Tim Squyres, ACE, has been nominated for multiple Oscars and ACE Eddies and BAFTAs for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Gosford Park and Life of Pi. His filmography also includes Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk; Unbroken; Lust, Caution; Hulk; Sense and Sensibility; Eat, Drink, Man, Woman; and many more including TV work on the pilots of Nurse Jackie, Now and Again and Medium.
For this interview, we discussed a wide range of topics and films but focused on Gemini Man. Squyres has been a long-time collaborator of director Ang Lee.
HULLFISH: Tell me about your collaborative relationship with your director, Ang Lee.
SQUYRES: We respect each other’s opinions a lot and have managed to find a way to work together that’s really productive. Ang once said — talking about me somewhere — that it was great because we disagree all the time. Of course we don’t disagree all the time. We agree ninety-five percent of the time, it’s just the last 5 percent is what we spend our time talking about because things that we agree about we don’t need to be addressing every day. It’s just a collaboration that’s worked out. I think we’re similar in a lot of ways but different enough to keep it interesting and productive.
HULLFISH: How do you collaborate? Are you a show-and-tell kind of guy? You talked about disagreeing. Do you have longer discussions? What’s the way that you guys hash things out?
SQUYRES: We talk a lot in preproduction, but during production on most movies we hardly talk at all. I get the footage, but I get virtually no indication of what to do with it. If he had a plan, he doesn’t share it with me. So I’m left to figure it out myself. I send him back two or three versions of everything. And generally, I don’t hear anything back. If he thinks he got the scene covered — based on what I show him and based on what he thought on the day — if he feels he got everything he needs, he’s better off spending his time thinking about what he’s shooting tomorrow rather than what he shot yesterday.
So the assembly I generally do in a vacuum — which is fine with me. I’m used to it, so I don’t need feedback. On big visual effects films like Life of Pi and Gemini Man, I’m more closely involved. I was actually in Budapest for a couple of months on Gemini Man with the shoot. But even so, he doesn’t give me many notes. It’s just that sometimes in visual effects, you have to get ahead of things — start turning things over because they need a long lead time.
Once production is finished, then he comes in and sits with me all day and we just go through it. And usually I’ve prepared multiple versions of everything. There’s a single version of the film that we start with but — saved separately — I’ve got all kinds of alternatives and we just go through those and work our way through it. We’ve gotten to be quite efficient at it because we’ve done it enough and we know how to work together and bang through it.
He is not someone who gets lost in it and says, “Let’s look at everything again.” We don’t do that. We’re able to stick to the plan and push ahead based on the preparation work that I’ve done.
HULLFISH: It’s interesting that you do multiple versions of the scenes. Obviously, there are lots of editors who will say they do that for some scenes, but it sounds like you do virtually every scene.
SQUYRES: Yeah. I do it for every scene. I never cut a scene once. Working with other directors, sometimes I get told that there’s a specific plan for the scene — and even then I’ll do that plan, but also do something else. I’ll first do my own thing with the footage and then look and see what the plan was and see if I’ve already done it. Usually, I’ve come pretty close already. I think your job as editor during the assembly is to explore what’s possible with the footage. Sometimes — based on performance — there can be the angry version or the sad version. Sometimes the alternates are based on coverage. But then sometimes on a big complex action scene with a lot of coverage, I’ll just do it again. I’ve spent all day on a version that I like. “Great. Now do it again.”
The way that I assemble is I’ll go through the dailies and I’ll wind up with a sequence of pulls — things that I like — which are the pieces that I might build the scene out of, which is at least one line reading from each setup. The best line reading from the medium shot, the best line reading from the close up or maybe two or three from each, if there are good ones, and so I have that pull sequence and I’ll duplicate it, take version 1 and put it on the end with dupe detection on, so I can see what I’ve used before, and then do it again, trying not to use those pieces, or at least not cut in the same way.
HULLFISH: A lot of times I’ve cut a scene once and when I go to cut it a second time, I’ll try to force myself to think differently, but there are certain points where the edits match. It’s really interesting that you use dupe detection to keep yourself from doing that.
SQUYRES: Sometimes there’s a particular cut that’s just obvious. You kind of have to make it. I’ll try something else, but generally, version two — hopefully — won’t contain any of the same footage as version one. It depends on the scene.
