Blending Steadicam and DP Chivo Lubezki's Masterful Handheld Footage into One Long Tracking Shot
An editor's best work is never meant to be noticed when watching a film. But imagine the ultimate hat trick: an imperceptibly edited film that appears not to be edited at all. The endless, meandering tracking shot and claustrophobic POV that drive much of Birdman, co-written, produced and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams), is more than just visual sleight of hand. It's a revelatory wormhole into the way all movies—and our own minds—at once seduce and deceive us.
Filmed on location in New York City and featuring Michael Keaton and real New York residents Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts, the movie was shot on the ARRI Alexa by Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki and edited on Mac-based Avid Media Composer 6.5 by Stephen Mirrione, ACE, and Doug Crise. Crise was on set throughout the 30-day shoot and the pair reprised a working relationship that began when Crise assisted on Traffic, for which Mirrione won an Oscar. We spoke with them about Birdman's unusual approach to narrative, how they paced the film's subtle and grander transitions, and how the entire process redefined their editorial workflow before, during and after production.
StudioDaily: Iñárritu's single-take concept must have taken a very long time to get your head around. How did you find a way into the edit?
Stephen Mirrione: You can't approach a movie like this unless you know well in advance exactly how you're going to do it. It has to be built into the script, especially since he wanted to move his characters around in time as well. It never was going to be a real-time shoot where we'd just set the camera and follow someone around. We were always building in these time and space transitions so the storytelling still had the freedom to be more expressive. We had to be part of the planning during pre-production. When Alejandro first mentioned to me that he wanted Chivo (Lubezki) to record table readings of the script and actual rehearsals, I said we should also start editing these rehearsals and start putting it all together so we know early on what things are working and what things aren't. We needed to know what changes we should and could make because we obviously wouldn't have the kind of flexibility we would normally have at the end of the process. We had to build in ways at the very beginning of the process to make those kinds of editorial decisions.
SD: The other illusion in the room: how did you get so much access to a working New York City theater, which we see is right there in Times Square, for the entire 30-day shoot?
SM: Yeah, some of the film was shot on a stage in L.A. and some of it was shot in New York as they were building the sets. But it's definitely a real theater. They could only afford to shut it down for exactly the number of days they were shooting there.
Doug Crise: They also shot a lot of footage without the actors, which we needed for coverage.
SD: When did you come onto the project, Doug?
DC: Stephen was busy and couldn't be on location in New York, so I came on during the first week of principal so I could be the point person and go to set every day, which is something I don't normally do. Basically, Alejandro would discuss what his favorite takes were from the day before and I'd be there to help him coordinate all the pieces we needed to make it work. I'd try out some ideas, some tricks we might be able to pull off there with him, then was back in LA with Stephen when we posted the film.
SD: Was there a VFX supervisor on set throughout production as well?
DC: There was a VFX lead, Jake Braver, on set from the get-go but there were some scheduling issues and Adam Howard came on board after that. When we got into post, we moved to Rodeo FX, where we had a third supervisor, Ara Khanikian.
SM: Rodeo FX ended up doing the majority of the final effects work that you see in the movie. A lot of that had to do with the fact that we needed someone there at all times to ask questions like, "Can we really do this or get away with that?" We needed someone who could say yes or no right there and also help us plan along the way. But because of the limited resources, things got shifted around. Instead of starting the VFX work while we were shooting, that ended up getting pushed toward the end of the process. It just ended up being more efficient that way. Thanks to all of the other pre-planning, though, we knew we would have a pretty close to final cut fairly quickly after shooting was over. That's when we really shifted gears, with Rodeo on board, to finishing the VFX. There were scenes that we knew we'd be adding additional elements to the frame. And the flying sequence was its own VFX-intensive segment.
SD: Shooting into so many mirrors and showing acts of telekinesis and levitation couldn't have been too easy to do in camera.
SM: You'd be surprised at how much of that was actually done practically! Alejandro knew that there were two ways to approach this movie. He could have shot the whole thing on green screen and done everything digitally after the fact. But if you do that, you lose what he was really going for, which was this authenticity and a really close connection with the actors and the performances.
