The Wolf of Wall Street

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Few directors have Martin Scorsese’s talent to tell entertaining stories about the seamier side of life. He has a unique ability to get us to understand and often be seduced by the people who live outside of the accepted norms. That’s an approach he’s used with great success in films like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York and others. Following this path is Scorsese’s newest, The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the memoir of stock broker Jordan Belfort.

Belfort founded the brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont in the 1990s, which eventually devolved into an operation based on swindling investors. The memoir chronicles Belfort’s excursions into excesses and debauchery that eventually led to his downfall and federal prosecution for securities fraud and money laundering. He served three years in federal prison and was sentenced to pay $110 million in restitution after cooperating with the FBI. The film adaptation was written by Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire, Sopranos), who himself spent some time working in a tamer environment at Merrill Lynch during law school. Leo DiCaprio stars as Belfort, along with Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughy as fellow brokers. ( Note: Due to the damage caused by the real Belfort and Stratton Oakmont to its investors, the release of the film is not without its critics. Click here, here and here for some reactions.)

df_wows_04I recently spoke with Thelma Schoonmaker, film editor for The Wolf of Wall Street. Schoonmaker has been a long-time collaborator with Martin Scorsese, most recently having edited Hugo. I asked her how it was to go from such an artistic and technically complex film, like Hugo, to something as over-the-top as The Wolf of Wall Street. She explained, “When I encounter people outside of this industry and they learn I had some connection with Hugo, they make a point of telling me how much they loved that film. It really touched them. The Wolf of Wall Street is a completely different type of film, of course.”

df_wows_01“I enjoyed working on it, because of its unique humor, which no one but Scorsese expected. It’s highly entertaining. Every day I’d get these fantastically funny scenes in dailies. It’s more of an improvisational film like Raging Bull, Casino or Goodfellas. We haven’t done one of those in awhile and I enjoyed getting back to that form. I suppose I like the challenge, because of the documentary background that Marty and I have from our early careers. Continuity doesn’t always match from take to take, but that’s what makes the editing great fun, but also hard.  You have to find a dramatic shape for the improvised scenes, just as you do in a documentary.”

Schoonmaker continued, “The scenes and dialogue are certainly scripted and Scorsese tells the actors that they need to start ‘here’ and end up ‘there’. But then, ‘have fun with the part in the middle’. As an editor, you have to make it work, because sometimes the actors go off on wonderful tangents that weren’t in the script. The cast surrounding Belfort and his business partner, Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill), very quickly got into creating the group of brokers who bought into the method Belfort used to snag investors into questionable stock sales. They are portrayed as not necessarily the smartest folks and Belfort used that to manipulate them and become their leader.  This is fertile ground for comedy and everyone dove into their parts with incredible gusto – willing to do anything to create the excess that pervaded Belfort’s company.  They also worked together perfectly as an ensemble – creating jealousies between themselves for the film.”

df_wows_03The Wolf of Wall Street is in many ways a black comedy. Schoonmaker addressed the challenges of working with material that portrayed some pretty despicable behavior. “Improvisation changed the nature of this film. You could watch the actors say the most despicable things in a take and then they’d crack up afterwards. I asked Leo at one point how he could even say some of the lines with a straight face! Some of it is pretty bizarre, like talking about how to create a dwarf-tossing contest, which Belfort organized as morale boosting for his office parties. Or offering a woman $10,000 to shave her head. And this was actually done in dead seriousness, just for sport.”

In order to get the audience to follow the story, you can’t avoid explaining the technical intricacies of the stock market. Schoonmaker explained, “Belfort started out selling penny stocks. Typically these have a fifty percent profit compared with blue chips stocks that might only have a one percent profit margin. Normally poorer investors buy penny stocks, but Belfort got his brokers to transfer those sales techniques to richer clients, who were first sold a mix of blue chip and penny stocks. From there, he started to manipulate the penny stocks for his own gain, ultimately leading to his downfall. We had to get some of that information across, without getting too technical. Just enough – so the audience could follow the story. Not everything is explained and there are interesting jumps forward. Leo fills in a lot of this information with his voice-overs. These gave Leo’s character additional flavor, reinforcing his greed and callousness because of the writing.  A few times Scorsese would have Leo break the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience to explain a concept.”

