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December 2014
Issue: April 1, 2008

EDITING PARAMOUNT'S 'STOP-LOSS'

By: Robin Rowe
When an actor in Paramount Picture’s Stop-Loss dislocated a shoulder during shooting, it delayed production six weeks, resulting in a scheduling nightmare. Stages would have to be rescheduled and key personnel would have to be changed.

Stop-Loss is the story of a soldier ordered back to duty in Iraq against his will, testing everything he believes in. The film was released on March 28, 2008.

We talked about what happened on Stop-Loss with picture editor Claire Simpson, first assistant editor Keith Mason, assistant editor Ryan Murphy and Hammerhead visual effects supervisor Thad Beier.

Editor Claire Simpson started as an assistant film editor on Reds. She edited Platoon, Wall Street, Tequila Sunrise, The Constant Gardener and many other films. She won an Academy Award and a BAFTA Film Award for Platoon. She won a BAFTA Film Award and was nominated for an Academy Award for The Constant Gardener.

To interview for the position of picture editor for Stop-Loss, Simpson met director Kim Peirce for breakfast at a hotel in Santa Monica. “I’m notoriously hopeless at interviews,” says Simpson. “I woke up late. My car ran out of gas on the way. The dog hair on the upholstery of my car obligingly transferred itself onto my clothes. Considering I was forty-five minutes late, Kim was very gracious. Saying less is better than sounding like a blithering idiot, so I kept quiet. I listened to Kim talk passionately about her script and her brother who had just come home from a tour of duty in Iraq.” Simpson was about to set out for Texas on a new adventure with people she did not know.

“Why do I ever think that production is anything other than mayhem?” says Simpson. “We need quiet. Editors need calm. We need order. We need air conditioning. This is Texas in August. It’s 120 degrees out there and the extras are fainting from heat exhaustion. As I assemble the dailies, I slug out the bits and pieces that are missing and have to be picked up later. Kim comes in on Sundays and reviews the cut footage. We have the luxury of having a few takes printed on film for our DP, Chris Menges. We screen those and chatter about the week ahead. This is pretty much the pattern for the Texas shoot. As the leaves start to wither in the heat, I know we’ll have to come back and finish ‘the road trip’ sequences in the spring. We have DVCAM footage, stock footage and war photographs flooding in. The crew slips off to Morocco to shoot the battle scenes. Kim is rewriting the battle scenes on the plane because our schedule has become so tight.”

First assistant editor Keith Mason started in the cutting rooms in 1982. “My father was a sound editor,” says Mason. “I was always around the studios with him. It seemed a natural thing to do when I left school.”

Mason was first assistant editor for We're No Angels, assistant editor for the TV mini-series Dinotopia, first assistant editor for Around the World in 80 Days, first assistant editor for The Constant Gardener, and has worked on many other films. Mason had worked with Simpson on The Constant Gardener.

“Claire asked me to do Stop-Loss,” says Mason. “We went to Austin for the shoot and posted in New York. I approached the film the same way I always do. Wait and see how it unravels. My only immediate concern is keeping the editor fed with material. Everything else falls into place as the film goes on. The shoot started early August in Texas and finished early November in Morocco. We cut on Avid. Nothing too fancy, just two Meridiens and a Unity from Pivotal Post. We weren't visual effects heavy. I didn't require anything more powerful. The system was as solid as a rock for the whole show.”

Assistant editor Ryan Murphy says, “Media Composer was Version 11.27 on Meridians with Mac OS 9, with just over a terabyte of storage.”

Murphy was assistant editor on Syriana, Factory Girl, Delirious, The Inner Life of Martin Frost and No Reservations. “I took over for Keith when he had to go on to another job,” says Murphy. “We always had additional photography scheduled for the spring,” says Mason. “One of the actors dislocated his shoulder on the first day and we had to postpone the rest on the shoot for six weeks while he recovered. It was a nightmare for the production to reschedule because of everyone’s availability. It had a profound effect on our post schedule. I didn’t leave the movie for another job, but for a family commitment after being away on location for a year. Ryan joined us to deal with the final delivery.”

Murphy supervised the delivery to the studio.

“I think we shot about 600,000 feet of film,” says Mason. “There was quite a lot of DV footage shot to use as our soldier POV footage. All our dailies went to Los Angeles for processing, and was ‘sunc’ [synchronized with time code sound recorders during telecine] at Laser Pacific and sent to me on pocket drives in Austin. I'd get the dailies in. Our apprentice Rob Chestnut would make a screening list for the DVDs that go to the studio and deal with all paperwork. I’d get the material in my Avid, sorted to scene bins, ready for Claire to cut while she viewed it next door. On Sundays we’d quite often run some print at the studio in Texas with Kim and DP Chris Menges.”

The cutting room moved from Austin to New York. “I love working in New York,” says Simpson. “I have lots of friends here from my documentary days. By the time we had arrived at a really tight cut of the film, winter was on the wane, the leaves had grown back on the trees and spring had sprung. We assembled the production team. Mark Richard and Kim tweaked the scenes to be shot and slipped in a couple more. And we were up and running. Well, that was the idea anyway.”

