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Issue: January 1, 2007

'ROCKY BALBOA': SEAN ALBERTSON CUTS THE FINAL ROUND

MGM's Rocky Balboa, the sixth and final installment of the Rocky franchise, is a return to the storytelling and character exploration reminiscent of the Oscar- winning original.

For legions of nostalgic Rocky fans, Balboa is the chance to bid farewell to pop culture's most beloved million-to-one underdog. For writer/director/actor Sylvester Stallone, it is a chance to amicably retire the legend with a make good for the less than popular Rocky V. After a 16-year respite, the franchise returns with the intent of respectably delivering one final round.

Film editor Sean Albertson talks about the experience and challenge of editing the last chapter of the Rocky story.

Post: You've edited a number of television shows such as Cold Case and E-Ring, and assisted on countless feature films. Which do you prefer?

Sean Albertson: "I love doing both for very different reasons. I feel like television is a great place to sharpen my skills because of the breakneck pace, whereas feature film allows me time to really gain perspective on what I have done. If presented with a choice, I would likely go with a feature because of that ability."

Post: What are the main differences for you between editing feature film and television?

Albertson: "Both certainly present very different challenges, but these days, I think the creative lines between features and television have become blurred. Often, they now have similar creative demands, but the pace of television is far greater. While a Hollywood movie might shoot for anywhere between 35 to 70 days for a 90 to 120 minute film with a 50 day director's cut, then several more months of refining and tweaking picture and sound, a dramatic one hour television show gets no more than eight days per episode to shoot, two days for an editor's cut - if you're lucky - and a four day director's cut - also a rarity. In the best-case television scenario, the editor delivers a cut two days after principal photography wraps, then four days for director's cut and approximately five days of producer, studio and network notes to lock picture. That is a total of 10 days - eight if you consider the likelihood that the editor got their last day's dailies on their second and last day of what has become unaffectionately known as 'editor's cut.' If you do the math, television editors are asked to sometimes do the impossible - and many of my peers are doing a spectacular job of it.

"To my mind, there are several teams of filmmakers churning out some of today's highest quality fare on a weekly basis in television. In features though, we generally have a lot more time to philosophize and toil over moments and performances. This is not always a good thing. Sometimes more time just means more time to screw it up. On the plus side, we have time and the opportunity to experience what we have done through the fresh eyes of audiences, and that is what I would say is the major difference."

Post: So how did you end up connecting with Stallone to edit this film?

Albertson: "Don Zimmerman, a hugely talented editor, and someone who has been a friend and mentor to me, had edited several movies for Sly in the 80's, including Rocky III and IV. Sly called Don to cut the movie, but Don was not available so he suggested that Sly meet me. He did, and we seemed to hit it off creatively at our first meeting."

Post: Given the history of the Rocky franchise, did you have any reservations about taking on the project?

Albertson: Once I knew what Sly's intention was for this final chapter, I had absolutely no reservations. To edit the film that he wanted to make was a chance for me to touch history. Having grown up with these movies and this character meaning so much to me, there was not a question in my mind. I had to do it!"

Post: How demanding was it to work on this movie?

Albertson: "Balboa was a low-budget movie by industry standards, and there was a great deal of pressure on us to deliver a finished film on a somewhat condensed post production schedule. When you couple that with a writer/producer/director starring in his own film, the editor is presented with a very special set of demands. In that context, the expectations on the editor are very high to show the filmmaker sequences as good as, if not better than, what is in his head. And in our case, we needed to be able to work quickly because of our financial constraints."

Post: What was the post production schedule for Balboa?

Albertson: "The film shot for about eight weeks. We had a two-week editor's cut in the schedule, which actually never happened. Sly was in the cutting room the day after he finished shooting. I still had dailies coming in for the next four days, but we just got right to work. We cut for 10 weeks, with various screenings for studio and producers, and then had two previews. We locked picture approximately two weeks after our second preview, completed VFX, sound mix and final color timing approximately eight weeks after that."

Post: What was your editing set-up and workflow?

Albertson: "We had four Windows-based Media Composer Adrenaline systems on the show. I also used a software-only Media Composer at my home office for some final editorial tweaks, trailers, and DVD work. The movie was shot both on 35mm film and HDCAM, for all of the fights. [With the exception of the fight montage footage]

"Our film was processed at Technicolor LA and NY while we were shooting in Philly, then telecined and digitized at 14:1 resolution to FireWire drives at Complete Post. The HD material was also transferred to drives at our offline 14:1 resolution by Complete Post.

"When we got to preview time, we decided that we should rent an HD deck and do our own HD up-rez on one of our Adrenalines, leaving us more time to allow changes, hence giving us more creative control. We also felt that we could do a really solid color pass with the Adrenaline's color correction tool before going into an expensive color timing theater. The problem was that we couldn't get approval to rent an HD deck and monitor. A little frustrating when you consider the thousands of dollars we then spent doing our HD online and color correction, not to mention the hours upon hours of trying to re-create all of our multilayered Avid/third-party plug-in effects on other systems. I always push for new approaches, but it is a slow process convincing any company to change the way they have been doing things for a long time, especially when it comes to technology.