I really think my job is to try what’s there. Another thing that I do — I started doing this back on The Ice Storm — is if I have, for example, a simple dialogue scene between two people, and I have medium shots and closeups — the first thing I do is cut the whole scene just in medium shots and then cut the whole scene again just in the closeups. And I won’t use the master at all in either of them. Then I’ll look at those cuts and then decide when to be wide and when to be close based on having done it and seeing what works, not on what I thought was going to work. The other good thing about that is when you’ve done a section in the close-ups and the director says, “Oh, I really thought we’d be in the medium shots for that,” it’s already done. I don’t have to sit there and do it. So it’s a big time saver. Of course, it takes more time during the assembly, but it saves a ton of time later.
HULLFISH: I don’t know whether you’ve heard him say this — I swear this is an Ang Lee quote — that “Shooting is like grocery shopping but the real cooking is in the cutting room.”
HULLFISH: That must make you feel good.
SQUYRES: Yeah. It’s a lot more comfortable in the kitchen than it is wandering around the grocery store.
I’m happy to be working with a director who feels that way: that what you’re doing in the editing room is not just executing the plan and putting the ends of the shots together and it’s done. What you’re doing in the editing room is very fundamentally telling the story.
HULLFISH: And you said it he’s usually in the cutting room with you. That’s a little unusual. There are other directors certainly that do that, but he’s always there? He’s not just wandering in giving you some notes.
SQUYRES: No. He’s there most of the time. He’s not there as many hours as I am, but he puts in a full day for months on end. I don’t think he knows that he doesn’t have to.
HULLFISH: You mentioned that you’ve got two — sometimes three — versions of a scene, but of course when you cut them together into an assembly you’ve got to pick your favorite I’m assuming. Do you always show him every version or is it only when you go through the assembly and it seems like he may need to see another version?
SQUYRES: I show him alternate versions while shooting, but not necessarily all of them.
HULLFISH: Yes. But you said you never receive feedback from that.
SQUYRES: I only hear something back if there’s a problem or if I think there’s a problem. That’s part of my job too. If I get the footage and I think there’s a problem, I have to let him know.
If I have three versions of a scene — the beauty of features is it’s a long shoot — so I’ll have three versions of scene 41, and a month later we shoot scene 42 and two days later we shoot scene 40. At some point, I’ll go back and look at the versions I have of each and go through and from those, build out what goes into the assembly. And it’s not always that I take an existing version of scene 41. I’ll take bits and pieces out of all of them and sometimes try other new things too.
Then I’ll save the alternates and mark what’s different or what’s interesting about them for easy reference later. Maybe halfway through the shoot or two-thirds of the way through the shoot — in addition to cutting the new day’s dailies — I’ll start going back to the old scenes and building out what will become the assembly cut.
Then we do a pretty thorough sound job and music and the works. So when we sit down watch the assembly, it looks like the movie. Well, it looks like A movie. It doesn’t look like the movie as it’s going to wind up because I haven’t dropped any lines or rearranged any scenes. You try to make everything work the way it was scripted. That way you can feel confident dropping it later. You’ve got to try to make the scene work before you drop it. It’s very rare that I drop a scene before we screen the assembly, and then we discuss it first.
HULLFISH: You mentioned how you put the assembly together as it’s scripted. I’ve talked to multiple editors that say the same thing: “I always put it together the way it’s scripted” But there are other editors that say, “No. If I think I can get into a scene later then I’ll just drop the first four or five lines.” Are you doing that? Or are you doing it in other versions?
SQUYRES: Sometimes in other versions, I do some trimming. But no, we do that later. I really try to make everything work as intended in the script so that you watch it in context and THEN you can say, “We can drop that.”
In television — where you’re on a really tight schedule — maybe sometimes you have to do that, but I’d prefer to leave it as written and then watch the whole thing and then sometimes those cuts or rearrangements become obvious.
HULLFISH: Sure. You mentioned television. You’ve done a couple of TV pilots but it looks like you don’t usually continue past the pilot.
SQUYRES: That’s correct. The only series I’ve done past the pilot was a show called Now and Again that ran for one season, and I cut the pilot and the first half of the season. And I was doing that while I was assembling Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. So I was busy that fall! Then I left to go finish Crouching Tiger. That’s the only series work I’ve done.
HULLFISH: So you’ve clearly got your hands full with feature work. Why do you do these pilots?
SQUYRES: I’ve done three pilots for Glenn Gordon Caron, who did Moonlighting many years ago, and then he did Now and Again and Medium, for which I cut the pilot, and then directed an episode in Season 2.
