This veteran editor walks us through his process
By Randi Altman
Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world and the Holy Grail for many climbers, often is the symbol of a personal struggle to achieve an incredibly difficult task. It also happens to be the subject of a new film from director Baltasar Kormákur that is based on the (sometimes contradictory) true story of two climbers who, in the spring of 1996, got caught in a violent blizzard — and fought to survive.
The goal of the filmmakers behind Universal’s Everest was to tell this story of tragedy and survival and, in doing so, make the audience feel the desperation of the characters on screen, and to tell this story of tragedy and survival. To give us a glimpse into the process, we reached out to Everest’s editor, Mick Audsley, whose work includes Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Twelve Monkeys, Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, Dangerous Liaisons and many more.
He acknowledges that, “from a storytelling point, there was a huge responsibility to make a film that worked, but also to be as honest as possible. We wanted to help preserve the legacy of the story for the families and climbers who are still alive.”
Audsley cut the film — shot with the Arri Alexa by DP Salvatore Totino — on an Avid Media Composer in DNX36 over 55 weeks, which, amazingly, isn’t the longest edit he’s been involved in. Goblet of Fire takes that award, coming in at 73 weeks.
Let’s find out more about Audsley’s process on this film and his philosophy on editing.
How did you give the audience that “you are here” feeling of peril in your edit?
There’s a montage early on, which shows the sorts of dangers they had on the way up, including the altitude, which has a huge impact on your health. There’s a great deal of peril in the sheer physics of it all, but as the story unfolds, we never felt we had to overly dramatize what went wrong, because it’s a series of small, rather human, mistakes and misjudgments with catastrophic consequences. Editorially, we felt it should just relentlessly build up, tightening its grip around the audience’s throat, if possible, in order to engage them.
How did you work with director Baltasar Kormákur, and how early did you get involved in the film?
I began at the start of shooting, although we weren’t together. Balthazar and the crew spent 10 shooting days in Nepal while we were setting up in the the mountains in Northern Italy —basically at a ski resort — where we were for about six to eight weeks doing the photography… with climbers in real snow. We were accessible to everybody and would show the work as it progressed. We then split up, because they built a base camp in Cinecitta Studios in Rome. That was only going to last two weeks, so it made sense to come back to London for the rest of the schedule, which was completed in Pinewood Studios on the big 007 stage.
We were all very busy, and I didn’t see a great deal of Balthazar during shooting, but we would meet. It was a very tough shoot, as you can imagine, and he was kind enough to trust me just to carry on.
When did you get into a room with him?
After they finished shooting and Balt had gone back home to Reykjavik. We were meeting everyday, based at RVX https://www.rvx.is/, his visual effects company’s building in the center of Reykjavik. We then spent the best part of 14 weeks working together in Iceland.
Fourteen weeks, just in Iceland?
It was the director’s cut period, which is normally 10 weeks, but we stayed longer since it worked so well for Balt as he was able to carry on with things and visit my team and I almost every day. We would get together in the afternoon and I would show the work I’d done the day before, discuss it and make the plan for the next day.
Were you given direction in terms of how it was going to be edited? Or where you given free rein?
I was given a large amount of free rein. Balt is extremely trusting of me, and we would just bat ideas around and constantly try to move the film to where we felt it was functioning in the way we needed it to. There were many strands of the story that were shot, which then had to be whittled down or re-balanced or changed or taken out. The editorial process was not just cutting; there was a certain amount of changing of dialogue, rewording things and re-recording things in order to make the narrative move forward in the right way. It was a big job, and we were constantly throwing things at each other.
I obviously had the task of doing the actual editorial work of realizing it, cutting the scenes and putting it all together, but I was given an enormous amount of freedom and could express myself very freely. So it was very much a joint venture.
Can you describe your editing set up?
We had three Avid Media Composers with shared storage. Actually, we had four because my visual effects editor, Keith Mason, joined us in Iceland for that period. We had to turn over material as quickly as we could so the visual effects work could be started and run in parallel with us as the cut progressed.
I had two assistants on Everest because it was a very labor-intensive film. There was a lot of material. On average I was receiving between five and six hours a day from each day’s shooting. So over a period of 16 — 18 weeks that builds up quite a big library of material to be evaluated, understood and cut. It worked very smoothly and efficiently.
Do you typically cut on a Media Composer?
