ART OF THE CUT with the Oscar nominated editor of “Green Book”

Patrick J. Don Vito discusses his work on the Oscar nominated film

Patrick J. Don Vito was just nominated for an Oscar for Best Editing for Green Book.  Previous feature film work includes My Life in Ruins, Movie 43, Walk of Shame and The Three Christs.

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

HULLFISH: Have you worked with Peter Farrelly before? I usually do my research, but failed to this time.

DON VITO: The first time I worked with him was on Movie 43. I actually had started on that movie working with Steve Brill and cut one of his sequences and then I stayed on the movie and I re-cut all of the shorts with all of the directors, including Pete. Then Pete shot an interstitial for the whole movie and I cut that for him as well. I also did a pilot for him a few years after that called Cuckoo that never saw the light of day. It was a remake of a British series. It was a lot of fun. I always liked working with Pete and even on Cuckoo, I had a feeling something was going to come up dramatic for him. We’d have conversations about story in the cutting room and his perspective was so clear and concise and precise that I knew he had to do a drama. Directing was not his first route. He was a novelist first and he wrote a couple of books. He wrote one called The Comedy Writer and it’s dramatic and comedic, so he always saw himself as a novelist.

HULLFISH: Those early discussions — I would think — those things are maybe what led him to like you and appreciate you as an editor?

DON VITO: It was a casual, easy relationship. He would give me notes. I’d get them and try them and try to make them work. He’s a very easygoing guy, which is great and makes for a great atmosphere in the cutting room. It really makes it a lot easier, so he eventually knew he could trust me. He could give me something and knew what I’d come up with get us most of the way there and then the rest we’d tweak. So I kind of got his sensibility and his style. It just became easier predicting what he’d want out of a scene.

During production on Green Book, he would come into the cutting room on a day over the weekend and look at cuts and make some notes, and then I would be left to my own devices during the week while he was shooting.

HULLFISH: I’m really intrigued by the idea of the trust that he felt with you. Is there some way that you feel like you were able to develop that or cultivate it or what do you think led to that kind of trust?

DON VITO: Part of it, I think, is interpreting notes. Sometimes when you get a note from a director if you listen to the exact note you may not do the exact right thing. You have to kind of look for the spirit of the note. Usually, I ask myself, “What is he or she trying to accomplish in this?” If I’m getting a note that I don’t quite understand, I approach it much like an actor would say, “Don’t give me a line reading. Tell me how I’m supposed to feel.” and I’ll work on that. The relationship flourished in the understanding that I’d figure it out, even if the note wasn’t so clear. I also try anticipating what he’s thinking of based on previous notes. If he makes certain changes in one scene, I’m also going to recut later scenes in the same vein, so I can stay ahead. Pete has a photographic memory of stuff, so if you change a frame he’ll realize something’s different. Whenever I make changes I’ll say, “in this scene here’s what I’ve done” and I kind of explain it. He’s very aware of the movie at all times.

HULLFISH: I’m interested in your approach to notes, which sounds very smart. What do you do if you have a note that you don’t quite agree with or you think is maybe even wrong-headed?

DON VITO: Assuming there’s not a time crunch, I’ll try anything. Even if I think something is ridiculous, I’ll try it because maybe something good comes out of it. Even if the note itself doesn’t work, maybe in the process of doing it, I discover something else and I think, “Wait a minute here’s a way to really fix the scene.” This may not be the right idea but let’s try it. You can discover things maybe that you weren’t thinking of. I don’t turn anything down. I’m always trying new things and seeing what shakes out and what you can learn from the process because you’re always learning stuff. Maybe you discover a little nuance in a take and now that you have the bigger picture you can switch the scene around.

That kind of happened in one of the scenes in Green Book with the letter writing. When Tony’s wife is reading the letter to her family and the guys are playing poker in the background. That scene had a different configuration. Originally the way the scene worked was that Dolores read the entire letter to the women and they reacted. She finished the letter, and when she finished, we had the joke: “I want a letter!” “Yeah, as soon as you make a meal.” Then we went to the guys playing poker. The guys talked about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel — or as they called it — the 16th Chapel. And they went to another joke, but the other joke wasn’t as good as the “soon as you make a meal” joke. That was kind of the topper. So what I did with that scene is I took that last joke that didn’t work completely out and I had the scene with the guys happen while she was reading the letter. So then she ends the letter and you have the “soon as you make a meal joke,” then you’re out of the scene. So that was a restructure because the scene was too long and the joke we were landing on wasn’t hitting as hard as the earlier joke.

