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A Tale of Two Mockingjays: The Hunger Games Epic Finale(s)

COW Library : Art of the Edit : Tim Wilson : A Tale of Two Mockingjays: The Hunger Games Epic Finale(s)
CreativeCOW presents A Tale of Two Mockingjays: The Hunger Games Epic Finale(s) -- Art of the Edit Editorial
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Editing is storytelling.

So as we tell the story of Alan Bell, ACE and Mark Yoshikawa, ACE editing The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, let's start with the very first edit decision made by director Francis Lawrence: making the third book of Suzanne Collin's written trilogy as two films.

Why begin with something so potentially controversial? Because the decision of how tell the story has everything to do with how the story was told, which had everything to do with how it was edited, including technology, and, yes, the number of editors.

Alan Bell, ACE and Mark Yoshikawa, ACE
Alan Bell, ACE and Mark Yoshikawa, ACE

"I know it's an easy place for critics to go and say, 'Oh, it's just money grubbing,'" says Alan, a longtime member of Creative COW, "but I look at these two movies, and I look at that last book, and I don't know how you can tell that size of a story and do it justice in two hours. I don't know even how you could do it in three hours.

"I know how you could do it in four, because that's essentially what we did."

The issue, Alan observes, is that there are two very different stories being told in Mockingjay, in two very different locations that reflect these highly contrasting narratives. The first location/narrative is almost entirely internal. It largely takes place in the subterranean District 13, and is very much concerned with tracking the inner journey of Katniss Everdeen.

Mockingjay Part 1 takes us through her (exceptionally powerfully portrayed) state of post-traumatic stress, compounded as new burdens pile on her, as she fights her way toward some kind of clarity about who she is, and what's worth fighting for.

The stuff that Katniss is living through? You don't just snap out of that. Part 1 is, of necessity, an unusually quiet film for an epic on this scale.

Mockingjay Part 2? Not quite so quiet.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 Official TV Spot – "Epic Finale"

"There was claustrophobia," says Alan Bell, ACE, who also edited the second Hunger Games film, Catching Fire. "These people are trapped, but we wanted to create the feeling of being stuck that wasn't just about the surroundings, but to reflect how Katniss is feeling."

Mark Yoshikawa, ACE joined Alan for editing the Mockingjay films, and as someone who was already a fan of The Hunger Games books, he very appreciated the quiet tension at the heart of Part 1. "I think tonally, that comes from the script, but Francis had also referenced a number of World War II films, including [the submarine movie] Das Boot, where Mockingjay 2 is a battlefield movie. You're going out, and you're following soldiers.

"Mockingjay 1 is quieter, and certainly a setup for the action in Mockingjay 2, but it's also more internal," Mark says. "Katniss is just coming out of the Quarter Quell arena, she doesn't know where Peeta is, and you're completely in her perspective in this strange world of District 13. Building that world was so interesting in itself, but I love that quietness, that simmering, that internal struggle."

As a viewer, and a fan of Hunger Games in print and onscreen, your scribe will add that the startling climax of Mockingjay (which is to say, the climax of the entire saga) would be nonsense if we didn't know every bit as much about District 13 as we do as a result of the first film.

Says Alan, "If we had to take those two movies and make them into one, you would lose too much of that story."

As the follow-up to the global smash Hunger Games, and its red-hot star Jennifer Lawrence having just won an Oscar for her work in Silver Linings Playbook, it was clear that Catching Fire was going to be a big job, by any measure. Alan was more than ready, having just come off another pretty big picture, The Amazing Spider-Man (estimated budget $230 million, $757 worldwide gross).

"I pretty much edited that one by myself," he says, "but because we knew we were going to shoot Mockingjay 1 and 2 back to back, and they had some sizable action sequences as well as an accelerated post for the first one – posting the first while continuing to shoot the second – Francis and I discussed hiring another editor. That's where Mark came in."

"One day Alan gave me a call and asked me if I'd heard of these Hunger Games movies," Mark laughs. "I thought Alan did a great job on Catching Fire, so when he invited me on, it was a great opportunity."

A recurring theme throughout our conversation is that the two of them were completely comfortable having the other work on his edits. In the end, they each touched every scene together to one degree or another. "The movie is much stronger because of that," says Alan.

