Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Growing The Tree of Life: Editing Malick's Odyssey
Earlier this Spring I wrote an article for Cinema Editor magazine, the official publication of American Cinema Editors (ACE), in which I interviewed some of the individuals involved in the editing of The Tree of Life, which just hit DVD and Blu-Ray this week. (Some of the research for this also overlapped with my piece on Q and The Tree of Life for New York Magazine in May.) Cinema Editor has now graciously allowed me to publish the piece on this blog. (But you should consider subscribing; it's a quarterly publication, and there's lots of great stuff in there.) This version includes some material not in the original piece.
The article was written long before I actually saw the film, so it has to dance around certain elements, as did the editors themselves. (God knows, I would have had so many more questions had I been able to see and give specifics about the film before I spoke to the editors.) But it was still a fascinating experience doing it. Enjoy. And watch this space for some more Tree of Life thoughts later this week.
GROWING THE TREE OF LIFE
In the Beginning…
There are few films more highly anticipated this year than Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a project that has been shrouded in mystery and wonder ever since it was first announced on the heels of 2005’s The New World. In fact, this is a film the legendary writer-director had been working on and thinking about for a long time, having originated as a project called Q back in the late 1970s, following the release of his 1978 classic Days of Heaven.
Tree is both intimate and ambitious in scope, intertwining the story of a Texas family in the 1950s with the story of the origins of the cosmos and the natural history of the world. “This movie deals with some huge issues,” says Billy Weber, one of the five credited editors on the film. “It’s about life and death and the meaning of it all, but it does so in part through these very small, intimate scenes.”
Malick’s highly personal and unique approach to filmmaking is the stuff of lore: He loves to improvise on set, often changing the whole tenor and tone of a scene from take to take. He loves to try unusual things, like asking his actors to do an entire scripted scene without actually speaking any of the dialogue. And he loves to shoot lots and lots of footage – some of it featuring the actors in the film, some of it just capturing the wonders – both grand and small – of the natural setting around him.
Such unorthodox shooting methods also call for an unorthodox approach to editing; in his recent films, Malick has opted to use teams of editors, and his latest was no different. The five credited editors on the film are Weber, Daniel Rezende, Jay Rabinowitz, Hank Corwin, and Mark Yoshikawa.
Weber, a longtime friend and collaborator of Malick’s who had edited Days of Heaven and was one of the Academy Award-nominated triumvirate that cut The Thin Red Line (along with Leslie Jones and Saar Klein), had also worked on the original Q project back in the day. He was the first editor on The Tree of Life, working for about three months: “I wasn’t able to be in Austin continuously for longer than that,” he recalls, “and I didn’t think Terry should edit the film in Los Angeles,” noting that the press-shy director prefers to work near his home base in Texas.
Malick’s reticence to leave Austin is perhaps understandable, as even the editing space sounds like a setting from one of his films. First assistant editor and associate editor Chris Roldan recalls that the team was nestled in an edit room in Austin that “had a lot of wildlife at the windows, which is something I had never experienced in an edit room. There were a lot of deer that would feed off of our windows and also a Tarantula that hung around outside the edit room, which Billy named ‘Tranny’.”
Handling All That Footage
Each editor worked on the film for about three months – except for Yoshikawa, who found himself working from the Spring of 2009 through September 2010, when the editing wrapped. (“I was in Austin for so long that Terry started buying me Texas Longhorns merchandise,” he laughs.) As might be imagined, each editor also had different creative and technical needs, and it was up to Roldan to make sure that they “could get up to speed on the project and into their creative zone as quickly as possible.” Roldan did this by giving them what he terms a “map” to the film. “I am probably the only person in the edit room who saw all of the footage,” he recalls. “To make it very flexible for the editors, I had about three different ways of organizing the footage, but ultimately I became the go-to person for what was shot where and on what format.”
Although the film was mostly shot on 35mm 4p, Roldan says that there were also elements of RED 4k, HD, SD Video, 65mm and even lo-res QuickTimes that they were working with. As a result of this huge amount of media, the film was cut in standard def, using 14:1 meridien codec. He also notes that it was a bit of a “juggling act” to run multiple systems seven days a week. “I am the type that likes dependability over ‘latest/greatest,’ so I had us running on a Unity with Mac OSX 10.4 clients and Avid MC 2.6. We rarely had any problems.”
