EVENT REPORT: The Rocket Q&A

DATELINE:  Friday 7th February 2014
THE MAIN EVENT: An evening with NICK MEYERS ASE
VENUE: Soundfirm Screening Room, NSW

by Jane St Vincent Welch ASE

Nick Meyers is one of Australia’s finest editors, he has been working for over 20 years on a wide range of films, from Balibo to The Boys, The Bank, Three Dollars to The Ballad of Betty and Joe, These Final Hours and the stylised Sleeping Beauty. Nick gives them all a wonderful seamless cut.

I started by asking Nick if he’d worked with Kim Mordant before.... 

Nick: I hadn't worked with Kim before. But when I heard the story, I was so excited, I contacted him and Sylvia (Wilczynski, producer) and asked if they would consider me.

The Rocket Synopsis:
[Ahlo is born a twin, which in his small Laotian village is considered very bad luck indeed. His sibling is still-born, but that’s not enough for his grandmother, who thinks it best to kill him anyway: that’s what you do with twins. His mother prevails, and Ahlo is spared. 8 years later, and progress means the family are pushed off their land to make way for a new Dam. All the bad luck now befalling the family must be Ahlos’ fault, and he finds his own family turning against him. Eventually the family, now refugees in their own land, wind up at a “rocket festival” where giant hand-made rockets are launched in a wild spectacle to appease gods and bring rain. This deadly task seems the perfect way to prove himself to his family once and for all, or die trying]

Kim had made the documentary Bomb Harvest in 2007, about the number of unexploded bombs still maiming people each year in Laos. These bombs are from the 1960's and 70's mind you, dropped in a steady stream by the US as part of the war against communism. Now there's a free market emerging, the government builds commercial hydro schemes, but gets more money selling the electricity across the border to Thailand. Meanwhile the villagers get booted off their land, promised a wonderful future, and are basically sold down the river.

Now you COULD make a really depressing film about all this! But by making it as a comedy/drama, and showing this world though the eyes of a kid, it takes on a different tone. Ahlo, the young boy at the heart of the story is optimistic, resourceful and full of hope and energy.

Nick Meyers ASE

What was it like to cut material using non actors?

In fact all of the actors were experienced in one way or another, with the exception of the little girl Kia, but what was interesting was that they all came from different performance backgrounds, from Thai soap opera (much bigger and more melodramatic than anything we make!) to comedy. Oh, and the Dad was a stunt man! Used to being in front of the camera, but not in this way. On top of that some of the actors were Laos natives, and some were from Thailand, which has a similar, but decidedly different language and accent.

Talk about creating a challenge!

A large part of Kim’s preproduction was spent in rehearsals, guiding the actors to a more naturalistic zone, and creating a balance where they would work together.

I suppose the edit was a continuation of finding that balance: toning down Grandma, who’s background was melodrama, and paring back Uncle Purple (the shaggy alcoholic character played by Comedian Suthep Po-ngam).

He had a series of scenes with very long passages of dialogue. I wondered why it was taking so long to subtitle, and was told that every take of  his rambling monologues was different! And the kids... well, kids are kids: totally in the make-believe world one second
then scratching their noses or yawning the next.

It’s not like we were fighting the material at all, just going with the best takes, which is what you do anyway.

How did you deal with the language?

Well, the truth is that even if actors are talking in a different language, you can tell if they are giving a real performance, or not. But I wanted to know and understand the subtleties of the dialogue, not just what was written on the page. So I had the translators be as faithful to the spoken word as possible, following the grammar, and indicating the sentence structure with appropriate commas, dashes etc. It wasn't always elegant but it was my entry point to the language.

So you subtitled the rushes?

Yes

What, all of them?

Ha! Yes, that's what the producers asked. There was a resistance to the idea, as obviously it meant a lot of work, and money that hadn't been budgeted for. But really what other alternative is there? Anything else is a short-cut which wont serve you well in the long run, so you might as well do it right at the outset.

We'd developed a technique for subtitles on Balibo (2009) which was pretty solid, but time-consuming. Then, before heading off to Thailand, I sat down and subtitled a days worth of rushes from my previous film, just to get to know what was involved and how long it would take. Answers were: A: A lot, and B: a long time. And that was just to transcribe, It didn’t include the mind-bending job of translation.

