A Conversation with Thomas Grove Carter

The NAB Show is a great place to see the next level of media hardware and software. Even better, it’s also a great place to meet old friends, make new ones, and pick up the tips and tricks of your craft through the numerous tutorials, seminars, and off-site events that accompany the show.

This year I had the chance to interview Thomas Grove Carter, an editor at Trim Editing, which is a London-based creative editorial shop. He appeared at several sessions to present his techniques for maximizing the power of Final Cut Pro X. These sessions were moderated by Apple and FCPWORKS.

Thomas Grove Carter has a number of high-profile projects on his reel, including work for Honda, Game of Thrones, Audi, and numerous music artists. Carter is a familiar name in the Final Cut Pro X editing community. He first came to prominence with Honda’s “The Other Side” long-form web commercial. In it, Carter juxtaposes parallel day and night driving scenarios covering the main actor – dad by day, undercover police officer by night. On the interactive website, you can toggle in-sync between the two versions. Thanks to FCPX’s way of connecting clips and the nature of its magnetic timeline, Carter could use this then-young application to build the commercial, as well as preview the interactivity for the client – all on a very tight deadline.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Carter in a semi-quiet corner of the NAB Press Room shortly after his Post Production World keynote session on Sunday evening.

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[Oliver Peters]: We first started hearing your name when Honda’s “The Other Side” long-form commercial hit the web. That fit ideally with Final Cut Pro X’s unique ability to connect clips above and below the primary storyline on the timeline. Was that something you came up with intuitively?

[Thomas Grove Carter]: I knew that Final Cut Pro X was going to be good for this interactive piece. As you’re playing back in FCPX you can enable and disable layers. This meant I could actually do a rough preview of what it’s going to look like. I knew that I was going to have these two layers of video, but I didn’t exactly know what it was going to be until the edit, so I started to assemble each story separately. Then at some point, once I had each narrative roughly built, I put them both together on the same timeline and started adding the sound. From then on I was able to play it ‘interactively’ right inside FCPX.  Back then, I split the day and night audio above and below the primary storyline. Today though, I’d probably assign a role for the day and a role for all of the night. Because, you can’t add audio-only above the primary storyline anymore. So that’s what I’d do to divide it out. All the audio and video still connects in exactly the same way – it just looks slightly different. Another great advantage of doing this in X was clip connections. For any given shot, there was the day and night version, and then, all the audio for the day and all the audio for the night. Just by grabbing the one clip in the primary and moving it or trimming it – everything for day and night – picture and audio – both would move together.

[OP]: Tell me a bit about your relationship with Trim Editing.

[TGC]: There are three partners, who are the most senior three editors. Then there are four or five other main editors and two or three junior editors, plus a number of assistants and runners.

It’s been running over 12 years and I joined the team just over 4 years ago.

[OP]: Are all of you using Final Cut Pro X?

[TGC]: Originally, before anyone started using Final Cut Pro X, we had a mix of Avid and Final Cut Pro 7. Then we began to move to Avid as we saw that Final Cut Pro 7 was not going to be improved. So I started to move to Avid, too. But, I was using Final Cut Pro X on my own personal projects. I began to use it on smaller jobs and one of the other editors said, “That’s cool, that thing you’re doing there.” And he started to try it out. Now we’re kind of at a point where most of the editors are on Final Cut Pro X. One is using Avid, so our assistants need to be able to work with both.

[OP]: Have you been able to convert the last hold-out?

[TGC]: He’s always been Avid. That’s what he uses. The company doesn’t dictate what we use to edit with. It’s all about making the best work. If I decided tomorrow that I wanted to cut in Avid or Premiere – it wouldn’t be an issue. Anyone can cut with anything they like.

[OP]: Any thoughts of going to Premiere?

[TGC]: We’ve fallen in love with the way FCPX works – the browser and the timeline. I think Premiere is good, because it feels very much like a continuation of where Final Cut Pro 7 was, which is why loads of people have moved to it. I understand that. It’s an easy move. But it’s the core way that X functions that I love. That stuff just isn’t in any other NLE. What I’ve found with everyone who has moved to it, including myself – there were always a few little hooks that keep people coming back, even if you don’t like the whole app initially. For me, the first thing I liked is how you can pull out the audio clips and things move out of the way automatically. And I always just thought ‘I can’t make this thing work, but that feature is cool’. And then I kept coming back to it and slowly fell I love with the rest of it. One of the other editors loved the way of making dynamic selects in the browser and said, “I’m going to do this job in X.” He’d select in the browser using favorites and rejects and he absolutely loved it. Loved the way it was so fluid with the thumbnails and he felt immersed in his rushes. Then he gets to the timeline. “Oh, I can’t make this work.” He sent it back to Final Cut Pro 7 and finished up there. He did that on two or three jobs, because it takes time to get comfortable with the timeline. It’s strange when you come from track-based. But once it clicks, it’s amazing.

[OP]: How do your assistant editors fit into the workflow?

[TGC]: Generally I go from one job to the next. It might be two weeks or a month and a quick turnaround. Occasionally there might be an overlap – like, the next job has already started shooting and I haven’t finished the last one off yet. So it might be that I need an assistant editor to load my stuff. Or maybe I have to move on to the next job and I’ve got an assistant doing final tweaks on the last one. It’s much simpler to load projects in X than it is in Avid and one thing I’ve heard in the industry is, “Oh, does that mean you’re going to fire a lot of assistants, because you don’t need them?” No! Of course, we’re going to employ them, but we’ll actually give them editing work to do whenever we can – not just grunt work. Let them do the cut-downs, versions, first assemblies. There’s more time now for them to be doing creative work.

We also try to promote from within. I was the first person who was hired from outside of the company. Almost all the other editors, apart from the partners, have been people who’ve moved up from within. Yes, we could be paying this assistant to be loading all our stuff and making QuickTimes. But if you can be paying the assistant and they can be doing another job, why wouldn’t you do that? It’s another revenue stream for the company. So it’s great to be able to get them up to a level where they can pick up work and build up their own reels and creative chops.

[OP]: Are you primarily working with proxy media?

[TGC]: Not ‘Final Cut Pro X proxy media’, but we use ProRes Proxy or  LT files, which are often transcoded by a DIT on set. They look great, but the post house always goes back to the camera originals for the grade. Sometimes if it’s a smaller job – a low budget music video, for example – I’ll get the ARRI files if they shooting ProRes and just take them into Final Cut straight away- just to get working quicker.

[OP]: Since you work in the area of high-end commercials, do you typically send out audio, color and effects to outside post facilities?

