Gravity's Mark Sanger: Cut & Talk with Oscar-Winning Editor
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Mark Sanger and Christian Jhonson : Gravity's Mark Sanger: Cut & Talk with Oscar-Winning Editor
CUT AND TALK: MARK SANGER
"MAKE YOURSELF INVALUABLE, BUT NEVER AT THE EXPENSE OF OTHERS"
Sanger, is known for his work on Children of Men (2006), Troy (2004) and Alice in Wonderland (2010). He has been married to his delightful wife Becky since the first of December, 2002. The couple have one child together.
How did you get involved in a career as a filmmaker?
I had wanted to work in film since I was a child, and so aged 6, I formed a plan that I've stuck to ever since. It involved leaving school, finding any job I could in the industry, in any department that might ultimately help me carve a path into editing.
The idea was that to learn one aspect of a craft, I would first learn as much as I could about the other departments. The collaborative aspect of this foundation education still serves me well to this day, almost a quarter of a century later.
Mark, you are known for your work on Troy (2004), Children of Men (2006) and Alice in Wonderland (2010). Which of these films was the most demanding for you and why?
The short answer is that they all demanded huge work! Part of what makes working in the industry so appealing is that every film has its own set of demands and challenges, so for me there is no single film that has been more challenging than any another.
Alice in Wonderland. ©2010 Walt Disney Pictures
For instance, Troy was predominantly location-based while Alice was predominantly stage-based. You might think that for this reason that Alice was easier because we had to deal with fewer logistical issues, but the truth is that they both had their own set of hurdles. It's part of the thrill.
We know you have worked with Alfonso Cuarón twice. What Do you think about Latino America film market? And did you both, you and Cuarón took editorial decisions on cutting room?
Of my generation, Carlos Reygadas and Marco Bechis are favourites and I adored Claudia Llosa's Milk of Sorrow and Aloft. It is a pleasing truth that there seem to be so many Latino-American film-makers blossoming into the industry. The reason might be that there are currently more opportunities or simply that there is a rich vein of very talented people over there, but as long as they keep making the diverse mix of stories, then I'd rather not try and analyse the alchemy. Better to let it keep blossoming!
Was your knowledge of Visual effects in the editing process a bonus when you edited Gravity?
It was, but only in terms of having an understanding of the particular set of tools we were using to tell that story. Cinema is storytelling and storytelling is in itself editing. So as film-makers we are all driven by the story, not but they technology. I have never had a specific interest in Visual Effects, only in what they can bring to the story as an art form. Frankly, 90% of VFX Editing is a mixture of paperwork, numbers and spreadsheets, so VFX never excited me. I started as a film assistant, handling 35mm celluloid. I only ever took a VFX Editor position if it meant I could work with an interesting crew or Director. One of the fortuitous by-products of this decision was that I learnt how to use the creative tools VFX editing utilizes during the remaining 10% of the time.
In Gravity, space is the place where there is nothing, Earth is where everything happens -- a very particular history that Alfonso tries to relate to the audience. How difficult was it to cut this film for you knowing that; do you think you got Cuarón's message across to the audience?
It was a unique process for everyone involved. Although many films utilize pre-vis to plan for detailed VFX work during pre-production, the meticulous nature of the practical shoot determined that we very precisely edit the entire film in pre-vis form prior to shooting.
Alfonso Cuarón, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney on the set of Gravity
Gauging pace, rhythm and structure at this stage was not forefront in my mind because I knew we would not have a film until the actors' performances were slowly selected and integrated into our work in progress. The collaborative process of working with the director, our cinematographer, our animators and our VFX Supervisor to create so much of the film's story upfront, was a free-flowing creative joy and it was not an opportunity any crew in history had ever been afforded. But the environmental conditions of the story meant that we needed to seek new ways to tell the story. This is at once both limiting and liberating because it meant we needed to find new solutions to new problems.
When people watch a movie, they feel emotions that actors transmit. Do you think in Gravity that people also followed the action? Is that the final message, be part of the film?
