Today’s Art of the Cut is about a great indie film called Critical Thinking which is available on a limited theatrical basis and on Amazon Prime. It stars -and was directed by – John Leguizamo and tells the true story of a group of Black and Latino high school students that bring home the national US Chess Championship to their high school in Miami.
The film was edited by Jamie Kirkpatrick who has been editing in New York’s indie film scene for the last 15 years. The projects he’s worked on have been incredibly diverse, from A Muppet Christmas to being first assistant on the South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut feature, and editing Dave Chapelle’s Block Party plus numerous other features, shorts, and TV series.
This interview is available as a podcast.
HULLFISH: I was just watching one of the clips from the movie Critical Thinking, which you edited, and I was thinking about how difficult it must be to show the thinking process. It’s all about playing chess. How do you make playing chess interesting? And how do you show someone thinking?
KIRKPATRICK: I knew right from the beginning that was going to be one of the challenges. But John Leguizamo, the director, told me in our very first conversation, “I want this to be a sports movie. I want you to think of it that way.” Obviously watching two people have a chess match from start to finish is not inherently interesting and certainly not cinematically. It doesn’t lend itself to the visual language of cinema.
Obviously, there have been films in the past that have dealt with that and have done so with varying degrees of success. So the challenge was twofold — at least as an editor —
The other thing John told me was that it was of critical importance for him to not fake the chess. He said, I’ve watched all the other chess movies and I don’t suggest you do. When you watch them with a chess master it’s like watching Chicago Med with an E.R. doctor.
HULLFISH: I’m a musician and it drives me crazy to watch people fake playing music.
Just before we get on the phone I was cutting a military gunbattle and I don’t know enough about whether the guys are handling the guns properly.
KIRKPATRICK: As you’re pointing out, in any genre that we tend to work in as editors we can’t be expected to be experts in whatever subject matter is in the movie we’re cutting. Ultimately that’s really the director’s job to handle that stuff on set.
For the editors of the John Wick movies, it’s not important for the editor to know if that’s how someone holds the gun because clearly that’s been dealt with already. The director and Keanu Reeves and the stunt guys have made sure that that stuff looks good no matter how you cut it.
The challenge I faced was while the actors were all made to memorize the various games that they had to play in the movie just like they did their lines — John insisted on that — but the challenge I sometimes face was how do I shorten a scene — which, of course, we always have to do. You invariably have to make trims. How do I make trims and not completely cock up the gameplay? Because so much of what those scenes is about is seeing the moves.
There’s this very famous historical game that has become known as the “Opera game” that this famous player named Paul Morphy played during an opera in a box at the theater. But it’s a really long game. It’s like 60 or 70 moves. And there’s a scene in the film where John’s character is teaching this game to the class.
Initially, John was insistent not to cut it down. He wanted it to the full runtime of the scene. There are some built-in aspects of the scene that makes it entertaining. It’s not like John is just standing there reciting the moves. He’s putting on wigs and doing accents. As this teacher, he’s finding inspired ways to get the kids excited about it.
But it doesn’t change the fact that the scene was really long, so we got to a certain point where we had to cut the scene down a little bit. We just can’t be in this classroom this long. John didn’t want to cut all the gameplay out and he knew that that was what was going to go. He knew — just as an actor, who’d seen scenes he’d acted in be edited — that the “business” was going to get cut.
That was one of the several times where I had to say, “Give me a few days. Go away. Let me just try to wrestle with this to be true to what you’re asking and have the gameplay stay real.”
I had been provided — or John had been provided — with the written records of those games. As you notice in the movie — as they’re playing the tournament chess — the players are each writing down their moves after they make them. There’s a very specific notation that chess players make so that they can go back and see how games were won or lost.
So thankfully the real guys portrayed in the movie were consultants on this movie. So when I had to do that I said let me have the opera game notation and he gave me these like two pages of just like written the lines.
I don’t really play chess. That’s the most common question I’ve been asked during this process. So I knew it’s supposed to be a rook being moved here, but this is where I want to cut. I know that this is where — from a story standpoint — that I want to cut. I want to excise the next six seconds.