SD: In other words, as close to live theater as you can get on film.
SM: Exactly. In doing so, they were very, very careful to plan out and do as much as they could do live. Even the things that look like they could have been done digitally were actually happening.
SD: Rotoscoping out wires later, for example?
SM: Yeah, exactly. So for us, as editors, it was really exciting to already be working with most of the elements there in place. I'm sure that helped the actors tremendously as well. Imagine having to get everything perfect in the take but not having props there in front of you to react to. Alejandro wanted as much available to the actors as possible.
SD: The Alexa's small footprint was obviously important, but the Steadicam operator is another unsung hero.
SM: Absolutely. Again, you might be surprised to learn that even though there was a lot that was shot with Steadicam, a lot more of the movie was shot handheld. Chivo is just so good at it that it is difficult to tell when it goes from handheld to Steadicam and back again. Being able to maneuver within those tight spaces and dance among the actors like that without having a huge apparatus was essential for them to be able to pull this off.
SD: It sounds like everyone had to stick to the script pretty closely. Was there any room for improv?
DC: Not improv, per se, but Alejandro would definitely change things up on the day to either combine or change scenes. For example, he would start out close to the script but by take five, he would drop a few lines and by take ten it was even more lines. He wanted enough variations in the performances and scenes so he had more options during post.
SD: Were the takes significantly longer than on a typical shoot and were there more of them?
SM: Nothing was typical on this project. The takes of course had to be longer but at the same time, I'm sure the shortest take was shorter than you'd imagine and the longest take was longer than you would even think would be possible. But within that, it was more about shifting usual workflows and techniques and performances around and reordering them. If there was any improv going on, I'm sure it happened during those rehearsals. I'm also sure there were subtle ways the actors changed it up on camera. They still had the chance to play and be fluid and really explore what they were doing. It was like that for us. After the fact, we were still asked, say, to enhance the emotional center of a scene with the edit and do all the fine-tuning that normally goes on. Alejandro would say, "I want to feel a little bit differently here," or ask if we can do something a little differently in a particular scene. We were just doing it in a much narrower, less flexible space than we were used to.
DC: They were probably shooting more takes than normal but you have to remember, you're not shooting your next setup as you would shoot on a normal film for coverage. He maybe had only two setups a day and he had to do each one perfectly. He would vary the setup and reblock it by the fifth take or try something else.
SD: The big visual break from the seemingly extended take comes in a pivotal scene after Michael Keaton's character loses consciousness on stage. What was Iñárritu's goal for the cuts in that scene?
SM: Alejandro knew that he wanted to frame the two big moments of cutting at the very beginning and near the very end. I never talked with him directly about it but I have my own take on what those scenes mean stylistically. After you've been experiencing the movie as this one, continuous and endless moment and POV shot, to suddenly introduce those cuts has a huge impact on the audience. You feel them in such a visceral way that you might not have. I know that was definitely part of it. It's a very big moment in the movie. No spoilers if some readers haven't seen it, but it's meant to really slap you in the face in that moment.
SD: There are many smaller transitional moments that slip by, which you obviously had to put in there to let the audience come up for air periodically. What were some of those?
SM: Alejandro said from the beginning that we would have to have smaller moments of transition and he built a lot of those into the script. In a more traditional movie, you have the opportunity to cut to an establishing shot or some other bit of visual poetry to create the space and give the audience time to think about everything that they've just seen or help guide the audience to think in another direction. Alejandro knew that once we had those transitions in there, we would be able to expand or contract as needed. So we have the camera going up to the sky or a transition to the next day, or the walking down the hallway from one room to the next, and even the empty hallway. Starting with filming and cutting the rehearsals, we had already gone through it enough to know, OK, these are the spots where we want those moments.
SD: I'm guessing those empty hallways or rooms without any actors in the frame were also places where you had some room to play with pacing.
SM: For sure. We actually had some ability to play with the timing all over the movie, but yes, especially in those scenes, we knew that would be a place where we wanted to have absolute control over how long that moment is going to last.