It fit in the schedule. I like working with Glenn. I also did the pilot for Nurse Jackie. The director of that was Allen Coulter, who I had worked with on a film called Hollywoodland. Allen asked me to do it and I like working with Allen and it fit in the schedule. When it works it’s kind of a fun thing to do. Series television can be a grind, but with pilots, nothing is established yet, so you’re not tied into a certain look and a certain rhythm. It’s a chance to meet somebody new and do something different.
HULLFISH: You mentioned directing. Is that something that you started since you’ve been editing? And was it something that — as you watched great directing happen around you — you felt like you could do it?
SQUYRES: A long time ago — back when I was in my 20s — I did a bunch of directing before I moved to New York. Just local stuff. Nothing big. Student films, local TV and stuff. When I came here, I fell into editing and really liked it, but I have opinions and I have ideas and I raised the possibility of directing one with Glenn and he said, “Sure.”
I’ve directed a couple of episodes. Editing is interesting preparation for directing because you learn a lot about where to put the camera, how to pace things. You learn absolutely nothing about what to say to an actor to get them to do what you want them to do. That’s the part I was worried about. So I came in with full shot lists. Everything planned. In terms of the set running smoothly, it was great. No problems at all. It felt very natural. Sometimes talking to the actors was a little tricky. And even some of the crew. As an editor, you’re not in charge of a lot of people. You’re in your room with your director, you have your staff, and that’s usually about it. So it’s an interesting transition.
There are a lot of editors who have directed once. In my case, I’ve directed twice. I thought about pursuing it but the thing is — if you’re going to direct for television you have to get yourself into that world and have those connections. I’ve done some commercials — edited a bunch of commercials — but that’s also all about connections and being tied into that. Then I go do a feature and disappear for a year and lose all of it. So at some point, it seemed like if I was going to pursue directing as a career I would have to turn my back on editing, and on editing with Ang, and that didn’t seem like a good idea.
HULLFISH: You mentioned that you do a lot in preproduction. What are you doing in preproduction?
SQUYRES: Depends on the movie.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about this one.
SQUYRES: First of all, I get every draft of the script and give notes on it. Now, in this case, on a film like Gemini Man, there were a lot of chefs in the kitchen. First of all, the script had been around for 20 years in various versions. Ours was a substantial rewrite. Then there’s Paramount and Skydance. It’s not like Ang and I can just come up with a script we like. For Gemini Man, there was actually a lot less pre-production work for me than with Life of Pi. There were a couple of extended action sequences that we prevised and I had a lot of input in those, but not nearly as much as on Life of Pi.
Generally, with Ang’s films, I’m involved in the script development on one level or another. On Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I was getting terrible translations and I didn’t understand the movie at all. I gave notes on the script but I told him they weren’t really relevant. I wouldn’t have taken that movie if it hadn’t been Ang doing it, because the English script made no sense at all. But that was because of bad translations.
HULLFISH: Can you tell me about dealing with the language barrier on editing some of these Ang Lee movies? Were you cutting in Mandarin or Cantonese or something?
SQUYRES: The films are in Mandarin and I don’t speak Mandarin. So that’s a complication. The Wedding Banquet was written in English — well, it was written in Chinese but it’s a good translation. Eat, Drink, Man, Woman was written in Chinese and the script translation was OK. The dailies are just the dailies. They just come in Mandarin and I have to figure it out.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was written and developed entirely in Chinese. There were English translations done, but they were terrible. Same with Lust, Caution. Those translations were very bad, so that complicates things a little bit.
Cantonese and Mandarin are spoken completely differently, but written the same. On Crouching Tiger, Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat spoke to each other in Cantonese, but Chow Yun-Fat spoke to Ang in Mandarin and Ang spoke to Michelle Yeoh in English. It was very complicated on set because Ang doesn’t speak Cantonese.
The film is in Mandarin, so Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh were both speaking Mandarin, but neither of them is really fluent at it. They’re both native Cantonese speakers. Then Zhang Ziyi is a Mandarin speaker. She didn’t speak English or Cantonese.
Anyway, back to the preproduction question: on Life of Pi, as far as the script, we were much more independent. It was really just our writer, David Magee, and Ang, and me consulting. But the movie was going to be shot in native 3D in a wave tank with visual effects — ocean and tiger. All of those things are hard, and were going to limit the amount of coverage we’d be able to get. Sometimes the way you shoot a movie is that you just go and get a whole bunch of coverage and figure it out later. We knew we weren’t going to be able to do that. We really had to go in with a visual effects plan that was going to work.