The Wolf of Wall Street started production in 2012 for a six-month-long shoot and completed post in November 2013. It was shot primarily on 35mm film, with additional visual effects and low-light material recorded on an ARRI ALEXA. The negative was scanned and delivered as digital files for editing on a Lightworks system.

df_wows_06Schoonmaker discussed the technical aspects. “[Director of Photography] Rodrigo Prieto did extensive testing of both film and digital cameras before the production. Scorsese had shot Hugo with the ALEXA, and was prepared to shoot digitally, but he kept finding he liked the look of the film tests best. Rob Legato was our visual effects supervisor and second unit director again. This isn’t an effects film, of course, but there are a lot of window composites and set extensions. There were also a lot of effects needed for the helicopter shots and the scenes on the yacht. Rob was a great collaborator, as always.

Scott Brock, my associate editor, helped me with the temp sound mixes on the Lightworks and Red Charyszyn was my assistant handling the complex visual effects communication with Rob. They both did a great job.” Scott Brock added some clarification on their set-up. According to Brock, “The lab delivered the usual Avid MXF media to us on shuttle drives, which we copied to our EditShare Xstream server.  We used two Avids and three Lightworks for Wolf, all of which were networked to the Xstream server.  We would use one of the Avids to put the media into Avid-style folders, then our three Lightworks could link to that media for editing.”

Schoonmaker continued, “I started cutting right at the beginning of production. As usual, screening dailies with Scorsese was critical, for he talks to me constantly about what he has shot. From that and my own feelings, I start to edit. This was a big shoot with a very large cast of extras playing the brokers in the brokerage bullpens. These extras were very well-trained and very believable, I think. You really feel immersed in the world of high-pressure selling. The first cut of the film came in long, but still played well and was very entertaining. Ultimately we cut about an hour out to get to the final length of just under three hours with titles.”

df_wows_05“The main ‘rewriting of the scenes’ that we did in the edit was because of the improvisations and the occasional need for different transitions in some cases.  We had to get the balance right between the injected humor and the scripted scenes. The center of the film is the big turning point. Belfort turns a potentially damaging blow to an IPO that the company is offering into a triumph, as he whips up his brokers to a fever pitch. We knew we had to get to that earlier than in the first cut. Scorsese didn’t want to simply do a ‘rise and fall’ film. It’s about the characters and the excesses that they found themselves caught up in and how that became so intoxicating.”

An unusual aspect of The Wolf of Wall Street is the lack of a traditional score. Schoonmaker said, “Marty has a great gift for putting music to film. He chose  unexpected pre-recorded pieces to reflect the intensity and craziness of Belfort’s world. Robbie Robertson wrote an original song for the end titles, but the rest of the film relies completely on existing songs, rather than score. It’s not intended to be period-accurate, but rather music that Scorsese feels is right for the scene. He listens to [SiriusXM] The Loft while he’s shaving in the morning and often a song he hears will just strike him as perfect. That’s where he got a lot of his musical inspiration for Wolf.”

Originally written for DV magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

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Hugo

The newest stereo 3D film sensation promises to be Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, just in time for the holidays. The film is the director’s first 3D venture and is based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a children’s graphic novel written and illustrated by Brian Selznick. It’s the story of twelve-year-old Hugo, an orphan who lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station. Hugo gets wrapped up in the mystery involving his father and a strange mechanical man.

Scorsese – who’s as much a film buff as an award-winning director – has a deep appreciation for the art form of past 3D films, like Dial M for Murder. In adapting this fantastical story, Scorsese and his Oscar-winning team have an ideal vehicle to show what stereo 3D can do in the right hands and when approached with care. Unlike the groundbreaking Avatar, which relied heavily on motion capture and synthetic environments, Hugo is a more cinematic production with real sets, actors and is based on the traditional language of filmmaking.

Hugo started production in 2010 using then-prototype ARRI ALEXA cameras, which were configured into special 3D camera rigs by Vince Pace. The ALEXA was the choice of cinematographer Bob Richardson for its filmic qualities. Camera signals were captured as 1920 x 1080 video with the Log-C color profile to portable HDCAM-SR recorders. Hugo will be the first 3D release produced with this particular equipment complement. With post for Hugo in its final stages, I had a chance to speak with two of Scorsese’s key collaborators, Rob Legato (visual effects supervisor and second unit director of photography) and Thelma Schoonmaker (film editor).