Meanwhile, second assistant editor Rachel McPherson compiled a Filemaker Pro database that would allow the team to quickly search by scene, actor, subject, weather, costume, dialogue, or concept. Roldan notes that this made things easier particularly towards the end of the editing process, “when we would be looking for a particular shot of a location or character that would match for light or wardrobe.” He adds: “Another thing we did for the editors was paint the main edit room with magnetic paint and create scene cards with magnets on the back.” This allowed the team to have broader discussions about structure.
“The film is really built around a lot of little scenes – hundreds of little scenes and moments,” says Weber, who adds that unlike with a traditional feature, Tree of Life didn’t start off with an assembly. “There was too much footage for that.” And, of course, that footage, courtesy of director of photography Emanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (who was nominated for an Oscar for The New World), was gorgeous, and nothing like any other filmmaker’s. While many directors will film a lot of set-ups of the same scene, Malick prefers to shoot a lot of different scenes but not too many setups. “There was a lot of handheld shots, where the kids in the film would be running around, and the Steadicam operator would just be in the middle of this whirlwind,” says Yoshikawa.
Roldan adds: “Chivo and Terry shoot in such a spontaneous way that the camera has a sort of consciousness to it, so it was not unusual to get a shot of a bird or insect in-between takes or at the end of a roll.” As a result, he had the idea of organizing the footage more along the lines of a documentary, allowing the team to browse the footage by subject. “We had folders for Earth, Sky, Water, Animals, Miscellaneous, and then within those, bins that were more specific,” he says. Roldan also organized characters into bins for when they were alone and when they were together with other characters in specific combinations. “We were constantly refining this system according to the needs of the editors.”
Weber says that Malick’s approach to shooting is something the director has been developing over the years – an attempt to give an impression that everything has been shot on the fly. “We call it ‘walking down the garden path’” he says, “where nothing is locked down, where you don’t know where you’re going, or where the film is taking you. The New World was where he really experimented with that, and by the time he got to Tree of Life, he and Chivo had perfected their system. Every take was different.” Perhaps needless to say, that presented its own set of challenges for the editors. “There was no logic to the slating, even,” says Weber. “It’s not like Take 3 had anything to do with Take 2. It’d be a different scene.” Despite those challenges, however, Weber feels that Malick’s stylistic approach pays enormous dividends artistically. “I’m sure Terry would have trouble describing why he does it, but I think it’s because it feels more human, in a way – more spontaneous.”
Yoshikawa echoes that sentiment, adding that Malick wanted to avoid anything with “even had a hint of being presented or intentional. We tried to avoid the traditional shot-reverse shot approach to cutting scenes.” It also meant that because of the director’s improvisational, loose shooting style, sometimes there would be multiple scenes covering similar ground, meaning that the editors had to choose which scene best represented what the film was trying to do thematically. “We were always wanting to find unique moments of subtle and spontaneous action that also allow the camera to do the cutting,” Roldan says. “Sometimes those moments were as obvious as a butterfly spontaneously landing on Jessica Chastain's hand, and sometimes they were as subtle as a shoulder shrug or eye movement.”
The Freedom to Try Anything
Luckily, Malick likes to give his editors a lot of flexibility. “Terry is willing to try anything, Absolutely anything,” says Weber. “Sometimes we’d cut a character out of a scene, or cut all the dialogue out of a scene, just to see if it worked. And when you’ve worked with him for any length of time, you can even try that without asking him about it first. He’s very open to looking at anything that you try.” That flexibility reaches even to the way Malick likes to give direction: Yoshikawa observes that while the director has a very deep understanding of the technology of film, he prefers to speak in metaphors. “Terry isn’t the kind of guy who would ever give a direction like, ‘Cut ten frames from this shot.’ He’d rather say something like, ‘Make this scene feel more like a fleeting thought.’ I spent so much time in Austin working with him that I started speaking in metaphors as well!”
Malick even decided to open up the editing process to film students from USC and the University of Texas at Austin. “I’m a big believer in letting kids try their hand at editing scenes, because you get a certain spontaneity from them that you’re not going to get from Terry or me, ‘cause we’re too old,” chuckles Weber, noting that this was something he and Malick had thought about doing for a long time. “Kids don’t censor themselves – their brains are in a different place. So we had students give it a shot. And we’d have interns come in at night and cut scenes. And some of those people stayed on the movie the whole time!”