Because of those limitations we decided to do previs for a substantial amount of the film. From the shipwreck to him leaving the island. That’s over an hour of previs. The original idea was just so that we could make sure we had a visual effects plan that was going to work and everybody could show up on set with an understanding of what we were doing.
But when you give creative people something creative to do and they get ideas. And what happened is: while we were working on the previs, we would get ideas for things that would then go back into the script. And the writer would get ideas for things that would come back into the previs and it was this really interesting parallel development — because it’s a film that’s not really strongly plot-driven, not strongly dialogue-driven. So we’d just say, “Oh why don’t we have the whale do this?” which we would figure out during the previs and then we would tell the writer and he would work it in and then he’d have ideas and would send him back to us.
So that previs process was really interesting. It was also part of getting the film greenlit. Fox, understandably, was very reluctant to greenlight that movie. It took them a long time to come around, so this hour of previs that we did had a full sound job. Sound effects, music, the whole thing — which I did just to make it look interesting and help to really sell it.
HULLFISH: So the previs got paid for and edited before the film was greenlit?
SQUYRES: Yeah. It was part of selling it, but it was also part of convincing them and also convincing ourselves that this is going to be doable.
HULLFISH: Then did you have to edit very close to the previs because that’s what you were going to end up getting as VFX deliveries?
SQUYRES: No. They shot based on the previs. Not exactly, of course. Things change. And then, once I got the footage, I could ignore the previs. The previs didn’t matter anymore. However, I sometimes didn’t have a whole lot of options. Because we had limited coverage, except for performance differences sometimes there weren’t that many alternate ways I could cut it, but I wasn’t in any way constrained to stick to the previs.
But we had worked a long time on the previs and were pretty happy with it. So that was often a place where I started — with that structure — because usually that structure was pretty good.
Another thing that I did in that movie — it’s 3D, which Ang and I had never worked on before. So we had to learn about 3D. So we shot a lot of 3D tests and I did a lot of work with those tests just to learn how to edit in 3D, because at that time Media Composer didn’t support 3D, so to do convergence adjustments and to do any kind of comping and visual effects, it was a chore.
We wanted to do some interesting filmic things besides just cuts and dissolves and fades.
I don’t know if you’ve seen Hulk, but there’s a lot of very elaborate transitions in that, and those were all done in editorial. None of that was planned beforehand.
SQUYRES: Yeah. That was part of the editing process. He just told me, “Anything you can think of.” We weren’t going to do crazy stuff like that on Life of Pi, but the transitions from the storyteller in Montreal to the story that he’s telling in the past — some of those transitions are fairly elaborate. And so it was my job to work those out. So I actually hired actors and shot all those transitional scenes. And the stuff in India they shot very early in the shoot and we went onto the set that they were building for the apartment and I shot all the other parts and worked out what all the transitions were going to be.
And even during preproduction I had worked out some techniques that I thought we could do and figured out what you have to do in 3-D and where you have to put the green screen and all that. So that was another of my jobs on Life of Pi. I made four separate trips to Taiwan where we were shooting, and spent a total of nine weeks on set, because every time I was there I wound up working with the second unit, because I knew exactly what we needed.
HULLFISH: I’ve heard of several editors doing second unit work because you’re the one that needs it.
SQUYRES: Yeah. My shooting ratio when I do the second unit is pretty low because I know exactly what I need.
HULLFISH: So with Gemini Man — and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk — they’re both 3D AND high frame rate — 120FPS?
HULLFISH: So are you cutting the 3D in Avid now because it is capable of it?
SQUYRES: We cut in 3D on Life of Pi. Avid just didn’t support it. You had to trick it. If you have your dailies side-by-side or you’re outputting a side-by-side image, the monitor can present it as 3D.
With Life of Pi I heard all kinds of things about how 3D is different and how you have to do things differently in 3D. I hadn’t done it before and I didn’t want to be second-guessing everything I did. Normally, you sit and watch and you react to what you see. I wanted to be able to do that, and not have to think, “This looks good in 2D, but in 3D I may want to cut it slower or differently somehow.” I figured if I just cut in 3D I could just respond to what I see and not have to second-guess everything. So all three of those films are cut entirely in 3-D.
