Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with Jeffrey Ford, ACE, of “Avengers: Endgame”

Jeffrey Ford, ACE and Matthew Schmidt have been collaborating in the cutting room since the first Avengers movie. Back then Matthew was an assistant but rose quickly to the editing chair and has been co-editing with Ford since Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Together they have worked on The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and now, Avengers, Endgame. 

Ford also edited Captain America: The First Avenger, Public Enemies, and One Hour Photo among others.

My previous interviews with Ford include his work on Avengers: Infinity War, and Captain America: Civil War.

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

HULLFISH
You’ve worked with the Russo brothers before. Tell me about working with two directors. How does that work?

FORD
We’ve done four movies now — Matt Schmidt and I — with the Russos: Winter Soldier, Civil War, Infinity War and Endgame. Working with the two of them is kind of a dream. It’s really fun. They’re great people to work with — great collaborators and they’re also terrific filmmakers, and our tastes sync up really well, so it makes it easy. It’s a really great shorthand and they are very gracious and they’re incredibly professional and just great people to be around; the kind of people you want to spend your days with. I have a lot of respect for them and what they did with these movies because they really elevated them — took them in a new direction that was bold and risky and it was terrific to go on that journey with them.

The brothers argue like anybody who’s collaborating. Sometimes they’ll get into a debate about which way to do something. Sometimes I’ll have an idea on the way forward — then they have a different idea. Sometimes three or four people each have a different idea. It’s a crazy conversation that goes on for two and a half years as we’re making this movie, so we’re used to it and we never take it personally. It never gets too crazy because we’re all trying to just make the best movie possible. I love working with them.

HULLFISH
How do they share responsibilities?

FORD
They work together as much as they can but sometimes, with a movie of this size, that’s impossible. For instance, we did a big reshoot last October to finish Endgame and that required three units to be going pretty much simultaneously for the entire month. So Joe would be on one unit. Anthony would be on another. And Dan Deleeuw who’s our brilliant visual effects supervisor and/or I would be on the third. Sometimes we had four going when we had MOCAP so I would go and work the MOCAP stage while they were doing main unit. And Dan was on second and Anthony was on a splinter unit so that we could get all the setups done in the time we needed to do them and dividing up like that was actually really helpful.

Joe and Anthony would shuttle between stages as they were needed to help set up the scene and we’d consult with them about their vision — what they wanted to do — and then we’d have to just start executing so that everybody could work parallel. The rest of the time they tried to work together because they consult with each other at the monitor as they’re directing the scene and that allows them to have a conversation and ask questions before we’ve finished getting the coverage. Sometimes I’m there with them too which is really fun and I get to be a third voice in that conversation. But for the most part, the two of them really like to work together as opposed to discretely.

HULLFISH
I love the idea that you were on some of those shoots. What’s the advantage of having an editor directing things?

FORD
It’s sort of like the way a second-unit director sometimes works, where you prepare it and you can execute if need be, but often what you’re doing is getting the set ready so that they can come by and bless it, add their ideas, maybe shoot a few things with the actor and then move on. It’s really about being another facilitator creatively. And it’s about speed. We wrote and carefully planned out all the reshoot material to gether with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely before we went to Atlanta in October — just the way we had written and planned out pretty much the entire two movies. In pre-production, we had all gone over the script with a fine-tooth comb and we all knew it really well. There was only a handful of us who really knew all the details — where we were going — all the spoilers. With a movie this secret, and a movie that’s being held this close to the vest, it’s important to have those collaborators who have clarity on it, because most of the crew doesn’t always know what they’re shooting in terms of how it fits in the greater context. I think I was helpful to them. I hope I was. I know I had a good time and we really enjoyed our time together. I got to spend some time working with Josh Brolin and Tom Holland and Mark Ruffalo — people I just am in total awe of anyway as actors and as filmmakers, so getting a chance to actually spend some time with them as they were doing their performance and actually crafting it was a real thrill for me.

HULLFISH
What were some of the security procedures that you guys had to go through to protect the film in post?

FORD
We were very careful to protect the spoilers on this movie as you might imagine. All of our computers are off-line. All of our screenings had security guards posted. All of our previews were done with Disney employees only so they were already under an NDA agreement where they could not legally speak about the movie. And Marvel security is second to none. There was an incredible effort made by the whole crew for both movies to be kept a secret as they were. Fans really got a huge surprise when they finally did get to see them. It was a gift from us to the fans to keep it spoiler free.

