Kirk Morri has been an editor of film and TV for more than 20 years. His filmography includes The Hills Have Eyes, Insidious, The Conjuring, Furious 7, and Ant-man. His most recent film is Aquaman.
HULLFISH: What was the schedule was like.
MORRI: What the schedule ended up being? Or what it was supposed to be?
HULLFISH: (laughs) Both!
MORRI: Well, originally when we started we had a little bit shorter schedule and we were supposed to be coming out in October because Avatar 2 was coming out December 21st. They were hoping Avatar 2 was going to get pushed back and they were going to take that date, which is what ended up happening. So that adjusted our schedule.
HULLFISH: So what was the actual schedule?
MORRI: I think we shot about a hundred and four days. We were in Australia during that time, and then we came back here at the very end of October 2017. So we started the director’s cut the first week in November and basically went through October of 2018.
HULLFISH: I’m assuming you were in Australia the whole time of principal photography?
MORRI: Yes. We were on the Gold Coast which is about an hour south of Brisbane. It’s on the east coast, halfway up the continent.
HULLFISH: Did you start before principal photography to do any kind of preparations or previs?
MORRI: Yeah. I actually started doing the previs pretty early on: a few months before principal photography started. I think that helped a lot. It helped me get a grasp of what James wanted. It’s just better than having the house previs editors put together the previs because we could come up with different ideas and change things before they went to photography.
HULLFISH: When you get somebody like yourself in to cut the previs instead of the editors at the previs company, what do you think the differences between the approaches are — or the results?
MORRI: Some of the scenes are more specific for these type of films because ultimately there’s so much CGI that it pretty much goes from previs to postvis to final film, without a lot of extra photography in there. So the previs is the basis for the final cut. In these VFX-heavy films, vendors follow the previs a lot closer than you would anticipate. So it makes a difference. Also, my relationship with James and how I work is, that we’ll come up with other ideas. So then we can go back to the previs house and get the shots that we need to complete that idea, as opposed to just the ideas delivered from the previs house.
HULLFISH: Tell me about your relationship with James and kind of how it started and how it’s progressed and what the value of having that extended relationship is.
MORRI: He had done a movie called Insidious (2010) and it was a low budget Blumhouse film. He’d done a couple of films at that point and he just wanted to edit one himself. So he was actually editing Insidious, and it got to the point where he decided he wanted to bring in an editor, and he brought in a few people to interview and he liked me. I started cutting away, and he liked what I was doing, so on his next film, he brought me along.
Our styles are very similar. What he likes to shoot works really well with how I like to edit. We compliment each other quite a bit in our styles.
HULLFISH: What about them are complimentary?
MORRI: We like to have a lot of the action and a lot of the moments happen in camera versus cutting. Especially in horror, we like the scares to be in camera, not cut for the scare.
HULLFISH: When you first met him and interviewed for Insidious, was it a connection that was personal and he liked who you were? Or was it an artistic question or a little of both?
MORRI: I think it’s a little of both. The interview just went really well and we connected. He also watched some of my prior work, and he liked what he had seen.
HULLFISH: So much of this movie was CGI. What were some of the challenges for you in dealing with this much CGI?
MORRI: A lot of times it’s easier with CGI because things can change and you can have things go the way you want.
HULLFISH: I loved your description of wanting to have the horror moments happen in camera instead of the scare happening from a cut. What do you think the value of that is for an audience? I just started on my first horror film, so I could use all the advice I can get.
MORRI: For example, we have scares in Insidious, like when Patrick Wilson’s character is walking through this area and we have the red-faced demon at the end of the film And the camera pans off Patrick and we see the red-faced demon up in this attic room. And then we come back down and the red-faced demon is suddenly right by Patrick. The audience isn’t expecting that and it helps the shock a lot.
Then we do have cuts for scares like the clap scene in The Conjuring. The mom is down in the basement and she gets locked in the basement. She goes down and looks around a little bit. And. The light goes out. So she’s stuck at the top of the stairs looking down the stairwell. And she likes a match and we’re looking down into the blackness. We cut back to her and then we look down into the blackness. She has the map and you’re expecting something to come out there, and then when you come back to her, the hands come from behind her and clap, and it creates a big jump.
