Focus

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Every once in awhile a movie comes along that has the potential to change how we in the film and video world work. Focus is one such movie. It’s a romantic caper film in the vein of To Catch a Thief or the Oceans franchise. It stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie as master and novice con artists who become romantically involved. Focus was written and directed by the veteran team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love) who decided to use some innovative, new approaches in this production.

Focus is a high-budget, studio picture shot in several cities, including New Orleans and Buenos Aires. It also happens to be the first studio feature film that was cut using Apple’s Final Cut Pro X. The production chose to shoot with ARRI Alexa cameras, but record to ProRes 4444, instead of ARRIRAW (except for some VFX shots). At its launch in 2011, Final Cut Pro X had received a negative reaction from many veteran editors, so this was a tough sell to Warner Bros execs. In order to get over that hurdle, the editorial team went through extensive testing of all of the typical processes involved in feature film post production. They had to prove that the tool was more than up to the task.

Proving the concept

df1515_focus_5_smMike Matzdorff, first assistant editor, explains, “Warner Bros wanted to make sure that there was a fallback if everything blew up. That ‘Plan B’ was to step back and cut in either [Apple] FCP 7 or [Avid] Media Composer. Getting projects from Final Cut Pro X into Media Composer was very clunky, because of all the steps – getting to FCP 7 and then Automatic Duck to Avid. Getting to FCP 7 was relatively solid, so we ran a ‘chase project’ in FCP 7 with dailies for the entire show. Every couple days we would import an XML and relink the media. Fortunately FCP X worked well and ‘Plan B’ was never needed.”

df1515_focus_8_smGlenn Ficarra adds, “The industry changes so quickly that it’s hard to follow the progress. The studio was going off of old information and once they saw that our approach would work and also save time and money, then they were completely onboard with our choice.” The editorial team also consulted with Sam Mestman of FCPworks to determine what software, other than FCP X, was required to satisfy all of the elements associated with post on a feature film.

df1515_focus_4_smThis was a new experience for editor Jan Kovac (Curb Your Enthusiasm), as Focus is his first Hollywood feature film. Kovac studied film in the Czech Republic and then editing at UCLA. He’s been in the LA post world for 20 years, which is where he met Ficarra and Requa. Kovac was ready to be part of the team and accept the challenge of using Final Cut Pro X on a studio feature. He explains, “I was eager to work with John and Glenn and prove that FCP X is a viable option. In fact, I was using FCP X for small file-based projects since the fall of 2012.”

Production and post on the go

df1515_focus_1_smFocus was shot in 61 days across two continents, during a three-month period. Kovac and three assistants (Mike Matzdorff, Andrew Wallace, Kimaree Long) worked from before principal photography started until the sound mix and final delivery of the feature – roughly from September 2013 until August 2014. The production shot 145 hours of footage, much of it multicam. Focus was shot in an anamorphic format as 2048 x 1536 ProRes 4444 files recorded directly to the Alexa’s onboard cards. On set the DIT used the Light Iron Outpost mobile system to process the files, by de-squeezing them and baking in CDL color information. The editors then received 2048 x 1152 color-corrected ProRes 4444 “dailies”, which were still encoded with a Log-C gamma profile. FCP X has the ability to internally add a Log-C LUT on-the-fly to correct the displayed image. Therefore, during the edit, the clips always looked close the final appearance. Ficarra says, “This was great, because when we went through the DI for the final grading, the look was very close to what was decided on set. You didn’t see something radically different in the edit, so you didn’t develop ‘temp love’ for a certain look”.

df1515_focus_6_smA number of third-party developers have created utilities that fill in gaps and one of these is Intelligent Assistance, which makes various workflow tools based on XML. The editors used a number of these, including Sync-N-Link X, which enabled them to sync double-system sound with common timecode in a matter of minutes instead of hours. (Only a little use of Sync-N-Link X was made on Focus, because the DIT was using the Light Iron system to sync dailies.) Script data can also be added to Final Cut Pro X clips as notes. On Focus, that had to be done manually by the assistants. This need to automate the process spurred Kevin Bailey (Kovac’s assistant on his current film) to develop Shot Notes X, an application that takes the script supervisor’s information and merges it with FCP X Events to add this metadata into the notes field.

