty years, starting back when I was still cutting on film. I tweak the database a bit with each film as the needs change. Tetro was the first film where I was able to get the script supervisor – Anahid Nazarian in this case – to also use Filemaker. That was great, because all of the script and camera notes were incorporated into the same Filemaker database from the beginning. Thinking into the future, I’d love to see the Filemaker workshare approach applied to Final Cut Pro. If that were the case, the whole team – picture and sound editors and visual effects – could have access to the same sequence simultaneously. If I was working in one area of the timeline, for example, I could put a ‘virtual dike’ around the section I was editing. The others would not be able to access it for changes, but would see its status prior to my current changes. Once I was done and removed the ‘dike’ the changes would ripple through, the timeline would be updated and everyone could see and work with the new version.”

 

Stereoscopic 3D is all the rage now, but you may not know that Walter Murch also worked on one of the iconic 3D short films, Captain Eo, starring Michael Jackson. Francis Ford Coppola directed Eo for the Disney theme parks in 1986. It’s too early to tell whether the latest 3D trend will be sustained, but Murch offered his take. “3D certainly has excellent box office numbers right now, but there is still a fundamental perceptual problem with it: Through millions of years of evolution, our brains have been wired so that when we look at an object, the point where our eyes converge and where they focus is one and the same. But with 3D film we have to converge our eyes at the point of the illusion (say five feet in front of us) and simultaneously focus at the plane of the screen (perhaps sixty feet away). We can do this, obviously, but doing it continuously for two hours is one of the reasons why we get headaches watching 3D. If we can somehow solve this problem and if filmmakers use 3D in interesting ways that advance the story – and not just as gimmicks – then I think 3D has a very promising long-term future.”

 

Written for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)

 

© 2009 Oliver Peters

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No Country For Old Men – Coen Brothers

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The film buffs I know tend to have strong feelings one way or another about a Coen Brothers film. Most have quirky scripts and odd characters that endear audiences to these stories. Movies like Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? are a real treat for fans. After all, who would have ever thought that George Clooney would have dared to play Everett as he did in Oh Brother ? Ethan and Joel Coen form the unique writing, directing and editing team that brings these characters to life. More often than not, these films are played with a lot of comedy and a not-so-subtle wink to the audience, such as in the homage to the climax of The Wizard of Oz when our heroes in Oh Brother approach the Ku Klux Klan rally. Or the fact that the film itself is very loosely based on Homer’s epic poem, Odyssey – only transposed to the Deep South of the 1930s. Their newest release, No Country For Old Men takes a sharply different and darker turn. 

 

No Country For Old Men is a crime thriller. The story starts when small town loser  Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds a pick-up truck surrounded by a sentry of dead men with a load of heroin and $2 Million still in the back. It turns out that this is the scene of a drug deal gone bad, but Moss takes the money, setting off a series of twists and turns as he is pursued by the psychopathic and murderous mastermind (Javier Bardem). Toss in Tommy Lee Jones as the local Texas sheriff and Woody Harrelson as a bounty hunter and this makes for an interesting cinematic mix. This is a story that could have easily been handled with a humorous, maybe even slapstick touch, but the Coens have purposefully kept the story dark, choosing to faithfully adapt the film from a novel by Cormac McCarthy.

 

Making The Move To Digital Editing

 

Just as their approach to writing and directing is a bit unusual, so is their approach to editing. Joel and Ethan Coen have always edited their own films in a tag-team fashion, credited under the pseudonym of the fictitious Roderick Jaynes. Prior to Intolerable Cruelty, they used traditional film editing tools. Ethan would review and mark up takes on an upright Moviola and then hand these over to Joel who assembled the scenes on a KEM flatbed editing table. It’s a system that served them well until convinced to try digital nonlinear editing for the first time on Intolerable Cruelty. With assistance from Apple and the Coens’ post production supervisor, Dave Diliberto, a system was set up that closely mimicked their idiosyncratic workflow. This approach has since been expanded on the subsequent films.