HULLFISH: Let’s take a step backward and talk a little bit about process. I’m assuming you’re cutting in Avid?


HULLFISH: What is your process during dailies when you’re getting footage? How do you have your assistant set up your bins? And how do you approach a fresh set of dailies and an empty timeline?

DON VITO: Petra Demas was my first assistant on this movie and so she would organize everything from the lab and basically put it into bins, in lined script order, so it’s visually from left to right in lined script order. And I usually group A/B cameras, but I will put both cameras side by side and then the group clip slightly across the top of them so I can visually see the representation of each angle but I’ll cut with the group clip. And then I just start digging in. When we were on location Bart Breve’ was the second and he would be doing ScriptSync, so later, when I’m working with Peter or I’m digging for alternate lines I can quickly find them. I know some other editors like to cut all the readings back to back. I just don’t like that. I don’t think you need to do it anymore. I have a good visual memory, so once the dailies are set in a bin I keep them exactly that way so I remember where everything is.

I look through the dailies and I just start working on the scene. With this movie, I listened to a lot of music because I felt like the music really put me in the period. Depending on the scene if I do run into trouble, I try to rethink the scene in my mind. Sometimes I’ll start in the middle of a scene and work out, or start at the end and work backward from there. It’s just a little trick that helps me if I want to get out of a rut. I feel it keeps things fresh and helps me come up with new ideas.

HULLFISH: So with your visual memory for finding things in bins, it sounds like you probably don’t do KEM rolls or selects reels.

DON VITO: I do build some selects. Usually, with dialogue, I put markers on stuff that I really like and I’ll put a note and I can look at the markers. Usually, with dialogue, I’m not as worried. I can always go back with the ScriptSync and I can quickly see all the different line readings. It’s the stuff in between dialogue that I do selects with. Reactions and things that I think are important that maybe later will be harder to find. If I come across a great reaction I’ll create a sequence of reactions or movements or things like that. So when I need some kind of reaction for a line, and what was given on the day isn’t quite what I need, I’ll look through a sequence of reactions and I can pull one from earlier in the scene or later in the scene that matches what the emotional reaction should be.

Whenever there are musical sequences and camera moves I always try to build selects of those too. But also, with music, I will try to do a giant group clip, where I can literally match back to any point in the song and see what angles I have at that point. If I’m trying to fix something or trim out some music, I can quickly see all the options I have for angles and takes. For dialogue, I stick to ScriptSync, except if there are a lot of ad libs. But even with this movie, there was a lot of ad-libbing. So I will have the assistants basically put a different color marker on the script where there is an ad lib so that I can find them quickly. I don’t have them go back and change the script itself because then it gets too unwieldy.

HULLFISH: For those that might not have seen much more than the trailer, when you are talking about music and grouping clips you’re talking about performed music which is a big part of the movie right? You’ve got a lead character who is a performer — a pianist.

DON VITO: Yes. When he’s playing piano and we’ve got all these different angles on him — both on Mahershala Ali and on Kris Bowers who was the composer, because Kris Bowers does the lion’s share of the piano playing, and the rest is visual effects. But they shot the composer playing everything. He’s a phenomenally talented artist, classically trained.

Kris spent about three months with Mahershala, teaching him piano and teaching him kind of where to look, how to sit, where your hands should generally be and so on so that it would be easy to blend the two together. But basically, every time you see the piano playing, it’s Kris Bowers’ hands.

HULLFISH: Is this your first film to use ScriptSync, or had you used it before?

DON VITO: I’ve used it four or five times before. I used it on Walk of Shame. I used it a little on Movie 43. I used it on Three Christs — which isn’t out yet — with Richard Gere and Peter Dinklage. I find it a very valuable tool.