[TGC]: Sound and post work is finished off elsewhere. We work with all the big post facilities –  The Mill, Framestore, and MPC, for example. The directors we work with have their favorite colorists. They’re hiring them because they have the right eye, the right creative skills – not just because they can push the buttons. But we’re doing more and more in the offline now. Clients aren’t used to seeing things as ‘offline’ these days. They’re used to things looking slick. I do a lot of sound design, because it goes so hand in hand with the picture edit. Sometimes the picture doesn’t work without any of the sound, so I do quite a lot of it – get it sounding really great, but it will ultimately be remixed later. I might be working on a project for a month and the sound becomes a very integral creative element. And then the sound mixer only gets a day to pull it all together. They do a great job, but it’s really important to give them as much as we can to work with – to really set the creative direction of the audio.

[OP]: In your presentations, you’ve mentioned Trim’s light hardware footprint. How is the facility configured?

[TGC]: Well, we’ve got ‘cylinder’ Mac Pros, Retina iMacs, and more recently we’ve been trying out a few of the new MacBook Pros, alongside the LG 5K displays. I’ve actually been cutting with that set up a lot recently. I really like it, because I turn up at the suite with my laptop, plug two cables in and that’s it! One cable for the 5K display, power and audio. The second cable goes out to HDMI. It runs the client monitor (HD/4K TV) and a USB hub. It’s a really slick and flexible set up.

For storage, we’re currently using Samsung T3 SSD drives, which are so fast and light, they can handle most things we throw at them. It’s a really slick and flexible set up. But with a few potential feature films in the near future, we are looking again at shared storage. I think that’s an interesting area of the market these days. There are some really amazing new products, which don’t come from the same old vendors.

[OP]: How do clients react to this modular suite approach?

[TGC]: If were doing our jobs, clients shouldn’t really notice the tech were using to drive the edit. And people love the space we’ve created. We’ve got really nice rooms – none of our suites are small. Clients are looking at a 50″ to 60” TV, which is 4K in some of our suites. And we’ve got really great sound systems. So, in terms of what clients are seeing and hearing, it doesn’t get much better in an edit suite.

Sometimes directors will come by even when they’re not editing with us. They’ll come by and write their treatments and just hang out, which is really nice. There’s a lot of common space with areas to work and meet.

There’s a lot of art all over the place and when anyone sees a sign that has the word ‘trim’ in it – they buy it. It might be a street sign or a ‘trim something’ logo. So, you see these signs all over the building. It adds a really nice character to the place. When I joined the company, I wanted to bring something to it – and I love LEGO – so I built our logo using it. That’s mounted at our entrance now.

[OP]: There’s a certain mentality in working with agencies. How does Trim approach that?

[TGC]: We tend to focus on the directors. That’s where you develop the greatest relationships, which is where the best work comes from. Not that I dislike working with an agency, but you build a much closer creative bond with your directors.

One small way we help build a good working environment for directors and agencies is to all have lunch together, every single day. We have lunch rather than editing and eating at our desks. One of the great things about this is that directors get to meet other agencies and editors get to meet other directors. It’s really good to be able to socialize like that. It also helps build different relationships than what would ever happen if we we’re all locked away in a suite all day.

[OP]: At what point do you typically get involved with a job?

[TGC]: I’ll usually get pencilled on a job while the director is still pitching it. And then I’ll start work straight after the shoot. Occasional we’ll be on set, but only if it’s a really tight deadline. On that Honda job, that was a six-day shoot to make two, 2 1/2 minute films and then they needed to see it really soon after the shoot. So, I had to be on set. But typically I like not being on set, because when you’re on set you’re suddenly part of the, “Oh, this shot was amazing. It took us four hours to get in the pouring rain.” You’re invested in that baggage. Whereas, when you just view it coldly in the edit, you don’t know what happened on set. You can go, “This shot doesn’t work – let’s lose it.” That fresh vision is a great reason for the editor to be as far from a shoot as possible.

[OP]: One of the projects on your reel is a Games of Thrones promo. How did that job come your way?

[TGC]: That was actually a director I hadn’t worked with – but, just a director who wanted to work with me. He’d been trying to get me on a few jobs that I hadn’t been able to do. It was an outside director that HBO brought in to shoot. It wasn’t a trailer made of footage from the show. They brought in a commercials and music director to shoot the piece and he wanted to work with me. So, it came down like that and then I worked with him and HBO to bring it all together.

[OP]: Do you have any preferences for the types of projects you work on?

[TGC]: Things like the Audi commercial are really fun, because there’s a lot of sound design. A lot of commercials are heavily storyboarded, but it can often be more satisfying if the director has been a bit more loose in the filming. It might be a montage of different people doing activities, for example. And those can be quite fun, because the final thing – you’ve come up with it and you’ve created the narrative and the flow of it. I say that with hindsight, because they turn out to be the most creatively satisfying. But, the process can be much harder when you’re in the thick of it – because it’s on your shoulders and you haven’t got a really locked storyboard to fall back on. I’ll happily do really long hours and work really hard, if it’s a good bit of work – and, at the end of the day, I’ve worked with nice people.

[OP]: With Final Cut Pro X – anything that you’d like to see different?

[TGC]: Maybe collaboration is one thing that would be interesting to see if there’s a new and interesting take on it. Avid bin-locking is great, but actually when you boil it down, it’s quite a simple thing. It locks this bin, you can’t go in there. You can make a copy of it. That’s all it’s doing, but it’s simple and it works really well. All the cloud-based things I’ve seen so far – they’ve not really gotten me excited. I don’t feel like anyone has really nailed what that is yet. Everyone is just doing it because they can, not because it works really well, or is actually useful. I’d be interested to see if there’s something that can be done there.

In the timeline, I’d like to be able to look inside compound clips without stepping into them. I often use compound clips to combine sound effects or music stems. I’d like to be able to open them in context in the timeline and edit the contents inline with the master timeline. And I’d love some kind of dupe detection in the timeline. But otherwise, I’m really enjoying the new version.

Click this link to watch Thomas Grove Carter in action with FCPX at this year’s Las Vegas SuperMeet at NAB.

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I certainly appreciated the time Thomas Grove Carter spent with me to do this interview. Along with a few other interviews, it made for a better-than-average Vegas trip. As a side note, I recorded my interviews (for transcription only) on my iPad, with the aid of the Apogee MetaRecorder app. This works with iPhones and iPads and starts at free, however, you should spend the $4.99 in-app upgrade to be able to do anything useful with it. It can use the built-in mic and records full quality audio WAV files – and – it features a connection to FCPX with fcpxml. Finally, to aid in generating a text transcript, I used Digital Heaven’s SpeedScriber. Although still in beta, it worked well for what I needed. As with all audio-to-text transcription applications, there’s no such thing as perfect. I did need to do a fair amount of clean-up, however, that’s not uncommon.