I can only tell you what most people have told me their reaction to that film was, and they do often use the word 'immersive'. But above all else they say they feel for Ryan. That for me is the goal, for the surrounding film-makers to create an environment where superb actors like Sandra Bullock can deliver performances like she did. Where they do more than simply carry the story, they are the story itself. Everything else that the rest of us bring is just window-dressing in comparison. If an audience can feel the actors' performances it means that we haven't got in their way in the process of doing our own job.
Gravity is a film with hundreds of VFX, and sound is a crucial piece of the whole film. Did you receive the sound effects and the music before you began editing? If did not, how did you edit the timing of the action?
Sandra Bullock in a scene from Gravity.
On any film I've been lucky enough to have been part of, we've always treated the sound and music the same way: get the picture cut ready first. While we did use temp sound effects and music for a while on Gravity, they were there more for presentation purposes up until Glenn Fremantle and Steve Price began their work. A film like Gravity looks pretty strange visually for a very long time because so many of the visuals don't get delivered in a recognisable state for three long years. So to begin with we relied on other tools like temp sound and music to give anyone viewing it a sense of what the experience might be one day. As a Picture editor, I concentrate on telling the story visually and then leave it to the director to discuss the rest with the sound supervisor and composer.
Winning an Oscar is THE goal that every editor tries to achieve. When did you think this was a possibility for you?
Mark Sanger at the Oscars
It is of course a huge privilege to win any award for doing something you love, but it is also not something any of us specifically set out to attain. At heart we are all storytellers. We finished Gravity a year before it was released so the entire crew had moved onto -- and in some cases finished -- our next project. So the realisation that audiences were engaging in the film was certainly a 'slow-burn' process.
Troy (2004), Children of Men (2006) and Alice in Wonderland (2010) were your most popular films, which covered drama, action, suspense and Science fiction. What is your favorite genre? Would you cut comedy?
My project is a film entitled Felicia's Journey, which was directed by Atom Egoyan. It is an adaptation of the William Trevor novel and is an intimate character piece. Atom Egoyan has always been such an amazing talent. Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter is one of my favourite films. Combine this with the stunning performances of Bob Hoskins and Elaine Cassidy, the cinematography of Paul Sarossy and the refined editing of Susan Shipton and you have the project that I fell the most in love with of all my career opportunities. With regard to a comedy, I welcome the opportunity to cut any genre but the truth is that none of us 'below the line' workers are millionaires, so we rarely have any choice in the projects that are offered to us.
The knife or the editor, what comes first? Have you always cut on Avid Media Composer?
The first editing I did was on Super 8. I still have the editing gear to do it and still enjoy the process of running the celluloid through the viewer, sourcing the material, making the decisions, then physically cutting and joining it. There is discipline involved in the editing of celluloid that is not always adhered to when editing digitally. So the answer that as an assistant editor or editor, I've edited 8mm, 16mm, 35mm, 70mm, Adobe, Apple, Avid and Lightworks. I'm 42 years old and probably one of only a few who can say they've worked on all of those formats!
600 people were involved in Gravity. How was the collaboration in the editorial department? Did you use Avid ISIS storage? How many seats for Media Composer did you use?.
We began Gravity so long ago that even Avid ISIS didn't exist! [Ed. note: ISIS itself has been replaced with Avid NEXIS|PRO.] We used a Unity on version 4.1. My team and I made the decision not to upgrade versions during the process as we were so manic from day one till the end that we needed to remain consistent across all machines, including those in use at Framestore where the VFX work was being done. By the end of the show, I think there were about 9 systems working concurrently.
How do you organize your job, different projects/folders/bins?
I treat my Avid organisation like a film cutting room. The only difference is that in the digital arena we keep so many archived versions of the cuts, something that required a little more discipline in the days of film when there was usually only one copy of any shot. So I use a cutting copy folder and a bunch of scene bins. My team of assistants manage a maelstrom of intricately labelled files, bins and folders, but I'm too scared to look at any of them!
And finally: any advice for newbie editors?
Make some sacrifices for your work, but only after great consideration, and always consider your life/work balance. Make yourself invaluable, but never at the expense of others. Love your work for the work, not for the competitive environment you may often find yourself working within.
Thanks to Mark for opening the door of your house and taking time out of your day for us. We hope you enjoy this interview.
Thank you to all.
ACADEMY AWARDS® and OSCAR® are the registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. ALL RIGHTS ARE RESERVED.