Art of the Cut talks with Academy Award-winning editor, Stephen Mirrione, A.C.E. and his latest film, “The Revenant.”
Mirrione won the Oscar for Best Editing for “Traffic” in 2000. He also edited the entire “Oceans 11/12/13” film series with Steven Soderbergh. The rest of his lengthy credit list includes “The Hunger Games,” “The Monuments Men” and “Birdman.” He continues his collaboration with “Birdman” director Alejandro González Iñárritu, on “The Revenant.”
HULLFISH: Many top directors have come back to you time and time again. Do you think that’s purely due to your editing skill or do people skills also play in to your success?
MIRRIONE: I strive to work in a way that makes me indispensable to the directors I’m working with. If I’m doing my job right, then they would rather not do the movie than work without me. A lot of it comes from my ability to just help understand and execute their creative vision and be a part of their creative process.
HULLFISH: A lot of that is your creative skills – that they think they’re getting the best movie out of you – but the director and the editor spend more time together than just about anybody else in the production together.
HULLFISH: So that personal relationship is also critical to cultivate.
MIRRIONE: Definitely. That’s a marriage and that’s about trust and commitment and willingness to listen and understand each other. It’s not just from me. I think it goes both ways. Certainly, that is a huge, huge part of it. The more films you do, the stronger that bond will grow. I think that’s why you see so many great long-term collaborations with those two people: the director and editor.
HULLFISH: Tell me about your collaboration style. If I were some huge director that you wanted to work with, and you and I were having that first meeting together to determine if I wanted you to be my editor, and I asked you “How do you like to collaborate with a director?” What’s the answer?
MIRRIONE: Total flexibility. I really approach it the same way I think a therapist approaches working with a patient. I want to follow the director’s needs and if it’s a director who likes to talk things through and wants to discuss what I’m doing before I do it, then great. Let’s go down that road. I’d love to explore that. If it’s a director that doesn’t want to talk and just wants to communicate through the dailies that they shoot, then that’s a challenge to me too. That adaptability is part of the fun of the job. Figuring out how you can bring what you do and be expressive in your art in a way that is collaborative and flexible and being a bit of a chameleon, being able to shift as need be. To me, the beauty and attraction of feature film is that it’s one of the few collaborative art forms where the director really is the one true voice of the whole movie. That’s what I love. And the only way to really accomplish that is to listen and understand and respond to the journey that the director wants to go on. I think that’s the way most editors approach their work. It’s served me very well to do that.
HULLFISH: One of the other relationships that most people don’t consider is the relationship between the editor and the actors. Talk to me about being a steward of the actor’s performance and how much that means to you or how much it affects you.
MIRRIONE: It’s true and I think it’s something that all editors feel and whether they articulate it or not I think it’s a sacred trust that I have with these actors. A lot of these actors I will meet and become friends with, but many more of them I never meet or talk to. Whether I know them personally, or not, it’s the performance itself that is so special, so precious. I definitely take that as seriously as I possibly can. I appreciate so much when an actor is open and honest with what they’re feeling and what they’re putting out there that if I don’t take care of that actor… if I don’t respect that performance, that’s just going to make them less and less likely to trust and feel good about being able to really go for it. I’ve seen it so many times, an actor that’s totally 100 percent committed all the way through the process, that’s such a gift. And when they feel like they’re in a safe space to do something really crazy or really outlandish that leads to just a spectacular moment captured on film, the only way you get that is if everybody trusts everybody involved.
HULLFISH: Putting yourself out there as an actor can lead to huge successes, but it can also lead to huge failures – just for a take – and they’re counting on the editor to either protect them from the failed attempts or to recognize the spectacular successes.
MIRRIONE: That’s about them relinquishing control. You know, last year on “Birdman” I had a little bit of a sense of that because of the way we made that movie. I had to relinquish some of that editorial control. A lot of my input came in ahead of the final product as much as at the end of the final product. I really had to put my trust in the team in a way that’s not usual. So I have an even better appreciation of what they’re all having to go through when they’re trying to do something like that and then just let the director and the editor handle it from there.
HULLFISH: The production notes for “The Revenant” mention that you learned something on “Birdman” and applied it to “The Revenant.”
