By Randi Altman
Herman Melville’s novel, Moby-Dick, is a classic tale of man versus whale. The famously long book — commonly used as a metaphor for fighting one’s demons — is known for its obsessed protagonist Captain Ahab and its famous first line, “Call me Ishmael.” What people might not know is the book was based on the true story of a whaling ship called, the Essex, which in 1820 was attacked by a giant whale, leaving the crew fighting the elements, starvation and this monster of the sea.
In the recent film by director Ron Howard, In the Heart of the Sea, viewers get to know the story that Moby-Dick was based on. To help tell the tale, Howard called on veteran editor and long-time collaborator Mike Hill, who has edited 23 films for the director and collaborated on about 30.
L-R: Ron Howard, Dan Hanley, basketball’s Steve Nash and Mike Hill, who worked together on the “Iconoclasts” documentary series.
For Arri Alexa-shot In the Heart of the Sea, Hill once again worked with long-time editing partner Dan Hanley, with whom he shares multiple “Best Editing” Oscar noms and a win for Apollo 13. Hill was kind enough to talk to us about the process of editing and the challenges and joys of cutting Warner Bros.’ In the Heart of the Sea, as well as working with director Howard.
How early in the process did you get involved in this one?
Basically, from the first day of shooting, which was back in the fall of 2013 over in England.
So you were near set?
Yes, we were at Warner Bros. Studio, which is north of London in Leavesden. It’s an old Rolls Royce factory, and they built a big water tank and a replica of the ship, the Essex. Our editing rooms where close by in one of their production buildings.
You and editor Dan Handley have partnered on many of Ron Howard’s films. Was he in London as well?
Yes. He got there earlier and set everything up so we were ready to go.
What about your assistant editors?
Our first assistant was Simon Davis. He is a Brit who we have worked with on several projects. He’s excellent and a very important part of the process. We had some other British second assistants as well, including Jeremy Richardson and our apprentice was Rob Sealey. Back in the States, Simon continued as first assistant but Carolyn Calvert came on as second assistant and Alec Johnson was our apprentice.
Simon pretty much runs the cutting room and the technical aspects of the edit. He’s in charge of all the assistants and oversees everything. He is a wizard at all of that… very knowledgeable, technically oriented and computer savvy. This is a big help, since I’m not much of a computer guy. It’s great to have people like that behind you who let you focus on the job at hand.
This was Ron Howard’s second digitally-shot film?
Yes. Rush, which was about Formula One racing, was the first one he shot with digital cameras. But in terms of editing, we’ve been working digitally since 1996. Ransom was our first film on the Avid Media Composer. Prior to that, we had cut on film, the old-fashioned way.
How does the film being shot digitally affect your edit?
There are a lot of big differences regarding workload and the approach. On film, I developed a discipline — you really had to think about every cut you made and plan things ahead. We tended to let things play a little longer because it’s easier to trim than to put back. That was always our philosophy.
When we started using the Avid, it allowed us to instantly make changes without worrying about cutting into the work print, so you really didn’t have to worry about that so much. We learned that you could be a lot more experimental and try a lot of things without any problems. So that was a big difference.
You started your career cutting on film. Now that you are editing digitally, are you still instinctually working on that first cut, or does having the ability to try different things change the way you edit?
That’s a good question. The way I approach editing a scene, hasn’t really changed because the way I learned is so engrained in me. But you can try out new ideas and if it doesn’t work you can just get rid of it. I do try those things, but my initial instincts, for the most part, are what end up in the film. Sometimes what you try is crazy and silly and you’re hoping to find something almost by accident, but that doesn’t happen often.
Did it happen at all while editing In the Heart of the Sea?
I don’t recall anything like that. Rush was a little more conducive to that because we had so many different images and angles to work with. We were trying to make it flashy. This film is a more old-fashioned; an old sea epic adventure which is more traditional. It didn’t lend itself to a lot of crazy, flashy editing.
How do you, Dan and Ron work together?
We are a well-oiled machine and have developed a real short hand that doesn’t require much dialogue in most cases. What’s great about working with Ron is he is the kind of director that doesn’t really need or want to be hovering over your shoulder when you’re working. He gives us a lot of freedom.
During the shoot, when he’s on the set, we don’t see him very often, but he might drop in on a break or at night or on the weekend. When he does, he’ll want to see some scenes that have been cut, but for the most part he leaves us alone. Ron gives us some very simple notes from the set sometimes about takes he might like or moments he likes; this is helpful because I use this to guide me along when I start a scene. That’s really all I need.
