glimpses behind the scenes at what creates the magic we experience of film & tv- & other!

Post Production

Harsh Realities of VFX Business

Spock into volcanoWe all know that our favorite Vulcan wasn’t really lowered into a volcano in Star Trek Into Darkness. We know it was a visual special effect – VFX.  If you’ve seen a movie in the last 20 years, you know that VFX have played an increasing role in movies.  What you may not know is that the business model in VFX and in studios has driven an appalling number of VFX companies out of business.


VFX Life of PiOne of the most bizarre examples is the brilliant company Rhythm & Hues,  creator of VFX since 1987, including such beloved movies as Babe and Life of Pi.  As Life of Pi was winning an Oscar, Rhythm & Hues was entering bankruptcy.  How could this happen??

This video, Life After Pi, talks about what happened:

If you’ve ever run a business, you know that being held to a fixed price while the scope grows will give you nightmares. Early in my training career, I made my mark as a project manager by refusing to expand scope without more pay.  Too often people feel they can’t do that, especially if their client is the “only game in town” or can blackball them.


Typical Movie Timeline

Adding to the problem is that in spite of the long time it takes to develop VFX, directors hesitate to define what they need until the last minute. If some new effect captures the public’s attention, they want to be able to include it in their movie.

As the video mentioned, no longer do directors do the detailed planning up front that used to be required. I’ve found that many people in the business recoil in horror if I suggest project planning – “Oh my god, it would stifle our creativity!!” Hmm, research scientists in weapons and pharmaceutical organizations have said the same thing when their unlimited expenditures were curtailed.  Instead they got more creative AND learned to plan their work.  But right now we have enormous amounts being spent on studio tentpoles – and their suppliers being forced out of business. Hmm.

ContractWhile we’re on the subject of strange business practices, I asked a Hollywood contact about accountability – wouldn’t the studio be held accountable if they used deceptive business practices on a movie? No!! Each movie is done as its own corporation – which is disbanded at the end of the movie project.  Sure you could sue, but by the time anything happens in the judicial system, the work is done and that company no longer exists. Good luck on getting any judgment that has teeth, no matter how flagrant the violation!

Seems change is overdue and inevitable.


Editing Awards Predict Best Picture!

Earlier I interviewed noted editor, Terry Kelley, about what editors do. (click to read). Recently Variety posted an article reinforcing how important editing is: “Why Editing Nominations Predict the Best Picture Oscar”.  Interesting! (click to read)

What Do Editors Do? (Part 2)


Terry Kelley, acclaimed Film & TV editor

This is part 2 of an interview with noted movie/tv editor Terry Kelley. If you missed part 1, you can see it here.

You started editing with movies, and then moved to editing TV shows?

Now there are not as many movies being made. There used to be 700 feature films a year.  Initially the major studios had movies locked in, in the ‘40’s. But when they had to divest [in 1948,after antitrust suits], a lot of independent studios started. They made many of the indie films for under $1 M, especially in the 60’s & 70’s – such as Easy Rider, Raging Bull.   The Writer’s strike [2007-2008] and the crisis with the hedge funds cut back on those. A lot of the funding of the indies came from hedge funds.

From the standpoint of editing, what is the difference between editing a feature film and editing a TV episode?

The art is the same. You have more time to work in feature films.  These days with digital cameras you don’t have film with its expensive processing. So you may have 2 to 5 camera’s rolling. You get as much shot per day, whether film or TV. But a TV episode is shot in 7 to 8 days. As editor I have to deliver a 45 minute show in 6 weeks.  For a feature film, I would have 6 months.

That’s a lot to do in a short time! How can you do that?

Practice! (laughs)  Different directors shoot in different ways. A new director may give you one of their shows or one that they like from someone else: “I’m thinking of using this kind of style.”  So you know exactly what they want.  I’ll be editing while they are still shooting, so I have to be on the same page as the director.