MIRRIONE: We learned a lot. Some of the things we learned helped us tremendously. We couldn’t have done “The Revenant” without the warm-up of “Birdman.” The tremendous success of “Birdman” also got us into a little of this bubble of believing in our own magic trick. And when we suddenly got out there in the middle of the wilderness and tried to do the same thing, we figured out “This was a lot harder than we made it look.” We were suddenly faced with, “How are we going to actually overcome all these obstacles that are being thrown at us?” I think for sure the studio saw how quickly we were able to turn around the cut with “Birdman” and thought, “This is going to be no problem so for sure we’re going to do a Christmas release and that will be that.” As we were going we were telling them, “But this is not ‘Birdman.’ It’s not the same animal at all. We did all the heavy lifting before we were done” and with this (“The Revenant”) so much of this movie was really found during the editing. A lot of the storytelling – all of the detail work and the choreography of the scenes was meticulously planned out and done with as much attention to detail as possible – but the overall arc of the story, we didn’t find that until we were done and in the edit room and that takes a long time to sort that out and especially with a movie like this where the cutting has to be so, so disciplined. You can’t betray the rhythm of the movie for the sake of trying to find an easy way out and make a story point. So it went both ways. One of the things we learned from “Birdman” was the value of cutting all the rehearsals together. We also put a system in place where we were making these low res files off of the video-tap. The video assist records and catalogues everything shot on set so that Alejandro (director Alejandro González Iñárritu) and the D.P. (Emmanuel Lubezki) and the actors can take a look at what they’ve done and evaluate. All those files would get sent to me either on set or back in Calgary where I was working most of the time. And I could then take that material, review it and cut it together so that by the time they got around to lunch and they were shooting the actual scenes that those dress rehearsals were for, Alejandro could then get the information he needed to make any subtle changes he needed to do. So we didn’t have to wait until the next day for the dailies process if Alejandro had questions about what we were doing on that day. So we had to put a workflow and a system in place and I really credit my whole crew, Patrick Smith, Rich Molina, and our VFX editor Harry Yoon. They spent a lot of time planning out the workflow and anticipated all the possible things that could go wrong. With a lot of the visual effects pipeline for this we had to invent a new way of doing visual effects. Instead of turning over an entire shot, we would only turn over the frames we were affecting. Then in DI we found a way to blend those pieces. It’s a very technical thing and I’m not sure how clear I’m being about it, but it allows you to do visual effects in a new way that now that everything’s being done digitally, I’m sure a lot of other people are going to start doing this. But it’s something that we started figuring out how to do on “Birdman” and by applying it to “The Revenant” we were able to be way ahead of the game and able to start turning over things immediately and not waste a lot of resources turning over frames that weren’t actually being touched.
HULLFISH: Can you go into a deeper explanation of that VFX pipeline? What makes it unique and what’s the value of the new methodology? Feel free to get technical. You’re talking to an audience of your peers.
MIRRIONE: For example, if you have a take that is a minute or so long, approximately 1,400 frames, but you are only be doing a fix on 700 frames in the middle… instead of turning over the entire shot, we’d only turn over those 700 frames with a handle that could be used at Technicolor to blend with the front and the back of the shot during the DI. The trick is making sure that every vendor understands that at the head and tail of the shot, they have to be framed to perfectly match the dailies, otherwise you’d notice a blur when you are trying to blend the frames back together. We also developed a better pipeline to deal with all the stabilization work being done. This way stabilization could be done independent of the other VFX work and then the vendor could apply any stabilization data after they completed the work on the shot itself. It saved a lot of time and helped prevent a bottleneck as we delivered the final VFX.
HULLFISH: You mentioned that you found the story in post, so talk to me a little bit about the structural changes or story changes that you had to make in editing. How did you come across them and why were they necessary?
