Editing with Baked-In Camera Moves, Keeping Just the Right Tone, and Whistling While He Works

With nine Academy Award nominations and countless other wins, The Grand Budapest Hotel is director Wes Anderson's most critically fêted film to date. Among those nominated for an Oscar is the film's editor, Barney Pilling, known for An Education, Never Let Me Go and the acclaimed British television series Life on Mars. Pilling, a London-based editor who had never worked with Anderson before, says he was a "bona fide Wes Anderson fan" before this project and is even more of one now. We talked to him about how he and Anderson found compatability in the edit suite, the secret to Anderson's unique voice on film, and what most surprised him about the entire experience.


F. Murray Abraham and Jude Law. Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight.

StudioDaily: How did you come to work with Wes Anderson?

Barney Pilling: It was a direct recommendation from director Mark Romanek, who I worked with on Never Let Me Go. I think Mark and Wes know each other quite well, and Mark and I worked well together. Since Wes was gearing up to shoot the film in Europe, he asked if Mark knew anybody in Europe with the same sensibilities and worked in the cutting room like Mark and Wes liked to work. After a short Skype conversation with Wes, it all happened quite quickly. A big thank you to Mark for that one. I think Mark, by the way, is one of the premiere image-makers in American history. He's an incredibly talented guy, whether he's working on a commercial, music video or feature film. He's a lot like Wes in that way.

As evidenced by his films and their many beautifully constructed parts, Wes Anderson is meticulous about process. What were some of the first things you discussed with him?

During those early conversations, he seemed to focus on the work that can be done in the edit suite regarding dialog and performance. He's a great believer that the performances you get on set from these great actors can't really be bettered in the future. For action films these days, by necessity, you shoot what you can on set and deal with the sound later, getting the actors back in the booth to re-record things. We both realized we shared a sensibility that what these great performers do on the day is where the magic of the art of cinema happens. After that conversation, everything fell into place and we got on famously.

Anderson's films have a swiftness and pace all their own. How did that influence your edit?

Wes is an incredibly economical and gifted filmmaker and is so aware of how the camera moves and the syntax that develops between an actor and a camera. He knows where one line ends and what the camera needs to do next. Those moves are kind of hard-baked into the script. More specifically, he likes the camera and its dolly moves to be part of the pace of the story—the whip pans, tracking shots and elaborate dolly moves, helped of course by [cinematographer] Bob Yeoman's wonderful, Oscar-nominated photography and by Wes's longtime key grip and Steadicam operator, Sanjay Sami. The hard job in the editing suite is to make the performances chime within that existing structure.


Ralph Fiennes. Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight.

All of the performances are so terrific, but you can feel the joy in every quick-change move of Ralph Fienne's portrayal of M. Gustave.

Oh you really do, it's wonderful. I'm glad you mentioned him. He was astounding to watch. He's an incredible performer and quite the technician, as well as an artist. Just by virtue of the script that Wes wrote, there were sometimes scenes that Ralph had to perform in and there were three pages of soliloquy. In quick take after take, he would change one inflection on one word and know exactly where he was from the takes before. What a master of the English language he is. It really was a joy to see and preserve what Ralph did on the day and carry it through to the final film. I'd like to point out that there isn't one single line of re-recorded dialog in Grand Budapest, and I'm very proud of that. That's a testament to our sound recordist, Pawel Wdowczak. We managed to maintain the joy we recorded on the day right through to the final film, and I do think it shows.


Carole Lombard and Jack Benny in Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be

The entire movie is an homage to film history. What specific references did you discuss?

It was such a wonderful environment when we were all shooting out in Germany. Wes had a little room where there were a select number of films on disc that we could take and watch. He specifically pointed me to the works of Ernst Lubitsch [Ninotchka, To Be or Not to Be, The Shop Around the Corner, Heaven Can Wait] and Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot's Holiday. Obviously, he told me, this is not what we're doing but we're in this kind of realm. We're paying homage to these great films on everything we do on this film, from the hand-made inserts and hand-painted backgrounds to the beautifully hand-made costumes. He was interested in Hulot more for its sound design, actually. He'd say, "Look, we haven't worked together before, but watch this in terms of sound design." Yes, it's incredibly overt in places by today's standards, but the sound design is a part of the storytelling of that film, especially because it has very little real dialogue.

