Martin Bernfeld has been editing features for 15 years, including Project Almanac, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, Power Rangers, The Babysitter, and Bent.
For this interview, I talked with Martin about his latest film, Hellboy.
HULLFISH: What was post-production schedule like? When did they start principal photography?
BERNFELD: They started shooting Hellboy in the middle of September 2017 in Bulgaria, and I was hired at the end of October. So I jumped on a plane after getting the call that I was hired on the film and had quite a lot of dailies to catch up on.
I edited in Bulgaria through the finish of shooting and stayed another week after they wrapped to finish the assembly. We relocated to London after the Christmas break to start the director’s cut through picture lock.
While we were originally scheduled to finish at the end of November, it carried through into January making it one year and four months of post.
HULLFISH: How did you and the director get connected on this project?
BERNFELD: I interviewed for it, set up through my agent. I talked with Neil and Lloyd Levin one of the producers. I liked what they said about the direction and vision there was for the film.
While it was tough to start in the middle of production, Neil and I managed to spend some lunch breaks having more in-depth conversations about what he’s looking for and make sure we were on the same page before attacking dailies.
HULLFISH: Did you bring your own editorial team to Bulgaria?
BERNFELD: I wanted to, but they had already had two Bulgarian assistants that were organizing the footage ready to be edited. I used those assistants during principal photography and hired a new editorial crew when moving to London. It was a great team. Luke Clare was my first assistant and Gemma Bourne was the second. I didn’t know them prior, but they all came highly recommended from other editors.
HULLFISH: Well, this is obviously a big VFX movie. You did Power Rangers with Dody Dorn. Dody and you and I talked about that movie when it came out. How does your VFX background help when it comes to editing a movie like this?
BERNFELD: I do have a fairly good understanding of the VFX process: what you can and can’t do and how to achieve what you are looking for when you have to reimagine or rethink sequences editorially. We also had a strong VFX supervisor — Steve Begg — He and I had a very tight working relationship. There was one specific sequence — the giant fight — that needed some rethinking. It was designed to play as one long shot. When all the takes were stitched together to achieve the one shot, it was running at 7 minutes which is obviously too long and too slow. We were aiming for a 2.30-3min action sequence that had the energy and pace we wanted. I had to work out a way to keep the same action and get it into the 2.30-3min and still maintain the concept of the oner.
That’s where having a good understanding of how to best integrate a digital camera takeover helped the process of eliminating time and communication with the VFX supervisor to find a way to shorten the scene.
For example, I took the profile shot of Hellboy running and shortened it by adding a camera whip pan to a full CG shot revealing the giant. From there the camera booms down into another plate of Hellboy, which tracks with him running up the giant and going in for a punch, this plate was also reduced significantly.
Other stitches were more complicated in execution, but the same concept. However, there were a few beats that we felt landed better and were funnier when cutting to them directly, so we deviated from the one long shot concept. At the end of the day, we had to do what was best for the movie.
HULLFISH: So you have to have the imagination to come up with something interesting that tells the story, but understand the restrictions of what can be done with what was shot.
BERNFELD: Right, because Hellboy (the character) is not full CGI. David Harbour was in makeup and the suit rolling around and punching blue placeholders as a representation of a giant. You have all these interactions that need to tell the story that’s in the script or previz. It was a challenge, but it’s a fun little ride.
HULLFISH: I would think your Power Rangers experience would have given you a great background for having to do that.
BERNFELD: Absolutely. The whole third act in Power Rangers is practically one long action sequence and 90 percent CG. Working with empty plates of a location, with the opportunity to add anything you want, makes you focused on how animation can help you tell the story and timing of VFX shots. A shot of an empty plate with no monster can feel very long in an action scene, even with rough animation. But once the shots are finished you need more time then you think to register the action, so not cutting the action so tight at an early stage helped me when approaching some scenes in Hellboy.
I worked on a few lower budget films with complicated VFX, before Power Rangers, and those budget restrictions train you on how to be more specific and creative in what you need to tell the story within the means you have.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk a little bit about the importance of being able to collaborate with people — having the type of personality that allows you to give-and-take with the director, with VFX people, with assistants…
BERNFELD: I feel collaboration is essential to the post process. When I hire assistants, I try to find people who like to be part of a team. Someone who takes pride in their work and wants to take ownership of the task I give them, whether it is sound work or temp VFX. I want them to feel involved in the creative process, and that they are very much part of the movie.
