Marvel Studios delivered its latest super-hero to the big screen with the help of editors Sabrina Plisco, ace and Wyatt Smith, ace. Plisco has edited effects-heavy films like “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” “Charlotte’s Web,” and “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.” Smith has similar credits with “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” “Thor: The Dark World,” and “300: Rise of an Empire.” Together they tackled the psychedelic magic of “Doctor Strange.”
HULLFISH: My first question is why were there multiple editors on this film? I’ve done several co-edited films myself, but I’ve seen confusion and misinformation about the need for multiple editors on a few forums and in social media.
SMITH: For starters it’s a very large-scale film with a lot of moving parts. We basically began shooting on November 6, 2015 and the movie comes out on November 4, 2016. From a logistical standpoint, it’s better to be able to split up and share the work because of the sheer volume of it. Also, it’s more than just your standard straight cuts dramatic film. There are a lot of visual effects. But creatively, two editors is a fantastic way to work—I’ve been fortunate to do it several times—because you start a language between the two editors where you’re sharing and commenting on each others scenes and coming up with alternates and giving notes and thinking of it in different ways well ahead of when that conversation starts with the director. Everything is much further evolved.
HULLFISH: Sure, absolutely. I agree. I love co-editing. Sabrina, could you tell me how you guys collaborated? How did you decided on what scenes to edit or who was doing what?
PLISCO: It really just depended on where we were each and every day. As material came in it depended on if the scene was shooting over multiple days or weeks perhaps—whoever jumped into that scene would keep on going with it—but we just split up the material as it came in depending on our workload. The other thing that was going on, which is another reason why it’s advantageous to have multiple editors, is there is a lot extra work besides the dailies. The show was heavily pre-vized (pre-visualized) which Wyatt jumped in a month before production to start wrapping his head around that. Working with the pre-viz team and editing those sequences became a full time job all the way through production because that was a tool that was used to analyze the methodology of how to prepare and shoot the movie. That was a huge and important extra layer of work. All in all, we tried to share the workload. But my favorite times were when we both were caught up (had all the scenes cut that production had shot) so we could both cut the same scene and compare to build a version we liked best combining our efforts. It just depended on the day and where it fell, but there was no real proprietary section of the movie. We both watched each other’s stuff every day and chatted about it. It was very much a team effort.
HULLFISH: That’s awesome. I’ve heard it done different ways. When I interviewed Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey about Stars Wars, they split it up in acts. One person did Act 1 & 3 and the other person did all of Act 2. Many people work the way you guys do. How did the director deal with you guys? At the same time? Did he just sit in individually with the scenes you were working on?
SMITH: Certainly during post we kind of moved more into one room for many hours of the day so we would all work together, talking all at once regardless of who had cut the scenes, and then we would split back out when it was time to actually do notes or revise stuff or rework things. But as much as possible it was always acting and presenting as a single voice.
HULLFISH: I love that attitude and methodology. Making the scenes the best they can be with collaboration. Sabrina any thoughts on that?
PLISCO: Exactly the way it worked in post. During production, our director was just so consumed with the production because it was a very difficult shoot, very complicated. And the way we worked is we didn’t turn over a lot of things to the visual effects vendors too early in the process which means we didn’t have to lock sequences too early in our schedule giving us more time to experiment with the cut. This gave Wyatt and I time to explore the material so we had a pretty solid cut as we finished production. But we did make ourselves available to the production because there were multiple units filming so communicating the needs/wants of material was crucial. Besides the fun factor of being near set, It was definitely a necessity that we were close by.
SMITH: Yeah, I mean we lived a lot with second unit of course, but we tried to keep Scott free of our input while he was working. However, we did post most of the early cuts of the scenes so that at his leisure, he was able to get a feel for where we were going. And by showing Scott early versions of the as scripted scenes, while he couldn’t see a complete run of the film, he gave us the license to work past the assembly, to start to shape story, cut down dialogue and rearrange and explore more ideas. It was a much better use of our limited time than waiting to present a traditional as scripted assembly after shooting wrapped.
