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Building an Epic Career: Christian Siebenherz

Christian Siebenherz is a film editor from Norway whose experience includes films such as The Wave and The Quake, as well as the series Thieves, and additional editing on the 2018 film Tomb Raider. He talked with Manager of The Cut Center, Christian Jhonson, about his career, how he approaches action and special effects, and his work with Avid Media Composer.

Here, in his own words, is the story of his career telling epic tales of disaster, drama, and survival.

On the pursuit of film editing

I started out in the Norwegian film industry not knowing what I wanted to do, I just knew I wanted to work with movies. When I was just 20 years old, I was lucky and got an internship at a production company in Oslo. It was really exciting to work on big sets for high-budget commercials in the beginning, but I soon realized that the editing room is a much more suitable place for discussing the creative process and learning about storytelling. For the next few years I worked as an assistant for some of the best editors in Scandinavia, including Olivier Bugge Coutté (Louder than BombsBeginners) and Darek Hodor (the academy award-nominated Evil). I started to edit commercials and trailers as well. At the same time, I studied at the University of Oslo, taking a BA in theatre, literature, and film. I found that academic theory in storytelling and dramaturgy was really relevant for filmmaking.

It’s always hard to land the first job as a lead editor on a feature film, and it seems every editor has a different route getting there. I was lucky when a company I had worked for was going to produce a low budget action movie called Escape directed by Roar Uthaug, and he liked the trailers I had done. Since they wanted the edit to be fast-paced and intense, they thought that a trailer editor would be a good fit. It turned out to be hard work, but also a lot of fun, because I got to further develop my skills with sound design, music and picture. Editing Escape is what led me to have the opportunity to edit their next film, The Wave.

This was the first time a special-effects heavy, disaster movie had been made in Scandinavia. Nobody was sure it could actually be done, especially on a budget of 8-million dollars. The lack of resources made it necessary to focus on the drama and do special effects practically in camera with real elements. I guess the audience really enjoyed the naturalistic approach, because it’s estimated that about 1.5 million Norwegians (Norway’s total population is 5 million) have seen the film. Also, it was sold to more than 150 countries..

The success of The Wave led to Roar Uthaug directing the new Tomb Raider movie and he was kind of enough to bring me aboard as an additional editor. It was really exciting to spend 4 months in London, working on a 100-million dollar movie. I learned a lot about how post-production is done in Hollywood. It’s not that different from Norway, except the team is a lot bigger and there are more resources at your disposal. What two or three people do in Norway, would be done by 10-15 people on Tomb Raider. However, at the end of the day, the basics of editing are the same.

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The sequel to The Wave is a more serious and dark drama than the first one, but also has plenty of action set pieces. The Quake had a few other new challenges as well, mostly in terms of visual effects since there was a lot of CGI this time. The story structure was also harder to get right on The Quake, probably because the character arcs are more important this time and the disaster starts at a later point in the movie. I think sequels almost always are inferior to the original, so I’m really happy to hear that a lot of people think The Quake is better than the first one. I know it’s a cliché, but I think the goal should always be to top yourself.

Using Avid on The Wave and The Quake

Both movies were cut on Avid Media Composer. We had three Avids set up at the production office. Since the budget was so tight, we didn’t use NEXIS or Unity, just external hard drives and Dropbox, which we used to share bins. This worked great. On both films, I had an additional editor and one assistant editor.

We edited in DNxHD36. Both films had production in Norway, and a studio shoot abroad (Romania for The Wave and Czech Republic for The Quake). To make it easy for the DIT to send us rushes as fast as possible, we decided to go for the smallest file size. Whenever we got shots with green screen we would ask the DIT to make these shots in ProRes4444 as well. This higher quality made it easier to do temp effects, like keying in backgrounds. Most temp effects were done right in Avid Media Composer, and After Effects was used for some more advanced stuff.

We chose Avid for both films because I know the software can handle large projects and multiple users really well. Also, I tend to work with many timelines and edit from one timeline into another. In both movies, the goal was to build tension as much as possible before the disaster happens, and this requires a lot of trial and error to find the structure, the right amount of intercutting, and suspense in the music. What is the right time to leave a scene and cut to a different character? The audience knows what’s about to happen going in, and you want the feeling of a clock ticking, but there is a limit to how far you can stretch this. Avid allowed me to quickly move scenes around and splice together different structures.

