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An editor recaps Sight, Sound & Story 2018

By Amy Leland

Manhattan Edit Workshop’s Sight, Sound & Story (SS&S) was established in June of 2013, first offering post-related events, and then those based around cinematography as well.

As a working editor always looking to learn, I attend numerous industry events throughout the year, but this one has become one of the “can’t miss” items on my list. They bring in top-notch panelists sharing their work and their insights. This year’s post event was once again a chance to hear from professionals at the top of their craft across documentary, scripted television and feature film.

Documentary Panel
First up was the panel of documentary editors, including Bryan Chang (Brasslands, Narco Cultura, A Year in Space), Ann Collins (Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, Swim Team), Matthew Hamachek (Cartel Land, The Trade, Amanda Knox, Meet the Patels) and moderator Garret Savage (My Perestroika, Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship).

Ann Collins

The panel started at a logical place — at the beginning. Savage asked each of them how they like to begin the cutting process. Both Chang and Collins described processes that involve screening the footage and pulling selects, a fairly traditional approach. While Hamachek said he used to work that way, when faced with hundreds of hours of footage, his process evolved. Now he just starts cutting. Part of his motivation is the pressures of schedule, which made sense given that his most recent project was The Fourth Estate, a documentary series rather than a feature. To cut the first 90-minute episode of the series, he had 14 weeks. He described the advantages of getting to a rough cut as fast as he can. “Editing is a process of failure. The sooner I can get to my first mistakes, the better,” he said.

The difference in his process can also be explained by working with a story producer. A good story producer provides a path through the footage. Feature editors often work as their own story producers. Both Chang and Collins talked about the need to see the footage and find those special clips and sound bites. This way when the time came in the edit where they had to fill the blank, they would know where to find them. Though they used different methods — Chang will lay out selects in a sequence, while Collins creates subclips with metadata — both create a library of moments to draw on later.

Interestingly, when asked if he might change his process if he were editing an indie feature documentary, Hamachek said no. Though his process developed in part because of working on a series, it was a process he had grown to really enjoy. And Collins pointed out that regardless of what process an editor uses, they must always be willing to go back to the footage and make changes as the story reveals itself.

The audience was shown a clip from Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, and Collins explained, “Beginnings are the hardest part of the film, and the part that changes the most often. As the film evolves, that beginning changes a lot.” She said that with the beginning, you have to establish what the world of this film is — the pace, the tone, the style, the rules, etc. All of that has to be taken care of silently and invisibly while you convince the viewer to come with you. What you may find is that as the rest of the film develops you’ll understand later what that beginning should be.

Bryan Chang

Chang addressed a different kind of documentary editing challenge in presenting a clip from Narco Cultura, about the music that glorifies the narco lifestyle, and specifically one of the musicians who traveled to Mexico to meet the narcos. Shaun Schwarz, with whom he had collaborated many times, primarily on shorts for Time, directed the film.

One challenge documentarians often face is the question of permission from the subjects in front of the camera. On their trip to Mexico, one of the narcos that was there kept saying he didn’t want to be in the movie and to not shoot him, but he also kept bragging and showing off in front of the cameras. So, ultimately, they did leave him in and didn’t blur his face. They felt he had put himself in the film. Though editors face a lot of challenges that are technical, sometimes the challenges are more abstract and the solutions are less black and white.

Scripted Television Panel
Next up was a panel of scripted television editors: Naomi Geraghty (Billions, Bloodline, Treme) and Lynne Willingham, ACE (Breaking Bad, Ray Donovan, The X-Files), moderated by Michael Berenbaum, ACE (Sex & the City, The Americans, Divorce).

One of the most popular topics for the TV panel every year is the question of how to break into a scripted television edit room. This year’s panelists addressed this in two important ways. First, in talking about how each of them got their start, they made it clear that there is no one way in. Willingham did not go to film school. She was able to find her way into a studio because her brother was an assistant at Warner. She started as an apprentice, working her way up. She said, “I got my free education just working anytime I could.”

Geraghty, on the other hand, did attend film school in Ireland, which is where she discovered that she was drawn to the process of editing. There wasn’t much work in Ireland, so she got a work visa and came to New York. She eventually got her foot in the door working at Jonathan Demme’s company on a documentary. This led to an opportunity assisting on a feature back in Ireland.

L-R: Naomi Geraghty and Lynne Willingham.

Equally important, both described helping their own assistants get opportunities to cut on the shows where they worked. Willingham’s longtime assistant on Breaking Bad was Kelley Dixon. They had been working together a long time, and Willingham encouraged her to cut whenever possible. Because of union rules, she couldn’t get her a solo credit on an episode, but was able to get her shared credit. By having her in that position, Dixon was eventually able to move up and became the lead editor on the show herself.

