Project Arbiter – the EDIT.
Project Arbiter was the most ambitious editing project I’ve had the pleasure to tackle. I wrote about my experience being an on-set editor (including the joy of dealing with RED RAW!) in a previous post you can read here.
When principle photography was wrapped, I was excited to get my hands on the rest of the footage. I knew this was going to be a massive undertaking; the footage alone takes up almost 3TB of hard drive space!
Before production even began, Mike and I discussed what he was looking for in the edit. He’s had a lot of editing experience himself (which he loves to remind me about!), so it was nice to be able to communicate clearly what he had in mind. What he mainly emphasized is that he wanted the viewer to experience a “roller-coaster” of emotions… referring to the pacing of films like “The Dark Knight” and “No Country For Old Men”, in which story and characters build up slowly to engage viewers and then take them down an unexpected plunge, only to stabilize and then grip them again with a new twist! He really envisioned strength of character development balanced out with carnage and mayhem that the Arbiter brings.
I appreciated this approach because it’s way too easy to be caught up in the wow-factor of the concept and eye-candy of visual effects, especially with how gorgeous the footage already looks! Casting and performances were also on point, which gave me several options to carefully construct the backbone of the film: the story. Now as the editor, I take pride in knowing that how I piece together the film is absolutely critical to the success of that, so I took this role on very seriously.
Organizing the Onslaught:
I spent the first week simply reviewing and logging all of the footage available. If there’s anything I’ve learned in all my years editing is that the more organized you are now, the less headache there is later. I meticulously screened through every clip and created columns for all kinds of info to help organize myself.
Since we were expecting a 20-25 minute film, I also decided to split up the edit into several sequences. It allowed me to focus on the emotion of a scene or two without getting overwhelmed with others.
Now that I had all of the clips neatly organized in front of me, it was time to get cuttin’!
From the beginning, Mike pushed for a very aggressive schedule to get through post (full rough cut in just a few weeks!). He just wanted to make sure we didn’t get stuck in “post-hell.” So did I! I’ve heard about this place and it’s where many indie flicks go to die. It’s an often under-estimated part of the process and without proper preparation and continuing momentum, it would just become a statistic. Although it meant I had to put other projects on hold, I knew it was a smart move because it also allowed me to give 100% of my focus to the film.
The first scene I tackled was an intense confrontation between two characters, Heinrich and Reiner. I can’t get into too much detail about the choices I made in the edit, but I found that even when playing with a relatively simple dialogue scene, cutting can be really fun because timing is so crucial to establish pivotal emotional moments. I showed Mike a quick rough cut of the scene, and he was pretty happy with the direction it was going in.
But what’s Project Arbiter without the battle sequence? This was the part of the film that demanded complete focus and attention because so many things were going on. It’s a hectic and complex part of the film that involved parallel editing, and trying to make the pieces fit seamlessly was a tough puppy. Order of shots, continuity, timing, and knowing when to cut back and forth between sequences in the story all had to be taken into account. Also, because of the magnitude of VFX shots that were going to be in the completed film, I only had footage plates available in which CGI elements were to be placed in, which forced me to imagine the timing and movement of all of the tank and plane shots. Eventually I created placeholder shots with text like, “TANK!” and “EXPLOSION!” which helps when viewing the cut.
I continued forward and hammered out scene after scene. Within a few weeks, I was able to screen for Mike (Writer/Director), Vicki (Producer), and Jesse (VFX) a full rough cut of the film. We editors love to emphasize “rough” because it’s all too easy for people to be overly critical about it (and of course for us to become overly defensive)! But this was understood all-around that I had yet to really get my hands dirty. Still, they were able to offer overall thoughts and suggestions about what to keep in mind when I go back in to fine-tune it.
The next several weeks after that was a series of screenings, revisions and fine-tuning. I’m pretty stoked for the fine cut I handed over to Mike. I knew I had successfully fine-tuned the cut to his liking, judging by his reactions to the movie, the story, the actors, and not the edit itself. One of the comments he made while watching the latest cut: “Now we’ve got a MOVIE!”
From there, we tag-teamed on the final cut by splitting up the sequences and trading project files back and forth. We also brought in a few more crew members to view the edit and offer more feedback. It’s always interesting to observe how fresh eyes react to the film; they often spot things that are hard to catch because we are so familiar with the footage.
One of the cool new features of Final Cut Pro 7 that we took full advantage of is iChat theater. This allows people to have a live view of what’s playing in the project timeline via iChat. Though it doesn’t play at full-res (understandably), it was still a great way to conference online while watching the edit together since we live 90 minutes away… And at the end of a long work day in full San Francisco traffic, it was helpful to my energy for discussion. It also allowed me to make revisions to an edit in real-time and show Mike the result within seconds. This allowed a very efficient flow of experimenting with ideas for cuts!
Reflection in the Director/Editor relationship:
I learned a lot about the director/editor relationship in this project. As editor, I know it’s my job to fully realize the director’s vision, but at the same time, I found it important to be able to construct the story in the best possible way, even if that meant offering alternate ways of cutting a scene that he didn’t expect. I mentioned earlier about Mike’s background in editing and how it helped our communication. Of course we’d butt heads sometimes, but it was all part of the process. Some things he liked and some things he didn’t. Because of his familiarity with the craft, it forced me to work harder in thinking of new ways to structure sequences that I could present to him. Some of the most rewarding moments came when he said, “that’s interesting you decided to cut it that way – it totally works!”
Now that picture is locked and VFX has officially started, I can rest knowing the film is in good hands. The potential for this film is limitless. I must say, it’s already impressive as a cut and I can only imagine how much more of an impact this will make when all color grading, visual effects, sound design and score fully kick in! I’m proud to have been an integral part of this team that is bringing Mike’s baby to life. ENGAGE!!!
Learn more behind-the-scenes from the talented crew and stay updated on the latest happenings on the official Project Arbiter blog!