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Editing magic: History’s ‘Houdini’

By Randi Altman

When asked about magicians or illusionists who push the boundary, most young people would immediately think of David Blaine or Criss Angel. But before either of them drank fire or locked themselves in a water-filled box in front of a crowd, there was Harry Houdini. An inspiration to this current generation of illusionists, Houdini was the subject of an eponymously-named miniseries that premiered Labor Day on the History Channel.

The Uli Edel-directed Houdini tells an old-fashioned story in a new way, grabbing the attention of a new generation of fans of magic and illusion.

Houdini, shot with the Arri Alexa camera, on-location in Budapest, was edited on Avid Media Composer 6.5 by Sabrina Plisco, ACE, (Smurfs, Smurfs 2, Charlotte’s Web, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Into the West). For help with the show, she brought in editor David Beatty, assistant editor Jered Zalman and, later in the process, another assistant editor Paul Alderman.

There were many “fun challenges,” as Plisco referred to them, for the editorial team that involved individual scenes shot at multiple locations, bluescreen shoots, visual effects and a tight domestic turnaround.

She credits co-producer Karen Mayeda with doing “a fabulous job keeping the logistics of this post production together.”

Sabrina Plisco, Karen Mayeda and David Beatty.

L-R: Sabrina Plisco, Karen Mayeda and David Beatty.

Just before the miniseries premiered, Plisco shared details of her process and the editorial workflow on Houdini.

How do you start your process?
My job is to get in touch with what the director is looking for — what’s in his or her mind about what the project needs to be. So that’s my first goal: how do they envision their piece, and how can I help them get there.

If it’s my first experience with a director, I figure out their style and their rhythm, or if they are looking for me to contribute, that’s fine too. And that’s exactly what happened on Houdini.

And regardless of the type of project, I treat it with just as much intense integrity as I can, whether it’s a low-budget project, a huge blockbuster movie or a television project. I look at them all the same, and I am there to help all the creatives get it to where they want it to be.

The director, Uli Edel, was open to suggestions. Was it a constant collaboration throughout filming?
I had heard from him and the producers that they were looking for a certain style for this piece, and they had thrown out some examples of the kind of things they were looking for. So as I was getting my dailies, I was trying to figure out a rhythm and a cutting pattern and a look that might be a little more contemporary, which is what they wanted.

How did you achieve that contemporary look in terms of the edit?
Obviously, this is a bio-pic of a character who was prominent in the early part of the 20th Century so it was a period piece, but they didn’t want it to be old-fashioned; they wanted a contemporary feel.

It was my job to experiment with cutting patterns, rhythms and style aimed to interest a new generation in Houdini and his work. In my edit I also experimented with contemporary sound and music, which helped achieve our goal—more tonal and rhythmic in nature.

A modern-feel while retaining the historic feel.

A modern-feel while retaining the historic feel.

It was a process of evolution in the experimentation until we landed on our film language. It took a bit of effort and patience, but once we got it there, it fell into place for the most part. Just like most shows, it evolved into being.

Can you describe that style?
It was more jump-cut and nonlinear—not only throughout the plot but within the scenes too. The nonlinear storytelling came much later in the process, but within each scene there were more jump-cut flashes as well as little bits and pieces that would be interspersed in the middle of the more dramatic portion of the storytelling.

Freeze frames were another experiment that would come and go throughout. We had a few iterations until we hit on just the right balance that everyone was happy with. That was another way we felt contributed to a contemporary feel — continuity matching wasn’t quite how we approached the material.

You mentioned dailies. Were you keeping up with camera?
They were filming in Budapest — it was a 45-day shoot — and there was a digital pipeline. They would load the cards at a facility in Budapest and pipe it to the Avid Unity at EPS in Studio City, here in California, where our post cutting rooms were set up.

Production was nine hours ahead of us, so we’d wake up and my assistant Jered Zalman would double check to make sure the download was in process from Budapest to Studio City. He could check even before he left home. If there was a hitch somewhere he could begin the download from home before he started his commute.

In a perfect scenario, everything was piped and arrived to the local Unity by the time he arrived at the office. He could walk into work, flip on the machines and start prepping the dailies. So the time difference worked to our advantage.

Did that schedule remain throughout… editing shots from the day before?
It got a little crazier toward the latter part of the shoot because they brought in a 2nd unit insert team to do a couple weeks of additional shooting.

The insert list included a shot list that editorial provided for them. And production was also shooting multiple cameras on many days. So it got a little crazy near the end, but that’s pretty normal on any show… they start scrambling and shooting more material at the end of the shoot.

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A miniseries brings with it a lot of footage. Did you have some help in terms of the editing?
David Beatty came in a month after I had started to help me get through dailies and the director’s cut. We originally had a very short schedule. That ended up changing, but we didn’t know that early on.

Toward the end of the project we brought in a second additional assistant, Paul Alderman, to help with all the visual effects. We ended up doing daily VFX reviews to hit our deadlines. With constant animation updates in the visual effects, there were a lot of turnovers to the sound and music departments to keep them updated. And to boot, we had a second version of the show to deliver for international.

