Chris Lebenzon, ACE has such an extensive filmography of huge movies, it’s hard to know which ones to include in a short introductory paragraph. You’re probably better off just going to his imdb page and being amazed: “Top Gun,” “Batman Returns,” “Crimson Tide,” “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Maleficent,” and his current movie, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” He is a frequent collaborator with Tim Burton and also edited many of Tony Scott’s movies. He was nominated for Oscars for Best Editing for “Top Gun” (1986) and “Crimson Tide” (1995).
(Lebenzon notes that the video clips in this article have been edited from their original for PR purposes and do not truly reflect his cut of the scenes.)
HULLFISH: What was the schedule like for this movie?
LEBENZON: Initially we started in Florida the last week of February 2015. We were told we had to be in the theaters the first week the following March. That was an aggressive schedule for this type of movie. After Florida we moved around England and Belgium. I think we moved cutting rooms nine times.
HULLFISH: Oh my gosh.
LEBENZON: It was a record for the Avid vendor. We moved three times alone within Pinewood Studios. We moved twice at Longcross Studios, which is the studio where “Gravity” was filmed. Our primary work was at a place that had never been a studio. I think we were the first ones there because there is so little space in London. It was called Gillette. It used to be the old Gillette razor factory. The schedule was tight but as we got closer, the studio decided to spend more time with the movie, which happens often, so they pushed the release date. First it was Christmas then it backed up and moved around a bit and finally landed on September 30th.
HULLFISH: So the vendor that you were talking about was the vendor that was doing the technical installation and set-up of the Avid?
LEBENZON: Yes. Vivid Rentals. It may have even been more than nine times that they had to tear down and set-up the Avids. I can tell you this: in the year that I worked on this movie I was in twenty-two hotel rooms, counting my flat –so I packed and unpacked 44 times.
HULLFISH: You cut none of this in LA?
LEBENZON: None of this was edited in Los Angeles. However at the very end of the movie I was desperate to come home. (Director) Tim Burton was very understanding. He was going to Shanghai for his art installation, so we decided I could come home then. We weren’t quite finished. The studio continued giving us notes. So I did the changes from an LA cutting room in sub clips. I sent them to Tim and incorporated into the cut what he liked..
HULLFISH: I have done more than fifty of these interviews and believe it or not, everybody actually watches dailies different. Talk to me about your process. Obviously an assistant gets the dailies synced and ready for you. When you sit down in the morning with a fresh batch of dailies what do you do?
LEBENZON: When I work with Tim Burton it is a different process than normal.
I don’t sit down and watch dailies and then start editing. I show up early at the call time and as the shots are filmed, they are loaded into the Avid. I start to assemble the scene before I have all of the shots. Tim comes to the cutting room in between set-ups to check how it’s going. Even if I only have one set up I start working, and I actually put banners in for shots that I hope to get, and run dialog over it. After the last shot of a scene is filmed the cut is done.
HULLFISH: That’s an amazing workflow! So its coming off of what used to be a video tap? Is there time code included or does your assistant have to eye match stuff.
LEBENZON: They eye match. And it is the video tap. There was a time on Miss P when the crew was shooting pickup shots and I wasn’t near the set so it was sent to me through the internet. I cut it and immediately sent it back for Tim to see. He was happy and wrapped the crew. With other directors I can at least view the dailies before I start.
HULLFISH: Tell me about that process on a non-Burton movie. What are you doing? What kind of notes are you taking? Are you watching it on your Avid and just putting locators in? Do you do selects reels?
LEBENZON: It depends on the scene. If it has a lot of footage I definitely make selects. I scan quickly through the daily bin to get an idea of the coverage. I’m too impatient to watch every take in real time. I look at what the lined script says and the script supervisor notes and sometimes I ask the script supervisor “Give me an idea of what you’re feeling the director likes.” So that’s in my head when I’m breezing through. Then I just dive in. I don’t like to wait. I don’t ruminate over it or take notes. I start cutting. Then I go back and check takes and make sure I have the right pattern, and the right performance and the right pace.
The old days were different. With the KEM you had time to think while threading up the rolls of film and sound. And more thought went into exactly where to cut since it took more time than pushing a button. And we would watch dailies on the screen with the crew when the days shooting finished or at lunch or god forbid in the morning before the crew call. Now that’s not necessary.
HULLFISH: When did you switch over from editing on a KEM to editing on an Avid?
LEBENZON: I don’t know the year, but I do know the movie, it was “Mars Attacks” (1996). I wanted to switch on the previous picture, which was “Crimson Tide” (1995). I recall Tony Scott telling me he’d prefer I don’t learn on his movie.
HULLFISH: Have you tried any other software or NLE’s?
LEBENZON: I came on to “Con Air” which was being edited on Lightworks. That was really interesting. There were three of us editing and it worked pretty well. That is the only time I’ve not edited on Avid.