HULLFISH
Were you working on the studio lot the whole time? Were you on location sometimes?

FORD
We edited the movie in three locations. Most of the production took place in Atlanta, Georgia. Actually in a place called Fayetteville just outside Atlanta about 40 minutes outside of Atlanta at Pinewood Studios there and we shot there for most of 2017 and then a little bit into 2018. We took a brief sojourn for about a month to go to Edinburgh, Scotland where we shot the material set in Edinburgh for Infinity War and also the sequences that revolve around Thor’s story in Endgame in New Asgard. Our edit suite in Scotland was actually a hotel room on the Royal Mile that was heavily guarded 24 hours a day.

We finished shooting in Atlanta in early 2018 we moved back to the Disney lot in Burbank and that’s where we did all the post-production for the movie. Nothing left that lot. We did our color grade there. We did our mixing there. We did everything there with the exception of quality control checks at outside facilities and of course our premiere screening. Neither movie was EVER screened for the public until their respective premieres.

It was a grueling two-year push and the real superheroes of this whole thing are the crew. Our team has been together in one form or another for several years and many Marvels films and they are the best in the business. They are THE A-TEAM. My first, Robin Buday is the best first assistant editor on this planet or any other. Cassie Dixon was Matt’s first and she saved us so many times during the final push on Infinity War. Dave Cory did the same on Endgame getting us to the finish line with grace under pressure. Hector Padilla and Cory Gath were our clutch seconds— on set every day on two units with reference footage. Adam Cole was our tireless Post Production Coordinator. Tien Nguyen was his amazing assistant. Brian O’Grady and LeeAnn Patrick were our amazing PAs who work worked tirelessly to keep us going. Matt and I are forever in debt to this team.

HULLFISH
How did you and Matt break up the responsibilities of editing?

FORD
Matt is brilliant and so gifted with his story brain. He and I have a really fluid way of working together. We actually don’t like to designate who has what scenes. We actually passed them back and forth and a lot of it is based on what needs to get done at any given time and also whether or not we’re working with the directors or whether we’re working on planning a reshoot or whether or not we’re getting ready for a preview. Each of those conditions changes how we approach who gets what. But for the most part as the material comes in I’ll take day one, Matt will take day two, I’ll take day three and he’ll take day four. We’ll kind of alternate days assembling the material. I like to watch everything so once we each get a cut and we’re caught up, I like to do a pass on everything to unify the style. I like do a pass on everything if i can, but in some cases, it was impossible on these movies because of the volume of footage. But I feel I need to do passes on things because that’s how I understand the material. And a lot of times I will do a cut on a scene then pass it to Matt and say, “I don’t think I did a great job. Do you think you could beat it with something better or do you have a new perspective on it?” And then likewise he’ll give me scenes. We really do pass it back and forth. We always put it up against our first cuts to see if we did indeed beat it, because you can do a lot of exploration with digital editing. You can go off in different directions and try new things. It’s not always better than your first thought. Sometimes it’s worse and it’s okay to make it worse. It’s a way of testing it to see if you got to a really good cut right away. So a few of the cuts that are in the movie are very early cuts and some of the cuts took months and months and months to develop and refine. Some scenes have little surgical reshoots in the middle of them and some scenes are completely 100 percent reshot. Some scenes were shot three times.

There’s one scene in the movie that’s that plays as apparently one continuous shot. Actually it’s three or four stitched together, but for the most part, Endgame is a less editorially driven movie than any of the other films I’ve cut in Marvel. It’s much more of a mise en scène based style where the blocking of actors and camera does a lot of the visual storytelling. The cuts are there and they get aggressive during some of the fighting and the end battle sequence, but for the most part, Endgame is a much different style than Infinity War.

I also have to mention that we had some guest editors on this one to help us when we were buried with work finishing the first film: Tia Nolan, Peter S. Elliot and Craig Tanner sat in at various times and did amazing work on the picture. It takes a village!

HULLFISH
It’s also a movie that spends a lot of time with the characters. Obviously, the producers and writers know that the fans of these movies just like to see the characters interacting and being “human” instead of fighting and in action all the time. Structurally, how do you balance the action with the “down-time?” Or is it scripted that way?