One caution that Willingham offered was that the workload for assistants has grown so much that it is difficult to find the time to be in the room when the cutting is happening. It isn’t the same process it used to be when assistants were in the room with their editors for much of the process. So the challenge is to balance the workload with seeing the action and being seen. But the flip side to that, Geraghty pointed out, is that there is so much work in television these days that the path to moving forward can actually be more readily available in television than in film.

A frequently popular topic when discussing television these days is the rising quality of shows, and the “cinematic” quality of the work being done. Both talked about the joys of working on shows that are more character driven and developed over a long period of time. One interesting aspect of this, said Willingham, it that with the current popularity of doing more compact seasons — 10 episodes, instead of 22 or 23 — and shooting them all at once, the work attracts higher-end talent. Actors and directors can commit to the projects, shoot all of the episodes in one concentrated period, and then move on to other projects. All of which is opening the doors to better — and more — work for everyone involved in the process.

Scripted Television Panel

Willingham shared the opening scene from the pilot of Breaking Bad. When asked if she knew, while she was working on it, how good and how popular it would be. She said, yes and no. Everyone working on it knew what they were doing was going to be brilliant simply because it was created by Vince Gilligan. She said that as much as she wanted to take credit for how great that opening scene was, everything she cut came from the script. Gilligan had such a clear plan. But even with all of that, none of them knew just how big a phenomenon it would become.

The one unplanned moment in that opening scene was the footage of Walter talking into the camera. Though that footage was shot that day in the desert, Gilligan never intended for that footage to be used until the very end of the series. But because he let Willingham work so independently, she didn’t know that. She saw the footage, saw a way to use it, and just did it. And it worked. She encouraged everyone — if you are inspired to try something while you are cutting, then try it. It could be exactly what is needed.

Geraghty showed the final scene from Season 1 of Billions. What was fascinating was that, though the scene consisted almost entirely of two men standing and talking to each other, it was filled with tension and drama. She described that sometimes, as an editor, it is your job to not get in the way of the work. The language was so rich, and the performances were so fantastic, that her job was simply to respect the performances and protect the integrity of the work being done. She could certainly help drive the scene by finding the best takes, and the moments when particular angles were the best choice, but she felt the most important thing was to let the performances shine.

Inside the Cutting Room
An ever-popular aspect of Sight Sound & Story is Inside the Cutting Room, an interview with a prominent member of the editing community, moderated by writer and film historian Bobbie O’Steen (“Cut to the Chase,” “The Invisible Cut”). Her subject this time was Kevin Tent, ACE (Sideways, Election, The Descendants, Nebraska, Blow), longtime editor for director Alexander Payne.

Kevin Tent and Bobbie O’Steen.

As with the other panels, they spoke about beginnings, and Tent’s was especially interesting. After working in educational films, he got the opportunity to work with Roger Corman. While working for the king of B-movies might seem like an inauspicious way to become an Oscar-nominated editor, it became clear what a perfect foundation this actually was. Working in a production house churning out movies at a fast pace, Tent was able to collect experience at an accelerated rate. Corman’s way of working also provided additional learning opportunities. Tent described Corman as ruthless — he would think nothing of cutting out an entire scene if it wasn’t working for him. So the challenge for all of the editors was to make every scene so interesting that Corman would leave it in the movie. They also did a lot of work that involved pulling films from the vault that hadn’t been widely seen and cutting clips from them into new movies. He wondered why the big studios don’t do this, since their vaults are also filled with movies that were rarely seen. It’s an interesting thought.

One other unexpected benefit — when his reel came across Alexander Payne’s desk, Tent’s work with Corman was one of the things Payne liked. Payne was looking for an editor for his first feature, Citizen Ruth. The studio wanted him to hire a bigger editor with more credits, but Payne wanted a partner, not a more seasoned figure telling him what to do and how to do it. And with that, a longtime creative partnership was born.

As expected from such a great partnership, there were many fascinating stories about both collaboration and conflict. One of the great moments came in cutting Election. In a pivotal scene with Matthew Broderick, Payne wanted to cut it like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, with long shots and back and forth looks. Tent didn’t. He felt it would be too drawn out and long. So he offered to pay Payne $75 to let him cut it the way he wanted, and the test audiences loved it. So it worked.

One interesting aspect of Tent’s work is his willingness to manipulate the footage for effect. Especially these days, feature editors tend to work in a more straightforward, vérité way. Tent showed two great examples of times when manipulation created iconic scenes. In their first cut of James Mangold’s Girl Interrupted, the biggest problem was that the film was way too long. One solution was to collapse some of the scenes. The example he played was a scene showing day-in-the-life moments in the institution where the girls were. They were put in montage over one another, cross-dissolved into one another, and cut in a very stylistic way over music. Ultimately it was their plan to change it for the final film, but the preview audience print cost $12K. When they told the producer they wanted to change it, the producer said no, they couldn’t print the film again. So this incredibly beautiful scene came from a moment they thought of as a temporary fix, and cut on a whim on a Saturday.