HULLFISH: Wow that’s very unusual. That’s awesome. Tell me just because you were talking about the production schedule—when did that end?
SMITH: It’s a little complicated. Principal photography kind of ended the first week of March, but there was a large sequence that stayed with second unit, so I came back to L.A. to work with Scott and start the director’s cut while Sabrina stayed to complete the sequence that ran for a few more weeks in London, so she didn’t rejoin us in L.A. until April. And then we actually had a few pickup shoots that were scheduled over the summer so the definitive end of when shooting was is a little vague because it was all in the name of getting the edit and director’s cut going as fast as possible because we knew we would always be up against the wall.
PLISCO: The basic timeline for this show was it was a five month shoot with a two week holiday hiatus and then a six months post, so it was really very fast for such a huge movie so that was a challenge in and of itself.
SMITH: I mean Visual FX finally wrapped up last week (early October 2016) in terms of the last shot to get into the finishing machine at Marvel to get all these versions and formats delivered. They’re just up ’till every hour making sure that every format is going to look its best and sound its best, but they take it right to the wire.
HULLFISH: Working with Marvel, do they have a specific workflow or methodology that they like to do with post that you guys had to go along with or were you more the masters of your own domain?
PLISCO: I wouldn’t say that we were the masters of our domain. They’re an interesting group. When the Studio System first started up this is probably what it was more like because it is a very small group that runs Marvel, but they oversee everything and they work as a team and they bring the director into that small team. They try to speak as one voice with us in the room as they’re with us throughout post. Everybody kind of hashes out their ideas and thoughts and then we try things, but they work together in order to get it done. They don’t have as many boundaries as other studios do. If they feel like they can make it better, they throw everything at it to make it better, so it’s kind of an interesting place to work and you just have to learn to not be precious about anything because they want to try things all the time.
SMITH: Yeah, and it has that added wrinkle as the head of the studio is the producer of the film, but you never really think of Kevin Feige as “Oh right, you’re running this huge multi-billion dollar studio,” you think of him as a creative producer in the room with you all day, and it’s incredibly welcome, I mean his ideas – it’s just unbelievable how well his film brain works – and Scott obviously, his approach to the subject, it all really came together really well.
HULLFISH: I heard you say that you can’t be precious. Talk to me about the need for an editor to really understand their place and position in the process and not being too precious about their work.
SMITH: The funny thing about “Strange” is it’s a film about a guy with a ridiculous ego and “it’s not about you” is a great lesson of the film. It’s not the easiest thing in the world for an editor. It’s not the easiest when you’re finding your language with each other and the team. There are a million ways to look at the film and the advantage of the way that we are able to cut and work these days (with NLEs), there is no reason that everybody shouldn’t see all their ideas, and it’s amazing how once it’s on the screen, it sticks and you know that it’s the right thing.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about versioning sequences and versioning versions of the movie and just the organization of making sure that you haven’t lost anything and you know where you are as far as which version you should be working on.
PLISCO: That’s probably one of the hardest things because there are so many different versions and everybody’s workflow is different. Wyatt and I work very differently actually. I would keep my own version in my files and Wyatt would keep his and it was really just the versions that were agreed upon that were published in the reel. It gets a little complicated, but you do have to figure out a system of how to file and find everything because you are trying so many things. Technically you also have to manage the project size too so as not to create such a large project that the machines can’t function because it does get quite massive with all the teams of people working on the movie too with all the AVIDs connected to the one Unity.
HULLFISH: Trust me: I understand the complexity completely. You dealt with that in naming methodologies? Or how did you make sure that since there’s two editors that you didn’t go off separately from each other?