FORD
The script was excellent and had a clean structure when it was completed but the evolution of the movie was dramatic because we were shooting Infinity War at the same time we were shooting Endgame and both movies were evolving on parallel tracks. So ideas would come up and things would get changed. We really didn’t have a completed version of the end of Endgame when we wrapped production on Infinity War and we had to begin getting that one ready for theaters in April of 2018. After Infinity War was released, we had to go back and fill out the final battle sequence, as well as a few other things, had to be finished. That shoot touched on a lot of areas of the movie. Because of the way the Russos work, when they have ideas about new writing or new ways to approach scenes, we often go back and we shoot them rather than try to fix them editorially.

We’ll do editorial fixes and ADR fixes as well, of course, but for the most part, they really like to get the cameras out, go back and really take another crack at it with the actors and customize the new stuff. I love that approach. It’s fearless. So there are a few things in the movie that we adjusted to make characters work better and to make character arcs clearer and to just improve the storytelling and there’s a number of those hits throughout the movie. I think probably the most significant work that we did in terms of just the plot — based on our audience response — was we needed to clarify for the audience which Nebula was which. There are two Nebulas who are fighting for real estate in our story. When you’re dealing with a character who has a doppelgänger, sometimes you want the audience NOT to know which one it is and other times you need the audience to be UTTERLY CLEAR about which one it is. So we spent a lot of time clarifying that part of the story — Nebula’s arc vis à vis Gamora and Thanos and so that story was something we expanded and added shading too from the original draft because it needed clarity and we discovered new things that make the movie richer and more thematically complex in relation to Thanos and Nebula’s relationship.

HULLFISH
In the script did it refer to Nebula One and Nebula Two?

FORD
We called them Good Nebula and Bad Nebula. That’s how we were referring to them because one of them is an antagonist and one of them a protagonist, and Karen Gillan did such a great job performing that character that there was really no doubt which one was which in terms of the tenor of the performance, but audiences a lot of times are overwhelmed by what’s going on emotionally with characters and plot, stories, and so forth and there are a few concepts that they need to be very clear on or else the rest of the story begins to not function. We needed them to be clear on who was who in that sequence, so we did a little bit of work to make that clearer. I really like the way it turned out and the subplot between the sisters works really well for me now.

HULLFISH
The reason why I asked the question was because a lot of times in the script if you see Nebula Good and Nebula Bad, it’s very obvious to the READER and you don’t realize until it’s performed that it doesn’t make much sense without the defined character names.

FORD
And that what we were running into. It was an important piece of storytelling to make clear.

HULLFISH
When you are editing dailies on something that has so much VFX, is it hard to even grasp an entire scene or are fleshing that out with pre-vis? What’s filling in those gaps when you when you’re cutting something with a lot of VFX?

FORD
Well, these movies are aggressively pre-visualized and storyboarded. We have visual information for pretty much everything in the movie except for straight dialogue scenes. Any type of action or visual effects dependent adventure in the movie has got some sort of visual plan ahead of time, whether it’s preproduction art or a storyboard sequence that’s been cut into an animatic or fully developed beautifully animated series of pre-vis shots. We have an incredible team: The Third Floor did our pre-vis (See my previous interview with the editors from The Third Floor here.) and was led by this maestro named Gerardo Ramirez who’s done five or six movies with me. I adore him. He’s just an amazing, amazing animator. Working closely with Dan Deleeuw, they came up with some of the greatest moments and shots in the movie. Gerardo and team would be designing those pieces of pre-vis based on the Dan and the Russos pitches as well as what was in the screenplay. I would note them and edit them together and then we would all collaborate on ways that we could improve it. Once we had a sequence in pretty good shape we’d show it, number it and then that’s pretty much what we’d shoot — especially for any heavy-lifting VFX stuff that involves CG characters and environments.

(I did an interview with the team at The Third Floor about a year ago, available with THIS LINK.)

Storyboards also provided a ton of really cool gags that are in the movie. Our storyboard artists always have these inventive and incredible ideas about what to do with the characters. So we would lean heavily on that for the action moments. As far as the narrative goes, as we were restructuring some of the movie during post — rewriting it and coming up with new ideas — as we got new ideas we’d type them in to the Avid as just text and dialogue, the same way you would do with a screenplay, so that when the movie was playing, if we wanted to have a new scene in the middle of the movie, we’d just write that scene and add it into the movie as a written scene and I’d lay it out almost in the same rhythm that it would be once it’s shot. Sometimes we would record temporary dialogue for it.
We always wanted to have a way to watch the entire movie from beginning to end with all the latest and greatest ideas in place, even if that new material that hadn’t yet been shot or pre-visualized.

HULLFISH
So you were basically just using the Avid Title Tool?