So not only did I have to try to find a cut that made sense editorially speaking, but I also had to try to find a way where the next move that we do see on camera after I’ve made that cut actually makes sense in the gameplay.
There were a couple of times where we understood it didn’t. The cut worked and everyone agreed that this is the version of the scene we need, but there is this hole in the game-play that does not make sense because we’ve cut five or six moves out of the game.
You can actually see that the Queen used to be at the bottom of the board and now it’s on the top of the board. For your listeners who haven’t seen the movie, the board I’m referring to is John’s character, Mr. Martinez, has an easel with magnetic chess pieces on a board.
We ran into this problem where we could see that the Queen that he’s talking about through this whole thing goes from the bottom of the board and suddenly it’s up at the top of the board. To fix that, It just so happened that in one of the takes John put the piece in the wrong place. He forgot where it was supposed to go. He put it in the wrong place. And one of the actors, not realizing that they were still in the middle of the take shouts out the mistake, and then John moved it to the right place, and then they just restarted the action.
I remembered we had that. So that’s one of those happy accidents that we always talk about. I thought I can use that. So I was able to use that actual moment — which is a flub in the film. Several people have mentioned that they love how John directed it because it feels so real. That’s absolutely true, but in that one particular moment, it was just this “find” by sifting through the footage to find some way to fix this continuity error.
In most of my work, I’m not a big continuity hound. I will always go for performance over a cigarette getting a little longer or a little shorter or whatever. But in this case, you can’t because the second that happens, the real chess players start calling out, “That’s bullshit!” The second that happens to our kind of movie, it’s done. We’ve lost our most important audience. So I take a lot of pride in the fact that those fanatic chess players have seen the film and they say that they’re aware of the jumps in game-play, but there’s never a place where they thought it didn’t make sense.
Our first cut was not insanely long, but it was long because of that. The gameplay scenes were just much longer than the movie could handle. In every instance of a tournament that challenge presented itself. “This is great, but now how do we cut it down? How do we get out of this scene a little quicker?”.
HULLFISH: Totally makes sense. I’ve worked several times with a director who is also an actor in the movie.
KIRKPATRICK: The very first feature I ever cut was a film by Eddie Burns who writes, directs, and acts in all his own movies. The very first time I sat down with him, he knew I was a relatively inexperienced editor. I had never cut a feature on my own at that point. He told me, “I have total confidence in you. But I have to know that you’re gonna keep a really critical eye on everything — but especially my performance. I can’t have you feeling like you can’t tell me or that you aren’t willing to cut around something if there is a problem.”
It was such an amazing early lesson for me of the thing that I now hold really sacrosanct — which is that our most important job as editors is to be objective. To not get caught up in all those other things that a director can get caught up in because they’ve been living with the project for years and years sometimes, especially if they wrote it. ESPECIALLY if they acted in it.
We have to be the eyes of the audience and sometimes that requires us to say — to the person who is on screen in front of us — “I’m not really buying this take.” So because Eddie did that with me so many years ago it made me understand that that is an important part of my job and regardless of whether or not it can be uncomfortable sometimes, I need to do it. I kind of owe it to the film.
Incredibly, coincidentally, John Leguizamo was also in that movie! It was a film called The Groomsman. The first day I sat with John I asked him if he knew that we’d worked together on The Groomsmen. He said, “Are you serious?” That’s just New York independent film. It’s a crazy small world when you really boil it down. Everybody has worked with everybody.
Getting back to your question, in our first couple of days together, John said — about his own performance — that he was not precious. If anything, he said he was probably overly harsh about his own acting. So not only did he need me to tell him if there was something that was not working, but also if he was overthinking it. He just meant that “No one is harder on my performance than me”, so there were times I had to tell him that we had a great take. So we cleared that hurdle early and I never thought about it again.
The guy has been in something like 80 or 90 movies. His filmography is ridiculous. Many of those movies have been with some of the great living filmmakers of our time. He’s talked in interviews about the fact that when he got on the set for the first time, he realized that he just had this wealth of knowledge from all these years of working with these incredible directors.