Nebraska

He also employed a fair amount of image manipulation for Nebraska. For example, he occasionally added pauses to Bruce Dern’s performance, which worked because he didn’t move around a lot. And he admitted that, yes, he was guilty of using a lot of fluid morph in order to accomplish this. Every time he did it, Payne would say, “When you do that, you’re saying I’m a bad director.” He also showed an example, near the end of the film, when he would use strategic speed changes to draw out moments in an emotional way. He likes to experiment with those tools and techniques. He said it comes from being greedy and wanting all of the best stuff, which he sometimes does by piecing things together.

Tent won the Eddie and was nominated for the Oscar for The Descendants. They hadn’t cut a feature together in seven years because Payne had been working on writing Downsizing and trying to get it off the ground. Tent said when they first got together, there was a little nervousness in the cutting room, but once they started working they fell into their good rhythm again.

A lot of their work together had been about walking the line between comedy and drama. With The Descendants, in particular, Payne was concerned about being too melodramatic. So he wrote and shot a lot of comedy elements. But when they were in the edit, those moments kept getting in the way and felt disrespectful to what the characters were going through. Eventually they stopped trying to be funny, and found that sometimes there were funny moments anyway, simply because of the humanity of the situation.

O’Steen quoted Payne saying about Tent, “Our process is essentially cowriting the final draft together. Kevin is my audience, and I hunger to please him.” As we were treated to an overview of their work together, it was obvious that they wrote wonderful final drafts together and, ultimately, pleased their audiences a great deal.


Amy Leland is a film director and editor. Her short film, “Echoes”, is now available on Amazon Video. She also has a feature documentary in post, a feature screenplay in development, and a new doc in pre-production. She is an editor for CBS Sports Network and recently edited the feature “Sundown.” You can follow Amy on social media on Twitter at @amy-leland and Instagram at @la_directora.

Sight, Sound & Story: The Art of Cinematography 2017

By Amy Leland

After EditFest NY moved to London, Manhattan Edit Workshop picked up the reins with its Sight, Sound & Story (SS&S) conferences. The first post production event premiered in June of 2013. The format was similar — top-of-their-craft editors and post specialists participating in panels focusing on specific areas of the industry. Over the years there have been great panels on TV editing, sound effects and audio editing, VFX and virtual reality. I have attended these events since they began. They are a great chance to get inspired, learn more about my industry and meet great people.

In September of 2015, SS&S created a new event that focused on the part of the process before we post folks get involved: the shoot. I recently I attended the latest Sight, Sound & Story: The Art of Cinematography. Even though cinematography is not my department, I was as entertained and educated. Here is a recap of some of the best moments of the panels.

The Art of Cinematography in Documentary Filmmaking
As a first-time documentary filmmaker myself, this panel was of particular interest to me. Moderator Hugo Perez (Neither Memory Nor Magic, Lights Camera Uganda) spoke with panelists Joan Churchill, ASC,(Shut Up & Sing, Kurt & Courtney, Last Days in Vietnam) and Buddy Squires, ASC, (The Vietnam War, The Statue of Liberty, The Central Park Five) about their view of documentary filmmaking from behind the lens.

The most common theme throughout the panel was the emphasis both panelists put on listening. Cinematography is a visual art, but the panelists repeated the importance of listening carefully throughout the process in order to get the right shots. Squires included it as part of an overall sense of observation. He described his job as, “capturing the unexpected.” He said in order to do this, you have to carefully observe everything that is going on around you. When you sense something is going a particular way, you have to follow it. “It’s a calculated gamble that things will move a particular way.”

L-R: Joan Churchill, Buddy Squires and moderator Hugo Perez.

A particularly poignant moment was when he showed a clip from the documentary, The Last Dalai Lama? In it, he is filming a line of people getting a momentary audience with the Dalai Lama. Even though he didn’t understand what was being said in these moments, something compelled him to follow two particular people as they walked away from the Dalai Lama, clearly very moved by their experience. He ultimately found out that these two young women were homeless and with no resources to speak of. After hearing their story, the Dalai Lama instructed one of his helpers to make sure these young women were taken care of and given a place to live. All of that was clear once translations and subtitles were in place, but it was a moment of instinct that caused Squires to follow them and capture that magical moment. It was an incredible example of what he was describing.

Churchill also stated emphatically that, “Documentaries are nothing without good sound.” She talked about how you can cut around bad picture, but you can’t cut around bad sound. She makes sure she is constantly hearing, through her earpiece, whatever is being recorded by the sound person. This lets her know if sound isn’t being captured, but it also means that she may hear something, from her vantage point, she couldn’t see. That lets her know to move and capture what is happening.