How did you and David split up the editing?
Certain scenes came in over stretches of time, so if I had started cutting one I would finish that one, and visa-versa. Other than that we just split up the material randomly. Then we would share our edits with each other and critique our work. It was a fabulous collaborative atmosphere.

What about the larger set piece sequences?
There were quite a few of them in this show and they would shoot over a period of days or even weeks. For instance, the “bullet catch” was shot inside the Budapest Opera House, but they only had one particular night to shoot there.

Because of this, they started by shooting part of the scene a couple of weeks before on a mock-up stage — this would ultimately be the proscenium of the Budapest Opera House, or the area behind the curtain on the stage itself. Our VFX supervisor Sean Farrow had to calculate the math so those mock-up shots with the actors would fit into the actual shots done on the Budapest stage, which were shot empty!! Yes, without the actors in frame.

This sequence was complex, but I knew the director would be helped by seeing it “blocked out,” even if I didn’t have all the material. So I started cutting the scene with part of the dailies along with storyboards representing the missing angles. This rough version of the scene helped the director plan for his upcoming shoots to get the remaining material.

Once I finally had all the dailies, I could do temporary comps and put the actors into the image of the opera house stage even though they were never there. Ah, the magic of visual effects!

You cut on the Media Composer. What do you like about the tool?
I love Avid because it gives us editors so much more experimental freedom than the old days of film or even linear-based systems. It is a solid and trustworthy system that allows us to store many variations of a scene and explore, which is invaluable when you are doing experimental-style cutting on a show like Houdini. It takes the inhibitions away.

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Are you being asked to do more than just edit?
There is always a double-edge sword with nonlinear systems: our bosses expect us to do everything —such as full-blown sound effects and a complete temp music soundtrack to accompany the edit — and we as editors are becoming responsible for doing more and more. It prevents us from putting most of our concentration on the editing job.

In television, and a lot of features these days, you don’t get the support of music and sound experts while you’re cutting. Therefore you and your internal team have to do it. That’s where your assistants can step up and support you and offer up some of their talent. That was very much the case with this project. It took a group effort to fill out the bells and whistles.

Was there anything in particular about this version of the software that was helpful?
One thing I appreciated is the expansion of the audio tracks. There are now up to 24 audio tracks available for playback instead of the previous 16. The other feature that I loved and used was being able to condense your stereo tracks into a single track on your timeline. It takes up less physical space in your timeline, and my timelines are usually quite robust. So this was a wonderful addition to the latest version of software.

How many VFX shots were there in Houdini?
I would say we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 visual effects. Some were as simple as wire removal, and since it was a period piece some of the shots were taking elements out of the frame that weren’t appropriate for the time period. In my world of visual effects I barely count those, but the producers have to count it because they have to pay for it (laughs).

On the other hand we had plenty of complex newspaper montage transitions, a beautiful main title sequence and some pretty spectacular effects shot on bluescreen where environments had to be created behind the actors. Some are quite stunning.

The opening of the show has Houdini about to jump off a bridge into a frozen river where a hole has been cut beneath him. That whole sequence was shot on a stage against bluescreen and the environment around him was created in CG.

Can you mention the VFX houses on the show?
They were UPP, Spin, Drawn By the Light, House of Salt and Encore.

You referred earlier to the international version? Can you talk about cutting that?
Because we cut the domestic version so tight, I had to go back and add about 16 minutes to the piece to sell internationally — they are very strict about the length. I had to add the time and redistribute the commercial breaks and even the night break to get that time back in.

Because we ended up with a couple of different versions of the show, it made it very complicated for the other departments. Normally you’d finish the long version of a show and then cut it down, but that’s not what happened here. We finished the short version first to deliver to the network and then went back and delivered the long version having to add additional music, sound and visual effects. We had a new mix we had to create. That made it a little tricky to get final deliverables all set.

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Is there one particular scene that stands out to you?
There were quite a few set pieces that were fun to put together, but challenging as well. The safe sequence, which David Beatty ended up cutting, is a 10-minute-long complicated section, which tries to keep many balls of the story in the air. It was also shot over many, many days. It’s a sequence that was split over different acts too. Originally we even thought about splitting our night break there, but it ended up being resolved in part one of the miniseries. That was such a long sequence and had so many iterations, I believe it was probably the most challenging for David.

For me the bridge jump was a challenge because it plays a couple of times throughout. It starts the movie and then we flash back and jump around in time and play it again later in the show— twice in various forms. In order to keep it interesting and not to have exact repeats, I created different versions of that sequence… but it was all bluescreen visual effects. It was tricky to vary it up because I had to be mindful not to create too many new visual effects — those shots were expensive so we tried to utilize them more than once. Thus the challenge: make it interesting and different each times the sequence plays, but also be wise with the money for visual effects. Those were the most difficult visuals of the show, so we really couldn’t grasp how amazing it was going to be until the first concept shots came in. Once we saw those, we knew we had a good opening for the show!

 

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