During the months of post, Apple released several updates to Final Cut Pro X and the team was not shy about upgrading mid-project. Matzdorff explains, “The transition to 10.1 integrated Events and Projects into Libraries. To make sure there weren’t any hiccups, I maintained an additional FCP X ‘chase project’.  I ran an alternate world between 10.0.9 and 10.1. We had 52 days of dailies in one Library and I would bring cuts across to see how they linked up and what happened. The transition was a rough one, but we learned a lot, which really helped down the line.”

Managing the media

df1515_focus_2_smFinal Cut Pro X has the unique ability to internally transcode quarter-sized editorial proxy files in the ProRes Proxy format. The editor can easily toggle between original footage and editorial proxies and FCP X takes care of the math to make sure color, effects and sizing information tracks correctly between modes. Throughout the editing period, Kovac, Ficarro, and the assistants used both proxies and the de-sequeezed camera files as their source. According to Kovac, “In Buenos Aires I was working from a MacBook Pro laptop using the proxies. For security reasons, I would lock up the footage in a safe. By using proxies, which take up less drive space, a much smaller hard drive was required and that easily fit into the safe.”

df1515_focus_3_smBack at their home base in LA, four rooms were set up connected to XSAN shared storage. These systems included iMacs and a Mac Pro (“tube” version). All camera media and common source clips. like sound effects libraries. lived on the XSAN, while each workstation had a small SSD RAID for proxies and local FCP X Libraries. The XSAN included a single transfer Library so that edits could be moved among the rooms. Kovac and Ficarra shared roles as co-editors at this stage, collaborating on each other’s scenes. Kovac says, “This was very fluid going back and forth between Glenn and me. The process was a lot like sharing sequences with FCP 7. It’s always good to keep perspective, so each of us would review the other’s edited scenes and offer notes.” The other two systems was used by the assistants. Kovac continues, “The Libraries were broken down by reel and all iterations of sharing were used, including the XSAN or sneaker net.”

Setting up a film edit in FCP X

df1515_focus_9_smAs with any film, the key is organization and translating the script into a final product. Kovac explains his process with FCP X, “The assistants would group the multicam clips and ‘reject’ the clip ranges before ‘action’ and after ‘cut’. This hides any extraneous material so you only have to sort through useable clips. We used a separate Event for each scene. With Sam and Mike, we worked out a process to review clips based on line readings. The dialogue lines in the script were numbered and the assistants would place a marker and a range for every three lines of dialogue. These were assigned keywords, so that each triplet of dialogue lines would end up in a Keyword Collection. Within a scene Event, I would have Keyword Collections for L1-3, L4-6, and so on. I would also create Smart Collections for certain criteria – for instance, a certain type of shot or anything else I might designate.”

Everyone involved felt that FCP X made the edit go faster, but it still takes time to be creative. Ficarra continues, “The first assembly of the film according to the script was about three hours long. I call this the ‘kitchen sink’ cut. The first screening cut was about two-and-a-half hours. We had removed some scenes and lengthened others and showed it to a ‘friends and family’ audience. It actually didn’t play as well as we’d hoped. Then we added these scenes back in and shortened everything, which went over much better. We had intentionally shot alternate versions of scenes just to play around with them in the edit. FCP X is a great tool for that, because you can easily edit a number of iterations.”

Engineered for speed

df1515_focus_10_smWhile many veteran editors experienced in other systems might scoff at the claims that FCP X is a faster editor, Mike Matzdorff was willing to put a finer point on that for me. He says, “I find that because of the magnetic timeline, trimming is a lot faster. If you label roles extensively, it’s easier to sort out temporary from final elements or organize sound sources when you hand off audio for sound post. With multi-channel audio in an Avid, for example, you generally sync the clips using only the composite mix. That way you aren’t tying up a lot of tracks on the timeline for all of the source channels. If you have to replace a line with a clean isolated mic, you have to dig it out and make the edit. With FCP X, all of the audio channels are there and neatly tucked away until you need them. It’s a simple matter of expanding a clip and picking a different channel. That alone is a major improvement.”

