By Mel Lambert
For William Hoy, ACE, story and character come first. He also likes to use visual effects “to help achieve that idea.” This veteran film editor points to director Zack Snyder’s VFX-heavy I, Robot, director Matt Reeves’ 2014 version of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and his new installment, War for the Planet of the Apes, as “excellent examples of this tenet.”
War for the Planet of the Apes, the final part of the current reboot trilogy, follows a band of apes and their leader as they are forced into a deadly conflict with a rogue paramilitary faction known as Alpha-Omega. After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, their leader begins a quest to avenge his kind, and an epic battle that determines the fate of both their species and the future of our planet.
Marking the picture editor’s second collaboration with Reeves, Hoy recalls that he initially secured an interview with the director through industry associates. “Matt and I hit it off immediately. We liked each other,” Hoy recalls. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes had a very short schedule for such a complicated film, and Matt had his own ideas about the script — particularly how the narrative ended. He was adamant that he ‘start over’ when he joined the film project.
“The previous Dawn script, for example, had [the lead ape character] Caesar and his followers gaining intelligence and driving motorized vehicles,” Hoy says. “Matt wanted the action to be incremental which, it turned out, was okay with the studio. But a re-written script meant that we had a very tight shoot and post schedule. Swapping its release date with X-Men: Days of Future Past gave us an additional four or five weeks, which was a huge advantage.”
Such a close working relationship on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes meant that Hoy came to the third installment in the current trilogy with a good understanding of the way that Reeves likes to work. “He has his own way of editing from the dailies, so I can see what we will need on rough cut as the filmed drama is unfolding. We keep different versions in Avid Media Composer, with trusted performances and characters, and can see where they are going” with the narrative. Having worked with Reeves over the past two decades, Stan Salfas, ACE, served as co-editor on the project, joining prior to the Director’s Cut.
[Editor’s Note: Salfas, was not available for this interview. In answer to a request for an account of his experience on the last two Planet of the Apes movies he wrote: “Working on a large scale VFX movie teaches powerful lessons in collaboration. For the last 20 years through 11 different projects, I was Matt Reeves’ sole editor. When we began work on the Apes films, their vast complexity, the sheer volume of work in every area and an accelerated schedule all made it clear we needed two editors. Matt put himself on a virtual 16-hour a day schedule, as well. It was time for all hands on deck. First, we strove to advance the cut scene by scene in the picture department, often working around the clock. In addition, there were multiple layers of coordination including temp music tracking, sound design and of course visual effects (sessions often went four or five hours each day). Throughout, we continuously interfaced with other creative team members. Under this kind of work load, collaboration between two editors and a director takes many forms, and as we worked over so many months, it became clear: virtually every cinematic moment in the finished film would flow out of a synergy of contributions from many places. Lesson learned: the goal for all of us in post production, as in any film, is to serve the single vision of the director — to forge many voices into one.]
A member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, Hoy also worked with director Randall Wallace on We Were Soldiers and The Man in the Iron Mask, with director Phillip Noyce on The Bone Collector and director Zack Snyder on Watchmen, a film “filled with emotional complexity and heavy with visual effects,” he says.
An Evolutionary Editing Process
“Working scene-by-scene with motion capture images and background artwork laid onto the Avid timeline, I can show Matt my point of view,” explains Hoy. “We fill in as we go — it’s an evolutionary process. I will add music and some sound effects for that first cut so we can view it objectively. We ask, ‘Is it working?’ We swap around ideas and refine the look. This is a film that we could definitely not have cut on film; there are simply too many layers as the characters move through these varied backgrounds. And with the various actors in motion capture suits giving us dramatic performances, with full face movements [CGI-developed facial animation], I can see how they are interacting.”
To oversee the dailies on location, Hoy set up a Media Composer editing system in Vancouver, close to the film locations used for principal photography. “War for the Planet of the Apes was shot on Arri Alexa 65 digital cameras that deliver 6K images,” the editor recalls. “These files were down-sampled to 4K and delivered to Weta Digital [in New Zealand] as source material, where they were further down-sampled to 2K for CGI work and then up-sampled back to 4K for the final release. I also converted our camera masters to 2K DNxHD 32/36 for editing color-timed dailies within my Avid workstation.”
