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The future of editing may not lie in the tools editors use but the new formats that feature their work. By Randy Astle

New Media, New Cuts



FALL 2012


or 117 years, film editing has been a pretty stable business. Sure, there have been upsets and paradigm shifts the rise of Hollywood classicism, montage and Russian formalism, linear then nonlinear video-based systems. But as a rule, a film editor has always come in at the end of a project and assembled the images and sounds to convey a story or theme. The tools continue to evolve, of course: its now been a year and a half since the complete redesign of Final Cut Pro and just a few months since Adobe revamped Premiere Pro in version CS6, integrating FCP Xs best ideas, avoiding its pitfalls, and making it all available on its Creative Cloud subscription service (a potential game-changer in how postproduction tools are distributed to users). New products from Avid, Lightworks, Sony, and a dozen other competitors will continue to give editors options and abilities undreamt of in the days of D. W. Griffith. But the art, craft and business of editing are changing in even more radical and much less obvious ways. The rise of new mobile media technology is changing the filmmaking landscape just as much as video did, and the resulting bevy of different products apps, games, transmedia, etc. is affecting postproduction as well. No longer is editing a distinct task performed at the tail end of the production process; in new media, editors are just as often involved in preproduction as in post as projects are developed in an iterative process resembling software development more than traditional filmmaking. Not surprisingly, new products and new workflows are giving rise to new career paths for editors as well. Interactive films, apps, previsualization and video games are just four of the many fields now using editing in new ways, but looking just at them may help give the lay of the land for editors interested in the entire field of new media.

Christopher Allen at the Panoptic exhibition of Living Los Sures

The broad term interactive film may be somewhat problematic. As Christopher Allen, founder and artistic director of UnionDocs, says, it ought to mean something more than just creating a slideshow or DVD menu. Interactive films, at their best, present video and related media in a way that allows users to navigate through it differently with each viewing, thus becoming intricately involved in shaping the finished product. And UnionDocs specializes in this. Founded as a nonprofit in 2002, UnionDocs set out to investigate the intersection of art and politics in all media; this gradually moved the organization toward documentary, though radio, photography, performance and other interactive forms remain a large part of the mix. Today, from its base in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it serves as a socially engaged media center, sponsoring more than 100 screenings and events each year and producing numerous projects, including running a year-long collaborative program that trains aspiring newmedia documentarians while letting them work meaningfully on real projects. This social consciousness is exemplified in one of its current projects, Living Los Sures. The concept came from the 1984 film Los

Sures by Diego Echeverria, a portrait of life in Williamsburg, which at that time was one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City. When Allen first received the film from local filmmakers Paco de Ons and Pamela Yates, he organized a few public screenings but soon realized that UnionDocs could do much more with it: It made sense to use it to find a way to more deeply engage some of Williamsburgs local problems and connect with the many different populations and people living here. We wanted to use the energy of our collective group to think about place and identity and community in a time thats really different from what was captured in the original film. The result is an open-ended project centered around a restoration and potential broadcast of the original film during its 30th anniversary in 2014, along with many shorter traditional films about Williamsburg today. Theres also an interactive annotation of the original: Using Popcorn, HTML5 and other tools users will be able, for example, to slide back and forth between Echeverrias original piece and UnionDocs footage shot decades later at the same spot and with the same framing. The philosophy is to treat the film like a river, with different interactive ele-


