Angus Wall & Kirk Baxter talking about "Benjamin Button" [interview]

“Every editor works in a different way,” says Fincher. “Given the way Angus’s and Kirk’s minds are organized, Final Cut Pro works really, really well for them.”

Easy Assembly
During the nine months of on-location shooting in New Orleans and Montreal, Baxter worked alone in Fincher’s production offices, assembling a loose cut of the film as Fincher shot it. Wall joined him to finish the assembly and then make the final edits, working alongside Baxter on shared Final Cut Pro editing stations. Overall, the movie was two years in post.

“I assembled the picture and it was pretty loose,” says Baxter. “I think in the beginning Angus took the first half and I took the second half. But after David shot all of the hospital scenes and some late footage of Julia Ormond, that footage was sprinkled throughout the whole film. So whoever was editing that scene would just automatically start touching everything else.”

Wall says: “It was a kind of a ‘unimind’ approach. And it was actually remarkable how fluidly and unconsciously things worked.”

Editing “Button”
Among the chief editorial challenges was working through the sheer amount of footage produced by so many takes from the multiple camera angles favored by Fincher. “In working with David, with the amount of material and the specificity of pieces that he’s looking for, one key benefit is how much more organized Final Cut allows you to be,” says Wall. “We could zoom out far enough to get a handle on how much footage there really was.

“We could also customize the things we worked with most. I love being able to have two timelines open and three playback windows, which I could never have on other systems. And when you’re looking at 200 hours of material, every little tweak can improve your efficiency, which turns into hours and even days saved.”

Working with his custom window setup was a particular help to Wall as he edited footage from the first part of the movie that featured “faceless” actors who had not yet received the CGI transplants of Pitt’s digitally reconstructed head. “There was a little mortised Brad head playing over on the side of the frame, and in your mind you’d have to marry his little picture-in-picture performance onto the body of the actor that you were watching in the scene.”

Wall describes a particularly useful customization, developed for “Zodiac” and recycled for “Button”: “Because David does circle takes and star takes, I use color coding to make circle takes gold and star takes red. When I’m pulling selects, I always put those at the beginning of the sequence, then everything else in descending order. My thinking is, you might as well look at the best take first. Wall says the scheme helped him quickly understand “where David got to and where he had come from in a set up.”

Although the amount of footage was large, how Fincher shot it made editing the movie surprisingly smooth. “He shoots for the edit,” says Wall. “Things really cog and dovetail together in ways that he’s designed. It’s never like you’re trying to find the movie; the movie is there.”

Having spent two years discovering that movie, Baxter predicts audiences will share his opinion of the results. “You could watch any individual scene within the film and there’s nothing flabby, nothing indulgent. It’s a long story, but it’s really tight. David’s completely made the movie that he wanted to make. It’s an extremely emotional film, and the performances are outstanding. In my opinion, it’s his greatest success.”

By Joe Cellini



 "Bruce Carse: More and more, we’re seeing co-editors on feature films. Why were there two editors on Benjamin Button and how did you work together?
Kirk Baxter: It was a very natural process. Angus and I knew each other for a long time before we worked together on this film. Besides, when you work for David, everything is kind of cross-pollinated, so there’s no grabbiness; no one really owns anything. It would be more complicated if we didn’t have a very good leader. I’ve worked for directors who really need your help in storytelling. But with David leading and Angus and I helping, the paths are always quite clear.
Angus Wall: Editing can be a very lonely and solitary process; a lot of the time you’re alone in a dark room with the footage. Sometimes, I had to step back and say, “You have to enjoy this; it’s the perfect job.” But I am fortunate to have such a terrific co-conspirator in Kirk with whom I can talk about things and discuss approaches. It’s a very graceful collaboration.

Carse: Usually on a film, you get a sense of how much film was shot, but how does that translate to digital? The storage requirements must have been enormous.
Wall: Take what you think is enormous and double it [laughs]. David actually deletes takes he doesn’t like, right there on the set. The first take that’s saved is the first one that he wants to print. Between that and the time he wraps the shot, anything else he doesn’t like is just gone. I’m sure a lot of actors don’t like that, but as editors, its kind of nice because we’re only dealing with his selects instead of a preponderance of other material.

