Editfest London 2017

3rd Qtr, 2017

The career of Pietro Scalia, ACE, is too extensive to suggest even a surface reading over a 90-minute session, but he generously delivered a masterclass of technique and insight into how he has helped craft some of the most important and iconic films of the past three decades, during his keynote at the fifth EditFest London.

The sold-out event, held June 24 at BFI Southbank, also featured a trio of panels covering TV, documentaries and features; a presentation by platinum sponsor Blackmagic Design; and a cocktail party.

During his keynote, Scalia dissected several scenes from JFK, Oliver Stone’s examination of the John F. Kennedy assassination that he edited with Joe Hutshing, ACE, and which won the film editing Academy Award® in 1992.

“I approached the prologue like the opening movement of a symphony,” he said in a conversation with moderator Carolyn Giardina. “It’s structured in three parts, the final one of which is visual and shows Kennedy’s ride into Dallas from the airport. It was important to experience that drive and the connection between JFK and the crowds. There’s a shot where he seems to look directly into the camera and make eye contact, which is a very powerful way of creating a bond with the viewer.”

The movie’s original cut was four and a half hours. Scalia’s ingenious solution to cutting a full hour off that time was to collapse, condense and superimpose a pair of scenes on top of each other. These were the scenes featuring detailed exposition about the investigation and a conversation between Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and Mr. X (Donald Sutherland) in Washington.

“We effectively mashed the scenes on top of each other. The scene plays so convincingly because of the cadence of Sutherland’s performance. We had to ask him to ADR the whole scene weeks later and remarkably he hit the exact rhythm the first time.”

In a crucial sequence during the climactic trial, Scalia expanded six seconds of the famous Zapruder film reel of the assassination into two minutes of dramatic exposition emphasizing the triangulation of bullets inconsistent with a single shooter.

“Everything here is about eyes – close-ups of eyes, people watching through binoculars and rifle scopes. It’s about witnessing something real. Oliver’s goal was that what you should remember from this film was that this presidential killing was a coup d’etat.”

The tonal note for Gladiator – directed by Ridley Scott, Scalia’s longtime collaborator and starring Russell Crowe –was of a hand in a wheat field, shot on the last day of photography but selected by Scalia as the opening image for the film.

“I had just worked with Bernardo Bertolucci where we had talked about poetic images and here I felt we had an image that would express something fundamental about the character. It doesn’t matter what the viewer feels – memory or desire or premonition – so long as they feel a connection with the character. “I always feel that the first image you see should be very strong. It’s the one urgent image – nothing else precedes it and the audience brings to bear all their expectations about the story to it.” In a scene from Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting Scalia focused on dialogue and techniques to maintain the spontaneity and rhythm of language from single-camera takes of a group of actors including Ben Affleck who were improvising. “It’s about listening to the dialogue very carefully so that you are able to make subtle and very precise cuts that keep the momentum of the scene fresh.”

Scalia then discussed scenes from Ridley Scott’s war film, Black Hawk Down, which won him a second editing Oscar® and was arguably his toughest assignment. “Ridley’s idea was to make a very accurate portrayal of what war is like. It’s a very intense action film but because he chose to shoot long takes with up to 11 cameras (rather than multiple short takes), I had two difficulties. One was the sheer amount of material, up to 100 minutes for just one take. And, in order to be as accurate as possible, we needed to show many things happening on screen almost simultaneously.” Scalia consulted with a military advisor who had been on the ground in Mogadishu, where the events portrayed in the film took place in 1993, to understand the complexity of where different combatants were at various points.

He then requested a reshoot of one scene to depict U.S. commanders plotting key positions on a map as a way to communicate the geography of the scene to the viewer. “These are examples of how editors rewrite the final stage of film,” said Scalia. “By combining scenes, by changing scenes around by defining its geography, by simply juxtaposing one image against another – it’s a form of writing.”

The day began with a panel of editors who work in television. Moderated by CinemaEditor’s international editor, Adrian Pennington, topics included the unique challenges of cutting new or established series.

On tackling the pilot for 24: Legacy, John Smith, ACE, related, “The original was such a successful franchise, so when they rebooted the series, the challenge was to stick with certain rules from the original, which was told in real time and with the use of split screens. The challenge was to freshen it up but you could only go so far because you had to adhere to a format.

I love nonlinear storytelling, but you can’t do that in 24.” “I approach joining a longstanding series with research. I watch as many episodes as I can,” advised Caroline Bleakley (Midsomer Murders). “Then we can’t help but [alter the style] in some way that’s unique to us. I try not to change it, but to introduce elements of my own.” Speaking of starting a new series, Richard Cox (Happy Valley) acknowledged that there’s a unique type of pressure and that post likely could go beyond the original schedule. “The execs are hoping for a second season, and they are absolutely desperate for it to work,” he said, adding, “Working on the end of a series is more fun; that’s when stories get wrapped up and maybe you are teeing up for a second series.”

William Oswald (Sherlock) finds that with editing, “You don’t want to over explain. Making the audience do some work is half the battle. The more they are invested, the better.” The panelists agreed that it’s a great time to be working in television, with ambitious stories and a lot of choice.

