Tim Squyres Edits Life of Pi
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Tim Squyres, who was just nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Life of Pi, got hooked on film when he took an introductory film course at Cornell University in upstate New York. After graduating, he worked on student films at New York University and cut his first feature film as editor on Mark Levin's low-budget comedy Blowback. That film's first AD Ted Hope asked Squyres if he wanted to work on a little movie by a Taiwanese director, Ang Lee. Pushing Hands (1991) was a substantial hit in Taiwan but not planned for U.S. release. Squyres and Lee hit it off, so the director asked him to work on his next film Wedding Banquet (1993). When that movie won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, Squyres says he "realized we were making actual movies."
Since then, Squyres has cut 11 movies directed by Ang Lee including Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Ice Storm (1997) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). (The only Lee movie he hasn't edited was Brokeback Mountain, due to scheduling conflicts). He also edited Syriana, Rachel Getting Married, and Robert Altman's Gosford Park, as well as several television documentaries for Bill Moyers, Michael Moore, ESPN, and VH1, and various commercials and music videos.
For his work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Squyres won Best Editor Award at the Taipei Golden Horse Festival and received nominations from the Academy, The American Cinema Editors, U.S.A., and the British Academy Awards.
Squyres talks to Creative COW about the challenges of editing Ang Lee's first digitally shot feature film, which was also a stereoscopic 3D release.
Tim Squyres, ACE
Life of Pi was a complicated film to make, and not just for the obvious reason that it's about a tiger in a lifeboat in the ocean. It was a complicated story to adapt to a script. If you read the book, there's the adventure story about the boy, the tiger and the boat. But it's not really what the book is about. It ends on something that's intellectual and philosophical, which is not usually what you do in movies. You usually want to end a movie on an emotional note, but this book ends on a big idea, and that's why people like the book. We wanted to be true to the theological argument that Yann Martell was trying to make in the book. How to do that in a way that was cinematic was a big challenge.
The great thing about working with Ang is that he doesn't make the same movie over and over again. It's constant development. When he decides to do a martial arts film, he doesn't look for a martial arts editor; he says, "Tim, you're going to learn to cut martial arts." In working with him, whatever new thing he's attracted to, I need to wrap my thinking about this.
Life of Pi was something new, with themes and visuals unlike anything we've done before. We're always pushing each other. We agree 95 percent of the time, but the other 5 percent is what we talk about. If you disagree too much, you can't work together and if you agree all the time, you're wasting your time. We push each other a little bit and wind up hopefully with something better than either of us would do on our own.
This was Ang's first film shooting digitally. He had always shot on film and initially he had to be talked into 3D. You can't shoot modern 3D on film, so once we decided to pursue 3D, we had to shoot digital. He was wary of the digital cameras at first, but we shot a bunch of tests and the Alexa won him over, especially when he saw what he could get in low light. Working with the cameras was a positive experience for him.
We're shooting in 3D, which is hard; we're shooting on water, which is hard; we're shooting with an inexperienced actor, which can be hard (although he turned out to be quite good); and then there are the animals and all the visual effects. Each one of these factors makes shooting a movie difficult, and we had all of them in the same movie on what was a fairly tight schedule. We simply weren't going to be able to get the same kind of coverage you would normally get. We would be constrained. On a wave tank shooting in 3D, you're not going to get 30 set-ups in a day.
To stay alive, Pi (Suraj Sharma) must battle the epic forces of nature. Shot on a Canon EOS-1D Mark III by Peter Sorel. ™ and © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.
Knowing that, we knew we had to have a plan, and previsualization was how we did it. Halon in Los Angeles did the previsualization, which enabled us to make sure we had a plan that would work. Although we relied on previsualization to plan coverage, once the footage got to me, I wasn't constrained to cut it like the previs, although sometimes there weren't that many other options that made sense. I spent about half of the shoot in Taiwan, and half in New York; if there were a change on set while I was in Taiwan, I would usually go out to the set and talk to them, which is unusual for me. Usually in Ang's films, I'm nowhere near they're shooting. In this case, I got called in a lot to make sure it was going to work out.
Throughout the production, I'm giving Ang cuts all along, but he doesn't usually give me feedback and we don't edit together while he's shooting, because shooting takes up all his time. The first time I sat down with Ang, for Pushing Hands, he could hold a conversation [in English] fine, but he had never worked with an editor before because he'd cut all his own student films. When you're the director, all you can do in an editing room is talk, and you have to learn how to speak to the editor and what to do to get the movie cut. With his English not being good and his indirect way of getting to things, we did an awful lot of talking. At the same time, Ang and I have very similar film sensibilities so I never had to stretch to work on his footage. I've never needed any kind of coaching or prompting to get what he was after. It always came quite naturally.
Pushing Hands, by the way, we cut in film. Wedding Banquet we cut on an Avid, Media Composer 4.1, which, back in 1992, came on five floppy disks. For us, cutting digitally was really great because it meant I could just do things without having to talk about it a lot. When someone wants to try a major thing that you think won't work, if you're cutting film, you need to talk about it, because an edit in film takes a long time to do and a long time to undo. It's never a good idea to try everything you can think about, but for us, it was helpful that we could try any idea without worries.
