10 minute read
The slick, high-end ads you see in movie theaters or during the Superbowl are some of the highest cost-per-minute productions on the planet. Typically shot by the most accomplished directors working in film and television, they’re also cut by the best commercial editors at boutique editorial houses such as The Assembly Rooms in London. David Stevens, whose work on the Harry Styles video “Kiwi” was featured in the Frame.io Insider, gives us a detailed account of his workflow and why it works.
It’s rare that an editorial house has a say in the cameras that are used, but David is sometimes consulted prior to shooting if there’s a particular effect the director is trying to achieve, such as extreme wide angles or very high speed photography for an extreme slow-motion effect. Typically, however, for high-end commercials, Arri Alexas or similar premium camera equipment is the norm, giving the director the greatest creative latitude. There’s even a growing trend among commercial directors to shoot on 35mm film.
Occasionally, David may attend the shoot. One example is this Sunoco spot helmed by Chris Cairns of Partizan, which was dependent on the careful choreography of the sounds of the mechanical motorsport elements that were being shot live in the studio. David was drip-fed visuals from the DIT after each take so he could experiment with edit techniques and let the director know if he had adequate coverage before moving on.
It’s a workflow that’s more typical on a feature film than on a commercial, but because many high-end commercials are, in a sense, mini features with similarly high budgets (combined with far tighter schedules), it’s not uncommon for an editor (or visual effects supervisor/team) to be on set. As David notes, sometimes it’s beneficial for an editor to be there to understand how the director intends for the piece to cut together. Conversely, it can be more beneficial for the editor to see the footage without being influenced by what happened on the set in order to be more objective about what’s in the footage itself, functioning as an expert pair of fresh eyes.
The Assembly Rooms NLE of choice is Avid. However the footage is shot or formatted, it’s always transcoded to DNxHD 36, which provides adequate resolution for the offline while reducing the data load to manageable file sizes. This is especially important at an editorial house in which many editors are working on multiple projects concurrently. It also enables an editor to put the media onto a single drive in the event they need to work on the set, at a different location, or remotely. DNxHD also improves the speed and stability of the computing platform and reduces (or eliminates) render time—a big consideration for editors who are working on the frequently very limited schedules commercials have.
David currently works on Avid version 8.10 on a 2017 iMac Pro 3.2GHz Intel Xeon W with 32gb memory and Radeon Pro Vega 56 8176 MB graphics card running on OS 10.13.5. The Assembly Rooms use a variety of in/out boxes such as the AJA IO Express to allow an on-desk Eizo monitor and a large client-facing Sony monitor. For sound, they use an on-desk amplifier and Bose speakers or self-amplified Rocket G3 speakers.
Normally, the on-set DIT will transcode the files immediately after shooting, and a drive is sent to The Assembly Rooms either at the end of each shoot day or at the end of the shoot (depending on schedules and logistics). Sometimes the files are fed via upload, particularly if the shoot is in a faraway location or the director is unable to be physically present for the edit. If there is no DIT on the set to perform the transcodes, the editorial assistant can handle them—though it slows the process down.
Once the files arrive at The Assembly Rooms, they transfer the transcodes to the Avid Unity server and ingest to the Avid project. This way, both the assistant and the editor can work in tandem easily. The transcodes are stored on the Unity server, which backs up nightly. They also hold the hard drive that contains the transcodes from the production in their drive library, and the production company keeps a copy of the master drive at a different location in case of any mishaps.
For the Avid media, they use an Avid Unity system that creates separate partitions for each project. Each partition then follows the standard Avid media directory layout, which allows multiple machines to access the same media at the same time.
They also have an IMPORT/EXPORT shared drive, where all scripts, camera reports, and storyboards are saved for reference, along with any music or graphics that may need to be provided to the sound or the final post facility. They also keep it in the event there is ever an issue with the Avid media and they need to rebuild the project.
If sound syncing is required, David prefers that the production use a digi-slate so that the sync process can be automated—either as part of the transcoding process or within Avid as part of the project setup. Clapper boards also work well for syncing. Minimally, in situations of one-off or unpredictable events, or run-and-gun shooting, even a post-take clap helps in the syncing process.
Note that because many of the commercials and music videos David edits require vocal performances or music that needs to be played back on set as a reference track, he’ll provide the track with a visual timecode so it can be played back from an iPad that’s held in front of the camera, much like a digi-slate. This aids in syncing the performance takes.
For short-form projects such as commercials and music videos, The Assembly Rooms has created a system designed to maximize creative time and future-proof their work. They maintain the philosophy that the shared organizational approach should enable any editor to pick up another editor’s project and be able to work on it without a problem. It’s important, for example, in cases where a client might need a revision and the original editor is already booked on another project or is otherwise unavailable.
The dailies are organized into “slates” dictated by the information on the clapper board. If there are no clapper boards, then the footage is divided by setup and they create numbers to organize each setup.
Elsewhere in the project, they keep a separate folder for all audio, with separate bins for sync sound, Foley, sound effects, voice-overs, and music.