Since this is a Terrence Malick film, music and voiceover also played an important role in the shape of the final work. “As usual, Terry experimented a lot with the voiceover – recording different people,” says Weber. “At first, Terry didn’t know if he wanted any of the kids doing the voiceover in the movie. But he thought he might, so he recorded them.” Yoshikawa says that Malick enjoyed recording voiceover with Hunter McCracken, the young boy who plays Jack, the oldest of the three brothers in the film. “Hunter is also from Texas, from a small town near Dallas, so Terry and he would just keep going in these recording sessions.” He adds that the way Malick uses voiceover is unlike many other filmmakers: “It can be non-narrative. We’ll even use voiceover where you can’t understand all of what’s being said. Even if it’s just a whisper -- Terry likes that.”
As for music, the team had to work with both music that was being recorded by composer Alexandre Desplat and classical music that Malick had specifically envisioned for the project. “He was looking at the score as he was looking at the rest of the film,” says Yoshikawa. “He didn’t want it to feel manipulative. Sometimes, it would seem like there’d be an obvious point to put in a bit orchestral score, or to have the music swell during a particular scene. We would always try to stay away from those.”
As usual, Malick brought his prodigious knowledge to bear on his choices, bringing in music as varied as the French Baroque composer Francois Couperin and Twentieth Century experimental works. Roldan notes that it was a big challenge just to keep up with the music “and knowing, for example, the differences between the Atlanta Symphony and Sir Colin Davis versions of the Berlioz’s Requiem. I think I may have heard every good version of that symphony that has been recorded in the last 40 years.” He adds: “ I had very little exposure to classical music before, but by the time I was done on Tree of Life, I knew Smetana from Gorecki.”
Taking Final Shape…
There was, however, one thing that Malick hadn’t worked with before, but which was very important to Tree of Life. For a film that tackles the history of the universe, needless to say, Visual Effects were crucial. Malick didn’t want to edit the film and then wait for effects to be finished. Rather, he wanted to have effects ready that could then be cut into the film. VFX supervisor Dan Glass set up an office right next to the editing suite, allowing the director to shuttle back and forth between the different teams. “Terry was very specific about how he wanted those VFX shots to look,” Yoshikawa says. “He probably spent as much time with them as he did with editorial.”
“Dan and Brad Friedman, our Digital FX supervisor, were wonderful to work with,” says Roldan. “They were able to turn ideas around very quickly so that we could try them out in the cut as early as possible.” Douglas Trumbull, the legendary artist responsible for many of the VFX in 2001: A Space Odyssey also worked on the film. “He came in and did a lot of amazing home-made experimental VFX that became incorporated into Dan and Brad's work,” says Roldan.
Amid all this wild experimentation, the editorial team also had to be careful about maintaining the unique rhythms and emotions of this highly unusual film. Weber and Yoshikawa both agree that Tree of Life is probably Malick’s most experimental work – which may have given them a lot of freedom, but also presented new, unforeseen challenges. “Even on The New World, we had some specific plot points that we had to hit,” Yoshikawa says. “We knew that John Smith had to leave at a certain point, that John Rolfe had to show up – that sort of thing.” But with Tree of Life, because the film was built on so many small moments, that made structuring the film a challenge in itself. “Because a lot of the film isn’t really centered on plot, you could make some huge change to a scene, or cut a whole scene out, without losing anything plot-wise. But then later on you might look at the film and feel like something was missing emotionally, and you’d realize – it was because of this change you made earlier down the line.”
It all resulted in a work that was ever shifting as it approached the finish line. Yoshikawa, with his newfound propensity to speak in metaphors, likens the process to the voyage of a ship. “When the ship starts sailing, there are lot of different ports where it could end up, and the directions you take out at sea will determine where you end up. In the end, you’re trying to find a good port to land in.” But perhaps the final word should go to Roldan, who, as first assistant editor and associate editor, probably had to see the complete film more times than anyone else during post-production. “I have seen the film 49 times, and I'm waiting to pay for a ticket to see it for the 50th time,” he says. “It was always evolving, sometimes at a rapid pace, so I'm sure it will be a new experience when I see it again.