The editing room that I used for Life of Pi and Billy Lynn — I had to assemble on a monitor, but then I had a theater-grade projector and a twelve foot screen in a room with a big 5.1 sound system, so it’s like a movie theater. And on Gemini Man I had a 15 foot screen. We try to mimic a real viewing environment as much as we can, because high frame rate is different. It feels different and you probably cut definitely based on that. Billy Lynn and Gemini Man are cut at 60, not at 120 because Media Composer can’t run at 120. Hopefully someday soon. For Gemini Man, 60fps is what is going to be in most theaters, so it made sense to cut at 60fps.
HULLFISH: You were cutting on a big screen. I do think that makes a big difference.
SQUYRES: Yeah. And it varies depending on what I’m doing, sometimes just to save electricity I work on the monitor and sometimes sound editing I’ll work in 2D. But when Ang’s there, we’re 3D on the big screen.
HULLFISH: You’ve got a background in sound. Tell me a little bit about how those sound skills speak to picture editing.
SQUYRES: We say “picture editing” but you’re not just editing picture. You’re editing the movie and the movie is two things — picture and sound – and the sound is a very important part of it. Sound has a big influence on how you’re experiencing the film — whether it’s music or just the level of the sound effects. There is a visceral impact that sound has that’s a crucial part of the storytelling. So you can’t ignore it.
In Crouching Tiger, because of limited resources and because they shot all of the fight scenes M.O.S. (without sound), I just focused on music. But during the assembly screening, I told my assistant — who had the volume knob for this one opening fight scene where I used these heavy Japanese drums — “start it fairly loud and just keep turning it up.” By the end, it was so loud that your shirt was vibrating. Ang had only seen that scene MOS. So that was also kind of selling that idea and it was great, and we never even considered doing anything different with the music on that. So, the sound is a critical part of the storytelling.
The room that I’ve done these last three films in — I cut in 5.1. They room is actually 7.1, but for compatibility with other rooms I work in 5.1.
There’s a shot right at the beginning of Gemini Man — it’s this kind of fisheye shot of train tracks and a train comes in from one side and it crosses the screen with a very dramatic move. It’s one of these European bullet trains, so it’s going over two hundred kilometers an hour right past the camera. So the volume ramps and the panning are really aggressive and that’s so much more effective than hearing the train go by generically. Figuring out those kinds of things is a big part of the job — making the sound effective. Sometimes the sound is more important than the picture. Movie editors should be really good with sound because that’s a very fundamental part of the job.
Now it’s also part of the job where, as picture editor, you have to know when to stop. I could do a very elaborate sound job in the Avid, but then if you have to do a twelve frame trim and you’re running 40 tracks of audio it becomes unmanageable. So you have to know where to draw the line — where to say, “This is as far as I’m going to take it.”
If we’re previewing, then we’ll have sound editors work on it and do a mix. But you try to find a balance between making it sound as good as you can, but not doing so much that it becomes cumbersome to work with.
HULLFISH: I’m trying to picture the room with a 15 foot screen. Are you elevated in the back of the room?
SQUYRES: No. Just a flat floor, straight back. The room is about 26 feet long and we sit in the back of the room with a 15-foot screen in front and three speakers and a sub-woofer behind the screen and surrounds on the side. It’s a very good small screening room.
The other thing is for Billy Lynn and Gemini Man — because we’re 120fps, no lab facility can support us, so we had to have our own. At this new facility, we built a good theater. It’s one of the best small screening rooms in New York and we have two 4K Christie Mirage projectors and that’s our screening room and we have our lab there. We have two Baselights and two petabytes of spinning storage with all our dailies at full resolution. 3D at 120fps is a lot of pixels.
HULLFISH: All shot shot digitally?
SQUYRES: Yes. Shot on Alexa Ms on custom stereo rigs built for us by a German company called Stereotec. (stereotec.com)
HULLFISH: Have you ever edited on another NLE other than Avid?
SQUYRES: I first learned — back in 1990 or 1991 on EMC. They’d store the material on laser discs. It was very cumbersome and I hated it. I’ve messed around with Final Cut, but I’ve never gotten paid to use anything other than Media Composer.
HULLFISH: Guessing from our ages, you were just on the cusp of editing with film.
