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When we last touched base with editor and longtime Creative COW member and community leader, Alan Edward Bell, ACE, he had just finished cutting The Amazing Spider-Man. For The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, we find him reunited with director Francis Lawrence, for whom he edited Water for Elephants. Bell talks about the challenges of editing Catching Fire and some of the gear choices he made to improve the pipeline's efficiency.
Alan E Bell|
Creative COW: When did you get asked to edit Hunger Games: Catching Fire?
Alan Edward Bell: I got the call to join Catching Fire about two weeks after it was published that [director] Francis [Lawrence] would be taking on the second Hunger Games movie. There wasn't a script yet, so Francis told me to read the book and focus on that, which is what I did. Then we met briefly and discussed the movie in terms of the book, and I had time to go on a vacation.
CC: How early did you start work in the pre-pro/production process?
AEB: I've never worked on a movie where I haven't started three days before the shoot begins. My assistants usually start a week or two before, setting up the room. We shot for 10 or 11 weeks in Atlanta and then a month in Hawaii. When the crew went to Hawaii, we went to Los Angeles to set up our editing room.
By the time they started shooting, my room was built; they would shoot for a week or two and I'd put together assemblies and rough cuts. Francis would come in on the weekend and see what I'd done. Basically, I chase camera and recut whenever I can. I'll work on scenes that need more work – we keep cutting, polishing, cutting, polishing... a familiar kind of process.
Hunger Games: Catching Fire was shot on film in IMAX, and IMAX has its challenges because it's such a loud camera system. It's like each actor has his personal leaf-blower. They would shoot an entire scene with six or seven set-ups, and then record it separately with each actor there so I could just get audio. It's a little challenging, and it's rare that you're replacing every single line in multiple scenes.
CC: You have a background in VFX. How did that come into play in your work on this film?
AEB: The movie is a VFX extravaganza, and I had to do a lot of VFX that illustrated timings so you could see what was happening when, for example, you had a protagonist and the multiple 3D CGI antagonists. I hadn't done an awful lot of that, although I'd done some on The Amazing Spider-Man. But the set pieces were quite large on this movie and there were a lot of elements to comb through and figure out.
One thing that made the process much easier was eyeon Fusion Connection, a node-based software like Shake or Nuke, but significantly less expensive than those packages. Fusion Connection enabled me to easily composite clips without having to export clips, render outside of Avid Media Composer and then import them back in. Fusion Connection is a full-on 3D compositing tool – it far surpasses anything that Avid has in its toolbox – and the amount of time I saved was phenomenal. I've owned Fusion for many years but this was the first time I used it on a show all the way through. So that was new for me. We're using Fusion on the next two Hunger Games movies, as well.
Above left, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, left), Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, center), Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, right); above right, Liam Hemsworth as 'Gale Hawthorne'. Photo credit: Murray Close|
Having a background in VFX did come in handy on this movie; I understand VFX probably as good as any editor if not more than most. But I'm not doing things like filling in greenscreen backgrounds. I'm cutting scenes to create connections between characters and between the audience and characters to make sure the audience feels something and that there's clarity of story. That's what I'm doing first and foremost. If I'm in a room and there's greenscreen out the window, I'm not really worried about filling the hole. In fact, it's more distracting if it doesn't look great.
The way I do use digital tools is for performance. If I don't have the performance I want, or the timing isn't working, or I cut together a performance but the matching is so bad that it takes you out of the scene, I fix it. If the character on the left has a great performance in Take 2 and the one on the right has a great performance in Take 5, I combine them. I do this on a very regular basis and I can do them as quickly as humanly possible with the tools at my disposal. Those are the kinds of effects I tend to do more of. I may animate some stick figures that stand in for CG characters, so I have something for my main character to interact with, but it's very temp and I can do it quickly, down and dirty, just to help the process.
Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). Photo credit: Murray Close
When I do my "invisible performance enhancing" effects, I make sure it's invisible. A lot of times, a director will see it and not know that I've speed-ramped one character in a take and not another character. But I always have to know what the footage will allow me to do and when it's appropriate to do these things. You can't morph someone who's facing left into someone who's facing right. That's where my background in VFX comes in. I'm focused on story and performance, and I leave the 3D animation and matte paintings to the pros.
CC: How quickly did you begin inputting VFX?
AEB: As soon as possible; the chariot scene, for example, we turned over a week after it was shot. By the time we screened for the studio, we had temp effects that were rival to effects in many movies. Our Visual Effects Supervisor, Janek Sirrs is one of the best I've ever worked with. The quality of his work, the way he approaches his work is very story – and character based. There's a purpose for every choice he makes and it really shows – I had so much fun collaborating with him, I can't express it enough.
Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, left) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, right). Photo Credit: Murray Close
CC: Tell me a bit more about how you collaborated with him.
AEB: There will be two, three, four plates and it's not always obvious where things belong and the notes aren't always in English. Janek was very good at understanding the big picture: why it was important to have a piece of debris falling at a certain rate because of how it interconnects to the next scene. He has a very good story sense. VFX people ordinarily look at the effects, but you need to look at how your effects relate to everything else. Janek sees how what he does relates to Katniss or supports the next two scenes.
