Movies by the fireside

With Oscar time approaching and movie-going, as well as, movie-giving a holiday tradition for many families, I decided to post a list of some films that are fun for editors to watch. These aren’t all Oscar-contenders, although there’s plenty of bling in this list. They are presented in no particular order, so I hope you enjoy.

Inglourious Basterds
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Film editor: Sally Menke

This is the newest film in the batch and I found it to be not only well-crafted, but also beautifully shot (cinematography by Robert Richardson). Tarantino draws a lot of opinions, but it’s clear that his approach to shooting and editing uses a very classic style. Pay attention to the dialogue scenes and you’ll agree that Tarantino is probably the best director today in structuring and directing dialogue-driven films.

Memento
Director: Christopher Nolan
Film editor: Dody Dorn

This quirky film is best known for the way the plot is revealed in reverse. In fact, there’s a DVD version that lets you run the scenes from back-to-front in a somewhat linear, chronological order. Although you’d think the scene construction is a contrivance developed in the cutting room, Dorn is the first to admit that this was actually how the script was written.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Director: David Fincher
Film editors: Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall

Slumdog Millionaire beat it out for best cinematography, but nevertheless, Button is a gorgeous example of how digital films can look (cinematography by Claudio Miranda). The aging VFX are the hook, of course, but they work well in service of the story. The editing helps to move the story along, aiding the matter of fact way in which the story is told by its characters.

Murderball
Directors: Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro
Film editors: Conor O’Neill and Geoffrey Richman

I enjoy documentaries, but they don’t get any better than when the actual events take plot turns as if they were scripted. In this story about paraplegic rugby, the participants are like gladiators in wheelchairs. It was shot with a variety of DV cameras, but the editing pace makes that something you’ll never obsess over. Natural rivalries develop and this story is a blast for anyone who loves films about sports and sports personalities.

Blackhawk Down
Director: Ridley Scott
Film editor: Pietro Scalia

Scott’s film about the horrific events in Mogadishu is a seminal war film – representative of the surrealism of conflict in ways that a film like Apocalypse Now could never do justice to. It’s also a movie that I feel was largely built in the edit bay. Dump a bushel basket of disjointed combat footage on the editor and see what you get.

The Bourne Ultimatum (or Supremacy or Identity)
Directors: Paul Greengrass and Doug Liman
Film editors: Christopher Rouse, Richard Person and Saar Klein

Pick any or all of the three. They are all great. The main criticism leveled by others is the shaky-cam style of shooting and the frenetic ADD cutting. Not something that bothers me in the least. Nevertheless, the films are a fast ride for the audience and exemplify good, fast-paced cutting. It’s all the more helped by the believability Matt Damon brings to the role.

The Italian Job
Director: F. Gary Gray
Film editors: Richard Francis-Bruce and Christopher Rouse

This 2003 remake probably didn’t make many “best lists”, but I enjoyed the film. It’s a nicely crafted caper flick without many flaws. You’ll notice the deft editing Christopher Rouse (The Bourne Ultimatum) brings to the movie. Plus a really cool car chase scene with Minis!

Youth Without Youth
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Film editor: Walter Murch

This is Coppola’s first digital film. It was shot in Romania and is highlighted by some gorgeous cinematography (Mihai Malaimare, Jr.) and a very evocative score (Osvaldo Golijov). It’s a very romantic and surrealistic tale that will keep you enthralled until the end.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Director: Joel Coen
Film editors: Joel and Ethan Coen (credited as Roderick Jaynes), Tricia Cooke

This film is credited with starting the move to DI finishing, thanks to DP Roger Deakins. It’s got a great look and the story shows the Coens at their best, with homages to The Wizard of Oz and Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. I happen to like George Clooney when he plays the buffoon and the stellar cast of O Brother never disappoints in the madcap category.

Shine A Light
Director: Martin Scorsese
Film editor: David Tedeschi

Although technically a documentary, Shine A Light is one of the best concert films in years. I’ve cut my share of concert shows, so I was cutting this one right in my head the whole time I was watching. It’s certainly a fun cut and one that gives you an intimate look inside the performance. Coupled with a Bob Clearmountain live music mix, you’ll feel like you’re right in the middle of the Beacon Theater when you watch this one.