 

In speaking with Joel and Ethan Coen, they cheerfully admitted to not being very computer-savvy, but have taken to Apple’s Final Cut Pro as a natural fit for their style. Ethan said, “We literally had to stop the trainers in the beginning and tell them to assume we knew nothing about computers, because even manipulating the interface with the mouse was totally new to us. Now it comes comfortably and we work in the same style as with the Moviola and the KEM.” In the original set-up, two Apple PowerMac G5s were networked together using standard Ethernet connections. Each brother would work with separate Final Cut Pro project files. As Ethan reviewed the takes and made shot selections, that project would be saved to a folder on his computer. When ready, Joel would be able to access that folder over the network and copy it to his machine, open the copy and proceed to assemble the timelines for scenes. Joel added, “Our method isn’t very high-tech, though. We work together on different systems in the same cutting room. The key to this workflow for us is the bell. We actually have a bellhop’s desk bell that Ethan will hit when he’s ready for me. I hear it ding and know there’s a file waiting for me. In the past, we used a grease pencil hanging on rubber bands from the ceiling, but now it’s the bell. That’s the key to our style!”

 

Thinking that maybe I should take the bell comment with a grain of salt, I picked up the conversation with Neil Stelzner, the associate editor on No Country For Old Men. Stelzner is the one covering the technical bases and shared a hand in cutting scenes on the latest film. Stelzner said, “No, they weren’t pulling your leg. They do actually work that way and they do use that bell. Joel and Ethan cut in the same room, right next to each other.  The bell is used to alert Joel when Ethan has selects he wants Joel to pick up.” Their cutting room layout has grown since the initial set-up used for Intolerable Cruelty,. With this film, the Coens made the move to two systems connected to an Apple Xserve server using the Apple Xsan shared storage network. In the past, they were moving DV media across Ethernet between the computers, but in this more recent approach, common shared media files are accessible to both workstations courtesy of Xsan. Joel and Ethan still work off of individual versions of the projects, so when Ethan saves his file and closes it, Joel is able to access it from the server and assemble sequences. 

 

The Production and Post Workflow

 

No Country For Old Men was shot on 35mm film by director of photography, Roger Deakins, a long time Coen Brothers collaborator. Dailies were processed at Deluxe and transferred to HDCAM at Laser Pacific, as well as to DVCPRO HD files stored on FireWire drives. These drives were sent to the cutting room so the media could be copied to the Xsan storage. While Intolerable Cruelty was cut at DV resolution, this latest round took advantage of the better resolution of DVCPRO HD. Laser Pacific also transferred the dailies to D-VHS tapes. In this format compressed HD video is stored on VHS-sized cassettes with a signal quality comparable to high definition, digital broadcast television. These tapes were sent to the set for the production company to review dailies in a high-quality and easily-transported format. When it came time for audience preview screenings, DVCPRO HD QuickTime files were exported from the Final Cut Pro systems (complete with the temp mix of the film) and sent to Postworks New York, who in turn output these files to HDCAM masters for projection. Once the cut was locked, first assistant editor Katie McQuerrey generated edit decision lists (EDLs) and QuickTime picture-reference files that were sent to EFILM. There the original negative was scanned, conformed to the cut, digitally color-corrected and recorded out to film.

 

The Coens and Stelzner are already in the thick of things with the next film, Burn After Reading. Here the approach has evolved yet a step further. Shot on 35mm film, the dailies are transferred at Technicolor New York to HD and also ingested to hard drives using the new Apple ProRes 4:2:2 compressed HD codec. This QuickTime codec offers improved image resolution over DVCPRO HD, yet maintains a file size that isn’t too much bigger than uncompressed, standard definition video. The ProRes files are then loaded into Xsan. According to Stelzner, “We are also using a beta version of Apple’s new Final Cut Server application. It has a lot of search features that aren’t necessary for Ethan’s and Joel’s workflow, but it aids us in automatically creating lower-resolution proxy files of the dailies. These have smaller file sizes, but pretty good image quality, so the aim is to make it possible to securely download dailies and rough cuts using aspects of Final Cut Server. We cut in ProRes, but the proxy files can be reviewed by others on the network.” 