Yes, it’s a very good tool, one that I’ve been using for the last… God knows. What we need is something that’s reliable and fast and allows us the freedom to think and to store the many versions and permutations we need. A lot of the work that we do is keeping a very tidy cutting room in terms of organization of material and the different versions and what we’re doing and where we’re putting our efforts.
How do you work with your assistant editors, specifically on this film?
Pani Ahmadi-Moore is my first assistant, and we’ve worked together for about six years now. But she’s much more than just an assistant editor; she’s a filmmaker in her own right, in the sense of being a collaborator in the project. Although she’s not actually cutting the movie, she’s very much involved in it.
So, all of the prep work, and making things available to me, is handled by Pani and her assistant. They present bins for each scene of material. I keep an absolutely precise log of what comes in and when and what it relates to, which is also presented by Pani. This frees me up to concentrate on cutting the scenes, putting the film together and aiming towards a first cut. We generally present this within two weeks of the end of principal photography.
The film was released in 3D stereo and Imax. Can you talk about that?
We didn’t put on 3D glasses, or anything like that, in the cutting room. When we got back to London and we had a cut, we then started sending sections to the 3D house, StereoD, and the stereo process began to run in parallel with us and those scenes would be updated as the cut changed.
It’s a bit like a VFX process in its own right. There are three strands of things going along in parallel on the pictorial side: the cut developing and being shaped and editorializing in the traditional way; the turning over of visual effects within that cut and keeping them up-to-date with the changes editorially; and, similarly, the same process going on for turnovers to Stereo D in Burbank, California.
After the conversions are made, do you get to see the final product?
Yes, we do. In fact, though, in this case, I was so busy with the cut that Balthazar, bless him, took a lion’s share of directing the 3D. We had to divide our labor, as it were, and I was still very busy shaping the content of the film. It comes to a point when it’s “How do we best use our time and what is the best distribution of our time?”
You mentioned VFX, were you working with temp VFX? How did that work?
We did have temp VFX, and we would be given early versions of critical shots. A lot of the summit material, where we had the climbers on the set without the backgrounds, took quite a while for us to get. For me, it was quite hard to judge the impact of some of these shots until they were available in a form where we could see how good they were going to be and how extreme the environment was. It takes time… it’s a slow cooked meal.
Can you talk about the film’s sound?
We had extremely difficult audio. There was a high percentage of ADR and replacement on this film — we had wind machines, we had people on the real mountains with clothes blowing and making noise, so the audio in its early stages was very difficult to hear and use. It wasn’t until we got substantial ADR and tracks back that were clean that we could build it all up again. That was very challenging.
Who worked on the sound?
The sound designer was the wonderful Glenn Freemantle and the dialogue editor was my old friend Nina Heartstone. She did an amazing job scheduling the artists to come back for ADR. They also had to do very physical things — now in a studio environment —in order to get the vocalization and the physicality to sound convincing. The sound is quite extraordinary.
It wasn’t until we had a temp dubbed and temporary visuals that started to feel that the film was being realized how we had intended it to be, and we could start to read it properly.
Is there any one scene or section that you found the most challenging?
I think the whole film was challenging. Obviously, the storm sequence is a visceral experience that you want to have the audience experience — the complexity of what was going on apart from the physical hardship, and the way in which the tragedy unfolded.
We had filmmaking issues to resolve as well. The identification of people was one, actually seeing the climbers’ faces since they were hidden most of the time. There were lots of issues that we had to understand, to decide whether to solve or to accept. For example, the story of what happened with the oxygen is confusing, and nobody really understands exactly what when wrong. In filmmaking terms, that can be tricky to communicate. Whether we got away with that, I don’t know. Everybody was very confused about the oxygen, and that’s how it was.
It goes back to what I was saying at the beginning, Randi, which is this responsibility towards the subjected storytelling for those who survived and the reality of what happened.
What’s next for you?
I was to be making another film for Terry Gilliam (we worked together previously on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), which is his long-awaited Don Quixote movie, but this has been postponed until the spring..
In the meantime, I’m helping set up a film networking organization here in London. It’s called Sprocket Rocket Soho (@srsoho) It’s an international endeavor aimed at bringing young filmmakers together with older filmmakers, because in the digital world we’re all feeling a bit isolated and people need to get into a room and talk. I’m very pro-education for young filmmakers, and this is part of that incentive.