©2017 Oliver Peters

Five Came Back

We know them today as the iconic Hollywood directors who brought us such classic films as Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, The African Queen, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – just to name a few. John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra and George Stevens also served their country on the ground in World War II, bringing its horrors and truth to the American people through film. In Netflix’s new three-part documentary series, based on Mark Harris’ best-selling book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, contemporary filmmakers explore the extraordinary story of how Hollywood changed World War II – and how World War II changed Hollywood, through the interwoven experiences of these five legendary filmmakers.

This documentary series features interviews with Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Greengrass and Lawrence Kasdan, who add their own perspectives on these efforts. “Film was an intoxicant from the early days of the silent movies,” says Spielberg in the opening moments of Five Came Back. “And early on, Hollywood realized that it had a tremendous tool or weapon for change, through cinema.” Adds Coppola, “Cinema in its purest form could be put in the service of propaganda. Hitler and his minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels understood the power of the cinema to move large populations toward your way of thinking.”

Five Came Back is directed by Laurent Bouzereau, written by Mark Harris and narrated by Meryl Streep. Bouzereau and his team gathered over 100 hours of archival and newsreel footage; watched over 40 documentaries and training films directed and produced by the five directors during the war; and studied 50 studio films and over 30 hours of outtakes and raw footage from their war films to bring this story to Netflix audiences. Says director Laurent Bouzereau, “These filmmakers, at that time, had a responsibility in that what they were putting into the world would be taken as truth. You can see a lot of echoes in what is happening today. It became clear as we were doing this series that the past was re-emerging in some ways, including the line we see that separates cinema that exists for entertainment and cinema that carries a message. And politics is more than ever a part of entertainment. I find it courageous of filmmakers then, as with artists today, to speak up for those who don’t have a platform.”

An editor’s medium

As every filmmaker knows, documentaries are truly an editor’s medium. Key to telling this story was Will Znidaric, the series editor. Znidaric spent the first sixteen years of his career as a commercial editor in New York City before heading to Los Angeles, in a move to become more involved in narrative projects and hone his craft. This move led to a chance to cut the documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. Production and post for that film was handled by LA’s Rock Paper Scissors Entertainment, a division of the Rock Paper Scissors post facility. RPS is co-owned by Oscar-winning editor, Angus Wall (The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Wall, along with Jason Sterman and Linda Carlson, was an executive producer on Winter of Fire for RPS. The connection was a positive experience, so when RPS got involved with Five Came Back, Wall tapped Znidaric as its editor. Much of the same post team worked on both of these documentaries.

I recently interviewed Will Znidaric about his experience editing Five Came Back. “I enjoyed working with Angus,” he explains. “We edited and finished at Rock Paper Scissors over a fifteen month period. They are structured to encourage creativity, which was great for me as a documentary editor. Narratively, this story has five main characters who are on five individual journeys. The canvas is civilization’s greatest conflict. You have to be clear about the war in order to explain their context. You have to be able to find the connections to weave a tapestry between all of these elements. This came together thanks to the flow and trust that was there with Laurent [Bouzereau, director]. The unsung hero is Adele Sparks, our archival producer, who had to find the footage and clear the rights. We were able to generally get rights to acquire the great majority of the footage on our wish list.”

Editing is paleontology

Znidaric continues, “In a documentary like this, editing is a lot like paleontology – you have to find the old bones and reconstruct something that’s alive. There was a lot of searching through newsreels of the day, which was interesting thematically. We all look at the past through the lens of history, but how was the average American processing the events of that world during that time? Of course, those events were unfolding in real time for them. It really makes you think about today’s films and how world events have an impact on them. We had about 100 hours of archival footage, plus studio films and interviews. For eight to nine months we had our storyboard wall with note cards for each of the films. As more footage came in, you could chart the growth through the cards.”

Five Came Back was constructed using three organizing principles: 1) the directors’ films before the war, 2) their documentaries during the war, and 3) their films after the war. According to Znidaric, “We wanted to see how the war affected their work after the war. The book was our guide for causality and order, so I was able to build the structure of the documentary before the contemporary directors were interviewed. I was able to do so with the initial interview with the author, Mark Harris. This way we were able to script an outline to follow. Interview footage of our actual subjects from a few decades ago were also key elements used to tell the story. In recording the modern directors, we wanted to give them space – they are masters – we just needed to make sure we got certain story beats. Their point of view is unique in the sense that they are providing their perspective on their heroes. At the beginning, we have one modern director talking about one of our subject directors. Then that opens up over the three hours, as each talks a little bit about all of these filmmakers.”

From Moviola to Premiere Pro

This was the first film that Znidaric had edited using Adobe Premiere Pro. He says, “During film school, I got to cut 16mm on the Moviola, but throughout my time in New York, I worked on [Avid] Media Composer and then later [Apple] Final Cut Pro 7. When Final Cut Pro X came out, I just couldn’t wrap my head around it, so it was time to shift over to Premiere Pro. I’m completely sold on it. It was a dream to work with on this project. At Rock Paper Scissors, my associate editor James Long and I were set up in two suites. We had duplicate drives of media – not a SAN, which was just given to how the suites were wired. It worked out well for us, but forced us to be extremely diligent with how our media was organized and maintaining that throughout.” The suites were configured with 6-core 2013 Mac Pros, AJA IoXT boxes and Mackie Big Knob mixers for playback.

“All of the media was first transcoded to ProRes, which I believe is one of the reasons that the systems were rock solid during that whole time. There’s an exemplary engineering department at RPS, and they have a direct line to Adobe, so if there were any issues, they became the go-betweens. That way I could stay focused on the creative and not get bogged down with technical issues. Plus, James [Long] would generally handle issues of a technical nature. All told, it was very minimal. The project ran quite smoothly.” To stay on the safe side, the team did not update their versions of Premiere Pro during this time frame, opting to stick with Premiere Pro CC2015 for the duration. Because of the percentage of archival footage, Five Came Back was finished as HD and not in 4K, as are a number of other Netflix shows.

To handle Premiere Pro projects over the course of fifteen months, Znidaric and Long would transfer copies of the project files on a daily basis between the rooms. Znidaric continues, “There were sequences for individual ‘mini-stories’ inside the film. I would build these and then combine the stories. As the post progressed, we would delete some of the older sequences from the project files in order to keep them lean. Essentially we had a separate Premiere Pro project file for each day, therefore, at any time we could go back to an earlier project file to access an older sequence, if needed. We didn’t do much with the other Creative Cloud tools, since we had Elastic handling the graphics work. I would slug in raw stills or placeholder cards for maps and title cards. That way, again, I could stay focused on weaving the complex narrative tapestry.”