All elements such as graphics, logos, animation, and work-in-progress visual effects, are kept in an Avid IMPORT folder. They create an EXPORT folder for all EDL, AAF, and viewing copy exports.
They also create a MISC or ASSIST folder for all work-in-progress Avid bins such as sync bins and rough composites.
All of this organization to keep the project tidy allows the editor to move through the material as quickly and efficiently as possible. On jobs of this nature, it’s common for the editor to have very limited time with the director, and this level of organization allows David to maximize that time.
Once David’s assistant has set up the Avid project, David watches “absolutely” everything. He’ll then perform a first pass of wide selects to get a feel for the footage, pulling out the best moments and removing anything unusable. He, like other editors working at this level, feels it’s important for him to be as intimate with the material as the director—if not even more so.
Depending on the quantity of footage, he may then do a second pass at selects to further distill the material. In cases where there are numerous takes of particular action and the director has indicated his or her selects, David may string together a very rough assembly just to get a sense of the whole—although that approach is most relevant to carefully boarded commercials with a distinct story or script.
But in the case of a spot like the Sunoco piece, which is less dependent on a scripted story and more on the flow of the action, David approaches his first assembly from a completely creative standpoint, relying on his instincts to guide his choices. It’s an essential step, resulting in a foundation upon which subsequent discussions with the director or client are based. It’s also why having the material organized is important—he doesn’t want the creative flow to be interrupted by having to spend extra time sorting through alternate selects.
It’s worth noting that it’s not uncommon for commercial editors to create their first-pass edit without clients being physically present. On this spot, David already knew what the director was going for, having been at the shoot. In other instances, he’ll likely have had a detailed conversation with the director about their vision, even (if time and proximity allow) going through the initial selects together.
Reviews can happen either with the director and clients present or remotely. David finds the time with the director to be “deeply rewarding” in terms of the creative collaboration sparking new and better approaches.
If, however, he must present remotely, he relies on Frame.io. He and the director will use the commenting and markup tools to collaborate together as they go through various drafts. Once they have a cut they’re satisfied with, David will use Frame.io’s presentation page for client reviews, which presents the cut as more of a finished piece to be judged as a whole.
In the case of presentations with clients there in the room, David takes extra care to make the room as comfortable as possible—ensuring the sound is good, there’s no screen glare, no distracting noise. He’ll play the cut through twice, letting the clients absorb it before proceeding to discussion, which is equally organized: they’ll first discuss the piece as a whole and then address individual points.
Boutique editorial houses like The Assembly Rooms tend to focus exclusively on offlining, handing off to a post house for online conforming. David provides an EDL and visual AAF to the post house so that the cut can be relinked and conformed using the original full-resolution master files or camera negative. Because the color grading is an important step, it’s typical for the cameras to record in log if not raw, as that gives the colorist the most latitude to create the final look.
David may attend the color grading and/or online sessions in order to make sure that the handoff goes smoothly and that all the creative decisions (such as combining multiple plates, speed changes, and flopping or reversing shots, etc.) that have been made are communicated to the colorist and online editor.
Depending on how much time is allowed in the offline, David may do a fair amount of sound work. Often there will be placeholder music, a mix of all the channels recorded on set, a scratch VO, and sound effects that an assistant or the editor may pull.
In the case of the Sunoco spot, David was constantly adding new shots and sounds to mix up the mechanical “music” they were creating. He worked closely with Mike Bamford at String & Tins, and likened the experience to writing a song together.
More commonly, however, the sound design and mix will be done elsewhere, either at an audio or post house, for which David provides an audio AAF. Once the final audio has been completed, it will be laid back to the color-corrected and conformed master.
Visual effects are similarly handled by either a post house or specialized visual effects vendor, although David may do rough compositing using the Boris FX package along with Avid matte keying. It’s not atypical for there to be some back and forth with the VFX vendor—David might have locked sequences or select shots that he can feed to them so they can get started, and as they complete their work they can hand it back to be dropped into the offline.
In the end, the post house is responsible for adding titles, creating versions (for foreign languages or customized markets, for example), and delivering the finals to the specifications of the client.
The Assembly Rooms keeps active projects on the ISIS data server for 6-12 months, in the event of revisions. After that, the offline materials are loaded onto individual hard drives that are logged with their contents for easy searching, and stored in a fire-safe vault for between two and five years.
Avid projects are kept indefinitely because they are small and easy to store, with the thought that if anything else is requested beyond what’s part of the standard archiving process, the Avid project could be reloaded and re-linked from the master files (which are kept with the production company or client). Those sorts of requests are rare, but when they do occur, a little extra care in archiving and storing can make all the difference in being able to accommodate them.
High-end commercials are expensive to make and often come with short schedules. Editors who work on those projects have to be incredibly well organized so their time is spent in pursuit of making the project the best it can be. It’s also what allows them to give the client the kind of highly-personalized, creatively-focused experience they expect. And, it’s what makes for repeat business and enduring professional collaborations.
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