With an army of editors
and visual effects artists, director Michael Bay brings Hasbro's transforming
toy phenomena of the 80's to the big screen with this summer's hit, Transformers.
Through a combination of live-action shots and cutting-edge CGI, the
film promises to deliver audiences Bay's trademark scale and heart-pumping
action. Post had a chance to catch up with seasoned film
editor Paul Rubell, A.C.E., to discuss the view from the cutting room. Rubell, whose list of credits includes Miami
Vice, Blade, Collateral, and The Insider,
discusses the creative process of sifting through footage, managing CG
elements, and assembling action sequences to create a bigger than life summer
Post: You've worked with two of the biggest
directors in Hollywood - Michael Mann and Michael Bay - and basically
alternated between their projects for the past several years. Each has a very different filmmaking
style. How do you adapt your
editing to suit their different styles and types of films?
Rubell: "I suspect they
each think I've picked up bad habits from the other. Initially, I'll be cutting
too fast for Mann and too slow for Bay.
But it all comes out in the wash. After all, the footage will ultimately
dictate the style, unless you're imposing a style on the footage - a risky
endeavor, unless you're an editing savant, and there aren't too many of those.
"Bay's scripts and
footage demand shorter cuts, with emphasis on plot and humor. The bottom
line: is it fun? Mann's footage is more verite: rougher,
looser, searching for subtext. The bottom line: is it truthful?
The irony is that Mann prepares himself down to his fingertips, then
goes into jazz improvisation mode when he shoots. Bay seems to prepare less, but directs with great
Post: What was the post production schedule for Transformers?
Rubell: "We started post
last October and delivered in June. Nine months might seem like a generous
schedule, but the complexity of our visual effects changed the calculus. The
robots could say or do whatever we wanted - limited only by the background
plates and our imaginations. In a sense, the writing and directing never
stops. Our friends at ILM were
very patient with us, as we missed turnover deadlines, not having enough pieces
of the puzzle in our heads yet to commit to one version or another. So in the
end, there was barely enough time - as usual. We had to deliver the picture in
June to meet the worldwide July release." (The extra time was required for international
prints, translations, and dubbing.)
Post: Talk about the film's workflow and how you
collaborated with visual effects.
How large was your editing team?
Rubell: "The basic
editing team was myself and Glen Scantlebury. Glen and I weren't available to start the film, so our good
friend Tom Muldoon (a longtime Michael Bay collaborator) handled the first
shift of editing dailies, and came on for a few weeks in post to help out. Todd
Miller and John Murray did some additional editing early on. Ken Blackwell was a kind of
uber-associate editor, putting his stamp on every phase of the process. Calvin
Wimmer was our crack first assistant, whose sense of humor sustained us. Jim
Schulte handled the second assistant role during production, and Adam Kimmerlin
came on in post to gaff the Nitris and help out wherever needed. Edward Abolote was our apprentice who
doubled as Michael Bay's dog wrangler. Kevin Stermer was the PA, (recently
upgraded to apprentice editor.) We
were fortunate to have Rob Yamamoto as post supervisor, and Danielle Daly as
"The visual effects
editing chores were handled by the editors and Ken Blackwell. The editors were
able to create rough temps in the Avid, while Ken was a maestro at creating
hi-res versions (sometimes finals!) in After Effects. Calvin generally handled
the interface between the editing room and the vendors (mainly ILM). This was a
painstakingly labor-intensive task which Calvin handled with great skill and
"In general terms, the
workflow consisted of turning over partial sequences with background plates,
sometimes having comp'ed robot animatics into the shot. Upon receiving early
iterations, the cuts were reworked as necessary and re-turned over. Late in the
game we made a point of extending the shots beyond the handles whenever
possible (or at least, that's what ILM thought)."
Post: What was your set up on the cutting room and
how did the systems enable you to deliver this film?
Rubell: "We had a number of Avid systems connected together to exchange
cuts - it's the only way to handle a film on this scale. In total, we had six
Meridiens on Unity sharing about two terabytes of storage. There were basically
three edit rooms for the editors. Our assistants then worked on their own two systems
and Michael Bay also had his own, which he used to view cuts and pull selects.
For screenings, we used a Symphony Nitris. We used Media Net exclusively for
exchanging visual effects daily between ILM and Bay."
Post: What ultimately determined your workflow?
Rubell: "Necessity. We
improvised as necessary to keep ILM, Company 3, and the sound department happy.
Michael Bay is extremely hands-on when it comes to visual effects. The
assistants were constantly under pressure to turn things around faster and
better, to and from the vendors. Systems were tailored on a daily basis."
Post: How many screenings did you do? Were they in HD?