Ficarra and Kovac are in complete agreement. Ficarra points out, “As an editor, I’m twice as fast on FCP X as on Avid. There’s less clicking. This is the only NLE that’s not trying to emulate some other model, like cutting on a flatbed. You are able to move faster on your impulses.” Kovac adds, “It keeps you in the zone.”

The final DI was handled by Light Iron, who conformed and graded Focus. The handoff was made using an EDL and an FCPXML, along with a QuickTime picture reference. Light Iron relinked to the original anamorphic camera masters and graded using a Quantel Rio unit.

Filling in the workflow gaps

A number of developers contributed to the success of FCP X on Focus. Having a tight relationship with the editing team let them tailor their solutions to the needs of the production. One of these developers, Philip Hodgetts (President, Intelligent Assistance) says, “One of the nice things about being a small software developer is that we can react to customer needs very quickly. During the production of Focus we received feature requests for all the tools we were providing – Sync-N-Link X, Change List X and Producer’s Best Friend. For example, Sync-N-Link X gained the ability to create multicam clips, in addition to synchronizing audio and video, as a result of a feature request from first assistant Mike Matzdorff.” This extended to Apple’s ProApps team, who also kept a close and helpful watch on the progress of Focus.

df1515_focus_11_smFor every film that challenges convention, a lot of curiosity is raised about the process. Industry insiders refer to the “Cold Mountain moment” – alluding to the use of FCP 3 by editor Walter Murch on the film, Cold Mountain. That milestone added high-end legitimacy for the earlier Final Cut among professional users. Gone Girl did that for Adobe Premiere Pro and now Focus has done that for a new Final Cut. But times are different and it’s hard to say what the true impact will be. Nevertheless, Focus provided the confidence for the team to continue on their next film in the same manner, tapping Final Cut Pro X once again. Change can be both scary and exciting, but as Glenn Ficarra says, “We like to shake things up. It’s fun to see the bemused comments wondering how we could ever pull it off with something like FCP X!”

For those that want to know more about the nuts and bolts of the post production workflow, Mike Matzdorff released “Final Cut Pro X: Pro Workflow”, an e-book that’s a step-by-step advanced guide based on the lessons learned on Focus. It’s available through iTunes and Kindle.

For some additional reading on the post production workflow of Focus, check out this Apple “in action” story, as well as Part 1 and Part 2 of FCP.co’s very in-depth coverage of how the team got it done. For a very in-depth understanding, make sure you watch the videos at PostPerspective.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

df0615_panthers_3_smDocumentaries covering subject matter that happens within a generation usually divides the audience between those who personally lived through the time period and those who’ve only read about it in history books. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is one such film. If you are over 50, you are aware of the media coverage of the Black Panther Party and certainly have opinions and possibly misconceptions of who they were. If you are under 50, then you may have learned about them in history class, if which case, you may only know them by myth and legend. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson (The American Experience, Freedom Summer, Wounded Knee, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple) seeks to go beyond what you think you know with this new Sundance Film Festival documentary entry.

I spoke with the film’s editor, Aljernon Tunsil, as he was putting the finishing touches on the film to get it ready for Sundance presentation. Tunsil has worked his way up from assistant editor to editor and discussed the evolution in roles. “I started in a production company office, initially helping the assistant editor,” he says. “Over a period of seven or eight years, I worked my way up from assistant to a full-time editor. Along the way, I’ve had a number of mentors and learned to cut on both [Apple] Final Cut Pro and [Avid] Media Composer. These mentors were instrumental in my learning how to tell a story. I worked on a short with Stanley [Nelson] and that started our relationship of working together on films. I view my role as the ‘first audience’ for the film. The producer or director knows the story they want to make, but the editor helps to make sense of it for someone who doesn’t intimately know the material. My key job is to make sure that the narrative makes senses and that no one gets lost.”

df0615_panthers_2_smThe Black Panthers is told through a series of interviews (about 40 total subjects). Although a few notables, like Kathleen Cleaver, are featured, the chronicle of the rise and fall of the Panthers is largely told by lesser known party members, as well as FBI informants and police officers active in the events. The total post-production period took about 40 to 50 weeks. Tunsil explains, “Firelight Films (the production company) is very good at researching characters and finding old subjects for the interviews. They supplied me with a couple of hundred hours of footage. That’s a challenge to organize so that you know what you have. My process is to first watch all of that with the filmmakers and then to assemble the best of the interviews and best of the archival footage. Typically it takes six to ten weeks to get there and then another four to six weeks to get to a rough cut.”

