Post Production

ART OF THE CUT on editing “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

associate editor, Eyal Dimant on cutting with the Coen brothers

Eyal Dimant, associate editor on the Coen brothers’ Netflix film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs discusses editing alongside the Coens as they use Adobe Premiere to create the unique anthology of short stories about the Old West.

Dimant provides an insider’s view of the Coen’s distinctive and precise methodologies and creative style.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

HULLFISH: I watched the movie this morning actually and I just loved it. I was trying to figure out how you would organize in particular the vignette in the stagecoach because it’s essentially one super long scene.

DIMANT: In the script, it’s actually five scenes and that’s how we broke it up. From the opening shot looking out, until the Frenchman sticks his head out of the coach that’s scene one. All the backgrounds and exteriors are visual effects and CG. So that was just a blue screen for a long time. The Frenchman yelling to the coachman to stop was scene two. Scene three is the rest of the ride. Scene four is them walking up to the hotel and scene five is the Frenchman watching the coach ride away from the hotel. Two very long scenes and three very, very short scenes.

This was the first film that Joel and Ethan had shot digitally. The part of that that I think they most appreciated — outside of having more daylight — was being able to shoot 16 minute takes that they would not have been able to shoot on film. They just rolled on the entire scene. And the light change from dusk to sunset our DP had all the lights on a timer and the lighting actually changed during the take and we matched it later with CG and in the DI.

HULLFISH: It was really subtle, but part-way through the scene, I realized that time was passing based on the lighting. Super cool.

DIMANT: It’s subtle and it happens over a long period of time. It was weird when I was initially scrubbing through a 13-minute clip on that scene I was trying to figure if my monitor was uncalibrated or what.

HULLFISH: I love it. Tell me about music. One of the vignettes had almost no music.

DIMANT: “Near Algadones” (with James Franco) had just a couple little guitar plucks – kind of spaghetti-western. They wanted that one pretty devoid of music. That one needed to be short. And go from one set piece to the next quickly without too many distractions. I think music would have opened it up too much.

Tim Blake Nelson is Buster Scruggs in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

HULLFISH: Music is also this giveaway to an audience, so often, that prepares the audience for something to happen. Especially in a scary movie….it puts the audience out in front of the action. For scary movies, sometimes you want that, but it can forecast a result. Coen’s have been cutting in Premiere since they left Final Cut Pro when it switched to FCPX, right? So you were cutting in Premiere?

DIMANT: Yes. When Joel and Ethan made the switch from film to NLE they went to FCP, and then when FCP seemed to not be getting much attention from Apple anymore, they switched over to Premiere Pro for Hail Caesar and kept going with Premiere for Buster.

I want to make sure that whenever I talk to anyone about it I want to make make it very, very clear: I was the associate editor, but Joel and Ethan are the editors. They make all of the creative decisions and all creative decisions go through them. I was a sounding board and technical help, but I just want to make sure that’s clear from the outset. As for me, I started out in Avid, but over the years I cut a lot in Final Cut and then a lot in Premiere, switching back and forth depending on the job.

HULLFISH: So being on a bunch of different editing platforms yourself, what are some things that you either miss about Premiere when you go to other NLEs or you miss about others when you go to a Premiere?

DIMANT: Joel and Ethan are very tactile editors back from the film days and enjoy the drag-and-drop aspect and the ability to pull clips onto the timeline. You can work that way in Avid too, but it’s not really built for that. It’s built to mark an in and out and insert or overwrite from there. Premiere is a lot more suitable for looking at your clips in the timeline and playing around with them, moving them without the SmartTools (in Avid).

Most of my career as an editor has been spent cutting spots, mostly short-form stuff. I just find that Premiere is just very nice at letting you play around on the timeline, especially if you are dealing with graphics and stills, and creatively experiment without too much managing of sources.

HULLFISH: I tend to move to Premiere on short form projects that have strange frame rates, aspect ratios or frame sizes. And, as you mentioned, working with media that’s not straight video or digital cinematography.

DIMANT: As we speak I’m actually finishing up branded spots for an agency on Premiere, and then next I’ll be on a feature cutting in Avid, I feel very fortunate to have had experience with all the NLEs and be NLE agnostic.