Personally, I always try to stay positive and optimistic regardless of what situations and demands are thrown at Post, and I try and hire assistants that do the same. They are the first line of contact, so representing the cutting room well I feel is important.
Same when it comes to the director, producers or the studio. I want them to know that I’m in it with them, we’re one team. We’ll take every note into account and do whatever needs to be done to make it a great movie. I believe as an editor that we are there to help create the director’s vision of the film with every tool at our disposal.
HULLFISH; Sounds like something you might have said to the director in your interview!
BERNFELD: Yes! I do stress that in my interviews. I like to collaborate and get any new ideas. There never a bad idea; every idea can lead to a good one.
HULLFISH: Tell me about the nuts and bolts of looking at a scene when you’re looking at a blank timeline and a bin full of dailies for a scene. What is your approach? How do you handle that?
BERNFELD: First, the dailies get organized by my assistants. I like to have my bins in Frame view, and they’re all organized in script order. It doesn’t matter where the slate lands alphabetically. Q can come before A (in the lettering of the camera set-ups). Then a KEM roll is created where I view my dailies from. As I watch the takes I cut my preferred line readings and moments into a selects sequence. Once I’m done going through all the footage from the given scene, I reorganize that selects sequence into the scripted version of the scene and then I start whittling that down into my first cut of the scene.
I don’t always edit from the beginning through the end. When I’m watching the dailies, I keep a close eye on certain beats that I feel will be pillars of the scene, and will build out the sequence around those. I let the moments tell me where I need to be.
Editorially — when I construct the scene — I always think back to the staple five questions: Where am I? Why am I here? Where have I come from emotionally? What does the character want in the scene? and “What’s the goal of the scene and what does the scene really need?”
Those questions are lingering in my head when I watch all the dailies and I always look for those small nuances that will give me those answers to best tell the story.
HULLFISH: So when you’re watching your KEM roll, you are actively pulling stuff out as you see it?
BERNFELD: Yes, but one key step before I start pulling material is to re-read the scene from the script first. That gives me a fresh memory of the beats and nuances in the script so I don’t overlook any of those important moments.
Having those in mind also helps me spot if something isn’t coming across clearly in the shot footage. I can report back to the director to get their thoughts to find a solution. Either we pick it up when possible, I look for an editorial workaround, or perhaps it was purposefully left out and then I can continue without that moment.
When I approach a scene, I like to build out every single beat in the script and don’t focus too much on running time. Multiple times I’ve gone back to my assemblies in month eight or ten of cutting and brought back that built out beat after we oversimplified a scene or need to highlight information. I like this approach because it enables me to go back and pull small ideas that I created. I find it helps to have a strong backbone of an assembly.
HULLFISH: Do you remember the length of that first assembly? And did you even bother to watch the assembly all the way through?
BERNFELD: I watched it and it was too long, but you could get a strong sense of where to focus first. I think it was about two hours and forty-five minutes.
HULLFISH: What are some of the things that you and the director found as you started to watch things in context and how things changed when you did see scenes next to each other?
BERNFELD: We focused primarily on pacing and getting the movie down to a proper length. We had conversations about the structure and where we were trying different placements for different scenes to help the pacing and storytelling.
HULLFISH: Were there structural changes?
BERNFELD: The opening scene got shuffled around a bit. It was the introduction to Nimue (Milla Jovovich) and sets up who the villain is; what her powers are; and what the threat of the movie is going to be. We tried it in four different places to see if there was a stronger way to introduce her. When we put the introduction later, she became not as important and threatening so in the end, so we left it where it was scripted. But we had to try all the options, and assess what is best for the story. Trial and error are one area of editing that I love and feel are important to the final product.
Once we settled on where it belonged, the other factor we had to manage was the duration. It was a heavy dialogue-driven scene, with the assembly version at seven-minutes long, and we brought it down to a five-minute scene. But once we previewed, the audience wasn’t responding to it as a prologue, so we decided to try a narrative by Ian McShane. It ended up as a two and half minute introduction of the character, which worked better for an audience and to get to Hellboy earlier.
Because the script was fairly linear in order of events, there wasn’t a ton of opportunity for restructuring. However, we did move one scene about our secondary villain called Gruagach, a talking pig. We delayed his finding of Nimue’s head so we could get into Hellboy’s story and live with him before starting the two parallel stories.
HULLFISH: I love the solution of cutting down the opening villain introduction by writing some narration and doing some ADR which allowed you to shorten the scene in ways that I’m assuming were not possible by just eliminating dialogue that was already spoken.
