Unity Series Part III: Editors

Putting All The Pieces Together. By Pauline Rogers.

It’s fitting that our third unity series installment hones in on IATSE editors, given that our April issue’s theme is new technology. Other than camera, few departments have undergone a more dramatic technological upheaval than postproduction. Or as L.A.-based Local 700 member Julie Rogers (Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Kit Kittredge) points out, “The splicer has gone the way of the buggy whip,” replaced by computers, monitors and sophisticated, albeit at times mysterious, software that has engulfed the editor’s room. New tech to be sure, but has the actual craft and role of editorial also changed?

Randy Morgan, ACE, who’s won two Emmy Awards for ER, and also counts the episodic shows Crash and Law and Order among his credits, says no other sector seems to have so many “notions about an individual’s role in the production of a motion picture as editing.” But Andrew Weisblum, ACE, whose recent credits include Black Swan and The Wrestler, supports the age-old notion that editing is mostly rewriting, just with a lot less time to get the job done. Or as Oscar-nominee Lisa Churgin, ACE, describes: “We find all the good bits and ignore the bad.”

Julie Rogers

No doubt that while the set is the center of the universe during production, “the editing room is its center in post-production,” as Bill Pankow, ACE (Bonfire of the Vanities, Letters to Juliet, Trespass), correctly observes. But that center is no longer an island. These days, editors can be found on-set, as Stephen E. Rivkin, ACE and John Refoua, ACE were for the ultra-advanced digital workflow of Avatar. The pair used performance capture reference material to match computer-generated elements in editing. On Cats & Dogs II, Rogers reports being in contact with director Brad Peyton via a direct feed to the stage three floors away from her cutting room. “I could see what was happening on the main and second unit sets,” Rogers says, “and be in communication with cinematographer Steven Poster, ASC, to understand how he was lighting the sets and placing the cameras.”

In fact, editors are in a unique position to, as Weisblum notes, “offer objectivity” to a project that no one from the set can. For example, he says it was clear during the assembly process for The Wrestler, that one significant and complicated scene would be better left out because it was getting in the way of sympathy for the main character and not contributing any other information to the story. “No one else on the film could see it at that point,’ Weisblum explains, “because they were preoccupied with working out the details of its execution. I have a unique point-of-view in that my job has nothing to do with the logistics of a set.”

Editors also must account for a project’s end platform. “Cutting dialog is much the same for television as for a movie, but with Dirty Dancing we needed [a way] to show the process that Baby went through to learn to dance, that didn’t take up too much time and pushed the movie forward,” says Peter C. Frank, ACE “My current show [Blue Bloods], on the other hand, is more concerned with moving the procedural forward and developing the character’s stories within the family, all at the rapid pace required for contemporary television.”

Peter Frank

Often the creative instincts of the editorial team come into play. Churgin cites an example from the recent rom-com, The Ugly Truth, where the film’s star, Katherine Heigl, returns from a very bad blind date. “At the end of the evening, her skirt got caught in a car door as she was standing near it,” Churgin recounts. “When the man took off in the car, her skirt was pulled off, and she was left standing in her underwear, in front of a group of people. We later took that scene out. But we needed her to come back home from the date. So, through movie magic, her skirt was painted back on as she was standing alone in her apartment. My contribution was recommending that we take the [curb] scene out because it worked against the story. Our main character got too desperate too early in the film and we needed her to be more likeable.”

Sometimes an editor’s best efforts are mostly spent making the difficult look simple. “On Training Day, there were a few scenes between Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke that were editorial challenges,” describes Conrad Buff, ACE, who won an Oscar for Titanic. “They were riding through the streets of Los Angeles, two guys in a car talking. Many days. Many takes. There was an overwhelming amount of footage, with plenty of performance variants and wonderful ad-libs, especially by Denzel. And it was all exacerbated by the ebb and flow of the actors’ energy as the day progressed on, [with] a camera tow rig and the director communicating from another vehicle. Maintaining balance, dramatic energy and pace, visual continuity and harnessing actors’ experiments were all left in my hands. So many options in apparently simple scenes became much more difficult than any action sequence I’ve ever done!”

Conrad Buff

Morgan describes how communication and partnership among editors leads to superior results. “On the series Fear Itself, I had an episode involving a man with a dual personality, where the alter-ego was pure evil,” he recalls. “Toward the end of the episode, he’s lying on his bed as his world caves in around him. And when his loving wife comes to confront him, he eventually leaps up and brutally murders her.

“I had the idea of creating a montage in picture and sound while our character is lying on the bed, flashing back on all the horrors that have brought him to this point,” Morgan continues. “One of the other talented editors on the series, Lynne Willingham, came to offer help with my tight schedule. I told her my idea and she said she would take a whack at it. A short time later, she returned with an amazing impressionistic montage of clips and snips of picture and sound that created a vivid view into our character’s tormented mind. The idea was mine but Lynne had carried it to lengths I would never have accomplished. That’s just one example of how editors working together can feed off each other to help the story along.”

Randy Morgan

Nowhere does the credo “communication within departments” count more than in postproduction. And it begins with the underestimated, but all-important, relationship with the cinematographer. For Washington Square, David Siegel, ACE (Leverage, Mad Men, Rome, Law and Order) worked closely with both director Agnieszka Holland and Jerzy Zielenski, ASC.

