Editing: <I>Star Wars: The Last Jedi</I>
Issue: December 1, 2017

Editing: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi was written and directed by Rian Johnson, and hit theaters with much anticipation on December 15th. The Lucasfilm saga features many of the franchise’s familiar talent, including Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley and Andy Serkis, as well as visual effects — some 2,000 — by Industrial Light & Magic.

The film was shot by cinematographer Steve Yedlin and edited by Bob Ducsay (pictured), whose career spans 30 years, with many credits coming from visual effects-heavy films. Ducsay says his work on San Andreas, Godzilla and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, among others, has well prepared him for the challenges of a Star Wars film, which spent nearly two years undergoing post production. He regularly is required to begin putting scenes together long before their visual effects have been completed, and has developed a vision and understanding for how features evolve in post.

Having recently completed work on The Last Jedi, Ducsay took some time to speak with Post about his work as an editor on what is surely to be 2017’s biggest blockbuster.

Bob, you’ve built quite a career as an editor on VFX-filled films. I’d imagine you would have to have that type of background to take on something this enormous?

“It’s a very interesting aspect of my job. I’ve done a lot of these complicated visual effects movies and there is a great advantage. Star Wars has a massive number of visual effects in it and is a very, very complicated film. Having experience in these things and knowing the sort of things that you can do is always very, very helpful. It’s like any profession. Anytime you’ve got knowledge of something that you need to apply, it’s to your advantage.

“The funny thing is, in the end, like editing any movie or being a filmmaker on any sort of film, it really, at least in my opinion, comes down to story and character. The same thing is true with visual effects. Even though I have a lot of technical knowledge and I have a lot of experience dealing with the visual effects, one of the things that I am always looking toward is also the same thing that Rian was also looking for in the movie in dealing with the visual effects: How does this shot move the story forward? And, how is character involved in this shot?

“We talk about this all the time. This is a short-hand that I would use with the visual effects supervisor and the visual effects team. The notion of what is the story of the shot?

“As complex and technical, as well as artful as visual effects are, the reality of it is that they are truly there — especially in The Last Jedi — they are there at the service of character and story. And when you have a chance to see the film, I think you will see what I mean by that. So I guess it’s really helpful and great to be able to come armed with the knowledge and experience that I do have with visual effects, but really, in the end, the most important thing that I’m always trying to apply is: What does it have to do with character and story?"

Did you consciously guide your career to one working on effects-heavy films?

“In many ways it’s the way it worked out, but there is a little bit of planning and a little bit of aspiration. I love populous movies. And what really got me into the movie business was that. I love great stories told on a big canvas. This can go way back before visual effects were a part of it. The movies of David Lean, and getting more modern with Raiders or Episode 4 — these are movies that meant a lot to me and influenced my involvement in the movie business, and in particular, becoming an editor. 

“I didn’t specifically set out to get involved in movies that really involved a lot of visual effects, but the scope of adventure movies — which are my favorite films — like Lawrence of Arabia, which has no visual effects in it, but it’s a great, sweeping adventure — if you were to make Lawrence of Arabia now, you would have 1,000 visual effects in it. I kind of fell into it, but the way I got there was because they were the sorts of movies that I always enjoyed. 

“I like being transported somewhere else and I love the escapism of the sort of movies that I work on. Because of that, I now work on movies that have 1,000 visual effects in them. And it’s a highly-complex job that requires a lot of knowledge. The reality of it is that these movies are just like a small drama in that, in the end, you are trying to tell a good story with great characters, and the visual effects are just a complication of those things.”

These films can be massive in terms of production and footage. How far back did you get involved?

“We started shooting two years ago this coming February, so just under two years ago, and we finished up around a month ago. The actual photography and post production on the movie was somewhere around a year-and-a-half. It’s a long process. I guess, probably about 19 months to be accurate about it.”

What was it like cutting together scenes where you know, ultimately, there will be visual effects?

“Often, you don’t really have the material that you are ultimately going to have when the movie is finished. The Last Jedi is a little bit different in that it is the best hybrid of making these sorts of films. It actually has large sets, and there is actually a lot there as the movie is being photographed. 

“Obviously, some of the stuff that takes place in space, all that you have are actors on motion rigs to [look like they’re] in the cockpit of an X-Wing or TIE Fighter, or whatever it might be. You only have that material that is live action. But honestly, there are large sets and even though there are going to be a lot of visual effects involved in a sequence — a light saber battle or something — you have the actors doing their thing and you are just missing some of the visual effects. So honestly, you’re really able to conceive a lot of it and understand a lot of how it’s going to work.