Ralph Ineson as “The Man in Black” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

HULLFISH: So Joel and Ethan are both hands on.

DIMANT: They’re both hands on. Joel and Ethan have their own cutting room. In their cutting room are me, Joel, Ethan, Catherine Farrell, our post-supervisor and Jeremy Newmark our VFX editor because this was by far, their most VFX-heavy film they wanted the VFX editor close by. At last count, it was roughly 700 VFX shots.

Then we had our 1st assistant Lucian Johnston and our apprentice editor Max Berger in another facility which was actually another nice benefit to using Premiere because with the way Premiere deals with media, it kind of lent itself to allow us to do that.

But the way the Coen’s work is that Ethan and Joel are each on their own system and I kind of sit in between both of them. Every day they would come in and watch a string-out of the dailies for the scenes we would cut that day, they would make notes in their codebook and then Ethan would sit on his system and pull selects. His Selects are meticulously marked with ins and outs for audio and video, and then move on the next shot and put them all in a bin in the order they are intended to be cut in.

Then, with a shared project, he lets us know that he is done and we open his bin for that scene and Joel would drag the shots to the timeline and get to editing. That’s the very basic summary of how they work. So, Joel is the one working in the timeline, trimming and sliding and pushing and as we put it together and see things that work or don’t work, Joel will turn to Ethan and ask him to give us alternates for some takes or if we’re going into deep restructuring, we would do that on Joel’s system as Ethan continues to pull the shots for the next scene. Every day you screen the scenes you’re working on, “rinse and repeat.”

HULLFISH: That is an interesting way to work. So shared storage?

DIMANT: Shared storage on the three systems in the cutting room, then an exact duplicate RAID, I believe they were on Pegasus R8 for the assistants. We named their RAID the same as our RAID, that way they would never have to relink. It would always just link up. We made sure that our folder structures would remain the same. They had remote access to our systems and they just copied the project and whatever we needed them to do on their end, they did. We happened to be eight blocks apart, but they could have been in Hawaii, for all intents and purposes. We had to be careful – once VFX, score, and SFX started coming in – to make sure that we maintained the exact same folder structures between us.

HULLFISH: You were using the Adobe collaboration tools?

DIMANT: We had been using Premiere Pro Shared Projects before it was released to the public. We got a “friends and family” version. And Adobe was there constantly to help us if we needed and to walk us through any issues or bugs in the early days. They were wonderful.

HULLFISH: So what were the assistants doing? A lot of what you were doing seems like what they would be doing. Were they working on turnover type things? I mean, I do the same as you — a lot of times I’m taking on some assistant editing roles on smaller features I’m the editor on.

Liam Neeson is Impresario in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

DIMANT: They were doing all the turnovers. For the most part, my day was sitting between Joel and Ethan and not taking my eyes off the screen. If we were working on a scene and I could anticipate that we would need sound effects or anything like that I would communicate to our assistants to pull bins of gunshots, of horse clops, streams or water SFX. They did a lot of sound work, they made the scene boards and dealt with the communication with all the other departments. They were invaluable to the process

HULLFISH: You mentioned scene board cards. Is that something they like to do? Did you have a big wall of scenes up?

DIMANT: Yep. We did. Katie Mcquerrey who had this job before me for many, many years gave me some great advice and she mentioned that a scene board would be more useful for me then for Joel and Ethan. As they are so familiar with the material, any tool that I could have to help me keep up would be useful and being able to turn around and look and see the structure sitting right there was great.

HULLFISH: On the film I’m cutting, we started doing some major restructuring, mostly because the film is running long, and it was great to have that board to just quickly move things around and see the relationships between the scenes.

DIMANT: Yes, absolutely. On the film I’m cutting now, we just finished the dailies and we’re starting the director’s cut on next week. The first task I gave my assistants was to make a scene board because I think it’s so helpful to sit with the director and be able to look at the movie as a whole as opposed to the timeline that’s fairly meaningless to the director. Just to see the whole movie laid out and be able to get the big picture. It just makes it more mentally manageable.

HULLFISH: Absolutely. Everybody has Netflix nowadays, so hopefully, even a greater percentage of readers will have been able to watch this movie than some of my other interviews. I really enjoyed it and recommend it. It was definitely not what I was expecting.