Elastic developed the main title and a stylistic look for the series while a52 handled color correction and finishing. Elastic and a52 are part of the Rock Paper Scissors group. Znidaric explains, “We had a lot of discussions about how to handle photos, stills, flyers, maps, dates and documents. The reality of filming under the stress of wartime and combat creates artifacts like scratches, film burn-outs and so on. These became part of our visual language. The objective was to create new graphics that would be true to the look and style of the archival footage.” The audio mix when out-of-house to Monkeyland, a Los Angeles audio post and mixing shop.

Five Came Back appealed to the film student side of the editor. Znidaric wrapped up our conversation with these thoughts. “The thrill is that you are learning as you go through the details. It’s mind-blowing and the series could easily have been ten hours long. We are trying to replicate a sense of discovery without the hindsight of today’s perspective. This was fun because it was like a graduate level film school. Most folks have seen some of the better known films, but many of these films aren’t as recognized these days. Going through them is a form of ‘cinematic forensics’. You find connections tied to the wartime experience that might not otherwise be as obvious. This is great for a film geek like me. Hopefully many viewers will rediscover some of these films by seeing this documentary series.”

The first episode of Five Came Back aired on Netflix on March 31. In conjunction with the launch of Five Came Back, Netflix will also present thirteen documentaries discussed in the series, including Ford’s The Battle of Midway, Wyler’s The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, Huston’s Report from the Aleutians, Capra’s The Battle of Russia, Stevens’ Nazi Concentration Camps, and Stuart Heisler’s The Negro Soldier.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

Voyage of Time

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

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

Eight years in the making

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

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

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

The art of picture and sound composition

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

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

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

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

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

Swiss Army Man

df2716_swissarmymanWhen it comes to quirky movies, Swiss Army Man stands alone. Hank (Paul Dano) is a castaway on a deserted island at his wit’s end. In an act of final desperation, he’s about to hang himself, when he discovers Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), a corpse that’s just washed up on shore. At this point the film diverges from the typical castaway/survival story into an absurdist comedy. Manny can talk and has “magical powers” that Hank uses to find his way back to civilization.

Swiss Army Man was conceived and directed by the writing and directing duo of Dan Kwan and Daniel Sheinert, who work under the moniker Daniels. This is their feature length film debut and was produced with Sundance in mind. The production company brought on Matthew Hannam to edit the film. Hannam (The OA, Enemy, James White) is a Canadian film and TV editor with numerous features and TV series under his belt. I recently spoke with Hannam about the post process on Swiss Army Man.

Hannam discussed the nature of the film. “It’s a very handmade film. We didn’t have a lot of time to edit and had to make quick decisions. I think that really helped us. This was the dozenth or so feature for me, so in a way I was the veteran. It was fun to work with these guys and experience their creative process. Swiss Army Man is a very cinematically-aware film, full of references to other famous films. You’re making a survival movie, but it’s very aware that other survival movies exist. This is also a very self-reflexive film and, in fact, the model is more like a romantic comedy than anything else. So I was a bit disappointed to see a number of the reviews focus solely on the gags in the film, particularly around Manny, the corpse. There’s more to it than that. It’s about a guy who wonders what it might be like had things been different. It’s a very special little film, because the story puts us inside of Hank’s head.”

Unlike the norm for most features, Hannam joined the team after the shooting had been completed. He says, “I came on board during the last few days of filming. They shot for something like 25 days. This was all single-camera work with Larkin Seiple (Cop Car, Bleed For This) as director of photography. They shot ARRI ALEXA XT with Cooke anamorphic lenses. It was shot ARRIRAW, but for the edit we had a special LUT applied to the dailies, so the footage was already beautiful. I got a drive in August and the film premiered at Sundance. That’s a very short post schedule, but our goal was always Sundance.”

Shifting to Adobe tools

Like many of this year’s Sundance films, Adobe Premiere Pro was the editing tool of choice. Hannam continues, “I’m primarily an Avid [Media Composer] editor and the Dans [Kwan and Sheinert] had been using [Apple] Final Cut Pro in the past for the shorts that they’ve edited themselves. They opted to go with Premiere on this film, as they thought it would be easiest to go back and forth with After Effects. We set up a ‘poor man’s’ shared storage with multiple systems that each had duplicate media on local drives. Then we’d use Dropbox to pass around project files and shared elements, like sound effects and temp VFX. While the operation wasn’t flawless – we did experience a few crashes – it got the job done.”

Swiss Army Man features quite a few visual effects shots and Hannam credits the co-directors’ music video background with making this a relatively easy task. He says, “The Dans are used to short turnarounds in their music video projects, so they knew how to integrate visual effects into the production in a way that made it easier for post. That’s also the beauty of working with Premiere Pro. There’s a seamless integration with After Effects. What’s amazing about Premiere is the quality of the built-in effects. You get effects that are actually useful in telling the story. I used the warp stabilizer and timewarp a lot. In some cases those effects made it possible to use shots in a way that was never possible before. The production company partnered with Method for visual effects and Company 3 [Co3] for color grading. However, about half of the effects were done in-house using After Effects. On a few shots, we actually ended up using After Effects’ stabilization after final assembly, because it was that much better than what was possible during the online assembly of the film.”

Another unique aspect of Swiss Army Man is its musical score. Hannam explains, “Due to the tight schedule, music scoring proceeded in parallel with the editing. The initial temp music pulled was quirky, but didn’t really match the nature of the story. Once we got the tone right with the temp tracks, scenes were passed on to the composers – Andy Hull and Robert McDowell – who Daniels met while making a video for their band Manchester Orchestra. The concept for the score was that it was all coming from inside of Hank’s head. Andy sang all the music as if Hank was humming his own score. They created new tracks for us and by the end we had almost no temp music in the edit. Once the edit was finalized, they worked with Paul [Dano] and Daniel [Radcliffe] to sing and record the parts themselves. Fortunately both are great singers, so the final a cappella score is actually the lead actors themselves.”

Structuring the edit

Matthew Hannam and I discussed his approach to editing scenes, especially with this foray into Premiere Pro. He responds, “When I’m on Media Composer, I’m a fan of ScriptSync. It’s a great way to know what coverage you have. There’s nothing like that in Premiere, although I did use the integrated Story app. This enables you to load the script into a tab for quick access. Usually my initial approach is to sit down and watch all the footage for the particular scene while I plan how I’m going to assemble it. The best way to know the footage is to work with it. You have to watch how the shoot progresses in the dailies. Listen to what the director says at the end of a take – or if he interrupts in the middle – and that will give you a good idea of the intention. Then I just start building the scene – often first from the middle. I’m looking for what is the central point of that scene and it often helps to build from the middle out.”