ments at different bends in the original, depending on what most appropriately adds substance to the story. Were not making a seamless interactive experience meant to be consumed in one sitting, Allen says. What were doing is more fractured, involves more satellites, and is more about a multiplicity of projects and voices that fall underneath a kind of heading and spirit. [Its] more about a wave of creativity than a singular piece. The Living in Living Los Sures implies that the piece wont have any definite completion date either, leaving the window open for more media to be created for years to come. The chief challenge of interactive film such as this is that it essentially creates a new film grammar with each viewing. Andre Almeida, a UnionDocs program director and Ph.D. candidate in interactive documentary, says that where traditional editing is a process of juxtaposition of images, with one image coming after the other, when youre doing an interactive documentary you can cut from an image to a sound or to something completely different. Because of this its almost like you are creating a new language with each project. So first you need to define the language, and then you need to find the limits of the language and the grammar of the language. Though thats complicated enough, its only half the equation since users are so involved in creating the finished piece, which thus changes each time its consumed. How much is the user supposed to interfere with the flow of the edit? Almeida asks. How much is the user considered an editor himself? Almeidas dissertation focuses on how interactive docs can maintain a traditional film feel while still being controlled by the viewer. Its what UnionDocs strives for, but most interactive documentaries are not doing that, he says. Theyre doing a multimedia experience where you dont have a very steady flow of a film-like experience. This paradox between maintaining and surrendering control of the narrative is arguably the most exciting issue in interactive film today, and the editor is right at the middle of it. What are such projects like for an editor on a day-to-day basis? First, interactive films bring the editor in much earlier in the process. Its sort of a preproduction task, Allen says. Youre thinking through the frameworks and tasks first, and as we see more interesting things happening with algorithms, with increased separation between

the audio and the video tracks, and so on, you have to make the decisions earlier. There isnt an editing tool that does this. You dont know exactly what youre going to get, so then you need to have a testing platform to be able to play with this stuff and not just have it be abstract. Editing becomes an iterative process as different drafts of the film are created including being reshot or recoded until you arrive at something that works: preproduction, production and postproduction all fuse together as the product is refined. Because this is new territory, Allen adds, its fair to say were experimenting with it and havent figured out a path that makes total sense. But it definitely doesnt follow a traditional workflow for documentary production. Second, since theres so much planning and coding involved, theres rarely one person thought of as the editor anymore. Instead, all of the filmmakers at UnionDocs contribute to the editing the same way they do to the narrative or graphic design. Theres still specialization, to be sure, especially with the linear videos, but the collaborative community engendered by UnionDocs educational program means everyone can have a say in all parts of a projects development. When I asked if coders should just learn a Final Cut app then sit around a table and collaborate, Allen laughed and said, Yeah, I think that works really well, especially when you have such widely divorced image and audio tracks, or with some types of projects allowing the attention of the viewer to be the editing mechanism. Thus, while its not a requirement to learn HTML5, for instance, film editors interested in interactivity should still be prepared to work on all aspects of a project from beginning to end. Where will interactive film be in five or 10 years? Due to the formats steep cost and the conservative nature of funding organizations, Almeida thinks it wont look too different from today. But as the technology improves and the benefits of interactivity such as greater exposure for all that expensive footage that usually disappears in traditional documentarys high shooting ratios become apparent, more projects will get off the ground. Allen predicts, I would say that theres going to be more hybridity and that more exciting work will come from people who embrace a wider set of disciplines and are interested in not really conceiving themselves as performing one kind of role, but are working with teams in a

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

collaborative environment and taking on lots of different tasks. At some point I think things will become more institutionalized, but the exciting work will happen with experimental teams of people from the less commercially oriented, more socially engaged groups.

Apps for Apple, Android, Kindle Fire, or other devices are simply one specific way in which interactive material can be distributed. Though still the newest medium examined in this article, apps are already ubiquitous in the cultural landscape. Video-based apps abound, and inasmuch as they present linear videos, the editors role adheres to traditional practice. Its where video interacts with games or other elements that the editing process becomes more interesting and indicates the way handheld devices may most strongly shape filmmaking in the years to come. One of the most innovative companies producing narrative apps today is Moonbot Studios in Shreveport, LA. Like many current small production companies, Moonbot, which was founded in 2009 and now has more than 40 employees, works in multiple disciplines, as exemplified by their best-known property, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. Conceived by Moonbot co-founder William Joyce, who has a long credit list in feature and television animation, it began as a short, animated film about a bibliophile and the sentient books he loves. While it was in development, the iPad was announced and, as Moonbots inhouse editor Calvin ONeal says, everyone on the team got excited about the storytelling possibilities. It made us think of all the wild things we could do to tell the story in different ways. The traditional film went forward, however, and was released in 2011 to great success, winning the Oscar for Best