BERNFELD: We tried it many different ways. We cut the scene as tight as possible with the only dialogue needed for exposition, but that turned it emotionless. So a better way was to go with narration which also gave us the opportunity to play with the tone for the movie.
HULLFISH: Were you able to pull previous music cues or sound effects from previous movies to be able to temp out this movie?
BERNFELD: One conversation that I had with Neil and Lloyd the producer before I started editing was that we wanted a very different approach to tone for this movie. So we deliberately did not use any temp score from the earlier movies, or original sound design. We wanted to make this became a more grounded version. Very early on we talked about Hellboy being an old-school rocker which brought us to our music needle drops living in the rock world.
After screening it, there were discussions about the classic rock choices, so we took a stab at modernizing the soundtrack — like Kanye West. However, after our recruited screenings bumped a bit on the modern music, we went back to the old-school rock and roll, since that is in the DNA of Hellboy’s character and what people were looking for.
HULLFISH: When picking temp scores, how did you choose which ones to consider?
BERNFELD: I like to listen to a wide variety of scores and pull from every movie imaginable, I find that this gives a fresh idea for the music. The challenge is to keep the musical tone as consistent as possible. We mostly used The Mummy, Alien, The Descent, and we also snuck in some Under the Skin and JFK.
HULLFISH: JFK? Wow!
BERNFELD: I know! It’s different, but it suited the scene! We also used Gone Girl for some of the more modern tonal cues.
We were lucky to have our composer, Ben Wallfisch, join very early in the process, which made a big difference to be able to edit the movie with the music that will be in the final film. We had several conversations with Ben about the tone, wanting to make this a different sounding movie. He was really excited about trying something completely different.
He made us a couple of musical suites we could work with: a hero suite and a villain suite. As his demos came in for the individual scenes we stripped away all the temp so we can work with the new tracks and give him feedback. He would come back with revisions as the edit evolved and made an amazing score for the movie!
HULLFISH: Also I would think with something that is very unique and different you run the risk of having temp love on stuff that you’ve listened to that his stuff might be great but because you’ve listened to something so different for so long it doesn’t want to stick.
BERNFELD: We really considered that not “falling in love with temp” because the last thing we wanted to do was not give Ben the opportunity to give us something completely different.
HULLFISH: Nuts-and-bolts-wise, with the suits that he gave you, was he giving you stems of some kind so that if you wanted to use the theme without the full orchestration you could?
BERNFELD: He didn’t actually, he provided us a mix of the cues. I worked closely with the music editor, Tony Lewis, to modify cues as the edit evolved — obviously with Ben’s involvement throughout the whole process.
We had the same approach with sound design, which also started early on. This was done by Phaze. We had a lot of conversations on how the different creatures and environments should sound like. We tossed design stems back and forth throughout the whole process to develop the sounds, so by the time we got to the mix stage we didn’t spend the time developing or changing ideas. It was just a matter of mixing it. That proved to be very helpful because we had a limited time to mix the film.
HULLFISH: How are you managing the replacement of your early sound design that you did with the stuff Phaze did?
BERNFELD: Phaze always gave me stems split into backgrounds and hard effects, so I could take what they had done and manipulate it and add new ideas. I like to communicate with ideas in the timeline, having a representation of what I’m looking for helps me convey my thoughts that they can then take and expand on and make better.
HULLFISH: Are you doing the same process with the VFX stuff?
BERNFELD: Yes, I like to have temp comps in-house for timing purpose. Once VFX shots come in, I always keep three iterations of the shot in the timeline including the temp comp that we did in-house. I always like to have a quick reference of the shot’s progress when things move fast and you are dealing with over eighteen hundred visual effects shots. Towards the end, we had approximately 100 shots a day coming in that needed to be looked at and given notes on. Sometimes you don’t catch everything in the immediate, that is when it’s helpful to have a quick history of the progression. If I always wipe my timeline clean it takes a longer time to find older versions and compare iterations. So my timeline can become quite big, up to eight or nine video tracks.
HULLFISH: What about audio tracks? Do you have a limit on how many you like? Do you keep a bin of your favorite D-Verbs and audio effects?
BERNFELD: It depends on the movie, but on Hellboy, I worked with 24 audio tracks: four dialogue tracks where I add EQs, compressor and De-esser on them for the dialogue to sound crispier and punch through better. Then I have my mono sound effects and my stereo sound effects and my music tracks, then two mono and two stereo tracks that have the universal D-Verb effect on it.