I was amazed at how confident the direction was. I have worked with a lot of first-time filmmakers and there’s a tendency to overshoot. They’re maybe not as able to edit in their head as they go. John did shoot a lot of footage, but he was shooting in long uninterrupted takes because he comes from a theater background.
For example, with that Opera Game scene, I was referring to earlier, I probably had six takes of that scene from start to finish. As written it’s almost a 15-minute scene. Each take had two cameras — always hand-held. The first three takes had very prescribed coverage, like one wide from this side, one wide from this side. Take two was mediums from this side, one from this side. Take three was on John for his entire performance, another was a roving of the class and the last two would be a different angle on John for his entire thing, and certain pickups on certain kids in the class that we knew we were gonna have to see.
Some of those scenes I just had a mountain of footage. Because the camera was rolling a lot between takes I could hear the way John was directing. He always knew why he wanted something. He would say, something like, “We need to be on this character for this because of what happened to him before, this speech the teacher is making should really land with him and I want to see what he’s doing.”
He understood the motivations so well from an actor’s standpoint that he knew who was important to see in a scene versus who wasn’t. His instincts as an actor are so finely honed that he brought a specificity to his directing that I haven’t often encountered.
HULLFISH: I’ve talked to other editors that have basically said the same thing about listening to the space between takes or between restarts, where the director is giving notes on set to either the actors or maybe the DP. That helps you with editing right?
KIRKPATRICK: Very much so. That happened occasionally.
Our DP was Zach Zamboni. He used to shoot for Anthony Bourdain for over a decade. They’re kind of the gold standard of non-fiction doc verite style reportage. So Zach and his team had years of training of how to just be dropped into a location and how to effectively cover it. Zach and our second camera operator just had this sixth sense of where they should be in a scene.
Most of our film is hand-held. The vast majority is handheld camera. Nothing makes me happier than amazing camera work. But nothing makes me crazier than bad camera work. The thing that really drives me absolutely insane is when I can tell that the operator is not listening to what’s happening in the scene.
HULLFISH: One hundred percent.
KIRKPATRICK: They’ll pull off or reframe or rack at the worst possible second. But with Zach, I never had that. They just had this sixth sense of right where they should be and often they would anticipate something by half a second, which gives it a really naturalistic feel. That was
it was truly a blessing on this film that while I had a lot of footage, it was virtually all great. I had this wealth of riches to choose from.
HULLFISH: Is there a trick to cutting hand-held because of the motion of the cameras?
KIRKPATRICK: The thing that really helped me was that John wanted the point-of-view to be from a kid in the class. That was really helpful because it kind of gave me permission to embrace what we might call dirty camerawork. I don’t mean bad. There were times where — especially in early takes — the camera team was kind of getting their….
HULLFISH: Sea legs.
KIRKPATRICK: Exactly right. Of course, there were occasionally some little rack focuses or mini zooms, but at the beginning of the assembly, I’m going to not shy away from that stuff. I’m not going to look for the cleanest camera stuff, and once I started using it, on one of the first “action” scenes — the first tournament that they do at their own high school — once I watched it, I noticed, that it added a lot of energy, which I knew that was gonna be a challenge. How do we make this visually interesting?
I showed it to John. He had the exact same reaction: “Oh my God! I love this! Keep doing that. Try to find stuff that’s moving a lot.”
For this film, it wasn’t like we studied specific films as references but we did talk a lot about some of those late 60s, early 70s American film style — early Vilmos Zsigmond, very documentary-style camera.
HULLFISH: The Conversation — cut by Walter Murch.
KIRKPATRICK: 100 percent. One of the great, great examples of both that kind of camera work and also the way the editing exploited it.
Part of the simpatico that we had — John and I — on this film was that we both thought, “Oh! I love that shit in movies! Let’s do more of that.” Thankfully we both were into it and thankfully we had the footage that would really support it.
As the film went on the more we realized we could really embrace that. We had some test screenings along the way and I would ask very general questions because about whether the style was bothering anybody.
HULLFISH: We’ve both probably seen reviews of movies where the reviewer claimed they got seasick from the camera movement.
KIRKPATRICK: 100 percent. With the chess play in our movie, it tends to be very tight. These are very tight shots. We’re not shooting them where you see both players and the board and what they’re doing. A lot of times we’re cutting in really really tight to the board. John made it clear that we had to embrace — and in fact, really highlight — the differences in style that these players bring.