We actually didn’t sting that with music. That was a fun one because the audience would scream at the same time the characters screamed. And then we put in the hit of the music at the same time that everybody would be reacting. So we didn’t sting it to make people jump. We put the sting in to reinforce the jump.
HULLFISH: I want to get back to talking about Aquaman, but I really love the idea of the precise moment a music cue lands. For what you’re describing, you had to assume when the audience was going to react. Then you did some screenings and that held out? Or you did some screenings and you felt like you need to adjust that?
MORRI: No. That one worked pretty well. We had a lot of different types of scares in The Conjuring. I did a lot of sound design in it as opposed to music. So there are a lot of scares that play out with no music at all. It’s fun to see the audience react to images and the little bit of sound design, as opposed to just putting a loud jump scare in there.
HULLFISH: Let’s get back to Aquaman a little bit. Was there anything in the structure of the film that was different than shooting script?
MORRI: There was quite a big change In the film after we shot it. There were two big battles that we ended up combining Into one battle. to streamline it a bit.
HULLFISH: So something had to happen between those two battles that had to get lost or moved.
MORRI: There was a little bit of the second battle that we took out. We changed how we got into that from the first battle. Ultimately it’s better.
HULLFISH: What was your original cut length?
MORRI: Maybe two hours and 45 minutes and our final was 2:23. But, that includes all the credits and everything and my original cut didn’t include credits. On these films, credits add a lot of time. Our endcrawl was about 8 minutes and then we had the main “on end” which was another two and a half minutes.
HULLFISH: You’ve done several of these fairly heavy CGI movies is just the amount of — I think — imagination that it would take from an editor to deal with so much visually unknown shots. The stuff that I cut, I cut it because I can see reactions and I can see movement in the frame and that kind of thing and you’ve got to use your imagination for a lot of that.
MORRI: Correct. But I actually like that a lot. For me, it’s really freeing because as I’m sitting there cutting it together — and then later on when James comes in — it’s like, “Oh! We can just have THIS happen!” And we get the postvis team to create that. It’s really freeing because you can create what you want. It’s an ever-changing process.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about sound design. There was a ton of it in this movie. And I think these fantastic kinds of films really need it or it almost seems funny or unbelievable. Are you doing sound design as you were working?
MORRI: Whenever I cut, I temp out with sound effects and music. And we had our sound team from Fast 7 in place before production. Our one sound designer has worked with us on other films as well. So, if I needed some sound effects, I could call them and they would send over sound effects, which I would cut in. Eventually, as we get towards the Director’s Cut they would start mixing those sounds better than what I had done. We didn’t bother adding the various vocal effects until the mix, though.
One of the things that I wanted — that I was pushing really hard for on this was — I wanted underwater sounds without the layer of air that you have when you’re on the surface playing with water. I wanted to really try and get the sound of water movement that’s completely underwater. So we experimented quite a bit with that.
HULLFISH: When you build those sound effects — that sound design — how much are you finding the sound design is affecting your visual cuts?
MORRI: That’s a tough question because obviously when I edit a scene, I’m editing the picture and the production audio. And. In my head, I have an idea of what I want — sound-wise. I like to play around with sound and music a lot. I normally cut the sound and the music to match what I’ve already cut visually. Especially with temp music, I don’t like to change the tempo of the editing to match the temp. Sometimes if the sound effect has a tempo, then you have to work with that tempo, like the sound of footsteps has to be constant usually.
HULLFISH: I totally agree about temp music. I was just curious about whether — when you add sound effects — that you find it either makes you feel like a cut could be tightened or needs to be opened to allow the sound to happen and breathe.
MORRI: I’m really heavy with sound design in my temp cut, so I have a pretty good idea of what the sound is going to be like, so I’m not surprised often by the sound design. I have that in my head as I’m putting the scene together and then I’m temping it out, so I’m feeling that a lot as I’m creating the scene.