Hot Fuzz
Director: Edgar Wright
Film editor: Chris Dickens

I saw this again the other night on Comedy Central and it was hilarious. This is a Wright/Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) spoof of cop/buddy films, that has more action than most action films. Pay close attention to the cutting, as this film has over 5,000 picture edits! Dickens picked up an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, but this effort is no less inspiring for other editors. There is some over-the-top violence (a la Monty Python), but in spite of the parody, Hot Fuzz holds up well against “legitimate” action films like the Bourne franchise.

There Will Be Blood
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Film editor: Dylan Tichenor

Daniel Day-Lewis is totally captivating as oilman Daniel Plainview in this film adaption of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! This is also a look at the beauty of film at its best, done the “natural way” – i.e. no DI. Kudos to Robert Elswit, whose cinematography has a real richness to it. For the editors in the crowd, pay attention to the first portion of the film. Tichenor does a masterful job of advancing the story over many years of Plainview’s life without any dialogue.

Well, that’s a quick look at a dozen films for the holidays. Have fun!

© 2009 Oliver Peters

Reliving the Zoetrope tradition – Walter Murch and Tetro

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

 

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

 

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

 

Embracing the American Zoetrope tradition

 

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

 

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

 

A distinctive visual style

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Changes in the approach

 

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

 

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

 

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Walter Murch discusses future technology

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Written for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)

 

© 2009 Oliver Peters

Oscar nominations

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It’s awards season again. I was checking out the nominations for the 81st Academy Awards – The Oscars – and happy to see a few names jump out at me. One of the fun things I get to do is interview some of the leading editors around the world for many of the articles I write. Of course, as a working editor, I am particularly keen on the Oscar category for best Film Editing and happy to see that 3 out of 5 of the nominees are folks that I have spent some time with doing these interviews.

 

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall) and The Dark Knight (Lee Smith) seemed like obvious choices to me at the time and I invite you to visit my posts for these films. Slumdog Millionaire is more of a surprise. Not because of the film, but because Chris Dickens’ name jumped out at me in an “oh wow!” moment. Chris was the editor on Hot Fuzz, a truly funny, buddy-cop-film parody.

 

I have cut my share of documentaries and really enjoyed seeing Encounters at the End of the World. It’s a good choice in the Documentary Feature Film category, but for me the nomination holds extra excitement. It was posted in the shop of some industry friends, Alphadogs in Burbank. Furthermore, this also offered a chance for a good story with Brian Hutchings, the film’s colorist.

 

Milestones

 

Aside from my own personal good wishes for the nominees, these films provide some other interesting ingredients. If certain of these films win in their categories, a number of milestones will have been reached. For instance, Avid editing and Pro Tools audio products are well-represented again (as in past years), but a win in the editing category for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button means a milestone for Apple. It will have been the first Oscar winner for editing in which Final Cut Pro was used. This will be as big an event for FCP users as when Walter Murch won for The English Patient in 1996 – the first editing Oscar for a film cut on an NLE – an Avid Media Composer. Another important editing milestone was Thelma Schoonmaker’s 2004 win for The Aviator, which she cut on a Lightworks system.

 

While we are on the subject of milestones, it’s noteworthy that both The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire picked up Oscar nominations for Cinematography. If either wins, this will be the first such Oscar going to a film that was primarily shot using a digital camera. Benjamin Button relied on the Grass Valley Viper while Slumdog represents the most visible use to date of the Silicon Imaging SI2K digital camera. Furthermore, the latter would also be the first use of digital camera raw technology in an Oscar winner, thus beating RED to those bragging rights! Even without a win, Slumdog Millionaire is still the first Cinematography nominee to claim this distinction.

 

Although Encounters at the End of the World wasn’t nominated in one of these craft categories, it, too, represents some interesting technological firsts. If it wins, this will be a significant notch in Sony’s belt for the use of XDCAM-HD acquisition. I believe it will also be the first winner that used Apple Color (or its predecessor, Final Touch) as the primary color grading tool.

 

Until awards night, this is all just fun speculation. We’ll know in a month when the 81st Annual Academy Awards hits the air. Not all can win, but just to be nominated is to be in a very select crowd. In the meantime, I offer each and every nominee a heartfelt congratulations and GOOD LUCK!

 

EDIT: The Oscars have just been awarded as I write this. “Slumdog Millionaire” held the lead it started at the Golden Globes and the British awards to take 8 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. The Film Editing award went to Chris Dickens, continuing the long string of editing statuettes going to Avid jockeys. This is a well-deserved honor for a very talented editor. In addition, “Slumdog Millionaire” broke new ground by earning the Cinematography honor for a film largely shot with the SI2K digital camera – the first digital cinema camera that can now make this claim. On the documentary front, “Encounters at the End of the World” was beaten by “Man On Wire”, the story of tightrope walker Philippe Petit. In his early career Petit astounded and captivated the world with his daring walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center high above Manhattan right at the time of the towers’ completion.