Developing the pipeline

Rob Legato has been the key to visual effects in many of Scorsese’s films, including The Aviator. For Hugo, Legato handled effects, second unit cinematography and, in fact, developed the entire start-to-finish stereo 3D post pipeline. Legato started our conversation with the back story, “I had done a small film with the ARRI D-21 and Bob [Richardson] loved the look of the camera. He liked the fact that it was produced by a traditional film camera manufacturer, so when the ALEXA came out, he was very interested in shooting Hugo with it. In order to make sure that the best possible image quality was maintained, I developed a DI workflow based on maintaining all the intermediate steps up to the end in log space. All effects work stayed in log and dailies color correction was done in log, so that no looks were baked in until the final DI stage. We used LUTs [color look-up tables] loaded into [Blackmagic Design] HDLink boxes for monitoring on-set and downstream of any the visual effects.”

“The original dailies were color corrected for editorial on a Baselight unit and that information was saved as metadata. We had both an Avid Media Composer and a Baselight system set up at my home facility, The Basement. Thelma cuts on Lightworks, but by mirroring her edits on Media Composer, I had the information in a form ready to disperse to the visual effects designers. I could load the color grades developed by Marty, Bob and the colorist for each scene into my Baselight, so that when I turned over finished VFX shots to Thelma, they would have the same look applied as those shots had from the dailies. That way a VFX shot wouldn’t be jarring when Thelma cut it back into the sequence, because it would match the same grade.”

Working in the language of stereo 3D

The key to the look of Hugo is the care put into the stereo 3D images. In fact, it’s very much a hand crafted film. Legato continued, “All the 3D imagery was done in-camera. You could never accomplish this type of look and emotional feel with post production rotoscoping techniques used to turn 2D films into 3D. Stereo was designed into the film from the very beginning. Not 3D gags, but rather a complete immersive style to the sets, lighting, camera moves and so on. Marty and Bob would watch the shots on set in 3D wearing their glasses. Performances, lighting, stereography and the position of items in the set were all tweaked to get the best results in 3D. The sets were designed for real depth, including elements like steam and particles in the air. You feel what it’s like to be in that space – emotionally. In the end, the story and the look are both a real love affair with motion pictures.”

One of the common complaints stereo 3D critics offer is that cinematographers cannot use shallow depth-of-field for storytelling. Legato responded, “Marty and Bob’s approach was to create those depth cues through lighting. We erred on the side of more focus, not less – more in the style of Gregg Toland’s work on Citizen Kane. Monitoring in stereo encouraged certain adjustments, like lighting little parts of the set in the background to gain a better sense of depth and control where the audience should focus its attention. That’s why stereoscopic post on 2D films doesn’t work. You cannot put off any part of the art form until later. You lose the taste of the artists. You lose the emotional advantage and the subtlety, because the process hasn’t been vetted by decisions made on the set through staging.”

A tailored approach

At the time of this interview, the film was in the final stages of stereo adjustments and color grading. Legato explained, “Unlike a 2D film, the finishing stage includes a final pass to tweak the 3D alignment. That is being handled by Vince Pace’s folks with Marty and Bob supervising. When they are done, that information will go to the colorist to be integrated into the grade. Greg Fisher has been our colorist throughout the film. Often you don’t have the same colorist for dailies as for the DI, but this is a color workflow that works best for Bob. By establishing a look during dailies and then carrying that data to the end with the same colorist – plus using Baselight at both ends – you get great continuity to the look. We tailored the most comfortable style of working for us, including building small 3D DI theaters in England and New York, so they could be available to Marty where he worked. That part was very important in order to have proper projection at the right brightness levels to check our work. Since the basic look has already been establish for the dailies, now Greg can concentrate on the aesthetics of refining the look during the DI.”

Cutting in 3D

Thelma Schoonmaker has been a close collaborator with Martin Scorsese as the editor for most of his films. She’s won Best Editing Oscars for The Departed, The Aviator and Raging Bull. Some editors feel that the way you have to cut for a stereo 3D release cramps their style, but not so with Schoonmaker. She explained, “I don’t think my style of cutting Hugo in 3D was any different than for my other films. The story really drives the pace and this is driven by the narrative and the acting, so a frenetic cutting style isn’t really called for. I didn’t have to make editorial adjustments based on 3D issues, because those decisions had already been made on set. In fact, the stereo qualities had really been designed from take to take, so the edited film had a very smooth, integrated look and feel.”