HULLFISH: Got it. So at the very beginning, it’s a little bit more imagination.
HULLFISH: You mentioned how previs really heavily informs the rest of the process on something that’s this heavily CGI. How were you dealing with that transition as you move from the previs stuff to postvis? What is the process of moving from a scene that is largely previs through each stage.
MORRI: It’s kind of like just refining a cut, in a lot of respects. You have the previs and it’s an outline. Then the postvis comes in — and a lot of times the postvis people will try things. And that can change the direction of the shots around the shot they’re working on. And eventually, the VFX vendor also wants to try out new ideas. So then we start playing around with that. Also, with some of the battles, we had the previs — and then, when they shot the stunt — sometimes they can’t move as quickly when they’re in the rigs or they’re fighting on the ground and we want them more in the water which changes the timing so we have to be fluid with our edit there and adapt to the shots that are coming in and we refine them. Also, at the same time, we’re trying to shorten the movie, so in VFX we could decide to have one hit cut into some other hit further into the fight and cut out a sequence in the middle.
HULLFISH: You’re obviously in close contact with the postvis folks, but what about your communication with all of the VFX vendors? Are they sometimes pushing you for changes — like, “Hey, if we had another 22 frames, we could do this cool thing.” And you may be needing to have them revise things for you….
MORRI: Oh yeah. Every day we had VFX meetings where we would go in and review shots and that was a big thing. A lot of times the VFX vendors are doing a shot — and they have the entire shot, including the handles, so they’re making the shot as good as it can be — and sometimes some of the action goes into the handle of the shot. Now your shot’s longer. It just goes back and forth. They come up with ideas, and they’ll say, “It would work better if we could have an extra 20 frames on this shot because the ship needs to move at this speed.” Sometimes we get shots and it looks so good, so we want that shot longer, so they make it longer.
HULLFISH: On a super geeky note: what kind of handles are they giving you? 8 frames heads and tails seem to be more the standard lately if I go from the anecdotal evidence of recent interviews.
MORRI: This film we were doing 8 frames for the most part. There were some shots that were 16. And then there were some that we figured we would probably end up extending, so we asked for several seconds of handles on certain shots.
HULLFISH: What are your bins looking like as far as managing all of this previs and production footage and postvis for a specific scene. Is all of that stuff for one scene going into the same bin? Or are there separate previs, post-vis, production footage and VFX bins for every scene?
MORRI: I had previs sequences that I had created from previs bins and then we had production footage (dailies) that I had in their own bins. Once the edit was laid out, then we had the shots come in from the VFX vendors. If that’s overlaying new versions of shots, they would just cut that in above my matte and then I would look at them make sure that they were doing what I wanted and then I would bring them down into my timeline (below the matte). So those previs shots or postvis would just live In the postvis bin that the VFX editors were controlling. If I wanted to go back and look at older versions, I would go back to that bin and look at them, but it’s not like dailies, it’s a replacement of a shot that’s already in the timeline.
When we would come up with a new concept for a scene, then I would get that bin with all the postvis for this new concept, just as dailies. And then I would go through that and cut it together the way I wanted to cut it together and put it in my timeline.
But the bins on this were pretty huge because there was a lot of discussions about which speed to shoot the footage at. Some of the underwater stuff was shot at 36 frames or 30 frames. So we were shooting quite a bit of this at off speeds which — at the time — Media Composer would handle that differently and the bins were huge. Avid ended up changing their software around a little bit to make the bins more of a normal size.
HULLFISH: So the bins were bigger because you had to renders of the off-speed stuff as well as the original. us. Got it because you had two different versions of each shot. There was a 36 fps version and then there was a 36 as 24?
MORRI: Yeah. Changing it from 36 to 24, because it’s an effect, would really enlarge the size of the bin, so It started getting really sluggish.
HULLFISH: It’s cool that Avid was able to come up with a solution for you during production.
MORRI: It was great. Our team had a direct contact with Avid and they were just awesome.
HULLFISH: What’s your take on performance as you’re making the first pass on a scene? What is drawing your eye? What affects you?