FORD
Yep— that’s exactly right. We would take the Title Tool — we would write the master scene description and then below it, in a slightly different color, there would be lines of dialogue and those would come on as if they were subtitles in a foreign movie. I’m a big fan of foreign films. I love subtitled movies. And if you’re watching a movie, you notice that the subtitles as they come on, they come on and off in the rhythm of the dialogue. So you can create a sense of how fast or slow that dialogue is being delivered by just putting them on screen that way.

If there’s a secret to cutting these movies — editing them when I don’t have any real finished visuals until the end because it takes months for some of those things to get finished or we’re altering them — well, what I do have is the SOUND. I have the dialogue I have the effects and I have the music (in temp form) and I can create a rhythmic storytelling plan from the dialogue whether it’s subtitled or whether it’s actually been recorded with the actor. Even a MOCAP performance (motion capture) has a rhythm that the actors laid down and I usually stick with that because that’s what gives us the most realistic rhythm and it creates this verisimilitude about the performance that you can’t get if you start chopping it up too much. Choosing where not to cut in this movie was as important as choosing where to cut. We want them to play as performances; not feel like they were cobbled together visually or sonically. So get the sound right and you can sometimes customize the visuals to that rhythm!

HULLFISH
On some of the MOCAP stuff — because it’s going be a while before you get the visuals — do you use the MOCAP footage itself?

FORD
We actually shot a lot of Hulk and a lot of of Thanos and basically all of the digital characters on set when we could, meaning we were on set with a MOCAP rig built into the sound stage, so that the real-world actors were acting and the MOCAP actors were acting — they were in the scene together — they were blocked together and we were capturing that MOCAP data as we were shooting. Every once in a while — and there’s a fair number of instances — we’d go back into a MOCAP stage and re-do the performance in order to refine it or get better data or change the blocking or change the whole scene if that was something we wanted to do. And in those cases then we would be working with the actors against pre-vis or against a previously edited scene where they had performed it, maybe for different facial expressions but generally the same blocking.

MOCAP performances were often captured as if they were scenes. They were almost never captured as reproductions of a performance. We would actually shoot the scene with the character in the MOCAP volume and have them adhere to the blocking and then we would insert that into the live action material. And once that MOCAP material was captured we would then give that data to The Third Floor and they would apply that movement to their pre-vis models and insert that pre-vis model into the plate. So we were always working with the movement and the rhythm of the actors in the MOCAP performance even before the vendors had put their beautiful, highly articulated, highly expressive models on top of that performance.

So even though we didn’t have the pre-vis puppet’s mouth moving or the eyes moving just right, their eye line and movement and their relationship to the other actors in the scene was all present during pre-vis. Actually, at that point it was post-vis.

HULLFISH
So the post-vis stuff from The Third Floor was giving you probably something that looked like a video game.

FORD
It’s like a very stripped down, undercooked version of the character. It is exactly like a rudimentary video game, but nowadays, video games look so good. It’s hard to say that it looked like a video game. You look at Sony’s Spider-Man PS4 game and it is mind-blowingly beautiful.

HULLFISH
You mentioned, as you were cutting scenes that you don’t have visuals for, how critical sound effects are in creating the rhythms and the pace. Can you talk to me a little bit about what role the picture editing team — you and your assistants and Matthew — had in sound effects?

FORD
Sound is as important to me as picture — if not more important — in these movies. Music and sound and dialogue are telling most of the story in my mind. The visuals are obviously important and they give you the sexy quality of some of these fights, but at the end of the day, so much of the story and emotion is being delivered by the soundtrack. Think of how powerful the music is in these films!

Matt and I did all the Russo’s Marvel films with the basically the same sound crew and mixers. We are like a family. Our lead sound editor is Shannon Mills. He works at Skywalker Sound. He’s a god and we owe him for delivering such a great track along with dialog and ADR editor Dan Laurie and our amazing mixers Tom Johnson and Juan Peralta.

Shannon did the work from early on in this picture which was a luxury we didn’t always have in the earlier films. So we brought him in early because he was already working on Infinity War so he was cutting sound as we were supplying early cuts to him — Matt and I were sending him stuff and he would give us custom stuff early on in separation so we then could manipulate it and adjust for changes. We would work together very closely to get the rhythm down and design the sound effects that were going to have narrative meaning.