 

©2009 Oliver Peters

12 Tips for Better Film Editing

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I’m currently cutting a digital feature and this has made me think about editing styles. Here are an even dozen tips that I feel will make any budding film editor better at this craft. I’m sure not everyone will agree with all of these points, since they come out of my own approach and style. Nevertheless, I hope they offer some takeaway value for you.


1. Cut tight – The best editing approach is to cut tight scenes without becoming too “cutty”. This means taking out unnecessary pauses between actors’ delivery of dialogue lines. Sometimes it mean tightening the gaps within dialogue sentences through the use of carefully placed cutaways. It may also mean losing redundant lines of dialogue, after the director has reviewed your cut.


In general, my approach is to start with a cut that is precise from the beginning as opposed to cutting the first pass sloppy and then whittling down from there. Most basic films don’t support audience attentions for lengths over 90 minutes. If your first cut comes in at about 100 minutes, then you can typically get to 90 through further tightening of the cut. On the other hand, if it clocks in at two hours or longer, then major surgery is going to be needed.


2. Temp music – Many editors like working with temporary music as a placeholder. I advise against this for two reasons. First – people tend to fall in love with the temp score and then it’s hard to get real music that feels as good. Second – temp music becomes a crutch. You tend to be more forgiving of a weak scene when there’s interesting music than when the scene is naked. I prefer to cut a strong scene and make it work through editorial solutions. If a scene can stand on its own, then the addition of sound effects and a score will make it that much better. The exception is a visual montage set to music. Here, I tend to do better when I’m cutting to music rather than the other way around.


3. No Dragnet edits – The original Dragnet television series used a certain approach to cutting dialogue scenes. Audio and video edits tended to be made as straight cuts between the actors without any overlaps as they delivered their lines. It followed this formula: cut to actor A – deliver the line; cut to actor B – deliver the line; cut back to actor A and so on. Walter Murch refers to this as the Dragnet-style of editing. Our brains seem to react better to edits where the change in picture and sound is not always together. These are called split edits, L-cuts or J-cuts.


I suppose this more closely mimics real life, where we first hear someone start to talk and then turn our head to see them. Or one person is talking and we look over to our friend to see their reaction before they respond. Editing in a style where images often precede or follow the dialogue edit feel more natural to our minds and make the scene flow more smoothly.


4. Matching action – Matching actors’ hand positions, use of props, eyeline and stage position from one cut to another fall into the technical category of how to make a proper edit. Walter Murch offers a rule of six criteria that form reasons to make a cut at a given instance. The greatest weight is given to whether that cut drives the emotion of the scene or moves the story along. Technical matching is the least important concern. I’m not saying you should throw it out the window, because a mismatch that is too extreme can be very jarring to the audience. On the other hand, as an editor friend often tells me, “Matching is for sissies.” The audience will often ignore many minor continuity differences from one shot to the next if they stay totally engrossed in the story. Your job as the editor is to cut in such as way that they do.


5. Moving camera shots – Moving the camera around is a staple of action sequences. This might be a camera on a dolly, crane, Steadicam or just handheld. In an action scene, this is designed to create a level of tension. When I cut these shots together, I prefer to cut on movement, so that the camera is in constant motion from one shot to the next. Many directors and DP will disagree, preferring instead to start and stop each camera move before making the cut. Both approaches work under the right situations, but my tendency is to cut tighter and not let the audience’s eye rest on the set or a shot or a scene for too long, unless there is a reason to do so.


6. Don’t cut back to the exact same angle – If you have a choice of several camera angles, don’t automatically cut back to the same camera angle or take that you just used in the previous shot. This is, of course, unavoidable in a dialogue scene with only two angles and one take of each; but, if the director shot different takes with different framing, try to use a little of all of them. Don’t get stuck in a cutting rut, like master/single/reverse, master/single/reverse, etc. Mix it up.


7. B-roll shots in threes – When the scene calls for cutaway inserts, it feels right to use three on a row. Not a single shot, not two, but three. These should be at least 1.5-2 seconds long (or longer). An example might be when a character enters the room and looks around. The POV inserts work nicely in triplets and give the audience a good idea of the landscape that the character encounters. It mimics our real-world experience of moving our head around and seeing different aspects of the same surroundings.