SD: Let's talk about the soundtrack and how it complemented your edit: that fabulous, driving drum score by Antonio Sanchez (a Grammy-winning jazz artist) alternating with the beautiful orchestral music of Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Rachmaninov. Were you working with temp tracks or the real thing?
DC: Alejandro had gone into the studio with Antonio before he even started shooting and recorded a bunch of drum tracks. He would describe scenes in the movie to Antonio and tell him exactly what he wanted to hear and they would try variations on these themes. He had like 26 or something drum tracks he gave to me right before the shoot. That was definitely something that I wasn't used to and it was certainly unusual score-wise for me. But it was integral to his idea of how to pace the film, giving it the rhythm that a normal edit might have done on another film. He was always encouraging me to try the drum track in different places.
SM: When you're cutting in the usual way, every time there's a cut there's this unconscious drumbeat the audience responds to subliminally. And without that, the drums became a great tool to being able to make the kind of adjustment with sound after the fact that we're used to doing in picture. We started with all those great tracks but then we were able to go back to Antonio with rough cuts and he was able to see that music in context of what Alejandro had originally described and then rerecord to taste, and more specifically, to what we ended up with in the final cut. Even Antonio remarked how incredibly close the movie ended up being to what Alejandro had originally described to him. It really was a manifestation of what was in Alejandro's head all along.
SD: Were the main character's psychotic breaks and the Tchaikovsky source music in the play, not to mention the Birdman apparition itself, a reference to Black Swan?
SM: I really think it's just all a theater thing. It's hard to put yourself out there, live on stage, night after night. And the music makes it otherworldly. Any other similarities were coincidental.
SD: What was the most challenging aspect of this entire project for each of you?
DC: Every film opens up new ideas and new experiences to you, but that being said, you don't realize how easy it is to build pace and rhythm in a scene and how easy it is just to cut to something else. But when you've got a hand tied behind your back, you're in a situation where you have to come up with more tricks and ideas and you're being pushed to do things you wouldn't normally do. I was surprised both how much I learned on this film and also how many new ideas I was able to try out. Alejandro would say to me, "I love both of these performances; can we use both of these?" Or he'd have a scene in which he wanted a slightly different pace. Initially I just looked at him and thought, how am I going to do that? But there were tricks and new avenues that you wouldn't normally think of that we discovered along the way.
SD: How did the Avid help you get there?
DC: I've become much more proficient at doing a lot of little visual effects on my own, which started from an Avid class I took a few years back on ways to use the visual effects tool more. In fact I showed one trick I came up to Alejandro and I said, "I really think we can pull this off." Then I went up to the visual effects guy at the time and said, "Can we actually do this?" And he said, "No, no, no. You can't do that." But I just did it and it looks good!
SM: For me, the most difficult part of this process was finding a different rhythm for how we, as editors, fit into the team in general. We are so trained to be a part of the filmmaking team in a very specific way, knowing that you have complete control in editorial at the end of the process to make these kinds of major tonal, rhythmic and completely structural decisions after shooting is over and all the actors have gone home. Having to give up a lot of that editorial control early on had some getting used to but at the same time, becoming a much more active participant at the beginning of the process was probably the most rewarding for me. It was such a joy to be able to find new ways to interact and collaborate with the team.
DC: I'm really not used to going to the set every day. I like being able to sit back and wait for footage to come in. On previous films, I've been hesitant to give a lot of feedback to a director during the shoot because they are always so busy and you know, in the end, you can probably fix it later. But Alejandro wanted it from me; he was always asking, "What do you think?" He put a lot of pressure on himself to get it right because he knew we didn't have as much room to fix it later. It was hard for me to speak up and give my opinion but I'm so glad he dragged it out of me.
SD: Your favorite scenes?
DC: Hands down, when he runs through Times Square, including that hallway shot once he makes it back inside. It's so funny, chaotic and crazy and swings back to such a calm, intimate moment.
SM: For me, it's the flying, for sure. Part of that is because it was the very last piece we slotted into the movie and finished, so up until then, it was a piece we had only imagined what it was going to feel like. When it was finally executed (at Rodeo FX), I thought it took the movie to this ecstatic level that absolutely blew me away.
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