SMITH: We had a great team. Our assistant editors were fantastic and the effects editors, too. It was a really, really strong group. Very early on we all talked about personal little bugaboos and naming and things like that, so everybody had to adjust a little to make one thing that kind of worked for all of us in terms of naming conventions and versions. It really never became a problem, especially because we would only publish when we were all standing there together and agreed and said yes, put it in the reel.
HULLFISH: Interesting. You’ve both done a lot of visual effects movies. Was that part of the reason why you were selected for this job?
PLISCO: I have to think for me, yes.
SMITH: It’s definitely a part of it. I also grew up obsessed with comic books so I made that very clear from my very first meeting with Marvel long before I ever worked with them just trying to get in the door of playing the geek card as well. Much the same way, it was very important in the early conversation knowing that we would have actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton in the film that I thought it was really important that we have a female voice in the cutting room.
HULLFISH: I want to continue with this VFX thing just for a little bit because of the VFX handoffs that are necessary. What are some of the things that you really have to consider when you’re doing a VFX-heavy movie?
PLISCO: I think one of the things that you learn very quickly once you jump into this world is there is a lot to manage—whether you have pre-viz or storyboards or simple animatics, there us usually one of those tool used to begin the process on these movies. Then the footage comes in and sometimes you have to lock to the strategy of what the planning was and sometimes you don’t. But then it immediately turns around into the world of post-viz. This is the first movie I’ve ever had a post-viz team provided. In the past, on my other heavy visual effects movies, I’ve just had my own editorial team do the temp comping or we just go straight to the vendor with the material, but we had a huge post-viz team on this one. A lot of our pre-viz artists turned into our post-viz artists and they’d start comping and animating and creating shots for us. It was the most amazing tool I’ve ever experienced because at the time when we had the first assembly of the movie we had a pretty complete path of the movie with some representation of what the visuals could be.
HULLFISH: With handoffs is there anything that you would suggest? I’m interested in the technical aspects of either how the timeline was organized so that you could do handoffs properly or how you guys managed your assistant editors to do that.
SMITH: We were pretty good about maintaining our layers to make sure that we always had our photographed elements and the original previs elements as well as early versions of postviz which then become early versions of animatics from the vendors on specific layers. We made sure in our timeline, when you looked at the stack for a certain shot, not to clear out the layers or the coding systems which are the titles that the VFX editors were adding. Inevitably while we’re working with the producers and the director – which obviously is paramount that we’re able to work efficiently with them – we would sometimes wipe out these layers, but we were doing our best to try to keep a clear path to what all the materials were for any given shot. It required a lot of timeline management. VFX editors probably had the most work to do – constantly checking and making sure the counts were up to date, making sure anytime we eliminated something, were we really taking it out or was it just something we were experimenting with?
PLISCO: Another interesting thing about this particular project is that we would put a scene together and immediately we would turn it over to our postviz team because they were with us right in the editorial space. They could start building and constructing the shot so we could see that postviz pretty quickly so that the VFX vendors had a really nice roadmap of where to begin their work. It was a really helpful, fascinating tool because we got to experiment with different magic and what certain things look like and be able to at least figure out what didn’t work before it ever went to a vendor.
SMITH: Right, because if you couldn’t make it work with postviz, you can’t think that the vendor is suddenly going to be able to just make it awesome. If you can’t make it work in kind of a rough videogame fashion, it’s never going to work in a high res fashion.
HULLFISH: For those who might not have seen a really complex VFX timeline, can you describe what some of those layers were, like you said you’ve got your photographed layers, maybe a background plate, foreground green screen, and maybe there’s previz in, there’s various versions of postviz, and you’ve got to be carrying all that stuff with you as you work with a director. Tell me a little about how you’re revising those scenes that are so complex and vertically edited.
