WELLINGTON, NZ — Warner Bros.’ The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first of three movies based on the J. R. R. Tolkien introductory novel to The Lord of the Rings saga that could very well transform the movie-going experience.
The new trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson and shot on Red Epic 5K cameras (all three films were shot simultaneously) in 3D, generated an unprecedented 1,100 hours of footage for each eye.
The Hobbit will also be the first 3D movie recorded and exhibited digitally at 48 frames — to reduce eyes strain, but more on that later — and enhanced by the Dolby Atmos sound system.
The Hobbit editor Jabez Olssen (The Lovely Bones) says, not surprisingly, that the biggest challenge was, “the sheer size of the project: the amount of footage, the complexity of it, and the number of the characters that had to be balanced.”
There were production delays — the project evolved from two to three films — but the release date for the first film he says, “never changed.”
Olssen wanted to be a filmmaker from an early age, and after university, attended the South Seas Film and TV School in New Zealand. He believed that films are written three times, as the saying goes, once in the script, again by the director on set, and the third time in the cutting. No one offered him a job in the first two areas, he says with a smile, so he chose editing to “be around the creative process.”
In 2000, Olssen worked as an assistant editor and VFX editor for Sam Raimi’s Pacific Renaissance Pictures on the TV shows Jack of All Trades and Cleopatra 2525. The effects-heavy Cleopatra featured 200 to 400 effects shots per episode, says Olssen. There was “a lot of greenscreens and CG characters to deal with.” After season 1, Olssen was promoted from assistant editor to main editor.
When Cleopatra wound down, he wrote letters to New Zealand-based Michael Horton (who edited the first and second LOTR) and Jamie Selkirk (supervising editor on the first two, editor on the third and co-producer on all three LOTR). “They were needing a new operator for Mike, and I was recommended.”
After meeting with Horton and Selkirk, he was hired to “drive the Avid” for Horton on the The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Because the Rings films overlapped quite a bit, he did some work on all three movies.
After the second movie he moved to London for year to work on various productions. While VFX editor on Wimbledon, he got a call from Jackson to come back and work with Selkirk on King Kong. Olssen then worked on a number of smaller projects, including previs for The Adventures of Tintin, and editing Crossing The Line, the Red Digital Cinema movie directed by Jackson and Neill Blomkamp. Olssen was on deck to be the main editor on Jackson’s remake of Dambusters, but that got delayed, and he was hired as lead editor on Jackson’s The Lovely Bones in ‘09.
Later that year, Olssen started previs work for Guillermo Del Toro’s version of The Hobbit, as well as performing the role of additional editor on The Adventures of Tintin. In May of 2010, De Toro left the project and Olssen was tapped by Jackson to come aboard as main editor. “Peter didn’t take over immediately,” says Olssen. “He said, ‘Look if I wind up directing The Hobbit, will you cut it?’ I told him I’d be thrilled and honored.”
Olssen and Jackson continued the previs process — Jackson got local actors and motion captured them as live action performances. The previs team would turn that data into low-res CG characters, and then use “virtual cameras” to “get as many angles and takes as any live-action film.” That process took them right up until actual shooting began in March 2011.
In contrast to editors who often work far from the shoot, for The Hobbit Olssen was on set every day. “Post begins from day one of the shoot, particularly with the digital cameras. With our schedule and timetable, we had to be editing right from the beginning.”
Post was essentially integrated into production. “We had a portable Avid (Media Composer V.6) set-up on the soundstage that was wired by fiber optics back to the editing rooms,” describes Olssen, pictured left. This gave him full access to all the footage shot previously thanks to Avid ISIS networked storage. Between shooting set-ups, Olssen worked with Jackson “to do performance selects and select angles. Then I would be able to go off and do my editor assemble of the scene.
“It was good to be there when the scenes were being shot,” he continues, “because I could hear Peter talk to the actors and get a greater understanding of how the scene should be, and that helped me do an initial assembly. Without that contact we would have been a lot further behind when the shooting ended.”
When The Hobbit was on location, editorial used Avid software on a laptop system with FireWire hard drives that enabled them to edit even from remote mountaintop locations. The third component of the “production post system” was the EMC (Editorial Mobile Command), a truck containing a full-size Avid Media Composer with a big plasma screen and a couch for Jackson.
“When we had an hour or two break, we’d go into the truck. It had privacy and was like an actual cutting room environment.” The EMC was used on soundstages and traveled all over the country as well.
Jackson monitored the Red camera 3D output via an on-set system using 3D glasses. He even had a satellite set-up that beamed second unit footage to his main location.