SQUYRES: I was supervising sound editor on a few features and assistant on four features on film. The first two features that I cut were on film — one of Ang’s and one before it. Then we cut The Wedding Banquet on Avid in 1992. That was one of the very, very first films cut on Media Composer. I’ve worked pretty exclusively on Media Composer ever since. We cut the whole thing on Media Composer. The first film we saw was answer print. I cut the production tracks and the music in Media Composer and we took the whole system to Sound One in New York, where we were mixing. You could only output two channels, so we output two channels at a time to an analog 16 track, and then used that as a source in the mix. So it wasn’t a hybrid edit. It was truly an all-Avid edit.
HULLFISH: I know there were a bunch of those hybrid edits in the early years where they were doing film conforms of workprints and the like — I think Quentin Tarantino was doing that.
SQUYRES: On Eat Drink Man Woman we conformed film and for screenings I output to mag straight from the Avid.
HULLFISH: So Will Smith plays himself. How did you edit those performances before you got composites?
SQUYRES: There are two basic kinds of scenes with the young Will Smith character. There are some scenes that he’s in with the older character. Their names are Henry and Junior. Henry is 51-year old Will Smith and Junior is 23-year old Will Smith. Then there are other scenes of Junior that Henry’s not in. So in scenes with Junior but no Henry, Will played the character on set with dots all over his face and head gear with the capture camera. So before I had any visual effects, that’s what I used and that’s all there was. So we just learned to ignore the dots and the helmet.
The harder ones were scenes that the two of them are in. When they’re in the same shot, Junior is played by another actor. We had a stand-in who read the lines — did everything. And so initially that’s all I had, so that’s what I would cut with because I didn’t have any choice. But then about halfway through the shoot and then again at the end of the shoot — we shot in the area around Savannah, Georgia, then a few weeks in Cartagena, Colombia and then we went to Budapest for the last two months.
When they first went to Budapest they spent about a week and a half doing performance capture, with Will Smith playing Junior on a performance capture stage. So we had a whole bunch of cameras around and he was wearing a motion capture suit and the helmet rig. They played the scene again and this time, the stand-in was playing Henry and Will was playing Junior. Now it wasn’t lit. It wasn’t on the real set. They built enough of a set so that they could stand in the right place. But the point was to capture his performance.
And then we did another batch of that after we finished principal photography. So for that, I cut with the witness cameras. I would find the angle that best matched what was what was in the shot, and do a picture-in-picture and put that head or sometimes the body over top of the stand-in. I would just track the box so that the performance was there.
That’s what we watched for a long time, because that’s the best you can do. Now, as WETA would give us temps we would swap those out. But I still kept those motion captures because we often had to refer back to them, so I kept them muted in the timeline. We had a mask layer that I kept them above.
HULLFISH: You said you were usually editing in New York, in this beautiful room you’ve got, but you also had to cut elsewhere.
SQUYRES: Yeah, I was in Budapest for the whole time they were there. So I spent two months in Budapest at a great facility. A studio just on the edge of town called Origo Studios. Terminator was coming in right behind us. Blade Runner had shot there before us. So it’s a very good facility. The room that I cut in there didn’t have a projector, but I had a really nice monitor and good sound, and we were very happy with that facility. And they had room for us to put our lab there, which was amazing, because just the air conditioning that we need is astounding.
We were having to start to roughly turn over to VFX some of the earlier stuff we had shot in Georgia — at least getting a couple of shots moving.
HULLFISH: With Billy Lynn and Life of Pi and this movie you’ve done quite a bit of 3D. Do you find that you are editing differently in 3D than you would be if you were editing in 2D?
SQUYRES: Well there’s more to think about. A lot of people don’t like 3D for a reason — because the 3D wasn’t done well. There are two things with 3D. One is: you have to make it comfortable. There are things you can adjust. On set they can adjust how much depth there is within a shot. I can’t really change that. But I can change what’s in front and what’s behind. That’s called reconverging, and I can do that to make a sequence more comfortable. Or you can do it to create effects. You can accomplish things with 3D. You can make people feel certain ways by bringing things forward; by suddenly pushing things back. For example, there was a shot in Life of Pi where he’s on a lifeboat that drops away from the camera, which is pointed down. You can either follow convergence so that as he drops away we stay with him, or you could keep convergence set and let him drop away — which is what they did in camera. But I actually did the opposite. I started him slightly forward and — as he dropped away — I pulled back, so I accentuated the drop. In 2D, we wouldn’t have this discussion, because it’s just a shot.
