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Digital Distillation: Cutting Episode II
October 24, 2000 — Assembling a movie from over a hundred hours of footage is a daunting task, but such is the role of Ben Burtt, editor for Episode II. As a typical example of this distillation process, Burtt is currently cutting together what will probably end up being a five-minute action scene. “It’s huge,” explains Burtt. “There’s over seven hours of footage shot for it. I have to go through all that was shot in different ways, angles, and performances. I have to become intimately familiar with that material so I can say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that Obi-Wan says his line faster in this take’, or ‘He says it with irony in this take, and he says it frightened in another take’ or whatever it might be. It’s just a tremendous amount of material to go through.”
Episode II is currently in post-production, a process that typically takes 20 months for a Star Wars movie. Gone is the 200-plus person production crew, and now a bank of powerful computer workstations handle the results of the 14-week shoot. “It’s all focused down to this room,” explains Burtt, of his editing room. Aside from new computers upgraded for Episode II, the editing rooms received much needed decorations: classic movie posters. “We wanted some inspiration so we got some new ones,” smiles Burtt. “Westerns, pirate movies and Captain Marvel.”
Every day director George Lucas and Burtt sit at an AVID workstation, scrutinizing the footage gathered in Sydney and abroad, slowly molding the film to its finished version. “I was able to assemble maybe 60 to 70 percent of what was shot over there in Australia, without George’s input,” explains Burtt, of his initial “assembly cut,” a rough no-frills presentation of the basic story. “I showed that to him. Now, we go back to make his first cut of the film, inching our way through the film, starting with the first frame, and working in story order. So each day, we try to make some progress. We may get a minute done; we may get three minutes done. It’s fairly slow going. It’s a lot of footage and a lot of decisions to be made.”
Lucas’ own film-roots lie heavily in editing, back when trim-bins, physical splicers, and endless reels of footage were the norm. Now, with Episode II existing entirely in the digital realm, this process is heavily streamlined, with carefully inventoried shots stored in a database, just a keystroke away. “I can find things quicker,” explains Burtt. “If it was physical film, something that we do now in minutes would have taken hours.”
The digital format also allows incredible flexibility in the construction of shots. Directors are no longer bound to what was captured on location. “George is directing in the editing room,” says Burtt. “He may rewrite something or re-conceive a scene. It’s also the first time that he’s had a chance to review his footage and reflect on it. Now, he can sit back and forget that stress of directing on-set, and instead evaluate and critique what he’s got. Not only do you have every shot to pass judgment on, but also every pixel within every shot. There’s nothing to stop you from moving things around, changing lighting, or altering sets, splitting characters up and rearranging things. That’s what’s happening now. It’s his usual process, which is to take apart what he’s done, and experiment with what he’s got.
“Really what happens here is that we’re creating layers of the movie,” explains Burtt. Director and editor work closely to cut the live action, which Burtt likens to the “foreground” of the movie. From there, the live action footage moves over to the Animatics Department. “They put in the mid-ground and the background,” explains Burtt. The Animatics Department puts in low-resolution temporary effects under Lucas’ supervision. “They do the first pass of the visual effects within a scene,” says Burtt. “They’re getting a tremendous amount of work to do, putting in all the backgrounds and the CG characters that are missing to work out a lot of the visuals that George wants.”
Once the imagery is supplied by Animatics, Burtt recuts the scene or layers of that scene based on the growing collage. This painstaking process continues, scene by scene, until the finished cut of film starts to take shape. “At some point,” says Burtt, “we can watch the whole movie from beginning to end, and that will reflect all kinds of story changes perhaps within the entire film, and the process will repeat again. We’ll recut the foreground, the animatics teams will redo the midground and backgrounds. And later down the road, a given scene will finally get settled on. It can then be turned over to ILM for them to create the effects and complete whatever other post-production processes are required for each scene to be fully finished.”