Editor Dan Zimmerman and Re-Recording Mixer Brad Engleking on Killer Workflows

If you’ve ever admired the craftsmanship that went into a film completed at Troublemaker Studios in Austin, TX – think the striking black-and-white styling of Sin City or the lovingly battered look of the Grindhouse omnibus film – you probably already know that Troublemaker’s impresario, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, implements digital technology in ways that facilitate, rather than complicate, the creative process. (If you’re a dedicated Film & Video reader, you may remember Debra Kaufman’s detailed coverage of VFX work at the house that Rodriguez built, which appeared back in 2005.)
The latest project to be finished there is Predators, directed by Nimrà³d Antal (Vacancy, Armored). This time around, F&V took a look inside post-production by talking to editor Dan Zimmerman and re-recording mixer/dialogue editor Brad Engleking about living up to Rodriguez’s mantra – at Troublemaker, filmmaking takes place “at the speed of thought.”

It wasn’t your typical post-production story – for one thing, editor Dan Zimmerman was busy with Season of the Witch, a 14th-century period piece directed by Dominic Sena, and thus didn’t come on board until January 3, after principal photography had essentially wrapped. “I was scrambling, working long hours to get my cut done to present to the director,” Zimmerman admits. “But the film was so beautiful in dailies form. The coverage was all there, and the story had a really straight line that didn’t need a lot of massaging.”

Zimmerman was called in by Fox President of Post Production Ted Gagliano, who remembered his work on 2007’s Aliens vs Predator: Requiem and desperately wanted him for the new project. Zimmerman remembers the phone call, where he asked, “OK, when does it start?” and the answer came back, “They’ve been shooting for eight weeks.”

“I was like, ‘Ted, that’s a lot. You need to get someone on there right away,” Zimmerman recalls. “But he said, ‘You’re the right guy for this movie. We need to figure out how to make this work.'”

So Zimmerman sent his first assistant editor down to Austin, where he started assembling footage and sending QuickTimes back for review. By day, Zimmerman was working on Season of the Witch. By night, he was digging through eight weeks’ worth of Hawaii-shot dailies from Predators. When he finally came over to the project full time, there were about two weeks of shooting left.

An SD/HD Edit

The movie was shot using the Panavision Genesis camera and cut with the Avid Media Composer (v4.0.4) Nitris DX on a Unity network. If there was anything particularly surprising about editorial, it was the standard-definition 3:1 MXF workflow. Although they were cutting in SD, the editorial team kept an updated HD version ready to go at all times, just in case a screening was coming up, or Zimmerman wanted to check something in the HD version of the project.

It was a bit of a step back for Zimmerman, who had worked at HD resolution in Final Cut Pro in all three of his most recent films – Aliens vs Predators: Requiem, Max Payne, and Season of the Witch. But he said there were advantages. “I love the stability of cutting in SD,” he explains. You never have to worry about a hard crash, or losing material. However, with this film we had a lot of creatures and a lot of the dialogue is close-up, so I didn’t have the technical challenge of trying to see sync on a big, wide long shot where the actors are far away. I did miss the [HD] picture quality. But if I wanted it, I could flip over to the other project, and there it would be.”

Coming on the project so late, did he feel the burn of an accelerated delivery schedule? Not really, he says. “My first solo gig was The Omen back in 2005, when we shot in the second half of the year and had a hard release date of 6/6/06,” he says. “It felt like a very tight schedule. This one was a little shorter than that. But the cut came together so well that it felt like we had a lot of time to go in and put the fine polish on the picture. If we had more time, we’d potentially be sitting around twiddling our thumbs.”

No-Nonsense Audio Mixing

How do you get anywhere close to thumb-twiddling time on a major studio film? One thing that helps is the presence of a nimble audio team with a forward-looking workflow that makes the most of Pro Tools. When Troublemaker’s team first installed an Avid Pro Tools system, they were pioneers in the field. “At that time, nobody was mixing on Pro Tools – certainly not the action-type features they were doing here,” recalls Engleking, who helped design the acoustics of the room and worked on technical design and integration. He credits Rodriguez and sound designer/supervisor Dean Beville with the vision that guided the project. “We put together a system and dub stage for what, even today, would not be considered a lot of money.”

Working on 2003’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the first film that was print-mastered at Troublemaker, Engleking and his colleague Sergio Reyes wasted time trying to make their new Pro Tools system emulate a traditional audio console. “We realized that didn’t make sense,” he says. “If we dumped that mentality we could mix faster. Sergio, Robert, and I always talk about eliminating the layers between you and the artistic thing you’re trying to do. Anything you can take off your plate that allows you to think less about the technology and more about the art lets you go faster and is better. All these layers, like punching in [overdubs] and using stem recorders and, to some extent, pre-dubs, were slowing that down.”

After finishing that film, Troublemaker jettisoned the stem recorder from its audio workflow, opting instead to use automation to control elements in the mix. “If we couldn’t automate it, we wouldn’t use it,” he says. “We use automation as much as possible in place of punching in and using outboard reverbs and stuff like that. It’s just faster, and you don’t want to tie your hands. We might have a new visual effect that changes the way we want to mix, or a piece of music that comes in late and changes how we want to do something.”

“Sometimes our picture editor, Dan, was blown away. He’d say, ‘It’s going to be hard to fix that, right?’ And we’re like, ‘No, no, no. It’s not married [to the picture].”

Zimmerman agrees. “Audio was a piece of cake,” he says. “We never had to go offline for anything we wanted to manipulate. You’re still mixing Pro Tools sessions. You’re just mixing them through a bigger interface.”

The “bigger interface” he refers to is an ICON mixing console (also from Avid), which Troublemaker used for the first time on Predators. Engleking calls it an “unbelievable” asset. “It’s so much faster,” he says. “We can have whatever faders we want in front of us at the press of a button. The mix is less complicated now that we have this big console that has buttons for everything, rather than having to do three and four button-pushes.”

Moving It Around

Moving the footage from department to department was straightforward. The editorial department gave audio DNxHD 36 QuickTime files, which were played back on the mixing stage using a stem recorder with a Decklink HD card. The next step, Engleking says, will be to get the picture and sound departments onto the same Unity. “I’ve got a couple of Mojo DX devices, and we’re going to run picture off that, so they won’t even have to render QuickTimes,” he explains. “Our movies tend to be heavy on VFX, so it will be nice not to wait hours or days to see the newest effects. And the sound editor will be able to see where shots are going before picture is even turned over.”

The final flourish where audio was concerned had to do with a final move to the Dub 6 stage at Warner Bros., where the print-master was created. “We didn’t even lay back stems before we left,” Engleking declares with evident satisfaction. “We took four Pro Tools sessions per reel, opened them up [at Warner Bros.] and kept rolling. To have all the automation follow, we just copied the stuff over to hard drives. Essentially, we hit Play and we were golden. We knew in theory it was supposed to work, but to actually see it work? That’s fantastic.

“Some people complain that Pro Tools is too ubiquitous. But you can’t do that on just anything. That’s pretty cool stuff, to be able to just walk over there, plug it in, and be right back where you were but in a completely different environment.”

For Troublemaker and the filmmakers who work there, the end result is a fast, smooth creative process that uses proven workflows to leverage digital technology in the most efficient ways possible. “You can do things really quickly without sacrifices,” Zimmerman says. “It was the perfect platform for a movie like this. When you have everything in house, it makes it 1,000 times easier.”