 

Future Tools

 

The Coen Brothers and Apple have a good working relationship. Apple consultants helped translate their unusual workflow into the digital world. In turn, Ethan and Joel have appeared in Apple web videos promoting Color, the color-grading application included in the Final Cut Studio 2 software suite, which was launched at NAB 2007. This was a natural choice, since Oh Brother, Where Art Though? brought digital film grading into the mainstream. Director of photography Roger Deakins made extensive use of electronic film timing (the hallmark of DI) to nail the look in that film in post. Apple hadn’t released Color until after No Country For Old Men wrapped, but, I was curious whether it would play a roll in future Coen projects. According to Ethan, “We really leave the final look to our director of photography, Roger Deakins, working with Michael Hatzer, our colorist at EFILM. So, to date, [Apple] Color hasn’t played a role for us as we cut. It has a lot of potential and we feel that Color may play a role in the future as another tool on the set. DPs and directors could use it to experiment and decide on different looks to be achieved later in post.”

 

Although they seem to be adapting well to digital technology, Joel and Ethan Coen couldn’t resist closing our chat on an impish note, “Computers are almost too perfect. One of the real fun parts of old-school film editing was to search through the bottom of the trim bin to find that one or two-frame clip you’d trimmed off but needed to add back. We miss that sort of unpredictability with nonlinear digital editing. We’d love it if there were something like that in the software and have talked to Apple about programming some sort of randomness into the application to make it feel more like the old days. Fortunately for others, I suppose, they simply tell us – quite politely – that they can’t do that!”

 

Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)

Interview with Charlie Bartlett director, Jon Poll

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When you think of teen comedies and coming-of-age stories, classics like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Risky Business might come to mind, but there haven’t been many recent films that are held in the same regard. Charlie Bartlett, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival might change that. It has been picked up by MGM and is slated for a summer release. The film has been characterized as a teen comedy that is funny, smart and warm and has been likened to Harold and Maude. It stars Anton Yelchin (Charlie Bartlett) as an awkward high school student who has been kicked out of his prep school for making fake IDs. He now has to fit into his local public school and it’s probably the last chance. Charlie masters the system and soars to popularity by first counseling his peers – as the school “therapist” – and then by selling them the drugs that his psychiatrist prescribes for him. Through the course of the film, Charlie learns that this isn’t always the right path to solve problems and that while trying to help others he had better help himself. The cast also includes Robert Downey, Jr. as the disenchanted principal, Hope Davis as Charlie’s mom and Kat Dennings – Charlie’s girlfriend, who also happens to be the principal’s daughter.

 

What also makes Charlie Bartlett unusual is that the story is brought to life by director Jon Poll, who has spent the last two decades as an editor on such hits as Meet the Fockers, Austin Powers in Goldmember, Meet the Parents and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me to name a few. Although Poll has produced and directed second unit, this is the first time he’s helmed such a large and visible project. As Poll’s first big film, I was curious what steps he took to get this project made. Jon explained, “I had worked on twenty films as an editor, one as a co-producer and second unit director [Meet the Fockers] and one as an executive producer [40 Year Old Virgin].  I felt like I was ready to direct a film and spent a year looking for the right script. Jay Roach – for whom I’d edited five films – gave me Gustin Nash’s Charlie Bartlett script to read. I laughed out loud and was moved when I read it and knew this one was right, so Jay, David Permut, Barron Kidd and I brought it to the studios. Everyone thought we were nuts, trying to make a teen comedy that involved drugs, so needless to say we received a lot of rejections. We finally connected with Bill Horberg at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment who also believed in this script. Usually they partner with another company or studio to produce a film, but because of the subject matter, they became the sole production company, since no one else would touch it. It was hard work to get to this point, but I wanted to make a well-crafted, entertaining film that was smart and still had an edge to it.”

 

From Editor To Director

 

Many editors dream of directing one day, but never take the plunge, so I wondered if Jon had always been a “frustrated director” during his years in the cutting room. Jon laughed at my comment and responded, “No, I was never a frustrated director. I was actually quite happy! I’ve always viewed myself as a filmmaker, whether I worked as an editor or on second unit or as a producer. I knew I wanted to direct when I was in school at USC. I’ve always enjoyed editing and now the right time came along for me to make the move into directing. I feel that I am a better director now than I would have been at 25 because of that and I made a better movie as a result.” And how was it directing a cast with such notables as Robert Downey, Jr.? “At first I was terrified of the thought of directing Downey,” Poll explained. “He’s an Oscar-caliber actor, and of course, because of his own struggles, the irony of having him play this role wasn’t lost on anyone, including himself. Fortunately, I found that not only was he very giving and totally together as an actor and a person, but that he completely embraced the concept of the movie. As an editor I’ve spent twenty years in dark cutting rooms talking to actors on the screen who couldn’t hear me. You are always wishing for something slightly different in the next take, but have no control over that. Now I’m lucky to actually be able to talk to them and ask for what I want!”