Animated Short Film. The team turned immediately to an ebook app released this year exclusively for iPad (topping the iPad sales chart in July), followed by a print childrens book and another app, the IMAG-N-OTRON, that allows users to point an iPhone or iPad camera at the book and hear narration and see additional animation. Moonbots other apps an interactive music video for the song Bullseye by Polyphonic Spree, and the educational narrative app The Numberlys evince the same attention to quality narrative and visual detail; stylistic influences include Buster Keaton, Metropolis and The Wizard of Oz, for starters. So how do they conceive their projects and how does ONeal, as the staffs resident editor, fit into the process? The workflow is pretty similar to making a film for us, he says, perhaps because many of us at Moonbot come from a filmmaking background. When we make apps, we approach it the same way as if we want to make a book or a movie. The Numberlys features a narrative about five friends who reticently build the first letters in an industrialized world full only of numbers. The app feels like a narrative film that just happens to contain small games, where users create each letter through different tasks, rather than as a game with animated cut-scenes or interstitials. In this case, because the film portions and the games are distinct, ONeals job was to work on the videos, storyboarding and developing characters and the narrative as much as we did with Morris Lessmore. He continues, From a filmmaking standpoint my workflow doesnt change much its much more like an interactive short film. That may be so, but ONeals involvement in the storyboarding process reveals how the high degree of planning required for interactive media requires a workflow much more

akin to animation than to traditional live-action. As ONeal says, Its a really organic and collaborative process. When a story is laid down for the first time, every member of the team whether theyre an artist, programmer, or animator tries to make it better and better. I get to see all of the progress firsthand as an editor because I need to see what works and doesnt for the cut.Moonbots directors, William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg, are always open to feedback and on our interactive projects you get to have a lot of input as an editor.Being part of that collaborative process is really rewarding and exciting because it makes our stories stronger. Apps will not replace traditional films or books, ONeal asserts, but there is plenty of room for apps to grow in a storytelling sense and expand the experience you get in a book or a film. And that creates new avenues for editors as well.

Previsualization is not a new concept its been around as long as filmmaking itself but it belongs in this reassessment of editing because it is the activity that so visibly lifts the craft out of postproduction and inserts it into the preproduction process. Previsualization, in a nutshell, is the process by which directors, cinematographers and others plan out their shots before filming to guide the crew and best utilize the time on set. Previs has evolved from the storyboards of Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock through simple animatics and story reels to todays complex computer-generated sequences that guide not only the angles to be shot on set but the cutting points at which theyll be joined later. The advantage of using computers is that single variables a lens, the camera angle, or an actors placement can be changed without altering anything else,

yielding a collaborative, iterative process that allows animators to revise continually until the shot, and shots, appear just right. Today one of the preeminent previs companies in the world is The Third Floor in Los Angeles. Founded in 2004 as an outgrowth of Lucasfilm (the name refers to its original location on the third floor of the Skywalker Ranch house), The Third Floor has worked on a large number of Hollywood films: The Avengers, Star Trek, Alice in Wonderland, Avatar, Men in Black 3 and so on. CEO and creative director Chris Edwards, who began as a layout artist and character animator for Disney, has guided the company through this immense string of credits and helped create new concepts like postvis, in which previsualization is combined with shot footage in the postproduction/FX process, and pitchvis, in which previs sequences are used to convey a filmmakers concept to clients and funding entities. Edwards is quick to point out that its not only big-budget action films that can benefit from previs, as the companys work on films such as Project X attests. While action scenes stand out as priorities, the key is to have a sequence of previs imagery cut together to give the crew a much clearer idea of where the progression of events is headed. This can help indie film as much as a Hollywood picture as it can shave a day off your shooting schedule or ensure that you dont underestimate or overestimate how much equipment to rent. Its just a matter of scaling the level of execution. The process, again, is one of creating various iterations and refining the product as a collaborative group. Edwards says, Iteration is at the core of the previs process.Its important to have that sandbox for filmmakers to be able to try out various ways to shoot and cut a sequence. In the past, editors would have to wait for the production dailies to