As an example: there are these distinctive beeps that occur throughout the movie that needed to be consistent because they were the beeps that you would hear when a character tapped their wrist and used a certain technology. Once you get something like that in the track, it tends to stay, so it was great Shanon could make them bespoke early on. Shout outs to sound effect editors Josh Gold and Samson Neslund as well. They did amazing work. I think having them available to us early on was a huge, huge help and Shannon’s instincts are peerless — you send him a scene and give him a half-an-hour conversation about it, and what you get back is something so magical and amazing that it just elevates all it touches.

In addition Shannon would select incredible backgrounds for us and we would use those in 5.1. We’d have the score and the dialogue and most pf the sound effects in three track LCR (left-center-right) with a 5.1 background and some 5.1 music occasionally filling the theater, but for previews I don’t like to go too wide too early because the imaging can overtake what you’re trying to do with storytelling if you’re screening in smaller theaters. But Skywalker provided us with incredible pre-panned stuff that we could audition and play for directors; then use in the cut.

By the time the directors got to the finishing phase of the movie they had already heard a lot of Shannon’s work integrated into the film, so then it became a process of just making it great rather than trying to design stuff from the ground up. Because if you have temp sound effects that you can’t use in your track, by the time you get to the end, people have gotten used to them and they have an emotional component and just like temp music, you get stuck with it, and you’re like, “Boy, that doesn’t work anymore because the sound effect is gone.” We didn’t want that. We wanted to have the goods in there at the top and fortunately, we also were able to temp the movie with great work by Alan Silvestri, who was our composer. We stuck with Alan’s previous scores when we were temping so it sounded like him.

HULLFISH
I love the idea that you can get temp love with the sound effect.

FORD
It’s a huge problem. It’s rhythmic love! It creates a rhythm that you can’t always replicate with a new sound effect. Certain things just sound a certain way and some of this stuff needed to stay because we solved problems with sound effects and you don’t want to un-solve the problem.

HULLFISH
You started down the path of explaining the relationship with the composer and temp. Were you temping entirely within the Avengers or Marvel Universe? Or were you stepping outside? Was he always giving you material?

FORD
He gave us some material early on but Alan’s a busy guy and we had just finished one movie and we were editing another one that was constantly changing, so we drew heavily from the Avengers catalog for temp. We have an incredible music editor, this guy Steve Durkee— another guy working at the top of his game — and he’s great at putting music on movies. He knows everything about film music, and he has a great sense of how to make a movie come alive with the use of thematic cues. He and our other amazing music editors Anele Onyekwere and Nashia Wachsman drew from a lot of Alan’s work on the Avengers movie. Steve’s worked on all the Avengers films so he knows the previous material intimately. We also drew from other scores that Alan had done. We temped with a little bit of stuff from Contact. We took a little bit of stuff from Van Helsing — which is a really great score that Alan had done. It feels like the same universe ‘cause it’s Alan handwriting it. He sounds a certain way, in the same way, any great composer. You recognize certain elements of a John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith score. All those greats — and he’s definitely one of them. They all have a unique sound and if we were to temp it with other composers, when you get to the final score you’d feel like you’ve changed something that you didn’t intend to change. So for consistency sake on a movie that was trading so heavily on dramatic music, we wanted to stick with Alan.

HULLFISH
Geeky question. You brought up left-center-right and 5.1. How were you monitoring in the edit suite, both visually and aurally?

FORD
Well, one of the things about working at Marvel — where I consider myself the most spoiled editor of all time — is that I have access to this editing room at Disney that is the best editing room I’ve ever worked in and I don’t know that there’s a way to beat it.

Basically what it is, is a small sound design room and it has these speakers built into the upper part of the ceiling in a cove. And then there’s 101” plasma screen below it. So you’ve got an LCR array above the plasma in a really acoustically well-designed room and then surround speakers can hang from the ceiling and be powered through the ceiling from above and behind you. So I’m basically working in a little bit of a mini mixing stage and then my desk is in the back of the room and the directors sit in front of me so that I’m able to play the track and listen to it in the prime listening position of the audience in the center of the theater. This allows me to have 5.1 audio distributed around the room. It also allows me to know how clear that dialogue is coming out of the center when it’s playing against a lot of really loud exciting superhero music, and the curve of the room is tuned by the Disney engineers so that it matches the theaters where we previewed almost exactly and it is a very similar room to the mixing stage where we finished the movie. So if I take my tracks to that mixing stage and I put them up, they sound pretty good in terms of their relationship and the mixers can reference my tracks in that room. I think that level of consistency was really valuable and made all our labor go father.