Tunsil continues, “The typical working arrangement with Stanley is that he’ll take a day to review any changes I’ve made and then give me notes for any adjustments. As we were putting the film together, Stanley was still recording more interviews to fill in the gaps – trying to tie the story together without the need for a narrator. After that, it’s the usual process of streamlining the film. We could have made a ten-hour film, but, of course, not all of the stories would fit into the final two-hour version.”

df0615_panthers_5_smLike many documentary film editors, Tunsil prefers having interview transcripts, but acknowledged they don’t tell the whole story. He says, “One example is in the interview with former Panther member Wayne Pharr. He describes the police raid on the LA headquarters of the party and the ensuing shootout. When asked how he felt, he talks about his feeling of freedom, even though the event surrounding him was horrific. That feeling clearly comes across in the emotion on his face, which transcends the mere words in the transcript. You get to hear the story from the heart – not just the facts. Stories are what makes a documentary like this.”

As with many films about the 1960s and 1970s, The Black Panthers weaves into its fabric the music of the era. Tunsil says, “About 60% of the film was composed by Tom Phillips, but we also had about seven or eight period songs, like ‘Express Yourself’, which we used under [former Panther member] Bobby Seale’s run for mayor of Oakland. I used other pieces from Tom’s library as temp music, which we then gave to him for the feel. He’d compose something similar – or different, but in a better direction.”

df0615_panthers_6_smTunsil is a fervent Avid Media Composer editor, which he used for The Black Panthers. He explains, “I worked with Rebecca Sherwood as my associate editor and we were both using Media Composer version 7. We used a Facilis Terrablock for shared storage, but this was primarily used to transfer media between us, as we both had our own external drives with a mirrored set of media files. All the media was at the DNxHD 175 resolution. I like Avid’s special features such as PhraseFind, but overall, I feel that Media Composer is just better at letting me organize material than is Final Cut. I love Avid as an editing system, because it’s the most stable and makes the work easy. Editing is best when there’s a rhythm to the workflow and Media Composer is good for that. As for the stills, I did temporary moves with the Avid pan-and-zoom plug-in, but did the final moves in [Adobe] After Effects.”

df0615_panthers_1_smFor a documentary editor, part of the experience are the things you personally learn. Tunsil reflects, “I like the way Stanley and Firelight handle these stories. They don’t just tell it from the standpoint of the giants of history, but more from the point-of-view of the rank-and-file people. He’s trying to show the full dimension of the Panthers instead of the myth and iconography. It’s telling the history of the real people, which humanizes them. That’s a more down-to-earth, honest experience. For instance, I never knew that they had a communal living arrangement. By having the average members tell their stories, it makes it so much richer. Another example is the Fred Hampton story. He was the leader of the Chicago chapter of the party who was killed in a police shootout; but, there was no evidence of gunfire from inside the building that he was in. That’s a powerful scene, which resonates. One part of the film that I think is particularly well done is the explanation of how the party declined due to a split between Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. This was in part as a result of an internal misinformation campaign instigated by the FBI within the Panthers.”

df0615_panthers_4_smThroughout the process, the filmmakers ran a number of test screenings with diverse audiences, including industry professionals and non-professionals, people who knew the history and people who didn’t. Results from these screenings enabled Nelson and Tunsil to refine the film. To complete the film’s finishing, Firelight used New York editorial facility Framerunner. Tunsil continues, “Framerunner is doing the online using an Avid Symphony. To get ready, we simply consolidated the media to a single drive and then brought it there. They are handling all color correction, improving moves on stills and up-converting the standard definition archival footage.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Adobe Anywhere and Divine Access

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Editors like the integration of Adobe’s software, especially Dynamic Link and Direct Link between creative applications. This sort of approach is applied to collaborative workflows with Adobe Anywhere, which permits multiple stakeholders, including editors, producers and directors, to access common media and productions from multiple, remote locations. One company that has invested in the Adobe Anywhere environment is G-Men Media of Venice, California, who installed it as their post production hub. By using Adobe Anywhere, Jeff Way (COO) and Clay Glendenning (CEO) sought to improve the efficiency of the filmmaking process for their productions. No science project – they have now tested the concept in the real world on several indie feature films.