So the prep school, “square” opponents that they’re playing are taught to play in this very calm, thoughtful manner, whereas our guys — the heroes in the film — they’re basically playing street chess. The kind of thing you see in Washington Square Park. That’s how they’re taught because in their world — to some of them — it’s about aggression and domination so we really wanted to highlight the differences in those styles and the camera work just heightens that sense of aggression that sometimes they play with.
HULLFISH: You mentioned some very long takes. For example, six takes of a scene that goes for 15 minutes, that’s a lot of footage. Most people get that much footage but it’s in 40 shots instead of six. Is there a challenge to long takes? How are you wrapping your brain around the great moments in six 15-minute takes instead of thirty two-minute takes?
KIRKPATRICK: I’m glad you asked because it’s one of the things I always really enjoy listening to other editors talk about on your podcast. I’m always fascinated about if anyone has cracked the code to the best way to organize their footage — especially if there’s a lot of it.
What I’ve come up with — having listened to a lot of your shows, is that the answer is no. Everyone has completely different styles. My process is not that scientific. I always like to watch everything first.
KIRKPATRICK: Passively. Well semi-passively. I have a bin with the six takes as master clips. In this case — because we almost always had two cameras — I did have my assistant, Matt Buckley group everything. So I did have multi-cams.
In my assistant days, I worked on a number of very large multi-cam shows — like with like 15 cameras, so I’ve never been intimidated by multi-camera. I think because of those really early experiences I learned how to watch stuff in quad-split.
It sounds counterintuitive, like, you can’t really watch two things at once. But I’ve kind of learned how to do it. I couldn’t do six. But if it’s two, I’ve actually gotten really good at doing it.
So anytime I do have two cameras I like to throw it up as a quad-split — just the two monitors and I watch them together. I sit back a little bit on a larger monitor. What I do that’s not totally passive is: as I’m watching it through I have a locator key mapped and I just tap away anytime something catches my eye, or if I see something that’s cool or whatever, but I won’t stop.
The Avid obviously allows you to do that in real-time as it continues playing. In a 15-minute take, I might have 20 of those [markers], then I’ll go back through, and I’ll watch again, but this time not passively. Every time I hit one of those things — and I tend to see the same instances the second time.
My notes are super basic. I’ll just put “great on B” or “great react A.” Then, when I’m ready to actually start assembling, the most effective way I’ve found to work for myself is to lay a skeleton down. And because some of my earliest jobs were on animated things, like working on South Park — I just think of it almost like a radio edit.
I just need the scene to have its beginning, its middle, and its end. Of course, I’m picking takes, to some degree. I know this is my favorite take. I know this is the angle I want to be in. But it’s like a slop cut. Once I have that, then I can go back again and that’s when I actually start to really finesse.
Probably like anyone else, the longer I’ve been doing this the more I find that my slop cut changes less from say six or seven years ago — where my slop cut looked nothing like what the scene ended up being — now I’ve honed the skill enough that I’m generally where I thought I was going to be.
I do like doing subsequent passes. I know some editors really like to fine-cut as they go. I’ve tried that on a couple of movies. If it’s a very small film with very few takes I probably do that more.
The last few films I’ve done have had a lot of footage for various reasons but one was a horror-thriller that had a lot of coverage and a lot of action and it was impossible to keep track of all of it.
I’ve tried select reels. I’ve heard so many of your amazing guests who swear by selects reels — that that’s their way. I did do it a couple of times on this film but I feel that I get to know the takes better without them being select reels.
If I’m just looking at a bin that has six things in it, I start to remember — as I go through — take three is the one where all the gold is. Then, obviously, once we get to a director’s cut, if the director is asking for a certain thing, that’s when I’ll go back and really reopen those bins and reread all those locators and just make sure I haven’t missed something along the way.
HULLFISH: That’s one of those things I love about doing this podcast and talking to some of the editors is that people just do things differently and so many people have great results. Somebody doesn’t like selects reels and somebody else loves them.
