Meeting: Jason Ballantine A.S.E.

Several months ago I had the pleasure of meeting Jason Ballantine A.S.E. who is one of Australia’s leading editors in the current feature film market. Recently he has completed work on Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby (2013) and begun working with George Miller on Mad Max 4: Fury Road (2014), but it is Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek (2005) that most of you would be familiar with.

Not only is Jason an accredited editor through the Australian Screen Editors Guild he has also been the president of the guild since 2010, in fact I first met him in December last year at the annual awards, I was nominated for and won the Ellie for Best Editing in a Short Film for my work on The Wilding.

I took the opportunity to meet with him in early February for a drink at the Gazebo restaurant in Kings Cross. Jason has had a lot of experience working in the Australian industry cutting a variety of feature films, he is now at a position in his career that I am striving towards. Jason’s first bit of advice was quite simple, “continue to work as much as you can”. This has been my mantra the last few years and it was good to have this reaffirmed by somebody who I look up to. He stressed it is very difficult to make a living or gain professional experience solely from the feature film industry in Australia. A lot of people leave film school intent on becoming feature film editors only to find they fall flat after a number of years. Basically, it is a simple numbers game where the amount of films we produce as a nation is very limited in comparison to somewhere like the United States and there can only be a limited number of positions for Editors available. Do not treat any job any different than you would a feature film, although they may seem small and insignificant at first to ensure you continue working as a professional Editor simply means you need to continue working with a job, be it a commercial, TV series or one off for a private client. Treat every job as an opportunity to expand your skills and do your best.

Editing various sorts of content exposes you to many different styles of story construction. A feature films structure is completely different to 8 x 50min reality TV episodes. Having the ability to adapt at any given notice and cut a package conforming to the accepted structure of a particular genre is only something an Editor can do if they have cut in that style before and I strongly feel (and this is something Jason was hinting at) is to try and continually expand your skill set and knowledge as an Editor by working on as much content as your can.

From my own experience I have found in the last three years working with News, Wide World of Sports to The Great Australian Bakeoff and short films like The Wilding or Ngurrumbang, my skills as an Editor have improved substantially since I graduated from film school. I had the theoretical knowledge of how an edit works but now I have and continue to gain experience that I could only ever get from working within those genres.

Jason’s second piece of advice was in answer to my question, “how do you cut a feature film?”. Cutting a feature film is still a goal for me - it is unusual as until I met Jason I had never met anybody or talked to anyone who has cut a feature film and do not have any experience in how to go about it. He clarified for me what the usual working method of a feature is.

How To Cut a Feature Film

1. Come on board as the Editor in pre-production.

As the Editor you are a Head of Department (HOD), responsible for the entire workflow of the film from receiving rushes to the final mix and delivery. The idea is to begin setting up the workflow with the Producer, the post facility and Director of Photography (DOP) as early as possible to ensure a smooth and seamless operation. Take the time setting up your project and use the weeks before principal to test your implemented workflow.

An important aspect is to be present at all discussions between the Producer and the post facility. Have the Producer copy you on all email correspondence and get a copy of the budget for your department, you need to know the budget because it affects you: How much can you pay your assistant? How many weeks equipment hire you can have? You are privy to this information so do not be afraid to ask for it.

2. Hire an Assistant Editor for the length of post-production.

Jason could not stress enough the importance of having an Assistant. The Assistant is to oversee transcoding of digital rushes as per your workflow, to help set up the project, synch rushes to audio, input notes and cross referencing shots with the camera reports.

The Assistant deals with encodes, exports, DVD screeners, chasing down missing shots, tracking lost hard drives, ringing the camera assistant on set to inform them focus is out on a particular lens, liaising with the facility if something goes wrong technically. All of this is done to achieve an equilibrium with you, the Editor, so your entire focus can simply consist of one that is creative. The Assistant is the technical brain behind the edit, you (the Editor) are the imaginative and ideas person developing the story.

3. Assemble the film during principal production.

It is important to begin assembling the film as soon as possible. It is very uncommon that a film is shot entirely on a soundstage nowadays and almost all Australian films are shot entirely on location. This is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that locations serve as a more “realistic” setting for the film, a curse because while you are sitting in an edit suite at the lot in Moore Park enjoying coffee and the air con, the production is some few hundred kilometres away battling the elements and shots can be ruined! Therefore it is important as soon as principal begins the days rushes are rushed to the editing room for the Assistant to ingest, synch and be ready for the Editor to start the assemble edit.

It is important the assemble runs alongside principal as the Editor can give instant feedback to the Director and camera crew about extra shots they may need to pick up while on location, faulty lenses, bad performances or any other issues which arise during that dreaded downpour. It also breaks the enormous task of an assemble edit into a more manageable one, working on the rushes day by day as they come in means you have the right amount of time to watch all the rushes, assemble them and move on. By the end of principal you should have the assemble done and the need for pickups or reshoots should be at a complete minimal.

Jason went further to explain compiling the assemble during principal also helps to keep the momentum up on the film for the Director and Producer. It allows them to come off the shoot and go straight into the edit ready for the rough cut, the Director’s headspace is still within the film and the beast continues to roll forward.

