Jabez Olssen has had a career any editor would be envious of, from his first assistant editor gig on Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. He also edited The Lovely Bones, all three Hobbit movies and, most recently, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. And as an additional editor got to work with the legendary editor, Michael Kahn, for director Steven Spielberg, editing The Adventures of Tintin.
Jabez Olssen is one of the editors of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; along with John Gilroy and Colin Goudie.
Hullfish: Tell me a little bit about the schedule for Rogue One.
Olssen: I started on the film about a week before the shoot began, which was in July of 2015. We shot at Pinewood Studios in London. The shoot went to the end of 2015 and during that time editorial was also based at Pinewood, and then once we moved into post production we moved into central London, SoHo, for the cut.
Hullfish: Did you cut at a post house?
Olssen: Yeah, dry hire cutting rooms that were owned by Hireworks, the Avid rental company we used. There were other projects also editing on the same floor so, you know, we got to intermingle with other films and TV show, which is quite unusual and it meant we had to be extra careful with our security.
Hullfish: I bet. I’m surprised they had you in that environment, and not some place totally locked down.
Olssen: Of course we had many locked doors and swipe card access into every layer of the corridors.
Hullfish: So, on a film of this scale were you trying to keep up with camera or did you have so much stuff as production was happening that that was really not possible?
Olssen: Keeping up with camera was very difficult, but we were able to do it within a week or two. I worked a couple of extra weeks over the Christmas break just to get the editor’s assembly pulled together. One of the interesting things, for me, was that our director Gareth operated the camera for most of the shoot. And that gave him a lot of freedom to find the shots in the moment. So the footage was a lot more like a documentary shoot; in that Take 1 might be a wide shot looking in one direction and Take 2 could be a close up looking in the other direction, which gave the script continuity person a hell of a job, and was an interesting adventure for us in editorial too because the coverage was not the standard set-ups you normally get. We might find a beautiful little moment, towards the end of Take 8 which was not covered anywhere else. It was really exciting, but meant that the cutting was not quick. It was a lot of work.
Hullfish: I’m working on a movie right now that was all handheld and the director let the actors have total freedom with the script, so not only were the performances different from take to take, but the “script” was different from take to take.
Olssen: Yes, we got a bit of that too. Gareth’s an organic filmmaker who likes to give the actors freedom and so the blocking might change, the script might change and the takes would run long and he would just reset at certain points. So we’d get multiple performance takes within the one camera take. It was certainly a challenge; luckily I had a great team of assistant editors with me, lead by Tom Harrison-Read who must be one of the most experienced first assistants in England. We were able to get through it.
Hullfish: Talking about organization, how do you have your assistants lay out your bins so that you can find stuff and wrap your head around the coverage?
Olssen: Ever since I worked with Michael Kahn on Steven Spielberg’s Tin-Tin film I’ve moved to using a “KEM roll” or dailies roll. So all the rushes are arranged in a sequence rather than as individual clips in a bin. I just find these days there’s often too much footage for a single scene to be able to view it as individual takes and clips so I use a scene roll and I organize it. I’m big on using the Avid’s local color feature. I would use color coding extensively: the wide shot will get one color in the timeline, the close ups another, reverse close ups another. And then I would have the assistants go through the process of chopping up each usable piece from the shot, which might be a single line of dialogue, it might be a camera move. It would be anything I would consider a usable shot and when I got to a bit I knew I wouldn’t be on that shot anymore because perhaps an off screen character was talking and I knew I’d want to cut to them, then I would cut, and so I would end up with all these pieces from the rushes and all color coded and then I would get them all organized into script order with all the similar takes lined up. Then I would have a timeline that would have all these little color coded clips on it and I would be able to know “That’s the close up of that character. That’s the wide shot” and as I moved through the scene I would navigate it quite quickly and easily and thus all my rushes were organized in one sequence per scene.
Hullfish: And you put that selects reel in your source side and then cut into your sequence side?
Olssen: Yes, and cut across to what I’d call a selects reel where I made the selects for performance of the bits I actually liked. If we ended up with too many selects on the first pass, then I would take the first selects reel, put it in the left hand monitor and cut across to another one and we’d go through again and make a smaller collection. It’s exactly the same way I worked with Peter Jackson on previous films. It tends to be a very efficient and you can always go back a layer if you think you’ve gone too far. If you are suddenly down to two takes for a line and you say, “I think there was something else” you can just go back to the previous sequence that might have half a dozen versions of that line and you can keep unwinding that way.