“On the first day of the spring shoot, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Tommy, dislocated his shoulder,” says Simpson. “We were down for six weeks while he recovered. That created quite a scheduling nightmare for us. We had to push everything back. We lost our dubbing dates. Eugene Gearty was committed to design Lust Caution for Ang Lee. John Powell had Bourne Ultimatum on the horizon. We worked hard on the music and the sound design so that we had as much as possible locked down before we went back to film the final pieces.”

“We welcomed the additional time in the picture department because we could concentrate on the stock footage clearances and visual effects, but it was difficult for sound,” says Mason. “They had some down time and then a mad scramble when the new material was inserted. Eugene Gearty had to go onto Lust Caution, but he had completed the majority of the work and premixed a lot of it. He kept a keen eye on the final mix. Larry Wineland was a key person once Eugene left the show. The editing of the film followed a fairly normal plane, assembly followed by director’s cut, we had previews and then worked towards the fine cut, and the mix.”

“Our DI was done at Technicolor,” says Mason. “It was slightly complicated as we conformed the movie in LA, and the color timing was done in London by Paul Ensby. Technicolor conformed and sent all files on drives to London as the reels were available. Once completed, everything was sent to Technicolor NY for Kim and Claire to view. Notes were made and passed back to London for Paul to make any changes. The final touches and visual effects drop-ins were done in New York. Chris came out to complete with Kim, Claire and Mr. Rudin. The use of three Technicolor facilities didn't sound ideal at the time but they pulled it off. Very impressive.”

“I was packing up my cutting room and moving to Sound One for the dub when Kiki Morris, our post supervisor, delivered the news that the studio’s legal department couldn’t clear much of the stock footage and photographs that were used in the film,” says Simpson. “We’d collected an incredible portfolio of images and they had become so integrated into the fabric of the film that it was inconceivable not to use them. But some of the photographers could not be found or the rights could not be determined or someone wanted money beyond our budget. Kim and I went back to the research files, and Kiki bombarded the studio lawyers with material for pre-clearance. We were dubbing with Lee Dichter and Roberto Fernandez in New York, timing the DI at Technicolor in London, Los Angeles and New York and still cutting. It was a little hair-raising at the time but by good fortune we found some remarkable stock shots which worked equally well, if not better.”

Stop-Loss doesn’t have a lot of visual effects, so it may seem surprising that the movie was scanned and finished as digital intermediate. “Studios want DI now,” says Murphy. “It depends on the film’s budget. If it’s over ten or twenty million it seems to be an automatic DI these days. DI is great because you can look at things really quickly with color grading. Play it back in a few seconds. It’s a lot quicker sign off.” Both Menges and Simpso wanted a DI. “We would have greater control over manipulating the different looks, Iraq and Texas, the videos shot from the soldiers POV and the photographs,” says Simpson. “There was no existing 35mm negative for a lot of the stock footage and so making a DI was really the most sensible way to go.”

Murphy had worked earlier on Stop-Loss for a week on a preview of the film while Mason was out sick. Murphy faced a challenge when he was called back again at the end. “The hardest thing is you’re not familiar with everything, with every little thing that happens, the footage, what’s there. Stop-Loss was in DI. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done DI before. It’s all new footage. It’s like jumping into the middle of anything. It’s a bit perplexing. The apprentice editor Rob Chestnut was able to help. I was still in contact with Keith Mason, and he was able to answer questions. I was in there for the last two months in the clutch position. Claire was mostly in color and mix sessions by then. I worked with her more in the week I was there earlier working on preview then in the final mix. I came in more of a utilitarian role, overseeing all the technical aspects of finishing, making sure DI was correct.”

“Because of the tight schedule for the Morocco shoot, we are worried that we are not going to get enough material and that we are going to have to rely more heavily on visual effects,” says Simpson. “Hammerhead did some extraordinary stuff and I was sorry that they were so underused. They did some really dramatic enhancements…blood splats and explosions, adding bullet holes and the like, but it was never overdone. I think they were very sensitive to the feeling of realism that we were trying to achieve.”

“There are 30 or so shots in the final movie,” says Hammerhead visual effects supervisor Thad Beier. “Most of them are shots to enhance the battle, to do things that couldn't be done practically, or that didn't work out as well practically as they had wanted…bullet hits in cars or adding blood to some shots that needed more of it. We worked directly with the director and editor. We would do shots to our satisfaction, then send them in on QuickTime for approval. The more straightforward shots were approved quickly, the more complex ones took a few tries…a pretty typical process. We used our in-house tracking and rotoscoping tools, Maya for 3D and Shake for compositing.”

“One of the most challenging aspects of the shots was the gore involved in some of them,” says Beier. “They were so graphic that it was difficult to work on them. The director staged a ‘leg-removal’ shot in a way to purposely make it as hard as possible – she didn't want the audience to think it was a cheap trick. We had to patch the shot in a dozen different ways, changing techniques many times within the shot, to get it to work.”

Unfortunately, that shot ended up being cut for editorial or rating reasons. Stop-Loss is rated R for graphic violence and pervasive language.

Claire Simpson is currently editing The Reader in Berlin. Keith Mason is visual effects editor for HBO’s Generation Kill in London. Ryan Murphy is assistant editor for Adventureland. Thad Beier is visual effects supervising Fast and Furious 4 at Universal.

Robin Rowe is a partner in MovieEditor.com. He can be reached at robin@movieeditor.com.