How a Talent for Editorial VFX Work and an Eclectic Career Laid a Path to Panem

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Catching Fire, the latest installment in The Hunger Games franchise—itself a worthy successor to once-immovable blockbuster young adult book-to-movie adaptations like Harry Potter and The Twilight Saga—will take on similarly Shakespearean themes when it opens in wide release on November 22. Jennifer Lawrence reprises her role as the noble and unstoppable Katniss Everdeen in this post-apocalyptic struggle set against the excesses of an overtly enhanced Capitol ruling class and a potentially liberating revolution. The rollercoaster fun comes in watching Katniss outsmart and outmaneuver her Capitol overlords as they thread her through a series of morality play-meets-Project Runway-style hoops meant to lionize, incite and ultimately dispense with anyone who can't keep up.

Alan Edward Bell's expansive editorial credits, which include Water for Elephants, (500) Days of Summer and last year's The Amazing Spider-Man, are reason enough he was asked to cut this particularly complex hybrid of a picture. But Bell also has a parallel career augmenting his own and others' work with composites and other visual effects, landing him VFX supervisor credits on the indie charmer Little Manhattan and the Julia Roberts thriller Duplicity. Currently editing on set the next installment in The Hunger Games franchise, Mockingjay – Part 1, Bell is also already in production on its companion, Mockingjay – Part 2. We spoke to him about finding the heart and soul of every picture, what he thinks about superheroes, and how he developed his signature set of "performance enhancing" editorial and visual effects.

StudioDaily: Although this is the first THG film both you and director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) have collaborated on, you've worked with him once before. What direction did he give you from the outset?

Alan Edward Bell: We first worked together on Water for Elephants in 2011. But this is my first time working with Lionsgate. What happened was I was finishing up work on The Amazing Spider-Man and Francis called me and said he was doing Catching Fire and told me that my agent would be calling me shortly. I was pretty excited about the project, though at that time, they weren't ready to release the script to anybody. So basically the first bit of direction I got from him was, "Just read the book, because that's what we're doing: We're making the book. Just sink your teeth into the material." I hadn't read them yet or even seen the first movie. I read all three books over the course of four days, then I went and saw the first movie. Francis and I had lunch and we discussed what he was thinking about for the film. He is very hands-on in the editing room; he spent a lot of time cutting and recutting with me. It is a very collaborative relationship that I value dearly because he has such amazing taste. Sometimes I have a real strong idea where the edit is going and sometimes he has a vision where I'm not totally in line with his intent and we're able to bring those together and make a film that I think is really powerful.
What's different about this second film in the series?
I want to avoid comparisons to the first film, but this film is much larger in scope, with much more extravagant set pieces and action sequences that are quite evolved, both from an action standpoint and an emotional standpoint — but also from a visual effects standpoint. In those ways, too, it was quite a bit different from Water for Elephants, which did have some big sequences but nothing quite like this. And in terms of pacing, the last half of this movie is unrelenting. You're sort of going from one giant thing to another. But you still have to track the main protagonist, our heroine Katniss Everdeen. The movie really hinges on her, what she's going through, and how she's dealing with it. Our job was to meter that so you really feel for her, so it's not just a whiz-bang action flick. Every scene is always grounded in her character and what she's going through.

How do you find the emotional heart and soul of a movie while you're editing?

I'll probably never get hired for another big movie if you post this, but I'm not a huge superhero guy. The only reason I was involved in The Amazing Spider-Man was because of director Marc Webb and our collaboration on (500) Days of Summer. For me, movies are both an escape and a reminder of why we're human, from our strengths to our weaknesses. I really believe—and this is just my own personal opinion—that every great movie has love at its core. As far as I'm concerned, if you can't connect with the characters or if the characters aren't displaying some form of connection with each other, you haven't got a movie. If there are sacrifices to be made, they are always stronger when love is involved. That's why I've gravitated toward a lot of romantic comedies, but I also think relationships are at the core of this film. Sure, she's thrust into these difficult environments and has to do these unthinkable acts because of the dystopian world she inhabits, but the part that makes her real and the part that everybody can identify with is that part of her that loves somebody else, from her family, to Peeta to Gale. I think that every good movie has to have some sort of through line that connects the audience to the character but also makes what the main character is going through resonate and ring true for us. I also think people are too used to seeing things that are all glitter and no substance and I think the substance is the human portion of all these stories. As an editor, I really try to focus on that and I think that should be an editor's foremost purpose—to create a connection between the characters on screen and the audience. If you do that, and everything else is done properly, then you'll end up with a movie that's really compelling.