KIRKPATRICK: I feel pretty strongly about the idea of mentorship. It’s becoming more and more difficult to do that because of our schedule or assistants not being paid to stay on through a whole film.
I was just talking to a younger person earlier today and I got the typical question of “What makes a great editor?” I saw that he had an electric guitar hanging up behind him so I asked him what makes a great guitar player?
Jimmy Page, Dave Grohl, Nancy Wilson all play rock and roll guitar. And none of them sound anything like the other. But they’re all super successful at what they do. They’re all masters of their craft but you would never mistake them for each other.
I could spend five years and I could probably learn the guitar solo to Stairway to Heaven but it is never going to sound like Jimmy Page. You can learn the skills and you can be taught the craft, but the art of it is kind of undefinable.
I don’t know what makes certain editors so good at what they do. I practice the same craft as them. I’m very self-confident but there are certain things I’ve seen where I just think, “There’s something happening there that that’s not how my brain works.”
HULLFISH: Were you sending John cuts during production that he was then watching during production?
KIRKPATRICK: Originally, another editor had been hired to cut this film but on the first or second day of production she had a family medical emergency and had to bail out. John didn’t want to interview new editors while he was shooting, so it came to me later — fully shot.
On top of that, I was told right away that John had other acting commitments and they’re all falling during this period that’s supposed to be the director’s cut. He said, “I have four weeks with you right now. Then I’m going to go away for many weeks, then I can come back for a couple of weeks, then I have to go away again for many weeks. I’m going to try to find some additional time in there.”
On one hand, sometimes I just prefer to be left alone to find the movie on my own, and then we can talk about it. I do prefer that the first assembly is kind of my cut. That’s not an ego thing, it’s because that’s the only way I get kind of a deep understanding of what’s there — if I have my own chance to try things and look at.
If I’m worried about what the director wants over my shoulder then I’m not really getting the full experience.
HULLFISH: And they’re not getting what they need out of you, which is a new perspective on their material.
KIRKPATRICK: Agreed. Yeah, I think so. But then the flip side of that coin is that I’m working with this high-profile director who at that time I didn’t know very well and it was a little nerve-wracking to think that, I am going to need to ask questions. Especially since the film is already shot. I definitely needed a sounding board to discover, “So what was your intent for this? Do you want it to be funny? Do you want it to be more serious?”
We just made it work and very quickly we fell into a really good groove. So those first four weeks were very intense. It essentially meant I needed to have a rough assembly done in four weeks.
HULLFISH: Those four weeks were while he was sitting there? And was he actually in the room with you for that?
KIRKPATRICK: Most of the time. I’ve never had an experience as I did working with John and I mean that in a positive way.
Around the second day, I was very uneasy about it. He seemed lovely but it was so unusual. I was so not used to having someone over my shoulder when I was literally just trying to figure out: “Does it start with a wide shot? Or do I start in a close-up?”.
I think on the second day I was turning around a lot and asking him stuff. I was kind of asking for permission. I would say, “I’m thinking maybe this scene doesn’t start in this beautiful wide shot. Maybe it’s more interesting if we just start on the chess piece and pull out.”
Finally, on the second day, he said, “Listen, man. I hired you because I trust you. You obviously know what you’re doing. You don’t need to worry about what I think. I’m just here because I can be here, and it’s the only time I can be here. If you want me out of the room just say so, no problem. I can maybe just pop in. Otherwise, I’m just gonna sit here. I got a million emails to answer. Just do whatever you want. You don’t have to defer to me. I understand that you probably have your own process and this probably ain’t it.”
That’s John. He’s not only amazing at reading people but he’s so giving and generous. Once he said that I could take a breath. There were definitely times — for the next couple of days — where I’d find myself peeking over my shoulder to see if he was watching. But he never was. He’d be on his phone or his laptop.
The other thing about John is that he’s one of the busiest living humans. He’s always got four different projects that are in various stages of development so sometimes he’d be writing a script.
Once I was able to relax into my own process of doing it and not be worrying about him, I actually found it really genuinely helpful to be able to be turn around and ask, “Hey, how tied are you to this?”