How did you come to work on Deep Space 9?ST DS9 Past Prologue cropped

I had been working on several Paramount shows. They had already put together a team to work on Deep Space 9. Usually editor #1 works on the first episode, editor #2 on the second, etc.  The editor who would ordinarily be working on “Past Prologue” was cutting the pilot so couldn’t work on this one. I was brought in as a swing editor, then became editor for other episodes.

How did working on Star Trek compare with working on other TV series?

In a way it is like any other series. But it had a more leisurely schedule.  Star Trek scripts were locked down like iron. The whole season was known in advance.  If you drop a line of dialogue, you have to make sure that it doesn’t interfere with something down the line.

In comparison, Homeland has an arc for the season – so you can’t mess with that. But you have more flexibility. It has a “mystery” structure – clues unveil the situation, but there is some flexibility. Often actors like to contribute their own dialogue –  but they may not be good writers. They can’t think ahead in terms of the overall plot as well as the writers can. They can help with the delivery of a line of dialogue – suggest a change in wording that can make it more realistic. With Deep Space 9 scripts they couldn’t do even that. So it was very rigid for the actors too.  That’s why in the first few episodes,  the actors were wooden – less spontaneity.  Later they could get more relaxed into their roles.

How were the Deep Space 9 episodes shot?

The episodes were shot on film.  The film was then digitized on a Rank [Cintel machine] film scanner, which sent the film through a gate, where a chip captured the image. The image was transferred to DigiBeta [short for Digital Betacam, the single most successful professional broadcast digital recording video tape format in history]. This video data was then bumped down to ¾” tapes, less expensive tapes to work with.  A strange process – analog film converted  to digital, then transferred to an analog tape.

Old editing room

                                   Old editing room

How has the technology changed during the time you’ve been an editor?

I started taping film together by hand! Absolutely different today. In the old days, a visual effect, say a dissolve, might take 3 or 4 days to do.  With digitizing, it can be done immediately.  Very fast, more options.  Let’s say I wanted to make a shot longer. With film I would have to find what I had cut from the film and splice it back in. With many little snippets of film that have been cut out, finding the one needed is difficult.  But now with digital cameras, I don’t lose the pieces I cut out. They are still in the computer.  And I can extend the shot via the computer itself.

Used to be that some people felt digital was a lower quality than analog. Do you find that true? Is there a tradeoff for easy of editing?

No. The quality is so much better now that there isn’t much of a trade-off.

What about 24 vs 48 frames? What Jackson is using for the Hobbit?

No, that doesn’t matter to an editor.  Actually Douglas Trumball [who did ground-breaking special effects in 2001, Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters, etc] experimented with film speed. He shot at different rates and played back at various rates – and measured emotional reactions such as galvanic skin response, respiration, etc. He found that the optimal speed for visceral response was 60 frames – both recorded at 60 and played back at 60.  Using 70m film  and shooting/playing back at 60 frames gives a very realistic effect, but is very expensive. I’m not sure it’s worth it. It’s more useful for certain kinds of action sequences, but not much good for dialogue scenes.

Kelley likes this editing tool

Kelley likes this editing tool

What software do you prefer?

Final cut Pro version 7. Also Avid. They both have versatility – deep feature flexibility of the programs. They have thousands of features – which is a lot to learn.

It is common to get 2 or 3 video tracks plus 15 audio tracks – takes up lots of space! I use a Mac workstation – 8G RAM (16 is faster), 8 to 12 processors. 8 to 12 terabytes (1 terabyte = 1000 gigabytes).  I have some 4 terabyte drives in my computer drives.

Terry has been working on Homeland. Over the season break, he worked on “Bathroom Diary”. It’s a short film to be used as a presentation promoting a full feature about a probation officer with a sick father who becomes a drug dealer, then an addict. This spring he is cutting a pilot for “Gang Related”. The story revolves around a gang member sent in to infiltrate the San Francisco Police Department who must balance his obligations to his crime family and his new family, the SFPD’s Gang Task Force. 