HULLFISH: Do you find yourself using ScriptSync more recutting with the director or do you it in building the scene at the start?

DON VITO: I use it more while recutting. With the way Pete directs, I can generally work backward on takes because he hones it down until he’s completely satisfied with stuff. So I’ll start at the last takes and work my way backward. I’ll pull things from all the takes, but when I initially start watching, I watch the last takes first. Inevitably you run into problems with the masters because they’ve gone into tighter shots and they’ve changed the geography so the master doesn’t work so well anymore. And so you have to figure out how to blend that stuff in. Everyone’s process is so different, but — as I’m sure you can attest to — you don’t really think about stuff and you kind of just jump in. Your brain kind of shuts down and your hands take over and you’re not really concentrating on the process.

HULLFISH: You’re just in the flow.

DON VITO: Yes. I was trying to figure out how I connected to this movie and it didn’t hit me until after I was back home that it’s a story where these characters go on an odyssey, Tony leaving his family for two months. I was in New Orleans for two and a half months and then in Ojai for six weeks away from my family. There’s something about this, which I think helped me connect with the story in a subconscious way that I wouldn’t have connected with otherwise. I joked to someone that — instead of method acting — I may have invented method editing. I think that added a level to it and I think it helped the piece because I was always acutely aware that I was away from my wife. I didn’t write her letters, though. Calling long distance isn’t the expense it was in ’62.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk a little bit about the schedule.

DON VITO: It’s the first time I’ve gone to a location in 17 years. The last time I think was 2000 when I was working on Saving Silverman. I was in Vancouver. The schedule for Green Book was 35 days, so it was not a huge schedule but a lot more than Three Christs which was 21 days. And that was also a 60s period piece.

Pete wanted me there because of that schedule. He wanted me working and for him to be able to come in and look at cuts to make sure that I was heading the right direction and to be sure he had everything he needed from the scenes so that if he needed to shoot something else he could do it quickly. We worked for 2 1/2 months there, six weeks in Ojai, and then I came back to L.A. and we basically shortened the schedule because we were in such a good spot and Pete was very happy with the movie. So we rushed out to screen it. We were screening all throughout the director’s cut too. Pete’s very open when he works, so even during production, there were studio people invited in to watch scenes. There were actors invited as well.

Halfway through the director’s cut, we screened it for an audience of about 50 people.
We cut the schedule and did an audience screening in Long Beach and we scored 100. The studio wanted to screen it again, so we screened it in Sherman Oaks and we scored 100 again. It was pretty crazy. We still made changes after that. But the stuff we were doing was more cleanup and fine-tuning of performances, but we didn’t make massive changes to it after that because we thought we were on the right track.

HULLFISH: Were you sitting in the audience for those screenings?


HULLFISH: Is that how you felt? That they were locked in?

DON VITO: I felt they were totally along for the ride, but I didn’t expect that. I really didn’t. Everyone totally got it, and were moved by the drama and laughed at every joke.

HULLFISH: What did some of your earlier friends-and-family screenings reveal to you?

DON VITO: The conversations were usually about time and maybe it felt a little too long getting to certain points in the film. Even when we were at our longest version there weren’t a lot of complaints about length. We knew we were too long and we had to cut it down. There was talk back and forth about whether certain scenes were needed or not. And so we addressed some of those. There weren’t a lot of deleted scenes. Most of what was deleted were portions of scenes. There were a lot of conversations in the car. Some of those went on a little long, so we trimmed out parts of those. And there weren’t a lot of long scenes, even in the script, so I think that helps the pace of the film.


There was a scene in the car where we mentioned JFK. We took the JFK reference out.
Later you find out when they’re in jail that Don Shirley called Bobby Kennedy, and so you didn’t need to know yet about the relationship with the Kennedys. You find out later and maybe it’s better if you don’t know and it’s more of a surprise. In the beginning, there was a whole scene with the owner of the Copacabana when they walk out and he says “take me to my car.” We ended right there, but that scene actually follows them to the car and they have this whole conversation about how, after the remodel of the Copa, they’re having Sammy Davis play, and the owner said, “We never allowed black people to play in the club before, but I realized that the only color I cared about was green.” That didn’t seem necessary, and that character wasn’t somebody who was important in the scheme of the movie so that all came out. There was another scene in the plantation, right after the Kentucky Fried Chicken eating in the car. They reveal that the help has made fried chicken for them and Tony and Don look at each other. The scene actually went on for five more minutes as Tony convinces everyone to eat the chicken with their hands. We didn’t need it and it just made the scene longer. Pete’s son was an extra in that scene, so Pete had to cut his son. Talk about “killing your babies.”