That edit room was a huge secret weapon for me and I’m going to be hard pressed to replicate it anywhere else. It had great acoustics, incredible equipment and the Disney digital services team over there is second to none and just did such an incredible job with this movie. They just know their jobs. They’re the best of people to work with.

HULLFISH
Do you know what Avid resolution you were working in? One of the 2K or 4K compressed resolutions or just a 1080 res?

FORD
We were in DNxHD 115 for everything and it was beautiful. It looked like the final version. You really couldn’t see compression for the most part until you put it up against you know the uncompressed file at the end of the line. It’s really a stunning compression. It looks beautiful.

We shot the digital equivalent of over 5 million feet of film on these two movies — so we never would have been able to use any higher resolutions.

One of the only problems with my room was that I put up scene cards on the walls describing scenes of the movie with a keyframe from each scene. But we had to create these black drapes that would be dropped down when guests would come into the edit room because every scene and every card was a spoiler! We had to find a way to allow meetings in our room where they couldn’t actually see what happens in the movie. The edit room walls were a spoiler!

HULLFISH
I love cards on a wall for story structure discussions. How much did that help you structurally to refer to those things? What do you find the value in that is?

FORD
Well, it’s really helpful because you can see the movie all at once, which is something that is a great benefit because it reminds you that everything’s connected.

I find that they’re not as helpful for the first and third acts of the movie. I usually know the progression and the continuity of those sections pretty well early on. It’s always the middle where they seem to be the most helpful because those second acts — and especially in a movie like this — it’s structured into three hours and it is basically three movies laid end to end. There’s the beginning of the film through the recruitment, then there’s the big heist mission in the middle and then there’s the resolution at the end where things go in an unexpected direction.

That middle hour was what we used those cards for because narratively you’re dealing with three parallel storylines that are occurring in these different places and times, so you need to be able to get a sense of, Are we leaning too heavily on this storyline? Should we play this one all the way through?

I think in the script and in our earlier cuts we’d intercut a lot more between the storylines. One of the things we found made the movie play faster was to actually do less intercutting and finish out stories. Let the stories play from beginning, middle and end because each of those episodes that the Avengers go through in that middle act has their own beginning, middle and end story. It’s an episodic movie, but once we leaned into that it started to play a lot better because that’s exactly what it wanted to be. It’s a series of these adventures that lead up to a big final conflict, and you needed to play them out.

When we started intercutting them, your brain starts to try to make a thematic relationship between the stories that we didn’t need or intend. That was something we discovered staring at the wall, looking at the cards, talking about different versions and trying them and watching them.

HULLFISH
That last sentence you just said, that is where I find those cards are so valuable — when you’re trying to make those determinations of, “Hey do we do less intercutting? Or what happens if we take this scene out? Well, if you take that scene out then all these scenes don’t make sense.”

Do you physically move the cards around on the wall before you think about editing them in the timeline?

FORD
In this movie, one of the things we did it as a technique was — we had three separate storylines going on in the middle of the movie and then within those three separate storylines, and one of those had two storylines itself in the middle. So we made different color-codes for each storyline and then we laid out the scenes color-coded with whose story it was. If you saw a long run of one color, you could see that we’re staying in that story for a while. And if you saw a lot of colors jumping around, you could tell that we were intercutting a lot.

We played with those patterns and we started looking at what it would feel like — just looking at the cards — to be in that story that long. It was interesting because that’s what led us to the idea of staying in each storyline longer because we realized that being pulled to those different colors meant you’re being pulled out of those different emotional tones and it was like, “This is making the audience feel like things are stalling because they haven’t had a chance to build up an emotional head of steam. For them that this story has a meaningful resolution because we cut away when they were just getting settled into it.

So that’s sort of how those cards helped us. It’s a great technique. It was something that I read about the great editor Walter Murch using years ago. I believe I read about him using it on Cold Mountain. I’ve used it since I read about it and it’s been one of those things that you grab from your heroes. It’s become a really important thing on the Marvel movies to have it because when people walk in the room a lot of times you’re having a conversation and the wall helps determine your priorities. What do you want to cut? What do you want to solve first? And if you can look at the whole movie on the wall, you can see where you want to go today and pick our battles. So I think it’s a useful technique.

HULLFISH
I do too. And I love the idea of color coding. We did something similar on the last movie that I cut. But my guess is that you did not do what I did to print my cards. I sent them to Walgreens.