"Wes Anderson's Private Screening Club," huh? Jealous! How difficult was it, though, to find just the right tone and not go precipitously off the goofy cliff? I'm thinking of the snow chase scene in particular.

It's very, very difficult, and Wes knows better than anyone that you really have to be careful. There are so many elements of what Wes does with every department that is so heightened—everyone also works very hard and at such a high level. But he's a master of that balance of where to pitch everything; that's part of his unique voice. On a scale of 1 to 10, the costumes are turned up to 10.5, the set design is maybe up to 15, and the camera moves are at 12. He also always assembles an amazing cast who are so good at what they do that you need to keep the dialogue at number 9, just underneath it all. If everything is at 12, it all falls apart. For sure, the ski chase marked our most overt moment in the film. It also was one of the most difficult scenes we had to put together. We were pulling elements from so many areas. Miniatures were built in Germany and shot with the Red camera, vistas were shot on 35mm from a helicopter, and we had green-screen footage shot of Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori [Zero]. Then you add Alexandre Desplat's score and it takes the film another notch up. For me, that is the success of his art: knowing where to pitch all these elements to just the right degree so we fall just the right side of homage and don't push into what could be ridiculous.


Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori. Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight.

Beyond the Red footage, were other digital images used? 

That was pretty much it, though we did have some stills here and there shot on the Canon 5D Mark III. They formed components of some of the vistas that we got. Although it is a very overt and imaginary world, we didn't want to build all those elements in a computer. If we needed a view of a mountain, that mountain was sourced, found, approached and photographed, then integrated into the visual effect. Other than that sequence at Gabelmeister's Peak, which was the trickiest stuff in terms of combining special effects, the film was shot on 35mm.

Do you think that because of what this film is about and the way Anderson tells his stories, that it could only have been shot on film, and why?

Absolutely. I don't wish to be branded a Luddite. I'm not part of that group and I come from a digital environment and of course work with digitized formats. But there's just something about the patina of film that I love, particularly in this film, because there's a sense of nostalgia baked into the story itself about a very significant part of European history. Because of that, I think it had to be shot on film. Bob Yeoman is such a craftsman with film, and to me, Moonrise Kingdom, which they shot on 16mm film, was one of the best looking films of the year. I do mourn the passing of a format that continues to deliver so much more than what was on the screen. 


Mathieu Amalric. Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight.

Was it difficult to work with the different aspect ratios that mark the different historical segments of the film?

Not really, since everything was planned out far in advance. We tested and we tested and we tested some more. That's the key to filmmaking: If you're worried about something, you test it until you're comfortable with what the result is going to be. And in the end, it wasn't a problem because the Avid delivered an image to my viewing screen, the screen Wes and I are watching during assembly, and we had ultimate control over what comes out over that screen. The concerns only really came when we were completing the pictorial finishing and worrying about how what we had intended would end up being screened in the cinema. Obviously, there are projectionists all over the world that are expecting a certain thing. There's a way a Blu-ray player will handshake over HDMI with a flatscreen television, and it's all based on these aspect ratios. There are things baked into the codec of what the public watches. Wes and producer Jeremy Dawson were very specific with the studio about how we wanted this film to be delivered, so the film arrived with very clear instructions for projectionists. Between the cutting room and the delivery and the theater and the home viewer, they did an excellent job of maintaining that aspect ratio, since it was so critical to the storytelling.

When did you arrive in Görlitz, Germany, where principal shooting took place?

They flew me out two days before the shoot began, and I stayed there the whole time in the basement of the town hall, which they called the rathskeller. It was about a hundred yards from the hotel that we were all staying and a five-minute walk away from the main set of the hotel, which was inside an old department store.

What was in your kit?