HULLFISH: I’ve cut features in Final Cut Pro, Premier and Avid. Avid is far and away the best for long format right now. Premiere can handle the short format stuff but with long format it just bogs down. Kurt Baxter was saying that they actually had to have five separate projects for “Gone Girl.” They did a separate project for every reel.
LEBENZON: That wouldn’t work for me. I’m too impatient.
HULLFISH: You talked to me a little bit about performance and trying to pick out a performance. What are some of the things – when you’re looking at a performance – that you’re noticing or liking?
LEBENZON:. I look for real performances that speak to me in a way that’s genuine. On “Miss Peregrine” we had a lot of child actors and some weren’t very experienced.
I worked through all the takes and picked moments that felt honest.
Hulllfish: Can you talk to me a little bit about how you or Tim view temp music?
LEBENZON: This one was special. I normally pick the temp music, but on Miss P the music editor started early and became the co composer. I would show him the cuts, go into his trailer and he would bounce ideas off of me. He would find pieces from other scores and he would also compose pieces, so by the end of the first cut we had original music in the movie. It was very raw and primitive but the melody stayed the same.
HULLFISH: That is a great way to work.
LEBENZON: If it was my choice, I wouldn’t have put temporary music on the cut until we showed it to the studio.
I find that music on a scene can make it play better than it should. If a scene plays without music it will play even better with it. I always adjust the cut after it’s scored which doesn’t make me popular with the sound department or the music editor.
HULLFISH: Sure the other thing that can inform visual cuts is sound design. How much of that are you doing yourself? What is your take on sound design and its importance to selling a cut?
LEBENZON: It’s really important. Like all editors I add sound effects. My assistants do it as well and I look at it and try to make it better as time goes on. In the days before non-linear it wasn’t as important. With only 3 available tracks on the 8 plate KEMs there was only so much that could be accomplished. But the AVIDs are a much better sound tool.
HULLFISH: Yup, I did a temp voice recording for “War Room,” and my voice ended up in the final cut of the movie. Cheryl Potter was talking about “The Martian” and she said if you listen, you can hear her voice in one of the NASA scenes.
LEBENZON: I worked on “Unstoppable” and the assistants voice is the last line in the movie. He gets checks every year.
HULLFISH: One of the things that fascinates me is your pacing as a contextual thing: You cut a scene together. You feel like the pacing is right. You feel like you have got the right performances and when you finally get the whole movie strung together you can see that that pacing and those performance choices have to change. Did that happen to you?
LEBENZON: Yes, I don’t even wait until the movie is strung together. If I have maybe ten minutes of continuous scenes I’ll revisit the flow. I am always going back on the cuts, when I have time. Priorities change as more of the movie comes in. It’s nice to cut fast, wait a day and go back and see what I did… to see how it marinated.
HULLFISH: What was the length of the first assembly?
LEBENZON: On “Miss Peregrine” it was 15-17 minutes longer than the movie. It was close to the final length because of Tim’s participation during shooting. By the end of production he had reviewed every scene. There is a time travel component to Miss P which added undue length. I‘ve worked on time travel projects before and the rules are hard to follow and sometimes so is the story.
After one of our early cuts, he told the studio, “I don’t even think Steven Hawkins could figure this out.”
A lot of the editing job was taking out information rather than making it clear because sometimes the information overload created confusion.
HULLFISH: That’s always a critical point in editing a story: How do you parcel out information and what information does the audience really need?
LEBENZON: Every film is different. The primary relationships in Miss P are between a boy and his grandfather and between the same boy and a girl. These relationships became more important than following the time travel part of the story. There were times when the emotion of the moment would carry us through the scene, allowing us to streamline the information.
HULLFISH: The structure that you mentioned is interesting to me. Did you find, as you were going through, that you needed to pace the parts of the story? For example, “We have been in the grandfather story long enough. We need to get to the girl story.” When you have got these intercut aspects of a story, the length of time you spend in each part is critical.
LEBENZON: Absolutely. In this particular movie, the setup has always been long. The studio offered good suggestions to cut it down. Hopefully we arrived at just the right length.
Tim’s coverage is very simple and specific. His back round is in animation. There are a lot of takes to get the right performances. But often times there are not a lot of angles. And very rarely multi camera setups because he and his DP are lighting so precisely for one camera. With limited coverage the pace can be slow so I am always trying to figure out how to quicken things up.
HULLFISH: Is it complicated or difficult to edit when you have very little coverage?
LEBENZON: I find that I have either too much or too little. It’s easier for me to have too little.