When he’s in the room I can just ask him what might seem like silly little questions, but things that help put me in the right direction. Then, once he left, I would send him a Vimeo link. He would come back with notes. You could tell he’s an actor because his notes were never, “I want to trim this shot a little shorter.” It wasn’t that sort of thing. It was more, “I love it but I feel like this one character is like a little too performative. I think that in later takes I really got this person to be more intentional.”
That was a real education for me. I understand what those words mean, but they weren’t part of my editing vocabulary. I don’t think in those terms necessarily. So it gave me a new lens through which to kind of see the performances. It did add a new perspective for me.
He doesn’t like it when people are being performative, so I should always be watching the takes with that in mind — just so I can head off having to do it again, or needing to recut something. Honestly, there wasn’t a lot of re-cutting.
He was beyond generous when he liked something. Because of his 30 year career working with so many people in so many different situations, he has figured out that people do their best work when they feel valued and heard and supported.
HULLFISH: And aren’t in fear of making a mistake.
KIRKPATRICK: Exactly right. Fear does nothing but shut the process down. A hundred percent. And so the opposite of that — selective praise along the way — can do wonders for the creative process because certainly, I don’t have any kind of lack of self-confidence in what I do, but when you hear the director giving you these accolades even in private, it just boosts your confidence to a point where I was way more open or willing to experiment.
The one thing that really surprised me about him is he truly has an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema. I think he said that that started when he worked with Pacino on Carlitos Way. He said that he just used to hang out in his trailer between takes, but at one point Pacino pulled him aside and said, “What are you doing, man? You’ve got one of the great living directors here. You should be on set every second!”
John does a great Pacino impression. He said, “This is school baby! Why are you in your trailer? This is where it’s all happening.” John said he really took it to heart and realized he had this rare opportunity to be learning from these really knowledgeable people.
So he started talking to directors and ask, “What should I watch?” They’d give him these film lists and now John has his own list that he’s made up over the years. If you want to know a lot about cinema. These are movies you should watch.
(Check out the full list in this other PVC article. Thanks to Jamie and John for this!)
HULLFISH: You mentioned intent. Talk to me about why intent is important. If you can turn around and the director is sitting there, what do you ask him about the intent of a scene? And how does that guide you?
KIRKPATRICK: Most directors are directing — at least when they’re on set — from a place of motivation. Why are these characters doing these things? Often that’s what directors have to try to explain to an actor.
So since John is coming at it from the other side of the camera he really did talk a lot about intent. It got me to look at things in a different way or through a slightly different lens.
For me, as an editor, I don’t know that it had a huge impact in my actual day-to-day work. The single most important tool that we bring is empathy.
HULLFISH: That’s been a big thing lately with the other editors on the podcast — the empathy of the editor.
KIRKPATRICK: That’s really nice to hear. I’ve always felt that way.
HULLFISH: Let me ask you about a specific scene and then maybe you can explain what the intent was and whether the intent meant anything to the editing. It’s a scene where a character is playing four other chess players at the same time “blind.” What do you think the intent of that scene was and how did that affect where you were when you went to a close-up, when you went to reaction shot when you went to him just thinking…
KIRKPATRICK: That was a super-fun scene to cut. Marcel is the name of the character — and the real person — who is doing that, what we call blind chess. This is based on a true story and in real life, Marcel was actually playing against eight people. There is footage of it and the footage looks almost exactly like what you see in the movie. They just lifted it from real life off of a crappy old VHS camera.
The intent of that scene was to point out that while all of these guys were incredibly talented chess players, they all had a different style which was often borne out of their own circumstances. So for Cedric chess is about strategy and about defeating your opponent, and to be aggressive.
I could go down the list of each guy and what their motivation is. With Marcel, it’s this term John told me they use: it’s “deep book.” It’s never about him being aggressive. It’s never about his style of play. He is just able to think so much further ahead than anyone else he plays, so in most cases, the game is already won by the first or second move.
That scene is really just there to illustrate that. This wasn’t just a cinematic illustration of a concept. We had to actually downplay the movie moment because otherwise, it’s too many people in the frame.
HULLFISH: Just playing one person without looking at the board seems impossible.
