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July 2014
Issue: July 1, 2007

Q&A: 'TRANSFORMERS' EDITOR PAUL RUBELL

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 blockbuster.

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 precision."

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 post coordinator.

"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 dexterity.

"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 be redundant."

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 storytelling equation."

Post: What are the important storytelling or editorial devices you employ on Transformers as opposed to something like The Insider?

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 storytelling."

Post: What is the fine line between creating gripping action sequences and not over cutting such that you lose the audience visually?

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 editorial process?

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 time."

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."