MORRI: A couple of things. I mark the clip on different beats I like. I go through all the footage and I pick the moments that I like from each actor — each performance. I mark the clip, but I also pull it out and make a highlight reel. There are certain moments that I definitely want in the cut if I can make it work. I will keep those moments in mind and work the cut up to those moments, so I can definitely have those in the cut. I just try to make sure the actors look as good as they can look. They give me good material and I want to make sure that it pays off for them.
HULLFISH: So, from these selects reels that you’re constructing, do you bother to have an assistant go through and put them in script order? Or do you do that? Or do you not even care whether it’s in script order when you do your selects?
MORRI: I generally make a select timeline basically and I just pull out the pieces and I keep the pieces about where they would be in the scene. So when I go through take one, I put the pieces there and then when I go through take two, I’ll put the pieces with the pieces from take one. So I have those same moments in order.
Obviously, you have circle takes, but I like to go through everything because when the director’s on set and he’s looking at what’s being shot and he’s like, Oh yeah, I really like that take because there were these moments in it. That doesn’t mean that the non-circled take doesn’t have moments that are really good and that would be better than others. So even though this take may be circled for these reasons, there may be a take that has a moment or a line that’s really good and better than other takes.
HULLFISH: That happens to me all the time. The director can be influenced on set and when he’s off-set, like in your cutting room, and he’s looking at those same takes he can have totally different choices when he’s in a calm of the editing room.
MORRI: After I go through the footage and I have my scene I really start refining when I start filling it out with the sound effects and music and stuff like that, even though I’m not cutting for the sound effects and music. I’m going over the cut in such detail that that’s really where I fine-tune it and change it and then I start looking at it and choosing other performances or takes based on seeing them in the context of the cut.
On the horror movies, in the scares, there’s a lot of ways to play a scare, so I will try different versions of that quite often. And in action films or drama, different emphasis on different words will make the scene play differently. As I was going through the dailies I really liked a moment, but when I put the scene together I can see that that moment, in the context of the scene, isn’t really as strong in context of the scene as I thought it would be, so then I can go through and change things. I definitely play around with it.
HULLFISH: What do you mean by the multiple ways to play a scare? Are you talking about whether the scare is played on a reaction where the cut point is?
MORRI: Yeah. Mostly, the pacing leading up to the scare. Where the scare plays. How the person’s reacting. The looks that they’re giving beforehand. The anticipation building up to it. A lot of it depends on what you have to work with.
HULLFISH: Do you find — when you’re jumping from genre to genre — that it takes you a little bit to get back into the current genre you’re working in?
MORRI: It’s all about the mood, whether you’re doing an action scene or the scare it’s just getting the story across and getting the mood across.
HULLFISH: Do you find that those various genres exercise totally different muscles in you? Or do you always feel like “hey I’m a film editor?”
MORRI: I definitely feel like I’m just a film editor, no matter what the genre is. In a horror film, you have all the elements: you have drama, you have comedy, you have action, and you have the scares. Regardless of the movie you’re working on, story is always the main catalyst.
HULLFISH: With Aquaman, what were some of the tweaks in post that helped the story that were different from the script?
MORRI: Obviously trimming and tightening to get rid of moments that just weren’t playing or maybe lost the momentum. Deleting side stories or trimming them down, but keeping track of what needs to be told. When you start tightening and trimming things down you have to keep in mind the first time viewer. By the time an editor is cutting, you’ve probably read multiple versions of the script which may have different story elements that are no longer there, or you’ve cut elements out in the process of editing, and those deleted elements could have lead up to a character saying something or referencing something or it could have revealed why a character’s doing something. And if those story elements aren’t there anymore, people will get lost. So, as you start trimming down, you have to always keep in mind the story as it exists NOW, without that information that missing information.
HULLFISH: Do you have any tricks for maintaining that objectivity?
MORRI: You have to really keep in mind what you’re cutting out and what you’re losing and how that affects the rest of the film.
HULLFISH: Is that one of those things that you rely on your assistants as another set of eyes?
