Editing: <i>Arrival</i>
Issue: December 1, 2016

Editing: Arrival

Joe Walker has established himself as the go-to editor for directors Denis Villeneuve and Steve McQueen. His relationship with McQueen includes cutting 12 Years A Slave (2013) and his short film Ashes (2014), while Villeneuve’s films include Sicario (2015) and more recently, Arrival. He’s currently working with Villeneuve on next year’s release, Blade Runner 2049, and recently took a short break to speak with Post about his career, his work with the director and how he achieved the final cut for Arrival, which has taken in more than $80 million since it debuted in mid November.

Paramount Pictures’ Arrival stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. Adams plays a linguist who is brought on by the army to help understand communications with extraterrestrial crafts that have approached the Earth. The seven-limbed "heptapods” use a complicated written language featuring circular symbols, which Adams’ Louise Banks character works to decipher.

Here, Walker provides insight into the filmmaking process.

Between your work with director Steven McQueen and Denis Villeneuve, you don’t get much time to relax? 

“Maybe after Blade Runner we’ll get a couple of weeks off. We’ve run straight through Sicario. I think there was a short break for the Cannes Film Festival, and then we got right back with Arrival. And then after Arrival there was a week between the two. We’re going to be going until October of next year.”

You seem to have found a place as these directors’ ‘go-to’ editor?

“We look for directors like that all our lives and I’ve been at it for a long time - since the ‘80s. Denis and Steve McQueen are two directors that I think you build up the trust and to try things, and we had to try a lot of things on Arrival. That was the many freedoms that we had, particularly [because] two of the main characters were missing. During the shoot there was a puppeteer in a green latex suit holding a pole with a ball on it. It’s not a good look. We had that missing. Of course they were developed and creature designed and so on, but we had to develop a narrative and sense of the movements taking place and keeping some of the secrets behind so that you pepper each scene with another revelation and keep some things in your back pocket.

“Another freedom we had was all the TV reports that build up the picture as the world is falling into paranoia and mutual suspicion. That was all told with news items and aerial shots. And we had to build up all of those TV screens from scratch, in post of course. 

“And then there was the freedom of the footage itself. We had a lot of great footage from the lake-side house — intense mother and daughter material that really could go anywhere. I know some of it was scripted, of course, but other things, like the out of focus shot of the horse in the stable, that could go anywhere. We had tremendous freedom.”

How was Arrival shot?

“(DP) Bradford Young shoots…I think it was Alexa. It was organizing that material almost like it was b-roll or a documentary set up in post. After the first assembly, Denny said to me, ‘We have to treat it like a documentary and find the film within the material.’”

What editing system are you using?

“I came from film, then via Lightworks and then Heavyworks, and then Avid. I did a film on Lightworks in the ‘90s and I think it was lagging behind at that time, but I absolutely loved using it. It had a very intuitive way of moving. Not having to set pre-roll numerically…Avid has been my weapon of choice for the last 20 years I suppose.”

How soon after the footage is shot are you editing?

“With Arrival, I was editing during the shoot. I was in Burbank at Pivotal Post.  Denny lives in Montreal, so we hired a kit and set up in a place called Post-Moderne, which is a fantastic small facility in Montreal. That was just for the fine cut. After the shoot we assembled in Montreal. In truth, Denny was sort of split between us on Arrival and setting up Blade Runner. Sometimes it was via Skype while he was in Budapest.”

How long did you spend on the edit?

“I worked it out the other day, and it was 53 weeks from first days of assembly to last shot that I dropped in, which was a shot of Louise’s hair flowing in this sort of CGI/hair/cinemation thing. That was 53 weeks later. That was the last thing that I did. We were very heavily involved along the way. It was a long edit.”

At what point in the process are you seeing VFX?

“Denny works with a storyboard artist, Sam Hudecki, who’s worked on many of his films, and I would says they are lot more than your standard storyboards — more than just a shot list. They are a visual primer and they also nail a lot of logical problems in the storyboard. They work things out. During the shoot I would use storyboard elements and put them into the background of the screen. For example, when Louise is approaching the screen, I could feather it in in the Avid and do some crude movements, and hand them to my VFX editor, Javier (Marcheselli), who makes them look great. 

“For the first couple of weeks of fine cutting, I suggested very early that hire Dave Whitehead and Michelle Child, who are sound designers who live in New Zealand. Their specialty is alien languages and creature design. What particularly impressed me was the sound they did for the bugs for District 9. They gave us rock-solid language. The sounds are made of many different parts. We were looking at wireframe models at that stage. I’d say about five weeks into post we were starting to get more animation and an idea of the look. All of that had been worked out by the VFX supervisor during the shoot. It started trickling in about four to five weeks into post.”