Although Hannam doesn’t use any tricks to organize his footage or create selects, he does use “KEM rolls”. This term stems from the KEM flatbed film editing table. In modern parlance, it means that the editor has strung out all the footage for a scene into a single timeline, making it easy to scrub through all the available footage quickly. He continues, “I’ll build a dailies reel and tuck it away in the bottom of the bin. It’s a great way to quickly see what footage you have available. When it’s time to revise a scene, it’s good to go back to the raw footage and see what options you have. It is a quick way to jog your memory about what was shot.”

A hybrid post workflow

Another integral member of the post team was assistant editor Kyle Gilbertson. He had worked with the co-directors previously and was the architect of the hybrid post workflow followed on this film. Gilbertson pulled all of the shots for VFX that were being handled in-house. Many of the more complicated montages were handled as effects sequences and the edit was rebuilt in DaVinci Resolve before re-assembly in After Effects. Hannam explains, “We had two stages of grading with [colorist] Sofie Borup at Co3. The first was to set looks and get an idea what the material was going to look like once finished. Then, once everything was complete, we combined all of the material for final grading and digital intermediate mastering. There was a real moment of truth when the 100 or so shots that Daniels did themselves were integrated into the final cut. Luckily it all came together fairly seamlessly.”

“Having finished the movie, I look back at it and I’m full of warm feelings. We kind of just dove into it as a big team. The two Dans, Kyle and I were in that room kind of just operating as a single unit. We shifted roles and kept everything very open. I believe the end product reflects that. It’s a film that took inspiration from everywhere and everyone. We were not setting out to be weird or gross. The idea was to break down an audience and make something that everyone could enjoy and be won over by. In the end, it feels like we really took a step forward with what was possible at home. We used the tools we had available to us and we made them work. It makes me excited that Adobe’s Creative Cloud software tools were enough to get a movie into 700 cinemas and win those boys the Sundance Directing prize. We’re at a point in post where you don’t need a lot of hardware. If you can figure out how to do it, you can probably make it yourself. That was our philosophy from start to finish on the movie.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Voice from the Stone

df0316_vfts_1_smAs someone who’s worked on a number of independent films, I find it exciting when an ambitious feature film project with tremendous potential comes from parts other than the mainstream Hollywood studio environment. One of these is Voice from the Stone, which features Emilia Clarke and Marton Csokas. Clarke has been a fan favorite in her roles as Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones and the younger Sarah Connor in Terminator Genisys. Csokas has appeared in numerous films and TV series, including Sons of Liberty and Into the Badlands.

In Voice from the Stone, Clarke plays a nurse in 1950s Tuscany who is helping a young boy, Jakob (played by Edward Ding), recover from the death of his mother. He hasn’t spoken since the mother, a renowned pianist, died. According to Eric Howell, the film’s director, “Voice from the Stone was a script that screamed to be read under a blanket with a flashlight. It plays as a Hitchcock fairy tale set in 1950s Tuscany with mysterious characters and a ghostly antagonist.” While not a horror film or thriller, it is about the emotional relationship between Clarke and the boy, but with a supernatural level to it.

df0316_vfts_15Voice from the Stone is Howell’s feature directorial debut. He has worked on numerous films as a director, assistant director, stuntman, stunt coordinator, and in special effects. Dean Zanuck (Road to Perdition, Get Low, The Zero Theorem) produced the film through his Zanuck Independent company. From there, the production takes an interesting turn towards the American heartland, as primary post-production was handled by Splice in Minneapolis. This is a market known for its high-end commercial work, but Splice has landed a solid position as the primary online facility for numerous film and TV series, such as History Channel’s America Unearthed and ABC-TV’s In An Instant.

Tuscany, Minneapolis, and more

Clayton Condit, who co-owns and co-manages Splice with his wife Barb, edited Voice from the Stone. We chatted about how this connection came about. He says, “I had edited two short films with Eric. One of these, Anna’s Playground, made the short list for the 2011 Oscars in the short films category. Eric met with Dean about getting involved with this film and while we were waiting for the financing to be secured, we finished another short, called Strangers. Eric sent the script to Emilia and she loved it. After that everything sort of fell into place. It’s a beautiful script that, along with Eric’s style of directing, fueled amazing performances from the entire cast.”

df0316_vfts_2The actual production covered about 35 days in the Tuscany region of Italy. The exterior location was filmed at one castle, while the interiors at another. This was a two-camera shoot, using ARRI Alexas recording to ARRIRAW. Anamorphic lenses were used to record in ARRI’s 3.5K 4:3 format, but the final product is desqueezed for a 2.39:1 “scope” final 2K master. The DIT on set created editorial and viewing dailies in the ProRes LT file format, complete with synced production audio and timecode burn-in. The assistant editor back at Splice was also loading and organizing the same dailies, so that everything was available there, as well.

df0316_vfts_8Condit explains the timeline of the project, “The production was filmed on location in Italy during November and December of 2014. I was there for the first half of it, cutting on my MacBook Pro on set and in my hotel room. Once I travelled back to Minneapolis, I continued to build a first cut. The director arrived back in the states by the end of January to see early rough assemblies, but it was around mid-February when I really started working a full cut with Eric on the film. By April of 2015 we had a cut ready to present to the producers. Then it took a few more weeks working with them to refine the cut. Splice is a full service post facility, so we kicked off visual effects in May and color starting mid-June. The composer, Michael Wandmacher, created an absolutely gorgeous score that we were able to record during the first week of July at Air Studios in London. We partnered with Skywalker Sound for audio post-production and mix, which took us through the middle of August.”

As with any film, getting to the final result takes time and experimentation. He continues, “We screened for various small groups listening to feedback and debated and tweaked. The film has a lot of beautiful subtleties to it. We did not want to cheapen it with cliché tricks that would diminish the relationships between characters. It really is first a love story between a mother and her child. The director and producers and I worked very closely together taking scenes out, working pacing, putting scenes back in, and really making sure we had an effective story.”

df0316_vfts_12Splice handled visual effects ranging from sky replacements to entire green screen composited sequences. Condit explains, “Our team uses a variety of tools including Nuke, Houdini, Maya, and Cinema 4D. Since this film takes place in the 1950s, there were a lot of modern elements that needed to be removed, like TV antennas and distant power lines, for example. There’s a rock quarry scene with a pool of water. When it came time to shoot there, the water was really murky, so that had to be replaced. In addition, Splice also handled a number of straight effects shots. In a couple scenes the boy is on the edge of the roof of the castle, which was a green screen composite, of course. We also shot a day in a pool for underwater shots.”