MIRRIONE: One of the biggest tools we had in the storytelling for Glass’ character (Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio) were these dreams where he’s in these hallucinatory states That was loosely in the script, but as we were going along we realized that we had to walk a line between how literal those dreams were versus abstract. Originally we wanted them to be completely abstract, but the problem you run into is that if they’re so abstract that nobody understands what they mean, then they’re not as useful as a storytelling tool, right? Because you really have to understand some of the events that happened in his life to understand his backstory, to understand what’s driving him forward and it really helped to connect with him and get inside his head, especially because – as written – the movie works perfectly great, but once the actors start infusing their life into the performances – like Tom Hardy ended up stealing the movie because he’s got all these great monologues where you’re learning all of his motivations, all of his backstory. You totally sympathize with him at a certain level and Leo – the Glass character – is competing with that by just having to look hungry or whatever the moment is. It’s not fair. So we really had to lean on those dreams and structure those dreams so that they happened in places that helped inform all of the scenes that came afterwards and also, the entire section of the movie, once Leo – the Glass character – is on his own, we had to do lot of restructuring between his journey and the other trappers and how much of the other trappers to use. There’s about 45 minutes of deleted scenes. A lot of that had to do with this journey that the trappers went on to get back. It was just a whole thing with too many strands of the story going, so we had to measure all of that and find a balance. One of the more difficult things with this, compared to other things I’ve worked on, because of the nature of the long takes, was that any time I made a slight rhythmic change, it ended up having big effects on the movie an hour later for some reason. When the composer, Ryuichi Sakamoto, came in and was working with us, we were talking about it because he was wanting to know what kinds of things we were working on and I was explaining that if we change the music here or take the first line of this scene out here, it actually is having a huge impact an hour later, and the only way to really understand the impact of those changes is to watch the movie all the way through to get some perspective. So we had to spend a lot of time looking at the macro vision of the movie instead of the micro moments within. The moments within came fairly quickly, but it was finding the rhythm of the whole piece that took the most time.
HULLFISH: The macro pacing of the movie is one of my real interests. People don’t understand that the scriptwriter writes the script and obviously the director and producers and everybody that really knows what they’re doing really feels like every scene was necessary, or they would have changed them in the development process and saved the money and time by not shooting the scenes you cut out in the first place, yet it’s not until you get to see them play out over time that you understand the implications of each scene and each line.
MIRRIONE: Right. This is one of those things where I totally trust Alejandro. That’s where this trust thing comes in. When we first start working I know I’m already a few steps ahead of him in terms of being ready to throw some things out – knowing that something is redundant – he’s not going to be ready to do that yet and I just have to be patient and wait and maybe we’ll get to a point where I’ll realize that maybe they do have to stay. But I trust him and I know that he’s not an indulgent guy.
HULLFISH: The scenes aren’t precious to him. That’s a great lesson that I need to be more cognizant of. I always want the director to immediately see why something can be cut… I just need some patience and have less ego.
MIRRIONE: Exactly. So those scenes that I was mentioning with the trappers: While on the one hand you could have looked at the script and maybe been a fortune-teller and said “Those aren’t necessary.” I will say this, if the actors hadn’t had to shoot those scenes and perform them – these were very harsh, brutal scenes on the top of a mountain in a blizzard – if they hadn’t had to go through that, those actors wouldn’t have bonded the same way, so then even though it’s not in the movie, it still affects their performances in other scenes. So even though you may say, “You spent a lot of money and you’re throwing it out” it’s not completely wasted because knowing that they had to go through it and experience it, informed other things that they did. I think that stuff is still very valuable. You have to be careful, because you never know what stuff is going to resonate. It’s very risky to take a script, which by nature has to be overwritten, and cut it down so much that you lose whatever magic could have been in there by doing that before you shoot the scenes.
HULLFISH: Great point. Lesson learned. Switching gears, did you use temp score or did the composer deliver some stuff ahead of time. Do you cut with temp?