Often film editors do all their cutting in 2D and then switch to 3D for screenings. In fact, Avatar was edited on an older Avid Media Composer Adrenaline system without any built-in stereo 3D capabilities. Those features were added in later versions. Hugo didn’t follow that model. Schoonmaker continued, “I cut this film in 3D, complete with the glasses. For some basic assemblies and roughing out scenes, I’d sometimes switch the Lightworks system into the 2D mode, but when it came time to fine-cut a scene with Marty, we would both have our glasses on during the session and work in 3D. These were flip-up 3D glasses, so that when we turned to talk to each other, the lenses could be flipped up so we weren’t looking at each other through the darker shades of the polarized glass.”

Thelma Schoonmaker has been a loyal Lightworks edit system user. The company is now owned by EditShare, who was eager to modify the Lightworks NLE for stereo 3D capabilities. Schoonmaker explained, “The Lightworks team was very interested in designing a 3D workflow for us that could quickly switch between 2D and 3D. So, we were cutting in 3D from the start. They were very cooperative and came to watch how we worked in order to upgrade the software accordingly. For me, working in 3D was a very smooth process, although there were more things my two assistants had to deal with, since ingest and conforming is a lot more involved.”

Prior to working on Hugo, the seasoned film editor had no particular opinion about stereo 3D films. Schoonmaker elaborated, “Marty had a very clear concept for this film from the beginning and he’s a real lover of the old 3D films. As a film collector, he has his own personal copies of Dial M for Murder and House of Wax, which he screened for Rob [Legato], Bob [Richardson] and me with synced stereo film projection. Seeing such pristine prints, we could appreciate the beauty of these films.”

Editing challenges

The film was shot in 140 production days (as well as 60 second-unit days) and Thelma Schoonmaker was cutting in parallel to the production schedule. Principal photography wrapped in January of this year, with subsequent editing, effects, mix and finishing continuing into November. Schoonmaker shared some final thoughts, “I’m really eager to see the film in its final form like everyone else. Naturally I’ve been screening the cuts, but the mix, final stereo adjustments and color grading are just now happening, so I’m anxious to see it all come together. These finishing touches will really enhance the emotion of this film.”

Hugo is a fairy tale. It is narrative-driven versus being based on characters or environments. That’s unlike some of Scorsese’s other films, like Raging Bull, Goodfellas or The Departed, where there is a lot of improvisation. Marty injected some interesting characters into the story, like Sacha Baron Cohen as the station inspector. These are more fleshed out than in the book and it was one of our challenges to weave them into the story. There are some great performances by Asa Butterfield, who plays Hugo, and Ben Kingsley. In fact, the boy is truly one of a great new breed of current child actors. The first part of the film is practically like a silent movie, because he’s in hiding, yet he’s able to convey so much with just facial emotions. As an editor, there was a challenge with the dogs. It took a lot of footage to get it right [laughs]. Hugo ends as a story that’s really about a deep love of film and that section largely stayed intact through the editing of the film. Most of the changes happened in the middle and a bit in the front of the film.”

From the imagery of the trailers, it’s clear that Hugo has received a masterful touch. If, like me, you’ve made an effort to skip the 3D versions of most of the recent popular releases, then Hugo may be just the film to change that policy! As Rob Legato pointed out, “Hugo is a very immersive story. It’s the opposite of a cutty film and is really meant to be savored. You’ll probably have to see it more than once to take in all the detail. Everyone who has seen it in screenings so far finds it to be quite magical”.

Some addition stories featured in the Editors Guild Magazine, Post magazineanother from Post and from FXGuide.

And even more from Rob Legato and Thelma Schoonmaker.

Written for DV magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)

© 2011 Oliver Peters

Case studies in film editing

Last update : January 18, 2014

NOTE: This post has been changed into a page on the top header, called “Film Stories”. Further updates will be made on that page.

I’ve had the good fortune, thanks to my work with Videography and Digital Video magazine, to interview an inspiring collection of some of the best film editors in the world. You can click on the “filmmakers” category on the side panel to access these stories, but I’ve aggregated them here for easy access here.

These interviews cover a wide range of feature film styles. The interviewees were gracious enough to share their experiences with creative challenges and how they leveraged editing technology to get the job done. For those keeping a tally, Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut Pro are well-represented, along with “cameos” by Lightworks. Even Adobe’s tools make several appearances. Although I don’t consider myself in the same league as most of these luminaries, I’ve included a few projects of mine, which happen to fit nicely into the world of indie filmmaking.

I hope you will take the time to revisit these articles and pick up some tips that might benefit your own personal style. Enjoy!