What was the biggest challenge for you and for the entire filmmaking team in trying to stay true to Suzanne Collins' original story in the books?

There is an awful lot of internal dialog going on with Katniss in the books, and they reflected those very human internal struggles we all have with ourselves daily. But it's impossible to do that on film without voiceover. When I read the books, that was the biggest thing I first noted. I was interested to see how the first film dealt with it and I was hoping they weren't going to go to the voiceover well. I do think it can help you understand what a character is going through but it can also sometimes put a layer between you and what's happening on screen. I was very excited to see in this film's script that those internal struggles were going to be displayed visually or not at all. I do believe that we were successful in conveying that, and that's due to Jennifer Lawrence's amazing acting ability and all the other actors that surround her. She's really able to convey emotion and what's going on inside of her. She's brilliant. I've never, ever, ever in my life cut somebody who is so good at what she does. It is never a matter of, "What's the good performance?" It's more like, "Which one of these six great takes do we want  in the movie?"

So how do you choose?

You have to sit there and look at them all and find a reason in your own head why you like one better than the other. It's better than the alternative, but it also feels like a great responsibility because there are so many good ones to choose from. You're always kind of doubting yourself, but that can be good, too, because you end up trying a lot of different things. You really want to make sure you haven't skimmed over anything great.

You cut Catching Fire on Avid Media Composer. What's it like now, returning to the same continuing story in the edit suite, especially with that head start?

It's great. You come into the room having a much greater understanding of who these characters are. It took a little of the unknowns out of the equation. But having it all set up in the Avid, backed up by the ISIS systems, has been amazing. There are a few sound elements we're going to need in the future shows from Catching Fire, and the beautiful thing is, we still have that whole show in our Avid. So as they are shooting the next two shows, all the footage from the last show is still in there. I could go back in and make changes to Catching Fire if I wanted to, and obviously that won't happen because the movie's going to be out soon. It's good to have that perspective and to also be able to migrate every setup and bit of media—and in this case, edit team—across to the next film. I've got all the same assistants and I'm essentially working on the same Avid system that I was on the last one, though I'm working on version 7 of the software now, an upgrade from 6.5. 

Did you try out any new workflows on Catching Fire that you'll be using in the next films?

We actually did something really cool that was kind of in beta development on the end of Spider-Man, though we didn't really get to use it on that film. Avid's open architecture lets anyone develop plug-ins that hook into the Avid. The folks at Eyeon, who make Fusion compositing software, created this plug-in that I can drop right in the timeline and Fusion will open up right on my Avid. I don't have to export anything. I basically just click a button and it all gets exported automatically, so I don't have to worry about which layers I want. I just drop this thing on, it asks me how many layers I want, and then Fusion opens up and I can do my composite, hit render, and go back to Avid to continue working. As soon as the render's done, it shows up in my timeline. I do a lot of split screens, and I'll even cut somebody out of one take and put them in another take just to make performances as smooth and seamless as I possibly can. I'll typically go through a scene, having finished cutting it, and say, "OK, I like all these performances." Francis and I will confer, and he'll say, "Yup, that's the scene. But are you going to do those splits anyway?" We want the cuts to be perfectly fluid. So if someone is holding a fork in one hand, they're still holding the fork in the next take. We even go down to another level of detail, say, if I had a take and I need someone to look in a certain direction and they don't, I'll cut their head off of another take where they are looking in that direction and paste it on. It's all invisible—nobody can ever tell that I've done it. And that's all because of that Fusion-Avid workflow. I used it extensively on Catching Fire and I'm continuing to use it on the one I'm working on now.

Those kinds of composites are typically pretty tricky to do and aren't usually done by an editor.

Yeah. Most compositors aren't editors, either, and that's a lot of the uniqueness that I bring to the table. But everybody that I show that workflow to, like the new VFX editor we have on the current show, can't stop talking about how great it is. He'd never used it before and he was always an After Effects guy. But once he tried it, he was a fan. There is something about the nodal compositing environment where, three months after the fact, you can go back into a composite and you can tell exactly what you did. When it's all in layers it can become a jumble and you can't really tell how one thing is affecting another. It's just a much simpler, easier, more elegant way to do some of these things.

How and when did those two paths, compositing and editing, come together for you and where did they diverge?