Pioneering the cut with Final Cut Pro X

df0316_vfts_5Clayton Condit is a definite convert to Apple’s Final Cut Pro X and Voice from the Stone was no exception. Condit says, “Splice originated as an Avid-based shop and then moved over to Final Cut Pro as our market shifted. We also do a lot of online finishing, so we have to be compatible with whatever the offline editor cuts in. As FCP 7 fades away we are seeing more jobs being done in [Adobe] Premiere Pro and we also are finishing with [Blackmagic Design] DaVinci Resolve. Today we are sort of an ‘all of the above’ shop; but for my offline projects I really think FCP X is the best tool. Eric also appreciated his experience with FCP X as the technology never got in the way. As storytellers, we are creatively free to try things very quickly [with Final Cut Pro X].”

df0316_vfts_7“Of course, like every FCP X editor, I have my list of features that I’d like to see; but as a creative editorial tool, hands down it’s the real deal. I really love audio roles, for example. This made it very easy to manage my temp mixes and to hand over scenes to the composer so that he could control what audio he worked with. It also streamlined turnovers. My assistant, Cody Brown, used X2Pro Audio Convert to prepare AAFs for Skywalker. Sound work in your offline is so critical when trying to ‘sell’ your edit and to make sure a scene is really working. FCP X makes that pretty easy and fun. We have an extensive sound library here at Splice. Along with early music cues from Wandmacher, I was able to do fairly decent temp mixes in surround for early screenings inside Final Cut.”

On location, Condit kept his media on a small G-RAID Thunderbolt drive for portability; but back in Minneapolis, Splice has a 600TB Xsan shared storage system for collaboration among departments. Condit’s FCP X library and cache files were kept on small dual-SSD Thunderbolt drives for performance and with mirrored media he could easily transition between working at home or at Splice.

df0316_vfts_9Condit explains his FCP X workflow, “We broke the film into separate libraries for each of the five reels. Each scene was its own event. Shots were renamed by scene and take numbers using different keyword assignments to help sort and search. The film was shot with two cameras, which Cody grouped as multicam clips in FCP X. He used Sync-N-Link X to bring in the production sound metadata. This enabled me to easily identify channel names. I tend to edit in timelines rather than a traditional source and record approach. I start with ‘stringouts’ of all the footage by scene and will use various techniques to sort and track best takes. A couple of the items I’d love to see return to FCP X are tabs for open timelines and dupe detection.”

df0316_vfts_11Final Cut Pro X also has other features to help truly refine the edit. Condit says, “I used FCP X’s retiming function extensively for pace and emotion of shots. With the optical flow technology, it delivers great results. For example, in the opening shot you see two hands – the boy and his mother – playing piano. The on-set piano rehearsal was recorded and used for playback for all takes. Unfortunately it was half the speed of the final cue used in the film. I had to retime that performance to match the final cue, which required putting a keyframe in for every finger push. Optical flow looks so good in FCP X that many of the final online retimes were actually done in FCP X.”

df0316_vfts_6Singer Amy Lee of the band Evanescence recorded the closing title song for the film during the sound sessions at Skywalker. Condit says, “Amy completely ‘got’ the film and articulated it back in this beautiful song. She and Wandmacher collaborated to create something pretty special to close the film with. Our team is fortunate enough now to be creating a music video for the song that was shot at the same castle.”

Zanuck Independent is currently arranging a domestic distribution schedule for Voice from the Stone, so look for it in theaters later this year.

If you want more details, click here for Steve Hullfish’s excellent Art of the Cut interview with Clayton Condit.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Carol

df0116_carol_smFilms tend to push social boundaries and one such film this season is Carol, starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Kyle Chandler. It’s a love story between two women, but more importantly it’s a love story between two people.  The story is based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, who also penned The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train. Todd Haynes (Six by Sondheim, Mildred Pierce) directed the film adaptation. Carol was originally produced in 2014 and finished in early 2015, but The Weinstein Company opted to time the release around the start of the 2015 awards season.

Affonso Gonçalves (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Winter’s Bone), the editor on Carol, explains, “Carol is a love story about two women coming to terms with the dissatisfaction of their lives. The Carol character (Cate Blanchett) is unhappily married, but loves her child. Carol has had other lesbian affairs before, but is intrigued by this new person, Therese (Rooney Mara), whom she encounters in a department store. Therese doesn’t know what she wants, but through the course of the film, learns who she is.”

Gonçalves and Haynes worked together on the HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce. Gonçalves says, “We got along well and when he got involved with the production, he passed along the script to me and I loved it.” Carol was shot entirely on Super 16mm film negative, primarily as a single-camera production. Only about five percent of the production included A and B cameras. Ed Lachman (Dark Blood, Stryker, Selena) served as the cinematographer. The film negative was scanned in log color space and then a simple log-to-linear LUT (color look-up table) was applied to the Avid DNxHD36 editorial files for nice-looking working files.

Creating a timeless New York story

Cincinnati served as the principal location designed to double for New York City in the early 1950s. The surrounding area also doubled for Iowa and Pennsylvania during a traveling portion of the film. Gonçalves discussed how Haynes and he worked during this period. “The production shot in Cincinnati, but I was based at Goldcrest Films in New York. The negative was shipped to New York each day, where it was processed and scanned. Then I would get Avid editorial files. The cutting room was set up with Avid Media Composer and ISIS systems and my first assistant Perri [Pivovar] had the added responsibilities on this project to check for film defects. Ed would also review footage each day; however, Todd doesn’t like to watch dailies during a production. He would rely on me instead to be his eyes and ears to make sure that the coverage that he needed was there.”

He continues, “After the production wrapped, I completed my editor’s cut, while Todd took a break. Then he spent two weeks reviewing all the dailies and making his own detailed notes. Then, when he was ready, he joined me in the cutting room and we built the film according to his cut. Once we had these two versions – his and mine – we compared the two. They were actually very similar, because we both have a similar taste. I had started in May and by September the cut was largely locked. Most of the experimenting came with structure and music.”

The main editorial challenges were getting the right structure for the story and tone for the performances. According to Gonçalves, “Cate’s and Rooney’s performances are very detailed and I felt the need to slow the cutting pace down to let you appreciate that performance. Rooney’s is so delicate. Plus, it’s a love story and we needed to keep the audience engaged. We weren’t as concerned with trimming, but rather, to get the story right. The first cut was two-and-a-half hours and the finished length ended up at 118 minutes. Some scenes were cut out that involved additional characters in the story. Todd isn’t too precious about losing scenes and this allowed us to keep the story focused on our central characters.”