I feel like when the director is shooting and I’m cutting that I have more perspective because they’re in the midst of it. I have more clarity. And then, by the end of production, the director takes a week off, and I’ve been inundated with dailies and I’ve lost my perspective. And so there’s a perspective shift. So then the director comes in and they’ve got maybe a better perspective because they’ve had some distance from the shoot. And they haven’t been looking at the dailies over and over and over again for 40 days. And then it shifts back and forth for the duration of post-production.

HULLFISH: When you were looking for temp score that wasn’t diegetic, story-type music were you trying to stay away from the kind of music that Don Shirley played or similar?

DON VITO: I tried to make it different. I felt like too much of the same thing would be repetitive and I felt like Tony was kind of this simple guy, and what would he be listening to? I mean he’s driving the car. He has control of the stereo. He’s going to listen to pop music. He’s not going to be listening to stuff that’s more challenging. So I kind of kept the playback stuff in that vein. Tom Wolfe and Manish Raval were the music supervisors and they were fantastic. They gave me a big folder of music that we could get for a price since we didn’t have a big music budget. I placed the songs throughout the movie, and I’d say about 80 percent of the songs that I placed were the final music.

Pete talked to some friends for song suggestions. It was funny. One day he brought music in and I used a few of those songs throughout. We made sure we could afford them. And I said, “These are really interesting songs. You got them from a friend? Who’s your friend?” Pete says, “Robert Plant.” I said, “Like, Led Zeppelin Robert Plant?”

HULLFISH: That’s crazy.

DON VITO: Yeah. So that was really cool that we actually had a couple of songs that were suggestions from Robert Plant in the movie.

HULLFISH: In addition to the diegetic music and performance pieces, did you also lay in temp score?

DON VITO: When I first started, I wanted to kind of keep this a minimalist kind of score, so the majority of the temp was Thomas Newman scores. Most of them are piano based. They’re kind of ethereal and give you emotion without telling you exactly how to feel. And so that’s kind of the template. Kris Bowers was on set playing piano, and Pete decided to have him score the movie, and he brought his own style to it. But it was very much piano-based, so there are similarities, but he took it to a different level. Some of his melodies were fantastic. Like the scene where they’re in the hotel room together and they’re talking about his brother, that cue is fabulous.

The amazing thing with Kris was — usually, we give composers the reels and we start getting a cue or two back each week — but Kris came back with the entire score.


DON VITO: Yes. Every cue. Granted we didn’t have a lot of score. I think it was about 20 to 22 minutes of score. 70 percent of what he brought in was brilliant right from the start. There weren’t a lot of changes to be made. We changed the timing of where things came in and out. Sometimes we wanted to thin out the instrumentation a little. The majority of it was spot on from the beginning.

HULLFISH: Were you part of the spotting sessions with Peter and Kris? Or were your cue spots — where it came in and where it went out, the same as your temp? The exact moment where it comes in in the scene is really important. Did that maintain or did the composer say, “I think it should be three lines before two lines after.”

DON VITO: For the most part, he did stick with my placements. He added a cue that we never had, which was a great add. But most of the in points were exactly where I had them. Sometimes we would listen to a cue and say, “That little accent seems like it’s too early like we’re tipping what’s going to happen. Can we slide that 2 seconds?” One that I can think of is when they are in the jail and the cop is on the phone, the music is kind of serious and it gets kind of happy or hopeful, but when that hopeful cue came in, it was before the cop said, “Oh, I hear you now Governor.” So I said, “Can we just slide that hopefulness till after we hear that it’s the governor?”