The technique uses text generators as overlays. It’s a 3rd party generator with bottom justification and text wrapping, so there’s a minimum of fuss when writing the text. Once the subs are written out, markers for each subtitle are added to the underlaying clip, and extended for the duration of the sub. The text itself is entered into the marker, and also into the generator name with a generic prefix. (so a “find all subs” is possible).

The marked clips are copied back into a bin, becoming master clips. This means you can match frame, and not lose the markers. The markers and their text are viewable in the viewer, which is helpful. And all the added text is searchable in the FCP timeline, so it’s always easy to find a specific word or phrase. Still, overlays mean that there is a lot less match framing, and working out of bins. Almost all selection is done in timelines where the overlays are visible, and most editing is done via copy / paste.

The markers really come into their own if (when) you lose the overlays. Mainly this happened when I didn’t want to bother about the overlays. Sometimes I’d just want to throw the images around, and work in a more fluid way. My ideal system would be to add subtitle text as some sort of marker / locator / trigger to clips, which somehow generates a live super on the image. The audio component only would trigger the overlay. Can somebody invent that, please?

Either way, the text needs to be always editable; we were constantly refining it as we went, PLUS we discovered an even greater use of the subtitles: We could re-write the dialogue to say whatever we wanted! Don’t worry, we weren’t cheating: later we’d match ADR to these new lines.

Did that work?

Our principal translators really turned themselves inside-out to come up with words that would mean what we needed, while fitting the existing mouth moves. Nevertheless it was understood by everyone that we wouldn’t call the picture locked until the ADR was recorded and cut. For the most part it all worked fine. One line was ropey. We couldn’t really do without it, so we went back and swapped the angle from a close to a wider view. This meant sending the shot to VFX to correct some continuity / timing issues.

The idea that you “lock” a picture before you do this incredibly important stuff is just wrong. Sound, music, picture all need to work together in a dynamic way. With a bigger budget, or indeed a smaller one, it wouldn’t be the way one would work.

It’s really only the middle ground where you can get forced into those sorts of compromises. The bad side of an industrialized approach. It’s worth doing all you can to side-step them, but you need the support of the producers and post team.

Assistant Editors Luke Haigh and Peter Pan (yes, those ARE elephants though the window!)

You sometimes cut a scene with the sound muted - why?

Similar to disregarding the subtitles overlays, it frees me up: one less thing to worry about. In fact the subtitles enabled this to a certain extent, but even without them, after a certain time, one knows what the characters are saying. It’s good to see how much the pictures are working on their own, as that’s fundamentally what we’re doing: telling a story with pictures.

I really liked the pacing of your cut, how did you find it?

I guess I’m impatient! But I like a certain amount of lyricism, too.

There is a tension between the exploration of culture and the invasion of “civilization” how did you balance that?

I guess that boils down to a classic issue of set-up. How much time can you give to setting up a world before you introduce a threat, or whatever springboard for change drives the story. And the answer should be as little as possible. But this is a film set in an exotic world, and the exploration of a culture cant be too rushed I guess. None of which realty answers the question! In truth it came down to a lot of trial and error, especially in the first act. In some ways the whole first act is more like a traditional “set-up” but as I said, there’s a complexity to the background forces, plus our actual set-up was the back-story of Ahlo’s birth. We never tried to tell the story without that, it gives the film a great mythical quality and strength, but we tried all sorts of combinations and orders of scenes in that first act. In particular the cross-cutting between the information video about the upcoming dam and Ahlos’s underwater dive into the flooded temple, which is totally that tension you talked about: the two forces brought head to head.

Your first assembly was 3 hours long. What process did you use to get it to length?
Well you can’t just make everything fast. If everything is fast, nothing has weight, and if nothing has weight, nothing is important, and if nothing is important, why am I watching!? You do have to up the pace, but its not just trimming, it’s dropping, cutting, simplifying. It’s focusing on the main story. Kim had a cool idea about one scene that was playing to long: we split it in half, and used it on two separate nights in the relocation village. At that early stage there’ll always be whole scenes that are obvious contenders for the bin. Then there are beats and lines within scenes that can go. As the story narrows it’s focus more things will stand out as extraneous. We had a whole story line about the corrupt chief who was running the relocation village for the Hydro company. Bit by bit we removed parts of that till it wasn’t worth telling at all, so out it went. There was also the odd “history lesson” here and there. But a little of that goes a long way, and when you’ve got the pictures it’ll seep back in via osmosis.

The editing of the opening scenes was very compelling but did you set out to cross the line as a stylistic choice?