Rubell: "Early on, we
screened in standard def, for ourselves, on Avid. Eventually we expanded our
scope to included Michael's home screening room and Company 3. When it came
time to present the film to the studio, we brought in a Nitris and built the
show in HD. From there, it went to
Company 3 for tape-to-tape color correction. After that, the Nitris was constantly updated with
revisions, so that we could screen at the drop of a hat. We had a couple of
small, informal screenings for family and friends, and quizzed them in great
detail, which yielded extremely useful information, which was implemented more
often than not. We had one preview, in Tucson, for two separate audiences with
diverse age-based demographics.
The results were so positive, it was decided that further previews would
Post: How important is it to work in HD or to
preview in HD when you have a number of composited elements and CGI characters?
Rubell: "We did not have
the luxury of working in HD. However, even if we had, the end result would not
have differed one bit - we wouldn't have made different editorial decisions.
That said, how do you quantify an aesthetic experience of HD? I suppose you
could say screening in HD increases the level of enjoyment by a factor of at
least 10. Of course, going in the
reverse direction (from HD to SD) is going to decrease enjoyment by a factor of 100."
Post: Today editors - particularly on blockbuster
films such as Transformers -
have to handle a huge number of temp effects and audio. What tools allow you to do that?
Rubell: "The tools we
used are still pretty basic - native Avid comp'ing effects, audiosuite
plug-ins, and Adobe After Effects.
Advanced technology is out there - we need Avid to embrace it."
Post: With such a heavy load of visual effects, how
do you stay focused on the storytelling aspect?
Rubell: "My self-assigned
task was to monitor the story and the characters. The tough part was that the robots (major characters!) were
not significantly realized with respect to either picture or dialogue, until
relatively late in the game. So some major variables were missing from the
Post: What are the important storytelling or
editorial devices you employ on Transformers
as opposed to something like The
Rubell: "On The
Insider, we were looking for performances that were utterly
real, moments when consciously or unconsciously, the actors stopped acting.
When we found those rare moments, we let them play for as long as they held. Transformers
called for a different
sensibility. If a moment made us laugh, it was in. I was always looking for
beats we could hold for a few seconds in order to break the rhythm and re-set
the audience's metronome, but essentially it was about economy of
Post: What is the fine line between creating
gripping action sequences and not over cutting such that you lose the audience
Rubell: "One viewer's
gripping action is another's over-cutting. Or let me put it another way: A
fan-boy's gripping action is a film critic's over-cutting. Some of what used to
be over-cutting is now just cutting. However, for me the fine line is breached
when a series of cuts are uniformly fast, so that the eye has nowhere to rest
and becomes overloaded with stimuli. Michael Bay can process images very
quickly. We mere visual mortals have to fight for more frames."
Post: How big a client monitor do you use to get a
basic sense of viewing size and its effect on the pace and rhythm during the
Rubell: "Fifty inches is
nice. I sometimes sit very close
to the monitor (eight inches or so) in order to simulate the experience of screening
in a large cinema. When you have to shift your eyes from one side of the
monitor to the other to take in the story, you realize you need more screen
Post: How do ever greater CGI capabilities and
realism influence the post process?
Rubell: "CG has gotten so
good that audiences accept them as characters, so they have to be up to the
standard of the flesh and blood actors.
In terms of the editorial workflow, the "production" phase is now
extended into post, in the sense that action and dialogue can be constantly
revised until quite late in the game. With live action, we are limited by the
shot, but can manipulate it. With CG, we have to develop our powers of
previsualization. When editing for characters that aren't there, we are in a
sense now co-directing because the way we cut the plates is going to determine
the way the characters are animated, and the way we subtitle the missing
characters' dialogue is going to determine how the story is told, which also
makes us co-writers in some sense.
"Editing CG elements,
however, is really a subset of the larger situation - how editing has changed
for us. Before the digital era, our area of influence was far more restricted.
We cut one layer of celluloid picture and one track of dialog. We duped it and
gave it to the sound and music editors. Next time we heard it was on the
dubbing stage. We had to wait for the most basic temp comps. Now we cut
picture, dialogue, temp sound effects, temp music, and temp visual effects,
then hand it over to the various departments who take it to the next level. We
have essentially set the tone for all those areas. The end result is that our
creative contribution is far more satisfying, but we end up making other
sacrifices. What used to be an eight-hour day is now 12 to 14 - plus weekends."
Post: Your next project - John Hancock, starring Will Smith - has a lot
of humor but also some very serious and dramatic moments. Coming off several
action/suspense pieces, how are you approaching editing it?
Rubell: "The premise - a
superhero who has become depressed and is hitting the bottle too much and
flying into buildings while rescuing people - is funny; but the relationships
are dramatic. There is action and there are a lot of visual effects, but what
interests me is story and character. How do you approach it? You cut it, you
shape it, you work from the gut and test what you've done with your brain,
until the whole begins to resonate at its own frequency. You work deep. If that
sounds mysterious - it is."