I welcome people who are able to do this and include them in my process because they have a lot to give. When I was a fledgling editor, notes kind of scared me. The more I edit, the more open I've become. We might not necessarily agree on how to get to the end, but we all want to make the best movie we can, whether you're a studio executive, a VFX supervisor, a cinematographer, a make-up artist or a grip. It doesn't matter who you are; if you have an opinion about the movie, I want to know about it, so I can learn from it.
CC: Is there anything you did in terms of the pipeline or workflow that was unique to this movie?
AEB: This was the first time I cut a movie with a Wacom Cintiq tablet, where the monitor is a tablet and you use a pen on it. It was wonderful – I'll never go back. I've always used tablets and thought it would be so much better to use the pen right on the monitor so I got one of them and started using it. Shortly after I bought it, I realized the keyboard was in the way and I didn't know where to put the keyboard. I bought a Logitech G13 programmable game board and programmed all my major keys onto it and set it right next to the Wacom Cintiq. So my left hand is on the gamer pad and my right hand is drawing. It's fast and works great.
This movie was also the first time we used all Windows PCs for the Avid, because I wanted to run some of the software I use natively. For example, Fusion runs on Windows; it can run on Mac but only with an emulator. I thought, why not just run on Windows. I'm very platform agnostic. As long as I have a powerful computer, I'm happy.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Photo by Murray Close.
The guys at EPS-Cineworks set us up with all HP PCs, HP Z820s. It worked out really well. We had NVIDIA Quadro 4000 cards in all the systems, and they work quite well. At home I have several Macs and PCs. If you buy gaming tools, you get the same kind of horsepower you need for modeling and effects with only a 10 percent hit. You can't get a 17-inch laptop in the Mac world anymore and it's very expensive.
I bought a PC laptop recently and got 32GB of RAM, three SSDs, a graphics card with 900 CUDA cores and 4 GB of RAM, and it was under $3,500. I have this unbelievable computer that's at the starting price of a Mac book Pro that doesn't have half the horsepower. I'm looking for desktop replacements in laptops and it's hard for me to get that in the Mac world. I'm looking forward to the Mac Pro. I may buy one, but I don't know. I'm not saying one system is better than another. I own a lot of software and some of it runs only on Mac and some only on PC, so I have to own both systems.
CC: How much did the first Hunger Games influence your work?
AEB: The first movie established the world and its characters and we certainly benefited from that; we didn't have to introduce Katniss to anyone. We're making a series of books so you have to be true to the material and the first movie did that. Francis and [cinematographer] Jo Willems have a slightly different sensibility. But the first movie set a bar and a standard we had to live up to and we tried very hard to do that. It is a responsibility when characters have been developed that people love. We wanted to make a movie where people feel the same way about them. You're picking up the baton and carrying it down the road.
CC: The second movie or book in a trilogy can also be a challenge – you're not introducing the world to people or ending the story. Was that part of the challenge with Catching Fire?
AEB: When you make a movie that is part of a sequence, you want people who haven't seen the first movie to watch the second and enjoy themselves and understand what's happening, so that's a bit of a responsibility. The same for people who haven't read the books – you want them to understand the movie. The first movie sets up this world and what the games are and what the contestants go through. In the second book, there's a bit of what can feel like repetition. We made sure that the scenes that deliver information that newcomers need doesn't feel like repetition for the people who've read the books and saw the first movie.
Photo by Murray Close
Francis, [producer] Nina [Jacobson] and the writers Simon Beaufoy, Michael Arndt and Suzanne Collins did a really good job so that this [repetitive] content brought more and had some pay-off deeper into the film. Obviously, it's a middle movie but the script was so good and it's such a complete, encapsulated story, that I didn't really feel that we were just setting up the movies that are coming next. When I read the book and the script, I felt it was a good, cohesive story with a beginning, middle and end. I'll let you decide.
CC: What were the biggest challenges in the movie from your point of view?
AEB: It was a very large movie with numerous action pieces that were more than just action because you have to follow the main character and balance emotion and clarity. Because I had so much footage, making sure each scene made sense and propelled the story forward was a big responsibility. You know the saying, How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. I'm not going to say it was an overwhelming challenge because it wasn't, but you had to take it one step at a time. Seeing the forest through the trees was something I had to think about a lot to make sure I wasn't getting lost in the minutiae of all these wonderful performances.
Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, left) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, right). Photo credit: Murray Close
All the actors are so great that I also didn't want to let them down. If you're working on an indie film and the actor only knows his lines by the last take, it's a no brainer. On a movie like this, the actor brings something amazing to each take. It really hits you that when you have people who aren't the best, it's easier to choose and go to bed knowing you got it right. But when you have 18 million choices and have to hone in on one and know why you honed in on it... that was a bit of a challenge. It was more of a mind game. Catching Fire is a huge, huge movie where we had to keep a lot of plates spinning. Keeping those spinning plates in the air was unrelenting.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - EXCLUSIVE Final Trailer