LOS ANGELES — Editor Alan Bell recently extended his working relationship with director Francis Lawrence, this time cutting the second installment in The Hunger Games franchise. Bell, whose credits include The Green Mile and The Amazing Spider-Man, worked with the director (I am Legend, Constantine) on the 2011 feature Water for Elephants. Lawrence has since committed to directing two additional installments of The Hunger Games, and Bell is already at work on the third release.
The second film, Catching Fire, opened in theaters on November 22, and stars Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson as Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, who’ve been targeted by the Capitol after their Hunger Games win. Here, Bell talks about working with the director — both in Atlanta, where shooting took place, and back in LA — and how he was able to put his own spin on the already-successful franchise.
POST: Was it your prior relationship with Francis Lawrence that led to this collaboration?
ALAN BELL: “Yes, I had done Francis Lawrence’s third movie, Water for Elephants, and I really loved working with him. When I found out he got The Hunger Games, I was hoping and praying that he would ask me back, and he did. I hadn’t read the book [but] said yes, based on our relationship. When I read the books, I was very, very pleased. It’s a compelling story.”
POST: There are already additional films in the works?
BELL: “He is actually directing the third and fourth, and I am currently working with him now on those movies. He didn’t direct the first movie. It’s a blessing and a curse to come behind someone else. You want to live up to your predecessor, and you also want to give the material as much justice as possible, and put your own spin on things. Hopefully we’ve accomplished that”
POST: Does it help that the first film was so successful?
BELL: “It was nice that there was a road map and all of these characters were solidified and presented in a way that we could expand on them, so we didn’t have to do a lot of work to create these characters, since that had been done in the first movie. Obviously, there are new characters introduced in the second film.”
POST: When did you get involved?
BELL: “I was finishing up The Amazing Spider-Man when Francis called me and said that he was doing the film and wanted me to come on board. I took a few meetings with him and we talked about it. At that point, there wasn’t a script that he was willing to spread out, so he said, ‘Read the books. We are essentially going to make the books.’ We had a couple of conversations about the movie at that point in time… I started about a week before they started shooting.”
POST: Where were you editing?
BELL: “I flew out to Atlanta, where we did principal photography for the most part, except for a couple of weeks in Hawaii, which I didn’t get to go to, unfortunately. This was literally last year. I left Atlanta about this time last year and went back to LA, and they all went to Hawaii. We started the beginning of September and shot all of September, October and most of November. Then they shot in Hawaii for six or seven weeks. I was in LA cutting while they were in Hawaii.”
POST: Did you work from home in LA or at a studio?
BELL: “I do have a set up at home, but I rarely use it because studios are so concerned about security. You can’t really put anything on your laptop. The stakes are so high. We have an ongoing situation for post, and I can say it’s on the West Side of LA.”
POST: I understand Catching Fire was a film shoot?
BELL: “The movie was shot on film, so we went through a more traditional film to digital workflow. It was shot on film in anamorphic and in IMAX. There were a few spherical days as well, which were then blown up to IMAX, but the majority of the movie was shot in anamorphic 2.40:1 and IMAX, which is almost 4:3.”
POST: How did you receive footage?
BELL: “The film went to Deluxe and was processed, and then Efilm scanned it and sent back dailies via their Eview system, as well our Avid bins and dailies, and our synched sound. And our assistants built bins for me.”
POST: Can you talk about your editing set up?
BELL: “My system is a little bit unique. On that movie I started working on a 24-inch HD Cintiq tablet, which is a monitor that you can draw on. I used that, and I started using a gaming pad, instead of a keyboard, because I wanted my left hand to be right next to the monitor where I was drawing with my right hand. I’ve used a projector for some time now, so my room is very much like a screening room. Even in Atlanta, it was very much like being in a theater. When I went back to LA, I basically brought back all the same gear and set it up in LA, so it was a very traditional workflow.