“The main challenge was the party scene at the end. The story structure is similar to Brief Encounters (a 1946 David Lean classic with the beginning and ending set in the same location). Initially we had two levels of flashbacks, but there was too much of a shift back and forth. We had a number of ‘friends and family’ screenings and it was during these that we discovered the issues with the flashbacks. Ultimately we decided to rework the ending and simplify the temporal order of the last scene. The film was largely locked by the sixth or seventh cut.”

As a period piece, music is very integral to Carol. Gonçalves explains, “We started with about 300 to 400 songs that Todd liked, plus old soundtracks. These included a lot of singers of the time, like Billie Holiday. I also added ambiences for restaurants and bars. Carter (Burwell, composer) saw our cut at around the second or third screening with our temp score. After that he started sending preliminary themes to for us to work into the cut. These really elevated the tone of the film. He’d come in every couple of weeks to see how his score was working out with the cut, so it became a very collaborative process.”

The editing application that an editor uses is an extension of how he works. Some have very elaborate routines for preparing bins and sequences and others take a simpler approach. Gonçalves fits into the latter group. He says, “Avid is like sitting down and driving a car for me. It’s all so smooth and so fast. It’s easy to find things and I like the color correction and audio tools. I started working more sound in the Avid on True Detective and its tools really help me to dress things up. I don’t use any special organizing routines in the bins. I simply highlight the director’s preferred takes; however, I do use locators and take a lot of handwritten notes.”

Film sensibilities in the modern digital era

Carol was literally the last film to be processed at Deluxe New York before the lab was shut down. In addition to a digital release, Technicolor also did a laser “film-out” to 35mm for a few release prints. All digital post-production was handled by Goldcrest Films, who scanned the Super 16mm negative on an ARRI laser scanner at 3K resolution for a 2K digital master. Goldcrest’s Boon Shin Ng handled the scanning and conforming of the film. Creating the evocative look of Carol fell to New York colorist John J. Dowdell III. Trained in photography before becoming a colorist in 1980, Dowdell has credits on over 200 theatrical and television films.

Unlike other films, Dowdell was involved earlier in the overall process. He explains, “Early on, I had a long meeting with Todd and Ed about the look of the film. Todd had put together a book of photographs and tear sheets that helped with the colors and fashions from the 1950s. While doing the color grading job, we’d often refer back to that book to establish the color palette for the film.” Carol has approximately 100 visual effects shots to help make Cincinnati look like New York, circa 1952-53. Dowdell continues, “Boon coordinated effects with Chris Haney, the visual effects producer. The ARRI scanner is pin-registered, which is essential for the work of the visual effects artists. We’d send them both log and color corrected files. They’d use the color corrected files to create a reference, preview LUT for their own use, but then send us back finished effects in log color space. These were integrated back into the film.”

Dowdell’s tool of choice is the Quantel Pablo Rio system, which incorporates color grading tools that match his photographic sensibilities. He says, “I tend not to rely as much on the standard lift/gamma/gain color wheels. That’s a video approach. Quantel includes a film curve, which I use a lot. It’s like an s-curve tool, but with a pivot point. I also use master density and RGB printer light controls. These are numeric and let you control the color very precisely, but also repeatably. That’s important as I was going through options with Todd and Ed. You could get back to an earlier setting. That’s much harder to do precisely with color wheels and trackball controls.”

The Quantel Pablo Rio is a complete editing and effects system as well, integrating the full power of Quantel’s legendary Paintbox. This permitted John Dowdell and Boon Schin Ng to handle some effects work within the grading suite. Dowdell continues, “With the paint and tracking functions, I could do a lot of retouching. For example, some modern elements, like newer style parking meters, were tracked, darkened and blurred, so that they didn’t draw attention. We removed some modern signs and also did digital clean-up, like painting out negative dirt that made it through the scan. Quantel does beautiful blow-ups, which was perfect for the minor reframing that we did on this film.”

The color grading toolset is often a Swiss Army Knife for the filmmaker, but in the end, it’s about the color. Dowdell concludes, “Todd and Ed worked a lot to evoke moods. In the opening department store scene, there’s a definite green cast that was added to let the audience feel that this is an unhappy time. As the story progresses, colors become more intense and alive toward the end of the film. We worked very intuitively to achieve the result and care was applied to each and every shot. We are all very proud of it. Of all the films I’ve color corrected, I feel that this is really my masterpiece.”

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Sicario

df0416_sicario_1_sm

Sicario is an emotional and suspenseful look into the dark side of the war on drugs as told by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners, Incendies). It teams a by-the-book FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt) with an interagency task force led by CIA agent Matt (Josh Brolin). The shadowy mix of characters includes Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) – an enigmatic contractor working with Matt. As the special operation proceeds with increasingly extra-legal means, we learn that there’s more to Alejandro than meets the eye – part former crusading prosecutor and part hitman. Kate and the audience are forced to question the morality of whether the ends justify the means as told through an increasingly tense and suspenseful story.

From Wagner to Hollywood

The key to driving such a thriller is often the editor, which in this case was Joe Walker (12 Years a Slave, Hunger, Harry Brown). I had a chance to discuss Sicario with Walker as he took a break from cutting the next Villeneuve film, Story of Your Life. Walker’s road to Hollywood is different than many other top-level, feature film editors. While editors often play musical instruments as a hobby, Walker actually studied to be a classical composer in his native England.

df0416_sicario_7Walker explains, “It’s always been a hard choice between films and writing music. I remember when I was ten years old, I’d run 8mm films of the Keystone Cops at slow speed with Richard Wagner playing against it and kind of get depressed! So, these were twin interests of mine. I studied classical composing and balanced two careers of editing and composing up until the mid-2000s. I used my music degree to get a job with the BBC where I moved into assistant editor roles. The BBC is very cautious and it took me eleven years before finally being allowed to cut drama as an editor. This was all on 16mm film and then I moved into digital editing, first with Lightworks and later Avid. I always wanted to work on bigger films, but I felt there was a glass ceiling in England. Big studio films that came in would always bring their own editors. The big break for me was 12 Years a Slave, which provided the opportunity to move to Los Angeles.”