Carse: Can you talk about the contributions of Ren Klyce, the supervising sound editor?
Wall: Ren is a longtime collaborator of David’s. He’s all about the things that are happening behind and around the characters. And he completely puts you into that world. Terrible pun, but he’s a sounding board for everybody on the movie.
Baxter: On David’s movies, Ren is sort of the “sound czar,” and next to Angus, David and our editing crew, he was the person I spoke with most. Yes, he’s a sound expert, but there’s something about him as a human that makes you want to be in his company and seek his opinions. He was involved long before we were in selecting the piano pieces that were used in the scenes at the old age home, and he made a lot of music and sound decisions that needed to be made. He also gave us an entire library of New Orleans music that he created and that David had previously vetted. That type of thing is so helpful in the cutting room.

Carse: Did you work with a temp score?
Baxter: We kind of did a snatch and grab from all over the place, including a lot from Roger Eno (Brian’s brother) and Ennio Morricone’s score from Days of Heaven. That helped us build things, but it wasn’t until Ren came in and lined everything in the film, using many of Alexandre Desplat’s previous scores that we suddenly realized that we had a movie in our midst. Once Alexandre’s final got in there, it was like he poured a layer of resin on everything that sealed the film and took all the question marks away.

Carse: What is it like working with David Fincher?
Baxter: The movie presented its biggest challenge in its first third due to the lack of a lead performer. Editing that part of the film was an act of faith, and when the first complete shots came in and started becoming a reality, then it was like, “There it is!” David knew exactly what he wanted each of those shots to be.
Wall: It would become self-evident when something in the film was getting better; it’s an ongoing conversation and, in the end, it’s just sort of done. Working with David is very much an exploration of how to make every scene work as well as it can.
Baxter: David’s a great listener, but the talking is done by pressing the play button. You do the work, and David responds to the work. We could propose a new direction, and he’s more than happy to see that––but only after he’s seen what he intended. He’s extremely open to everything.
Wall: Some directors are made, and some, like David, are born. There is no alternate path for him.

Carse: Were you able to lock picture before the final effects were in?
Baxter: There’s a philosophy in David’s cutting room that it’s never really locked; nor does it have to be. He somehow has the key to unlock things. I mean, we locked things off so the film could advance to doing all the sound, special effects and especially the head replacements, so we would do things in scenes, not in reels, and pass them on––because those other departments needed to get moving.

Carse: Do you feel that people are too wrapped up in talking about the technology on Benjamin Button?
Baxter: Very much so, but I also understand it. As an example, one of the most challenging scenes to edit was in the revival tent where Benjamin walks for the first time. While not my favorite scene in the movie, it’s unique to editing because of having to edit without a lead performance. In fact, there was over a year where the conversation was not about the effects when we were doing screenings; the talk was all about the performances and the love story. For a while, we kind of swept the front part of the film under the rug, but we were also kind of thinking, “I hope this stuff’s going to work.”
Wall: David was just the guest of honor at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and we put together a three-minute montage of all of his feature work. Watching that sequence, you can actually see his development as a filmmaker, and Button is in sharp contrast to all that came before. People always say he’s a “technical” director, but here, the emotional aspect of his work is in full bloom. His work with actors in Button and Zodiac is so intense and the performances are so well developed.

Carse: Can you tell us about some of the greatest challenges you had to face, as well as what your favorite scenes are?
Wall: A favorite scene of mine, and one that always moved me, was Benjamin’s death scene. They had planned to do it as a visual effect, but when they shot the scene with a live baby, his eyes rolled back in his head and he just fell asleep. It was just as simple and poignant as it could be, and there was something magical about it the way that all came about.
For me, the most challenging material to work with were the scenes involving Mr. Button, Benjamin’s father, because––and this is innate to his character––I could never quite pin down where he was coming from. And as a character, he is so conflicted that he doesn’t know either. So in trying to make sure his performance was absolutely correct and appropriate, I found myself going back and forth with his performance more than anything else. While it was a dream to work with Brad and Cate’s (Blanchett) performances in the various stages of their lives, Mr. Button was just tricky––a very squirrelly and mercurial character. These were scenes that we cut, re-cut and passed back and forth.
Baxter: The character has no confidence in what he’s saying, because he feels he has no right to say it. As an editor, you’re looking for sure footing with his performance, but it is supposed to feel wobbly.
Emotionally, the hardest scene for me in terms of feeling uncomfortable was the scene in the park in which Benjamin tells Daisy that she has to find a new father for their daughter. The scene is simply covered; just two singles and a wide shot, and you want to have sure footing for what you’re doing. But the subject matter is so horrible and I just felt awkward, because I just didn’t want Benjamin to leave. The audience in the theatre watching the finished film doesn’t have those question marks of how that scene could be better; they’re dealing in the absolute, but in the cutting room I’m watching it and going, “Is that my fault?” and keep on trying. So we at first made that scene extremely tight and that broke it, then cut it looser, and that broke it, but eventually it just found its place.