Related to this, she talked about how sometimes you simply have to sacrifice picture to get the moment. Even if all you can get is a badly framed shot, or a shot with a low-quality camera; as long as you have the sound to go with it, you may have the moment you need. To illustrate this, Churchill showed a clip from the documentary Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. Their interviews with Aileen Wuornos took place in small visiting rooms at the prison where she was on death row. In one of those interviews, when Wuornos saw that the interview was over and equipment was being put away, she started speaking more frankly about her crimes, and whether she had committed them in self defense. As a cinematographer, Churchill could have taken her camera back out, and tried to frame a perfect shot of Wuornos talking. But by listening to what was happening, she knew that her camera would become a distraction to the emotional moment that was happening, and might even cause Wuornos to stop talking. Rather than finding that shot and stopping the moment, she stayed crouched by her camera bag, and got a side shot of Nick Broomfield, her co-director, talking to Wuornos. Wuornos isn’t even in the shot. She made a choice as a cinematographer to sacrifice image to make sure the moment was protected.

Of course as cinematographers, and especially with Squires being a long-time collaborator with Ken Burns, both are incredibly skilled at capturing beautiful images, but what most struck me about this panel was how much each was more focused on story and truth, rather than image, in order to serve the needs of their projects.

The New Age of TV: Bringing the Look of Cinema to the Small Screen
For this offering, moderator David Leitner spoke with panelists Martin Ahlgren (Daredevil, House of Cards, Blindspot) and Igor Martinović (House of Cards, The Night Of) about the changing art of cinematography in television. Much of the conversation focused on how their work was being affected by the increasingly film look or cinema style of television.

L-R: Martin Ahlgren and Igor Martinović.

One thing they addressed was the popular idea that film is a director’s medium and TV is a producer’s or writer’s medium. Martinović pointed out that with a lot of these new media shows, from companies like Netflix and Hulu, they had not just a head writer/showrunner, but also a director auteur driving the creative process. For example, they brought up David Fincher and his House of Cards and Mindhunter. Though he didn’t direct the entire series in either case, he did establish the visual world and rules for the shows. And there are certainly other examples, such as Reed Morano and The Handmaid’s Tale or Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot, which airs on FX. Both panelists spoke about how there is a trend toward creating a specific look that they, as cinematographers, are working within.

They also both talked about how this cinematic aesthetic is changing what they are allowed to do as television cinematographers. For a long time, television was “radio with pictures.” TV shows were meant to be watched without needing to pay close visual attention. The focus was hearing dialogue, but now there is more freedom to tell visual stories. Martinović showed a series of clips from The Night Of and pointed out that there is almost no dialogue in the scenes he showed. He was able to tell story and advance character through specific visual images, a freedom television cinematographers didn’t always have.

Both also spoke about low light being a more acceptable look in television now than it used to be. Ahlgren showed a clip from House of Cards that he lit almost entirely with candlelight. He spoke of this difference in lighting aesthetic as being partly about changing standards in television, but also made possible by digital cinematography. While many cinematographers talk about the advantages of film, one thing most will say is that digital cameras can shoot more effectively at much lower light levels. They both talked about the expanded range of creative choices this gives them.

Martinović concluded by showing us some incredible images from a look book he put together for a new show he is going to be shooting. This is a technique used often for film, but not as often for television, which really speaks to the shift in how television is being created. For his look book, he compiled an incredible collection of images to show ideas of framing, tone, and even light and color. This book gave him a better “language” for showing the director what he thought they could do in telling their stories.

Listening to incredibly talented television cinematographers talk about their craft provided a lot of insight into why television seems so much more exciting these days. It was also a great reminder to all of us to pay better attention to the visual language of the shows we love, just as we do with films.

Behind the Lens: A Conversation With Cinematographer Julio Macat, ASC
The final panel of the evening was a special conversation with Julio Macat, ASC, the cinematographer of a wide range of great films, including Home Alone, So I Married an Axe Murderer, Crazy in Alabama and The Wedding Crashers. As often happens in conversations with people who have had such a big impact on their field, what struck me most was how unbelievably humble Macat was about the work he has done. He spoke about his rise to success as filled with luck, when the breadth and quality of his work make it obvious that there is clearly a lot of talent involved as well.

He discussed the numerous opportunities he has had to work with first-time directors. One common theme is that first-time directors come to him with extensive shot lists for every scene. His advice to them is to think about why the writer wrote the scene and what the point of the scene is. He asks the director, “If I have to place the camera in one spot to tell that entire scene, where would it go?” That guides them into knowing what is most important. It is especially vital when they find themselves running out of time, and they need to make sure they have what they need. He said that shot often becomes the master shot for the scene.

Julio Macat

In talking about Home Alone, one aspect of his work that I just loved was that he did a lot of his prep on his knees. He planned a lot of shots from this vantage point with a wide-angle lens to capture the viewpoint of a child. Compared to how an adult sees the world — everything is bigger to kids, and the lights are brighter. His approach, of making sure his camera saw the world the way the lead character would, was such an important aspect of the look of that film. It seems that ideas like this, the ability to see the world through different perspectives, is what separates the really talented cinematographers from all of the people who are just good with cameras. I loved seeing that insight into his approach.

