Artful Editing and All-Avid Workflow Propel The Hurt Locker
The camera and sound team check gear before shooting in Jordan
While many of today’s blockbuster movies rely heavily on visual effects and powerful sound, every once in a while a film comes along that succeeds purely on the strength of its story. For a film editor, those are the kind of projects that are truly rewarding.
Chris Innis, A.C.E., spent more than two months on location in Amman, Jordan, only a few miles from the Iraq war, editing footage for an independent film that would become The Hurt Locker. And, along with co-editor Bob Murawski, A.C.E., she’s been recognized with an Academy Award, as well as BAFTA and ACE awards, for her exquisite work on the film.
Media Composer is my most valued tool as a film editor. My brain and my heart are the only other processors I need.
“I had read the script and really liked it, and they needed someone to go to the Middle East,” Innis says. With the Iraq war in full swing and U.S. troops ratcheting up the surge only a few miles away, Amman would not have been on anyone’s short list for location work.
Innis, who perfected her craft working her way up in cutting rooms with noted directors Sam Raimi, Ridley Scott, Adrian Lyne, and Oliver Stone, is a longtime Media Composer® user, dating back to her days as lead editor on executive producer Sam Raimi’s cult TV series, American Gothic. “We used a lot of Media Cofmposer’s visual effects for that series,” she says.
Co-editor Murawski is also a longtime Media Composer user, and Innis says it was a “no-brainer” for them to use it on the project. “I know some independent productions use other systems, but for us that would be like working with one hand tied behind our backs,” she says.
Dealing with the Shortcomings of the Middle East
Filming a tanker scene, post explosion
Innis edited and reviewed the dailies on-location in the Middle East using a Media Composer system provided by New York-based Orbit Digital. As she explains, some of the process was hampered purely by a lack of technical resources. “We were working with grainy Super 16mm film, editing in standard definition. We tried doing FTP downloads, but at the time the facilities in Jordan simply couldn’t handle it. We ended up having the film transferred to DVCAM in London, which then had to be hand-delivered by courier on twice-weekly flights back to Amman.”
Once production in Jordan wrapped, the same Media Composer system was shipped to an editing suite at Christy’s Editorial in Burbank, where Murawski joined the project on a second system. They used a Unity™ MediaNetwork system for easy data sharing. “The Unity is such a great collaborative tool,” says Innis. “Bob and I were both able to share media and send cuts back and forth between our systems so easily.”
Special Effects Take a Backseat to Skillful Editing
As Innis observes, the movie doesn’t employ a lot of visual effects. “Most of the film was shot in-camera, including explosions staged by Richard Stutsman, the film’s special effects supervisor,” she says. “Much of what we did was straightforward cutting. There was a lot of handheld camera footage, and we used Media Composer’s image stabilization and resizing functions to adjust framing and keep the motion sickness under control. And we used some standard effects like flops and keys.”
In general, the editors eschewed much in the way of special effects. “We really wanted the film to retain that ‘newsreel’ documentary quality,” Innis says. “Too many stage-y effects would have been distracting. The editing in this film was all about restraint.”
While every film editor strives to shape and support the story, it’s rare these days to find a film in which the editing is so artfully intertwined with the story itself. Watching the film unfold, it’s clear that Innis and Murawski deeply understand the significance of their roles. “The most exhilarating aspect of editing a film is when things ‘click’ into place,” says Innis. “Editing alone can’t make a film a success, but it can bring a film to life and help focus and sharpen the story.”
“I think to be a successful editor, you need a mix of imagination, storytelling prowess, skill, sleight of hand, and the patience of a saint,” she continues. “All that, and a great Avid setup. Media Composer is my most valued tool as a film editor. My brain and my heart are the only other processors I need.”
Audio and Video Go Hand-in-Hand
Editor Bob Murawski makes friends with Jordanian military security.
Innis also stresses the importance of the film’s audio to the editing process. “While we’re editing, we always build a very thorough temp soundtrack in Media Composer, with multiple channels of dialog, sound effects, and music. So much of the rhythms of our editing were based on sonic elements—the breathing of the soldiers, the sounds of explosions, or even the emptiness of sound just prior to a bomb going off. We worked with picture and sound together to enhance and impart the brutal reality and the unpredictable pace of war. We wanted to give the viewer an authentic sense of the difficult choices soldiers face in such a horrid, ugly situation.”
She’s quick to add that the quality of the production’s audio tracks was a key factor. “We were really fortunate to be working with production tracks recorded by Ray Beckett, who’s an amazing production sound mixer. Because Ray recorded such great audio on location, the film required very little in the way of overindulgence in soundscaping. That helped us to stay true to [director] Kathryn Bigelow’s vision of a raw, authentic, you-are-there documentary feeling.”
About six months after Innis returned from the Middle East, she and Murawski delivered their final locked cut to the sound editing team of Paul Ottosson, Chris Jacobson, and Jussi Tegelman for post production, using Pro Tools|HD®. “We gave them our picture and temp soundtracks via standard OMF file format,” she says. “Since we were all working with Avid-based systems, the transfer was seamless.”
First assistant editor Sean Valla tackles the dailies.
It was here that Avid’s integrated approach further enhanced the collaborative process. “The sound editors also had done some temp sound effects for two of the sequences earlier on, for a teaser trailer,” says Innis, “and we were able to re-ingest these sound effects stems back into Media Composer and re-edit them to our liking. For example, they had done some work on the explosion in the opening scene, and I felt it needed more tension. So I took the sound of the explosion and repeated it like a drum beat leading up to the big explosion, creating a taunting foreshadowing of what was to come. The architecture of those sound effects was a total collaboration between picture and sound editors, with our reshaping of the rhythm taken right to the final mix. Avid’s integrated approach really made a difference. It was great to know we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. For every challenge, Avid has a solution.”
An Awarding and Rewarding Experience
Needless to say, the film’s recognition has been an unexpected surprise. “It’s a dream come true for us to shepherd the editing of a difficult independent film that might not have ever seen the light of day,” she says. “It’s great to know that Bob and I did some of our best work on a film that will hopefully stand the test of time and be remembered for decades to come.”
For Innis, the experience was one she’ll always remember. “Editing a film in the Middle East, not a stone’s throw from the Iraq war surge, was both a challenge and an opportunity,” she says. “Every path to success has its obstacles, and sometimes you just have to be fearless.”
To edit a brutally realistic portrayal of the realities of war, using minimal special effects or technical enhancement.
Pairing the storytelling prowess of two experienced editors with the power of Media Composer.
Transfer Super 16mm film to DVCAM, ingest to Media Composer. Three Media Composer Adrenaline systems (one for each editor and one for the assistant) with a single Unity MediaNetwork for file sharing. Audio post production using Pro Tools|HD.