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On Norwegian budgets, there are no temp mixers or music editors working before picture lock, so I did most of the temp sound effects and mixing myself. I try to keep the timelines organized with designated channels. All tracks are mono, except for music tracks. Sound effects have blue colour, music is pink. At the bottom, I was experimenting with using an LFE-track marked orange. These sound effects were just for bass using the subwoofer. For screenings I would use these tracks to make a really simple surround mix. An earthquake movie is a lot more fun when you use the subwoofer in a cinema.

Avid really helped us out in one of the most challenging set pieces of The Quake, when the hotel skyscraper starts to tilt.

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The scene can be viewed here.

The scene takes place in the sky bar at the top of the building, which is partially destroyed after the quake. This studio set was built on a platform that could be tilted with hydraulics. When it was tilted at the maximum 30-degree angle, there would be a height difference of 18 meters. As the tilting started, both the props and actors would start to slide. The actors were of course secured with wires, which were later removed in post.

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Whenever the production did a reset and started shooting, objects would fall in a different order, so continuity was a challenge. And when the actors started to slide, they would do so at a different speed than the last take/slate. We ended up using timewarp and FluidMotion a lot for this sequence, in order to match up different speeds. A lot of the shots had the actual actors, not stunt doubles, so we also wanted to speed up the action as much as possible to make it look more dangerous.

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I think we used all the tricks in the book to tighten the pace of this sequence, and almost all the shots have some kind of filter. Some of the shots we locked off, and then we used split screens to make objects slide at the same time. After the split screen was made, we would put some camera shake on top of that to make it less static. Dynamic zooms were also used a lot to make it look like the camera was moving faster than it actually was.

Our biggest discovery was when we realized that we could rotate some of the shots because the background would be added later. When the foreground was rotating and the background was still, it would look like the building was tilting faster. The director wanted the horizon to always be levelled, his expression was that “the camera should behave like it’s in water”, meaning no Dutch angles. We used the 3D Warp filter to animate rotation on the foreground levels, keyed out the blue screen and put in a static background as a temp effect. The VFX artists would later replicate these rotations and make the finished backgrounds.

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Some of the VFX-work can be viewed here.

It also took us a long time to make this sequence work because the amount of footage was overwhelming. Everything was shot with at least two ARRI Alexas-cameras, and some of the setups had two additional cameras running as well. Organizing and watching these dailies was a real test of patience, but definitely necessary in order to find those small moments that added up to a successful sequence.

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On these sequences, and almost always when I edit action, I will struggle to make everything happen faster. We had the opposite challenge when we were doing The Wave. A lot of shots had real water being dropped from tip tanks in order to make the illusion of a wave and huge amounts of water coming at the characters. It looked really spectacular and scary… for about three seconds. Even though hundreds of thousands of liters were dropped at the same time, the effect of a wave would only last for a brief moment. It took a lot of stitching together to make the illusion of a continuous wave. These sequences were shot in slow motion, 48 fps, but it was supposed to feel like normal speed. I ended up using FluidMotion to speed shots up, but still tried to keep a little bit of slow motion in order to make the shots longer. The scene where characters run down a hotel corridor with  water coming after them ended up being a mix of several different frame rates, everything between 130% and 200%, to make it look like there was a wall of water behind them.

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The scene in Avid Media Composer:

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This scene can be viewed here.

The same kind of tip tanks were used for the wave hitting the car. This was a mix of studio work and location.

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Another part of the movie that proved to be a giant puzzle, were the scenes where two geologists climb down into the crevasse. They have video cameras on their helmets, with live feeds to the monitoring station. These video cameras were running all through the shooting day. Putting together these scenes, with cross-cutting between the crevasse and the monitoring station, meant that the video screens at the station needed to match whatever was going on with the geologists. We ended up using the tracking functions in Avid a lot, to put in temporary effects of what would be on the monitors at different times. We used the video from the helmet cameras composited and tracked onto plates from the monitoring station. The crevasse was a mix of studio sets and location, and we were cross-cutting with scenes of the protagonist at his house, and his co-workers at the monitoring station. Good temp effects made it a lot easier to watch this whole sequence as it was work-in-progress, and we didn’t want the audience to get confused by the parallel actions.

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The simple monitor replacements were done in Avid:

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Here is the complete timeline for The Wave after picture lock:

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The VFX-work for The Wave can be viewed here.

We appreciate you giving us this time to talk about your career and your awesome work as a film editor. Thank you, Christian!

Follow The Cut Center:
@thecutcenter
@christianjhonson

All photos © 2019 Fantefilm

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