"Once we locked picture, we scanned and assembled our digital negative at Pacific Title, where we did our final color correction with an extremely talented color timer named Paul Bronkar. Once finished with Paul, we output [an estimated three] digital negatives and made all of our 3,000-plus release prints. All I can say is Hallelujah! We are finally making our release prints off digital negatives and not going through the IP/IN process."

Post: You mentioned that you used Media Composer software at your home office. What difference did that make for you?

Albertson: "I had many reasons for wanting the software-only Media Composer. It gave me the same toolset as the system in my cutting room and the flexibility to work in both locations back and forth. I am not only an editor, but also, and more importantly, a father of three. Having worked in post production since 1986, I understand that the demands of the job have the potential to be detrimental to anyone's home life. Having the Media Composer software system allows me the freedom to work securely at home, which means that on some days I don't even have to go into the office. On other days, it allows me to be home at dinnertime, and I can get back to work after the kids go to bed. If Sly called me on a Sunday morning with an idea, I could get into it after the kids were in bed that night and get a head start on Monday. I love what I do for a living and always strive to be the very best I can be at it. I feel the same way about fatherhood - times a thousand. Media Composer software changes the world of editing for me by allowing me to be both an involved parent to my children and as devoted to the craft of filmmaking as I want to be. It is truly a whole new world."

Post: What were the biggest editorial challenges that you saw in renewing, while at the same time concluding the Rocky franchise?

Albertson: "It was very important to Sly that Rocky have the elegant and emotional send off that he deserved. I think the biggest challenge in that regard was understanding when we were going too far or not far enough. However much running, lifting, drinking raw eggs and bone crunching fights there are, Rocky is and always has been a romantic, dialogue driven drama at its heart, and it is very easy for filmmakers to become melodramatic in order to 'make the audience feel.' It is also a slippery slope to underplay the drama. I would say that the biggest challenge editorially on this film was finding the right balance. Sly's words on the page, the camera angles, and the performances gave us a lot to work with - I mean a lot - and that translated into a huge number of editorial decisions. Just the right balance becomes a question of what lines put it over the top; what performance tweaks might prevent that without losing the lines; what reaction shot to that line might make the audience have a more visceral reaction, etc. I would guess that we spent far more time on molding nuances of performances and scene structure than on the last act of the movie, which is all training and fight."

Post: Can you share an example of one of those editorial decisions?

Albertson: "There was this amazing scene between Paulie and Rocky that Sly wrote, where Paulie completely breaks down over what a terrible brother to Adrian and friend to Rocky he had been over the years. On paper, this scene to my mind was Paulie's true character arc in the grand scheme of the series. This was Paulie's final defining moment. But on film, we found ourselves constantly asking if it was too much. Were we asking the audience to delve too deep, emotionally for Paulie at a time in the film when Rocky's upward mobility was just beginning? To me, this scene straddled that fine line between drama and melodrama. We made countless attempts at losing the scene, massaging performances, trying different camera angles, and various incarnations of dialogue cuts. In the end, the version that struck the perfect tone for us completely changed the intent of that scene. Paulie no longer breaks down in that scene, but becomes an uplifting force that helps propel Rocky back into the ring, and ultimately back into his life. Now, that is what editing is all about."

Post: The training montages are a huge part of the previous movies. What was your experience with the montage on this one?

Albertson: "The montages in a Rocky movie are like editing a movie itself. Creating a story with its own act structure, inciting incidents, set ups and payoffs, emotional peaks and valleys and full on character arcs - with no dialogue - is certainly no small task, especially when it's Rocky. I mean, Rocky created its own kind of montage that not only became a staple of the franchise, but something that several filmmakers copied afterward. I have to give tremendous credit to our second editor, Paul Harb, who was tasked with creating something great out of countless hours of montage footage. When I was charged with finding an editor who could take that on, Paul was my first choice. Having worked together on several smaller projects, I also knew that Paul and I play off each other really well creatively. Having someone like that on my team was a real blessing and I think that Sly felt the same way."

Post: What was it like to work with Stallone?

Albertson: "Well, first of all it was intimidating. It was not lost on me that I was now sitting in a room with an American icon that I grew up watching on the big screen. Working with Sly was an amazing experience. He is a very serious and focused filmmaker. I was astounded at how much film he could shoot in a day. He is one of the hardest working people I have ever met while being one of the funniest people I have spent time with. Sly has a great sense of humor that I think most people don't get to experience. It comes in very handy when working as intensely as we did."

Post: Talk about your interaction in the cutting room.