Macat described his prep work for Home Alone, his first feature film, which he has carried forward to today. Rather than thinking of each scene on its own, he creates a summary version of the script. That summary —which may be as short as three pages — includes one-line descriptions of each scene and color coding to indicate things like location, interior/exterior, etc. Seeing the structure of the film laid out that way helps him to see how the work he is doing will eventually be edited together. He includes the editor in that prep work so they can truly collaborate on the vision of the final film. His description of this process made me wish it were far more common for cinematographers and editors to directly collaborate.

He also spoke about the importance of working musically. He started working on music videos and concerts, so he always thought of music and rhythm while operating cameras. He says now he can tell immediately if a camera operator is really good with a camera technically but doesn’t have that sense of musicality in the work. Every scene, every story has a rhythm. Finding that rhythm in the work before the scenes are edited together, and a score underneath, is one of the most important skills in his toolset.

Having shot so many comedies, he had an interesting insight into capturing those moments. First he said that working in comedy was how he learned to shoot multicamera, so that it looks natural. With so much overlapping dialogue and gags based entirely on timing, it is vital to capture every moment as it happens, rather than individual takes of each angle. He also encourages directors to do blocking rehearsals with the actors that he can film rather than off-camera rehearsals, after so many experiences of watching a rehearsal with great energy and timing that just wasn’t there anymore once the cameras were rolling.

My favorite element of his comedy technique was what he called “second-team theater.” When the lighting setups are being done, and the second team stand-ins are in place, he asks the director to have that second team do the lines. If the cast is watching, it’s a great moment that allows them to relax a bit before the scene. But he also said some great actors have come out of those “second-team theater” moments because the director gets a chance to see them act. I’m sure it also leads to a more relaxed and fun atmosphere on set for everyone.

Listening to him talk about the way he feels about actors was really moving. He spoke of the importance of building trust with actors. His job means putting cameras into their personal space as they do their work. He advocates for letting the actors know what he has in mind and what he is planning to do. “Actors are really smart people. They get it,” Macat said. By seeing the actors as his collaborators, rather than just the people on the other side of the camera, he is better able to achieve his vision.

One of the recurring themes of these Sight, Sound & Story events has been rare opportunities to sit in rooms with truly impressive artists at the top of their field, and being so touched by how kind and generous they are with their time and ideas.

Manhattan Edit Workshop streamed these panels, as they often do, via Facebook Live on their Sight Sound & Story page. If you would like a chance to see the panels for yourself, and hear all of the other amazing insights of these wonderful panelists, you can find it here.


Amy Leland is a film director and editor. Her short film, “Echoes”, is now available on Amazon Video. She also has a feature documentary in post, a feature screenplay in development, and a new doc in pre-production. She is an editor for CBS Sports Network and recently edited the feature “Sundown.” You can follow Amy on social media on Twitter at @amy-leland and Instagram at @la_directora.

John Gilroy, ACE, on editing Roman J. Israel, Esq.

By Amy Leland

John Gilroy, ACE, comes from an impressive storytelling family. His father, Frank D. Gilroy, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, as well as a screenwriter and director for film and television. His older brother Tony is a screenwriter and director, known for films such as Michael Clayton and the Jason Bourne films. His fraternal twin Dan is also a screenwriter and director, whose work includes the film Nightcrawler. John’s editing credits include his brothers’ films Michael Clayton and Nightcrawler, as well as many others, including Warrior, Pacific Rim and Rogue One.

John Gilroy (Mike Windle/Getty Images)

While the Gilroy brothers have often worked together, they have all also made significant films independently. With a family filled with such storytelling talents, it is no surprise that John ended up where he is now, but it turns out his path wasn’t as predestined as one might think. I sat down with him to talk about that legacy, his path toward it, and his most recent editing project, Roman J. Israel, Esq. The film stars Denzel Washington, and yes, it was written and directed by twin brother Dan.

Did you want to be in this industry because it’s the family business?
It may be the opposite of that. My brothers and I grew up around the film industry because our dad’s in the business. He’s a writer/director. We didn’t live in Hollywood. We lived in upstate New York, but we were in orbit of all that throughout our childhood. I decided to go the other way. I actually thought, “You know what? I’ll be a lawyer.”

I majored in government at college, but by graduation I really didn’t want to go through another three years of law school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I worked as a bartender for a couple of years in New York, which was a lot of fun. Then I just started gravitating toward the film business. I really wanted to be a director, like everybody else. I looked around at how I could get my foot in the door. My father knew an editor, Rick Shane, who let me hang out in his cutting room between my bar shifts. I didn’t go to film school, so I picked up what I could there. Then I got into a cutting room on a job as an apprentice, and really just worked very hard and very steadily for a bunch of years. Finally I became an editor. My brothers became screenwriters. They wrote together early on, and then separately. But editing was my trajectory.