Hullfish: This is your method of wrapping your head around a huge amount of material.
Olssen: Yes, that’s right. For some reason the past few years I tend to get on films with a lot of rushes. At this point I’m just dreaming of a small independent film that has a tight shoot ratio, but I think those days may be gone since we’ve moved digital and no one has to pay for film stock anymore.
Hullfish: I’ll make your dream come true! Come over to my office and you can help me edit the little independent film I’m doing.
Olssen: Excellent. That would be great.
Hullfish: To get back to you, tell me about working with your director.
Olssen: I really loved working with Gareth on this movie. I think his understanding of story and cinema is fantastic and I expect a lot of great films out of him in the future. No pressure, Gareth.
Hullfish: Sometimes there’s a little bit of a conflict between that love of cinema and the love of story where a director may be stronger in one area or the other.
Olssen: The great directors are the ones that have both. Directors often get their break once they prove they’re great visualist. They might come out of music videos or visual effects background or commercials. Then they go on to feature films and the whole art of telling a story over 90 minutes or two hours is a brand new thing. There’s often no reason to expect a person to naturally have that ability as well because they are quite different skills. I knew Gareth came from a visual effects background, but I was really overjoyed at the confidence in his storytelling and how he talked story and how much he knew and understood, and how good his ideas were.
Hullfish: Let’s talk a little bit about that collaboration between you and Gareth. How did you work together? Is he a guy who liked to talk a lot or did he want you to just “show me?”
Olssen: Gareth and I got on very well. We’re very similar in age and in taste. During the shoot he would often come in after his long day on set and spend a few hours with me in the cutting room, or on the weekend. Then in post production when we would spend every hour of the day together in the cutting room, it was just the two of us for a long time. Gareth’s got a great subtle British sense of humor and he’s also self-assured without being dogmatic and he listens, but he also knows what he wants and is very confident.
Like most directors, at first he wants to see the cut the way he’s always imagined it, because directors have had the film they’ve been picturing in their heads for so long and they shot it a certain way. The first thing they want to see is the way they always imagined it. Once you get that out the way, then you can say “Well now that you’ve seen that version, I’ve also done this one where I’ve reimagined it a little bit different. Directors are usually open to new ideas. But it’s very hard to go in with that new idea first if they haven’t got to see their original vision cut together. It’s very hard to show them a new imagining of a scene first and expect them to not go “Yeah that’s fine, but can we see it the way it was in the script?” I like to get to that position as quickly as possible. Give the director what they want as quickly as possible and then we can start looking at new ideas. I’ve often had other thoughts about scenes and had other versions up my sleeve or hidden away and when I feel the moment’s right I can suggest some of those ideas. The schedule with this film was so tight though that just getting through our director’s cut was quite the race because there was so much footage for Gareth to look at.
Hullfish: I was just talking about that idea of giving the director what he wants at the top with my assistant today. There was a scene that was a little questionable and I said “This is the way it is in the script and although I would just cut the scene or the line out if I had my way, the first cut, you’ve got to deliver the script.
Olssen: Yes. Exactly. On most films there’s often one scene that I can barely bring myself to assemble ’cause I just know it’s not going to make it. And that’s not to say that there’s necessarily a problem with the script, it’s just that a cut film is a different animal than a script and you really don’t know what you’ve got until the footage goes together.
Hullfish: There’s the movie that they wrote, the movie they shot and the movie that’s edited; and they’re all different things.
Hullfish: There’s a fine line an editor has to walk between having enough of an ego that you know you’re doing a good job and that your opinion is important, but also to subvert that ego in service to the director’s vision.
Olssen: That’s right. I think to be an editor you have to have a certain type of personality. As an editor I always believe I’m working for the director. It’s the director’s vision that I’m helping realize and that can be frustrating. I think every editor at some point daydreams “Well, if I was in charge then I would do this and this and everything would be better.” But at the end of the day you get hired for what you can add to what the director wants.
You need an ego as an editor. You need to feel confident about your ideas. If you’re not confident, you won’t be any good to anyone, but at the same time you’ve got to realize that you’re not the last say. It is a job. You have to produce results. You have to get along with the people who ultimately are your bosses. They’re only going to want you there if you’re adding to the process.
Hullfish: You’ve worked with Peter Jackson multiple times and I say that no matter how talented you are, he’s not going to work with you again if you’re not easy to get along with.
Olssen: I think, that’s right. If you show you’re willing to do it their way first and then your ideas come in as an alternative suggestion, and as long as you’re willing to give an honest opinion about what’s not working in the film then I think you’re doing your job. If you’re confident in your idea then you argue for it, but at the end of the day you have to be prepared to accept someone else’s final decision. Also if you’re not able to convince people that your version is better, then maybe it’s not. Either it’s not or you’re not good enough at articulating why it is. Either way, it’s time to move on.
Hullfish: Can you tell me a little bit about meeting him and feeling each other out and getting the gig.
Olssen: I had worked as an additional editor on Tin-Tin which Steven Spielberg directed, because Peter Jackson produced Tin-Tin for Steven and it was a bit of a collaboration with certain bits being done down in New Zealand and the main shoot happening up in LA. A lot of the post production was done down in New Zealand with a crew we had been working with on previous films like King Kong. My understanding is that Kathy Kennedy took a lot of her people with her who had worked on Tin-Tin, to LucasFilm. So I had previously worked with several people who ended up at LucasFilm; like Jason McGatlin who is the SVP of Physical Production at LucasFilm and Pippa Anderson who heads up post production there. They called me for this job.
Hullfish: So finally you meet Gareth and how did that meeting go?
Olssen: I should say I had actually met Gareth once before, he came down to New Zealand to visit Peter Jackson when we were shooting The Hobbit and during The Hobbit I was based on set. I had an Avid set up on the sound stages beside the director so we could work between set-ups and so, I got talking to Gareth and we hung out, but that was years ago. That was before he had directed Godzilla. I must admit I didn’t even know who he was, I hadn’t seen Gareth’s first feature at that point. But, you know, I really liked him and I talked and years later when I heard he was doing a Star Wars film, I thought “Damn I should have stayed in touch with that guy”, but lucky for me, things worked out anyway. So I didn’t see Gareth again after his visit to The Hobbit set until we were at Pinewood ready to shoot.
Hullfish: Let’s talk about rhythm.
Olssen: When it comes to pace and rhythm so much is just dictated by the footage. I’m an editor who believes there’s a natural rhythm that you feel from the material and to fight against that is very difficult. Overall, the script and the footage and the action dictates its own pace and that might be as simple as if you’re cutting between two space ships and pilots are talking to each other then you’ve just got to cut when the line of dialogue is over so your rhythm is going to be pretty much the rhythm of the dialogue. If it’s a space battle and one space ship is shooting at another there’s only so long you can hold on a shot once the explosion is over. I tend to not overthink it and just try and feel it. Then you look at what you got and you see what’s working and what’s not working. I’m definitely an editor who needs to refine a cut before it shakes out, I try not to put too much pressure on myself on the first pass of the first edit. Being an Avid editor, I don’t have any worry about undoing a splice and adding a few more frames. I think that’s something that the previous generation of editors probably had over us, is that they were probably a lot more disciplined. They didn’t want to make unnecessary cuts in the film, the physical film, because it would mean extra splices and undoing them. So they were probably a lot more disciplined in examining the footage before they ever made a first cut. I’ll just jump in and start cutting and see what happens.
Hullfish: No, “measure twice, cut once” carpenter’s rule?
Olssen: It’s not quite as necessary anymore. It’s still a good idea.
Hullfish: I was showing the first cut of a reel to my assistant and feeling a little awkward about how rough it was and I explained, “This is just the first cut of a months-long process. This is how this stage has to start.”
Hullfish: The director hasn’t seen it and I want to make it as good as possible for him to see during the first pass, but I also know that he’s going to want to speak into it and there’s only so much you can do before you get that direction.
Olssen: That’s right. And I believe that great works of art are more a process of refinement. You take something that might not be so good and you refine it and improve it until it is great. And of course when the audience sees it there’s a tendency for a lot of people just to think that’s how it was birthed, fully formed and working well, but it’s not usually the case. It’s about using your inner critic to look at something and say “What’s not working and how can we make it better?” Little by little you chip away at it until hopefully it works.
Hullfish: Finding the rough cut is often a matter of finding the structure of the scene before you can move on.
Hullfish: Talk to me a little about that.
Olssen: Often the big challenge with putting together a rough cut for these big special effects films is that you might shoot half the material this week and the rest, that it’s intercut with, is being shot over the next month or two, so it’s a very slow process. It’s very hard to feel that rhythm until you’ve got all the material, so you just do the best you can. These days we often have pre-vis and other tools to judge things by,but it’s just basically one foot in front of the other. You try and choose the best material you have and study it so when you finally do have everything, you can make sure it’s all working together and that everything works as you hoped it would.
Hullfish: Let’s move to a different stage. Let’s say we’ve got this rough cut done and the director comes in and starts asking questions about “Do you really think you have the best performance there.” Is that an easy thing to do with your method of kind of making a dailies roll at the beginning?
Olssen: It is. Because the first basic organization of the rushes is to line up all the takes – every performance of a certain line or every performance of a certain reaction and line up all the different sizes of that line – the wide shot, the mid shot, the close up so I can review all the reads of that line very easily. I will also mark moments with locators as ones I like and then if the director picks different ones I’ll mark them with different colored locators, so I know which is which. It’s always a thrill when a director wants to choose a different performance, and they end up with exactly the same one that you had.
As a Star Wars fan I was so thrilled to work on this project, and of course I won’t be alone in being in this industry because of the effect that Star Wars had on me. Just to turn up at Pinewood and watch the first camera tests that had been shot and to see Darth Vader standing on the bridge of a destroyer and all these amazing creatures that were built, I just immediately wanted to tell everybody I knew, but I knew I was going to have to wait two years before they could see it. So anyway, if I never get to edit anything ever again, I can still say that I’ve edited scenes with Gollum in them and I’ve edited scenes with Darth Vader in them so, I’m good.
Hullfish: What about structure? Were there any big structural changes in the movie from the script and why did those happen?
Olssen: Yes, there was the usual amount of restructuring and some reworking of the story. A screenplay is not a film and you discover things once it’s put together and then everyone gets to look at it and see what’s working and what’s not working and with a Star Wars film, like any big film, there’re a lot of smart people working on them so new ideas are thrown around, new things are tried. As you know, a lot can change in post production; more than ever films are rewritten and re-imagined in post.
Hullfish: Do you remember how long the first cut was?
Olssen: My first editor’s assembly was getting close to three hours, but that was a very baggy, loose cut that I did just so I could show Gareth every possible thing we had. It didn’t take us much effort at all to get it down to about two hours twenty for the director’s cut.
Hullfish: Then what was the final length without credits? Google says 2 hours 13 minutes.
Olssen: That sounds about right.
Hullfish: You mentioned the number of smart people that were involved from Lucas and Disney and Gareth. Talk to me a little bit about getting notes. I know so many people kind of mock studio notes, but really there are some great notes, aren’t there?
Olssen: There are great notes. There are fantastic notes and generally all notes are worth trying. I’ve never found notes to be a problem per se because if they’re not the actual solution to a problem they’re at least identifying a problem. Often a note will send you in a new direction or it will lead to another note that you have or the director has. It’s a conversation back and forth. It was all done with a lot of respect.
Hullfish: Let’s talk a little bit more about your collaboration with Gareth. You guys were working together for all that time. Can you describe how that worked? Did he sit with you all the time? Did he watch a cut and then he’d give you note and he’d come back in three hours…
Olssen: During the shoot Gareth would give me notes. Then I would work alone and then he would see the result. But during post production generally he’d be in the room to begin with and then later on there were times when I would cut without him and then show him.
It was a big visual effects film – we had ILM on board – and working with them and sitting in the hand-over meetings with ILM was a great thrill. Getting to see classic Stormtroopers and X-wings and the Death Star all coming to life – it was an amazing experience. I hope the fans are going to love it.
Hullfish: Talk to me a little bit about how much you needed to manage that whole hand-off procedure or was that really a VFX guy that was taking care of most of that.
Olssen: Luckily on a film like this you can get yourself a great team of assistants and we had a great visual effects editor and a great first assistant – the whole team was amazing. That’s one of the great things about working in London. There’s such a depth of experience with the assistant editors. They’ve all got many films under their belt and they all know what they’re doing. I didn’t have to worry at all with the VFX hand over process, that was all handled very seamlessly. So seamless that I’m sure the guys hid the huge amount of effort and work it was and made it look easy.
Hullfish: Talk to me a little bit about collaborating with multiple editors, did they work on scenes or were you guys passing stuff back and forth?
Olssen: Things got passed back and forth a lot. There was sort of no single way that it worked for the whole thing. It’s a complicated film and it needed multiple editors to get it over the line really. They are great guys and it all went well.
Hullfish: A couple of co-editors that I’ve talked to really appreciated the fact that – so much of what we do is kind of solitary and nobody really knows what we’re doing – it’s kind of nice to have some other editors around.
Olssen: Yes, absolutely. It is good to be able to discuss the craft with other experienced people. Being an editor is often a solitary occupation and there’s a lot to be said for having a team there.
Hullfish: With a film this secretive I doubt you had many screenings. One of the things I feel – even when I’m just screening for an audience of one other than me – is the chemical sense of a cut that you kind of thought would get by and when you watch it with somebody else, it doesn’t even matter if they say anything, you feel the rough edges of those edits.
Olssen: Yes. When watching a film with somebody who hasn’t seen it, suddenly things become very apparent. There might be something you haven’t even thought of that suddenly jumps out at you as not working; or sometimes you get the opposite: sometimes you realize something is working when you thought it might be a problem. There’s nothing more valuable than watching a cut with other people. That’s one of the great things about how editing has developed since I’ve been doing it is that we can now work in high def with amazing picture quality and it’s very easy to quickly get the film and project it up on a big screen. It makes it feel like you’re really working on a movie.
Hullfish: Do you edit while viewing on a fairly large monitor or screen? Olssen: On Star Wars we did. We had large plasmas in the cutting room, as large as we could get. On previous films, like on the last Hobbit film, Peter and I actually edited in a cutting room with a 2k digital projector and a whole cinema screen built in the editing room.
Hullfish: That’s nice. Do you think that affects your sense of pace?
Olssen: I think it does. In the old days when we were editing on much smaller screens it was always sort of understood that when you finally got to see it on a big screen, everyone would race back to the cutting room to make all the wide shots longer ’cause no matter how much you thought you were avoiding the problem, when you see a wide shot on a big screen it takes longer to read and to take in because there’s more to look at and you often find that when you’re just cutting on a small screen that you’re cutting too quickly.
Hullfish: Tell me a little about temp music. What did you temp with? Were you trying to stay inside the Star Wars universe or was this story so different that it didn’t matter?
Olssen: We used a little bit of the original Star Wars themes – just at moments though – we didn’t want to go too heavy on it. We wanted to use other music. We temped with a large range of recent Hollywood scores. Gareth was going for a more gritty and realistic feel to this film and that sort of carried over into the music choices and the temp music as well. Of course the problem when you put a Star Wars theme up, everybody instantly recognizes it and that has the potential to distract, but there were certain key moments in the film where we wanted to hit those memories. But by and large we used what was appropriate to the emotion of the scene rather than sticking to preexisting themes.
Hullfish: What’s your take on performance when you’re cutting a dialogue scene?
Olssen: Whenever you talk about why you do things, you try and come up with these rules and as soon as you state them immediately you can see exceptions to them. It does come down to instinct and experience as much as anything else. You look at the various performance options and you sort of feel which one is working for you and which one is feeling the most real and often it can be a number of factors and of course you have to balance technical considerations too.
Hullfish: While we’re on storytelling, and I know that basically everything an editor does is in service to the story but, can you think of anything where you really told the story in a cut?
Olssen: I do feel it’s such a collaborative process that I don’t like to say any one thing is me. There’s something on The Hobbit that springs to mind where we had a scene in the second film which was where Luke Evans character was arrested by the town police and halfway through the scene he got banged in the face by Stephen Fry with a lump of wood and was knocked out, then the scene continued for awhile and then a few scenes later we had one that started in a dark cave and pulled out from it and I actually thought the second half of the scene with Luke Evans wasn’t necessary and tried cutting out just as he was knocked out and went to black and then cut to the inside of the black cave, which meant having to reposition the scenes as well as throw away the back half of one of them, but that meant he got knocked on the face, we went to black and we came out of the dark cave, which seemed to work.
Hullfish: Have you worked on a scene or in movies where you needed to restructure just because of wanting to get to a certain moment earlier.
Olssen: Well you’re always restructuring. Many scenes get restructured and reordered, the finished result of most films I worked on is vastly different from the assembly that followed the script. Any good director is always looking for how the story can be improved and are never resting on their laurels and that’s something that Gareth shares with Peter: he’s always willing to look at how to improve a story and make it better. So that just leads you to try many things and it leads the films to sometimes make quite big shifts. It’s always a great thrill when you know you’ve improved something.
HULLFISH: Thank you so much for giving me so much of your valuable time. This has been a pleasure.
OLSSEN: Thank you, Steve, it’s been great talking to you. It was an amazing experience working on this film and I hope audiences love it as much as we do.
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