You know, it's interesting. When I was an assistant editor I was mentored by editor Bob Leighton, who has done a bunch of Rob Reiner films (Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally). I would do a lot of temporary visual effects for those guys. It was around the time that I was co-editing Reiner's Story of Us. There was this really big sequence, where basically the two characters are in bed and then their parents start popping up next to them and arguing with them while they are still in bed. That was shot in layers, and I temped it all with Photoshop and it looked really good. But the effects house that did it for real sent it back and their work just wasn't quite as good as mine. It was the first time it occurred to me that, "Wow, I can actually do this stuff. Now I should really focus and learn more about how to do it well." It wasn't long after that that I just started picking up books. I was really into computers as a young person, and that hadn't changed. I recognized early on that I could possibly use it as a tool to get me through that difficult period in one's editorial career where you go, "OK, I'm an assistant editor on these huge movies but to make the leap to being a full editor you have to jump to indie films that people may never see." You also take a huge pay cut. When I was making the switch, there was often more money in the budget for the Avid rental than there was for the editor. So I thought, why not, on these indie films, offer to do all the visual effects as well? So that's what I did. I really learned how to do visual effects and it gave me the surest path toward the career I wanted as an editor, knowing that I never had to go back to assisting.

You started making money at it, then?

I knew I could do shots on the side for friends in the business and make a living that way while I was waiting for my next editing gig. It's all about the relationships here in Hollywood, and the only way to build those is over time. People who think of you as an assistant editor aren't going to think of you to cut their next big feature. You need to build that relationship base with people who think of you as an editor if you're going to become one. I used visual effects as a way to provide more services to the people who were going to potentially hire me.

What are some of your favorite visual effects tricks?

They've all developed into this idea I call "performance-enhancing visual effects." These are invisible visual effects to help the performances. So whether it's speeding takes up, or cutting a piece out in the middle of the take but not cutting away from the take, whatever it is, they are little invisible tricks that I use to make the movie more fluid, the performances more compelling. Directors seem to really love it! Now, if they don't have a shot, we can often make the shot they were looking for, or blend two great shots together. I use it extensively, too. I probably generate somewhere from 70 to 200 of these shots on every movie I work on.

Have you ever gotten any pushback?

There have been a few times when someone has said, "Should you be doing that? Aren't you worried about upsetting the actors?!" I don't think it's upsetting the actors because I'm making them all look good. It's analogous to slipping a line of dialog from one take into another. So why not slip a facial feature if you can? I really think it's the same thing, only it's taking it to another level. For me, it's great to have Avid and Fusion working together so well because I have this enormous toolset in front of me where I can just make things happen that usually change the movie for the better. 

This film was shot partially in Imax. Did that present any difficulties with your editorial setup?

Nothing that we ever lost sleep over, but because the movie was mostly shot in anamorphic, and the last hour is mostly all shot in 65mm Imax, there was a pretty big change on set when those cameras arrived. Those Imax cameras are extremely loud. They're shooting a dialog scene and suddenly it's as if somebody has a giant lawnmower, connected to a leaf blower, right next to the actors. You can't hear anything. That was difficult because I would have to cut these dialog scenes and you couldn't hear a word they were saying. I would have to resort to a kind of lip-reading while referencing the script. But then you would go get a wild line because they would turn the cameras off and just record the audio. But typically, the actors are reading off the script when recording the audio, and when you're reading vs. when you are actually communicating with someone else, the cadence of speech is not the same. I did a lot of cutting and pasting of audio to cover for the Imax noise; it all ended up fine.

The other challenge, though, was although the movie ends up in the arena in Imax, all the other screens had to be in 2.40. I had to do a tilt-and-scan for all the regular theaters. It was really interesting to go from cutting this almost 4×3 image to have to basically lop the top and the bottom off. They never shot at common-center for the Imax, knowing that I would go back in later and fix it. I learned some interesting things about what happens when people are running around in frame and you're keeping them centered in frame: it often looks out of focus because of motion blur. That's when you end up having to think like a camera person and say, "Well, he wouldn't have been able to keep that person right in frame," and allow them to kind of break the edge now and again so you're never quite exactly perfect on them; you want to be able to sense their motion through the frame. Then it doesn't feel like it's out of focus. If someone's running really fast through the frame from the bottom to the top and you track them so their head is stationary in the frame, they get all blurry. But if you let them run farther up the frame and you're late on getting your positioning there, then you'll feel them moving within the frame, and that blur will make sense to your eye.

We also spent a lot of time with Yvan Lucas, our colorist at Efilm, making sure the color in the Imax film was correct. He's brilliant. So even though there will only be about 30 or so Imax prints out there at theaters, we want them to look as great as they possibly can.