When the pace is slow due to limited coverage, I’ll do speed changes or split a two shot and make somebody talk faster or blow up a shot as much as I can to make it feel like a new shot. Too much coverage for a very simple scene can create a lot of unnecessary work. One has to find the story in all the footage. The director generally wants to try different versions and producers and studios as well. With less coverage the challenge is to keep the story moving.
HULLFISH: Talk to me a little bit about your collaboration with Tim. You’ve done how many movies together now?
LEBENZON: Fourteen. It started with “Batman Returns.” The only one I didn’t edit was “Big Eyes.” I was busy and it was a low budget project so my trusty assistant did a fine job editing it. I came on for a few weeks at the end to help out.
HULLFISH: Tell me about that collaboration.
LEBENZON: Tim is a very artistic guy. He is very intuitive. He is not always communicative, but I understand him and his sensibility. It’s very second nature now. We don’t even have to talk that much. The film speaks to me and I think my editing choices speak to him, so it’s a nice shorthand and a familiarity that I think he is comfortable with. He is a very sweet guy. A very soft-spoken, non-confrontational guy, so he surrounds himself with people that don’t need to ask him a lot of questions and just do their job. He gives me a lot of freedom and I have very long leash which is nice.
I went to art school for a brief amount of time, and art has always captured my interest. So I feel like I can use that inclination to assist him in the look of his movies, which is nice for me because it’s not something we editors get to do very often. We discuss the composition and the content and the look of potential VFX shots all the time.
At VFX meetings sometimes Tim will just draw a picture and say, “This is what I mean.” I have blank pad ready for him at all times. Filmmaking for him is more about art than commerce. Fortunately he has had some hits along the way, so he keeps working.
HULLFISH: He can definitely draw a movie crowd. Tell me a little about the visual effects. What are some of the things that you have to think about as you’re doing a visual effects movie?
LEBENZON: I start with whatever temp effects I have and as the visual effect develops I adjust the cut. In some cases the scenes grow to be much more than they were conceived to be. It’s really fun to think about the way that a scene was in the beginning and the way that it actually ended up. We expanded whole scenes in Miss P based on the feeling that they could be longer and more interesting and heighten the suspense.
HULLFISH: Is that something that you spoke into or is that mostly Tim? How did those discussions go?
LEBENZON: It was both of us; but mostly him. There’s a scene where a “Hollow” – who are the monsters in the movie – creep up over a cliff and every day at 4 o’clock
Miss Peregrine shoots it. The scene started out as three shots, but it became a longer scene because we needed to make it feel exciting that this monster would charge at her and, at the last second, she shot it while our heroes were watching from a distance. We had a terrific visual effects team who were accommodating to our need to add visual effect shots to better tell the story.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about structure. Did you have to restructure the movie in any way beyond the script? And what led to some of those discussions?
LEBENZON: We didn’t have a very satisfying ending on our first preview, so we had to shoot one. That became quite interesting. The writer came into the cutting room; we all talked about it and she threw out a lot of ideas and wrote various versions. I cut storyboards and added temporary dialogue and we arrived at a suitable ending.
The structure of the movie was pretty much there in the script. As usual there were scenes that were taken out and scenes that needed refocusing.
HULLFISH: To jump out of “Miss Peregrine’s” for a minute, how do you judge the editing of others? What do you look for in someone else’s editing?
LEBENZON: I look at any movie and I’m amazed they get finished.
LEBENZON: As I keep working, I’m actually more amazed at what we’re doing in our craft. In terms of judging, that’s a good question. You never really know what an editor goes through. You don’t know what footage he or she had. You, have no knowledge of the studios demands or what the director is contributing or what the previews are indicating. So, it’s hard to judge. It’s hard for me to say “Okay, this one’s better than that one,” but when it comes down to it, it’s really, “What is my reaction when it’s over? How did the movie land for me? And was I thinking about the editing? If I’m thinking about the editing then there may be a problem even though often times the problem is with the script.
HULLFISH: Let me ask the question in another way. What have you seen recently that you thought was brilliantly edited? Do you have any editors that you like?
LEBENZON: I like all my colleagues. I follow and admire the work of all of us who do this for a living. All of us who struggle with the workload and travel demands yet raise families and maintain relationships.
HULLFISH: One of the things that struck me when I looked at the five Oscar nominees, this year was, “How do you even judge the difference between “Spotlight” and “Mad Max” when it comes to editing?”
LEBENZON: It’s so true. There’s no answer to that question. The branches nominate the movies and then the Academy picks an Oscar winner. I loved all the nominees this year and I loved “The Martian” too, which wasn’t nominated.
HULLFISH: It’s hard not to vote for Pietro Scalia! The other film many editors were hoping would get in there was “Sicario.”
LEBENZON: Yes! Absolutely brilliant. In fact, I know people who thought that was the best movie of the year.
HULLFISH: I interviewed Joe about that movie, and many, many editors have talked about what a great movie they thought that was.