So there are a lot of things you can do with 3D and things that you have to worry about — things that are problems in 3D. Over-the-shoulder shots are often a problem because if you don’t want to put the person who’s the subject too deep behind the screen, the person whose shoulder your over might very well be in front of the screen. And if they’re in front of the screen and they intersect with the edge of the screen, that’s weird looking, and so you have to do what’s called a “floating window” to essentially bring the frame edge forward. So you can bring the frame edge forward so that it’s in front of whatever is in front of the screen.
We have floating windows on hundreds of shots. Some people — when they do 3D — they compose very carefully so they never do that. We didn’t do that. So we’ve got hundreds of floating windows.
HULLFISH: I talked to Mark Singer who worked in 3D on Gravity, and he said a lot of the trick with 3D is the transition between a close up on a face and a shot of the vastness of space which really has no 3D to it because it’s infinite.
SQUYRES: Evolution designed your eyes to always focus where they converge. When you’re in a movie theater, that’s not what you do. Your eyes are always focused on the screen, but they converge in front of or behind, which can be uncomfortable if you go too far. What happens is — if you’re looking at the screen and something comes out in front of the screen you can follow it very comfortably, but then if you cut to something that is converged behind the screen, that hurts because your eyes have to do a snap adjustment which they weren’t evolved to do. So that’s what you want to try to avoid.
There are things you can do to ease that. Sometimes with a big wide shot where everything is far away — where, as you say, there’s no inherent 3D, because your eyes don’t really see 3D past about 50 or 70 feet — you don’t have to put that right on the screen. You can put that BEHIND the screen and that makes it feel even bigger. But if you just cut to that from a shot that has the subject in front of the screen, that’s uncomfortable. What you can do if you want that effect, of it being big, you can cut to it right at the screen plane and then during the shot, push it back and people won’t notice, but they’ll feel it. The cut will be more comfortable, but you still get the impression that you want from it — feeling big, which you get when you push something back. As I bring this forward (Squyres moves a piece of paper closer to and further from the camera) it gets bigger and smaller and bigger and smaller, but if you take something and push it back and forth in depth without scaling it, you don’t really feel it. It doesn’t feel like it’s receding and approaching. It is, but your brain doesn’t process it the same way. So you can get away with fairly big moves, and that’s one thing you do to try to smooth things out. There are a lot of extra variables to contend with in 3-D.
HULLFISH: Are you always cutting with glasses on?
HULLFISH: I’d hope you have some special Tim Squyres glasses and not the ones you get at the theater.
SQUYRES: Yes. I have some custom glasses. I don’t use the ones you get in the movie theater.
One thing we should talk about is frame rate, to understand why we shoot at 120. There are some problems with 3D — especially problems with 3D that relate to 24fps. 24 has inherent motion blur and strobing. Great artists have done great work with that for a long time, but in 3D, strobing tends to be more annoying and more noticeable than in 2D. The way that cinematographers try to address that is by opening up the shutter angle, which helps to minimize the strobing but increases motion blur. There are some scenes where Pi is on a life raft and he’s bobbing up and down in the ocean, and we were losing his performance in the motion blur.
The movie that Ang wanted to do next after Pi was a boxing movie, and the way that real boxers move in the ring, you’d never see them because there’s so much bobbing and weaving that you would lose a lot of the performance. The best way to address that was to do some experiments at higher framerates. At that time, Jim Cameron was pushing 60fps, so we shot a bunch of tests and we discovered that when we shot tests with real boxers at 24fps, you couldn’t really see them. But at 60fps you could see what the guy’s thinking as he’s coming in. So it made a big difference.
So we decided to shoot at a high framerate, but 60 has a problem because if you shoot 60 and you still have to deliver a version at 24fps, creating that is very difficult because 60 is 24 times two and a half. So it’s complicated and expensive to make that 24fps deliverable. So what we decided to do after consulting with some people and thinking about it, is to shoot at 120fps. That’s 24 times five or 60 times two. Shoot with a 360 degree shutter — which you can with digital cameras. You can then easily create a 24fps deliverable and you can also easily create a 60.
On Billy Lynn, we were not thinking we’d ever release at 120fps. We weren’t considering that as a release format. That was a capture format. You could just take three frames and combine them and then discard the next two and then combine the next three and discard the next two and project at 24 and it will look you shot with a 216 shutter, or if you kept two and threw away three, it looks like a 144 shutter. There is some software called Truemotion that RealD has to reduce frame rates. What this Truemotion software does is combine various frames and parts of frames so you get softer, smoother or sharper edges for the motion blur when you go down to the lower framerate.