What about after the shoot?
When he’s done shooting, we try to keep up with the demand in terms of getting the scenes cut together. So by the time the shooting is done, we can show him the entire film within about a week or so. After that we will spend two to three weeks — or whatever it takes — with him and go through the entire film from beginning to end, scene by scene. We get all of his notes and reactions and then he’ll leave us alone again. We’ll dive into those notes and do those, then show it to him again. The process just continues like that — we’re whittling away, improving it, changing some takes, and this goes on for several months. After we start to screen it for audience for reactions, we get a whole other set of notes and adjustment requests.
Considering how often you Howard’s films are there less notes over time?
(Laughs) No, I think it’s more now because he knows that we have the Avid. If there is a certain scene that might have some problems, Ron will give us an idea of what he wants and we’ll try different versions. This all increases the workload. I would say it’s a curse and a blessing all at the same time (laughs again).
When working with Dan, how do you guys decide who gets what scene or sequence?
It’s pretty random. The first scene that comes in, either he’ll take it or I’ll take it. Then the other one of us gets the second scene, and so on. The one thing we try to do throughout is identify the big scenes — the difficult ones and divided those equally between us, making sure that one guy isn’t doing all of the most difficult scenes.
Are you guys cutting in the same space logistically?
We’re in separate rooms, usually on opposite ends of the hallway with our assistants in the middle. What’s nice is every once in awhile if I’m stuck I call Dan in and have him look at something with a fresh eye and perspective. It’s a big help to have a guy you trust help you out like that.
For In the Heart of the Sea, was there a scene that was particularly difficult to cut?
For me there were two big ones. One was the scene where the whale attacks the ship and sinks it. That was shot sporadically throughout the entire schedule because some of it was shot in the tank in London and some was done in the Canary Islands, where they were for the final month and a half of the shoot.
They shot a lot of scenes pertaining to the attack, and I never got a complete set of dailies. I had to keep going back to the scene, adding in more material. It’s one of those scenes that had many different elements to it, plus the fact that the whale is all CG, and we really didn’t have temp shots, instead we would print out a storyboard still and use that as a representative cut. It’s one of those situations where you use your imagination to figure out the length of shots because there was really nothing to work with visually. Even though I enjoyed working on this bit, I’m not overly fond of these kinds of scenes because of the guesswork required. To me, the most interesting stuff to edit is the acting.
The other difficult scene was the second whale hunt, which leads up to that moment before Moby Dick attacks. The whales come in a huge pod and are frenzied and agitated. I didn’t have a lot to work with at first; the material would dribble in sporadically. Those are the two big ones that come to mind.
Anything else about the film that stands out?
It might surprise the viewer, but the most difficult sections was probably when they set sail and ran through a storm. Dan dealt with most of that, which I was thankful for. It was difficult because it was hard to set the tone. We needed to get the movie off to a good start, but for some reason it wasn’t quite working the way we wanted. We did solve it eventually; it’s just one of those things. You never know where your problems are going to come from sometimes.
Why was it so difficult?
There’s a lot of activity in those scenes. It was hard to get it all to work, and technically it all had to be correct. We had to have advisors come in and look at it because we didn’t know anything about sailing and there were the certain kind of sails that needed to be set.
Why do you like using the Avid?
The instant access to any of the takes is great and gives us the ability to experiment. It’s so much more civilized than running your film through sprockets and a Moviola, which is the way I learned. Even the KEM flatbeds seem primitive now compared to the Media Composer. It’s a nice, clean way to work.
Finally, what’s next for you project wise?
I won’t be in the edit suite anytime soon I’m afraid. I’m actually retired, and living in Omaha, my hometown.
Retired?! So that’s it?
Well, I won’t say absolutely not ever, I suppose after some time an irresistible script could suck me back in, but I’m not working on Ron’s current film Inferno, which is now in post. My spot was filled by Tom Elkins, a good friend who lives in Omaha as well. Tom has worked with us over the years as an assistant and then became an editor on some Wes Craven films.
Are you missing it at all?
I’m not missing it yet. Editing can be really rewarding, but at the same time incredibly tedious. I’m 66 now, and on Heart of the Sea I just started to feel like the time had come to ride off into the sunset and live life on my own schedule for a while. So far it really feels good to slow down a bit and enjoy this new stage of life.