You mentioned the styles of the players. That was something I noticed because their styles played into the editing. Some players were contemplative and others were aggressive and fast and that had to affect the rhythm and pace of the editing. So it meant choosing when you cut to a reaction at a different time depending on who the people were and what their style of play was.
KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, exactly right. Which was also just really fun. I’m still so in love with the craft of this that anytime I get to do something a little outside of what I have done before I get very excited by it.
Exactly as you’re saying it’s a chance to not only craft performance for a fairly large cast of characters plus to do what I always try to do — which is making sure that there’s a consistency and an arc to each of those characters and their performance. But also to take this skill that each of them has and find a way to portray it visually — and in our case edit it — in a way where they’re all a little different. And.
The style of coverage was similar for each of them. How is this not gonna get boring? By the time I get to the third guy you get it. They’re winning. The challenge was to make sure that each player had their own style of play that was reflected in the cutting. From the first tournament, I understood the editing vocabulary for each of those guys.
I’m going to slow down a little bit on Gil and Sedrick. For Ito and Rodelay it’s much more aggressive. It’s more about attitude and intimidation for them. So I don’t need to be on every move. It’s not about what a slick move they did, it’s actually about how hard they slam the piece down.
In no film that I had cut before did I ever have that opportunity to explore that. A big part of that came from the music. I also realized very quickly — that these scenes do not play without music.
I knew we had a composer and I thought there’s no way I’m giving this guy temp score when these like a sports montage (transcription error here). I want to know what that guy’s gonna bring to the table. John was gone at this point and I asked if he would mind if I invited our composer — Chris Hajian — in to see what I’m doing so that he can start getting some ideas.
Because I don’t want to lock picture and I’ve temped music, from most likely one of the other chess movies….
HULLFISH: I was going to ask you that because since you got told it was a sports movie I would’ve thought you would’ve gone to sports movie temp music.
KIRKPATRICK: I generally don’t like using temp music solely because I am also a very amateur, very frustrated musician. But I love music and I tend to love composers. They’re my people. Invariably what happens is you put all this temp music and at some level end up kind of chasing the temp. I just don’t think that’s fair to do to a composer.
HULLFISH: And they don’t think it’s fair for us to do it to them either.
KIRKPATRICK: Exactly right. Every composer I’ve ever met hates hearing our temp. They may not say it to the director but I know privately they just want it on a different channel so that they can turn it off. I’ve had composers tell me that they listen to it ONCE and then never again. And I understand why you need something that you can show people.
For the last bunch of years of my career I’ve been shouting from the rooftops, “Can we please bring the composer in earlier?” As an industry we’ve gotten into this habit — at least on films of a certain size — where the composer comes in after picture lock which makes absolutely no sense to me.
This film proved my point. I was able to bring Chris in sometimes days after I had assembled one of these sequences. We’d watch it and say something like, “What we’re trying to show is how aggressive this one player is — that he just intimidates his opponents into making mistakes.”
HULLFISH: Again we’re back to intent.
KIRKPATRICK: Exactly right. Chris didn’t have the benefit of having seen the rest of the footage like I had, so he didn’t know the arc. He called me two days later and said he had something already and asked if he could bring it by. Then I had to call John and make sure he was cool with me working with Chris without John there. He said, “If you’ve got something good, send it to me.”
Chris came in with a MIDI score for the first tournament. I just said, “That’s it, man! You found the sound of this.” That gave us a jumping-off point knowing we had three more of these in the movie, and they have to climb this tournament ladder until the big finale.
A great example of why it was so helpful to have him on during the process. He brought a cue for the third tournament, but we still had the finals to go and it was great but it was really big.
HULLFISH: So he either had to go totally epic for the fourth one or he had to pull the third one back a bit.
KIRKPATRICK: I told him, I think you’re leaving yourself no place to go. I love it. We’re not there yet. There were also times where he would come to me and say, No pressure, but is there any chance….
HULLFISH: I can have an extra three seconds?
KIRKPATRICK: Yes exactly.
HULLFISH: I’ve talked to multiple editors who have had this instance of being able to have a composer in during the editing process, and all of them said, “If you need an extra two seconds, or if I can trim something so something hits, I’ll see what I can do.”
