By Randi Altman
Who doesn’t love a good King Kong movie? And who says a good King Kong movie has to have the hairy giant climbing the Empire State Building, lady in hand?
The Jordan Vogt-Roberts-directed Kong: Skull Island, which had an incredible opening weekend at the box office — and is still going strong — tells the story of a 1973 military expedition to map out an island where in 1944 two downed pilots happened upon a huge monster. What could possibly go wrong?
Editor Rick Pearson, who was originally set to come on board for 10 weeks during the Director’s Cut process to help with digital effects turnovers, ended up seeing the project through to the end. Pearson came on during the last third of production, as the crew was heading off to Vietnam.
The process was already in place where rough cuts were shared on the PIX system for the director’s review. That seemed to be work well, he says.
To find out more about the process, I recently touched base with Pearson, who at the time of our interview was in Budapest editing a film about the origin of Robin Hood. He kindly took time out of his busy schedule to talk about his work and workflow on Kong: Skull Island, which in addition to Vietnam shot in Hawaii and Australia.
Would director Vogt-Roberts get you notes? Did he give you any direction in terms of the cut?
Yes, he would give very specific notes via PIX. He would drop the equivalent of locators or markers on sequences that I would send him and say, “Could you maybe try a close-up here?” Or “Could you try this or that?” They were very concise, so that was helpful. Eventually, though, you get to a point where you really need to be in a room together to explore options.
There are a lot of visual effects in the film. Can you talk about how that affected your edit and workflow?
Some of the sequences were quite evolved in terms of previsualization that had been done a year or more prior. Then there was a combination of previs, storyboards and some sequences, one in particular had kind of a loose set of storyboards and some previs, but then the set piece was evolving as we were working.
The production was headed to Vietnam and there was a lot of communication between myself, Jordan and the producers about trying to nail down the structure of this set piece so they would know what to shoot in terms of plates, because it was a battle that largely took place between Kong and one of the creatures of the island — it was a lot of plate work.
Would you say that that was the most difficult sequence to work on, or is there another more challenging sequence that you could point to?
I think they were all challenging. For me, that last sequence, which we called the “Final Battle” was challenging in there was not a lot that was nailed down. There were some beats we knew we wanted to try to play, but it sort of kept evolving. I enjoy working on these kinds of films with those types of sequences because they’re so malleable. It’s a fun sandbox to play in because, to an extent, you’re limited only by your imagination.
Still, you’re committing a lot of money, time and resources, so you need to look down field as far as you can to say, “This is the right direction and we’re all on the same page.” It’s a big, slow-moving, giant cargo ship that takes a long time to course-correct. You want to make sure that you’re heading in the right direction, or at least as close as you can be, when you start going down those roads.
Any other shots that stand out?
There was one thing that was kind of a novelty on this picture — and I know that it’s not the first time it’s been done, but it was the first time for me. We had some pretty extensive re-shoots, but our cast was kind of spread all over the globe. In one of the re-shoots, we needed a conversation to happen in a bar between three of the characters, Tom Hiddelston, John Goodman and Cory Hawkins. None of them were available at the same time or in the same city.
The scene was going to the three of them sitting down at a table having a conversation where John Goodman’s character offers Tom Hiddelston’s character a job as their guide to take them to Skull Island. I think it was Goodman’s character that was shot first. We show Goodman’s side of the table in New York with that side of the bar behind him and an empty chair beside him. Then we shot Hawkin’s character by himself in front of a greenscreen sitting in a chair reacting to Goodman and delivering his dialogue. Lastly, we shot Hiddelston in LA with that side of the bar and overs with doubles. It all came together, and I thought, “I don’t think anybody would have a clue that none of these people were in the same room at the same time.” It was kind of a Rubik’s Cube… an editorial bit of sleight of hand that worked in the end.
You worked with other editors on the film, correct?
Yes, editor Bob Murawski helped me tremendously; he ended up taking over my original role, which was during the Director’s Cut. Bob came on to help split up these really demanding visual effects sequence turnovers every two weeks. We had to keep on it to make the release date.
Murawski was a huge help, but so was the addition of Josh Schaeffer, who had worked with Jordan in the past. He was one of the additional editors on Jordan’s Kings of Summer (2013). Jordan had shot a lot of material — it wasn’t necessarily montage-based, but we weren’t entirely sure how it was going to work in the picture. We knew that he had a long-standing relationship with Josh and was comfortable with him. Bob said, “While we’re in the middle of a Director’s Cut and you and I are trying to feed this giant visual effects beast, there’s also this whole other aspect that Jordan and Josh could really focus on.” Josh was a really big help in getting us through the process. Both Bob and Josh were very big assets to me.
How do you work with your assistant editor?
I’ve had the same first assistant, Sean Thompson, for about 12 years. Unfortunately, he’s not with me here in Budapest. I took this film after the original editor dropped out for health reasons. Sean has a young family, and 15 weeks in Budapest and then another 12 weeks in London just wasn’t possible for him.
How did you work with Sean on Skull Island?
He’s a terrific manager of the cutting room in terms of discerning the needs of other departments, be it digital effects, music or sound. I lean on him to let me know what I absolutely need to know, and he takes care of the rest. That’s one of the roles he serves, and he’s bulletproof.
I also rely on him creatively. He’s tremendous with his sound work and very good at looking at cuts with me and giving his feedback. I throw him scenes to cut as much as I can, but sometimes on films like this there are so many other demands as a manager.
You use Avid Media Composer. Any special keyboard mappings, or other types of work you provide?
As a feature film editor my main objective is to make sure that the story and the characters are firing on all cylinders. I’m not particularly interested in how far I can push the box technically.
I’ve mapped the keyboard to what I’m comfortable with, but I don’t think it’s anything that’s particularly sophisticated. I try to do as much as I can on the keyboard so that I keep the
pointing and clicking to a minimum.
You edit a lot of action films. Is that just because people say, “He does action,” or is that your favorite kind of film to cut?
It’s interesting you should say that… the first Hollywood feature I cut was Bowfinger, which is comedy. I hadn’t cut any comedy before that and suddenly I was the comedy editor. I found it ironic because everything I had done prior was action-based television, music videos and commercials. I’ve always loved cutting action and juxtaposing images in a way that tells a story that’s not necessarily being told verbally. It’s not just like, “Wow, look at how much stuff is blowing up and that’s amazing how many cars are involved.” It’s actually character-based and story-driven.
I also really enjoy comedy. There is quite a lot of comedy in Kong, so it’s nice to flex that muscle too. I’ve tried very hard to not get pigeonholed.
So you are knee-deep in this Robin Hood film?
I sure am! I wasn’t planning on getting back on to another film quite so quickly, but I was very intrigued by both the director and script. As I mentioned earlier, they had an editor slated for the picture but unfortunately she fell ill just weeks prior to the start of production. So suddenly, here I am.
The added bonus is you get to play in Europe for a bit.
Yes, actually, I’m sitting here in my apartment. I have a laptop and an additional monitor and I’ve been cutting scenes. I have a lovely view of the parliament building, which is on the Danube. It’s a beautiful domed building that’s lit up every night until midnight. It’s really kind of cool.