I really do enjoy music. I play piano myself and I’ve done a few little score pieces for movies. On Movie 43, I did a jingle at the beginning of the short, Beezel. Whether I’m cutting and I’m listening to music to get me in the mood or whether it’s trying to find the right piece to make a scene work, it’s just crucial and it’s always been kind of a passion of mine.

HULLFISH: There are a lot of editors — myself included — that have musical backgrounds. What do you think the value is of that musical background apart from putting music into a movie?

DON VITO: I think if you have some musical background, you have a better sense of timing. And it’s kind of an innate thing. Sometimes I’ll cut a scene and it’s kind of a rhythmic scene and I can go back to it and measure the cuts and unbeknownst to me I cut these things in equal beats and I wasn’t even trying to because it’s just something innate. You’re feeling rhythms and you feel the rhythms of the dialogue like Shakespeare with iambic pentameter. So you hear these rhythms that maybe other people don’t hear that don’t have that musical background.

HULLFISH: Lee Smith talked about the fact that he cut a scene together and handed it off to the composer and the composer said, “Just to let you know: you’re editing exactly 92 beats per minute.” The composer said all of his music landed perfectly as long as he stuck with 92 beats per minute.

I would love to hear your thoughts — since you are a musician — there’s also the idea of dynamics and patterns for that matter. Do you have anything to say about dynamics and patterns as far as music and editing are concerned?

DON VITO: In the scenes, you’ve got to figure out performance-wise where the emotions build and where they kind of drop down. That kind of has a musical quality too. Sometimes the actor will give you a range of performances. And so you can decide how much emotion you want to insert into the scene at what time and how that lays out: where it comes up and where it comes down. That kind of dynamics of up and down. Hard or soft. With music too, you always have to know where to pull back.

Lots of people hate when music makes too much of a comment on a scene. And sometimes — especially with comedy — I find directors avoid music. They use music more to transition from one scene to the next and they don’t want it on the comedy because they think it’s trying too hard.

But you have to know when and where — when’s the right time. Sometimes it can really help a scene and sometimes there are ways to do it in a sly way that doesn’t make it feel like you’re scoring the piece. Maybe with music that’s more sound effects oriented, like for Friday the 13th — Harry Manfredini was the composer — and all that vocal/echoing stuff during the movie — (imitates percussive sound) — that was the composer. It wasn’t sound effects. It was score.

As a musician, you have to practice and study and play things over and over. Talking about patterns, you play the scales over and over so you know them backward and forwards — that all helps with putting a scene together. It’s just about repetition and if something’s not working you try it again. It all leads to making you a better editor. I think music helps in any field that you endeavor really because it gives you a base that can really translate in a lot of different ways to a lot of different careers.

HULLFISH: If you practiced an instrument, you have failed about a billion times. And when you get into an edit suite you may try something and it doesn’t work and it just means you have to run that scale again.

DON VITO: Yup. One thing that Pete told me, that I took as an amazing compliment: he said, “Every time I see a first cut I want to physically throw up. When I saw the first cut of Something about Mary, I wanted to throw up. But when I saw your first cut it felt like we were 80 percent of the way there. I felt like it was it was already brilliant.”

HULLFISH: How long was your first assembly?

DON VITO: It was about 2:40 with no end credits. By the end, we were down to 2:10 with end crawl. So probably 2:02 or something like that of actual time. So a good 38 minutes shorter.

A lot of that was — with the musical sequences — they shot the full piece with no intention of ever using the full piece in the movie. So I cut the full piece because I wanted everyone to see what the full piece looked like. I didn’t want to prejudge that and shorten everything for the director and anyone else who was going to see it. So everything plays long. All of those musical sequences played much longer than they’re going to play. The montages were much more involved. In one of the montages, we go from “Applause, Applause, Applause” to them in the car in rain and it was because the rain sounded like applause. That never actually existed at the end of that sequence. We took audience shots from other scenes, and so when that piece ends and Don Shirley stands up and the audience stands up and applauds, we go to different audiences and build the applause loud – louder – loudest and then rain. I love transitions. Transitions are everything to me, and a bad transition can really bump you and take you out of a movie Getting from one scene to the next in a very smooth way is key.