A previs and nal image from Men in Black 3



FALL 2012


come in before the real iterative exploration could begin. Now with previs, directors are able to deliver many versions of their imagery during preproduction. This fundamentally changes the traditional role of editors because they can request additional previs footage to help strengthen the sequence long before the camera rolls. We believe that this makes the editor an even more important player in the careful crafting of a film. When asked how that process plays out, he says, Our previs supervisors often work on the first version of a sequence with one of our inhouse editors. Sequences are also improved through creative brainstorming among our previs artists. Its definitely a team effort. The whole idea is to put a sequence up on reels as soon as possible, so that the director, producer and their closest advisors can evaluate the state of each sequence and debate ways to improve it, or to make it possible. The Third Floor has a team of editors on the payroll, but what is their creative contribution to a finished film? Often the final picture editors are busy cutting their current film, while the previs team is tasked with designing scenes for their next film, says Edwards. So we supply our own editors until the final picture editors are fully available. Ideally, it would be best to have the final picture editor working on the previs cut from the beginning, but if the schedule or budget doesnt permit this, we advocate for the editor to be involved during previs sequence review sessions. This is an area where the business model for editors could be improved to enable them to be paid a retainer for part-time involvement during preproduction. Nor does previs imply that directors wont have the freedom to create coverage and provide their traditional editors with strong choices. Our previs teams always work to serve up as much coverage of every virtual action as possible so that were not dictating the shot order or shot length. Those are decisions to be made in continuity in the cutting room.

episodically are contributing to this evolution, but the most prominent feature is player control over narrative flow and editors are playing a role in making that happen. Theyre doing so, however, in roles like cinematic designers, meaning they must expand their skillset to include writing and the use of animation tools beyond Final Cut Pro. Eric Parsons is a lead cinematic artist at Telltale Games in San Rafael, Calif. Telltale, which works exclusively with adapted properties like Monkey Island, Wallace & Gromit and the zombie-themed The Walking Dead, from Robert Kirkmans 2003 comic book

series. This latter game is released in small episodes that nontraditional gamers can get through in a reasonable timeframe but that, like a television season, allow for more intricate plotting in the long run. It also allows players huge amounts of control over their character during dialogue scenes that would have traditionally played as linear videos. Not only does this involve extensive editorial and animation work, but choices made during these scenes whether to help or abandon another character, for instance can have repercussions well down the road, see page 82

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its often very often small things or small insights that make a movie linger with me. Plots are [frequently] like a joke, all about getting to a punch line and then its all neatly wrapped up and youre left with nothing to take away. The movie ends on a very ambiguous note, in the middle of a conversation, seemingly. Was that originally how you planned to do it, or was that something you found in the editing process? No, that was always the end of the picture. Does the novel end in a similar way? Well, the novel doesnt wear its agenda on its sleeve so much. I mean, the lms not exactly subtle with what its trying to say. Whereas the novels not really concerned about larger Forces at work in the country? Yeah. And you know, thats something that the lms being criticized for, that it is kind of obvious, which I sort of feel like it needs to be, you know? Basically, crimes have been committed and nobody gives a shit. In a way, thats whats so fascinating about the fact that people are on the streets today. One year after the Occupy movement began, still no one has gone to jail for crimes that have cost people their livelihoods and savings. It seems like no one does care anymore. In fact, if you raise this stuff, it makes people very uncomfortable. And that seems to be whats happened with some of the critical response to the lm, with people whove said, Its fucking obvious. But I feel like you do need to take the gloves off to make people hear anything anymore. Is America a political idea or is it just an economic idea? Well, at one point, you have Brad Pitt say that the country is simply a business. I mean, isnt that the American idea? I feel that capitalisms the American idea. Certainly the way its focused in this country is the reason why perhaps America has the edge, or it used to have the edge, anyway; everything was invented in this country. But I think whats happened over a period of time is that everythings been moved offshore. Americans used to manufacture everything. Maybe thats when they had their economic strength because, basically, at the end of the wars, all the competition was just bombed at. So America was the country that was producing. But whats happening now is they dont produce anything here anymore. They just move it all offshore. Everybody else makes the stuff and the countrys almost like middle management. What were some of the more difficult things to make work in terms of the editing and postproduction? It feels very brisk at 95 minutes, cer82 FILMMAKER FALL 2012