Carse: What is the message of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?
Baxter: The emotional message is something that gets lost with all the talk about the blueheads. Every time we had a screening, people would come up to me and speak about their own losses, and that’s because this is such a deeply personal film. It reminds everyone of all the things that are fragile in our own lives, and I think that’s the beauty of the film; that’s the skill of it.
Wall: The flip side of that is cherishing every moment you have with the people that you love. It’s a meditation on mortality, but it’s also a celebration of those moments."

By Michael Kunkes on 02/24/2009


Editorial Challenges
No two films present the same challenges for an editor and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is no exception. Kirk put it this way, "The whole film was a challenge because stylistically there are so many different scenes. The biggest challenge for us came in the first three reels, because there is no lead performance during that entire time." Angus went on, "In this period of the film, the Benjamin Button character is a composite of a body actor and a CGI face. When we started, we only had the body actor delivering temp dialogue lines in the scene with other actors. Initially we placed a circle wipe over the actor's face so the performance would not be distracting. Brad recorded temp dialogue that we used for pacing. Once these scenes were close to being locked, David shot motion capture of Brad's face performing to the rough cut. This performance was then mapped onto a CGI head and Digital Domain composited the CGI head onto the body actor's torso."

This film received the benefit of other digital tools. According to Angus, "One of the scenes in the film is a fable told by Cate Blanchett. We were looking for ways to set this scene apart and decided to give it an old movie look, since it's a movie-within-a-movie. To that aim, we settled on treating these shots with Magic Bullet Looks. The final version that appears in the film was processed through [Adobe] After Effects where we 'baked in' the effect. There are also a few other scenes throughout that received a little Magic Bullet love."

Kirk added, "David employs a lot of classical film language in his shooting style. He uses the rules intelligently and also breaks them intelligently. Often the toughest scenes to cut are the simplest. Big action scenes, such as the battle, go together like a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces just fall into place, because David has planned it all out. On the other hand, a simple, straight dramatic scene made up of a wide shot and singles, can be very tough, because you are trying to gauge the best performance and get the right emotion out of the scene."

"I've done tons of commercial sessions where the editor has to be as much a politician in the room as concentrate on the edit. The good thing about working with David is that he has a very clear vision and limits the number of voices an editor has to listen to. He lets you be an editor. He doesn't need to review each and every take, but will let you know if something doesn't work . If you cut a scene three different ways, he can quickly decide which version works and which doesn't."

Honing the Story

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button spent two years in post with Wall and Baxter cutting on shared Apple Final Cut Pro workstations tied to a 60TB Xsan system located at David Fincher's production offices. The first cut came in at 3 hours 15 minutes, which didn't include the last nine days of shooting. That added another 20 minutes. Through tightening, but with the extra footage, the film got down to 2 hours and 50 minutes. As Angus explained, "Every minute after that was hard fought to get down to 2 hours and 46 minutes."

Kirk expanded on this, "Most of the last year was really spent polishing the film. We revisited every scene to see how we could make it better. For instance, there are 250 split screens as 'invisible edits' in this film. These are cases where we might adjust a take for timing or add a bird flying in the sky from a different take, just to add that little something special. David shoots a lot of lock-offs and that makes this sort of polishing very easy. Even though this film has a fantasy element -- Benjamin aging backwards -- the story is very rooted in the real world. The script worked in a linear fashion so we didn't have to rearrange scenes in post to make the story work. In fact, we removed one scene that foreshadowed an event the audience hadn't seen yet. It was better to let the story reveal itself in a logical fashion. David is very protective of the story, so our trimming involved losing unnecessary lines here and there, rather than whole scenes."

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is told from the point-of-view of Cate Blanchett's character in her old age from a hospital bed. Angus commented that, "It's a very personal but universal story; it's really about life and death. Most of the people who have seen it have commented that it makes you consider your own life. You really get the urge to cherish those around you. The technology is always used in service of this purpose and that's very satisfying." Kirk concluded, "This is a very special film. I think it is really David's 'flag on the mountaintop'. I hope that the audience will see it that way as well."


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