How does that affect you from an editing standpoint?

“The problem that it causes is that you are turning over scenes that you have to time and make the rhythm work and the shot size, and make all those selection for something that isn’t there yet. Putting in the sound helped me be confident and stick to our guns that we’ll get a hold on the shot of the hand. I wanted to give time to things so that you were really exploring what these things look like. That’s hard to do when all you are doing is holding a blank screen with a bit of text on it that says ‘x-pod’s hand.’”

What resolution were you working at?

“From memory, I think we were using DNx185. From 12 Years a Slave we realized it was good enough to screen, even at Sherman Oaks at the ArcLight. That worked fine.”

How many VFX were you dealing with?

“There were 750 VFX shots in Arrival, [as opposed to] 200 in 12 Years a Slave. In the case of Arrival, we only stopped for three days of dubbing for the test screening, which is an unusually low amount. Some people take three weeks. I had been working with the sound all the way through and making sure everything sounded really smooth anyway. Blade Runner is a much bigger scale and double the VFX.”

Does Arrival have a scene that you’d like to call attention to?

“There are two signature scenes. There was an amazing save. There was a piece of story tubing right in the middle of film. When we saw the first assembly, it was a scene with Louise in her army barracks, and Colonel Weber, Forrest Whitaker’s character and Iain, Jeremy Renner’s character, come around and they are worried that she is starting to show signs of trauma in some way. We know she started to have flashes to this childhood material. She is stressed and there is concern that maybe she’s contaminated? It went down this rabbit hole story-wise into a puzzle section that we just felt we were going to remove, but in the process of removing it, we took out some vital information that was in that scene, and we felt we couldn’t put it anywhere else. We just had figure out a way of doing the scene without doing the ‘whole’ scene. 

“This is the thing that happens when you work with a director more than one time. You just have faith. Denny said, ‘Why don’t you just cut together the bits in the scene that we need and not the rest?’ As it turns out, that was two shots of Iain and one of Louise…We cut these three little bits. There’s a glorious jump cut between Iain and Iain. His head is in a completely different position and it’s very jarring. And the third shot is of Louise looking off screen all the time. About four weeks into fine cutting we see the first heptapods walking test and Denny says, ‘Let’s cut to a heptapod — like a nightmare.’ We put sound in [like it was] inside Louise’s head. The scene never started out like that. It was a straightforward plot-driven scene in a way.

"The other big one is toward the end of film. There is a phone call to the Chinese general. She meets him at the party and he indicates what she says to him in the phone call…They were written as one after the other. We didn’t quite know how to attack it because the audience knows what she is going to do and then she goes and does it. And for a little bit, you feel as though we’re behind the audience. And it’s always good to be in parallel or just ahead of the audience. So we ended up cross cutting. Louise goes off to do something and we have as little idea of what’s she was going to do. It’s kind of tense. As a result of this big tense build, we need some thing at the end of it as a payoff. We said, ‘Well, we never saw the spaceships arrive. Why don’t we depart?’ They was a very late [decision]. It was about 14 to 15 weeks into fine cutting. Framestore came in and gave us that wonderful concept of how the spaceships depart, and we could make an epic and rich scene. We did a lot of transformation.”

It’s interesting that there is still some flexibility in the edit, considering you are working with a script?

“My attitude is that it’s another draft of the script and you can move things around and cut and paste things. My team is built to reflect that. Javier, who was my first assistant on 12 Years, is so adept at VFX. It was obvious to promote him to VFX editor. He works almost like a petrel dish in the room next door. We’ll have an idea and say, ‘If you take this and that, and combine them,’ and he’ll go off. I will do a very crude approximation in Avid tools. I just get the timing right, and he’ll take if off to this other rooms and spend a few hours and bring it into the cut, and work like that.”

So you are already working on 2017’s Blade Runner with Denis Villeneuve?

“It’s a huge endeavor and I have been working with Denny very closely as we’ve been shooting, which is a bit unusual. Normally, I am not even on-set with Denny. He is very well prepared and we can talk on the phone. That was the case with Sicario and Arrival. I sent him QuickTimes and we’d talk about scenes. But on this one, I am on the same studio lot and am in close contact, and we developed the cut as we went along. In a way, there was no assembly. It was already a fine cut about Week 3 into the shoot. We have a huge deadline looming and VFX has to have things turned over long before you have a chance to look at the whole film. We were turning over VFX shots the first week.”

Where are you working on Blade Runner?

“We are working within the studio lot back in LA. The whole shoot was in [Origo] studios in Budapest, and they chose that because they had many big, spanning sets. It was a choice to do it in a place where you could go between any of the six or seven standing sets or water tank. I had a fantastic set of cutting rooms there.”