8. Cut for the eyes – Actors that do well on TV and in films (as compared with the stage) are all very expressive with their face, but most importantly, their eyes. When I’m cutting an intense dialogue scene, I’m looking at how the actors’ eyes play in the scene. Do they convey the proper emotion? What is the reaction of the other actors in the scene? What the actors are or aren’t doing facially determines my cutting. It drives my decision to stick with the principal actor delivering the dialogue or whether I briefly cut away to see reactions from the others.


9. Pull the air out of actors’ performances – Going back to Item 1 – I like to cut tight. Recognize that many actors will overact. They will milk a scene for more than is appropriate. They will accentuate pauses, add more stumbles and stammers (where scripted) and give lengthy glances. Sometimes this works, but your job as the editor is to dial these back as you cut. Take these pauses out by cutting away and then back. Cut out redundant actions and line deliveries. Make it real, so it doesn’t feel like ACTING.


10. Shaping story – It is said that there are three films: the one that’s scripted, the one that’s been filmed and the one that’s edited. When you cut a feature, pay close attention to the story chronology and don’t be afraid to veer from what was written or filmed if it makes sense to do so. Many editors use note cards on a storyboard wall to create a quick visual representation of the storyline. This helps you make sure that you reveal things to the audience in the most logical order and that nothing is inadvertently edited out of place.


11. Digital aids – Modern NLEs and finishing techniques like digital intermediates offer a lot of tools that aid the filmmaker. For example, digital images are very tolerant of blow-ups. You can add camera zooms or blow-up a shot (creating a wide and a close-up from a single shot) with these tools. This is especially true if you shot on 35mm film or with the RED One camera, because the large image area of the film negative or camera sensor allows more overshoot space than HD cameras. Don’t be afraid to zoom in as long as the image quality holds up.


Many editors talk about using split screens for invisible edits. This is often done when the timing of the performance of two actors (such as in an over-the-shoulder shot or a two-shot) doesn’t quite match on the preferred take. Sometimes the original performance was right, but the pace of the scene has been picked up during the edit and now the timing of the two actors feels slow or late. If the camera is locked off and the overlap of their physical positions in the shot isn’t too complex, it’s a simple matter to create a new OTS shot. This would be a visual effects composite of these two actors with a slight offset in the timing of their performances.


12. Make your choices, but be prepared for others – Your job as the editor is to shape the story and the pacing of the film. First and foremost this means you are there to help the director realize his or her creative vision. But you were also hired for your own best instincts. Most editors finish a first cut without the director sitting over their shoulder. During that time is your initial chance at putting your own stamp on the film. When the first cut is completed, the director and editor work together to refine that cut into the director’s cut.


The choices you make in cutting tightly or altering an actor’s performance all factor into the look and feel of the film. For instance, you can heighten the tension between characters in a scene by cutting their dialogue in a way that one actor overlaps – or steps on – the other actor’s lines. This conveys a level of impatience that might not have been there in the way it was actually filmed. When you make such a choice, it alters the emotion of the scene and should be done only if that serves the story. Of course, you’ll only want to make this sort of edit if you have a logical reason for it, the director agrees with it and you have an alternate solution if the director disagrees.


I like to review the takes and make my own decisions about the best performances. On set, the director might have marked the third and fourth takes (out of four) as “circle takes”. I might actually like the front end of number one as the best way to start the scene, but then end on take four for the back half. I will frequently cut scenes that use a little of each take as I cut back and forth between actors’ dialogue lines. This will create the best composite performance of all the actors in a scene. When you do this, though, you should be prepared to defend what you liked about the choices you’ve made – and be prepared to change the scene back to something else.


Most directors aren’t going to review each and every take in the edit suite. They will react to your cut based on whether or not it works for them and whether or not they like the performances on screen. They will suggest changes and review one or two other takes to see if they really liked a different performance by the actor. The closer a scene is to one that feels polished and conveys the most believable job of acting, the more accepting a director will be of your cut.

 

For more, click here.

©2008 Oliver Peters

Youth Without Youth

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It was 1968 when fellow film student George Lucas first introduced Walter Murch to Francis Ford Coppola. The trio was invited to a demo of the new CMX600 nonlinear editing system. This early computer workstation was the precursor to modern NLEs, but could only handle several minutes worth of black-and-white footage. In spite of that, they had seen the future and boldly predicted this device would sweep the industry in five years. That proved to be off the mark, of course. Nevertheless, this chance meeting sealed a relationship that would last for decades – leading Coppola to give Murch his start in feature film editing, first as a sound editor and mixer on The Rain People and later as a picture editor for The Conversation. Fast forward nearly forty years to find Coppola and Murch united again on Youth Without Youth – Francis Ford Coppola’s first film in ten years.