This was critical because of the accelerated schedule, especially for Mockingjay 1, which was being posted while both it and Mockingjay 2 were being shot simultaneously.

Adding a little to the degree of difficulty is that post was taking place in multiple locations. For 7 months of production, everyone was in Atlanta, but while Mark and Jennifer were in a cutting room, Alan was working in a trailer on-set, configured as similarly as possible.

"I had always talked to Francis about this idea of being able to cut on set, where I had an editing room trailer," says Alan. "One of the issues with making films today is that crews are working such long hours, it's hard to get time with the director while you're shooting.

"Even though we watched dailies at lunch – which a lot of shows have given up on – we had a half hour for lunch, and 2 to 3 hours of dailies, so you're not really watching, you're just skipping ahead, maybe looking at the last take for every setup.

"What I discovered on Catching Fire, where it wasn't as easy to throw a cut in front of Francis – it's not that the work suffered, but it wasn't an efficient way to work. I wanted to be on set so I could actually communicate with Francis throughout the day. Some days, I wouldn't talk to him at all, but other days I'd talk to him several times.

"I created a trailer that was basically identical to my offsite editing room, and Mark had an editing room, and they were all three virtually identical for editing, projection, and sound."

On set cutting room trailer for Mockingjay 2
Set Cutting Room trailer

For seven months, Alan, Mark, and Alan's longtime assistant Jennifer Vecchiarello were all in Atlanta: Alan in his trailer focused on Mockingjay 1 as camera footage came rolling in, and Mark working on Mockingjay 2 rough assembly with Jennifer when she wasn't handling dailies.

The heart of their collaboration infrastructure was Avid Media Composer and Avid ISIS. Footage from all four films was online at all times, with separate systems for editors, assistants, and VFX editors.

For the 7 months that the production was based in Atlanta, the collaboration between Alan in the trailer and the two offsite rooms was fairly straightforward. A combination of ISIS shared storage for projects, bins, etc., encrypted local storage, sneakernet, and digital delivery.

Alan in the set trailer

While managing the two Mockingjay films simultaneously, the footage from the first two Hunger Games was also online at all times, in Avid DNxHD 36 resolution to keep the whole thing nimble. Alan was very happy to take advantage of Media Composer's famed media management of course, but also its extensibility. When he needed more power, he made some up. "I wrote some Python scripts that allowed me to update the project, so whenever they gave me the latest version of the project, I would get all of Mark's work, and it wouldn't overwrite my work."

While the goal was to shoot sequentially, shared locations made it impractical NOT to shoot footage for both films at the same time. Production shifted to Europe for scenes at the end of Mockingjay 1 and the beginning of Mockingjay 2, which left Alan working in Europe with footage coming straight off the set for both films.

Mark quickly shifted to Mockingjay 1 to help Alan finesse the massive climactic set-piece, the rescue of Peeta from where he is being held in the Capitol – carrying forward the themes of claustrophobia and being trapped: arguably the biggest finale in the tightest space in recent cinema history.

And it really was massive. The first cut for that single rescue sequence was nearly half an hour. They eventually got it down to 9 minutes – not exactly by cutting anything in particular out, as much as just making it tighter and tighter.

Alan says, "The thing that was unique about the finale in Mockingjay 1 is that it was shot over many different locations, on many different days over the course of the entire 9 month shoot. Because it was so heavily laden with visual effects – virtually every shot in fact – we had to turn it around really quickly."

Their trick: take advantage of the time zone differences Alan's location in Europe and Mark's in Los Angeles, their easily shared projects, bins, and media through Avid Everywhere, and edit around the clock.

"It was awesome," Alan laughs. "I'd be ready to sign off for the day, and we'd have a video chat – 'I did this, this and this, and this is what I was thinking we could do' – and we'd do the same thing when it was time for him to sign off and I was coming back on. He'd give me his notes, and we'd just keep passing it back and forth, and it just got better and better. It was very collaborative, and it was very cool."

Alan E. Bell's (ACE) cutting room
Alan's Los Angeles cutting room. In center, note his Wacom Cintiq tablet, which he first used for cutting the 2nd Hunger Games film, Catching Fire. "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."