Siegel explains “the opening scene started on the clouds and in one camera move, traveled through the trees, into a brownstone, up a flight of stairs and ended up on a woman during childbirth. I worked with [Holland and Zielenski] on-set to create the series of shots, camera speeds and angles, and green screens needed to make four shots appear as one. I always welcome my collaboration with the DP and meet as early as possible to discuss the look of a project. Communication is the best way a DP and editor can help each other, especially because the digital workflow impacts how we post.”

Andrew Weisblum

Weisblum seconds that approach, adding that, “because we had no storyboards on Black Swan, I found myself on set quite a few times. I worked closely with Matty Libatique [ASC] and Darren Aronofsky to discuss possible additional shots so that we had options on a sequence. It always helps to be in sync with [production] so we can build on each other’s ideas.”

Pankow, too, feels the director/editor/cinematographer triumvirate is key to a project’s success. “I’ve had the good fortune to work on films shot by such accomplished cinematographers as Stephen Burum [ASC] and Vilmos Zsigmond [ASC],” he says. “The cinematographer’s attention to detail and coverage, as well as to scene transitions, has helped me immeasurably. The more choices we are offered in the editing room, the more layered and nuanced the director’s vision can be.”

Bill Pankow

Live action gets most of the attention when it comes to deft and artful editing, even though, as Dreamworks’ Animation James Ryan points out, “animation editors are charged with the same tasks – determining the pacing from shot to shot, scene to scene, and picking the best performances. How we get to the end result is where the differences lie.”

Or as Rich Dietl, also with Dreamworks, adds “Animation editing starts at the beginning and never stops until the film is done.”

In fact, animation editors are continually re-cutting as scenes travel through different departments, growing more complex with each step. And they have more tools at their disposal.

“If [a live action editor] wants an actor to deliver an important line in a close-up,” Ryan points out, “they are tied to whatever single take works best. In animation, the performance begins with dialog and no picture, so the editor can combine the best parts of the best takes. We can even adjust pacing, tightening or lengthening pauses.”

“As opposed to starting with a complete script, individual scenes are pitched to the team, and acted out by the animators, in front of storyboards that they have created,” adds Siegel, who worked on Shrek the Third.

David Siegel

“Because we’re starting with storyboards, we can often add camera moves within the AVID, or cobble storyboards together to create a new shot if needed,” says Dietl. “Maybe a nice crane shot would work in the scene; we can try it out and see if it works.”

The other big difference with animation is the production timeline, with the average animated feature covering three years. “If we want to try a new camera angle or a new line of dialog, we can just call down a storyboard artist or get out the microphone and give it a try,” Ryan says. “There’s no need for an expensive re-shoot.”

Visual Effects is another aspect of the editor’s craft that’s often overlooked. Sharon Smith Holley (Stuart Little, Grinch, 2 Fast 2 Furious) says a VFX editing room is usually packed with people who are firing on all creative cylinders at once. “I remember when we were doing 2 Fast 2 Furious,” Smith says. “John Swallow, who was overseeing VFX for Universal, and director John Singleton came up with interesting possibilities for us to put together. And I watched [VFX supervisor] Mike Wassell literally create some shots in my cutting room on his laptop, which were then sent for film outs. We had two pre-vis people down the hall working with footage I would export, who would then turn around and give me post-vis shots for the cut to help move the story by showing what the VFX house would deliver, whether we used them for studio screenings or previews of the race sequences. They were exciting with these temp shots.”

Increasing the thrill quotient for viewers is what new technology is all about. But how will these complex digital tools impact the editor’s craft over the next decade? Carol Littleton, ACE was an Oscar nominee for E.T., and an Emmy nominee for Tuesdays with Morrie. Her most recent film was last winter’s Country Strong. Littleton, a self-described “old film editor,” says she can see the writing on the wall and the world of editorial is at crossroads.

“Digital capture has replaced shooting on film for the majority of television production, and it is likely that advanced digital cameras will allow for their predominate use in features,” Littleton states. “With the current digital tools, the workflow from camera to a finished film is chaotic at best, with digital post companies doing the work once done by film laboratories and telecine houses.” Littleton says the management of digital RAW files now falls “either to the DIT on the set, a digital post-production house and/or to the assistant editor. So that means the first steps of post-production [like converting RAW files] are shared by camera and editorial with no clear lines of responsibility. And [the new digital technology] has editorial doing an increasing number of jobs. I can still remember the days when we screened our first cut on film with grease pencil dissolves and two sound tracks, mixing on the fly!”

Lisa Churgin

Over the last 10 to 15 years, as many veteran editors polled for this article have shared, the picture editor’s craft has expanded to include cutting sound effects and music, AVID mixes, title design, and special visual effects, all of which are generated on their individual workstations. “I remember the first time I worked on an AVID,” Littleton continues. “The producer asked if I really needed an assistant since their work would be done by the AVID! Have you counted how many people are on the editorial staff in post-production these days? Or how many editors are required to get to the final mix? The workstation may have the software, but the editor still does the work. And it’s imperative Local 700 stays abreast of the latest technologies, defines new jobs, trains our members in the latest digital procedures, and uses all that knowledge as leverage in the collective bargaining process.”

Churgin, a past president of the Motion Picture Editors Guild, is in complete agreement. “Unions protect us in every way,” she concludes. “I have been in situations where the studio has tried to take advantage of me, and of others. One particular time was when the head of post-production scheduled a sound check screening late in the day. That meant we had to work until 2 a.m. to mix the sound for our screening the next day. The studio attempted to not pay for that overtime. But the union made a call. They are there to protect all of us, in so many ways.”