Their latest film, Divine Access, produced by The Traveling Picture Show Company in association with G-Men Media, is a religious satire centering on reluctant prophet Jack Harriman. Forces both natural and supernatural lead Harriman down a road to redemption culminating in a final showdown with his long time foe, Reverend Guy Roy Davis. Steven Chester Prince (Boyhood, The Ringer, A Scanner Darkly) moves behind the camera as the film’s director. The entire film was shot in Austin, Texas during May of 2014, but the processing of dailies and all post production was handled back at the Venice facility. Way explains, “During principal photography we were able to utilize our Anywhere system to turn around dailies and rough cuts within hours after shooting. This reduced our turnaround time for review and approval, thus reducing budget line items. Using Anywhere enabled us to identify cuts and mark them as viable the same day, reducing the need for expensive pickup shoots later down the line.”

The production workflow

df0115_da_3_smDirector of Photography Julie Kirkwood (Hello I Must Be Going, Collaborator, Trek Nation) picked the ARRI ALEXA for this film and scenes were recorded as ProRes 4444 in 2K. An on-set data wrangler would back up the media to local hard drives and then a runner would take the media to a downtown upload site. The production company found an Austin location with 1GB upload speeds. This enabled them to upload 200GB of data in about 45 minutes. Most days only 50-80GB were uploaded at one time, since uploads happened several times throughout each day.

Way says, “We implemented a technical pipeline for the film that allowed us to remain flexible.  Adobe’s open API platform made this possible. During production we used an Amazon S3 instance in conjunction with Aspera to get the footage securely to our system and also act as a cloud back-up.” By uploading to Amazon and then downloading the media into their Anywhere system in Venice, G-Men now had secure, full-resolution media in redundant locations. Camera LUTs were also sent with the camera files, which could be added to the media for editorial purposes in Venice. Amazon will also provide a long-term archive of the 8TB of raw media for additional protection and redundancy. This Anywhere/Amazon/Aspera pipeline was supervised by software developer Matt Smith.

df0115_da_5_smBack in Venice, the download and ingest into the Anywhere server and storage was an automated process that Smith programmed. Glendenning explains, “It would automatically populate a bin named for that day with the incoming assets. Wells [Phinny, G-Men editorial assistant] would be able to grab from subfolders named ‘video’ and ‘audio’ to quickly organize clips into scene subfolders within the Anywhere production that he would create from that day’s callsheet. Wells did most of this work remotely from his home office a few miles away from the G-Men headquarters.” Footage was synced and logged for on-set review of dailies and on-set cuts the next day. Phinny effectively functioned as a remote DIT in a unique way.

Remote access in Austin to the Adobe Anywhere production for review was made possible through an iPad application. Way explains, “We had close contact with Wells via text message, phone and e-mail. The iPad access to Anywhere used a secure VPN connection over the Internet. We found that a 4G wireless data connection was sufficient to play the clips and cuts. On scenes where the director had concerns that there might not be enough coverage, the process enabled us to quickly see something. No time was lost to transcoding media or to exporting a viewable copy, which would be typical of the more traditional way of working.”

Creative editorial mixing Adobe Anywhere and Avid Media Composer

df0115_da_4_smOnce principal photography was completed, editing moved into the G-Men mothership. Instead of editing with Premiere Pro, however, Avid Media Composer was used. According to Way, “Our goal was to utilize the Anywhere system throughout as much of the production as possible. Although it would have been nice to use Premiere Pro for the creative edit, we believed going with an editor that shared our director’s creative vision was the best for the film. Kindra Marra [Scenic Route, Sassy Pants, Hick] preferred to cut in Media Composer. This gave us the opportunity to test how the system could adapt already existing Adobe productions.” G-Men has handled post on other productions where the editor worked remotely with an Anywhere production. In this case, since Marra lived close-by in Santa Monica, it was simpler just to set up the cutting room at their Venice facility. At the start of this phase, assistant editor Justin (J.T.) Billings joined the team.