Thank you, Terry Kelley! You’ve given us an interesting look behind the scenes. I know that, thanks to you, I’ll be looking at shows with a different eye.  And I’ll look for your name in the credits.  Live Long & Prosper.

What Do Editors Do? (part 1)

Oscar editing winners & nominees share tidbits on what they do:

I knew directors had a lot to do with how a movie or tv episode turns out; what I didn’t realize is that editors have just as large a role.

One extra on a DVD of Star Trek: Generations was footage of an alternate ending.  I frankly was struck with how boring it was. No music.  The camera faithfully followed Picard and Kirk’s movements, for every step from point A to point B. Seemed very slow. Aha! In the final movie, usually there’s a closeup of one, then of the other. I see one start forward, then the other move. The viewpoint moves back and forth and cuts out some. Editing! I was watching footage that hadn’t been edited!  Big difference!  So how does an editor create that more dynamic feel?

Terry Kelley_

Terry Kelley, editor

I had the good fortunate to connect with Terry Kelley, a long time professional editor who  edited Deep Space 9: Past Prologue, and is editor for Showtimes’ acclaimed Homeland series. His final episode of Season 2 has been nominated for a best editing award from American Cinema Editors (ACE), an honorary society of film editors. Mr Kelley is a master of his art – and graciously agreed to an interview.

What is the process of editing?

“An analog is what you probably did in school. You have an assignment to read chapter 11. You take it away and read it and, as you read, you underline parts that strike you as important.  That’s what an editor does.  Takes the script and notes what’s important or key. I may note what framing would be important. For  example, if there’s a part that’s more intimate, I note that I’d want a close-in shot. Or there may be part that suggests a faster pace – more cuts.

“In feature films,  an editor looks at footage and says, “What did the film say to me? How can I let the film speak?”  Everyone is involved with the script. I can read the script and imagine how to edit shots together. For example, consider a scene where the point of it is “she meets the guy – their eye’s meet.”  I can see in my eye how that scene would be cut. A far shot showing the location. A medium shot of him. A medium shot of her. She’s looking at something. Shifts her look beyond it. Sees him. “Hm, he’s attractive”.  He sees her. Close shot on their eyes reacting to each other.


Kelley’s Editing of the S2 finale is nominated for an Eddie award!

“So I take the film that’s shot and look for what I need. The director will shoot the scene once from a far shot. Then reshoot with a medium shot on her. Then reshoot with a medium shot on him. Then reshoot with a closeup on her. Then reshoot with a closeup on him. Then a tight shot on his eyes and one on her eyes.  A scene will be shot many times – direct shot, over his shoulder, over her shoulder – again and again from different angles and framing.  The editor’s job is more a matter of building to a blueprint than it is searching through a pile of lumber to see what you can put together.”

How do you work? In what kind of environment?

“I work by myself in a dark room. No, I don’t need to meet with the director or go on location. I can get any direction I need from the director by phone.  He’ll say: ‘This is a funny comedy. I want to make it fast paced and colorful. Just keep the actors alive.’

“The first step is the editor’s cut – or rough cut. It isn’t so rough any more – [with modern technology] I can smooth out the sounds and do color correction. I put in everything. This is the longest cut.

“The director then cuts out what he wants. The Director’s cut. The studio may cut still more, even if the director objects. Directors can get attached to certain scenes, even if they don’t further the story much.Eddie award banner

“As to how long it takes, the Director’s Guild has rules – for example the director can demand 3 weeks to do the editor’s cut and 10 weeks more to finish the director’s cut  – before showing the film to anyone!!  Actors & others can see the dailys, but not the way it’s coming together.”

Wow! That’s quite a process. A skill that Mr Kelley has developed over many years.  Coming up in future posts on this interview: what it was like to work on Star Trek and how the process of editing has changed over the years. Stay tuned!!