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Mirrione: Alejandro and I work with music all the way through. Especially for something like this it’s so important to inform a point of view in certain scenes or if something’s becoming more subjective in its feeling in a scene or whatever it is. “Become Ocean,” the John Luther Adams Seattle Symphony Orchestra piece, was something that Alejandro was really attached to and really felt strongly that it was the character of this movie, so I spent a lot of time listening to that and working with that and we spent a lot of time temping with a lot of John Luther Adams music because it had that great natural organic sense of nature as this poetic force. So we did a lot of work with that. We’ve known Ryuichi since “Babel.” He’d given us one of his tracks for “Babel” and Alejandro approached him to see if he was interested and he was so he came and met with us. Alejandro and I had already temped a lot of music into the movie. We knew we wanted something minimalist, we wanted something where the music could work in a way where you’re just hearing a little bit of music and then the natural sound of the movie becomes a part of the tapestry of the music… the music doesn’t just completely take over. So in going through a lot of Charles Ives, Ingram Marshall, Olivier Messian, these early minimalist composers, Sakamoto came in and immediately responded. We knew he got exactly what we were trying to do and he pulled out his laptop and started pulling out these tracks from his 40,000 track library and gave me probably 20 hours of music that I could then start to listen to and that then became a conversation. He’d write music and send us pieces and we would respond and replace the original temp. It was great because he has a relationship with Alva Noto who is a more electronic experimental composer. They’ve done a few albums together. We wanted to give it a more modern feel or texture, so Alva came in and worked with us and Ryuichi to layer things on top or take pieces that Ryuichi had recorded and do something with them electronically, then Bryce Dresser came in as well… there was a moment where they all got together basically and started mixing all of their work together. That was a really great collaboration and really difficult because it had to be very measured and very disciplined because we wanted the music to inform emotionally, but didn’t want it to become “movie music.” It never manipulated the emotion, but just supported the emotion underneath.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about your approach to cutting a scene. How have the dailies been organized for you? How do you like them prepared? What do you like your bins to look like? And what do you do when you sit down to a brand new scene?
MIRRIONE: There were two kinds of scenes. There were scenes where it was necessary that I be looking at video-tap, before they’d gone through dailies and on those days I would very quickly look at all of the video-tap material, start to zero in on the selected takes and try to figure out “Is this take going to work with this take? Are there problems with this take?” Essentially, trying to see that if this is a long take, does it work or not? That is how we dealt with the long take thing. And then there are the scenes with more traditional coverage. With a scene like that, instead of the day that they were shooting, the next day I would get those scenes and start watching the dailies and the way I have them organized is that my team puts everything together for the scene in a bin with all of the script notes which I really rely on in those bins…
HULLFISH: How do they put script notes in a bin?
MIRRIONE: There’s a thing in Avid called Script view and it has a little box and they put the script notes in that box.
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HULLFISH: Ahhh. Of course. Got it. For those who are unfamiliar with Avid, there’s Frame view, which is like Thumbnail view, and Text or List view and then there’s a view called Script View that has a thumbnail, some basic data and a text box to include script content or script notes. (The image above is a screenshot of one of Mirrione’s bins set up in Script view. Notice the script notes in the text boxes with the names of the shots (normally scene/take) above each box including a thumbnail to the left.)
MIRRIONE: Yes. So then I start watching the takes backwards.
HULLFISH: You’re the second editor I’ve spoken with that likes to watch the takes backwards. Kirk Baxter also mentioned that technique in my interview with him about “Gone Girl.”
MIRRIONE: It just depends, usually if it’s nine takes, I’ll start with take nine and go backwards. Essentially I’ll watch until I see something I really like, and I’ll grab that and keep watching and if there’s something I like better, I’ll grab that.
HULLFISH: What do you mean “you grab it?” Are you creating a selects reel from favorite moments, or are you literally starting the cut?
MIRRIONE: It depends on the scene. For something with lots of coverage, I’ll probably start with a selects sequence, then look at that sequence to figure out where to go next. If it’s a more straightforward dialogue scene I might start putting the pieces together and then review and make adjustments. For me, the goal is to find a way to organize all the material and understand it in a way that I can access it in my mind as I’m thinking about it. A lot of times that is just about figuring out what can be ignored so it doesn’t take up too much space in my brain as I’m trying to figure it out. Usually though, it’s about finding a moment to respond to. Sometimes I just have to watch all the dailies and say, “Well, this is the anchor. This moment is the anchor of this scene. So this is the thing I’m going to use to build around it.” But I try not do something the same way every day. Some scenes I’ll put together very quickly without watching everything and then I’ll go back and watch everything. Some scenes I’ll watch everything first and I’ll really think about it. There were a lot of times where, if I had the luxury of it I would wait to cut the scene until after I had an opportunity to watch dailies projected big, usually with Alejandro, so we could talk about it first, because I find that my first pass at something is usually my best version of it. Obviously I’m always going to be making changes and fixes. A good example of that is a dream where Leo (Glass) goes into a deserted church. That scene, when I saw it projected in dailies, I just knew how to put it together. I can’t explain it. I just knew. Alejandro had not had a chance to come in and work with me on it. It was not something that he had seen and he didn’t see it put together until months later when Guillermo del Toro, our good friend, had come in to look at some scenes for some feedback and Alejandro wanted to see that scene, so I showed it and it was very emotional, the feeling was palpable in the room. Alejandro loved it and not a frame of that changed from the first time I put it together. So that’s one example of a scene where sometimes you put it together and it’s perfect and you can’t change it and if you change it there’s some magic that gets ruined when you start to overthink it. Most of the time it’s a combination of all of that. It’s looking at things, putting it together and then slowly reviewing it. I usually don’t stop until I feel good about. I try to get it together really quickly but I don’t set a time limit and say “In four hours I’m going to stop.” Then later with some perspective I go back and review it and change it. The same thing with audio. With a movie like this you’re taking the base take or takes and then you’re reviewing all the audio because maybe there’s one line where the performance is better, but because there’s not a lot of traditional coverage and cutting, you can still grab audio from other takes. So at some point in the process I’m always reviewing everything and looking for the best, most honest performance and trying to build from there.