In terms of overall philosophy, “we did not want to give away Caesar’s eventual demise. From the script, I determined that the key arc was the unfolding mystery of ‘What is going on?’ And ‘Where will it take us?’ We hid that Caesar [played by Andy Serkis] is shot with an arrow, and initially just showed the blood on the hand of the orangutan, Maurice [Karin Konoval]; we had to decide how to hide that until the key moment.”
Because of the large number of effect-heavy films that Hoy has worked on, he is considered an action/visual effects editor. “But I am drawn to performances of actors and their characters,” he stresses. “If I’m not invested in their fate, I cannot be involved in the action. I like to bring an emotional value to the characters, and visualize battle scenes. In that respect Matt and I are very much in tune. He doesn’t hide his emotion as we work out a lot of the moves in the editing room.”
For example, in Dawn of The Planet of The Apes, Koba, a human-hating Bonobo chimpanzee who led a failed coup against Caesar, is leading apes against the human population. “It was unsatisfying that the apes would be killing humans while the humans were killing apes. Instead, I concentrated on the POV of Caesar’s oldest son, Blue Eyes. We see the events through his eyes, which changed the overall idea of the battle. We shot some additional material but most of the scene — probably 75% — existed; we also spoke with the FX house about the new CGI material,” which involved re-imaged action of horses and backgrounds within the Virtual Sets that were fashioned by Weta Digital.
Hoy utilized VFX tools on various layers within his Media Composer sessions that carried the motion capture images, plus the 3D channels, in addition to different backgrounds. “Sometimes we could use one background version and other times we might need to look around for a new perspective,” Hoy says. “It was a trial-and-error process, but Matt was very receptive to that way of working; it was very collaborative.”
Developing CGI Requests for Key Scenes
By working closely with Weta Digital, the editor could develop new CGI requests for key scenes and then have them rendered as necessary. “We worked with the post-viz team to define exactly what we needed from a scene — maybe to put a horse into a blizzard, for example. Ryan Stafford, the film’s co-producer and visual effects producer, was our liaison with the CGI team. On some scenes I might have as many as a dozen or more separate layers in the Avid, including Caesar, rendered backgrounds, apes in the background, plus other actors in middle and front layers” that could be moved within the frame. “We had many degrees of freedom so that Matt and I could develop alternate ideas while still preserving the actors’ performances. That way of working could be problematic if you have a director who couldn’t make up his mind; happily, Matt is not that way!”
Hoy cites one complex scene that needed to be revised dramatically. “There is a segment in which Bad Ape [an intelligent chimpanzee who lived in the Sierra Zoo before the Simian Flu pandemic] is seen in front of a hearth. That scene was shot twice because Matt did not consider it frenetic enough. The team returned to the motion capture stage and re-shot the scene [with actor Steve Zahn]. That allowed us to start over again with new, more frantic physical performances against resized backgrounds. We drove the downstream activities – asking Weta to add more snow in another scene, for example, or maybe bring Bad Ape forward in the frame so that we can see him more clearly. Weta was amazing during that collaborative process, with great input.”
The editor also received a number of sound files for use within his Avid workstation. “In the beginning, I used some library effects and some guide music — mostly some cues of composer Michael Giacchino’s Dawn score music from music editor Paul Apelgren. Later, when the picture was in one piece, I received some early sketches from the sound design team. For the Director’s Cut we had a rough cut with no CGI from Weta Digital. But when we received more sound design, I would create temp mixes on the Avid, with a 5.1-channel mix for the sound-editorial team using maybe 24 tracks of effects, dialog and music elements. It was a huge session, but Media Composer is versatile. After turning over that mix to Will Files, the film’s sound designer, supervising sound editor and co-mixer, I was present with Matt on the re-recording stage for maybe six weeks of the final mix as the last VFX elements came in. We were down to the wire!”
Hoy readily concedes that while he loves to work with new directors — “and share their point of view” — returning to a director with whom he has collaborated previously is a rewarding experience. “You develop a friendly liaison because it becomes easier once you understand the ways in which a director works. But I do like to be challenged with new ideas and new experiences.” He may get to work again with Reeves on the director’s next outing, The Batman, “but since Matt is still writing the screenplay, time will tell!”
Mel Lambert is principal of Content Creators, an LA-based copywriting and editorial service, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MelLambertLA. He is also a long-time member of the UK’s National Union of Journalists.