Albertson: "I have worked with many different kinds of directors and producers. Some are very involved in the editorial process, others talk on the phone all day while throwing notes at me, and others just show up to watch or watch DVDs at home, give notes and leave. Sly is as hands-on a director as I have ever worked with in the editing room. He is involved in every detail of the editorial process, and his wheels are always turning. In fact, I learned within the first two weeks of post not to stay late to address Sly's notes after he left at night. At the beginning, I would make the changes that we discussed, then he would arrive in the office the next morning having completely restructured the movie in his head overnight, often nullifying the changes we had discussed that day. And while those changes might come back another day, he would have no interest in watching them that day because he was already on a completely new track.

"There were days in which Sly and I would completely restructure the entire film twice in one day. We did not work very long hours, but the intensity of six hours in the cutting room together could equal a normal 15-hour day. He is very passionate about what he wants, but he is also open to new ideas - something that I really enjoyed. I mean, this is truly his baby, yet he was willing to entertain creative arguments about what was best for the film. It was hard, intense work that I found extremely gratifying."

Post: Typically actors aren't reviewing their takes over your shoulder or involved in editorial decisions in the cutting room. Was it different having Stallone as both director and actor?

Albertson: "The short answer is yes, but unlike my experience with other actors in the editing room, Sly really took on the roll of director. The writer and the actor were asked to wait outside. Sure, there were moments where he would see some little thing about his process as an actor that he didn't like or a shot that he didn't think was all that flattering, but in the end the decision was always, very clearly what was best for the film, not the actor."

Post: Were there any editing techniques that you felt were particularly integral to this storytelling process?

Albertson: "That's a tough question to answer because my 'go to' editorial technique is always emotion - which isn't a technique at all. When I first put a scene together, I approach every cut as though I am an audience member suspended in time. I am actually watching the scene as I cut it. As the audience, I look for what would naturally give me the right emotional response for my next cut. Other creative techniques apply if I can't find what I am looking for, but it is always my emotional experience as an audience that drives my editing.

Post: The finale of the movie is, of course, the showdown between Rocky and Mason "The Line" Dixon. Can you talk about editing that scene?

Albertson: "Sly shot it like an HBO fight, with as many as nine cameras rolling on each section. That was particularly challenging for me and my crew as it was kind of 'cowboy style.' Sly knew what he wanted in his head, but we had one single script supervisor and nine cameramen who were not in that head with him. The result was tens of hours of fight footage that had little slating and our department not having much idea of what section was to go where.

"They opened the shooting schedule with the fight stuff in Vegas. So, though I was concerned about how much work it would be for my crew to get it all in order before I could even start cutting, I figured I had a couple of months before Sly would be in the room to see anything. Crisis averted? Not quite. After five days of shooting nine cameras in this fashion, my crew desperately trying to get dailies in some order for us to watch in Las Vegas. Sly said to me at 10:00pm one night, 'Sean, can you go back to LA tomorrow and cut all this fight stuff together and show it to me tomorrow night?' My answer was pretty much 'Uh… well… I…,' and I was on the first morning flight from Las Vegas to Burbank.

"My brilliant first assistant, Seth Clark devised a system wherein he was able to figure out for the most part, which fight scenes went where, then [the assistant editors] created sequences of each round of the fight with each take and all cameras piled up on the timeline as picture-in-picture effects so that I could just press play and see it all. Somehow, with the help of my stupendous crew, we were able to get the cut together and get it on a plane early enough for Sly to see it the next night. Waiting for his feedback was a tortuous period for me. Finally, I got the call late the following night - and he liked it! Whew!"

Post: Along with the indelible image of Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia museum, the Bill Conti score is just as memorable. What role did that music play as you assembled the film?

Albertson: "That music was vital while I was doing my editor's cut. I had all the Rocky soundtracks available to me to use for temp along with a large library of music that my first assistant Seth and I had collected over the years. There was really nothing else during that time that worked quite as well as the original music, mostly from Rocky I. But toward the end of principal photography, I became reluctant about the original scores. I was worried that they felt too mired in their times. We tried temps from probably fifty different movies, but Sly kept coming back to the original Rocky cues. What I did not realize at that time was the homogeneity of Bill Conti's original score to this final chapter of Rocky's story. No matter what we tried, nothing fit tonally quite like the music that Bill wrote 30 years ago for this movie, and ultimately we all went right back to that original score. Bill re-recorded these cues, rewriting them to fit our action and drama while ever so gently contemporizing them in a way that I think hit just the right cord for Rocky living in 2006."

Post: Thanks for your insight, Sean. One last question: Are you going to see Balboa in the theater with audiences?

Albertson: "I have already - twice! For better or worse, I like to see how what I do affects different groups of people. We are making movies for the masses, so I like to experience what works and what doesn't work in the field. For me, I feel that it is part of my job, and I take that experience onto future projects."