Do you remember having early heroes who were filmmakers, or did that come later?
When I was young I was “wowed” by the same films that a lot of people were: Lawrence of Arabia and The Godfather for instance. Many of the films I really loved were made by directors who had been film editors. I was a big fan of David Lean, Hal Ashby and Robert Wise. It’s sort of one of the logical reasons I gravitated to editing I guess — I thought this is a good way to get in, because some of my directing heroes started as film editors.

I think the movie that really made me think about editing early on was Slaughterhouse Five, which was edited by Dede Allen. It’s a great movie — a lot of nonlinear cross cutting. It must have been a lot of fun for her in the cutting room making that movie. But that was the first film I ever saw that I thought, “Ahhh, isn’t it interesting how it’s put together.” I really hadn’t thought about how a movie was put together before that; it just seemed like an invisible process.

I teach editing classes, and one of the things I tell my students is that you have to accept that if you do your job well, people shouldn’t see it. So it’s nice that occasionally it’s okay to see the editing and be impressed by that. That’s a very tough thing to do. I felt that way about Whiplash. When I saw it, I thought, “I’m seeing the editing, and that’s a good thing because it’s really fascinating how this was put together.” That is unusual.

Every once in a while, there is a movie like that. I cut a movie years ago called Narc, where the editing was kind of up in your face like that. Every movie tells you what to do, but you’re right, usually it’s an absolutely invisible and seamless experience. You shouldn’t be thinking about it at all, if it goes right.

You’ve worked a lot with family. In fact, your brother Dan — with whom you did Nightcrawler and Roman J. Israel, Esq. — is your twin. Does that make that working collaboration easier? Does it make it harder? How does it affect that process?
It makes it easier for sure. We’ve all worked with many other people, independent of each other but working with Danny or Tony is easier because there’s a shorthand. You develop a shorthand with a director if you work with them on more than one picture no matter who it is. I guess it’s even stronger if it’s your brother, and then maybe even more if he’s your twin.

We’re very different sorts of people, however…. we’re fraternal twins. You wouldn’t even know we were brothers to look at us, but we definitely have a similar sensibility. So in terms of pace and what’s right and what’s wrong, that kind of thing, we’re pretty much in lock step. Our process moves very quickly. The decision-making is fluid because we’re not debating very much. We’re both looking at our movie in the same way.

For the whole thing to be a success, it’s very important for an editor to be able to climb into a director’s brain and to sync up with them on some level. If there’s some sort of weird tug-of-war going on, it’s never going to happen… You’re not going to find the magic.

How did this particular project come about? Were you involved from the beginning?
Romans J. Israel, Esq. sprang from the fertile imagination of my brother Dan, who is turning out some really interesting spec scripts these days. He wrote it for Denzel Washington, and then Denzel said yes. It’s a brilliant script, and it quickly attracted a lot of people. We were fortunate to have the same production team we had on Nightcrawler. Robert Elswit shooting and Kevin Kavanaugh doing production design, James Howard doing the music, and then me editing of course, so there’s a lot of experience there. Dan has been wise enough to surround himself with a lot of talent. And he’s also a great boss. He is everybody’s compass in finding the movie, but he’s very open to ideas, and the process is pleasant, highly creative and fun. He makes it that way.

Robert Elswit worked with you and Dan on this one and Nightcrawler. He’s such an amazing cinematographer. When you’re talking about the guy who takes Paul Thomas Anderson’s visions and brings them to life, this is clearly somebody with an incredibly strong sense of the visual. What was the collaborative process like for the three of you?
I have an opinion about everything (laughs), but I try to step back in the pre-production process. I step back and let Robert and Kevin and Dan do their thing, and I try not to be part of that because I’m going to have a big say later on. So I’m sort of circling that pre-production process, just looking in, happy to answer any questions, look at anything. It’s fine. I’ll do that.

Once we start shooting, though, my cutting room becomes command central, and I’m building the movie. That’s me taking what’s been shot and looking ahead to see what they’re doing. But I’m trying to put the movie together as quickly as possible. And things are occurring to me, things that I might need. If I say, “Could I get something, I need something quickly,” it’s attended to in the course of the shooting. I just kind of build the movie from the very beginning as quickly as possible, and finding the truth in every scene. That’s what I’m thinking about.

So you are cutting scenes as the production is going on. Are you on set?
I’ll be on set the very first day to say, “Hey, how are you doing?” Then they probably won’t see me very much. Occasionally I’ll come out if their shooting something I’ve asked for, but you don’t see me much on set.

Let’s talk about the technical aspect a little bit. What did they shoot on?
Robert Elswit is a big advocate of film and we actually were able to shoot film for all of the day stuff. Film is not as forgiving at night, so we shot on an Arri Alexa for our night scenes.

What about your edit process? What’s your set up for your edits?
I’m as technical as I need to be. I’m actually one of the last guys that started cutting on a Moviola, like a million years ago. So that’s where I learned how to cut. I had a very good team. Richard Molina was my first assistant and Corey Seeholzer was my Second. It was a small, experienced crew. In terms of the workflow in the room, I tend to delegate that to my First. Basically, the way I work is my First runs the room.