DIMANT: I think that’s what a lot of people think. You start out and you think, “This is like a cartoon.” and then it just gets bleaker and darker….

HULLFISH: And more Coen-like.

DIMANT: Nobody is really prepared for where it goes.

HULLFISH: My question about this — and people will see what I mean when they watch it — is that you mentioned how effects-heavy this is for the Coens. Seven hundred shots is a lot of shots, but it does not look like an effects heavy movie.

DIMANT: No it doesn’t and that’s a good thing, I guess. The deer in the Tom Waits story was CG.

HULLFISH: Completely CG?

DIMANT: All the deer shots are completely CG.

HULLFISH: Wow.

DIMANT: The fish are CG. The butterflies are CG. The owl is real. In “The Gal got Rattled,” there are two CG horses. The horses in Mortal Remains, when the Frenchman’s looking out the window and when the Stagecoach is riding away from the hotel, those horses are CG, so, that’s a couple of dozens. Beyond the big VFX stuff, there were blood splatters and muzzle flashes , cleanups and sky replacement and night for day. In the Tom Waits one, the valley felt a little too open, so we added the sheer cliffs and mountains in the background to make it feel more enclosed and isolated.

Also, every shot of the armless, legless performer in “Meal Ticket” had to have his limbs touched up and in some cases removed. And there were two very difficult shots in that one where Liam is walking up the stairs with him and Harry is on his back. That was kind of a complicated shot that was shot on a Techno-Jib with Harry sitting on a hydraulic platform moving in the reverse direction that he would be moving, then they match-moved his head on to Liam walking up the stairs, That was definitely one of the more complicated shots.

 

Tom Waits as “Prospector” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

 

HULLFISH: Was there any restructuring? Or since they work all this out including the script, that’s limited?

DIMANT: They are super precise. They execute what they need. And there’s not much restructuring. There’s tightening. What most people would call an editor’s cut — the first pass — that pass was maybe six or seven minutes longer than the final cut.

HULLFISH: What are you doing on a day to day basis?

DIMANT: I sit between the two of them, and they are very open to good advice. Ethan works mostly on his own and Joel is the one who’s cutting, so he would edit something and turn to me and ask me how I felt about an edit and I would tell him my thoughts. They are very generous with explaining their methods and their thoughts behind certain edits and ideas.

So I would say my job is 50 percent sounding board and 50 percent technical assistance. If there was a need to do something beyond dropping things in the timeline or trimming or anything like that I stepped in. If we needed to do a split screen; if we needed to do some big shifting of the cut without throwing it out of sync, speed changes we each had a mouse and we would tag-team on things that he did not feel like doing.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk about music and score and what you might have temped with.

DIMANT: They do not temp with music at all. They cut with no score outside the songs in Buster and Mortal Remains. Once we get close to a locked cut, they do a spotting session with Carter Burwell who has done every one of their movies and they discuss where they feel cues should go. Then he goes off and he starts sending us cues and we start experimenting and refining until we’re where we need to be and then they go off and scored.

HULLFISH: When you find yourself on Premiere working with two guys who love to drag-and-drop, do you find that when you’re helping them out you’re editing as they do?

DIMANT: Yeah, actually, I do! After Buster ended, I was back on Avid and it took a little bit of time to get back into that thought process of “Oh yeah, I need to mark everything.” I did take on their methodology, but a lot of it was also because Joel was “driving” most of the time. I got that Razer Naga gaming mouse and I set it up with Keyboard Maestro and for any repetitive tasks that made me reach over to the keyboard, I just programmed my mouse and kept it on there.

HULLFISH: How were the reels broken up since these stories were so separate, but probably didn’t time out to typical reel lengths?

Tom Waits is Prospector in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

DIMANT: Since there was no film-out and we didn’t worry about reel lengths, we broke the reels down into stories. Each story was its own reel. Some were much longer and some were shorter. The “Gal Got Rattled” comes in around 35 minutes the “Near Algadones” is about 13 minutes, so each of those is a reel.

HULLFISH: What are some things that surprised you about the process, or that you learned from them?

