Issue: June 1, 2010


LOS ANGELES — Sharlto Copely, the South African actor best known for his starring role (his first) in last year’s District 9, has spent most of his adult life behind the scenes as a writer, director, producer, editor and VFX supervisor.

His post production career unofficially began when he was 12 years old, creating VHS-to-VHS recordings. When Copely finished school, his editing tool of choice was Adobe’s Premiere, which has gotten quite a facelift recently thanks to the 64-bit Premiere Pro and its Mercury Playback Engine. I guess you can say that both Sharlto Copely and Premiere Pro have gotten a fresh start recently.

Just before his next film was to release — he is Mad Dog Murdock in the feature version of The A-Team — Copely, who used to own a post company in South Africa and who still has a production company back home, along a with newly-opened one in Los Angeles, took time out to chat with us about his post production past and present. This includes a recent video for the South African Music Awards, where he is in character as Wikus Van De Merwe from District 9, and is on a quest to get fellow countryman Charlize Theron to present an award with him. You can find it on He also uses his production and post skills to help him win roles. More on that later.

POST: Does your production and post background help you with acting?
COPELY: “I was very much a filmmaker. I was obsessed with making films and I briefly considered acting when I was in high school, but decided I really wanted control of what I was doing. I wanted to be more of a producer, writer, director. I ended up getting very involved in the business side of things by starting a TV channel in South Africa (Channel 69 Studios). In the visual effects [part of] the company, my primary function was always creative director, and for some of the high-end projects I would edit them myself.
“I knew a lot about the business, but growing up in South Africa and growing up in a business that was still very much in its infancy in some ways, you did everything. And the technology allows that more these days. When we first set up the television station, we set up low-cost digital cameras and shot on DV and things like that; we wanted to broadcast 16x9 images with bars or play  the signal off a PC. We were always on the edge of low-cost production and post production stuff.”

POST: You have worked on different versions of Premiere throughout?
COPLEY: “Yes, pretty much. The only other thing I ever used during the TV station days was Speed Razor software. We used that and Premiere. One of my business partners and myself at the time had one of the first PC-based machines in South Africa that was running Premiere on it. I think it was Premiere 3.”

POST: What attracted you to Premiere over the other editing options?
COPELY: “In the early days, Premiere, was, in my view, the leader in timeline-based nonlinear editing — the main competition was the totally professional Avid system. But the interface was designed for A-B-roll editors, especially in the early days. The later versions of Avid looked more like, in my view, what Premiere had right in the beginning. You felt like the Premiere guys really got where the computerized, digital world was going. It could take in more types of media that Avid couldn’t do; you could export different formats. It was just more friendly for computer people. It was timeline based and you could do more stuff in timeline faster and easier. It was a different way of thinking about editing — A-B roll versus timeline.”

POST: You have already worked with CS5. What do you think of the new version of Premiere Pro with the Mercury engine?
COPLEY: “It really embraced me. A while ago, I was doing a project on CS3 and it was not really delivering the way I wanted, and I was really losing faith in Premiere, to be honest. But this system with 5 on it is pretty impressive. The most noticeable thing was it was so much faster and stable. I haven’t been able to crash it. Although I haven’t really pushed the system as much on bigger projects where you have filters going and text, things that used to give Premiere problems.
“I edited a short piece on it so far and I pulled my 25-minute short into it too, and it’s handling amazingly well. I heard that they had actually re-written it, which makes sense because just moving around on it or opening a project, you see a big difference. The time it takes to open a big project took so much longer. They did do a big jump with this version.”

POST: The short you mentioned was for the South African Music Awards, What is the 25-minute project?
COPLEY: “I can’t really tell you much about it other than it’s a satirical comedy about crime in South Africa. We are going to release that soon — in the next two to three months, max.”

POST: What kind of cameras did you use on the two projects?
COPLEY: “For the crime one we used a Sony and for the Music Awards with Charlize we shot on a Panasonic P2 camera. I ended up having two on the production. I had to put a production company together quickly and one of the guys took some of the P2 files and converted them in ProRes on his Final Cut system. So I had these QuickTime MOV files in the project and the P2 files coming in from extra stuff that I had shot. Premiere Pro was able to handle those two formats, which was really impressive.”

POST: Are you using other aspects to the suite as well?
COPLEY: “The piece I edited was pretty basic. I mixed the sound in it. I was very curious about OMF functionality because that was always something I hoped Premiere would do, but I haven’t really been able to test that. I like to be able to mix sound properly in the same platform, if possible.”

POST: These days, is most of your time spent acting?
COPLEY: “That is sort of my primary job now, along with development and editing and shooting. I even use my post and production skills toward that job.”

POST: Can you explain?
COPLEY: “I am playing Murdoch in The A-Team film, and I got that part by shooting some stuff in my hotel room and editing together a series of scenes that I called, ‘Things that Could Happen to Murdoch in His Hotel Room.’ I edited it on a plane with an old version of CS3 that I had. I sent it to the director [Joe Carnahan], and I got the role.”

POST: And now you have Creative Suite 5 at your disposal?
COPLEY: “Yes. Because I come from a filmmaker background, I am always doing things like that. One of the cool things about CS5 is that it’s fast. It’s a lot of work to make a pitch for a role and to do a whole edit, but I’ll shoot an hour of improv footage and edit it down to five minutes, and now I am able to do that really fast.”

POST: Do you think you will always have a hand in post?
COPLEY: “Oh, yeah. It’s too much in me. I love editing. I love the process, as painful as it could be. It’s such a useful tool to have, even as an actor.”

POST: Is there anything out there in post that interests you at the moment?
COPLEY: “I don’t keep up with the trends in the same way that I used to when I had a post company. What is interesting to me now is to see what is going to happen with the integration [of tools].”

POST: What do you think about 3D stereo films?
COPLEY: “I am so glad that 3D is happening, and I am so glad that James Cameron has kind of forced it to happen with Avatar, just visually. I am always for pushing the boundary sound wise and visually. To try to do something that takes the whole medium forward.”

POST: For your own recent projects you have chosen datacentric workflows. Does that mean you will continue to shoot digitally instead of on film?
COPELY: “Absolutely. For years, formats have been irrelevant in my world. The only relevance was having access to film lasers. I like the centralized digital thing, workflow wise. When you are working with very few people you want it centralized to a timeline because everything is coming from there. Your visual effects shots, 3D animation, comping, it all has to come back into the edit. That is the workflow I was always interested in and trying to make [it] happen with as few different tools as possible.”