Tim Squyres and Mike Fay talk about editing Ang Lee's latest film

Tim Squyres has edited all but one of Ang Lee’s films, only missing out on Brokeback Mountain due to a scheduling conflict while editing Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana. Nominated for an Oscar for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Squyres has also worked with Robert Altman (Gosford Park) and Jonathan Demme (Rachel Getting Married). The latest Lee film, Taking Woodstock, was shot on film but telecined to HDCAM, giving Squyres and assistant editor Mike Fay more flexibility—and fidelity—throughout the offline edit.

Fay worked in a cutting room at Deluxe NY; Squyres cut everything at his home on a MacBook Pro with local FireWire storage. They communicated via e-mail and iChat, and dailies were sent out to Squyres’ house on the train. At one point during production, Squyres left for the mountains and a week of skiing. But he didn’t stop working. He would ski in the morning, then spend the remainder of each day editing on his laptop, set up with a rental Avid Mojo DX and a monitor and speakers for full-screen viewing. The team moved to Post Factory for the final conform, where they worked on two Avid Nitris DX systems and a software-only workstation, dedicated to the second assistant.

Squyres and Fay talk about how it all came together—including the evolution of Squyres’ long-time collaboration with Lee—and how HD has both simplified and complicated the editing process.

How was the process in Taking Woodstock different from your work on Rachel Getting Married, which was structured more like a documentary?

Tim Squyres: Rachel Getting Married didn’t have an extraordinary amount of footage but it was only shot in 34 days, so there was a huge amount of complicated footage that was getting dumped in my lap every day that had to get organized and grouped, sometimes with multiple cameras, sometimes with cameras stopping and starting—one camera stopping and starting and another one not—it was all very complicated, because of the semi-documentary way that he shot.

Taking Woodstock, on the other hand, was shot much more traditionally, with takes that could be done over again, instead of staging it like an event and then shooting it like a documentary, which is what Jonathan Demme did. On Taking Woodstock, there were days when it was just a perfectly normal narrative shoot and then days when they shot with a bunch of cameras, especially when they were doing the big crowd scenes. Most of the time they shot with two cameras. But in terms of the footage coming in, there wasn’t anything exceptional about it, do you think, Mike?

Mike Fay: No, we had certain scenes, as you pointed out, where we were shooting different stages, all at the same time, where we’d have the two main 35 mm cameras, and also Super 16, 35 mm, 16 mm cameras all going at once. Grouping that took more time.

TS: Often, the two 35 mm cameras would be shooting the principle action but the 16 mm would be off shooting something else on its own, and that action might or might not overlap with the principal camera. And the two 16 mm camera operators were dressed as extras, so they could be in the shot. Sometimes, it was almost impossible to group, and sometimes, it didn’t need to be grouped.

Were these multi-format/multi-camera shoots new to Ang Lee?

TS: Yes, he had never done that before. We had shot with multiple cameras before, but always only with 35.

You had an interesting setup during production on this film.

TS: I worked on a software-only Media Composer at home on a laptop. The dailies would come in to Deluxe, Mike would digitize them there, then somebody would bring the hard drive out to me on the train, about a half-hour train ride from New York. I’m right near the station, so it wouldn’t take me long to get down there and swap hard drives. Now I cut at home. On Rachel Getting Married, I used a Mojo—downconverted to SD and worked off a monitor. On this one, I tried to work in HD in fullscreen, and I only did an HD downconvert to make DVDs, which I would then send back to set.  Then we moved to PostFactory in Manhattan and onlined on a pair of Nitris DS systems—we each had our own room—connected to a Unity. Even then, I would occasionally work on my home system, so I always kept my home system up-to-date.

How long have you been working like that?

TS: I’ve actually cut four features on my laptop—a little one, and Ang Lee’s previous film, Lust/Caution, and then Rachel Getting Married. On Lust/Caution it turned out to be especially helpful because we were cutting in Rye, N.Y., and we had a couple of floods. In fact, one tore out the whole garage under our building and we had no power for quite a while. So fortunately, I had my system at home. All of our stuff was on an upper floor and was OK, but we couldn’t get into the room or the building, for that matter. But I could take my home system, set it up at Ang’s house, and we just worked there for a few days.

How would you describe the process you’ve developed working with with Lee over the years?

TS: At this point, I’d say I’m pretty good at anticipating what I ought to be doing. He doesn’t ever give me any instructions—sort of minimal script notes, but we don’t sit and watch dailies together. We never have. The only film in which we did was Hulk, because I was there on set, but we never really talked about the footage, we just sat next to each other and watched. He leaves me alone to figure it out. And by the time he comes in, he has an idea that I anticipated, and we’re usually pretty well in sync. Not that we agree all the time, because we don’t, but we’re usually in sync.

And when you’re not in sync, what’s your strategy for making it come together?