4. The Editors week.

After principal it is customary that there is one week allocated to the Editor and it is called “The Editors week” in which the Director and Producer go on leave to recover from the stresses of the shoot and it is left to the Editor to assemble the remaining rushes that will still be trickling in from the production. The week is intended to let the Editor finish the assemble and have it prepped ready for a first viewing to the Producer & Director. Ideally it is time for the Editor to get “their cut” together, to have something they feel comfortable with before working on the next phase of the process.

5. Rough cutting the film.

The general rule of thumb is: the length of the rough cut is the same length as principal plus one week for “the Editor’s week” at the start, one week at the end for “deliverables”. For example, if you shot for six weeks your total edit time is eight weeks.

Another rule of thumb is: if the producer does not have to be in the suite during the rough cut stage, keep them out! This period is for you and the Director to flex your creative muscles, getting to know eachother, staying up late sobbing over shots with an open bottle of wine, discussing the planets, universe and of course the actors performances. The rough cut stage is taking the assemble and getting it to a final cut.

I asked Jason how he approaches a rough cut and he said it is entirely up to the individual Editor. Some break it down into scenes, acts or by natural breaks in plot. As you cut more features you will develop your own methods that are tried and true.

As for your Assistant it is important they still stay on, they will still be of a great help sorting through the rushes finding you THAT shot, prepping DVD screeners or even taking on the task of editing together smaller sequences or liaising with the VFX department. Jason stressed the Assistant is there to allow you to focus solely on the task of story, without an Assistant you may find you end up spending more time sorting out technical issues than story issues and the film could suffer as a result. They are there to make your job simply a creative one, take advantage of it!

6. Picture lock and deliverables week.

Having reached final cut stage it is now “picture lock” and “deliverables” week. Picture lock is a phrase unique to the Australian film industry, it is as it sounds: the picture is “locked” and no more changes are made to the edit and the Editor is released from their duties. In the Hollywood system the Editor usually stays on until the first prints are spot checked (or at least this used to be the method). The deliverables week could come directly after the rough cut or it could be moved a month down the track if there exists a process where the film has to go off to the heads of studio/distribution for editorial feedback. You may be asked to implement changes in a few additional weeks, that of course is at the discretion of the Producer and your contract.

Lets imagine your final cut is your “picture lock”, basically this last week is for the Editor to clean up the cut, prep AAF’s, EDL’s, liaise with the online Editor, create a digital cut - do all the things necessary to get the film to its next stage of colour grading, sound mixing etc. It is imperative that you take responsibility ensuring all the deliveries are of the right standard the post houses for sound, picture (they may be different companies) have asked for. This is where all your research and the workflow you implemented in pre-production comes into play, it is important to begin this conversation with the post facilities early so there are no surprises this far down the track!

7. Audio editing.

With the film now going in different directions often the Editor is left homeless, their suite hired out to the next production and they are left wandering the halls in a bit of a state. Depending on the agreement with the Producer the Editor may be asked to sit in with the Director during the audio mix. If you can get the opportunity to sit in, take it. In fact, Jason said it would be silly not to insist you do.

When sitting in the mix, there are certain things sound can do to help pace the film. This can work for or against the cut and it is important the Audio Editor/Mixer knows what your intentions are for the films pace. The only way they can know that is by talking to you and asking you questions. No one else besides you or the Director know the film as intimately, as the Editor you know every frame, the Editor/Director relationship is built on nuances, understandings, shared experiences of memories both pleasant and painful culminating in now what is on screen. If anything you are somebody the Director can turn to in the mix and discuss the sound options without the need to explain or rebuild a working relationship or understanding of the film.

This is also the same sort of process the Director will have with the DOP during the colour grading stage. You are in a privileged position, utilise your knowledge!

8. DCP/print approval.

The last time an Editor in Australia sees the film is usually on a 2” by 2” window on their computer but Jason assured me the Editor’s job is not done until the final prints are delivered. It is important you cast your eye over the prints and be at the spot check or watch the DCP in a cinema. Andrew Lesnie the DOP for The Lord Of The Ring’s and The Hobbit trilogies is said to watch the finished film on all intended viewing screens to make sure everything from the aspect ratio, to the 3D experience, colour perception etc is correct (you can watch Andrew talking about that in a video here). I would certainly take a leaf from his book! As the Editor you have a responsibility to ensure what is delivered for distribution be it via IMAX, iPhone, standard Cinema or Bluray matches cut that you had in that 2” by 2” window in your Avid.

"Jason Ballantine's editing is some of the finest woven ever, hundreds of small time-jumps flittering like mosquitoes ..." Bob Ellis, Encore Magazine - December 2005

Finishing our drinks and with the sun now at an angle where it was shining directly into my eyes, I can remember saying goodbye to Jason and as I stood there at the bar grabbing the cheque I had a similar experience that I had when I left film school after my first day: I felt like my brain had exploded beyond its capacity with new knowledge and insight into the process of filmmaking.

He had answered so many questions that really, were very simple and logical but none of which had ever been explained to me before. I walked away feeling excited and more confident in my ability to tackle my first feature and I hope that by recounting his advice here on my blog you too have a better understanding of the process in which you may approach your next feature.

If you enjoyed this blog entry or want to read more similar to this please comment below or email me! I intend to get this “Meeting Series” up and running with more talks with other Editors so keep an eye out for updates!

If you’d like to read more about Jason you can look at his
website, or his IMDb profile. Alternatively if you would like to get in contact him you can do so through the Australian Screen Editors Guild.

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