“Overall the quality is pretty outstanding,” Cox said. “TV is filling a bit of a gap. In cinema there are the big blockbusters and the [smaller films], and it seems TV is filling the middle. And you can tell a story over a long period.” The next panel examined the unique challenges of finding the story in documentary work. Chris King, ACE, advised editors to just start somewhere, and expect it will be wrong: “If there are several hundred hours of material it does take a while to wade through it all,” he said. “You know you are going to be wrong –at least the first act.

Mathilde Bonnefoy, ACE, agreed, admitting that Academy Award winner Citizenfour (she edited and also served as a producer), “was originally about surveillance, and it became about courage [when they connected with Edward Snowden] and we made Snowden the centerpiece of the film.” Bonnefoy also asserted that in documentary filmmaking, it’s “a mistake to strive for objectivity. There are facts, but the way we interpret them is our own.” She added that with this interpretation “the more it will resonate with others.” King agreed.

Speaking of his work on Amy Winehouse doc Amy, he said, “If you are making a film like this, you have to like the person. She was so winning and lovely … but to show why a nice person ended up the way she did, you can’t be impartial.” Steve Ellis, ACE, illustrated how the story changes during editing, by showing a powerful outtake from Watani: My Homeland, a documentary short about a family that escapes the Syrian civil war and relocates in Germany. “The mum [in this clip] was incredibly powerful … but she was de-weighing the narrative of the kids, and we decided it was a film about the emotional and psychological change in the kids, not the journey. When we took [the clip] out, the film changed and she stopped being the most dominant character. “We wanted to make a film about refugees, not Syrian refugees,” he explained. “We wanted to make a film about children learning to live in a new home.

We learned the exposition [offered by the scene with the mother] could drop away.” Panelist Zoe Davis is currently directing and editing feature documentary FIERCE!, a look at the drag community during the fight for LGBT equality. “The stories that were really important to me were characters,” she said, adding that she picked three to focus on in the doc. “I became quite attached to some of the characters,” she continued, saying that she sometimes sought an outside view for perspective. Gordon Mason, ACE (Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train a Comin’), discussed how archival footage can be used effectively to drive a narrative “as long as you are being honest with the material.” Editor Eoin McDonagh, who was a founding member of Dublin Editors, moderated the documentary panel.

After a lunch break, the topic turned to feature editing, with a panel moderated by editor Steven Worsley. Job ter Burg, ACE, NCE, shared two versions of a dinner party sequence from Paul Verhoeven’s Elle: the final version and one with the same picture cut but shorn of dialogue, ambient sound and score.

“To achieve a rhythmical flow in a scene one of the tricks I do is cut without any sound,” he explained. “I try not to be distracted by production sound to concentrate on the pure rhythm of the image. When I have the scene flowing I’ll add some atmosphere tracks to enhance the scene before opening up any dialogue. Finding that rhythm from picture alone can be a really powerful thing.” Tony Cranstoun, ACE, presented three clips from films which shared a similar structure – an introduction, an escalation toward climax followed by a return to normality. “The application an editor brings to comedy is similar to horror,” he said. “In comedy you are building up to a gag and horror is about a reveal to scare or unseat the audience.”

Previs editor Sian Fever (Wonder Woman), who works at The Third Floor, said previs is set up a bit like an orchestra, with the previs supervisor conducting at the front, the first violinist as lead artist and all the asset creators and animators comprising the musicians. “I, as previs editor, am the drums at back keeping everyone in time,” she said. “It’s not about making the pictures look pretty and very much about trying to work out the story.” Jake Roberts, ACE, revealed that the production of his current film, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, had used previs to choreograph a car chase in Amsterdam but that none of the previs decisions made it to editorial.

“If anything, previs can be quite neutral and not subjective,” agreed Fever. “Unlike editorial, we tend to look at a single sequence not a whole film.” Roberts addressed pacing with a key scene from Hell or High Water. “We’d test screened the film and it had passed so we were picture locked but there was one scene which some people still felt had outstayed its welcome. It’s a languid scene featuring a conversation in a small town between [the characters played by] Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham.

It’s so central to the theme of what [director] David Mackenzie wanted to say that we couldn’t cut it. So we went back and cut maybe five minutes off the running time before this scene. Perception of pace can be about context. The scene is not any shorter but we hoped that by trimming the flow of the story ahead of it we’d earned the right to keep it in.” Sylvie Landra, ACE, chose to focus on the performance of actors, highlighting Gary Oldman’s turn in Leon: The Professional. “The performance in the dailies is something that will stay in my memory for ages,” she said. “I think there were 10 takes of this scene and I could see the invention and joy as he played with the lines and embellished it each time. There is a music to what [actors] are doing which to me is important to putting a scene together.”

Also during the day, colorist Darren Mostyn, who runs Brighton, U.K.-based post facility Online Creative, gave a presentation about Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve, which he said has “become our tool of choice.” He described how the DaVinci toolset began with color grading and has expanded to now include editing and most recently sound (Blackmagic acquired audio firm Fairlight in 2016). Mostyn also emphasized Blackmagic’s responsiveness, adding, “the developers at Blackmagic really do listen to your requests.”

ACE extends its thanks to Platinum sponsor Blackmagic; Gold sponsors Adobe, Avid and Motion Picture Editors Guild; Silver sponsor Ignite; and media sponsors Optimize Yourself
and Televisual.