FORD
(laughs) No. We didn’t do that. We have a whole system now because we found that other departments want the cards as well. Like visual effects uses them and Kevin (head of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige) will take them and use them as well because everybody’s working on this movie all the time. We’re all reading the cards! And so we all share these techniques to help make the movie better.

I loved working on this film because the team was so fluid and everybody really handed stuff off. Like I was talking about Matt and me trading scenes? We’d all talk about things. We’d trade notes. We’d come up with ideas and send ideas to the directors. We’d send group texts with all these ideas while we were shooting. It was crazy. I mean we were all over the place in terms of everybody throwing in. And it made the movie a lot better. It was a great team effort. At the end of the day, it’s best if you can’t remember who or where the ideas came from. It’s the universe speaking through all of us maybe!

HULLFISH
When you’re working with your VFX editor what kind of conversations do you have to have with a person? What are that person’s responsibilities? How is that stuff getting into a timeline?

FORD
We work together very closely and I had a great team of people. Emily Denker was our lead visual effects editor and she did an incredible job. Understood everything about the movie at all times. She was one of the MVPs. Her team consisted of Tom Barrett, Steve Bobertz, Hannah Long and Francisco Ramirez.

But basically we have a process where the material gets turned over — we have a meeting where we look at the material we’re going to turn over to the vendors — the directors agree on the ranges and what we’re about to ask for in terms of scale of work. By this point, we have detailed pre-vis constructed from the elements. Once turned over, the VFX editors break down the sequence and the original camera data is scanned and sent to the vendors along with detailed notes and instructions about how to proceed. They track all the process of creating those shots. Weeks or months later, when the shots start to come back in rough, work-in-progress composite form, they cut them into the timeline in a higher layer than what I monitor. Then, when I next open that reel, I take a look at what they’ve cut in and I assess whether or not it’s something that should live on the top monitored layer or should I bury it until we get a better version. Eventually, we make the shot final, or we run out of time and it finals itself.

We’re on a shared Avid ISIS storage system. So the VFX editors have access to the reels but they can only cut it into a layer that isn’t a viewing layer until I pull the shots down into the sequence. And in a lot of cases, I end up recutting the visual effects when it comes in — changing the cut points. When shots come in, I consider them new shots, and so I have to rethink how they should be cut in instead of just dropping them in. They had to be re-edited when they arrived because visual information inside the visual effects shots changes your consideration of where the cut should be; sometimes how long the shots should be; all these things are affected by your decision when you see the shot.

HULLFISH
Absolutely.

FORD
For example, we had an instance of a battle scene that is cut very aggressively and when we had more simple pre-vis material, but when visual effects shots get too complex and the shot only lasts a few frames sometimes the cut no longer functions. There’s a level of complexity visually in a shot that means you need to take a whole new approach. So it’s very important to post-vis the shots; define how complex the shot needs to be, and make sure we don’t put too much visual information in some of these shots.

Endgame has a sequence where so much is happening that you could be overloaded and there’s stuff in the movie that I thought would take people a while to find, but the Marvel fans are really good! They found stuff that I thought was hidden and they have called it out online already.

HULLFISH
Is it different cutting these movies because you know that the level of fan interaction is going be so much crazier than a typical movie?

FORD
We are also fans, so we approach the process of making the movie as a member of the audience, and “What would I want to see?” That’s really how we’ve handled it and I think it’s worked.

We all went to a theater in Westwood here near UCLA the first time it was screened in L.A. for a paying audience. We sat in there in the back and just listened to them and it was so fun because they were so in sync with all the stuff that we had been in sync with. It was so cool that they were expressing their emotions as an audience almost in perfect sync with what we were trying to express our emotions as filmmakers, So when you have that connection it feels very special. It exceeded our wildest dreams of how active and vocal they were.

HULLFISH
There are these moments for fans where I’m sure you knew as the editor that the fans are going to love this moment and they’re just gonna want to sit here for a while to drink it in and celebrate it.

FORD
Even the premiere wasn’t the same energy as that audience that we saw it with on opening night. Different audiences have different responses, but that one was off the hook!

HULLFISH
You mentioned Kevin and the studio and I think people understand how much this franchise means to Marvel and Disney. Is getting notes a crazy process? You’re getting notes from people that really understand story and really want to make the movie better. Talk to me about getting notes from the studio and from Kevin and the various producers.