Avid has added subscription pricing, so G-Men installed the Divine Access cutting room using a Mac Pro and “renting” the Media Composer 8 software for a few months. The Anywhere servers are integrated with a Facilis Technology TerraBlock shared storage network, which is compatible with most editing applications, including both Premiere Pro and Media Composer. The Mac Pro tower was wired into the TerraBlock SAN and was able to see the same ALEXA ProRes media as Anywhere. According to Billings, “Once all the media was on the TerraBlock drives, Marra was able to access these in the Media Composer project using Avid’s AMA-linking. This worked well and meant that no media had to be duplicated. The film was cut solely with AMA-linked media. External drives were also connected to the workstations for nightly back-ups as another layer of protection.”

Adobe Anywhere at the finish line

df0115_da_6_smOnce the cut was locked, an AAF composition for the edited sequence was sent from Media Composer to DaVinci Resolve 11, which was installed on an HP workstation at G-Men. This unit was also connected to the TerraBlock storage, so media instantly linked when the AAF file was imported. Freelance colorist Mark Todd Osborne graded the film on Resolve 11 and then exported a new AAF file corresponding to the rendered media, which now also existed on the SAN drives. This AAF composition was then re-imported into Media Composer.

Billings continues, “All of the original audio elements existed in the Media Composer project and there was no reason to bring them into Premiere Pro. By importing Resolve’s AAF back into Media Composer, we could then double-check the final timeline with audio and color corrected picture. From here, the audio and OMF files were exported for Pro Tools [sound editorial and the mix is being done out-of-house]. Reference video of the film for the mix could now use the graded images. A new AAF file for the graded timeline was also exported from Media Composer, which then went back into Premiere Pro and the Anywhere production. Once we get the mixed tracks back, these will be added to the Premiere Pro timeline. Final visual effects shots can also be loaded into Anywhere and then inserted into the Premiere Pro sequence. From here on, all further versions of Divine Access will be exported from Premiere Pro and Anywhere.”

Glendenning points out that, “To make sure the process went smoothly, we did have a veteran post production supervisor – Hank Braxtan – double check our workflow.  He and I have done a lot of work together over the years and has more than a decade of experience overseeing an Avid house. We made sure he was available whenever there were Avid-related technical questions from the editors.”

Way says, “Previously, on post production of [the indie film] Savageland, we were able to utilize Anywhere for full post production through to delivery. Divine Access has allowed us to take advantage of our system on both sides of the creative edit including principal photography and post finishing through to delivery. This gives us capabilities through entire productions. We have a strong mix of Apple and PC hardware and now we’ve proven that our Anywhere implementation is adaptable to a variety of different hardware and software configurations. Now it becomes a non-issue whether it’s Adobe, Avid or Resolve. It’s whatever the creative needs dictate; plus, we are happy to be able to use the fastest machines.”

Glendenning concludes, “Tight budget projects have tight deadlines and some producers have missed their deadlines because of post. We installed Adobe Anywhere and set up the ecosystem surrounding it because we feel this is a better way that can save time and money. I believe the strategy employed for Divine Access has been a great improvement over the usual methods. Using Adobe Anywhere really let us hit it out of the park.”

Originally written for DV magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters

Birdman

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

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

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

It starts with preparation

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

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

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

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

Score and syncopation

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

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

The invisible art

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

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

Winking at the audience

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork

©2014, 2015 Oliver Peters

Gone Girl

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

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

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

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

It all starts with dailies

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

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

Telling the story

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

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

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

Music that builds tension

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

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

Visual effects

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

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

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

Optimization and finishing

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

_________________________________

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

Adobe panel discussion with the post team

PostPerspective

FxGuide

HDVideoPro

IndieWire

IndieWire blog

ICG Magazine

RedUser

Tony Zhou’s Vimeo take on Fincher 

©2014 Oliver Peters

The Zero Theorem

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

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

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

The long path to production

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

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

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

Making a cinematic story

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

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

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

Cutting style 

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written for DV magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Cold In July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine/CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters