Mixing Everything from Large-Format to Super-Slow-Mo on 35mm Workprint

“You never go onto a Chris Nolan film thinking, ‘Well, this one will be easy,’ says John Lee, additional editor on writer-director Christopher Nolan’s science-fiction mind-bender Inception, which opens in North American theaters July 16. He could be talking about the workflow challenges that face any editor working with a director who favors multi-format acquisition, but the director of The Dark Knight tends to have an especially ambitious vision.
In the case of Inception, cameras were tearing through 35mm scope, 35mm VistaVision. and 65mm (five-perf) stock, and super-high-speed footage was being captured with cameras from Vision Research (Phantom digital cameras) and Photo-Sonics (35mm flat film). Not only did the editorial team have to be exceptionally detail-oriented to keep up with all the different formats, but it also had to remain flexible and mobile as production moved around the world, from Tokyo and London to Paris, Morocco and, finally, Canada. The whole project represented an opportunity for Lee, who’s worked with film editor Lee Smith for years, and got the job of keeping the whole process on track for the first few months of production, when Smith was away finishing up The Way Back with director Peter Weir.

In some ways, looking into Inception‘s cutting room was like using a time machine to revisit recent Hollywood history. When editing started in earnest at the gigantic airsheds of Cardington in Bedfordshire, England, the cutting room held not just four Avid Media Composers, but also a complete film-editing set-up with a Steenbeck, editing benches, and a film edge-coding machine. That’s because, as usual with Nolan’s projects, the film did not get digital dailies or go through a digital intermediate. The editors were working with an HD telecine made from a film print (not a negative), and the director was screening dailies in 35mm scope every night plus Avid screenings of the evolving cut, through a Christie 2K projector, every Friday.

Film & Video got on the phone with Smith and Lee, the two top editorial personnel on the show, to find out more about a workflow that mixes the best of digital and analog technologies, the ins and outs of Inception, and Nolan’s reputation for always getting it right.

Film & Video: Let’s start by talking about all the different formats that were coming at you. How did you prepare for editing?

John Lee: We shot 65mm five-perf. We shot VistaVision – which we often shoot for the larger negative area – for visual effects,  aerial shots, plate unit work, and certain establishing shot. We shot a little with the Phantom camera to get the extra slow speed for certain set-ups; and we shot Photo-Sonics cameras to get very slow-motion shots. I came on a little early to do tests on all of that material, and it all worked great.

We telecine’d the print. So we didn’t telecine the negative. For all of our major screenings, we have a conformed 35mm workprint. Obviously for all those other formats, we have to scan that negative and send it to a VFX or optical house to turn it into a 35mm negative and a 35mm print, which we telecine and cut in. We did a lot of work in the Avid [Media Composer] and then we would give the [frame] counts to [one of those facilities]. They would make those shots for us and we would conform those and have a 35mm screening.

F&V: So the baseline format was a 35mm print, right before you digitized and started cutting.

JL: Yes. It’s not what people do these days, mostly.

Lee Smith: Luckily, this is a phone call and you can’t see how old we are. [Laughter.]   Where we’re editing, we have a Christie projector online so we can watch direct playouts out of the Avid. Chris [Nolan] loves the way the high-def telecine from workprint maintains the film look. On the film I did before this, The Way Back, we did high-def telecine off negative. It was the first time I had worked on a film where we didn’t have workprint. The image quality, whilst superb, still has a slightly different look to workprint. We wanted to maintain that workprint look with Chris. He was happy with the result. We could project for an audience from this methodology ‘ not that that’s our favorite way of doing it, which is to conform the print. But we did have occasion to screen in a smaller room, and for speed we output from the Avid to HDCAM SR tape.

F&V: Was that a preview screening for an audience?

JL: We don’t do typical preview screenings with an audience we don’t know. Chris tends to have smaller screenings, especially for films like this that have complicated plots, for select people just to see how it’s working. The last time we did that was on The Prestige, because it was a complicated story. You never know certain things until you’ve seen it with someone who doesn’t know anything about the script. When Lee and Chris were cutting and they would have those Friday screenings, the first few were just for them. And then Chris started bringing different people in just to have a look.

F&V: Did you look at film dailies?

JL: We looked at film dailies with sound every night, which is another reason we ended up going that way. We’d have two or three hours’ worth, whatever they had done, and we actually used the Avid to sync. Our assistants would sync in the Avid so we could watch sunk dailies at nighttime, and then it would go to telecine overnight and what we saw the night before would be in the Avid the next morning. That’s why the work picture is very helpful.

And another reason is Wally [Pfister], the DP, makes sure the work picture is the way that he wants it. It’s not just a one-light. He gets it very close to how he wants it to be. We don’t do it a lot, but every now and then there will be something that’s not quite right and we’ll reprint it. We’ll pull 35mm clips from the work picture for the VFX house, Double Negative in London, and we would give them the clips. As long as they gave us their shot back using the color from the clip, we knew it would match the dailies. And that means when we go to color-time it at the end, it’s going to end up in the correct world.

LS: It keeps our timing path very accurate – avoiding the telecine house dictating the look of the film.

JL: That’s [an argument] in defense of work picture.

LS: We’re not going to defend it until we die. But that gives you an idea of some of the anomalies and differences. Being able to produce workprint for dailies is still a great thing. It’s something I’ve gotten used to over the years and seems to be disappearing now. A lot of films will not do the dailies process, or just produce DVDs and hand them out.

JL: It just seems terrible. It’s great to sit next to the director and have the crew in there. It’s great during the shoot. You’ll pick up little things that will be helpful, and see things like focus and strange anomalies – cups of coffee in the back of the frame that shouldn’t be there.

F&V: When people read this, some of them are going to be cheering you on, but they’ll also be jealous. Obviously a lot of people in this business would love to be screening film dailies, but they’ve been told by the studio that their new digital workflows don’t include that.

LS: [Tongue firmly in cheek.] All they’ve got to do is work on $200 million films!

F&V: Where did work on the film take place during various stages of the shoot?

JL: Lee wasn’t on at the beginning, when they started shooting in Tokyo. We used a lab there that Wally liked. We got the footage back at Warner Bros. in Burbank and we telecined it and cut on one Avid [Media Composer] for just a week or so. Then we went to London, and we were filming mainly in Cardington, where we shot on Batman Begins and on Dark Knight. It’s an aircraft hangar you’d park these huge balloons in, like zeppelins, back in the day. Chris likes working in there because there are no pillars and you can build huge sets. When you see the film, you’ll say, “How did they do that?” Well, it was probably a very complicated rig that needed a big space to be in. The other thing he liked was you can have five or six big sets in there. These sets might need a lot of time to reset, but that doesn’t mean downtime. You just move to the other set that’s next to it or across the way. We had the cutting room set up there and Chris would come in during the day, go on set and then come and look at the cut. It was complicated stuff coming in over several months.

F&V:  Where did you go next?

JL: After that, they went to Paris for a week. We had to have dailies at night, and I went with them to sort out the technical side of that. Chris didn’t need to see anything but I didn’t want to be down a week, so I took an Avid on a laptop with a few scenes and during the day I just cut in the hotel room and went to dailies at night. When they went to Morocco we all came back to L.A. We cut in L.A. for a while, and then Lee turned up.

LS: I was just working on location in Morocco on another film, funnily enough, and realizing that traveling to these far-flung countries presents its own problems. On The Way Back we had some of our gear offloaded from a flight from Bulgaria to Morocco because it was too heavy, and we lost some vital cables that were packed in a box. They thought they were doing the right thing to get the plane off the ground. We were a week down, so I was disappointed that I didn’t have something attached to my laptop. In hindsight I would have figured out how to hand-carry some drives. If that ever happens again I’ll be more armored up.

JL: The whole film will fit on a terabyte drive or two.

LS: The laptop is fabulous for keeping up while you’re waiting for your primary equipment to arrive. I’m so used to the Avid I don’t even need the [custom-marked] keyboard now. I can just remember where all the keystrokes are. All my settings John has saved. That’s a cool system, the mini system on your laptop. If you have the media at both ends, you can be in the remote location emailing cuts to your mothership. That was cool. I hadn’t done that before.

F&V: Some editors have told me that’s been the biggest technological advancement of the last few years – because full-fledged editing can be done on a laptop it’s very freeing.

JL: Yeah, but it’s also a bad thing. When you’re traveling, you may fly to London or wherever and it’s, “Can you do that scene while you’re on the way?” And it’s like, “No, I was thinking of eating peanuts and watching a movie.”

LS: The other big problem for us on this film, and any of the Chris Nolan films, is that security is so tight. What we can do on a laptop is very limited – just a half-dozen shots. He won’t let the film be carried on a laptop [because] it’s such an easy thing to have stolen or lose.

JL: When I went to Paris I just took a few scenes on a drive and I had the drive locked in a safe. I took it out while I was cutting and then I’d lock it up again. About the screenings – when Lee was cutting with Chris during the director’s cut they got in the habit of having a screening every Friday. With all those different formats and effects, obviously you can’t screen those on 35mm until they’re done. We had quite a few weeks of having a screening from the Avid every Friday before we got to the stage where we had 35mm screenings.

LS: And we really couldn’t have accommodated that without the high-definition pictures we had and the sound capabilities we had. The room was set up with a powerful sound system so we were looking at what looks like a finished product, which is really cool.

F&V: Were you cutting using DNxHD?

JL: Yeah, DNx 36. Another thing in the Avid that’s fun ‘ and I suppose everyone started doing this as soon as it came out – we color everything with the Clip Color function so you can look at your timeline, we even do it with the sound. Music is blue and VistaVision is yellow and 65mm is orange. When you have to end up on film, especially when you’re doing cut lists and assemble lists at the end, you can look at a list and tell immediately what shots need to be done and how they’re coming along. It was very handy.

LS: It’s pretty cool unless you’re color-blind. A lot of the time, if there’s multiple coverage, Chris would ask if something was a 65mm shot. We’re normally cutting with a mask on [the image] so I’ve got all the timecode numbers covered, but we could readily look at the color and ascertain if it was Photo-Sonics, VistaVision, whatever. Sometimes we’d try to cut a scene just utilizing 65mm. It’s a great, really quick way of looking at things.

F&V: How did working on this film compare to previous films you worked on with Nolan, in terms of the number of formats and the amount of footage?

LS: This one’s probably very similar to The Dark Knight. The Prestige was a much smaller film. Batman Begins was probably midway between the two, maybe two-thirds of the way in terms of coverage. Batman, The Dark Knight and Inception all shot for about six months. Prestige was about 12 weeks.

JL: But even on The Prestige we shot Imax and VistaVision. On Batman Begins we shot a bit of Imax and on Dark Knight a lot of Imax, so there’s always multiple formats. It’s great fun. There’s always a testing period, and you become an expert on something you didn’t know about before.

F&V: Let me just clarify a workflow point: even with something like the Phantom camera, your footage is going out to a lab and getting transferred to 35mm before you start cutting it?

JL: Well, it would cost too much to just transfer it all to 35mm. That wouldn’t be the best thing. We worked with QuickTimes and then, as we whittled it down to a handful of shots using that format, we picked the frame range we wanted and Lee manipulated it, and then we had that made into a visual effect and we would get it back [as 35mm].

LS: We ended up speed-ramping a lot of those [slow-motion] shots. It’s better to keep that in a digital format until we figure out what we want to do with it. It’s very expensive to put all that on 35mm. The top frame rate is 1000 or 1200 frames a second.

JL: And, of course, the quality gets worse at higher frame rates. Our VFX house had to do a lot of work to get it to fit in.

LS: We did a fair bit of restoration work to get it to seamlessly integrate with the existing footage. But it looks good. I doubt anyone would ever spot it. And we won’t tell you what the shots are.

F&V: You mentioned Clip Color. Are there anything other features in the equipment or the workflow that came in handy on this film either technically or creatively?

LS: It really helped us out that the Avids don’t break down. They are very reliable.

JL: We had seven Avids on this at the height of the madness, and they all worked great.

LS: I don’t think I can even remember a problem on this job, which is remarkable when you imagine how the equipment has been shipped all around the world. Different equipment from different vendors, of course, but between my last two films we’ve covered nearly every place on the planet and, aside from having some cables put off a plane, everything was smooth.

JL: Also, we got to use 24-bit sound and give that sound to the sound crew.

LS: We can do our temp dubs without doing translations for the sound files. With [Avid] Pro Tools, it’s all very seamless. All the fades and everything that I put on in the sound work that I do seems to show up in Pro Tools. All I need now is a mixing console that will provide automation that will translate to Pro Tools. That will be good. I think Euphonix might be working on it.

[At this point Smith exits the interview to return to work on the dub stage.]

JL: I used to have to do EDLs and everything [for the sound department]. This way I would just give them an AAF. We gave them all of our media. Ed Novick, our location sound mixer, was sometimes recording eight tracks, and the sound crew needed to be able to find all those tracks. And I was making QuickTimes for everybody, and they seemed to be quicker on the newer Avids. On Dark Knight we had a couple of Avids sitting there just to render QuickTimes for us at a certain stage. We didn’t have to do that on Inception.

F&V:  What was your role like as “additional editor?”

JL: I did 10 or so films for Lee as first assistant. This was the first chance for me to be cutting, which was great. When Lee got offered this other job, it conflicted with Inception, and Lee said to Chris, “How about John starts the film?” And Chris said, “That’s a great idea.” So I got to cut for five months. It was a great experience for me. I got to do my own cut and got notes from Chris. And then when Lee turned up, he did his own cut and I got to compare what he had done to what I had done, and I got to learn from what he did. And then when Chris and Lee started working together I got another chance to see what was happening with the material. It was a great opportunity.

F&V: With faster digital workflows, I’ve heard the assistants are generally doing a lot of data wrangling. It’s not like it used to be, where you’d get handed some pieces of film and be told, “Go into the other room and cut these.”

JL: I agree. In the film days, you’d be in the room with the editor, handing them things and looking over their shoulder. That doesn’t happen anymore. It was like a film school. You’d see where something ended up and half the time you’d kick yourself. “Why didn’t I think about that?” I was the first assistant on The Dark Knight and I didn’t have time to cut anything on that film, with the Imax workflow. There was just so much going on. This has been terrific, and Lee is such a great editor. I love working with him.

F&V: Is it true that you have a Steenbeck in the cutting room? That has to stand out in this day and age.

JL: In England, obviously, they use Steenbecks and not Kems. Lee and I are both from Australia, and they use Steenbecks. In England we absolutely had a film editorial department as well, with a few assistants. We have a first Avid assistant and then a first film assistant. As we’re conforming, we’ll bring on more people. I think we had four or five assistants conforming. So we had the coding machine and the Kems and Steenbecks and benches and all that. Depending on where you are, people will come by and look and point. “What’s that machine going around and putting numbers on the film?”

F&V: Even five or six years ago, I’d be talking to people who wanted to do a DI and didn’t have the budget or the clout. But now, working with film has suddenly become an anomaly rather than standard operating procedure.

JL: It’s hard to find splicing tape, for example, that doesn’t have bubbles in it. With ‘scope 35mm, you have to do eight-perf on the underside splices. You need good tape that doesn’t have bubbles. You need coding tape that doesn’t crumble. And some of our splicing tape puts glue on the film. Our film assistants are phoning different people and trying to get the right batch of tape that, maybe, someone’s got hidden away somewhere. It’s getting more and more difficult. If you ever need mag for some reason, it’s hard to find mag. It’s hard to find people that still do it. Two years ago, everything was fine. And now it’s really confusing.

Another little problem we find working at a studio is that everyone’s used to the DI process. For all the marketing on a movie, they just look at the schedule and say, “We’re going to make some trailers,” and they expect to grab it from your DI. We don’t have a DI. We always have to remind them, “We’re a traditional film show. There’s going to be a period where you don’t have access to anything.” They suddenly have to rework their schedule around us. Then we end up getting them a digital-cinema version or scanning an interpositive or something later on. And that’s hard for people to remember, because there are a lot of different people in a lot of different departments and they’re just used to doing it a certain way. It’s good for security, actually. But it’s a little more difficult when it comes to marketing.

F&V: Whenever a Christopher Nolan movie comes out, it’s at the top of my list of things to see in a theater. There’s just something about the photochemical process that looks different on a screen. It’s not that I think prints made with a DI look bad. But there’s something especially striking about Nolan’s films. It’s probably partly the technical care that goes into them and partly his and Wally Pfister’s sensibilities. But, for me, all the trouble you put into the process is very much appreciated.

JL: Chris has a certain way he likes to do things, and he’s always right about it. At the time, certain people might not get it. Especially like the Imax on The Dark Knight. “How is this going to work?” We got that all the way through. “This doesn’t make sense!” And then you see it, and it makes sense. It’s more difficult, maybe, for us and for other people. But it’s always worth it, and it’s always right.