PLISCO: We rarely carry the previz except if it had valid information then we would carry that along and put a picture in picture over our live action plate so at least when it went to post-viz they would know what they were referencing to put magic or other elements in a shot. Then as we would get post-viz shots delivered back to editorial, we cut that on top of all the base plate layers. The same would apply for vendor vfx shots delivered back to editorial too—they would get cut in above the post-viz layer. On the upper layers of our timeline, we would have a whole numbering system for VFX too which we carried. Then 3D, when it got to that, ended up going way above that, so we have a pretty strict timeline layout of what was to go where. For instance, I think it was V19 – just as a random number that we chose – but that was our VFX ID layer and nothing ever went in there except our VFX ID which almost every shot in the movie wound up with some ID since we ended up doing a 3D conversion as well. So it was a pretty structured timeline layout. We tried to clean it up as went and archived sequences with all those multiple layers—or at least the VFX editors had archives of all the layers it would take to make a shot. The goal was to try and keep the timeline as “clean” as possible so it wouldn’t bog down the system and we could at least play through a cut of the movie.
SMITH: It’s great that with Avid you can label the tracks in the timeline. There were up to 20 video tracks, we had 24 audio tracks, some of which were 5.1 tracks and stereo tracks and it was all labeled in the timeline what everything was so you knew where to put elements so that they were organized.
HULLFISH: I love that. Let’s get off this technical stuff and talk a little bit about the artistic part of editing. What were some of the discussions you had about each scene. Did you get an objective for the scene or did you get much time with the director to talk about scenes or did you just attack them?
SMITH: We have the script so you attack first. You go straight into it. You always want your first impression or whatever your creative energy is that you’re bringing to the project you just kind of want to go with it and then see if works for everybody. And we certainly watched Scott’s films and we understood a style and tone that he was bringing to Marvel which was one of the things that’s great about the film that it has its humor and it is fun and it is action-y but it does have a darker and more mystical tone to it than the other Marvel films so we always knew that going in, otherwise, first instincts—there’s no reasons to corrupt them.
PLISCO: I think that was part of the experiment of this particular one is we started off thinking at least attacking it one way and because it’s centered around Doctor Strange, one of the biggest discussions is, well, we know he’s an arrogant jerk at the beginning of the movie, but how big of an arrogant jerk do you make him before you lose your audience? So that became one of our biggest testing areas. We just tried different levels of, for lack of a better word, “asshole-ness” to see how he played and how audiences perceived him. In a funny way that became one of our biggest challenges to figure that out. What was acceptable for people to stay and enjoy the rest of the ride?
SMITH: And since it’s an origin story (the story of how a comic-book character became who he or she is), one of the things that’s great about it is that 95% of the film is strictly really just holding Strange’s perspective, so everything needs to dial back to him: how he’s feeling, where his frustrations are, what he’s learning. Anything that fell outside of that’s we were really quick to police each other on: if we were getting too intricate in other elements of the story. It was Strange’s story first and foremost.
HULLFISH: And how did that perspective of Doctor Strange inform your approach to a scene? Let’s just take whatever scene you can think of—you sit down, you look at the dailies, and you know that that’s the perspective you’re trying to do—what’s your approach to a scene?
SMITH: It’s always story, performance, and pace. What is he meant to learn in this scene? What do the people around him know that he doesn’t know and how do we feed that to an audience without saying it directly and giving it a weight? It’s very important to see the reactions and the dynamics of everything he says and does and how people play off of him. It’s just really keeping him that central focus. Once we understand that story then what’s the best performance to do it and how quickly can we do it?
PLISCO: The beauty of somebody like Benedict Cumberbatch is that he gives you ranges. He gives you choices and he gives you a performance to dial. Because you don’t always know the first go-around, you think it’s one thing and then six months later you realize “Oh we have to dial this up or down.” He is such an amazing actor. Everybody in that movie was amazing. We had a fabulous cast. But he gave us choices and that helped us dial in that level of performance as well.
HULLFISH: Talk to me a little bit about that need to dial in a temperature of performance. Is that something that needed to be done in-context once you were seeing the whole film together?