“The only difference between that and the other movies I have done is we started using the Eyeon Fusion Connection plug-in. I do a lot of compositing and temp effects work — I call it ‘performance enhancing visual effects.’ So if I want to to split screens to make things match, or splice together different performances but stay in the same take, I can do all that. The Fusion Connection plug-in allows me to do that right within the Avid. Just like you would take any other Avid effect and throw it on the timeline. I can throw that plug-in onto the timeline and rather than have to export it out to another program, I just click ‘export clips,’ click ‘edit effect,’ and Fusion, which is a nodal based compositing program, opens up. I do all my work, hit ‘render,’ go back to the Avid and continue working. And when it’s done rendering, it shows up in my timeline. It’s a very fluid way to work. It saved me tons of time.”
POST: Which Avid release are you using?
BELL: “I am using a Windows PC-based system. On that movie I used Version 6.5 and on the current movie I am using 7.0.2 today.”
POST: Did the different aspect ratios present a challenge?
BELL: “It was something that I had to deal with. IMAX is approximately 4:3. It’s essentially a giant square. At a certain point in movie — in the arena specifically, the last hour of the film — it opens up and goes from widescreen, and the top and bottom expands. That section was shot specifically for that purpose. When we went to do 2.40:1 version, which would play in the average theater, I had to create a 2.40:1 frame out of all the IMAX footage. Normally what you would do is shoot the IMAX footage and use a common center extraction, but in this case, the director and DP chose to just shoot and let me deal with it later. I did a tilt/scan, rather than a pan & scan. I just moved up or down. It meant I had to go through every shot for those big reels and decide what was going to be in frame at a certain point in time and think like a cameraman.”
POST: Could you do that in the NLE?
BELL: “I did that with the Avid and just used a resize tool. It was interesting because I learned that if someone is running through a frame and you track them so they stay in frame, suddenly it looks like they are out of focus. In a large frame, they are moving through the frame, so they are blurry and it looks natural. But when you try to keep them in the frame, it looks out of focus. So I had to add errors to my tilt to help the viewer understand that they were in motion and not out of focus. It was a few shots but it was an interesting thing and not something you would normally think about.”
POST: In what state were the VFX as you were cutting?
BELL: “I did a lot of temp effects just so I could get timing. I do a lot of these performance enhancing visual effects, which are invisible to the viewer, which I would then hand off to the visual effects supervisor. We turned over huge sequences before principal photography was even done. Large sections of the chariots sequence were turned over very early in the process. By the time we had a directors cut that we could show the studio, we had very solid and good temp effects that were very close to finals. Janek Sirrs, our VFX supervisor, had [them] done by various effects houses. He’s awesome and did an amazing job. The biggest player was Dneg, and a couple of others: Hybride, Rodeo FX, and Cantina Creative. Weta did some really amazing character animation for us.”
POST: Did you have an idea of what music would be used?
BELL: “We knew that James Newton Howard would be the composer. He’d done all of Francis’s movies and he did the first movie as well. We went to the James Newton Howard library as much as possible. I tend to like to get things solid before I put music to them. I think it’s easier to get a sense of if a scene is working when it’s dry. You can watch paint dry to a great song. I’d rather have something working without music. I tend to not cut with a lot of music, but for something that’s action oriented, it’s nice to have the rhythm.”
POST: Can you talk about Francis Lawrence’s style?
BELL: “Francis and I work pretty much hand in hand. He spends a lot of time in cutting room and he’s very into making the story emotional, clear, and efficient. It’s a fantastic working relationship. He listens to everything I say and is very interested in what I bring to table. You can’t be right all the time, so if I come up with an idea that’s not the greatest, he let’s you down gently. And when you do come up with something that helps, he’s very appreciative of that. It’s a good collaboration. I love working with the guy, and the fact that he spends a lot of time in the cutting room, I find very valuable.”
POST: What’s the film’s final length?
BELL: “Roughly two hours and 23 minutes. It doesn’t feel long. There are a lot of people working on the film, so our end credit sequence is not particularly short. We screened it at two hours and 16 minutes, and people were saying it went by so fast, which as an editor, it’s one of the finest compliments I can have made. When people are telling you they want more, you are doing something right.”