We cut on [Avid] Media Composer 6.5.03 on a PC. I'm a PC boy. I switched a few years ago and I don't see myself switching back. I know that's not really popular in places like the West Coast of America, but Avid's been developed using the HP Z800 series of workstations, which I use, so it makes sense to me. Especially with the Unity shared-media platform, the PC has proved itself to be far more robust than the Mac version. I work with two 27-inch Eizo ColorEdge monitors. I also have a remote HP Z1 system that Wes and I used quite a lot, based on his schedule. Sometimes I was in Paris, where he has an office, sometimes I was in Kent [where Anderson's girlfriend has a home] and sometimes I was in London. Some of the effects were being done in London. Alexandre Desplat was doing the music in Paris. If we were in one place for any length of time, we could just connect the Z1 to the Avid and Unity. It was just a very stable, robust platform to be on throughout. We obviously needed the studio here in London to do the color grading with Jill Bogdanowicz—and what a job she did—and to do the sound mixing. But it was pretty movable. I could be anywhere Wes needed me to be with the whole production on one hard drive, one RAID set.

Did you do any other effects in the Avid?

We were able to add vignettes and shadows here and there to focus information, which one can do very easily in the Avid. For example, the shadowed spotlight that happens on Gustave in a couple of places in the film. Jill did such a marvelous job on the DaVinci in the DI, and the place that Wes and Jill took the film in a color sense was only possible during the grade. They were able to experiment with so many different layers and feelings. None of that came from the edit. It was only my job to even things out and make sure things didn't jump in terms of its color design, especially when scenes were filmed on multiple days or sometimes a week apart. We had a week together where we came together in London and it was a kind of sketching session where we just experimented to see how far the footage could go. It's an incredibly complex job Jill did. I think she and Wes really achieved a kind of narrative color-grading, if you will, and they infused the whole thing with a nostalgia that fit the story. But you don't know that when you're watching it. It just feels natural for the story.

Were you working with an abundance of temp tracks while waiting for Alexandre Desplat's Oscar-nominated score?

Even before we locked picture, we were able to work with melodies that Alexandre had written and work these into the film, so very early on we were working with Alexandre's music even though the tracks were in temp form. It was a much more fluid collaboration than typically happens and was crucial to the pace of the edit. But one of the temp tracks we worked with made its way into the final film: Vivaldi's Concerto for Lute and Plucked Strings that plays under the montage of Zero retelling of his life as a lobby boy.


Ralph Fiennes and friends. Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight.

What most surprised you about the entire experience, from start to finish?

I was incredibly honored and gifted to be given the job in the first place. What I wasn't prepared for was the level of accuracy and level of intensity and the level of technical ability that's required on a Wes Anderson film. You see his films and it kind of looks easy. That's sort of the true accolade of someone who is very good at their job. Incredible amounts of hard work went into making this film. I remember talking to Sanjay Sami in Görlitz after a day of heavy grip work in sub-zero temperatures. He's a big man and he'd had his stamina tested. "This film is like the Grip Olympics," he told me. That's kind of how I felt in the edit suite. It was the Editing Olympics. The standards need to be so high to deliver what Wes delivers. That was a nice surprise for me. It looks easy but it's really not. A lot of hard work, from all departments, goes into achieving what he achieves.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but according to IMDb, you also have a credit on this film for whistling.

I do indeed! It's only one cue, when Zero gets married to Agatha and M. Gustave acts as the master of ceremonies and marries the two of them. Alexandre had written a beautiful piece and had done a temp track for it and had whistled on it. It was beautiful and very atmospheric, and most of it we kept. But Wes being Wes, he wanted to tinker with it and thought perhaps we could do better. I spent a good year working fairly intensively alongside Wes and Alexandre and they'd heard me whistling and told me, "Hey Barney, you can really whistle!" So they stuck me in the booth for an entire morning to get some good whistles out of me. The end result is a wonderful 50/50 amalgam of Alexandre Desplat's Gallic flair and my Northern English militarian precision hitting the notes. Between the two of us, we found the right pitch. Blink and you miss it!