KIRKPATRICK: That’s exactly what happens. “I have this amazing sting, but musically I can’t quite make it happen to picture.”
A lot of times I will show up at the mix — having been off the film for a number of weeks or sometimes even months — never hearing the score. Most of the time it’s great but invariably there are a couple of places where I think, “Whoa! That is not what I thought this scene was going to sound like.”
All the good composers try to find certain themes and it was really fun to watch how he was finding those themes for each kid. Even though it’s a unified score within a scene, each of those kids has their own kind of sound.
It kind of ruined me for future projects. From now on, I’ve got this show and experience in my back pocket as ammunition to push for this.
HULLFISH: Before I let you go I have to ask a non-Critical Thinking question, which is: I’m a big South Park fan and I cannot imagine what the workflow is. I worked on VeggieTales so I know how animation is supposed to work, and to me, there’s no way that South Park is cut like any other animation. Can you explain the process? How did that work?
KIRKPATRICK: Full disclosure: I never worked on the TV show. I worked on the movie. During the regular season, they’re turning those shows around in like six days, from concept to air — which is unthinkable.
The editors are there all the time. It’s just nonstop because things are changing.
On the film, it did follow a fairly standard feature animation workflow which — is almost backward from how a narrative feature film is made. You start with the audio. They bring the actors in and the actors record all of their lines multiple takes all different ways.
The very first thing you do for any given scene is to cut the audio of that scene. You’re trying to imagine how the scene plays out. It is a radio play. It needs to sound like the scene — with the timing and laugh lines and whatever else. That’s a huge part of the work. You’re working with performance.
HULLFISH: Truly comic timing.
KIRKPATRICK: Oh my God! 100 percent.
Then it goes to the storyboard artists who storyboard to the audio. The directors and the storyboard artists are essentially the cinematographers. They’re choosing and drawing, “This should be in a wide shot. This is an over-the-shoulder.
They give the editors those drawings and we cut them together and that’s when we start to build like an animatic. We’re essentially just bringing still JPEGs into the Avid and using dissolves or simple wipes or real basic stuff to slightly animate them.
We’ll show the zoom that they’ve indicated with an arrow on the paper but we’ll slap a resize and some keyframes on there.
This is where it gets interesting. Then the editors take on an even more important role because it’s usually at that point where the editors have the ability to ask the storyboard artists for elements or “coverage” that they didn’t get.
So you’ll do multiple iterations of that until the scene is basically locked. Then it goes to animation.
Keep in mind – that was 1998 and 1999. We were one of the first digital animated features to have ever been made I think. Rug Rats might have been the first.
I was on it for eleven months. I came on after it had started and left a bit before it was finished, but it didn’t go for even two years. Most animated films take closer to three years. It’s amazing what was accomplished.
An interesting side note about that film was that we were almost three-quarters of the way through our schedule — nearing being done — and Columbine happened — the Columbine shooting. The original climax of that movie was that the character of the Mole — who’s kind of like a child spy — and in the original ending he is riddled with bullets by these guards — to a ridiculous degree. It was super, super funny — right up until Columbine happened.
To make matters worse, Matt and Trey are from one town over from Columbine, so this hit really close to home. They called us all together as a crew and said, “This happens way too close to home for us and we don’t want to touch it and we don’t even want to comment on it. So we’re just letting you know, we’re changing the ending of the film.”
HULLFISH: It was a super interesting discussion. I really had a great time chatting with you.
I didn’t record the beginning of our conversation but you mentioned that when I was back on The Oprah Winfrey Show, you used to be on Avid Tech Support. You said you recognized my voice from when I used to call in when you started listening to the podcast.
KIRKPATRICK: That’s very true. A quick aside: you had Chris Patterson on a little while back with Zombieland Doubletap and he was also there at that same time.
Chris Patterson was one of the people that trained me at Avid. When I heard him on your show I thought, “Oh, that’s so funny that this is all coming full circle.”
HULLFISH: That’s great. I didn’t know that little bit of trivia. Thanks for sharing it.
KIRKPATRICK: Thanks so much. It’s been a real pleasure. Thank you. Take care.
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.