FORD
At Marvel, the line between studio and filmmaker is blurred and in a way that is good, I think. And you couldn’t do that just anywhere. It’s the chemistry that makes it possible. Joe and Anthony and Kevin and Lou D’Esposito and Victoria Alonso — we are all in the room together editing. Not the whole time but a fair amount of time, we jump in together and certainly Kevin is there the most. We work together and we try stuff together as a group and have a really good time and be eat really bad food and we joke and we and sometimes people lose themselves on their phones and other times they pitch out great ideas. It’s a crazy process of everybody contributing and it’s amazing how little ego is involved. Kevin can have an idea and I can shoot it down. And he’ll say, “Well, just try it” and then I’ll try it and he’ll be right. The debate and the conversation is what makes this studio special.

We always try everything because you just don’t know. Somebody could put something out and you try it and all of a sudden: “Oh my God!” Something you didn’t think was going to work, works like gangbusters or you try it and it doesn’t work but now you’ve PROVEN it doesn’t work and that’s a good thing to know because when the internet explodes after the movie comes out everybody’s going to be throwing his theories out and you can say, “You know what? We thought of that. We tried it and it did not work.”

There are a thousand things in this movie where we made slight adjustments that seemed minimal but in fact, they had a huge seismic effect on the community and the audience-at-large when they were talking about the film and experiencing it. People see the little stuff and really key on it, so there are no LITTLE decisions and there’s often no RIGHT decision. A lot of it is: it’s your gut… what do you want to do. Joe and Anthony have great perspective on what to do with these characters. And sure Kevin certainly has ideas because he’s basically built the MCU from the ground up. We had a great team; an incredible room on Endgame. It was hard not to have a great idea in that room.

HULLFISH
I love the idea that you mentioned which was that even if you do the note that is bad, it’s still valuable to do the note to show that it doesn’t work and for the potential that even the bad idea will springboard to another solution. It’s never wasted effort creatively.

FORD
Not at all. I can’t even tell you how many times a bad note or a note that didn’t make it into the movie still led to a thing that solved the movie. You’re chipping away at something and every time you chip a piece of it off it reveals something new to you and I think the more you try different things — radical things, crazy music, not so crazy music… The beauty of digital editing is you can try all this stuff really quickly usually and just see if it has an effect on you. And if it’s pleasing and all of a sudden it unlocks some sort of thematic or narrative event in the back of your brain when you watch the movie it’s like, “let’s run towards that” because that’s awesome and that’s good storytelling.

It’s those ideas that bring out the original moments in the movie that people will remember. This was not an editorial choice per se but, there’s a moment in the movie where you think you’re going to cut to one thing and we end up cutting to a taco. And I think that’s like one of my favorite cuts because people are prepared for what they expect and they get a taco. So it’s sort of fun to see the audience go. “What is going on?” And it keeps them off off guard and it’s fun.

HULLFISH
You mentioned a super long take…

FORD
When we catch up with Hawkeye. He’s in Tokyo and he’s having a fight with a Yakuza guy.

HULLFISH
Oh yeah!

FORD
The whole scene’s one shot until the end of the conflict. I’ll just leave it at that. But basically, it’s all one cut. I think it’s three pieces. It could be four. I can’t remember. That was one of the first things we shot and got into visual effects pipe because it had to have a set extension and we had to do the stitches. We shot that in a street in Atlanta, but it looks just like Tokyo now because those VFX artists are amazing. So it was a pretty awesome chance to do the opposite of what we usually do in a fight scene: cut, cut, cut.

HULLFISH
That was shot in Atlanta? That’s crazy.

FORD
We shot EVERYTHING in Atlanta and a little in Edinburgh that’s it! Except for plates and elements. We did a plate unit that went to Tokyo and a plate unit in Brazil for some of the atmospherics for some of the alien worlds and then some plate work in New York, but everything you’re seeing in both movies was shot in Atlanta and a little bit in Edinburgh.

HULLFISH
Wow. Well, thanks so much for talking to me and being so generous with your time.

FORD
It’s always great talking to you. I love the articles that you post because they’re always so informative and I read every one. I feel like the art and science of editing is a discipline that’s becoming more and more relevant in our lives!

HULLFISH
Awesome. Jeffrey, thank you so much for talking to me. I’m with you. I’m excited to talk about editing and share that with the world. Thank you for being a part of it.

Art of the Cut book cover
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors

FORD
Bye.

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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Burke Moeller

I forwarded this to my son who is a big Marvel fan. Shortly thereafter I got a request through our iphone plan asking to download iMovie. So there.