Oscar-Nominated Cutter Switches Gears in Spain With Planet 51

After gaining Oscar attention for his work with director Alfonso Cuarà³n on dystopian science-fiction drama Children of Men, Alex Rodrà­guez worked on a couple of smaller projects before venturing into uncharted territory. After editing Gael Garcà­a Bernal’s directorial debut, Deficit, and the Bernal-starring Rudo y Cursi, Rodrà­guez signed up for something completely different – Planet 51, a big-budget animated film produced in Madrid by Ilion Animation Studios, Handmade Films, and Antena 3. F&V rang up Rodrà­guez to ask about working on animated films, shooting short films with inexpensive still cameras, and what’s wrong with his IMDb resume.
Film & Video: Have you ever edited animation before?

Alex Rodrà­guez: No, not a proper animated film. Not even a short animated film. It’s definitely a very different approach to editing.

How different? Did you come on the project earlier or later than you would on a live-action film?

Well, I’ve never worked in the United States on a big animated film, but I believe they have an editor working in the very early stages. It must be very weird, because an animated film takes five years to make, and you have the editor working for four years before it’s done. It must be hard to edit a film for four years. But in this case I arrived at the very end.

I realized they had already done so much work that the film was essentially pre-edited according to a script and storyboards from four years before. They edit the storyboards on a timeline with sound, and then they record the voices, and at that point they have the first edit of the film. So I arrived just six months before the end of production, and my first impression was, “Wow. What can I do?”

But no. It was obviously very raw. Even if they don’t have longer takes [to work with], you always have an early beginning and a late ending for each scene. It’s very rare that you encounter a shot where you need to add more, or extend the beginning. Generally you would tend to cut. But you do encounter scenes that you wouldn’t put in the final cut. Here, there were some animated scenes that obviously cost a lot of money and took a lot of effort that did not make it to the final cut. Some other scenes were added, and that was a very quick decision. They told me one person animates three seconds a week. And then you have to add on textures, background, light, and finishing. I never thought it was so big. When you see an animated film, generally you go with your kids and say, “Wow, it’s great!” But there’s a lot of work behind it. And, for the editor, it is a little weird because you get the impression there’s not much you can do.

But in reality you can perform surgery.

In reality there is work you can do. The whole structure of the film is quite solid, and it’s very rare that you can move scenes around to change the chronology. But you can work on the rhythm and pace, which is obviously very important. You can work on continuity and the audience’s understanding of the story overall. There’s a lot of work preparing the sound for the sound editors. You have to know where you’re going with your music. You can’t leave it for later.

Was the production based in Madrid?

The production was based in a big Madrid studio, with about 350 people working on it. When I arrived at the editing suites, I think there were three assistants and one sound editor and a first assistant editor. They didn’t really have an editor, but the director was working with them. They had three computers set up, and when I arrived we added another on on the network.

For the last two months of the production, I moved to London. I had one assistant there, and we were networked. We didn’t have a proper network, which only a big Hollywood studio could afford, but we could easily share by email the bin information, which doesn’t contain any media, because we had the media mirrored on both sites. New shots were sent to us by FTP. If it was a very big shot they would send it by courier so we would have it the next day, but that was very rare. So, you would send an email to London from your Media Composer in Madrid. I would be talking to you, in Madrid, as I’m sitting in London editing. But we’re watching the same footage and the same cut.

Were you working at HD resolution the whole time?

When I arrived in the editing suite they actually were not. And I said immediately, “We cannot edit [in SD].” I think it’s been a learning process for them. They’re interesting people with good ideas, and having an animation studio in Europe is not easy at all. You need a lot of money behind it. These guys got something set up, and it was a very brave adventure.

Was it ever an issue to work in two different locations?

During the last five weeks of the production, for the final mix and grading, the directors were mainly here [in London]. There were only two or three weeks that I wasn’t with them. It worked perfectly.

You’ve worked all over the world ‘ in Mexico, France, and London.

Yes. I am very flexible. I’ve tried to work on films in India but never came to an agreement there. I would love to work on a film in India. And now I’m thinking about Hong Kong eventually. The world is moving east, and I’m a big fan of Chinese films.

Have you been exclusively an Avid editor?

If you travel around the world, you realize that a lot of countries have avoided or forgotten Avid, all for economic reasons – and due to some aggressive campaigning by other companies. I have used Final Cut a lot. In Mexico, Avid is gone completely. Except for some big TV shows, everyone has turned to Final Cut. And Mexico is a country of over 100 million inhabitants! So I’m open to everything, but I prefer working in Avid as a more comfortable solution.

In the end, it’s just a tool. I actually think that iMovie is great. If you have experience, it’s just basic editing. Put one shot after the other one, with two tracks of audio. In the end, that’s all you need – the ability to put image and sound together in sequence. Before, it was done in film, then in video for a while – which was a very weird experience – and then computers. And with computers, it’s unlimited. If you add VFX software, you can create amazing things. In that way I’m old school. My French side tells me, “No. Films are made like French films. Not like American films that have 2,000 cuts.” I prefer films that have a sensible number of cuts, long scenes, intense dialogue scenes. It’s always a matter of taste.

What else are you working on now? I’ve read that you have another film with Cuarà³n coming up.

No, I think that’s bad intelligence. IMDb is not so accurate. Have you seen the picture on my IMDb page? It’s the baseball player Alex Rodriguez. Someone put that up thinking I’m Alex Rodriguez. I have the same name as the most famous person in the U.S. What can I do? I don’t mind. I only change things I don’t like. And this one I like. Sometimes when there are titles of films there that I really don’t want to appear I do send a letter and say, “Please take this off.” It has happened. The Alfonso Cuarà³n [listing] I leave up, because it’s publicity for me. I don’t work with Alfonso anymore.

So in the future …

I won’t work with him anymore. That’s a sure thing.

I’ve read that you’ve been directing and editing short films. Is that something you’d like to do more of later in your career?

I definitely intend to. Last year, I directed two short films that I wrote, produced, shot, and edited – with no crew. Not even one assistant. With one character only.

Does your experience as an editor make that easier for you?

I don’t know. Both of them are so different. One has over 100 shots in six minutes, and the second one has six shots in four and a half minutes. I had a great experience and I’m still working on the final post-production. They were really done with zero budget. I spent less than $1000 on each. I think the most challenging part is being able to hold a camera and take pictures. And I did it with a [still] photo camera, not a camcorder.

One of the Canon DSLRs?

Actually, it’s a Panasonic Lumix, the DMC-GF1. It’s less than half the price of the big Canon or Nikon cameras. I think the future is shooting with photo cameras. It’s amazing. The more money you spend on your lenses, the better pictures you will have. And realize what you can do in video with the proper lenses on a small scale – you don’t have to rent the Red camera. It’s amazing. I didn’t believe it until I did it. When you’re used to only working on film, it’s a big change.