LEBENZON: Benicio del Toro’s performance is so understated. It’s all in his head and his eyes and he has so few words. What he does say is delivered in a monotone and without energy, but you feel a complicated character from a very dark place.
HULLFISH: In one of the movies that I cut there was a non-trained actor in a pivotal scene and they changed the script two or three times on him the day that they shot his scene. So, he couldn’t remember the new lines and, literally, the entire scene was cut with the director feeding him five or six words at a time and then the actor would repeat the words and then the director would say another five or six words.
LEBENZON: Bless you. You had it bad.
HULLFISH: (laughs) So you never know what somebody has to work with.
HULLFISH: You’ve talked about approach to a scene, and it’s very specific with “Miss Peregrine’s” and the way Tim works. What about some other movies? What is your approach to a scene when you sit down to a more typical movie?
LEBENZON: I’ll see where the scene is in the script and read the scene and try and understand what’s happened before and after as context. Then the big question is How should I get into it?” Do I start close and reveal where we are? Or do I feel like I need to start wide and then get into coverage. Then I just kind of start running with the footage and pick the best moments. I work through it as fast as I can because I find, with myself at least, the first instincts are usually the best.
HULLFISH: With Burton’s movies, you’re obviously keeping up with production. Is that something you try to do with all your productions?
LEBENZON: These days keeping up to camera is important. Like all of us I’ve been asked “We don’t know if we have the coverage. Can we see this scene right away”. I never know when I’m going to get that call but it seems to happen more often.
HULLFISH: You said that your communication with Tim is pretty much short-hand at this point. With some other directors, talk to me about the importance of your social skills to your success as an editor.
LEBENZON: When you interact with someone in a room for 10 months or so they have be comfortable with you and you have to be comfortable with them. That leads to the best collaboration. Ultimately the director is the boss. It’s their movie. I can work on another movie if it fails. Sometimes the directors can’t especially if they’re first-time directors. So one has to understand what that kind of pressure feels like. Directors without a lot of experience may require more guidance than veterans and a stronger voice is necessary.
HULLFISH: A lot of people have talked about the importance of trust.
LEBENZON: Totally. If it’s somebody you haven’t worked with, there isn’t that level of trust. It has to be earned. Repeat business is always good because you know what you’re dealing with. It’s a great thing, what we do. It’s a collaborative art and we’re lucky to be the ones that take the result of all the creative labor and form it into what we do. It’s a very empowering part of the process.
HULLFISH: Can you give me some nuts and bolts of how your assistant sets up your Avid project and your bins? How do you have all those set-ups laid out for you?
LEBENZON: They’re in the frame view and I group the cameras. In Miss Peregrine there are some long scene that are divided into Part 1 and part 2. I try and have shots that relate to each other close together in the bins even if the slate numbers don’t go sequentially.
HULLFISH: How did you get into editing?
LEBENZON: I went to a University of California school but transferred to an art school for a semester. I didn’t graduate and came down to LA and started working as a PA. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an editor. I saw it as a place that was very meditative and calming. Boy was I wrong.
HULLFISH: I’m sure that calming influence is one of those great social parts of you having so many directors that like working with you.
LEBENZON: Well, that’s flattering. Maybe I’m a calming influence at work , but I get in the car on my way home, and I’m driving 90 miles an hour with the music blasting.
HULLFISH: (laughs) I understand that too, of course. I hear in your voice that it sounds like you’re a very calm, relaxed person to sit down with and go “Hey! No pressure here!”
LEBENZON: The pressure can get to you. But pressure can be a good thing. It can be a motivating force. We’re all lucky to be doing this. I started doing this job and the money was nothing and the movies had no budget and most jobs were in independent films that never saw the light of day, but the craft was the same.
HULLFISH: I have one final craft question for you before I let you go and that’s about storytelling. There are times when you make an edit and you are telling the story just with a cut or with a hold on somebody beyond where you think that you might want to. If somebody said, “Editors aren’t storytellers, they just follow the script.” What would your retort be?
LEBENZON: The script is on the page where interpretation is limited to the printed word. A movie uses images, sound and music so the experience is much richer and more complicated. I read the script several times before I start a job. Then I read a scene before starting to cut it. But that’s it. For me, if I know little about the story, it aids me because the people that pay money to go see it don’t know anything about the script. If there’s a book some viewers may have read it. If I’m working on a project based on a book I would rather not be influenced by it. I didn’t read “Miss Peregrine”. I didn’t read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. I can’t even recall “Alice In Wonderland”. I try to bring no pre conception to the process. Other editors are completely the opposite and I totally respect that, but, for me, the blank canvas is my best guide because that’s what the ticket holder has when they walk in and sit down.
HULLFISH: Chris, thank you so much for your time.
LEBENZON: My pleasure.