HULLFISH: Editors love to refer to themselves as storytellers. Describe to me how you are a storyteller. Is it a skill that can be learned?
MIRRIONE: Of course, a film editor is involved in the final rewrite, the person who helps the movie cross the finish line into its final form. A lot of good storytelling has to do with point of view, making sure your audience understands what the characters are thinking and feeling and how different characters can perceive the same moment in different ways. As with a lot of things, there is an instinct that leads you in making those decisions, if you make all your creative choices too analytically you end up with something a bit cold in my opinion. So by doing it again and again, you become better at trusting your instincts. In that way, it is a skill that you can become better at through lots and lots of practice. As far as learning it, I have been learning it all my life. Through listening to other people tell stories, reading, watching movies, etc.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about sound design as you edit. Are you temping sound effects in or tossing that quickly to the sound editors or asking assistants to temp stuff in? How critical is the sound design?
MIRRIONE: I do a lot of sound work while I’m working through the cut, mainly because sound is so important in informing point of view. Sometimes it’s giving notes to the assistant editors, then at another point it is starting a conversation with the sound designers and getting them to fill out more layers, give more depth to the sound. The basic blueprint for the sound has to be complete though in order to really get feedback from screenings early on. The more things that an audience has to imagine, the more likely they will imagine it wrong and then you don’t know if what you are trying to do is working.
HULLFISH: We talked about the macro pacing of the entire movie. Talk to me about the micro pacing – the edit-to-edit stuff. How do you determine that pacing? What factors influence pace?
MIRRIONE: Again, this is where instinct plays a big factor. If I’m doing it right, I don’t have to think about it too much. I just scrape away little by little until it feels right. A lot of the cues come from the actors, from the camera. If they are dialed in, you find the rhythm pretty quickly. What made this project difficult was that many of the individual scenes often had their pace dictated by external factors. The crane couldn’t always move as quickly as a scene needed to be. So once we watched several scenes cut together we noticed that all the scenes had almost the exact same rhythm, which was a rhythm dictated by the crane, and which became monotonous very quickly. On “Birdman” most of the movie was shot handheld, so after a dozen takes Alejandro could ask for one that was performed 10% faster. That was usually the take we’d use, but with this, even though the actors could have done it faster, the crane couldn’t move more quickly. I had several tricks up my sleeve to increase the speed of a scene, and create urgency, to give contrast when needed. And of course I had about ten hours of second unit material, beauty shots, that could be used as a quick burst to create tension, anxiety, or to slow things down poetically, to give the audience time to think and feel.
HULLFISH: I have a clip called “Glass escapes Arikara” which starts with him sleeping and an arrow hits a tree next to his head and ends with him jumping off a cliff on his horse. The scene feels very fast-paced but there is only a single edit in a 52 second scene. Talk to us about that scene, especially sound design, music, choosing the takes and making the determination of the right moment for that one edit.
MIRRIONE: There’s only a single edit you were aware of. But yes, that scene is one that had to be very carefully choreographed and planned out because what you are seeing is really happening. A lot of rehearsals went into creating that sequence, they did around 8 takes of most of the key moments, it was quite clear which takes were the best. Then it became about sound and music, which went through a pretty long evolution.