MORRI: Yeah. I like the people in the office to be a part of the editing process. I like running scenes by the various people in the office if I’m allowed to show scenes to them. I’m always open to the input of other people.
HULLFISH: When you’re looking for an assistant or when you’re interviewing assistants are you looking for someone you feel will give you that honest feedback, or are you more focused on technical skills or meticulousness, or work ethic or social skills?
MORRI: Yeah, I would say all that goes into it. Obviously, technical abilities play a big role. One of the main things is: I just like positive people. I want people that are happy and have a good attitude and aren’t going to bring negativity into the edit room, because we’re working a lot of hours — we’re spending a lot of time together and I just want a nice, calm, happy work environment.
HULLFISH: 100 percent. So you want that positivity, but you’re also looking for honesty and that means, possibly, a negative reaction to a cut.
MORRI: I always tell them, just be honest. You’re not going to hurt my feelings. Say your honest opinion because it’s only going to help us in the long run.
HULLFISH: How many preview screenings did you have on Aquaman?
MORRI: Actually when we screened the director’s cut we had a 100 person blind recruited screening. Those people were seeing it while the studio was seeing it for the first time. It was rough, but the story played for people. They liked it.
HULLFISH: At that point were you still just using your own mix from the Avid?
MORRI: We had a mix. Our sound house had been on since we got back to. L.A. So I had been handing over scenes to them as I went, so they could flesh them out a little better. I normally don’t have that, and it was helpful.
HULLFISH: So was that the typical DGA 10 weeks to that director’s cut and where were you length-wise on that cut?
MORRI: It was pretty close to the 10 weeks. I think we went past by a week or two because of the postvis. The cut was ready. I don’t recall how long it was. It was longer than our final version. We didn’t have main “on ends” or endcrawl at that point, but we were probably still a little over that time. Maybe two and a half hours.
HULLFISH: Because so much of it was under water, did it change your sense of pacing at all?
MORRI: Well that was the concept at the beginning. But we decided that they live underwater. These people spend their whole life underwater. If you go underwater and you see a dolphin it’s not moving slower.
HULLFISH: (laughs) True enough.
MORRI: I think if you started playing everything slower underwater, it would just get frustrating at some point. So, ultimately, we had the actors move at normal speed, but when bombs would explode and the rocks would explode and fall down. All that stuff moves at a slower underwater feel. But the people, because they’re used to living underwater, and they’re used to moving underwater, moved at normal speed. So it gave you the feel of underwater but it allowed you to have the momentum of normal action.
HULLFISH: You were coming up with temp score for a completely new franchise. Were you listening to nautical temp or superhero temp or sci-fi or what? And the music for this film will end up as temp for the next Aquaman movie, probably.
MORRI: James had the idea to temp with Jean-Michel Jarre. He liked that idea a lot of the synth score for coming into Atlantis, and that really followed through the whole way. As far as the other moments, I used stuff from Batman v Superman, Mad Max, Iron Man, and Avengers. I had some music from just dramas for the emotional parts. We had music editors on. They were helpful. Very helpful.
This film was the first one where I really had some themes for characters. Normally I just get the emotion of the scene. On this one, I started creating some themes and moments and it played really well.
HULLFISH: I love it. All right. Well, it was great talking to you. Thank you so much. Especially doing this when you weren’t feeling well.
MORRI: It’s all good. Hey, I saw that post that Wagner put out of your 10 Commandments for editors. Very funny.
HULLFISH: I did those t-shirts for my crew and the director and some of the producers on the last film that I cut.
MORRI: Although I will say that every sequence I start is an untitled sequence, and I don’t I don’t name it until I’m through a pass of the scene and I feel like I’ve accomplished something then I name it.
HULLFISH: Wow. OK. Well, you’ll have to take my ten commandments and change the last one.
MORRI: It’s always named at the end though. I agree with that. What’s on your list is perfect.
HULLFISH: Most people have to change out the Dear Frankie temp music reference. It was wonderful talking to you. Thanks a lot for your time.
MORRI: Thank you. Bye-bye.
The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.