"We used to joke that it was like Avid editing elves doing work for us overnight," laughs Mark, "and we'd open up the bins in the morning to see what they left us.

"Because of the time difference, the overlap was perfect. It was also necessary because of the time crunch. By the time Alan got back from Europe where they were shooting Mockingjay 2, we had to lock Mockingjay 1 within 6 weeks."

Mark's Mockingjay 2 set visit

One of the keys to delivering on these kinds of deadlines wasn't just the occasional week of 24-hour editing. It was efficiency, and for Alan, that has always meant having the option to use compositing to solve problems that cutting alone can't.

"I'm a big believer in enhancing performances with compositing when necessary," he says. "I usually try to cut my way around whatever my issues are, but once I have the scene working the way I want it to, I can go back and at the very least fix things that don't match.

"Sometimes not having to cut is the solution. When you want to drop a line, or when you want somebody to react to something and it's not happening – maybe one of the actors has finished the line, but the other actor hasn't finished landing in position, or you want to drop a line without introducing a cut – you can make the cut more efficient if you can composite."

Also efficient: not having to wrangle a lot of round-tripping. The Avid Connection plug-in for Fusion (originally developed at eyeon; since acquired by Blackmagic Design) creates a drag and drop, resolution-independent, node-based compositing environment inside Avid.

Although the free version of Blackmagic Design Fusion 8 is now available as a public beta, the $995 Fusion Studio is the one with the Avid plug-in. At this is written, the latest version, Fusion Studio 7, is still Windows-only.

"I insisted that everybody use Windows systems because I like Fusion for compositing. You've got this great plug-in, and I wanted to not have to jump around, to do my compositing right there in the cutting room. If I want to drop a line without cutting away, I can do a face morph, or I can pick a section of their face from somewhere else in the take and morph it onto itself, so that I lose the line without cutting away and losing an emotional moment.

"These are things that over the years that I've taught myself to do. I'm also pretty good at estimating how long it's going to take me to do something, so for the most part I composite as I work. I can do it much more powerfully with access to Fusion's node-based compositing inside Avid."

"Longtime member of Creative COW Alan Bell, ACE earlier spoke to us about his work on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."

Projection and sound were an important new addition to Alan's workflow.

"When you came into one of our rooms, it was like going to the movies," Alan says, assuming that your local theater has the comfy sofas that Alan's edit rooms do. Since they were working with DNxHD 36 footage, they were able to get away with relatively inexpensive HD monitors. The original footage of course looked fantastic, and DNxHD 36 is specifically optimized for edit suites and client screenings, so, once again, the combination of bang for the buck and workflow efficiency was ideal.

"I feel very strongly that that's the way you should work. There are too many differences between a small screen and a big screen, where you might say, oooo, I don't know if I would have made that cut right there like that.' We simply avoided that problem."

Perhaps an even bigger change for Alan, as well as a first-time experience for Mark, was working in 5.1 surround. "It changed the way sequences feel," says Alan. "A good example was one of Mark's sequences, the run to President Snow's mansion for the finale of Mockingjay 2. Having 5.1 sound made it really kick butt.

"Without it everything is coming from the front of the room. When you're cutting a scene where people are running and bullets are whizzing by, being able to map that happening all around you, and still being able to hear people talking to each other – that's huge.

"In the old days, you're constantly in action scenes with music and effects stepping on dialog, so you wait for the final mix for that clarity to come in – which is the wrong place. That clarity needs to be there all along."

Mark agrees, adding that an important part of world-building is having the same kind of precise control over auditory cues that he and Alan had with visual cues, especially for defining the sizes of spaces.

"There are a number of speeches in these movies," Mark notes, including several crucial ones by Julianne Moore's President Coin, both in District 13 and in the Capitol, in venues of widely varying sizes. "Sometimes you can just put a simple reverb to give a sense of space, and it could get very difficult to hear her as clearly in the stereo mix.

"Having that reverb on her voice in the center channel, feeling like you're in this cavernous room and still being able to understand her is something you need for the theater – but it's a great way to cut, because you get a sense of exactly what you hear, which affects how long you can stay on a cut."