By capturing at 120 with a 360 shutter, the idea was that we could create a 60fps version that looked better than if we shot at 60, and with the same footage also create a 24fps deliverable that looked better than if we shot at 24. And we would have control over how much motion blur and how much strobing there was shot by shot or frame by frame.
So 120 wasn’t considered as a release format, but we had the capability to watch 120 in our cutting room, and it looked amazing. So for Billy Lynn we did have a few theaters. We had three theaters — one in Taiwan, one in Beijing, and one in Shanghai and then — very briefly — one week in L.A. and a couple of weeks in New York that showed it at 120, 4K, 3D, 28 foot lamberts — which is twice as bright as a normal 2D movie. Those theaters were sold out for months in China. It’s an amazing experience watching a movie that way.
For Gemini Man, Dolby Vision theaters can show it 120, 2k, 3D. I don’t know what the release schedule is yet. We will have a few theaters that will show at 4K, and in China there will be a bunch of theaters that will show it at 4K, 3D, 120fps.
HULLFISH: How do you view dailies? You talked about pulling selects reels to edit. When you’re watching dailies for the first time. What are you actually doing? How do you approach that?
SQUYRES: Most often I’m not where the crew is screening dailies. I’m on my own. So I’m not going to a proper formal dailies screening. I tend to think that just sitting and watching dailies is not worth the time.
SQUYRES: Yeah. I don’t take notes even when I do go to dailies. When I was in Budapest I went to dailies every day, but they were kind of abbreviated dailies. We wouldn’t watch everything, so I couldn’t choose takes that way.
So when I’m working on my own I don’t do that. When I get footage for a scene, I’ll watch a master — if there is a master — or I’ll watch enough to understand what the scene is — to see what they were doing emotionally, what the blocking is, to figure that out, and then I just start with the first set up, then the second set up.
I don’t sit and watch every take first. Some editors don’t really use pop-up monitors in the Avid. I don’t know if you do. But I do. If I have seven takes of something, I’ll open up all seven takes in pop-up monitors — six takes in pop-up monitors and one in the source monitor — and just go through them line by line and pull out all the pieces that I think are working best.
HULLFISH: What’s the value of doing that in pop-up monitors instead of just sequentially in the source monitor?
SQUYRES: Because then I have the same line at the same place on all of the pop-ups. If I don’t know which one I like best, I have a mark in to out, I just click on it, hit six, click on it, hit six, click on it, hit 6, and I’ve got all of them available right in front of me all the time. So that’s become an integral part of my process — to have all the different takes of the setup open to me. So instead of trying to compare Take 5 with Take 3 which I watched four minutes ago, I can try to go find it, or if I do it with pop-ups, it’s right there. So for comparing takes I just find it more helpful if I watch them in pop-up monitors.
I don’t necessarily go line by line by line by line. You can watch chunks, but if I have them all open, then I can compare them more easily because they’re all right in front of me.
HULLFISH: You don’t gang those monitors, do you?
SQUYRES: No, because they wouldn’t necessarily travel together anyway. And also, if I ganged them, there’s a chance I wouldn’t be watching parts of them. If I ganged them that means I’m dragging past a bunch and all these other ones that I haven’t watched yet. Then I’m not doing my job.
HULLFISH: And Ang and the crew do actually watch legitimate dailies, like old school dailies?
SQUYRES: Yeah. Especially on these last couple 3D movies. He thought it was really important for the crew to see what The footage looked like, because 120 doesn’t look like 24. He thought it was really important for everybody — not the whole crew — but the camera department, if it had stunts, then the stunt coordinator, the script supervisor and sound and the people that need to know what we’re doing. It’s good to bring them in to see dailies.
One thing we did on Life of Pi — the shipwreck sequence in that was something we shot early on in Taiwan — we were still less than halfway through the shoot when I had that whole sequence put together with music and sound effects and everything. Some of it was previs at that point. Ang and the producer saw it and they decided that at lunch over the next week — our screening room held about 40 people — they’d bring the whole crew in in shifts to watch it just as a morale booster. It was really impressive.
You can be on the set with this wave tank going and the camera’s way over there and you just don’t know what the hell’s going on, so for the whole crew — even the drivers — everyone came in and watched it. Especially when you’re working in a format that people aren’t used to it’s important to see it properly.
HULLFISH: Tim, thank you so much for your time today. I really enjoyed talking to you.
Also on imdb at imdb.me/hullfish
The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.
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