Art of the Cut: The Martian with Cheryl Potter

Cheryl EditSuite 3This is a follow-up to my interview with 2-time Oscar winning editor, Pietro Scalia. We spoke about his latest project, “The Martian” and the rest of his fascinating career. To continue the discussion on the collaborative workflows, organization and talented team behind the “master editor,” I spoke with the “additional editor” on “The Martian,” Cheryl Potter. (pictured left in “The Martian” edit suite in London)

HULLFISH: Tell me a little about your career path to “The Martian.”

POTTER: Before I got on the Ridley train (“Exodus: Gods and Kings”), I was the first assistant editor on “Dark Shadows” which was Tim Burton’s movie before his last one. I firsted on “Anna Karenina,” which was Joe Wright’s version of Anna Karenina. Did a few weeks on “Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy” helping out Jill Bilcock when she came on to consult on the edit. I came to London was on “The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawntreader” which was shot in Australia, where I was originally based. Before “Narnia” it was pretty much whatever big films were coming through Australia. I did Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia” which was nearly two years of my life, working with Dody Dorn, who’s amazing. And also on Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby.”

HULLFISH: Were you on “Dark Shadows” with JC Bond? I interviewed him about the workflow for a bunch of huge movies – like “Harry Potter” and “Pirates of the Carribean” – for my last book “Avid Uncut.”

POTTER: He’s always been Chris Lebenzon’s right-hand man, for years now. It’s great working with JC because he’s so technical. He knows everything about Avid – knows it inside out, but he’s cutting now – he cut “Big Eyes” for Tim Burton and recently finished “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” so that’s great.

HULLFISH: Lebenzon’s like the king of the big budget features: “Batman Returns,” “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor”… a bunch of Johnny Depp movies… Let’s talk about “The Martian.” I was shocked about the production schedule for the movie when I spoke with Pietro. Tell us about the post production.

DF 07708POTTER: The Martian started editing in November of 2014 in Budapest where they shot all of the stage material. Then post moved to France for the director’s cut, where Ridley Scott lives. Then finished editing in London where all of the visual effects houses were and where they completed the DI through the London office of Company 3, with colorist Stephen Nakamura.

HULLFISH: What was your role?

POTTER: I’m a bit more of a weird one. I was there just for whatever help Pietro needed. Sometimes I’d be assembling scenes. Sometimes I’d be doing sound work. Sometimes I’d be on a chase to find a particular reading of a line or a throwaway thing. It was very varied. I never knew what Pietro was going to need from me. He’d say, “I’m doing this so you find me this” or “Can you put together this other thing?”

HULLFISH: So how is an “additional editor” different from an assistant or other editor?

POTTER: It was very generous of Pietro to give me the title. Some people might call what I did “associate editor” or in some ways, on a smaller show it’s what a first assistant editor would do. And I’ve done these tasks as a first assistant editor as well. But it was really good of him to focus on the fact that “yes she’s done a lot of cutting on this one” so let’s give her an additional credit. I was really, really chuffed with it.

This was my first time working with Pietro and I hope it won’t be my last because it was really, really cool. It was really fun. It wasn’t his first time working with a bunch of the other editorial crew. He’d worked with Laurence Johnson, our first assistant editor, before on “Prometheus,” “The Counselor,” and “Robin Hood.”  Zoë Bowers was on “The Counselor.” So part of the team had already worked with him and we’re all the same team who had worked on Ridley’s last show, “Exodus: Gods and Kings.”  So our 2nd Assistant editor, Paolo Buzzetti, and our assistant editor, Elise Anderson, were “Exodus” Alumni as well. And of course Teresa Kelly has done the post producing on all Ridley’s films for years, so that was the core team we started with. Pietro was happy to take on this pre-formed team. And we all fit together really nicely and everybody got along really well.

HULLFISH: What was the dailies process?

POTTER: So they had a team on set, DIT Mary Lobb, she would get all of the camera cards and would keep a running total of whatever was on those cards in a shared Google doc, so we could sort of spy what was happening on set and see “have they turned over” “how many takes have they done” and those camera cards would come… before I get to that part, they had an on-set colorist who was setting looks on set. They were setting CDLs (color decision lists) on set. The camera cards would come to Fluent Image, who would do our dailies and our digital negative. They had a system set up in a room with the rest of the post team. So they’d read the camera cards. They’d pull the R3D files. And they’d archive the digital negative and also send the LTO tapes so that we had an off-site backup. They would also create our transcoded DNxHD 36 media with the CDLs that had been applied on set, so we already had a dailies look set. We gave Fluent access to our ISIS, so they could put the DNxHD 36 directly on the ISIS which saved us a bunch of copying time.

HULLFISH: On my last movie, I debated whether to cut in 36 or 115. We did the first few days at 36, but I wanted a better quality for the preview screenings and I didn’t want to have to bump it all up to 115 later, so we started over again and did everything at 115.

POTTER: There was a bit of to and fro about whether we wanted to use DNxHD36 or 115. In the end we went with 36 during the shoot period just because it’s small files and because we knew we were going to do satellite cutting rooms and we didn’t want to be trapped in a situation where we were having to move these giant files and wait for them to copy. But we knew we were going to want to get to DNxHD115 at some point so that when we did screenings we had the better quality. So there was a point where we sort of started to redigitize whatever was in the live cut (current timeline). We just uprezzed the footage referenced in the cut. And we were able to push that until later on in the process so that we weren’t having to deal with these massive files from the beginning. On top of all of that, we were also stereoscopic, so we were getting the left eye and the right eye as discrete files which we were then syncing together, because we were editing in “full” mode. “Prometheus” was done differently because that was an older version of Avid so they had to do it “side-by-side.” Avid didn’t have tools to deal with each eye individually back then. I wasn’t on “Prometheus,” but at the same time I was on “Great Gatsby,” which was being done the same way.  The old way was fine until you started having to do effects to it, then you’d have to duplicate the effect and put it on both eyes.      

HULLFISH: And did Fluent do all of the audio syncing?

POTTER: No. We did it. They would receive the audio files and pass them to us. So they would get a “drop” from set at lunchtime and another at wrap. They would receive the stuff and start processing it but we generally didn’t get the full set of dailies the next morning. To complicate things further they started using the practical GoPro cameras on set which added an extra level to everything because it was trickier for Fluent to deal with them because it’s GoPro. It’s a different file format. And they needed to create a workflow where they could pull the files from the cameras and retain as much information as possible because even though GoPros can do 2K and 4K, it’s a different kind of file and it’s not going to hold up in the same way as the RED Dragon.

HULLFISH Describe the division of labor for the team and what they did.

spacepirates highres

Top row, L-R: Rob Jones (Editiorial PA), Zoe Bowers (2nd Assistant Editor), Paolo Buzzetti (2nd Assistant Editor), Pietro Scalia, Tony Lewis (Music Editor), Laurence Johnson (1st Assistant Editor) & Cheryl Potter (Additional Editor) Bottom row, L-R: Elise Anderson (Assistant Editor), Ridley Scott, Teresa Kelly (Post Production Supervisor) This was taken in the post suite in London on “Dress like a Pirate Day” on “The Martian.”

HULLFISH: Zoe and Elise – our second assistant and our assistant came in the earliest. They’d be in at 7a.m. because dailies would finish processing and be ready sometime in the early hours of the morning. They’d get on top of the audio syncing. Our sound recordist, Mac Ruth, recorded polyphonic (multitrack) WAV files with a mixed track on track one, so when we did the syncing we would just make the synced subclips with the mix track only. We could always go back and look for individual microphones if we needed to, but most of the time we were just cutting with the mixed track. Paolo was our second assistant. We had two second assistants and Laurence, our first assistant would come in around 9. Once the syncing was done, scene bins were prepped for Pietro, with scene bins in frame view arranged in the order he liked for them to be arranged in, and a KEM roll generated.

KEMHULLFISH: A KEM roll? Like a string out of all the selects? I’ve spoken to many editors that like to work this way. It was a common practice on KEM film editing beds – so that they could watch them or search them or even play them and watch them out of the corner of their eye as they’re doing something else.

POTTER: Pietro wasn’t available for the very first few weeks of shoot, so Valerio Bonelli, the co-editor came on at the front end of the show. Valerio liked to work that way and we kept doing it for Pietro after he came on. We’d create the KEM roll and save it in the bin with the rest of the sources for that scene.

HULLFISH: What specifically did they do to prepare the bins for Pietro? Subclipping?  Choosing a thumbnail frame? Putting locators on camera slate and action? That’s one of the things I did on my last film. It allowed me to skip immediately to the second locator or marker in a clip to start watching. What frame did you choose for thumbnails?

POTTER: Setting a thumbnail was done on general action. Pietro wasn’t into having locators for action or slate. But he would like a locator if there was a reset. So we tended to only put locators on the rushes themselves if they came back and did a lot of resets so you could see how many different restarts they did in a take. Those we would mark with locators so it was easy to skip through them. Chris Lebenzon does the locator on action, I remember, but Pietro doesn’t do that. He works in frame mode and likes the bin to be arranged so that it fills the screen nicely. He doesn’t like having to scroll. So if you’ve got enough clips in the bin that you’re going to scroll, you’d start a new bin for that scene.

HULLFISH: I also interviewed Eddie Hamilton and Eddie and Pietro worked together on “Kick-Ass” and a lot of these things sound like he learned them working from Pietro and adopted them. Eddie knows a good idea when he hears it or sees it put in place by someone else.

POTTER: One of the things I impressed on Zoe and Elise was that if you have four takes of a set-up (the same angle in a scene), then try to make sure to make the thumbnails all look very similar so that when you’re looking for the same take in the bin, your eye would see that all those thumbnails looked similar.

HULLFISH: I do exactly the same thing.

POTTER: Interestingly I heard of some assistants who worked with an editor who set up their thumbnails so that if there were five takes of a set-up, they would do the first thumbnail on action, the second thumbnail a quarter of the way through the take, the third thumbnail half of the way through the take, the fourth thumbnail three quarters of the way through the take and the last thumbnail at the end of the take so that you’re presented with everything that happens in the course of the shot. It just sounded like a lot of work to maintain for an entire project.

Once we had the bins ready for Pietro, then Zoe and Elise would shift into exporting the dailies for the studio. And that would occupy them for the rest of the day unless we had other bits and pieces for them to do.

HULLFISH Pietro has quite a background in music. How was he with temp score?

POTTER: Pietro really had a lot of input on music. He knows what he likes. I remember that he already had this huge music library that he already had loaded up from previous movies and he’s constantly adding to it. I remember that we had to make sure that we needed to load it all up for when he arrived and he had a folder that had music from “Sea of Trees” and he’d keep referring back to those. He’s not the first editor I’ve worked with that does this, but he plays soundtracks in the background while he’s cutting so that he’s constantly hearing different music and new music and then if something piques his interest, he can turn and pay attention to it and find out what track it was.

HULLFISH: That’s another Eddie Hamilton thing.

POTTER: Mike McCusker does that as well.

HULLFISH: We’re going to have to create some “tree of editors” where we can see all of the influences in working practices that various editors get from their colleagues.

POTTER: Right! Who’s a thumbnail person and who’s a description/text person. I can only think of one text view person, and that was Dody (Dorn, editor of “Fury,” “Memento,” “Matchstick Men”), she was a text view person.

little isisHULLFISH: And I’m a hybrid. I like text view with a small thumbnail frame on the left. You’ll have to give it a try some time. With a team as large as you’ve described, the Avid’s had to have had shared storage. Can you imagine cutting this movie without ISIS?

POTTER No. No I can’t. We could not have cut this movie without being able to all have access to the same material at the same time, just there’s not way we could have pulled it off. We had one ISIS here in London while we were in France (Ridley’s home base). So the main cutting room – Ridley, Pietro and myself, Laurence (the first assistant) Paolo (the second assistant) our VFX editor Richard Ketteridge and his assistant Henry Kemplen, we were all in France. And then we also had Zoe and Elise here in London with the visual effects guys, so we had to maintain the media and the project across two countries. Every day we were updating media from one to the other. The visual effects would come in in London, so we’d need to make sure that the visual effects media made it to France and vice versa. Any new titles or renders and of course the cut as well that were being created in France, that media needed to get back to London and that London at least had a new project bin every morning. So they were never more than a day behind.


HULLFISH: Did you have another ISIS in France or were you just using a RAID or what?

POTTER: There was another ISIS in France because we still had Pietro, myself, Laurence Johnson, Paolo Buzzetti and our visual effects editor Richard Ketteridge, and the visual effects assistant, Henry Kemplen. So that’s six Avids?

HULLFISH: What’s the layout of the Avid Project window?

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Above is an actual screenshot of the Avid Project folder for “The Martian.” The description of what bins were in these folders and the organizational principles used for these folders is outlined by Potter throughout the rest of the article.

POTTER: Before you get to any folders, the top of the project is almost like a desktop of the computer and we’re very OCD about keeping it clean, so that the only bins that are at the top of the project are things that Pietro needs to see and needs to deal with. So every time we would prep new bins and new dailies, if these are brand new bins and he’s never seen this before, they go to the top of the project. That way he knows he needs to cut them and then when he’s done cutting with them they get filed away in the Scene Bins folder. And he’s not the first person I’ve worked with that works like that. It’s kind of cool to know that if there’s a bin sitting at the top, you need to deal with it. And once you’ve dealt with it, you get to file it. And it was always this really nice feeling after he cut a bunch of scenes at the end of the day and he’d look at the top of the project and go, “OK, I can file these now.” And then it gets really nice and clean up there.

TM Reel6 ArchiveCutsThen we’re looking at the CUT folders. Initially it was a folder called CUTS and inside that folder – when we were still cutting individual scenes, there would be an assemblies bin and a cut scenes bin. Once we had enough cut scenes, we created a set of REELS folders and Pietro just based guessed where the reels would break and how many there would be. When we started with the editor’s cut, we had five reels. So there was a bin for each of the five reels. At that point, if we were missing a scene, we’d put in a placeholder for the missing scene. It was just a title saying what scene was missing with a brief description of the action in the scene.

HULLFISH: You and the other assistants didn’t get together with a camera phone and recreate the missing scenes with you guys as the stars?

POTTER: Tempting. Tempting. I’ve worked on shows where we cut in storyreels with the assistants doing voice over as placeholders. We’ve all been there.

HULLFISH: On one of the scenes in “War Room” I ended up with a named, speaking role because when I was cutting a scene with a character using the phone, I was missing the other side of the phone call, so I temped it in with my voice and it ended up staying in all the way through to the theatrical release.

DF 01006POTTER: If you listen very carefully, there is a voice over the loudspeaker at NASA that is me.

Hullfish: That’s awesome…. So you were describing the CUTS folder.

POTTER: Pietro has a numbering system with his cuts. The first version of the reels, is EC1 for Editor’s Cut 1, then go in numerical order from then to the point that it was screened for Ridley. And then the first version he edited WITH Ridley was called Director’s Cut and that’s when we moved into the DC1, DC2, DC3 cuts. So you end up with an Editors Cut folder, a Director’s Cut Folder, and then once we showed the studio, that’s when we started using CUT. So CUT1 kicked in for the first version where we were addressing studio cuts.

Under the CUTS folders, we’ve got the ADR and Wild Tracks folder. Under the ADR and Wild Tracks was the ALL SCENES folder and that’s where we kept the scene bins. We also have folders inside the ALL SCENES bin so that when you open the folder you don’t just get a list of 300 bins. So there was a sub-folder for scenes 1-20, 21-40, 41-60, et cetera. And we also had Visual Effects Scene bins which was for any of the slates where they shot gray balls or reference for the visual effects houses, so that’s not stuff that Pietro is going to cut with, but we needed to keep it someplace that was easy to find if we ever needed a clean plate or a crowd plate, so there’s another set of scene bins, so first ALL SCENES, then ALL SCENES VFX. And the other thing after that is we have an “Archive by Topic” folder. We had a LOT of reference material like proper NASA stock footage, or pre-viz for a whole lot of stuff, maybe we just wanted a different shot or a reference we could find reference of Earth, or the Hermes, or Mars, stills from NASA, stills of NASA, different images that had been created by the art department showing what the rover was going to look like or Pathfinder or any stock footage Pietro wanted us to lay it out was to have one folder where we kept all of this reference material and have it organized by what it is a reference of, so you have a bin for Earth. You have a bin for Mars. You have a bin for JPL. And that’s what’s next in the Project window.

Below that, more references, storyboards, and temp comps. That folder is for us to be able to find stuff based on where we got it from. In a lot of ways it is a duplicate of  the Archives by Topics bin. Pietro would refer to the Archive by Topics bin and then if we needed to look for something by source, because we wanted to see everything we’d gotten from the art department, that’s where we’d go. So sort of the same contents but sorted differently so you could find them quickly.

We also have a marketing folder which is materials we received from marketing so when they were doing trailers and things, if we need to show the trailers to Ridley for feedback or also the visual effects guys would look at the trailers and do breakdowns of them.

Then underneath marketing is Music which is where we loaded Pietro’s music library and then any libraries loaded specifically for The Martian. So the music folder is all of our reference music, then underneath the music folder is also music from HGW – Harry Gregson-Williams – our composer. So that’s our proper score. And music from Tony Lewis, our music editor. So he was giving us some temp music tracks and music edits, so basically the three music folders just sit next to each other and they contain library music, the final compositions, and any music edits from the music editor.

L to R   Harry Gregson Williams and Ridley Scott and Pietro Scalia at Th...

ABOVE: (left to right) Harry Gregson-Williams,Ridley Scott and Pietro Scalia at the final mix of “The Martian.”

Under music we have the Plates folder. We had a VFX unit to Florida and they shot a whole bunch of stuff for us of the Orion launch that happened in December. They shot that launch and a whole bunch of stuff around NASA and a bunch of the stuff they shot for us made it into the film… a shot of Cape Canaveral, or a shot of the shuttle taking off. Technically they weren’t really plates,  but they weren’t dailies either, and they weren’t stock footage, since they’d been shot specifically for us.

DF 08050Under that was the POST VIZ folder. That’s where we kept any of the post-viz that they did on set. They were all sorted by scene. We didn’t really want the post-viz in with the dailies. We wanted them to have their own place to live, but it was really handy to have those to edited in to the cut while we were working, because quite often the actual dailies was just someone on a greenscreen, whereas the post-viz was the live feed where they’d done a rough comp with the green screen comped over a background. So you could see that’s where the ship’s going to be,  or that’s what the framing’s going to look like. The quality wasn’t very good, but it was something better than just greenscreen.

Under that was a folder of SCREENINGS. Any time we had to join up the whole film to view in Avid, we had a folder of those and it was really handy if we ever needed to refer back to those if we had to reference “What was the version we had to do for so and so? And did it have this in it? Did it have that in it.” That was a very large bin because it had multiple sequences of the entire movie in it.

Under SCREENINGS we have our Sound Effects library folder. Which is really big because Pietro has just about all of the libraries and he likes to have them available. Bins for Hollywood Edge and Sound Ideas and all the various libraries. Also, some specific Martian sound effects. We were really lucky because we had our sound designer Oliver Tarney, who started very early in the production, but with a tiny team who were on the film from early on, before we even started production we got this care package of sound effects. They’d gone and found rover sounds and atmospheres that could work for the surface of Mars, and air conditioning noises and hums and just really nice atmospheres and things that were really very useful because we were able to create, “This is what the ‘HAB’ sounds like.” So they’d given us all these ingredients to use so instead of having to go through all these libraries. They’d given us these really great building blocks. So within the sound effects library was all this stuff Oliver and his crew had dug out for us, which was really a great starting point.

HULLFISH: What was the working relationship between post and the sound production team?

POTTER: Very early on we were giving them pieces of the film to work on, so they weren’t stabbing in the dark. We’d send them a 6 minute sequence and in this 6 minutes you’d have some interior of the ‘HAB’ and some exterior of Mars and some NASA control room. We were being really picky about which sections we wanted to give to Oliver to sort of start off with. We wanted to find a section that covered a bunch of different locations, so they could start building what these different locations are going to sound like. So then when they would send it back to us, the assistant would say, “Well since we sent it to them, the cut has changed, so let’s pull up the version that we sent to them, lay the sound to it that they sent back play it for Pietro and Ridley. Very early on it started the discussion about which way the sound’s going to go.

One thing that Ridley was really big on was the breaths. Because there’re so many scenes where they’re wearing helmets we really wanted to hear the sound of the breaths in the helmets and we had those sounds from our first sound team “care package.”


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ABOVE: The Avid Project folder for “The Martian” with the Scenes folder spun down to reveal the scene bins inside. (All screenshots, thanks to Cheryl Potter)

HULLFISH: Were there any challenging scenes for you to cut? Or for Pietro? I mean, I asked him the same question and he basically said, “No. They all kind of cut together like butter.”

POTTER: Well, that’s Pietro. I know some days he’d give me a scene and I’d go and agonize over it for a day and show it to him and within moments of him just seeing the thing that I’d spent all this time on, he was able to immediately say “Well, these are the moments that are important to me. I think we should be on this person for this moment or that person for that moment. His instincts are so honed that he can know immediately, instinctively what he wants out of a scene and how to make the scene play well.

HULLFISH: But isn’t that kind of the value of having you do an edit for him? It gives him something that he can instantly feedback on. It’s a place to start the conversation. Whereas if you don’t have a cut done, then it’s hard to say what the moments are because you haven’t seen the scene play out.

POTTER: Exactly, exactly. Well, that makes me feel better. Without fail, every time, he’d know straight away what the scene needed. But of course he does: he’s Pietro Scalia!

TIF RSS 0003 fr n left.1001RTo answer your question, the difficult scenes were probably the ones where you have concurrent action happening with everyone in the NASA control room watching and reacting to something that’s happening on the Hermes, but also out in space you’re dealing with multiple characters in all these different locations. How do you make all that talk to each other? And interestingly, they started out shooting NASA and mission control. So the first things we shot were all the stuff on Earth. So we had kind of the climactic sequence of the film, where all the action is happening on the Hermes and in space, but of course we had to cover it all with these amazing shots of the NASA guys watching what’s happening and they did some really wonderful reactions, because it wasn’t just like “here are your lines, say them.” We were playing the full sequence of pre-viz so every line that hadn’t actually yet been recorded, they’re hearing it and they’re seeing the animated pre-viz on the screens to react to, so we had the full gamut of response so we ended up with a cut of that sequence that was nothing but the reactions of the people at NASA, and amazingly, it was actually quite gripping, because you’re watching these people watching what’s happening and they’re really quite emotionally moved by it, but you’re not actually seeing what’s happening because we didn’t have that yet. And then we not only had it for NASA, but we also had it for JPL who were also responding. And on the Hermes, we had the people on the bridge who are watching it happen as well and even though certain members of the astronaut team weren’t where the action was happening, there were people watching on the bridge as well. Then of course you’ve got all the action that does happen in space which is mostly a combination of stuntmen on wires and greenscreen, but you’ve also got performers on greenscreen. So making that all work and keeping the tension on quite a long sequence, moving between all these different locations, that was always going to be one that was going to take some time to find that balance. How long do we spend with everyone? When do we go to the reactions? When do we go back to NASA?

DF 20584Rv2The other thing was that there were all these GoPro cameras stuck everywhere. And sometimes one of the things that Pietro kind of gave me as a project was to go through that GoPro footage and find the good bits. So I ended up doing a GoPro only version of the opening storm scene, which you wouldn’t want to watch by itself, but it was a really great way to mine all of the nice moments and from there he was able to see if there’s anything that he wanted to put in the cut for real.

HULLFISH: Any Pietro wisdom?

This is a hard one! Because I know I learned a tonne (using the British spelling in honor of Cheryl) from him over the course of the film, but it’s so hard to sum it up. 

Simplicity is one thing. Not just in the edit, but certainly there. Emotion, character, story – they’re the three big ones. Is the scene or shot giving us those? If not, do we need it? Are we telling the story in the best way? Are we getting the information from more than one place and do we need to? For example, when Watney has the idea to use the potatoes, we used to have a version with voiceover that spelled that out, but you get that information from the images, so Pietro dropped the voiceover and as a result you see Watney have the idea and you actually kind of have it with him, instead of being told with VO. It’s really good storytelling and draws you in as a viewer.

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ABOVE: Screenshot of the Avid timeline for the first reel of “The Martian.” Description of what is on each track of the timeline is described by Cheryl later in this article.

But not just simplicity in cutting, also in how we do things and how we organise things. Like the Archive by Topic bins: we had all this material and we were just organising it by where it came from – stock footage, reference, Google image searches, because that’s the way we’d normally do it. But Pietro was just like “I want to open just one bin and see all the Earth reference.” So we organised it like that, and it was so simple but it made it so easy to find everything.

On the technical side – the usefulness of a well-placed add-edit! Pietro doesn’t cut with sync-locks on, which I used to think was nuts because – doesn’t everything go out of synch when you make changes? Well, yes it does, but Pietro would have an add edit that ran through all the tracks at the start and end of each scene. So he’d make the cuts and while the music and FX might slide around, he could see how much by and then trim the tracks until the add edits lined up again to put it all back in synch. So he’s able to focus on just cutting the scene and then at the end he cleans up the sound sync, instead of constantly patching it up as he edits like you would if you had sync locks on that were chopping up your sound FX and music. So that’s very smart. But also just that it puts the focus on where it should be – the edit. The sound FX and music are the periphery, and while they help tell the story they shouldn’t dictate the story, so let’s focus on the core first.

TIF RSS 0009 fr n left.1001ROne other thing he did that was very clever: we had a lot of scenes in the film where different characters are talking to each other from different locations. So you’d be cutting from a close-up of Lewis on the Hermes to Watney in the MAV. They can’t see each other, but Pietro would often opt for takes where their screen direction was complimentary – Lewis looking L-R, Watney looking R-L – and their eyelines as well, Lewis looking down while Watney looks up. So even though they can’t physically see each other there is this subliminal feeling of connection. I thought that was very clever.

Hullfish: You’ve worked with a bunch of different editors and assistants, what’s your favorite way to look at a bin?

POTTER: I’m a thumbnail girl all the way. When you’re cutting and you’re looking for other versions, it’s just easy to see. I’m very visual. All of the clips need to be sized to fit on the screen at the same time. Chris Lebenzon’s  a scroller though. He wants every thumbnail as big as possible.

HULLFISH: I’m the hybrid. I use text view with a big thumbnail. Even though that meant I couldn’t see all of the clips on the screen at the same time, I wanted to be able to see all of the notes and comments that I’d made for the clip. With thumbnail view, you don’t see anything but the image and maybe a little of the scene and take info. What about ScriptSync? Have you ever used it?

Cheryl EditSuite 2POTTER: No. I’ve never been on a show that used ScriptSync. I’ve played with it. I think the big problem is that they change things on set so much that it just becomes another thing that you have to keep track of. It probably pays off at the end if you can get it set up correctly. But for us, it was all about getting bins to Pietro as quickly as possible. You have to keep feeding him, because he’s so fast.

HULLFISH: On War Room, we only had an assistant for about a month, so we only did ScriptSync for a few very complex dramatic scenes. What discussions do you remember about overall story flow and pacing of the entire movie? Like in Pietro’s interview, I was stunned to learn that the “flashback scene” was moved to the beginning of the movie because of the story flow.

POTTER: One of the issues that would come up whenever we would run through the whole movie – and we were doing those even before we finished shooting  – that’s why we would put in the place holder scenes so you could watch the movie from “go to whoa” even if we didn’t have anything for a scene yet. After we would do those screenings with Ridley and Pietro, they would say “What do we need to work on?” “Where is it dragging?” “Where are we not getting enough information and where are we getting TOO much information?” We tried that “flashback scene that ended up NOT being a flashback” in so many different places and it didn’t seem to matter where we put it, it just stopped the story from being told, because we were showing something that had already been referred to, so the audience already knew about it, but then we’d spend six minutes SHOWING it to you. It was suggested from very early on, to move it to the front of the movie and just do it chronologically, but it was this idea of “well, we don’t want to be traditional.” One good thing about the way it used to be is that the movie starts with him just waking up and you have no context. It’s just this guy waking up on another planet alone and you haven’t had a set-up. You’re just there with him going, “Holy Crap!” But once we did move it, it was like, “Ahhh…(sigh of relief)” because then at the point where we’d stop the film for the six minute flashback, the story just kept soldiering on. Aside from the flashback, there was very little that was troublesome. Most of it was early on stuff about the science and showing the cause and effect: telling enough that the audience knows what’s going on but not necessarily resort to voice over or him saying what he’s doing.

HULLFISH: You said you edited mostly in reels… reels and scenes.

POTTER: Before we could edit reels, if scenes 10 and 11 were shot in the same day, then Pietro would put them together. When you opened up the cut scenes bin, you’d get “scene this to this” or “scene that to that.” You wouldn’t usually get just a single scene as a sequence. He’d do as many scenes as he could assemble at once so that he could determine how to do the transition between them.

HULLFISH: What kinds of placeholders did you use for extensive special effects? Was that one person’s job?

POTTER: Yes. Richard Ketteridge our visual effects editor did a lot of comping for us, but they also had live on-set comps as well. Also, before they rolled camera, there were certain sequences that they’d singled out that they decided they wanted to pre-viz of, so that opening sequence with the accident, we had that all pre-vizzed. A lot of that is very helpful to them so that they can do the visual effects. What are we going to see? What’s going to be behind this greenscreen? But at the same time, it’s also helpful to us because we can see what the intention was and if it’s a shot that’s a fully CG’d shot, like some of the shots of the MAV where it’s tilting or taking off or some of the things that it does, we had those pre-viz shots to cut with and we could put them in the cut, and sometimes, they were in for some preview screenings, because we didn’t have the real shot yet. But we had something that told the story. It would go in from the earliest point. You might have pre-viz. You might have post-viz. Or, you’ve got whatever Richard Kettridge could come up with. So most of the time if they weren’t able to give us a temp, Richard could mock something up and a lot of the early greenscreen sequences he just went through and did Avid temps where he would us a SpectraMatte greenscreen key, place the background and track it and do the best that he could with the tools in the Avid, and then at least when we were watching it, we weren’t going green, green, green, but there’s something back there and it doesn’t pull you out of the scene when you’re watching it.


HULLFISH: How close were you trying to perfect the dialogue edits, or did you know that you’ve got dialogue editors, so you just let them do their job?

POTTER: Pietro always cut from the synced mix track initially, instead of using individual tracks. From very early on the sound editing and design team was looking at dialog from their end and they were able to do clean up throughout the editing process. So as I’m looking at the final sequence, I can see certain sections where we’ve cut in an entire dialog stem instead of using the synced mix track. So when we get those cleaned up dialogue tracks from the sound team, we keep the production track (the synced mixed track from the dailies), but we mute it and use the cleaned up track instead. There’s a scene where Watney’s in the rover and he’s typing a message on the keyboard and he’s speaking very softly under his breath saying the words as he’s typing them and it was really a rough recording because of the sounds from the rover. And I remember when we played that in dailies I had to push the levels way up and we were getting a lot of background noise and a lot of squeaking and moving from Watney’s suit and I remember thinking, “Oh man, we have to get this to Oliver and Rachael Tate, our dialog editor to look at and find out if this is going to have to be ADR. Is there anything they can do in the meantime so that as we’re cutting with it, it’s not going to sound quite so noisy?” And they were able to do a really nice cleanup on it to the point where we didn’t have to ADR it.

HULLFISH: Did anyone attempt any temp color correction in the Avid?

TM Martian Colors BinPOTTER: We had a whole bin – called “The Martian Colors Bin” – where Pietro saved a bunch of Avid color corrections. Each was named something like, “Mars night” “Martian Blood red” “Yellow Green Mars.” Those were his go-to presets, but most of the time the clips were colored by the CDL (color decision list) that was generated on set. If he wanted to give something a bit more of a Mars look – bring up the oranges, make it very rich, very warm – then he had this handful of presets and when I’d just be screening dailies with him, Pietro would say, “Open my Martian colors bin and try “light brown red.” They shot a whole bunch of plates in Jordan, in Wadi Rum which was our Mars location. When we got that footage initially, they were neutral… they hadn’t tried to put a Mars look on them, so when we were initially cutting them in, we were always putting an Avid color effect on to them to give them that Mars look, thus the Martian Colors Bin was born. Pietro created all of the looks that were in this bin. And because they react differently to different shots, he could quickly grab another one. We also used the Avid color correction if we needed something to match better. We were lucky because the visual effects houses had access to the CDLs that were being applied on set, so most of the time when we were getting temp effects or submissions of the final visual effects shots they were coming in and sitting really nicely in the timeline straight away because they’d use  the CDL.

HULLFISH: How was stuff handed off to the VFX houses.

DF 20914POTTER: Visual effects was on before we turned camera. They had set target dates. Those targets changed when we switched to the accelerated schedule (see Pietro Scalia interview). There was a plan from the beginning and we knew when we needed to turn over shots and where. We had three visual effects houses and they were handling the three different locations, so Framestore were doing space. Mars was MPC and The Senate were doing Earth. So based on knowing that, for our first targeted turnover we wanted to turn over an equal number of shots to each house, so all of the different vendors were going to have enough to do, but also you wanted to turn over enough cherry-picked shots so that they would do one shot for a particular sequence and that way you could work up the R&D on the look you wanted for this one shot and then later on when you’d turn over all the rest you had the framework to work with. So the visual effects turnover was handled very well and they had a plan from the beginning. And they were constantly re-assessing that plan. Richard would go to Pietro and say, “This is what we’d LIKE to turn over” and Pietro would look over the list and say “I’m happy with these, but I’m still working on this scene and it’s definitely going to change, so I’d rather not turn these shots over, right now, but I’ll swap you. I’m feeling good about this scene. How about I give you these?” So it was never a case of “You can’t have it” it was more of a negotiation of which shots Pietro was most confident wouldn’t change.

We used Fluent Images not just for doing dailies, but also for our visual effects turnovers, so actually they pulled the correct foregrounds and plates and elements. What we requested was handled by Richard and his assistants. If a shot was being turned over, he was also telling the visual effects houses what other elements there were for reference and what other elements were available. If it was anything to do with an actor’s performance, he’d run it past Pietro. But if it was just stuff like backgrounds and plates and tiles, then he’d just pull himself and make sure they got to the correct artist. Sometimes the visual effects supervisor would be making those choices. So Kettridge would go through stuff with Richard Stammers or Stammers would work with one of the other visual effects assistants to pick out the various bits and pieces. So Pietro would choose the most creative parts, but if there was anything that was needed in addition to that, Richard would do that.

Then when the shot was submitted back to us, Richard would run the submission past the visual effects supervisor for review and if there were any that weren’t a good representation of how he (Stammers) wanted the shot to go, he wouldn’t even put them in the sequence. They’d be kicked back.

Once the shots were approved, they’d be cut in to the sequence, then myself or whoever was available would play through the shots with Ridley in context and Stammers and a couple of co-ordinators would be there to take notes and they’d look at the new shots and see whether there were any notes for them and 9 times out of 10, probably more than that actually, those shots would stay in the cut. Usually Richard would cut them in on an upper layer so that even if Pietro just opened a reel and we hadn’t had time to do a review, he would get to see it in passing if he went to that part of the scene. It would sit on a very high layer so he’d know “This is new and you haven’t seen it yet.”

HULLFISH: What kind of stuff was going back to the studio for approvals and updates?

POTTER: After the dailies had been sunk and prepared for Pietro, then we needed to export all of the shots for PIX. (PIX is a dailies viewing system for the studios or other decision makers. You can even get a PIX app for your iPhone!) In Pix, they made playlists and sent the review notes. They also uploaded an Avid bin with the selects takes in a sequence and that would get sent every day to Fox and that would get screened every day by the Fox guys in LA in the dailies theater on the Fox lot. So it was a two stream process. It would go up on PIX, but it would also go to Fox as Avid media, so they could screen with Avid media as well. So you’ve also got this whole slate of people who need to be seeing it every day other than the post team. So we need to get the footage to them.

Timeline Sc60 64 EditorsCut

ABOVE: This is the Editor’s cut of scenes 60-64. It looks “messier than the matching “Final Cut” of the same scene is the next screen grab in this article because none of the audio stems have replaced the actual “in Avid” audio editing. Note the differences between the editor’s cut and the final cut.

We also had to get the sequences off to the sound guys so that they could do their early work and so that we could bring that work in. There was still a lot of sound effects work being done in the Avid, so Laurence and Paolo did most of that – building soundscapes and a lot of placing breaths that Ridley wanted to hear. Then on the back end, another thing to think about in a 3D stereoscopic film is that actually every single shot is a visual effects shot, not just the visual effects shots, because of triage. So every drama shot still needed to be pulled and turned over and sent to a vendor who would do triage on it and then we would get a submission return which would then go into the cut, so that’s a whole other process, but that’s being done by the stereoscopic department.

HULLFISH: So what’s triage? I know it as a medical term for choosing which patients to treat first and who goes to what doctor. What’s triage in 3D? Choosing the “3D-ness” of a scene?

POTTER: Yes. And all of the visual effects shots that were submitted and approved still had to go through that process. When we turned a visual effects shot over, they would do the triage on the plate, then the plate would go to the visual effects house and they’d do all the extra work, so doing the triage meant that in our edit timeline, every single shot had a dailies shot and then sitting on top of that you’ve got either a visual effects shot – which was green – or a triaged stereo return which was purple. Each individual clip was colored. We had a color coding system which I think is very much the norm for everyone – we would color them green when they were a final, but when we had a version before it was final it was blue and if it was a temp it was yellow, so when I look at the finished timeline it’s basically purple, green, purple, green, purple, green.

HULLFISH: What about the dialogue cleaning that we talked about. How would that come back?

POTTER: Whatever length of a sequence they cleaned up, they would deliver a single stem for that entire length. So our track layers in the Avid – the first three tracks is production dialogue. Then A4 is where we would put the audio stem. Then when we got to the point where we were giving them whole reels we would end up with a single stem for the entire reel. And we wouldn’t mute the production tracks individually, we would mute the whole track, because when Pietro would go back to a section after we would receive the stems, quite often what he would do is he would mute the stem and go back to cutting with the production track. Then afterwards, Laurence or Paolo would go back through whatever he’d been cutting with and just tidy it up and make sure that that dialogue stem sounded the way it was supposed to sound or if it had become out of date now and didn’t match up to the production sound, you would lift it out and put the production tracks on tracks 4 and 5 so even if you would mute the production tracks, you would still be hearing the correct sound. That way, even though the cut has marched on, you’re still retaining the hard work that they’ve done to make it sound really nice and the only time you’re going back to production sound is the sections where there’s stuff they haven’t treated.

And we’d get that with sound effects as well and also with the music, so every time we did a temp mix – and we did several because we did five previews in the end – after we’d do the for the DCP, they’d provide us with the Avid stems so we’d get a mono dialogue track, a mono effects stem, sometimes a Foley stem, a background stem that was stereo and a music stem that was stereo. So tracks 1-8 of the timeline are mono and then tracks 9-18 were stereo.

HULLFISH: Did you guys have a vendor that built out the entire suite that you needed in France?

POTTER: Our vendor was Digital Vortechs and we’d worked with them before. So they are pretty global. They started in L.A. but they also do London and Europe. They’ve got people scattered all around. We did used them on “Exodus.”

At the point where we were moving from Budapest, we branched out and had a mini system for the two week shoot in Jordan. Most of us remained in Budapest while Zoe and Paolo went to Jordan with a small stand-alone system so they could do dailies and screen dailies for Ridley. Pietro didn’t go to Jordan. Then at the end of Budapest we had one team go to France and one team go to London. That’s when we duplicated the ISIS. So we waited as long as possible and then we had a day where it was just copying to another ISIS. Then the two of them (What’s the plural of ISIS?) – one of them went to London and one of them went to France. From that point forward we needed to keep track of any new media or decisions being created in either location. The trick that was very helpful was that once you have a numbered folder on an ISIS, once you know that the database of that folder is current and up to date, you can change the name of that folder and once you’ve changed the name of the folder the Avid won’t touch it again. So we would close off the Avid folders so that we knew we had the right stuff. So in London, they were receiving visual effects from the VFX houses and cutting them into the sequence, then we would get those sequences, and bring over the folders of Avid media and be able to link to the visual effects that had been cut in by the team on the London ISIS. If there was any missing media, we could tell them what it was and they’d be able to identify where that was and tell us that maybe we had missed a folder of media or something. The biggest part is the media management: making sure that the London ISIS and the France ISIS are looking at the same media so that when you pass bins back and forth you don’t have stuff that’s going to go off-line.

HULLFISH: Have you cut in any other NLEs?  Do you feel that Avid is the choice for a project this complex because of the media management?

POTTER: Yes. It’s that simple really: it’s the media management. It’s being able to keep track of metadata. It just doesn’t seem like the other systems have the capability to be the library that the Avid needs to be to be on a show of this size, with all the amount of stuff we’ve got going on. You’re tracking so many shots, not only do you have 1700 visual effects shots, but every single one of those shots you’ve received multiple submissions for and you need to make sure that you’ve got the latest version or that you can go back to the previous version. It’s so much information and I don’t think they’ve managed to crack that with any other system yet, though I must admit I haven’t used the other systems much. I keep saying I’ll learn Premiere and I’ll learn Final Cut when I have a job that puts me on them, because if I try to learn it before that, I’ll just forget, because unless you’re using it every day it’s not going to stick. But that hasn’t happened. It’s nearly happened twice, there were two jobs that looked like I was going to learn Final Cut and then both of them went Avid at the last minute.


Timeline Sc60 64 FinalCut

ABOVE: Final Avid timeline for scenes 60-64 for “The Martian” as desribed below by “additional editor” Cheryl Potter. The “editor’s cut” of the same section is shown previously in this article.

HULLFISH: Looking at the timeline of “The Martian,” I’m trying to understand the video and audio tracks…

POTTER: A1-3 – Production dialogue. As you can see they are muted at track level, as we generally monitor the cleaned up dialogue stem, but when Pietro goes back into a scene he will mute the stem, unmute A1-3 and cut with the production dialogue, then afterwards Laurence would clean up the tracks, and any section that we didn’t have a dialogue stem for he would cut in production dialogue onto tracks A5-6, so that once A1-3 go back to being muted you’d hear dialogue stem for as much as possible, and just production sound for the bit that we had no stem for.

A4 – Mono dialogue stem from sound

A5-6 (currently empty) but as described above would carry production sound for any bit we had no stem for

A7 – Mono sound FX stem from sound

A8 – Mono foley stem from sound

A9-A12 (currently empty) but this is where we’d put in any of our library sound FX for sections where we had no SFX stem. Back in the original editor’s cut days these tracks were all full of our sound work with our temp FX library, but now that we have a full mix the tracks are empty!

A13 – Stereo atmosphere/background stem from sound. It’s good to have the backgrounds separate from the spot FX in the stems for cutting

A14 – Stereo music stem from sound – the music as mixed on the stage, with any music edits baked in

A15 – (currently empty) but this was a second track for music, since you usually need two when cutting so you can go between different pieces of MX (music).

A16 – there is no A16. We don’t use it since there is a weird bug in v7 that while in direct out mode it will sometimes patch A16 to tracks 1-2 even when you actually want them to come out tracks 7-8, which meant it would come through with our dialogue so we just stopped using it.

A17 – original music files (muted) this is where we’d carry the original versions of the music, so the original un-edited source tracks, or Harry’s demos. We carry them here so that if while Pietro is cutting he needs to go back to the full version of a track because he’s extended a scene and needs more length, or needs to re-edit the music, it’s just there, so he can lift it up onto one of the monitored tracks and cut with it. The blue clips are Harry’s score, the yellow & purple clips are source music tracks.

A18 – LTRT mix (muted) – this was only just added at the very end. It’s a straight 2 channel version of the full mix which is handy for us to have for outputs. This wasn’t put into the reels until after Pietro was done with them, he wouldn’t usually have this in his cutting version.

And video tracks (you may want to refer to the more zoomed-in Reel 1 timeline for this)

V1-V5 – edit layers. Stereo dailies are uncoloured (so dark blue in Pietro’s settings), mono dailies are grey, VFX finals are bright green, mono VFX finals are dark green, purple is for stereo shots (either triaged or post converted). You’ll notice the mono dailies and mono VFX finals all have a purple post-converted version above them. Pink is for titles and graphics.

V6 – the 2D grade, as received back from Company 3

V7 – the 3D grade, as received back from Company 3 (yep, they have to do two different grades for the two different versions) – FYI V6 and V7 Pietro would not usually have the grade cut in during his cutting period, these were added at the end to help us with outputs and for archiving purposes. So usually V6 and V7 would just be more cutting layers for Pietro.

V8 – our mask. FYI our original dailies we received with the mask baked in – which was helpful for cutting and making dailies outputs, but when we up-rezed the footage from DNX36 to DNX115 we had fluent supply the up-rezed clips without the mask so that 1. we could easily see the shot had been up-rezed and 2. we had flexibility to do re-racks if desired.

V9 – titles layer for VFX titles. This layer was maintained by our VFX editor Richard Ketteridge. Every VFX shot would have a simple title sitting above it carrying it’s shot number and a locator, above the mask layer (so generally was not being viewed by Pietro, he would view from the mask layer down.) The title colour and locator colour indicated if the shot had been turned over and having the title there meant you could easily monitor that layer when doing reviews/outputs so you could see the shot number. It was also helpful for Pietro to see what shots were VFX and if they had been turned over.

V10 – titles layer for stereo titles. This layer was maintained by our 2nd assistant Paolo Buzzetti. Every stereo shot (so every non-VFX shot) needed to be sent for triage, and any mono dailies shots needed to be sent for post-conversion. These titles did the same job as the VFX titles, but for the stereo shots, carrying their stereo ID and indicating if they’d been turned over. Having the two sets of titles on separate layers not only meant they could be maintained separately, but it also made it easy to see what sections of the film were VFX and what were stereo.

HULLFISH: Cheryl, I had a great time talking to you. I’m sure that the information you’ve so generously provided will be as interesting and useful to my readers as it was to me. Thank you so much for giving me so much of your time. Good luck on your next project!

POTTER: Thanks, Steve. It was my pleasure.

Please check out all of the other Art of the Cut interviews here on Provideocoalition and follow me on Twitter for updates and other editing news @stevehullfish.


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Steve Hullfish

Steve Hullfish

Steve Hullfish has been producing and editing award-winning television since the mid-1980s. He has written five books, and edited two theatrical feature films (both Number One New Movies in the US). He has lectured at NAB, DVExpo and the Master Editor seminars. He has edited on Avid since 1992 and was named to Avid’s first group of Master Editors. His client list includes: Universal Studios, Sony Pictures, NBC, PBS, Turner Networks, The Oprah Winfrey Show, “Investigative Reports” and “Cold Cases” with Bill Kurtis for A&E, Jim Henson Home Entertainment, Major League Soccer, The Chicago Cubs, Wilson Sporting Goods and Exxon/Mobil.