However, according to Olssen, the Avid editing was done entirely in 2D at 24fps. Jackson’s Park Road Post would “digital telecine” all the original footage into graded Avid DNxHD files at 24fps. “So the editing room had normal Avid footage just like any other film.” As needed, Park Road Post would conform scenes in 3D at 48fps and screen them in 2K 3D at 48fps in a full-size digital theater.
“Printing” single eye lower frame rate “dailies” took some of the storage “stress” off the Avid 128TB Unity system. After 266 days of main unit shooting and 195 days of second unit shooting, they still had 1,100 hours of footage for each eye — the equivalent of nearly 24 million feet of film. The most dailies they had in a single day was 11 hours of footage for each eye. Olssen’s support team, led by first assistant editor Dan Best, was made up of eight assistant editors, including two VFX editors who wrangled 25,000 clips. “But “there are multiple takes in each of those clips because Peter has a method we call ‘rolling resets.’ He won’t cut between takes. He’ll just tell the actors to go back and start again.” There were 13 Avid Media Composers, but some assistants used more than one Avid.
“Peter likes to be heavily involved with the actual editing.” The first step, says Olssen, is for him to “chop up the footage” and “line up all the takes.” When Jackson comes into the editing room “he looks at all the takes” and makes his selects. Olssen typically does an assembly of the scene first, but he and Jackson will work on the scene from scratch, then compare it to Olssen’s earlier version, and perhaps merge aspects of the two.
“He’s not a director who limits himself to one way of cutting a scene,” describes Olssen. “He will shoot options and coverage. He will provide choices for the cutting room. Always with Peter’s films, you have to explore the scene and make big choices about which way to tell the story. You’re not going to end up with a couple of cool camera moves that can’t be used because they cover the same piece of the story.”
Creatively, Olssen prepped for the edit by watching all the Lord of the Rings movies, re-reading The Hobbit and reading the script. His approach was to “treat it like any other film. The footage for a scene comes in and you look and put it together as it feels it should go. Whether there’s greenscreen or missing CG monsters from the scene, you treat all films the same.” Regardless, he says, if it’s a quieter drama piece or big spectacle “you try to find the best takes, the best rhythm to the scene and how you want to tell the story.”
Stylistically, Olssen says the movie is consistent with the other Lord of the Rings movies because Peter Jackson is directing. “By following the natural rhythms and style of each scene, it ends up with a similar stylistic connection to Lord of the Rings.”
Jackson, he says, “wants it to be an immersive experience. Once you’ve made the decision to go 3D, you’ve moved away from the ‘normal’ cinematic experience. Traditionally, cinema has been 2D. Once you go to 3D you are trying to make it more realistic.” Shooting at 48fps, notes Olssen, is primarily to reduce strobbing and flicker that causes eyestrain for the 3D version of the movie — the 2D version will be exhibited at 24fps. “You increase the frame rate and it’s more comfortable to watch. Reducing eyestrain is a good thing.”
Most of the new technology, 3D and 48fps, was transparent creatively to the editing process. “We would see the 3D when we conformed the scenes,” says Olssen. “Occasionally we would make allowances and alterations because of the stereoscopic depth.” So for example, they might hold shots a bit longer. Generally he says, “If you are cutting on the small size screen and then see it on a cinema big screen you often extend the wide shots a few more frames.”
But they didn’t want to limit the 2D experience either. “We didn’t want the technique to rule the dramatic decisions of the storytelling.”
There were not as many changes as Olssen had expected. “We were thinking when we set out that we’d have to cut it, conform it in 3D at 48 frames and then change it, but at the end of the day there wasn’t as much of that. There were very few tweaks. What’s working dramatically for the story continues to work no matter the format. So generally what would work in one medium would work for the other.”
THREE FILMS, NOT TWO
So how did The Hobbit evolve into three movies? “There always was going to be two movies,” explains Olssen. “By doing three movies it allows us to keep the good material people remember. The Hobbit is only a 300-page book, but there’s a lot of story in there. People complain with film adaptions of a book about all the good things that got chopped out. Three films will allow us to keep the characters and many iconic moments and events from the book. A lot of story is alluded to in the appendices in The Lord of the Rings. After writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien went back and fleshed out all that time when Gandalf leaves the dwarfs, so that’s being told as well.”
In the last weeks of post, Olssen moved from the The Hobbit soundstages to Park Road Post (www.parkroadpost.co.nz), where everyone was working around the clock to finish the film. “We’ll go into the mixes and give notes on the VFX shots and listen to the Atmos reviews.”
He’s also “working on the last stages of the second film,” but notes “not a lot has been done on the third one so far!”