TS: Well, the first thing you have to do is have an open mind. I’ve already done my pass, so I want to do his pass. Back before digital, when somebody had an idea that we knew was going to take a while to do and take just as much time to undo, you really had to talk about it, a lot, before you did anything. The great thing about cutting digitally is you just go ahead and do it. Then you talk about it after you’ve done it, and make informed decisions based on having seen it. Someone might have an idea and someone else thinks it’s a bad idea, but you have the flexibility to go ahead and do it anyway. Then all you have to do is look at it, and say, ‘OK.’ But often these kinds of trail ideas lead to other good ideas, and I don’t ever want to start to think that I’m smarter than him and I know how to get it done. Ang’s always open to my ideas, which I really appreciate, and I try to be open to his.

How long have you been editing digitally, Mike?

MF: I started in 1999 and did tech support for a post facility in town and wanted to get into editing. We had a lot of editors who would come through the facility whom I met, and it eventually gave me the opportunity to work on a film late at night, turning it over to the negative cutter. Then I got my first opportunity to assist, on the film, You Can Count On Me. I’ve always cut digitally, starting when Avids were everywhere, so I’ve always felt comfortable working this way.

TS: Do you know how to use splicers? I never saw you working on rewinds.

MF: Yea, I do. When I could get work working on print, I would try to do that. But a lot of the shows I was working on—lower-budget, independent New York-based films—wouldn’t print film, basically because they couldn’t afford it. So I pursued bigger shows so I could learn that side of it. Nowadays, it’s rare that we see a film room. We have HD transfers and we screen in HD, so unfortunately, it’s one of those things that’s fallen by the wayside. The plus side is, you’re always going to have a pristine looking transfer for previews and other screenings.

TS: It’s great to be able to output picture for a screening and preview directly from an Avid.

How did that kind of previewing help you on this particular film?

TS: One of the interesting things we’re doing in this show, like in the original Woodstock documentary, is using split screens. We did split screens in Hulk, but they were pretty complicated. For Taking Woodstock, sometimes we had a bunch of images and sometimes the split screens would just pop up. Sometimes we had straight linear movement and others moved differently. To be able to pre-visualize that really well, to get the acceleration of movements exactly right and pan the audio subtly, rather than use hard lefts or hard rights, was critical. One of the things with split screens is, when people are talking, you really want to be able to guide the eye to where it needs to be, and you do that, through the sound, by mixing the sound and panning it to match where it is on the screen, making sure people are hearing what they are supposed to hear. But the way that you bring things in helps, too. You can make the eye go to a certain place and guide it around. But these things would be very hard to do only on film, where you’d have to imagine everything and then hope for the best. So to be able to actually do it and screen it on a big screen, during production, made the difference. It’s a great thing that you can output high-quality picture from your Avid and then go project it. Because of this, the split screens were also a lot of fun to edit.

I’m having flashbacks to Love, American Style right now. What was most challenging for you, Mike, back at Deluxe?

MF: Just managing the visual effects. We had about 140 shots that involved positioning the split-screen opticals and various other opticals that we had in the film. Just keeping track of all those and what stage they were in was a full-time job. We employed a number of Avid tricks to automate the process as much as possible. For example, Tim and I both used locators a lot. We used locators to identify visual effects shots in the timeline. I was able to use those locators to create a list, in FilmScribe, so I could go into a visual effects database for reviewing shots and tracking changes. Mr. X in Toronto did our visual effects, and did some really great work, from crowd additions and greenscreen and bluescreen shots and some CG hallucination scene shots.

TS: And of course, creating the stage and the huge mud field, too. An interesting side effect of being able to output a really good-looking picture is that then you’re expected to have a really good-looking picture. Which means we did a lot more color correction than usual—than usual for me, anyway. We really tweaked it quite a bit, in terms of having visual effects and then being able to comp them in and really make them professional looking.

MF: It’s a double-edged sword, where you can get a lot of benefit out of a great looking picture but then whenever you screen, you have to make that visual effects shot look as good as it can in HD. Mistakes are much more noticeable at high resolution.

TS: It used to be fine just to say, “It’ll be right later.” But, Mike and Fred, our second, spent quite a few days working in After Effects to get some of these shots right. And there are how many shots in the film that you guys did?

MF: We did five total for final. It’s one of the interesting directions we’re heading in now. You used to have an offline, which we still pretty much work in, and an online environment for finishing. We’re really blurring the lines between the two now, where we work in such high-resolution that we’re essentially already working at an online resolution. At some point, we’ll be working with full 2K files.

TS: It’s kind of what’s been happening with film, where the distinction between editing and mixing is blurring more and more, because you’re just doing both all the time. Ideally, you don’t want this heavier and heavier burden of technical responsibility to get in the way of the editorial decisions, the creative work you need to do. At the same time, sometimes you really want to be able to do those things.

MF: That’s the thing. It gives us the option to mock the work up in high-res ourselves, or to say, “OK, we’re going to give this to a visual effects department for them to conceptualize and present what we’re directing them to do, but for them to do the work. It’s great that we have the ability to do both now, however.

TS: Ultimately, we did our stuff to get it consistent and nice, and then it’s out of our hands. Eric Gautier, the DP, came in and worked on it in the DI. In fact, the finished look is quite different from what we were working with. He kind of took it off in a different direction.

Read Steve Erickson’s interview with director Ang Lee in  Film & Video.