The Wolf of Wall Street

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Featured in the post – Thelma Schoonmaker, Scott Brock

American Hustle

Directed by David O. Russell

Featured in the post – Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten

Inside Llewyn Davis

Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Featured in the post – Katie McQuerrey

Particle Fever

Directed by Mark Levinson

Featured in the post – Walter Murch

The East

Directed by Zal Batmanglij

Featured in the post – Andrew Weisblum and Bill Pankow

The Hobbit

Directed by Peter Jackson

Featured in the post – Jabez Olssen

Phil Spector

Directed by David Mamet

Featured in the post – Barbara Tulliver

Zero Dark Thirty

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Featured in the post – Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg

Cloud Atlas

Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer

Featued in the post – Alexander Berner

Looper

Directed by Rian Johnson

Featured in the post – Ryan Thudhope

Hemingway & Gellhorn

Directed by Philip Kaufman

Featured in the post – Walter Murch

The Bourne Legacy

Directed by Tony Gilroy

Featured in the post – John Gilroy

Moonrise Kingdom

Directed by Wes Anderson

Featured in the post – Andrew Weisblum

The Descendants

Directed by Alexander Payne

Featured in the post – Kevin Tent, Mindy Elliott

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Directed by David Fincher

Featured in the post – Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter, Tyler Nelson

Hugo

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Featured in the post – Rob Legato, Thelma Schoonmaker

My Fair Lidy

Directed by Ralph Clemente

Featured in the post – Oliver Peters

Higher Ground

Directed by Vera Farmiga

Featured in the post – Colleen Sharp, Jeremy Newmark

127 Hours

Directed by Danny Boyle

Featured in the post – Jon Harris, Tamsin Jeffrey

The Social Network

Directed by David Fincher

Featured in the post – Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter, Michael Cioni, Tyler Nelson

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Directed by Don Hahn

Featured in the post – Vartan Nazarian, John Ryan, Ellen Keneshea

Casino Jack (documentary)

Directed by Alex Gibney

Featured in the post – Allison Ellwood

Tetro

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Featured in the post – Walter Murch

Scare Zone

Directed by Jon Binkowski

Featured in the post – Oliver Peters

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Directed by David Fincher

Featured in the post – Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter

Blindsided (documentary)

Directed by Talia Osteen

Featured in the post – Oliver Peters

Encounters at the End of the World

Directed by Werner Herzog

Featured in the post – Brian Hutchings

The Dark Knight

Directed by Chris Nolan

Featured in the post – Lee Smith

Shine A Light

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Featured in the post – David Tedeschi, Rob Legato

Sweeney Todd

Directed by Tim Burton

featured in the post – Chris Lebenzon

Runnin’ Down A Dream

directed by Peter Bogdanovich

Featured in the post – Mary Ann McClure

No Country For Old Men

Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Featured in the post – Ethan and Joel Coen

Youth Without Youth

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Featured in the post – Walter Murch, Sean Cullen

In the Valley of Elah

Directed by Paul Haggis

Featured in the post – Jo Francis

The Bourne Ultimatum

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Featured in the post – Chris Rouse

Charlie Bartlett

Directed by Jon Poll

Featured in the post – Jon Poll

Ratatouille

Directed by Brad Bird

Featured in the post – Darren Holmes

The Closer (TNT television)

Featured in the post – Eli Nilsen

Hot Fuzz

Directed by Edgar Wright

Featured in the post – Chris Dickens

Death To The Tinman

Directed byRay Tintori

Featured in the post – Ray Tintori, Par Parekh

Year of the Dog

Directed by Mike White

Featured in the post – Dody Dorn

Zodiac

Directed by David Fincher

Featured in the post – Angus Wall

The War Tapes

Directed by Deborah Scranton

Featured in the post – Steve James

Waist Deep

Directed by Vondie Curtis Hall

Featured in the post – Teri Shropshire

Crash

Directed by Paul Haggis

Featured in the post – Hughes Winborne

American Hardcore

Directed by Paul Rachman

Featured in the post – Paul Rachman

The Way Back Home

Directed by Reza Badiyi

Featured in the post – Oliver Peters

Jarhead

Directed by Sam Mendes

Featured in the post – Walter Murch, Sean Cullen

Chasing Ghosts

Directed by Kyle Jackson

Featured in the post – Kyle Jackson

The Aviator

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Featured in the post – Ron Ames, Rob Legato

Articles originally written for Videography and Digital Video magazines (NewBay Media LLC)

©2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 Oliver Peters