HULLFISH: You talked about the studio pushing for a Christmas release. What was the schedule for the movie? When did principle photography start? Were you editing on set? When did that end? When did you have a first assembly done? When did you hand off to DI and mix? When was the picture ready to deliver to the theaters?
MIRRIONE: Principle photography started September 2014, rehearsals actually started in August 2014 though. We shot until December when the first weather problems caused us to shut down early for the holiday hiatus. I was mostly in Calgary, occasionally I’d go to the locations and work with Alejandro at lunch time. For some sequences the VFX editor would be on set and could show Alejandro things that I would send. Post production started immediately though, I turned over the entire opening battle and bear sequence before December of 2014 so that the VFX work could begin. We also had a nearly complete 5.1 temp dub of the opening battle. I also did a lot of work with Alejandro during that break and shooting began again in Feb. 2015. We shot through to the end of April when we ran out of snow and the plan was to shift gears and work on finishing the cut until a location could be found that had enough snow to shoot the final scenes. I spent about a week getting everything together to work with Alejandro, and then I think we screened the first pass of the cut minus the missing scenes towards the end of June. That was probably the 2 hour and 50 minute version of the movie, not including the beginning or end of the movie. It was really tricky. We got great feedback from the people we screened for, that really helped push us where we needed to go, and really informed us as to what wasn’t working and how to fix the things. We screened for the studio sometime at the end of July and then shot the final scenes in August. After that we worked to get the cut done so we could begin our final mix in September. We kept working on the cut through the mix as final VFX were coming in. Everything was done, picture and sound just before Thanksgiving.
HULLFISH: For a big, epic picture like this – or even more intimate, smaller films – does it help to watch it on a big screen help you with pacing? What is your edit suite like? Alan Bell talked in another Art of the Cut about editing with a large projected image in his suite.
MIRRIONE: I’ve tried projection setups before, I really don’t like working that way though. I prefer feeling closer to the movie, somehow the larger format just doesn’t feel comfortable or intimate enough while I’m putting things together. Alejandro has his own 65” monitor that he watches. We did have large format projection on location to screen dailies and occasionally cuts. We looked into creating a screening room, but we were so close to the Dick Clark screening room at Lantana, we made an arrangement and could screen our VFX or cuts there and we did, often. We probably screened the cut there at least once every 1 or 2 weeks once we got to July. Looking back, it would have been helpful to watch on a giant screen once or twice as well, especially for the IMAX version. For me, it helps to be able to take the movie out of the editing room and watch it in a different space, make it feel new and special.
HULLFISH: Describe one of the most challenging scenes to cut? What made it so difficult?
MIRRIONE: The first dream sequence after the bear attack was quite a challenge. I had lots and lots of dream material, but a lot of it was non-specific, meant to be used for any of the dreams. Originally that dream was only about the burning of the village and seeing a fireball overtake Hawk as a small child. It became clear that this wasn’t working in an emotional way, that it was too literal and not dreamy enough. So we worked to rewrite and restructure by adding the wife and more specific elements to parallel Hawk comforting his father in real time as Glass is dreaming about comforting his son. Once that material was shot, it took a while to measure it properly, to weave back and forth without being too literal, being emotional and also giving enough backstory so that you can relate, at the same time being careful not to let it feel too romantic, it couldn’t betray the overall language of the movie. Sound played a big part, getting the dialogue to drift in and out and overlap correctly made a big difference too.
HULLFISH: Was there a scene that you are particularly proud of or that stands out as an example of great editing?
MIRRIONE: There’s a section of the movie that took so long to find the right structure for. I always felt there was something out of place, but it took many, many versions before the pieces fit together perfectly. Specifically it was Fitzgerald’s story about the squirrel, it originally came much later. By moving it earlier it helps inform all the scenes that come after. It seems so obvious now, but it wasn’t written that way and it certainly worked in its original position. There was just this nagging feeling that it wasn’t in the right position. That was one of the last changes we made and it is a completely different experience because of that change.
HULLFISH: Thank you so much for your time. You’ve been extraordinarily generous sharing your passion for editing with us and your deep knowledge of the craft of editing.
MIRRIONE: Thanks, my pleasure!
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