I did an animated short that’s been making the festival rounds the last year. It is called The Velvet Abstract. My friend, James Hughes directed it, and it was animated by people in 15, 16, 18 different countries over a period of 7 years. Everyone was working on different sections by themselves and so in putting it together, I had to figure out how to transition from one to the next. And so most of that editing job was creating transitions that would blend from one piece to the next. Transitions always are very important and I hope that in this movie there’s never a bump when you go from one scene to the next.

HULLFISH: I love transitions as well. Let’s talk a little bit about that. If you were presenting to film students about transitions, what would be some of the transitions in this movie that you would point out that you really worked on or were proud of?

DON VITO: The letter writing because that was a scene that originally — as it laid out — It didn’t transition well because that last joke didn’t work. It kind of petered out a little bit. So there was a bad transition. So you can look at comedy mathematically — which is something I learned when I worked with Jay Roach and Mike Myers on Austin Powers — Mike has a very mathematical formula. If you have multiple jokes in a scene, the jokes need to get funnier as you get to the end of the scene and that last, funniest joke pushes you out to the next scene.

That letter writing scene was one of those scenes where we had an A joke in the middle of the scene and a B joke at the end, and it just didn’t propel you out of the scene. And so I took the B joke out and moved the A joke to the end of the scene.

This being a 60s kind of movie, I was able to do some transitional stuff like the car wiping to the next scene. It felt just like an older kind of movie. There was also some map sequences that we added. And those were to help transitions. You’ve got the scene where Don Shirley chastises Lip for playing craps outside and not going inside for his concert. He tells him, “They had to stay outside, you didn’t.” And he gets in the car. What that scene was scripted to go to was Tony reading the letter — “Dear Delores. Hi. How are you?” So it was going from a very serious moment to this comedic moment and it just didn’t vibe. It was too big of a shift. So by putting in that sequence where you see the car driving and you see a map and their route — it does two things: you have a minute just to process what you just saw — he got browbeaten by his boss. The other thing is you get to see their journey a little bit. That was something we were concerned about for foreign audiences, so we wanted to have titles of where they were in the country. So by delaying the letter writing scene you get a better laugh there. When we added the map in between, the laugh on Tony writing the letter became bigger.

That’s always what I’m looking at — are the transitions working from one scene to the next?

HULLFISH: What about audio transitions? Did you do a little pre-lap or a sound effect transition?

DON VITO: There’s one where the applause from an audience overlaps into them driving that kind of helps make it seamless. The echo of the audience is just crossing the cut and the car’s driving down the street towards you, and then it’s out. It just helps blend the scenes so it doesn’t feel like you’re just crashing out into something else. It always feels like it’s meant to be that way.

Like when he’s playing that first concert, I made sure to end on a chord and I had that chord echo off into the next shot, which is Tony Lip playing craps outside. It cuts right after the last chord as that chord echoes across the cut.

HULLFISH: So did the chord actually hang, or did you have to add some reverb or something?

DON VITO: We actually cut out of the song early, so we had to add reverb because the music continues at that point. The guys on the mix stage really worked on that and got it just right — how much echo and sustain. That next scene comes in really loud, too. Tony’s yelling, “Hard Ten, Lady’s friend.”

HULLFISH: Where in the process did you add temp? Was it during dailies or did you wait till after the director’s cut? In the middle of the director’s cut?

DON VITO: Right from the start. I add music right away. I find it helps put me in a place when cutting a scene. I’ll cut the scene and then I’ll go find the piece that is right for it. And sometimes I’ll play the piece and it will encourage me to do a little trim of the scene. So I’ll make a little adjustment. I try to find stuff right away because I want to figure out the sound of the movie.

If I can find the sound of the movie and the director is on board with that, then it frees me up to concentrate on other things. I know what palettes I’m going to pull from. Pete responded to the choice of Thomas Newman scores really well.

HULLFISH: Do you remember specific scores you used?

DON VITO: White Oleander was some of it. I think I used one cut from Up Close and Personal, which is a movie I worked on. There wasn’t a lot from Up Close and Personal, but there was one piece that worked. I probably used five or six different Thomas Newman scores.

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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