 

Coppola wrote, produced and directed Youth Without Youth, adapting the screenplay from a novella by legendary Romanian author Mircea Eliade. The film stars Tim Roth as Dominic Matei, an elderly professor whose mysterious rejuvenation heightens his intelligence and whose apparent immortality makes him a target for the Nazis in this World War II-era parable. Coppola characterized the film as “a love story wrapped in a mystery.” Sony Pictures Classics has picked up distribution for fall, so pre-release information is tight; but Walter Murch was willing to add that, “It’s a little bit of Faust meets Dorian Gray.” The film also stars Alexandra Maria Lara, Bruno Ganz, Andre M. Hennicke, Marcel Iures and introduces Alexandra Pirici.

 

Taking the Digital Route

 

Walter Murch spoke on the project’s unique workflow at this year’s NAB Final Cut Pro Users Group SuperMeet and was kind enough to elaborate more about it with me recently. When you think of Coppola or Murch and the big-budget films they’ve done together or separately, such as The Godfather series, Apocalypse Now, Cold Mountain or Jarhead, it’s hard to fathom that the approach taken on Youth Without Youth provides a perfect roadmap for the indie filmmaker determined to use desktop tools to tell the story. Youth Without Youth is an almost total digital production – Coppola’s first. Certain material was captured on 35mm for various reasons – speed variation, three-camera setups, etc. –  but it appears that working digitally turned out to be so creatively and technically satisfying that the director has vowed never to shoot a motion picture on film stock again.

 

Francis Ford Coppola financed the production himself for a limited budget – under ten million dollars – so it became important to own or control as much of the process as possible. The digital parts of Youth Without Youth were shot with Coppola’s two Sony F900 CineAlta camcorders, which in turn were fed to an HDCAM-SR field recorder. The onboard HDCAM recorders of the F900 cameras actually record the 1920×1080 HD signal with a sampling of 1440×1080 pixels in 3:1:1 color space. By sending the uncompressed, full raster 4:2:2 signal from the camera to the SR recorder, the team was able to preserve more of the camera’s inherent image quality. In addition, the SR deck features the unique ability to record two simultaneous 4:2:2 A and B camera inputs onto a single tape. These recordings became the equivalent of the film negative and were used for the final digital intermediate. The onboard HDCAM tapes were used as back-up tapes for reviewing footage and to create DVCAM copies for ingest into the Final Cut Pro editing station.

 

The Villa

 

Production started in Bucharest in October of 2005 with the Coppola team working out of a rented Romanian villa that served as a combination of production offices, post and living quarters. At the time, Murch was wrapping up the mix on Jarhead, so the initial assembly of Youth Without Youth was handled by Romanian editor Corina Stavila and her assistant, Andrei Dascalescu, working on a single Final Cut Pro station with media in DVCAM resolution. Coppola shot a total of 162 hours, which is the equivalent of nearly 900,000 feet of 35mm film, so the first assembly came in at about 3 and a half hours long. Stavila and Coppola’s next cut brought that down to 2 hours and 50 minutes, and this version was up-rezzed to HDCAM by Dascalescu. Murch joined the team in April 2006, along with Sean Cullen, long time first assistant and associate editor; Kevin Bailey, a post-production intern; and Pete Horner, sound designer and rerecording mixer with whom Murch had worked on Apocalypse Redux. The HDCAM version was screened at 2K resolution on a Christie digital cinema projector and at that point there was a collective sigh of relief as everyone was encouraged by the crisp and striking images on the fifty-foot wide screen.

 

Over the next few months, Murch set about the task of reviewing the dailies and recutting the film. His initial version trimmed a further 30 minutes (including restoring ten minutes of scenes that had been cut); however, the target was to bring in the film at two hours. Murch offered this rule-of-thumb, “I have found you can only cut out about 30% from a first assembly by tightening. If that gets you down to the target length, then every scene in the assembly is going to be in the finished film. But if the film has to be even shorter, you can’t just use ‘dieting and exercise.’ You have to start making more drastic surgical changes and lose some major parts of the film. Francis is a process-oriented director. He has a powerful overall vision of what he wants, but welcomes experimentation and collaboration and loves to see the film continue to reveal itself through all stages of the filmmaking process. So he encouraged us to try dropping scenes and rearranging the structure where it seemed appropriate.”