"Exactly!" says Alan. "It was IMPORTANT for us to work in surround. Ninety percet of Mockingjay 1 took place underground, but there were all these different spaces, with different room tones. When you're in the medical area, it sounds different than the dining area or the common areas. We created signatures that we were able carry through the environments we created."

Alan very quickly adds that sound designer/supervising sound editor Jeremy Peirson (who'd also previously worked with Alan and Francis on Water for Elephants and Mark on Tree of Life) "made them a million times better," but the amount of work that he and Mark were able to do so quickly were also able to contribute to the efficiency needed to pull all this off on time.

Peeta and Katniss

"All of this in the end comes down to Francis's vision," says Mark, "trying to serve that. While he was still shooting in Europe, Alan and i had to serve as each other's sounding boards, but with his full attention in Los Angeles, things went much more smoothly, more efficiently."

This was true for posting the end of Mockingjay 1, but became even more the case on Mockingjay 2, which was completed at a much easier pace over the next year.

Alan offers an example from when he and Mark were working in parallel on the two most harrowing sequences in Mockingjay 2. Katniss and the handful of surviving soldiers fighting their way through tunnels neck deep in water and lizardy humanoid "mutts" that make The Walking Dead look like a kiddy ride, and the freedom fighters' subsequent final push into battle.

""I was cutting and recutting the lizard sequence, while Mark was working on the raid on President Snow's mansion," says Alan. "The way we'd collaborate is that Mark would come in with Francis, and we'd look at the sequence together and say 'That's working,' 'I'm confused – where are we?', and make adjustments. Then we'd do the same thing with Mark's sequence, with the three of us, and with Jennifer, the four of us, reviewing the work as it went, "The Europe thing was kind of cool because cutting the finale of Mockingjay 1 was non-stop, literally around the clock, for a week: just cut recut, cut recut – but the collaboration was like that all the way through. We were very open to having each other recut each other's footage, and I think the movie is much stronger because of that."

It seems inevitable now, but honestly, it's kind of insane that this movie series about kids being forced to murder other kids for the amusement of fiendishly decadent one-percenters was made at all, much less that it became a multi-billion dollar franchise.

Frankly, it may be even less explicable that The Hunger Games became the ever first binge-read book series – and I'm betting that you forgot that they're Young Adult books, published by Scholastic Press. With millions of the three books titles in print, it would have been ridiculous to consider watering down their film adaptations – the YA audience had already bought fully in, or course – but there's no getting around that the two Mockingjays are daaaaaark, by any standard of storytelling for any age viewer.

"The vision from the beginning," says Mark, "is that they didn't want to back off from the themes that they felt so strongly about. It wasn't going to be just a popcorn piece."

THAT, to this viewer, is the greatest gift that we are given by having two Mockingjays. Not just protecting the plot of one novel, but protecting the themes of the entire series.

For Katniss, the key theme may be that there is an almost incalculable price to pay for victory, and that victors will keep paying that price for the rest of their lives. Even at the end of first Hunger Games, the "Victor's Village" is exposed as a kind of prison, populated by people whose nightmares will never go away. Three films later, we realize that it's even worse than we thought, but having two Mockingjay films gives the series room to avoid both tired cynicism and glib triumphalism.

"I have to say, these movies really do build up to bigger things," says Alan. "It's not just a super-woman 'Wow, that Katniss Everdeen can do anything' – this is a woman who is damaged by her experiences, and she is watching how power corrupts people, and what war does to humanity. I think that's a pertinent story in today's world.

"For me, these films are remarkable. They're entertaining, so you get these popcorn moments, but they ask something of the audience that other tentpole movies do not, to think about these issues and to empathize with what these people have gone through.

We have tons of veterans wandering around suffering the kind of PTSD that Katniss is at the beginning of Catching Fire, and by the end of Mockingjay 1, there's a whole generation of people who have gone through similar experiences. I think The Hunger Games has been a great way to show young people the effects of war, and at the same time, be really entertaining."

The challenge for both Mark and Alan is figuring out what's next for themselves. Neither currently has anything booked. "This material is going to be hard to beat," says Alan. "I'm really having to really look around and ask, 'Wow, what kind of movie do I want to work on next?', because for ME this was a really important journey."

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