DIMANT: Like most editors — I am always rushing to get everything done and sometimes don’t see the forest through the trees— Joel and Ethan are so good at what they do they don’t rush through it. I guess the most important lesson is to take a breath and if you focus and not stress yourself out and do it right the first time It will most likely come out a little better than if you stress out and rush rush rush.

HULLFISH: Do you know how they previsualize? ‘Cause it sounds like they have this thing in their heads so well. That’s just really interesting to me that the process seems so much more streamlined.

DIMANT: I think if you get 18 feature films under your belt you’re probably set. They are very smart filmmakers. They’re very ego-free. They pick great collaborators and I think it helps the process a lot. So it’s kind of a streamlined machine.

HULLFISH: Can you think of specific things that you learned other than kind of “Keep Calm and Carry On?”

DIMANT: I learned great stuff about eye-line and geography. They pay meticulous attention to the geography of a scene. In the two big battle scenes, in “Near Algadones” during the Comanche attack and the other one at the end of “The Gal Got Rattled” — they are always keeping the audience aware of where they are. That was definitely the greatest lesson and very educational experience.

HULLFISH: The previz on the book is very interesting.

DIMANT: For one, the illustrations that were part of making the book — Gregory Manchess – who’s a painter. They were looking for the right painter for two or three months. They wanted him in the style of N.C. Wyeth.

HULLFISH: That’s exactly what I thought of when I saw those paintings! Wyeth — all the Wyeths — are some of my favorite painters! I have a huge coffee table book of their work. N.C. especially.

Zoe Kazan as “Alice Longabaugh” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

DIMANT: For probably two or three months Greg was coming to the office every week or two with — first — pencil-sketches and then small illustrations and finally all of the illustrations that are in the book are about two foot by three-foot paintings. Once they settled on that, Dave King under Randall Balsmayer supervision put together the book and the bindings and the letterings because the book shows up so much in the movie. It shows up seven or eight times and it’s shot so close up, it really needed to look the way they wanted it. So, just making the book took several months.
Once the book was done we had one day for the shoot. It happened on a stage in Brooklyn with a motion control rig. They really wanted to get the moves and the timing of it — they wanted to make sure they got it exactly right. It had to be precise because the moves had to time to the score, and the titles had to land at the exact right moment, so we spent a lot of time doing previz in after effects to make sure it was all just right.

HULLFISH: Can you talk to me about management of the project and bins?

DIMANT: In Premiere, every story was a project.

HULLFISH: Oh, that’s interesting.

DIMANT: Just to keep project size down. On this film, we knew we would never need a shot from one story to go into another story — as you might do for a normal feature film broken into standard reels. So that helped us make that decision. And then within each story, there were scene bins for each scene and there was also a dailies bin for each production day.

Grainger Hines is Mr. Arthur in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

There were also string-outs for each scene for them to do their dailies screening, which we talked about earlier. We had a short description of every shot. And as we would get deeper into it some of the scenes Joel and Ethan would have me pull selects bins.

HULLFISH: With projects, that’s been my issue with Premiere in the past is I’ve tried to have everything for a film in a single project. When you work in Premiere do you try to keep project size down?

DIMANT: Absolutely. Especially now with Shared Projects, I would treat as the bin is the Project file. When we started on this project, Adobe hadn’t released this Master Project idea yet. But, when I do my next Premiere project, I would treat it like a Master Project and separate projects for reels as sub-projects.

HULLFISH: About the codebook: a codebook is often only a FileMaker database, but it sounds like you printed them out for them.

This is a screenshot from the codebook. The embedded link is a .pdf of a series of actual pages from the codebook from a scene in “Ballad”

DIMANT: We took the ALEs we got from dailies — from Technicolor and they’d go into Premiere, then we would add the shot description in Premiere and re-export ALE’s which then were imported into FMP, and those were printed and put together in binders.

HULLFISH: Did you pull stills into the codebook?

DIMANT: No. They are watching the sequences and they’re sitting there with the codebook and there’s burn-in for each shot and the shot name is in the codebook and that’s how they reference it.

HULLFISH: Thank you for your time. This was very interesting.

DIMANT: Thanks Steve!

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

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.

 


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Steve Hullfish has been producing and editing award-winning television since the mid-1980s. He has written six books, and edited four theatrical feature films (including two Number One New Movies in the US). He has lectured…

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