 

Vertical Editing

 

One of the advantages that Murch found to the digital image was a greater ability to manipulate it when compared with film. “Film has grain that’s fixed in size at the molecular level, but pixels are different. When you magnify a digitally-sourced image, pixels are recalculated and averaged mathematically, so the image stays sharper longer. You don’t have grain getting in the way and shots can be blown up far more than with film.  The rule of thumb with 35mm is that the grain starts to become obvious when the image is blown up more than 20%. Some shots in Youth Without Youth, however, were resized more than 120% with no visible artifacts. Arranging shots along a timeline would be considered horizontal editing, so I guess you could call this vertical editing: editing the image within the frame. Francis deliberately shot most of this film with locked-off cameras, limiting camera movement to specific moments for maximum impact. So sometimes, I would need to adjust a shot for headroom, but we also modified framing in cinematically playful ways. About a third of the shots had something done to them in post as part of the storytelling language. I was slightly apprehensive before I started doing this, thinking that it might become a time-suck, but it was quickly obvious that Final Cut Pro could handle this kind of work effortlessly, and it became second-nature. We were very lucky to have Kevin with us, because he turned out to be a whiz with Shake. The film has about 200 effects shots. Most of them were done by UPP, a great effects house in Prague, but 60 shots were done in-house by Kevin. These included getting rid of non-period artifacts, dust-busting, invisible split-screens and some blue-screen compositing.” In September, Murch worked with Coppola in Bucharest to get the cut down to two hours and a lock.

 

The in-house approach carried through to finishing, as well. Sean Cullen picked up the story, “We did all the final up-rezzing in-house. When it came time to conform the SR tapes, though, we found that their timecode wasn’t frame-accurate with the HDCAM tapes, since the deck and the cameras hadn’t been fed from an independent master timecode generator. Many shots were up to three frames out, so we recaptured with handles and then eye-matched every shot to align the SR footage with the locked cut. Once this full-resolution footage was matched, we used Shake to generate DPX files from the FCP QuickTime movies and these were sent to Laser Pacific, our DI facility. The DPX image sequences were for complete scenes and not just individual shots, so we were taking complete responsibility for the accuracy of the conform.”

 

Sound also followed an unorthodox process. Sound designer Pete Horner flew Coppola’s Digidesign ICON console (last used on Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette) to Bucharest where he did the predub mixes in a specially-constructed room at Coppola’s villa. The concept of flying a film console halfway around the world and expecting it to work the day after it arrived would have been unthinkable in the days of analog behemoths, like SSL, Neve or Harrison film mixing desks; however, the ICON is a physically small but digitally powerful 128-input control surface that functions as the front-end for a Pro Tools workstation. It doesn’t have any audio signal going through it. As such, it’s robust and portable. Music for the film, composed by Osvaldo Golijov, was recorded in Bucharest and the soundtrack album was also mixed by Pete Horner on the same ICON board.

 

Walter Murch’s Thoughts on the Role of the Editor

 

According to Murch, the term editing is inadequate to describe today’s processes, preferring instead the French word montage – which implies the constructive aspects of the job. Murch said, “Film editing consists of three integrated parts: plumbing, performance and writing. These are all dependent on each other. Plumbing is the workflow – knowing how to get the media into and out of ever-more-complicated systems in the quickest and most reliable way possible. Then there’s performance: the editor has to respond artistically to the internal rhythms of the material and to extend and develop those rhythms further in actually constructing the film. The impulse that reveals when it’s the precise moment to make a cut is exactly like a drummer hitting a cymbal or a violinist plucking a string at the right time. Finally there is writing. The nature of film is ‘abundance’ and as a result you have to be creatively selective – on Youth Without Youth our shoot-to-final-film ratio was 80:1. This process of creative compression is like writing, but using the only vocabulary an editor has at hand – sounds and images. Which shot should follow which, like constructing a sentence. Then looking at the whole and deliberating about whether scenes, once constructed, are in the correct order or even ultimately necessary to the film.” 

 

Digital production, simultaneous SR recording and DI-ready output from an inexpensive desktop system might sound like bleeding edge technology, but lessons learned on Youth Without Youth will prove invaluable for filmmakers at any budget level for years to come. Francis Ford Coppola has been a pioneer in applying video technologies to filmmaking, but this latest effort shows that desktop solutions are finally reaching the potential that was first hinted at nearly four decades ago.

 

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