Controlling the story, characters and rhythm

df0416_sicario_6Sicario has a definite rhythm designed to build suspense. There are scenes that are slow but tense and others that are action-packed. Walker explains his philosophy on setting the pace, “Since working with Steve McQueen (director, 12 Years a Slave) I’ve been known for holding shots a long time to build tension. This is contrary to the usual approach, which says you build tension by an increasingly faster cutting pace. Sometimes if you hold a shot, there’s even more tension if the story supports it. I’ll even use the trick of invisible split screens in order to hold a take longer than the way it was originally shot. For example, the left side of one take might hold long enough, but something breaks on the right. I’ll pull the right side from a different take in order to extend the end of the complete shot.”

Another interesting aspect to Sicario is the sparseness of the musical score, in favor of sound design. Walker comments, “Music is in an abusive relationship with film. Putting on my composer hat, I don’t want to tell the audience what to think only by the music. It’s part of the composite. I try to cut without a temp score, because you have to know when it’s only the music that drives the emotion. I’ll even turn the sound down and cut it as if it was a silent movie, so that I can feel the rhythm visually. Then sound effects add another layer and finally music. In Sicario, I made use of a lot of walkie-talkie dialogue to fill in spaces – using them almost like a sound effect.  Jóhann Jóhannsson (composer, Prisoners, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher) was thrilled to get a clean output without someone else’s preconceived temp score, because it allowed him to start with a clean palette.”

df0416_sicario_3Editing shapes the characters. Walker says, “Taylor Sheridan’s script was fantastic, so I don’t want to do a disservice to him, but there was a continual process of paring down the dialogue and simplifying the story, which continued long into the edit. Benicio Del Toro’s character says very little and that helps keep him very mysterious. One of the biggest cuts we made in the edit was to eliminate the original opening scene, shot on the coast at Veracruz. In it, Alejandro (Del Toro) is interrogating a cop by holding his head underwater. He goes too far and kills him.  So he drags the lifeless body to the shore only to resuscitate him and begin the interrogation again. A strong and brutal scene, but one that told too much about Alejandro at the outset, rather than letting us – and Kate (Emily Blunt) – figure him out piece by piece. We needed to tell the story through Kate’s eyes. The film now starts with the hostage rescue raid, which better anchors the film on Kate.  And it’s not short of its own brutality. At the end of the scene we smash cut from a mutilated hand on the ground to Kate washing the blood out of her hair in the shower. This very violent beginning lets the audience know that anything could happen in this film.”

A carefully considered production

Sicario was produced for an estimated $31 million. While not exactly low budget, it was certainly modest for a film of this ambition. The majority of the film was shot in New Mexico over a 49-day period, starting in July of 2014. Final post was completed in March of this year. Roger Deakins (Unbroken, Prisoners, Skyfall), the film’s director of photography, relied on his digital camera of choice these days, the ARRI Alexa XT recording to ARRIRAW. The editorial team cut with transcoded Avid DNxHD media using two Avid Media Composer systems.

df0416_sicario_4Joe Walker continues, “This was a very carefully considered shoot. They spent a lot of effort working out shots to avoid overshooting. Most of the set-ups were in the final cut. They were also lucky with the weather. I cut the initial assembly in LA while they were shooting in New Mexico. The fine cut was done in Montreal with Denis for ten weeks and then back to LA for the final post. The edit really came together easily because of all the prep. Roger has to be one of our generation’s greatest cinematographers. Not only are his shots fantastic, but he has a mastery of sequence building, which is matched by Denis.”

“Ninety percent of the time the editorial team consisted of just my long-time first assistant Javier [Marcheselli] and me. The main focus of the edit was to streamline the storytelling and to be as muscular and rhythmic with the cutting as possible. We spent a lot of time focused on the delicate balance between how much we see the story through our central character’s eyes and how much we should let the story progress by itself.  One of the constructs that came out of the edit was to beef up the idea of surveillance by taking helicopter aerials of the desert and creating drone footage from it.  Javier is great with temp visual effects and I’m good with sound, so we’d split up duties that way.”

df0416_sicario_8“I’m happy that this was largely a single-camera production. Only a few shots were two-camera shots. Single-camera has the advantage that the editor can better review the footage. With multi-cam you might get four hours of dailies, which takes about seven hours to review. When are you left with time to cut? This makes it hard to build a relationship with the dailies. With a single-camera film, you have more time to really investigate the coverage. I like to mind-read what the direction was by charting the different nuances between takes.”

It shouldn’t matter what the knives are

Walker is a long-time Media Composer user. We wrapped up with a discussion about the tools of the trade. Walker says, “This was a small film compared to some, so we used two Avid workstations connected to Avid’s ISIS shared storage while in LA. It’s rock solid. In Montreal, there was a different brand of shared storage, which wasn’t nearly as solid as ISIS. On Michael Mann’s Blackhat, we sometimes had sixteen Avids connected to ISIS, so that’s pretty hard to beat. I really haven’t used other NLEs, like Final Cut, but Premiere is tempting. If anything, going back to Lightworks is even more intriguing to me. I really loved how intuitive the ‘paddles’ (the Lightworks flatbed-style Controller) were. But edit systems are like knives. You shouldn’t care what knives the chef used if the meal tastes good. Given the right story, I’d be happy to cut it on wet string.”

df0416_sicario_2The editing application isn’t Walker’s only go-to tool. He continues, “I wish Avid would include more improvements on the audio side of Media Composer. I often go to outside applications. One of my favorites is [UISoftware’s] MetaSynth, which lets me extend music. For instance, if a chord is held for one second, I can use MetaSynth to extend that hold for as much as ten, twenty seconds. This makes it easy to tailor music under a scene and it sounds completely natural. I also used it on Sicario to elongate some great screaming sounds in the scene where Alejandro is having a nightmare on the plane – they are nicely embedded into the sounds of the jet engines – we wanted the message to be subliminal.”

df0416_sicario_5Joe Walker is a fan of visual organization. He explains, “When I’m working with dailies, I usually don’t pre-edit select sequences for a scene unless it’s a humongous amount of coverage. Instead, I prefer to visually arrange the ‘tiles’ (thumbnail frames in the bin) in a way that makes it easier to tuck in. But I am a big fan of the scene wall. I write out 3” x 5” note cards for each scene with a short description of the essence of that scene on it. This is a great way to quickly see what that scene is all about and remind you of a character’s journey up to that point. When it comes time to re-order scenes, it’s often better to do that by shifting the cards on the wall first. If you try to do it in the software, you get bogged down in the logistics of making those edit changes. I’ll put the cards for deleted scenes off to the side, so a quick glance reminds me of what we’ve removed. It’s just something that works for me.  Denis has just spent the best part of a year turning words into pictures so he laughs at my wall and my reliance on it!”

(It’s also worth checking out Steve Hullfish’s excellent interview with Walker at his Art of the Cut column.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters