Jason Ballantine, ASE (Australian Screen Editors) has been in the film industry since 1992 and is currently living in Los Angeles. He has won and been nominated for several Australian Awards for The Great Gatsby, Wish You Were Here and Wolf Creek. He was also a part of the Oscar winning team for Mad Max: Fury Road. In this installment of Art of the Cut, Jason and I discuss his most recent feature, Stephen King’s IT.
HULLFISH: Let’s start by talking about the unique pacing and rhythm of editing horror. It does seem like the rules are a little different.
BALLANTINE: I like cutting horror movies but like you, I don’t usually seek them out for personal entertainment. What I do like is they require a collection of cutting rhythms.
First and foremost, a horror film is only as good as an audience’s emotional commitment to the characters. Some screen time must be dedicated to this point, before taking the audience on the ride.
In terms of different rhythms that could be employed, it’s all an endeavor to provoke an emotional reaction appropriate to the scene, whilst avoiding being predictable or repetitious. For example, holding shots for an overly drawn out suspenseful type approach or perhaps a frenetic fast cut chase. Then of course horror’s unique tool, the jump-scare.
The challenge is to tackle each story beat in a fresh new way. Director Andy Muschietti and I were very conscious of this. There’s nothing more satisfying than experiencing an audience’s visceral reaction.
Every film tends to suffer from the ‘main-cast forcefield’ syndrome. You know, where the secondary cast members fall victim so easily but the villain never seems to be too aggressive with the lead cast. That’s an expectation audiences carry that can play against you.
IT isn’t what I’d call a horror film. I think its strength lays in the sterling relationship of the Losers. I’d describe it as a ‘coming of age’ film with jump scares.
I think the film is as funny in parts as it is terrifying. As sensitive as it is suspenseful.
That is the real editorial challenge right there.
HULLFISH: When I think of these unique thythms to horror, there’s a scene where one of the local bullies is down in the sewer and encounters this incongruous balloon, and the shot holds and holds and holds, before finally the tension snaps violently.
BALLANTINE: Landing the proper timing for that is a lot of trial and error. The toughest thing for any editor in any form of editing is maintaining an objective view. It becomes a challenge to second guess timings that you are possibly too familiar with.
This sequence went through so many permutations of Hockstetter stalking, flaming the aerosol revealing the dead children and then his own demise. There was a lot of coverage offering a lot of options to trial.
The entire film was a matter of experimenting for the best result. We went through many audience preview screenings, nine in fact. Newline Execs Walter Hamada and David Neustadter are very keen to use this tool for story feedback. It’s a necessary evil. Nothing is more confronting than screening a work in progress to the general public. Especially a title like IT which has such high expectations. However, the test audience feedback always surprises me for how positive it can be for what the film needs. We would study the audience written response cards as well as the recorded video of the audience watching the screening for particular reactions.
Of course, the other supporting creative tool is the use of sound, both effects and music. Sound effects can help create an environment and/or motivate a character’s action. The music, even in our temp form during the editing process, helped assist in driving emotion. Lise Richardson, the Music Editor, helped enormously in preparing a temp score for test screenings. Needless to say, both elements were perfected in the final mix by Music Composer Benjamin Wallfisch and Sound Supervisor Victor Ennis.
HULLFISH: So Let’s talk a little bit about those sound effects and soundscapes. How much does sound have to play in the rhythm of the cut? A lot of people like to cut with the sound on mute, but with some of these cuts, I’d think the sound would be crucial to the timing, or were the visuals determined without the sound effects?
BALLANTINE: If it’s really intense action cutting, then cutting silent is a real benefit because production sound can get nasty and distracting. Picture rhythms are easier felt without sound at times.
As previously mentioned, sound is its own creative device which ultimately helps the picture cut and therefore the storytelling. In a suspenseful scene, for example, sound effects play a huge role in driving the character and motivating them through space.
The other big question is what is the music doing at any moment. Is the music creating a sense of anticipation or suspense? Is the scene better served with music completely absent?
There’s no one set of rules. These elements, rhythms and devices are just a part of an elaborate bag of tools. You must experiment and then basically trust your gut feeling as to what’s most true for the moment.
Outside these granular considerations, there are challenges with story flow. Inevitably the challenge for this film is each of the seven Losers have their own personal experience with Pennywise. And how do you treat those differently so that it doesn’t become episodical and monotonous? So it becomes a question of scene placement as much as the internal metronome the scene might carry in the cutting pattern.
HULLFISH: That’s really interesting. It’s a great point. So you’ve got these “episodes” and they can’t all be the same. Do you remember some of the ways that you tried to make them different? Or did you ever realize, “This is starting to feel like that other one and I’ve got to do something about it?”
BALLANTINE: We were definitely conscious of trying to mix the rhythms up. Each encounter became somewhat more elaborate for the jump-scare in terms of what was shot.
The first assembly was massively long. It was over three and a half hours and that was the fine-cut scripted length – not a sloppy assembly. So it did mean that screen time had to be dropped, either through the tightening of existing sequences or even scene deletions.
The scene with Ben in the library was actually quite a lot longer. There was a whole downstairs sequence where Pennywise’s head kind of flowered out of the headless boy’s shoulders. But it was just rhythmically way too long.
There’s a moment where Ben is being chased through the library shelving and as he does an L-shaped turn – suddenly Pennywise is right behind him. That’s actually a flopped shot which is stolen from that dropped portion. It successfully achieves the jumpcut shock in the most forceful visceral manner, but it’s non-sensical in terms of “How did Pennywise get there?” The fact that Pennywise is a shape-shifter seems reason enough.
HULLFISH: I remember that cut and I didn’t question it at all. You said the assembly was over three and a half hours. How long was the final theatrical cut?
BALLANTINE: The final is two hours and nine minutes, not including the end credits roller. From memory, the first editor’s assembly was three hours and forty minutes and then after the director’s cut, we were hovering just under the three-hour mark. Then we went through studio notes and audience screenings to further work the cut.
Not only are there film rhythms, but there are also filmmaker rhythms. Cutting a film is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to emotionally and physically pace yourself. Thinking of the test screening process, I recognise a pattern heading into them thinking, “I’m pretty happy with the way this cut is feeling.” And then, about 10 minutes into the screening, I’d be thinking, “Oh my God, I have so much work to do.” You see where the audience is engaged or restless. Are they verbally expressing their excitement (or fright)? Are they outwardly rooting for the good guys or laughing out loud? All those fun things an audience will do as a collective. And if they don’t when they should, well …
HULLFISH: I’m always fascinated by the way that just watching the film with an audience gives you such a different feeling of what you saw when you were alone in the cutting room.
BALLANTINE: You can definitely feel it. There were variations between audiences too, where we didn’t change the edit in that particular area, yet the reactions were different. Some audiences are yelling at the screen and others are more reserved. But in terms of the comments on the cards and the all-important score (out of 100), there’s not too much variation — maybe five points. So you do get these analytical discussions after a screening because the audience won’t really be precise in their written expressions. You have to kind of interpret what they’re saying. The audience might nominate one scene that’s the problem. But that scene isn’t necessarily the problem, it’s just the result of a feeling they had. So you have to be careful not to terminate moments but use your innate knowledge of the film to best determine how to broach a solution.
My favourite example is when someone will write “I hated the baddie.” Was that because they were a poor character or well portrayed and doing the assigned job?
HULLFISH: I had that exact same thing, where a specific scene came up as a very negative scene. And we figured out that instead of changing that scene we changed a scene that happened 10 minutes earlier and that took care of the comments about the later scene.
BALLANTINE: I really love that. That’s what’s so fascinating about the finer details in formulating a film. We had to drop a few scenes as I mentioned. Like Henry, the lead baddie. He had a couple of scenes dropped because the scripted placements were in a portion of the film that test audience feedback was nominating as the pace slowing. This was coupled with other feedback that they didn’t care so much for the character, given the pain Henry was inflicting on the Losers, even though Henry was suffering his own home abuse. So those scenes were a benefit to Henry’s backstory, but they were a detriment to the film’s pacing and audience empathy levels.
HULLFISH: A lot of the action editors I’ve talked to about the importance of cutting action say you need to make sure that you care about the characters before the action happens. I would definitely say it’s true for this movie that you really care about the heroes before you see them terrified.
BALLANTINE: Most certainly. If you’re not interested in the characters and their situation, you’re not interested in the film. I think the greatest strength of this film is the Losers. The film falls into that classic nostalgic 80s Stand by Me or Goonies feeling.
HULLFISH: Those were exactly the two films I was going to mention.
BALLANTINE: There’s definitely some of that appealing period vibe, but the marketing of the film definitely leaned more towards the spook of Pennywise. That stems from a lot of the feedback we received in earlier screenings. Pennywise needed to be more aggressive. This actually led to some additional photography with the final fight sequence in Pennywise’s lair, or the ‘Glam Fight’ as it was termed.
The audience felt the original battle was too one-sided favouring the Losers, leading to Pennywise being too easily defeated. Pennywise needed to be more of a threat, so that’s when Andy went back to Toronto to shoot the section where the kids were getting thrown around violently. Pennywise then gets Bill in the headlock as Bill resigns, telling the others to leave him be.
We also were faced with having to illustrate Pennywise backstory at one point. After some experimentation it was decided that this element was perhaps best left to Chapter 2. The Stephen King novel being 1100 pages meant not everything could fit into one film.
HULLFISH: Talking about the kids, tell me about finding good performances with young actors. Obviously there are many that are excellent, but there’s the old saw about “Never work with kids or animals…”
BALLANTINE: These kids were extraordinary. Andy knew exactly how to extract the greatness in each of them. I loved their performances. Ben had a tremendous bank of reactions, quite comedic at times, like the New Kids on the Block poster being revealed on his bedroom door.
My favourite scene for just sheer performance is Bill and Bev in the bathroom after the blood cleanup. The subtleties in Bev’s eyes are so expressive.
HULLFISH: It’s interesting that you call that specific scene out because that’s just the one that I had planned to ask about. It’s just fantastic. The performances and the choices of performances were just really nice.
BALLANTINE: And even Georgie — who was probably only six years old when he shot the film — his performances were right on the money. One other little moment I love for character detail is when everybody dumps their bikes on the street to run off and help Mike, but Stan takes the time to set down his kickstand.
HULLFISH: That moment definitely elicited a laugh from the audience when I saw the film.
BALLANTINE: That audience reaction justifies the extra screen time required to play that detail. The shot could have been cut earlier on the wipe of one of the other boys exiting frame. These are all very subtle moments that as a collective add up to something.
Another small moment that gets a big audience laugh is when Bev jumps off the cliff between the boys. Richie calls “What the fuck?” It’s just one of those “one take” found moments that really played well.
The use of source music also became a comedic tool, like Young MC’s ‘Bust a Move’ when the boys are looking at Bev sunning in her bra, “sitting on the wall like you were Poindexter.”
The few New Kids on the Block songs were used for comedic effect in the moment in Ben’s room where we completely broke reality as the music blares out as I quickly cut through the faces of the poster. One of the producers absolutely hated that moment, but the truth is it’s one of the biggest laughs in the film.
HULLFISH: That happened in the screening I was at.
BALLANTINE: Those kinds of discoveries just require exploration. Ultimately that’s what I love about editing. It’s a journey.
Each day you’re being bombarded with dailies. You have no clear early understanding for the film’s tone. But you have faith in your director, faith in your own skills and knowledge that – with a reasonable amount of time – it will all work out.
HULLFISH: Did the darkness or scariness of the movie get to you – editing this day in and day out – or were you just lost in doing your job?
BALLANTINE: Not with this film, because of the enjoyment I drew from the emotional connection of the Losers and the comedy aspect balancing the shock values. But Wolf Creek (2005) is tonally a very different film which did have a more aggressive stance and therefore more emotionally draining for me personally. Even Wish You Were Here (2012) had it’s taxing moments – feeling like the onscreen dramatics were playing into my personal life a little.
But really, you are so emotionally removed and desensitised to the material you edit. You press play, you hear the director call “action” – the cast runs around screaming all bloodied – then after “cut” the crew starts laughing and the dead guy gets up, smiles and walks away.
It’s only when I start to assemble and have one of my assistants come in and say, “Holy Fuck! That’s disgusting!” that I appreciate its emotional effectiveness.
HULLFISH: Excuse me for asking this, but was there a different resolution to the movie in a previous cut?
BALLANTINE: Yes, actually. After Bill and Bev kiss, there was a scripted aerial shot of the sewer drain down by the river. There’s a huge burst of water and the regurgitated bodies of the kids who’ve been missing, come out into the river. And Henry, who we know fell down the well, kind of wakes up in the middle of all of these body parts. Then there was a scripted scene of Bill and his parents packing to go on their first holiday since Georgie’s death. The car passes the storm drain (where Georgie disappeared) and the camera pushes into the darkness. But nothing happens, no Pennywise. I presented the argument to Andy that there’s no better emotional climax to conclude than Bill’s expression after the kiss. It’s an elegant conclusion to Chapter 1.
HULLFISH: Do you feel a danger in Hollywood that you become typecast – in particular in horror?
BALLANTINE: I’m kind of worried about that after the success of this film! I don’t want to spend the rest of my life mutilating children onscreen. What I like most is cutting humanistic experiences. Sure, the character’s situation may be a little beyond normal, but feasible enough an audience may ask “what would I do in this situation?”
HULLFISH: Talk to me a little bit about your relationship with your directors and how you foster that.
BALLANTINE: My relationship with the director is paramount. It has to be based on a true sense of trust. The cutting room has to be an environment that they consider as their safe house. They have to feel comfortable enough to openly discuss insecurities, concerns, deficits and shortages. Filmmaking is a compromise no matter what the budget level. The director has been dealing with compromises from the beginning. I just want to assist in making the best film possible from the available resources.
I will speak truthfully and be respectfully opinionated. I will flag things that aren’t working, but also offer solutions.
The editor is a service role. The editor is there to help facilitate the director’s vision, just like all the other heads of department.
The editing room is a very powerful storytelling department. I’m formulating my decisions based on everyone else’s creative input. What are the best cast performance moments? From relevant camera moves to focus pull timing. Lighting, wardrobe, makeup. And even script redundancies.
The scope of concentrated effort is awesome. I love that my mind has to flick between talking frames to keeping a holistic film overview as well.
HULLFISH: Can you give me your general approach to a scene?
BALLANTINE: I get the dailies and in some quick manner, sprint through them to have some sense of what the coverage is, so I can report to set about any pickups or additional coverage that may be needed.
The assistant editors are participating in the technical responsibility of making sure everything is accounted for in the copying of the camera cards before the DIT formats the camera cards and sends them back into rotation on set.
Beyond the basic checking of coverage, I start to formulate the first assembly by watching every single take. I do my selects and pull everything that’s of any value or interest. In watching the scene I start to formulate how it will come together. For example: what framing size and angle for what line delivery? Also I’m collecting reaction shots and insert details as I go. I just compile in take order.
I’ll then flip it back to the assistant editors and ask them to (“kindly please”) re-arrange my selects in script order. That’s a lot of work on their behalf, but it’s extremely beneficial to me because it means I can be time efficient and move on to watching the next set of dailies.
The assistant editors: Pearce Roemer, Elliott Traeger, Ferran Banchs and Daniel Miller – were an integral part of the cutting rooms daily processes. Post Supervisor Darin Read, too of course, was wrangling the ever-changing schedule and budgetary considerations.
HULLFISH: So you have your assistants rearrange your “set-up order” selects as “script order selects.”
BALLANTINE: Yes exactly. It becomes a much easier process of elimination from there assessing what’s the best line reading of a particular set-up. It requires a bit of elbow grease upfront, but I think it pays off in knowing the first assembly is a pretty good representation of the best offerings.
Typically those selects might be 10 – 20 – 30 minutes long, depending on how much dailies they had for that scene. The first round of the elimination pass will bring it down to a third of that initial length. Then it’s just a matter of refining and refining.
The script-order selects are also a really important reference for me when I’m sitting with the director and he’ll say, “What other angles are there of that?” Obviously, sometimes scene intent changes and you have to go back to dailies, but it’s a good short cut.
The other thing I’ll get the assistant editors to do occasionally upon the director’s request is a line-by-line compilation of every take, whether the lines are on or off camera. A good audible delivery could well be married to the best visual performance.
HULLFISH: I’m assuming this is all in Avid. Have you ever cut on anything other than Avid?
BALLANTINE: Not by choice.
HULLFISH: That’s not what I asked! (laughs).
BALLANTINE: ‘Happy Feet’ was done on Final Cut. But all 40 odd feature films I’ve worked on have been Avid’s Media Composer.
HULLFISH: Have you ever tried ScriptSync in Avid?
BALLANTINE: I’ve been curious about it but I don’t even use the written lined script when I’m looking at coverage. Lined scripts were a great tool back in the days of handling film, but now it’s much faster for me just to look at Frame View in a bin to find what I’m looking for. I don’t have my assistant editors enter any text in the Avid either — no shot descriptions or anything like that (unless a code book is required as a delivery schedule item). I’m an image junkie and would much rather look than read.
HULLFISH: And how do you arrange those Frames in the bin? Rows of camera set-ups?
BALLANTINE: Yes, that’s right Steve. A row for each camera setup — usually up to nine tiles across. If there’s more takes than that, then go to another row. If there’s multiple cameras, then I’ll do A camera, then B camera, then the group clip for the first take and so on.
I only edit from the group clips, that way I can quickly flip between cameras in the timeline at the press of a button.
HULLFISH: It seemed to me there were quite a few VFX shots.
BALLANTINE: Yes there were far more than initially planned. Andy had some tremendous visual ideas. Most realised, some not. I think our final count was in the 700 shot range. Add to that a couple hundred digital opticals too.
VFX Editor Lara Ramirez is a God-send. She is so dependable and completely takes care of the communication between editorial and the VFX department.
HULLFISH: Jason, it was wonderful talking to you.
BALLANTINE: Thank you for inspiring the conversation! I’m proud of this film.
By the way, thank you also for everything you do in promoting the craft of sculpting stories!
This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber, which has recently come out of public beta and is now available. Check out speedscriber.com.
The first 50 Art of the Cut interviews have been curated into a book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV editors.” The book is not merely a collection of interviews but was edited into topics that read like a massive, virtual roundtable discussion of some of the most important topics to editors everywhere: storytelling, pacing, rhythm, collaboration with directors, approach to a scene and more. CinemaEditor magazine said of the book, “Hullfish has interviewed over 50 editors around the country and asked questions that only an editor would know to ask. Their answers are the basis of this book and it’s not just a collection of interviews…. It is to his credit that Hullfish has created an editing manual similar to the camera manual that ASC has published for many years and can be found in almost any back pocket of members of the camera crew. It is an essential tool on the set. Art of the Cut may indeed be the essential tool for the cutting room. Here is a reference where you can immediately see how our contemporaries deal with the complexities of editing a film. In a very organized manner, he guides the reader through approaching the scene, pacing, and rhythm, structure, storytelling, performance, sound design, and music….Hullfish’s book is an awesome piece of text editing itself. The results make me recommend it to all. I am placing this book on my shelf of editing books and I urge others to do the same. –Jack Tucker, ACE