tainly. Its very hard to just make scenes of that length play. Thats the hardest thing, to balance it all correctly. Editing is just such a mysterious process. Its like acupuncture the problem might be in the liver, but you put the pin in the foot. The main thing was just selecting all the facts, getting all the right facts, and less about going away from some things that had reworks in them. Also on a movie when you have bad dailies, the scene is really easy to cut because only six percent of what youve shot is good. So you immediately throw away 94 percent and deal with whats left. This lm was hard because a lot of stuff was just so fucking good. It was a really laborious, timeconsuming process to go through and select each moment. It was exhausting in its way. It was just difficult to cut from that point of view. Do you still feel like youre learning as a lmmaker? Are there aspects of this movie that taught you things? Theres nothing that you do in the previous lm that necessarily helps you for the next lm. Each lm has its own specic set of problems and the solution that worked for you the last time doesnt necessarily work for you this time. Chopper was the movie where I was able to throw out everything that I didnt think was good and I made the lm out of what was left over, and I certainly couldnt do that with Jesse James. Jesse James I had to throw away stuff that was fantastic and I had to keep stuff that I thought was less than perfect and then nd ways of making it better. That was really hard to cut. And then, this movie was just kind of grueling to cut because you just had these sort of amazing dialogue things. I almost saw the movie as being like a play, and it was also hard because it doesnt have a huge emotional center. The other lms swim in much more emotional water than this one does. The principal character of this lm in some ways is really struggling to let his feelings get anywhere near him. Hes always trying to make life easy on himself. Nobody actually enjoys doing any of this stuff that they have to do. [Crime] is a job and its a job thats just preceded by problems, and the problems are just dull problems. Theyre political problems. One of the lms Ive watched a lot in relation to this picture was the Maysles brothers documentary Salesman. Do you know of that? I know it very well. I just wanted it to feel like that, where everythings just a fucking grind. With the heist, its not like they approach it like a Swiss watch, trying to work out some super heist where theyre deeply involved in

every detail of it. They treat it like a job, and consequently, theyre more interested in the girl theyre going to fuck or what theyre going to spend their money on or what happens to be going on in their personal lives at the time. And the actual crime is something theyre not thinking about because its boring. I wanted it to have that kind of feel where the plot is something thats sort of tucked away in the corner, and really what youre doing is, youre dealing with stuff a movie like this normally wouldnt what their attitudes are and what theyre concerned about, which is all stuff thats outside the plot. So its a strange kind of lm.


from page 69 making the design of the game architecture more complex than ever before. Thus, the work of cinematic designers, who oversee such interactive cut-scenes, is expanding. Parsons, whose background is as a character animator, explains, Cinematic artists get to do work that incorporates aspects of animation, cinematography and editing to create the cinematic content of the games. We work closely with the episodes director, designer and writer to learn what our particular scene needs to accomplish within the story and then we go to work blocking the characters around the scenes, setting up shots and building character performances from our library of animations. We start by building the content at whats effectively a previs stage and take it all the way to complete shipping work. Once again this is an iterative process, involving animators and layout artists much like Moonbot does with its apps. Where The Walking Dead might resemble Living Los Sures more than The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, however, is in the branching narrative structure created by users as much as by the design team (though surrendering this control is less of an issue with games than with interactive film). There are technical aspects that are definitely a huge deal, Parsons says. The right branches need to be playing and we need to make sure that information is being properly carried across episodes. The bigger deal for me, personally, because Ive had to make a good deal of it, is the amount of extra content that has to be made to support all the choices and branching content. I think our writers are turning out something like the equivalent of four feature-length scripts for every two- to three-hour episode.