HULLFISH: What kind of changes can you remember happening with the sense of temperature of a performance that you found you edited it one way because you loved the way it worked in a scene, but later on found that in the overall story you needed to change some performances. Can you think of an example?
SMITH: With Tilda Swinton’s entrance into the film, the way the scene had originally been cut. That was a scene that both Sabrina and I had each cut our own versions and then we kind of talked and worked it through into the version we ultimately presented to Scott and the studio as the base to work from, and it lived for a really long time and the performances were incredibly strong and powerful and she was very aloof, but ultimately in the course of the film you realized that there needed to be more life to her. In the context of the film it started to get a little too serious and a little too heavy and ultimately for where her story goes, it also diminished your enjoyment and fascination of her. So we completely redialed the scene yet we didn’t really change the shape of the scene—the angles, the build, the blocking of the scene we didn’t really adjust at all—but we just went into those individuals moments of her and found more quirk and more spark and a little more attack in her. And that was really done almost as a single pass, and then the scene never changed again.
PLISCO: It just brought a sparkle and smile to the scene through her point of view because just the subtle changes that were made just brought it to life in a very smart way.
SMITH: What was missing from our original build was it put a contrast to Strange, because Strange is pretty much at his breaking point when he meets her and it really helped put him really in his deepest despair by her having that fun spark. Again, it came back to Strange always, but that particular scene we needed to change the shades of the performances the actors gave us to get it right.
HULLFISH: What a fantastic example! That’s very informative. Wyatt, earlier you mentioned that Sabrina had to do something with the structure of things that moved forward and back. Structure is fascinating to me. What were the difficulties or complexities with structure and exactly what did Sabrina have to do with that structure?
PLISCO: Your comment about structure is common to any movie, so that part of the post process was more a normal challenge for us. It’s always finding that pace and structure that keeps the ball rolling story-wise and momentum-wise through Strange’s point-of-view. Wyatt referred to a particular scene toward the end of the movie that was all about movement and time—a pivotal story point in our movie. It is a very unusual sequence where there were multiple layers of things active within the frame and took over a month to shoot.
SMITH: And considerably longer than that to cut it. For a film that’s so VFX intensive, the thing that was interesting that we learned in this is that the visuals themselves are so complicated and so brain-scrambling, which was really what the original Doctor Strange comic success was. It was very psychedelic and just weird, and we embraced that as much as we could, in fact, I think we embraced it wholly, but ultimately, it’s an awful lot for someone to take in a single viewing, so a lot of our structuring and cutting down of the film was attacking action sequences, because they had to come down to something where you could kind of catch your breath and process and try to understand what the hell just happened before we moved you on in the story.
HULLFISH: Any big structural changes between script and final movie? Or even just examples of structural changes between script and final movie that you could talk about?
PLISCO: I think because the story was so complicated a lot of it was well how much do we explain for it to make sense as we journeyed through our test audiences. We’d add more explanation and learn that the audience really doesn’t want the explanation. They just want to enjoy it, and understand just enough to get through it. So that was a learning curve for all of us to get through, but we did add and reshoot some things to help focus and bring the audience through the journey so that you just understood just enough to get what you needed to get.
SMITH: Strange is not your average superhero. He’s not super strong. It’s all intellectual; it’s all learned. So it’s already against what your expectation would be in terms of trying to fill in the blanks of a film. And then you get to magic and mystical things. We love Harry Potter. We all talked about Harry Potter, Harry Potter is amazing, but Harry Potter is a very traditional display of magic and how magic works and rules of magic and our film is very much not that as well so you can’t fill in that blank either. So in some cases where it required too much explanation it’s better to just move everybody through it as quickly as possible because the explanation just isn’t any fun.
HULLFISH: Sabrina and Wyatt, thank you so much for really giving us such an articulate explanation of your process and the hurdles and how you handled them. That was great.
PLISCO: Our pleasure.
SMITH: Great speaking with you.