With my D-verb tracks, I can quickly add ringouts to either Dialogue, SFX or Music, to make transitions sound better without constantly rendering. The track has as much ‘verb as possible, which I control by how much volume the segment has.
The D-verb tracks have been a huge asset for scenes that take place in large spaces. For example, in Hellboy, there is a full dialogue scene that takes place in a church.
In addition to keeping the dialogue on its original tracks, I also mix it down and put it on my ‘verb track. I can then watch the scene and with the use of my Avid Artist Mix – I can easily record and change the volume as the scene goes on — how much ‘verb I want — because it changes based on how close you are to characters and based on the emotion of the scene.
HULLFISH: Wow that’s pretty cool. I never heard anybody talk about doing that before. That’s pretty interesting. Let’s talk about a couple of specific scenes that I have access to — the Father/Son Scene in the Osiris Club.
BERNFELD: I really loved that scene because of its simplicity and how it focuses on the two characters and their father-son connection and relationship that is the basis of the movie. It also allowed for their banter to shine. Ian McShane played a more tough dad role, and David Harbour conveyed Hellboy much more of a teenager — a lot of attitude and insecurities. It was fun to cut together because of their wide range of performances they gave. And that doesn’t pertain to this scene only, in every single scene David Harbour constantly gave options to play with so you can go in whichever direction you wanted.
HULLFISH: At the beginning of our conversation, you talked about the questions you always ask yourself as you’re going through a scene. What would that internal dialogue have looked like on THIS scene?
BERNFELD: Where and Why? Since this is a new location, I had to make sure we establish the setting and convey Hellboy’s emotional state.
Where are we emotionally? Hellboy just killed his friend, so I wanted to continue that emotion and sadness going into his bedroom shaving his horns. Broom, his father comes in to comfort his son with tough love.
Broom’s agenda? He is the head of the BPRD and wants to send Hellboy on another mission to help him, the only way he knows how.
The goal? To establish their relationship and show Hellboy asking what the words his friend told him before he died meant. Ian quickly breezes over that and says its nonsense, but clearly, he knows what it means and doesn’t want to tell Hellboy. This is important as this is the theme and backbone of the movie.
HULLFISH: You almost need a sense like an actor would have of: what’s my motivation? Where does my character have to go? What do I have to reveal in this scene so that some other scene, later on, makes sense?
BERNFELD: Absolutely. That’s what I love about editing. You get all the pieces and it’s sort of like a little sandbox that you can start playing in. What nuances that you — as an editor — find intriguing and what emotionally brings something out in you when you’re watching the dailies.
HULLFISH: What about the “Arrived” clip?
BERNFELD: This was a pivotal scene where our villain and hero meet each other. Nimue tries to persuade Hellboy to join her side, be a king and rule the world, yet he doesn’t want to. In order to emphasize her motivation and why she didn’t just kill him when he refused, we tried out a lot of additional dialogue to clarify. We cut the new dialogue with over-the-shoulder and wide shots. But in the end it turns out we didn’t need as much to explain her motivation, the audience got it. So we ended up stripping a lot of that away. I kept a couple of small couple lines and the scene turned out better for it.
HULLFISH: I love the idea that landing on the final solution for this scene was a process. It needed to go through iterations.
BERNFELD: Definitely. That’s why I like to make my assemblies as good as possible, well knowing that it will change, but if I put everything in there then I don’t have to go back to dailies as often to find or recreate beats. I can pull from my assembly and quickly put together a version that combines the old with the new and refine as necessary. I then circle back through dailies again to make sure there isn’t a better performance or different line readings if the intention has changed.
HULLFISH: You mentioned that a lot of times you would make a version and then move along and then come back to an old version you did. What kind of organizing are you doing in your bins and in your project to be able to find those previous cuts of scenes quickly and easily?
BERNFELD: I keep my first couple of versions in my scene bins where I have my KEM rolls and my selects. I like to keep everything in one place.
HULLFISH: Once you start making revisions those are someplace else? They’re in the reel?
BERNFELD: I usually edit the revisions in the reels so I don’t have too many subsequences to keep track off. I have a bin with ideas and structures that I try, which I might come back to at a later stage if needed.
HULLFISH: Do you break the film into reels once you’ve done your first assembly? Or you break it into reels right away as you are assembly the scenes?
BERNFELD: I put the full assembly together and then divide it into reels.
HULLFISH: Martin, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.
BERNFELD: Thank you, it was an absolute pleasure speaking with you too!
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.