If my first assistant is running the room, I can be focused on my Avid and I thinking creatively about the movie all of the time. There are many technical aspects to our workflow that I only sort of look at peripherally. I obviously have a deep knowledge of how our cutting room operates, but I couldn’t do Richard’s job. It’s too technical for me. I’m doing the same thing that I’ve always done. I’m getting my dailies, and climbing into the movie — thinking about the story — what is the story and where is the truth?

Sound seems so important to this story. His constant use of headphones, his devotion to his iPod, his reaction to the construction next door to him, and especially the way he was experiencing sound to show his emotional state. The couple of times where, in moments of anxiety, sound would drop out. How much of that was worked out in the edit, and how much was left for the sound mix?
In terms of knowing where certain sound design elements are going to happen, again, the movie is telling us what to do. Margit Pfeiffer, our sound supervisor, assembled a really great team. Andy Koyama and Martyn Zub mixed the film. Martyn and Ann Scibelli were our sound designers and Del Spiva was our music editor. Many of us had worked on Nightcrawler and again, there was a shorthand between us… a collaboration which made it easy for the sound of our film to evolve very quickly.

I work hard to make my first pass of a film feel like a third or fourth pass, and the sound has a lot to do with that. That’s how you can make a crazy deadline like what we were shooting for, which was a little (laughs) ambitious. Danny started shooting in April and wasn’t really done until early June. Then he was like, “Hey, what about the Toronto Film Festival?” And I was like, “Okay (laughs some more).”

So one and a half months?
Yeah. We ran for it, and we made it. After the Toronto Film Festival, we saw some ways to make the movie even better and more streamlined, and we acted on that. That’s the version that’s in the theaters now.

What do you look for in an assistant editor?
It’s a complex skill set. They have to be very knowledgeable technically to offset my ignorance on some level. There’s a lot of temp VFX work that we do in the room, wherever we can — filling in green screens and that sort of thing. The assistants have to be quite knowledgeable with VFX tools in the Avid and/or After Effects.

I also mentioned that I do a lot of sound work, but when I’m really working hard on my cut of the film, I delegate a lot of the sound work to them so they must have a deep background in sound and sound design. Those are two important skills they need to have —that and being able to keep the room running smoothly.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started?
Whatever I know now that I’d like to pass on to my young self took thousands of hours to come by, and I’m not sure I could articulate it, but I do think it is harder to become an editor today. It’s a good news/bad news thing… the good news is that you can make media and edit on your phone if you want to — the tools are available. You could start being an editor instantly or at least start practicing. It wasn’t like that when I was young. There was film, and it was expensive, and you had to learn a lot and wait much longer before you got an opportunity.

But these days, an assistant’s job is even further removed from what an editor does. They need to absorb a lot more technical knowledge to work in a cutting room. When I was an assistant, I was often working in a cutting room with the editor shoulder to shoulder, handing him his next shot. You learn a lot by being close in on the process. With computers, editing is a much more solitary endeavor.

Editorial is a ladder. It’s a transition from apprentice to an assistant, and then assistant to editor. From assistant to editor, you’re actually doing two entirely different jobs. It’s always been that way but the chasm seems greater to me now, because assistants need to know more to do their jobs.

Director Dan Gilroy and Denzel Washington on set.

Is there anything else about Roman J. Israel, Esq. that you would like people to know?
In some ways, I think this is one of the most important films that I’ve ever worked on. I think it’s an emotional and brainy piece of filmmaking, in terms of Danny’s story and what Denzel brought to the character. I’m very proud of it. It also portrays our criminal justice system accurately, which might be eye opening for some people.

It was also really interesting and refreshing to actually to see a movie where the main conflict was somebody simply trying to hold onto their morals. It’s almost rare now that that’s something to strive for.

I know… It’s kind of a throwback. It has a ‘70s feel to it, and Roman is also sort of a time capsule throwback himself. The movie works, I think, because Denzel is fascinating to watch, and at the end of his journey, he is ultimately a hero. It was a lot of fun working with Denzel too. He’s a great filmmaker himself, and was extremely helpful to Dan and I in the cutting room. We had a lot of fun together.


Amy Leland is a film director and editor. Her short film, “Echoes”, is now available on Amazon Video. She also has a feature documentary in post, a feature screenplay in development, and a new doc in pre-production. She is an editor for CBS Sports Network and recently edited the feature “Sundown.” You can follow Amy on social media on Twitter at @amy-leland and Instagram at @la_directora.

Apple updates FCPX, adds shared libraries, more

By Amy Leland

There exists within the post world a deep schism. On one side are those who use Final Cut Pro X, appreciate it for what it is, and want to know more about it. On the other side are those who see it as “iMovie Pro” and disdain all discussion on the topic. Full disclosure: I have always fallen firmly in the first camp.