One of the complications in editing Life of Pi was that we were cutting in Media Composer 5, because Media Composer 6 wasn't ready at the time. My assistant and I were beta testing MC6 before we started shooting, but it was a long beta, and it wasn't ready until a few months after we started shooting. Because the way you build the clips in MC5 is different, once you start in 5, you can't move to 6. Doing 3D VFX in MC5 was quite complicated. Even just doing re-convergence is kind of a pain in MC5. But the 3D support in MC6 is fantastic. Throughout the edit, it was frustrating that, at home, where I had the beta version of MC6, I could do things in a few seconds that back in the office would take me five minutes. So we developed all these procedures to do Life of Pi that are now obsolete.
Life of Pi was cut on Avid Media Composer 5, as MC 6 wasn't ready at the time. The team developed procedures and shortcuts for Life of Pi which are now obsolete for MC 6.
There was a big, complicated pipeline the footage had to go through before it got to me. Nowadays, for every movie you have to reinvent the whole post production process, with endless meetings and conference calls to work out the pipeline - and by the time you finish, it's obsolete. This film was shot in Taiwan; we built a wave tank and our sets at an abandoned airport. We also shot a bit in India but our main base was Taiwan, and we had our own digital lab there with a good projection room. I loved having the lab being at our place with our employees, where we didn't have to juggle with other jobs. If I had a shot that looked blown out in the Avid, I could look at it right away in the projection room to make sure the detail is there.
The files went to the digital lab, and there we did stereo corrections, both alignment and color, and overall color correction with the DP, and then they gave them to editorial; for every shot, we had a left eye only, right eye only, and a side by side. I worked entirely in 3D - I never worked in 2D at all. I didn't see the movie in 2D until about a month before we finished. We did everything with glasses on. I went through a lot of Advil. It's very important to do stereo correction before it gets to you, because that's one thing that causes eyestrain. We used passive glasses because they're lighter, and we didn't use the big funky ones you get in the movie theater. When you're wearing them all day, comfort is more important than anything else.
Our reasoning [for editing in 3D] was that neither of us had worked in 3D before, and we decided we wanted to think of 3D as our primary delivery. If the 3D was good, the 2D would take care of itself. We didn't want to cut in 2D and imagine what 3D would look like. We decided not to do any kind of translation; whether you're working on a Steenbeck or Avid, you're looking at your movie and imagining what it'll look like on a big screen. In 2D we have a lot of experience doing that, but we weren't confident we could look at a small image in 2D and know what it would feel like big in 3D. In our dailies screening room in Taiwan, we had a 3D projector. We brought it to NYC, where my cutting room had an 11.5 foot screen and a big sound system. It was a terrific small screening room and that was my primary edit monitor. When I was doing sound editing, I just would work on a plasma monitor, but when Ang was there we were on the big screen all the time, so we weren't imagining what it was going to look like.
Richard Parker reacts to the sudden appearance of a school of flying fish. Tim's staff put in animals, skies and backgrounds.
Photo: 20th Century Fox ™ and © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.
Because most of the film was full of VFX, right from the beginning we were comping tigers into the shots. We had Halon, the company that did the previs, strip the animals out of it and give them to us on green. Using mostly Avid Media Composer - although a couple of the very difficult shots went out into After Effects - our staff put in animals, skies, backgrounds. I would do some, crude things and then give it to my assistants or our visual effects editor Catherine Chase who would do the comping and give me back the mix-downs. I needed to work with mix-downs because otherwise, every reel would have been 100 megabytes. Doing this enabled us to watch the movie immediately, without having to wait for Rhythm & Hues to do their work.
With 3D, there are two new variables. The first is the interocular (IO) or interaxial (IA), which is the distance between the two lenses that essentially determines how much depth there is in a shot. The wider it gets, the more depth you feel. I can't change that in post, at least not without spending a lot of money. The other variable is convergence, which determines what's behind or in front of the screen, and I have complete control of that in post production. What I've found is that, to minimize eyestrain and help tell the story, I frequently needed to re-converge shots.
You need a stereographer in post, and early on we decided it would be me. There are lots of stereo choices and changes that need to be done in post, and that became my job. That was another new challenge. I had to learn quite a lot and it takes quite a while to go through and adjust depth on everything. With VFX, sometimes it makes sense to make those adjustments before Rhythm & Hues did their work, so they would be able to incorporate it into their shots; in other shots it doesn't matter. I made a number of passes and figured it out as we went along. When we got to the DI, I went through the whole film with Dave Cole at LaserPacific (now Technicolor) and we made some further adjustments.
The post time was always going to be very long because of the complexity of adding the digital tiger. So having to work on the re-convergence didn't add time to the post schedule. If I hadn't been doing that, I would have gone home earlier a lot of days. But we needed all the days on the calendar to get all the visual effects done.
Another interesting thing in Life of Pi was that there are a lot of transitions in which layered images fade in and out in a more complicated way. That became part of our storytelling technique in The Hulk, where there are split screens and so on. In earlier years, some of those transitions would have been handled as visual effects, but what is great in working with Avid Media Composer is that I can do them myself. It really is editing, part of fundamental storytelling, and it's not right to leave it to the VFX department. To have the tools to actually do it is great. There are some interesting and subtle things that Ang and I are able to do sitting in a room and not interacting with the VFX department; I really appreciated the complexity of what you're able to do in VFX with an Avid and that I'm able to keep all those complicated transitions in my department.
Title graphic: Pi (Suraj Sharma) and a Bengal tiger known as Richard Parker arrive at an uneasy detente in director Ang Lee's LIFE OF PI. ™ and © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.
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