Jeffrey Ford and I met at Edit Fest New York after his panel where he and his first assistant Kiran Pallegadda discussed how they approached editing The Avengers. The two have been working closely on several projects including: Crazy Heart, Public Enemies, and Captain America: The First Avenger.
Jeffrey’s work shows a wide range of pacing, storytelling and editing talent. His earlier work on films such as One Hour Photo, starring Robin Williams, shows a measured approach to pacing, slowly building tension and character development. While his editing of Crazy Heart reflects his grasp of story structure and character relationships. Jeffrey brings all this talent and knowledge to Captain America and The Avenger’s, bringing intimate moments unique pacing to these large action films.
How did you get into film and, in particular, film editing?
I went to the USC film school, where I met a lot of great people. While there, I became fascinated with editing and film sound. I got a reputation as a good editor and I became addicted to editing. USC was a great time in my life and where I built the foundation of knowledge that has served me well. I’m eternally grateful to that place; that’s where I started. I wouldn’t have a career at all if it weren’t for my SC compadre James Gray. He hired me to cut my first feature; I owe him everything for that leap of faith.
How did you make your way into superhero films such as Captain America and The Avengers
I had worked with Paul Rubell on Public Enemies. I heard he was up for the lead editor on The Avengers, and that there was a plan for a second editor, so I inquired about getting an interview. To my surprise they asked me in right away, but it was not for The Avengers but to meet on Captain America. They were bringing on a second editor there and so I came in to meet with the director Joe Johnston. I’d been a fan of Joe’s work since I was a kid so it was a dream come true to get the job. I’m really proud of that film. Luckily, the edit went well and Marvel asked me to meet with Joss on The Avengers. That was it!
What kind of involvement did Marvel have in the editing room, especially since all the films prior to The Avengers referenced one another and had interweaving storylines?
They are very involved but in the best way. These films are expensive and hard to make so it takes a village. Specifically a village with sense of humor and great ideas.
What is your approach to assessing rushes/dailies for scenes which might be mostly green screen to determine what’s best for the story?
Watching green screen dailies is really no different than reviewing any other dailies. You’re looking first for performance and then for dynamic and relevant shots to tell the story. You just have to keep in mind the future compositional aspects of the shots, and you need to factor in what will be happening in those shots. We have animators who sketch the action for us once we pick a plate so that helps a great deal.
What is your approach to tackling large VFX heavy fight scenes with multiple elements that may affect the storyline?
Fight scenes are a bit different than dialog scenes. They’re very musical and have to have precise dynamics to be effective. Even with green screen shots we usually have both opponents on screen playing out the action. You can’t mime fighting easily. We use stunt players in motion capture-friendly suits so we can track the CG character later. Again it’s all a search for authentic performance and great shots, and the cuts add the rhythm.
Chris Evans plays Steve Roger’s both before and after his transformation into Captain America. When cutting scenes with him in the first half of the movie you were working with a digitally “slenderized” version of Chris, how did this affect you in the editing process and how did you handle this?
For “skinny Steve” (as we nicknamed him) we chose the best takes from Chris’ performance and created a scene. During shooting the other actors accounted for his lower eye-line and sometimes they were shot against green screen to allow them to be composited against our skinny Steve later. Once we had the scene he was rotoscoped out, shrunk, then re-composited back into the shots. It was an intricate and fractal process. Chris did an amazing job creating the skinny Steve persona. He played it right even before the effect was applied. It’s a great performance, VFX and our supervisor Chris Townsend took it home.
Can you describe your approach to editing the reveal of Captain America after the transition? It built up suspense and excitement for the audience yet we knew what was coming. How do you build and harness that kind of energy?
Origin stories always have the leg iron of having the audience waiting. I think, like all films, superhero origin stories exploit and trade on that very suspense element. Yes, we can’t wait to see Cap, but we also savor the journey. He’s only super if he has to overcome an obstacle. The obstacles in his path only make the reveal more resonant for the audience. Building suspense and releasing it is the most important part of any film and any genre.
How did Captain America help prepare you for the size and scope you would soon experience with The Avengers?
Cap was a great learning experience. I hadn’t done much CG or VFX work before and jumping into the middle of it allowed me to learn on the job in a hurry. You couldn’t ask for a better Obi-Wan than Joe Johnston, a guy who literally was present at the creation of the modern era of visual effects. Joe was a charter member of ILM in the early days and he knows visual effects like no one else. Another significant co-worker was our incredible VFX supervisor Chris Townsend. He educated me on the process and we worked closely together. He is one of the great people in our industry and I’ll be forever in his debt. Were working together again on Iron Man 3.
Can you give me some insight into what it was like to work with Joss Whedon?
Joss is a phenomenon. First and foremost he’s a writer of great skill and talent. He demands a strict allegiance to text as written and with good reason: it’s been very precisely crafted for an effect. He also has a great understanding of comic book mythology. He’s a lifelong comic book fan and he has written comics so he knows the world. I think his love for these characters really comes thru in the film. He taught me to understand clearly what was important to the scene, the sequence and the film as a whole. He has a great ability to creatively prioritize while working on complex and demanding films.
The film is quite long yet it isn’t noticeable, how did you approach introducing all the characters, the villains and story lines and maintain a solid pacing that keeps the audience engaged?
We knew the film would be long because you have many characters that need to have their moments. I think that allowing the film to stretch in places was a key decision we made. Joss allowed the audience time to reacquaint themselves with these characters, then he developed them, then sent them to war. That doesn’t happen in 90 minutes. Balance and parallel action is the key here. It was what we spent the most time on.
Joss really worked on making this ensemble have much more depth to the characters’ relationships, how did you approach molding these characters to reveal their flaws and their relationship troubles yet still maintain their hero-like status?
Marvel, as a company, has a unique style, it’s part of their brand. That style demands that the super heroes feel like you and me in extraordinary situations. It makes the characters feel more relatable and human, which is essential in any dramatic form. I often say that the middle act of Avengers is like a family drama, where all the kids come home for Christmas. They fight and snark and learn about each other.
How did you and and Lisa split the cutting up?
Due to the visual effects demands we had to sort of split the film in half. She took the first part, through the mountain battle between Iron Man and Thor. I did the rest although, however, there was some cross over. For example, she cut that great scene in the cell between Loki and Widow. Lisa is super collaborative and it was great to work with her. She also had the benefit of having worked with Joss before, so she was able to bring me up to speed on how he liked to work.
There are many pacing shifts in this movie, having a slower pacing during the airship sequences yet peppered with action and fast pacing during hulk moments etc. How did you approach the pacing of the film?
Pacing is tricky. It’s all about dynamics. You can’t have fast without slow, loud without quiet, happy without sad. Suspense is essential to good action sequences. Character is crucial for drama and you need drama to contain and give meaning to the action. Movies that are relentlessly fast paced can come off dull because it’s all the the same level all the time. Pace is less about the time you take with a given scene and more about making certain the audience is still asking “what’s gonna happen next”?
What is your favorite guilty pleasure film to watch.
I don’t really have a guilty pleasure film… I have films that I love that I watch again and again to learn from them. Maybe the all time most nourishing film for me is Coppola’s The Conversation. It’s not a guilty pleasure but it’s a great film to go back to time and time again.
I would like to thank Jeffrey for taking the time to answer my questions. I look forward to his work on Iron Man 3 which will be released in 2013. For now, you can download most of Jeffrey’s work from the Apple iTunes store, Amazon or go to your local video rental store.
If you enjoy our show and want to hear more about editing and post make sure to check out Kanen Flowers That Post Show. This week they geek out on Smoke 2013.