Was there some of those left in there? Sorry, I thought I’d gotten around all of them. There seems to be a lot of that going about, I’ve seen some really bad line crosses in films lately. In one way I can understand that the best angle on the reverse might not be a perfect match, and one should go for the best looking shots. But I like people to be looking at each other. It’s stronger. Direct line-crosses just don’t work for me! Unless there’s a specific dramatic reason, and even then it’s a corny idea if sustained over any series of back and forth. I look forward to having my mind changed on that issue, but that’s how I feel at the moment. Mainly they are the product of too little time on set: a mistake, and I try to work around them or hide them as best I can.

Generally I don’t like to feel that I’m outside of a scene, looking in. My instinct is to cut it from the inside, feeling the dramatic tension back and forth. If somebody says something threatening or challenging to the other person, I immediately want to see the result of that on the other person’s face. Action and re-action. It’s not always right, but these days that’s my first instinct. And then there are times when you just need to sit on a face and see all the ripples and after-shocks play out.

(Thinking about it, I can see how this is also true on the macro scale, a story should have a life, not just be a string of moments or scenes. So lets say something happens to a character, I want to feel for them and see the consequences: to get to the next true moment, which can mean jumping over or dropping a B-story scene.)

In comparison the swing scene that follows was less obvious. It’s not a drama scene, it’s a bust of emotion. It’s all re-action! Technically the regular rhythm of the swing made it hard to not be predictable.

But what about those jump cuts?

Oh, right. In a way I don’t see them as jump cuts. My process is to go thru the rushes, collecting all the great usable moments, and I tend to gather them into banks of shots. When I saw those Ahlo moments together, it just seemed like a great series of shots. Here was a kid who was glad to be alive!

It must have been fun cutting the James Brown music sequence...

It’s a fun scene isn’t it? But in truth it was very painful. The music needed to be cut to fit the drama of the chase, which is not hard in itself. We needed to see enough of James Brown, and see his crazy moves, so we could play Uncle Purple off them, but we were only allowed to use a very small amount of it on screen, And we needed to intercut that with a chase scene, which was hampered by there being only one shot of the antagonist running! So it was a battle across a few fronts.

So what was your favourite scene to cut then?

I can’t think of a specific scene, but the edit really came alive when the brakes came off. For the longest time, the film sat at an overlong 107 minutes. Every moment was seen as indispensable. And this was all the way up to a so-called “fine-cut”

screening, where we all got a bollocking from the Investors! Bridget Iken (Executive Producer) suggested losing a particular scene. This was a big scene, seven pages long, but had been severely hampered by lack of time. It needed two nights to shoot it, but was crammed into one. Still, we told ourselves, it had important plot points. “Too bad, it’s no good, take it out!” Bridget said. “You’ll figure it out”. And she was right!
So that was my favourite scene to cut, as in cut out!

When that came out it was like a dam had broken. The story flowed a lot better, and most importantly there was now a WILL on the part of the filmmakers to pick up the pace all along the line: to turn our collection of scenes into a movie. When you have that, you can really shape the whole piece, feeling it though, doing what’s right. I don’t like to get hung up on consequences: if something feels wrong take it out, if you feel like jumping to scene x, just go there. Somehow as it comes alive the solutions will present themselves.And I’d forgotten that.

The Rocket is a big story picture, and although the script may have drifted the intent always remained the same, just extraneous characters and history lessons were removed. I really wish that more people had seen this wonderful film. When people did see it, they loved it! But getting them into the cinema... well that’s a big problem we have at the moment.

Format and specs

 The Rocket  was edited in FCP in 20 weeks on top of a 5 week shoot (6 day weeks)

Shot full frame 16:9 on Alexa, in Apple Prores 4444 (not raw) 1920x1080 and transcoded into ProResLT 1280x720 for cutting.

(On our FW drives, 1280x720 gave us about 100 subtitles with good RT playback, whereas we’d only get about 30 with 1920x1080 before we had to refresh)

Thank you Nick!

And thanks too to Soundfirm and Jasmin Cornford (facilities coordinator) for allowing us to use their great screening room. We didn’t even need mics! Thank you to the wonderful audience of editors (and cinematographers). Thanks also to Fiona MacIntosh who took down these notes and to the awesome door bitch volunteers James Sutton and Adrian Barac.

Nick is currently working on The Holding Man directed by Neil Armfeild.

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