“But, it does require an enormous imagination and a lot of faith. And it goes back to the experience we were talking about earlier, that when the visual effects are applied to these things, this moment is going to not only make sense, but also resonate emotionally. And sometimes when you watch early cuts of these sorts of films, it’s unimaginable it will ever be a movie. There is so much that is left to the imagination. It is sometimes very complex, especially when you have digital creatures, where the creature is not really there. Actors are reacting to nothing and you really don’t have anything to base it on but some dialogue or sound effects.”

What was the visual effects shot count for The Last Jedi?

“It has over 2,000 visual effects. It’s a very large number, but not surprising for a movie of this sort.”

There must be a ton of previs being done to give everyone an idea of what is taking place in a scene?

“In complicated sequences, you will have low-resolution cartoon versions of what the action is supposed to be. And those assets are often used while they are shooting the live action elements to show an X-Wing going from here or there, or whatever are the specifics of the battle. A lot of those things are worked out prior to photography and prior to editing, but there is an enormous amount of stuff that is figured out in post production. It is a complicated process that really requires a sort of discipline and a big imagination.”

Are you using the previs imagery as a placeholder for pending VFX shots?

“Absolutely! And to take The Last Jedi, which is a large movie of course, all big movies kind of work in this way. There is an in-house team of a few artists that were there to provide post. And what that would mean is, for example, if there’s a creature of some sort who is not actually in the scene, we would cut the scene, make our best guess, because we know [what] the rough action of the character is going to be, and then the postvis team will generate crude animation that will go into the plate. And we interact with that and say, ‘Oh, I see we need another 10 frames for this to happen from here to here.’ It’s an iterative and interactive process.

“Then, once that postvis is done in some rough form, the material will get turned over to the visual effects company — in this case Industrial Light & Magic — and they’ll use that as a template to understand what it was we were thinking when we put that scene together. Then, that too becomes a highly-iterative process. Our visual effects supervisor, Ben Morris, and all the other great artists at ILM, they contribute in a way that allows new ideas to be interjected into a scene. We work back and forth with them and slowly but surely, these very complicated sequences — through iteration — both the visual effects and the edit become what they are in the final movie.”

So the previs placeholders can actually influence the visual effects?

“Absolutely, and it’s quite extraordinary. And it’s a very important tool. One of the things that having an in-house group is we can interact with them by just walking up to a workstation or talking to the artist. So we are able to move through these ideas rather quickly and in a way that is very accessible to us, versus dealing with a vendor that’s a long way away — or even in town frankly — just having them in the same room.”

Talk about your set up?

“We had a reasonably-large staff and a bunch of Avids, and a lot of storage. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of film on the movie and there are an enormous number of dailies, so all of that stuff is all on a network. I think we probably had nine or 10 Avid systems to put the movie together.”

How did visual effects editor Adam Avery contribute?

“If you were to ask somebody: ‘What does a visual effects editor do?’ Their main job is really to interact with the visual effects company to translate what it is in terms of what the visual effects company can use. Adam is a great filmmaker himself and makes tremendous contributions to the visual effects workflow from an artistic and technical standpoint. He’s another asset that we had on The Last Jedi, where you can walk in and say, 
‘This is what I am thinking. I really need this section to go faster.’ Or, ‘What if we took this performance from this actor and we took this other take from this actor? Can we combine them? Can you find a way to put these things together?’ His skill as a compositor and filmmaker served us well.

“The number of resources that we have in figuring things out that are hard to figure out is actually significant, and you have a lot of people to help you right in the facility. 

“And then the visual effects company reacts to those things, but they don’t just slavishly follow them. They come back with their own ideas and always make everything that we are doing much, much better. I’m not even talking about the technical quality — I mean from an ideas standpoint.”

Where were you working on this project?

“What we did on The Last Jedi was, we were on the Disney lot. And as you can imagine with these movies, security is extremely high. We were in a suite where everyone is together. All doors are card keyed and it was a very lovely place to work. But security was very high and it was one of the reasons it was really valuable to be on the Disney lot. We have our own small theater where we would do visual effects reviews. We were connected to ILM and Lucasfilm. We could screen things in our screening room and interact with the visual effects company, do things on our Wacom tablet with Rian and such. It’s a very, very nice and excellent facility where everyone is in one place, which is not always the case.”