When FCPX was first released in June of 2011, besides being a professional editor, I was also an Apple Certified Trainer (in FCP, Motion and Color), and out of necessity figured out this new product as quickly as possible to meet the demand of those wanting to know more. Along the way, I positioned it in my own work as my go-to tool for any of my independent freelance projects, and most recently for the feature documentary that I am directing and editing. I recognize that it isn’t the right tool for all editing jobs. But sometimes it is the best tool for an editing job.

interface-copyLast week I had the opportunity to attend a demo of the new FCPX 10.3. For those who are using it and others who have an open mind, there are some exciting new features and updates. I don’t think anything I say will sway the minds of those who decided long ago this product isn’t for professional editors and isn’t worth their time. And for those whose hesitation was, it’s too different, well it’s still different. It’s just a new different.

Audio
The thing that really stuck out to me was the streamlining of how audio works. There are both interface and under-the-covers changes to audio mixing and organization. The big news is the use of Roles, and how that applies to audio. FCPX introduced the idea of Roles in the very first update to the app just a few months after the initial release. Roles allowed for identifying types of audio in a way that would aid in multichannel exports and stems. But this version is the first to fully take advantage of them for streamlining the editing process.

There is now more comprehensive support for doing things like color-coding clips based on Roles for visual cues in the timeline. There is also a new concept called “audio lanes.” This is still the world of the magnetic timeline. I am a fan of the magnetic timeline, and that functionality is the biggest reason why my workflow in FCPX is typically far faster than it is in any other app. But it has always been a bit frustrating to get the audio beneath the magnetic timeline to make sense visually. Now, with audio lanes, audio in different roles can be displayed in distinct visual troughs (NOT tracks) that make it far easier to look at the timeline and see exactly what is there. With a single click, lanes can be turned off and on. The flexibility for display in different stages of the work process is fantastic.

The interface as a whole has also undergone the biggest overhaul it has had since the initial release. It looks, quite simply, cleaner. The color scheme has been flattened and darkened to allow the video content to take focus. Some onscreen controls have been moved to places that, upon reflection, do make more sense. Though having used the product for five years, I expect to have some moments of feeling a little disoriented while I get used to the changes. I look forward to seeing how the adjustments further streamline the process.

Motion
One change I am particularly excited about might seem like a small thing, but it will save me one of the biggest headaches I tend to experience in my FCPX work. I’m a big fan of custom Motion content. I create my own custom titles, transitions and effects for almost every project I do. I also use Motion publishing to bring effects specific to Motion into the FCPX interface. The only problem is that, up until now, all of that custom content lived in the Movies folder of the user library in the OS. There was no option to customize that location or store things elsewhere. More times than I can count, I would move a project from one hard drive to another, or consolidate a project to a portable drive to work on while traveling, and discover I’d left my custom Motion content behind. Those offline media icons made me nuts.

In 10.3, there is now a user preference for storing those custom Motion projects inside of an FCPX library. If the Motion project is specific to a particular FCPX project, I can store it in that project’s library. For things I have created to be more universal, I can now create a central library that can travel with any of the other work I’m doing. It’s a small change, but a really important one.

More
Many of the other changes, while relatively small details, are important ones. After years of user requests, we finally have selective “Remove Attributes.” (FINALLY!) FCPX will now also natively accept MXF-wrapped ProRes files. For those of us who go back and forth between editing systems, and do a lot of work in Avid, this will be a real time saver.

There is also a new effect in the FCPX effect library called “Flow,” a transition similar to the Fluid Morph in Avid or the Morph Cut in Premiere. I have to say, as I often experience with effects in FCPX and Motion, it just works…better. Unlike Avid where I often have to finesse the frame count to get it to work right, and then render before playback, this just drops in and works. I love it.

Shared Libraries
And finally, for those whose biggest hang-up about FCPX is shared media/project use, there is now support for shared libraries on SMB 3-compatible storage systems. There is also a new white paper out from Apple about managing the media and libraries that includes workflows for a shared storage environment. This is an aspect of the update I haven’t had the time to test fully myself. But the workflow outline in the white paper makes sense. It isn’t a fully shared work environment like opening bins from other projects in Avid. It seems more analogous to the Media Browser in Premiere, but this seems to have the potential to open up the idea of collaboration much better than before, and is something that I find pretty exciting. The “In Action” section of the FCPX website profiles a commercial post house in London called Trim Editing that is using this workflow. I imagine this won’t be enough to convince all of the skeptics. But it definitely feels like a big step in the right direction, and I look forward to working this way myself.

Summing Up
This is definitely a major update to an editing tool that was already more robust than it often gets credit for being. Those who are already on board should see a lot of good things here to reward their continued usage. Best of all, by releasing this major update as 10.3, and not as a new version 11, this update is a free one for anyone who already owns the app. That may be the best news of all.


Amy Leland is a filmmaker and editor in Brooklyn, New York, whose editing credits include Bravo, NFL Network and CBS Sports Network. She can be found on Twitter @amy_leland and on Instagram @la_directora.