 

When it came to editing Charlie Bartlett, Jon Poll tapped friend and fellow editor Alan Baumgarten. Both had worked in a team that also included Lee Haxall to edit Meet The Fockers. “On Meet The Fockers, my time was split into thirds with cutting, being on stage and working second unit. It took three editors to finish that film and I was happy to share credit with Alan and Lee.” Poll continued, “Alan is a friend and we’ve worked together over the years so I was happy to bring him on board. Even though I’m an editor myself, I think it’s better to have other editors challenge the way you see the film. I often hear of directors who have successfully edited their own projects, but you have to wonder how might that film have been different with another editor on the project. It brings a different perspective and is the smartest way to make movies, so I was never tempted to just edit it myself. We had a small editorial team that also included Catherine Haight [first assistant editor] and Andy Jurgensen [post production coordinator] in addition to Alan. Catherine also cut some of the scenes for us and Andy started as our post production assistant and moved up to post production coordinator. He’s a sharp, young guy and having him on board saved us the cost of a full-blown post production supervisor.” 

 

Keeping The Schedule

 

The post production phase followed a typical feature film schedule. Editing started out in Toronto during filming and moved to Los Angeles after the wrap. The editor’s cut was finished about two weeks after principal photography was completed and then Poll and Baumgarten took ten weeks to finish the director’s cut. The story stuck to the original script, but a plot device involving video interviews throughout the film, including the open and close, was dropped early on. After two successful “friends and family” screenings Sidney Kimmel Entertainment let Poll add two more days of photography for a new open and close. The first screened version was about an hour and fifty minutes in length, but through the usual tightening that occurs as a film is massaged into its final version, the finished length became one hour and thirty-seven minutes. Post was completed in April of this year with an audio mix at Warner Brothers at the hands of re-recording mixers Doug Hemphill and Ron Bartlett.

 

Charlie Bartlett’s $12 million budget might seem like a lot of money, but it’s a tight squeeze for an indie film at this level. Film stock is one example. Poll pointed out, “I’m glad to say I came in under budget and on schedule. We shot 500,000 feet of film. They had originally budgeted only 250,000 and I was told ‘you’re an editor, so you’ll only shoot what you need’. Of course, being an editor, I wanted to make sure I covered all the options. We filmed for 38 days and 18 to 20 of these were with two cameras. I approached everything as a trade off for things that would put more value up on the screen. For example, the negative was transferred to standard definition videotape and we didn’t use any HD or filmed dailies. I did print a few takes. This is routine just to make sure the look is right, but after that, all of our dailies were on video for the rest of the shooting days. The friends and family screenings were done as standard definition projection from a high-res Avid output. All straight out of the Avid, including our audio mix. I didn’t want to waste time and money by having the audio department create a temp mix just for screenings.” 

 

This philosophy carried over to the finish as well. “We did a traditional film finish with cut negative and color-timed prints instead of a digital intermediate. Doing a DI would have cost me too much money. The cheapest DI on a feature from scanned negative in Los Angeles is going to cost at least $125,000. In our case, cutting the negative and running prints will look just as good. From a technical standpoint, this is a performance-driven film without the type of content that would benefit from a DI. There are only about fifty to sixty effects shots that are invisible effects, like locked off split screens, and these don’t cost very much.”

 

As we wrapped the interview I asked Poll for any advice he might offer newcomers to the business. Jon recommended, “Always work harder than anyone else. Always care more than anyone else. Go with your gut. I’ve always had an assistant editor working with me and I always let them cut some scenes. I always show them what I do so they understand the thought process. The technology will change. We’ve moved from film to nonlinear editing and that’s been a huge difference, but the choices you make have to be what’s best for the film and not driven by the technology.”

 

Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)