Editing: <I>Avengers: Infinity War</I>
Issue: April 1, 2018

Editing: Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War marks Marvel’s longest – and most successful – film to date. The feature runs nearly two-and-a-half hours, and is packed with action, helping it break box office records with a $250M+ opening weekend. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, the feature was shot for IMAX presentation using Arri 65 cameras. Editor Jeffrey Ford, who worked with the Russos on 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, as well as on 2012’s The Avengers (directed by Joss Whedon), was once again called on to help cut the film. He was joined in the editing duties by frequent collaborator, Matt Schmidt.

Here, Ford (pictured) talks exclusively to Post about his work on the blockbuster, his editing set-up and some of his favorite scenes.

Post: Was it your past work with the Russo brothers that led to this collaboration?

Jeffrey Ford: “Yes. I have edited all the films the Russo brothers have directed for Marvel. And I’ve worked on all of the Avengers movies.”

Post: The film is showing in IMAX, 3D and 2D. What format were you working in?

Ford: “The film was shot for IMAX with Arri 65 cameras and those cameras are amazing – the resolution is just stunning! We wanted to have an aspect ratio that blows you away – IMAX – and we had a version of the film that was 2.40 anamorphic widescreen format for the regular release, so we were working with two different aspect ratios and we wanted them both to be as good as possible.”

Post: What resolution were you working in?

Ford: “For the Avid, we edited in DNx115, which is a little bit higher resolution than what we normally work at, and takes a little more memory when you are editing, but it allows us to really see the detail and depth of what the Arri 65 was capturing. It was important to have high resolution during the edit process for the directors and for screenings so the audience could see all of those details, because we knew it was ultimately going to play on a really massive screen. That was something we took into consideration from early on.”

Post: What does DNx115 equate to picture wise?

Ford: “DNx115 - it’s sort of the top of the chain of the Avid compression, basically before you go to 1:1, and some people even master in that. It’s very hard to see any artifacting in it. It’s pretty stunning when you screen it. It’s like screening an uncompressed HD master of your movie. We can project it very big and it holds up. And for looking at it in the edit room on a big monitor, it’s a stunning image. The most important part of it is that you can see the details that you otherwise might lose if you compressed it.”

Post: Were you editing on-set or in studio space?

Ford: “We were all over the place all the time on this edit, because what we were doing was shooting two movies at once. We shot 'Avengers 3' and '4' together, so we had two production schedules laid back to back, and they weren’t linear. 

“One week we might shoot something from movie 3 and the next week we might shoot something from movie 4 and then back to 3 and then to 4. We were editing two films at once, and trying to stay as close to camera as we could. Matt Schmidt — my co editor — we were really inundated with footage. I think there was something like 890 hours of footage captured for both movies. 

“We started shooting in January 2017 and finished in January 2018, and it was a massive undertaking. We were on-set, we were on the mocap stage, we were editing in Atlanta, we were editing in LA. Sometimes Matt would be Atlanta and I’d be in LA. Or he’d be in LA and I’d be in Atlanta. The directors would join by Polycom, and we’d cut out of Disney in Burbank and they would be in LA. Sometimes (producer) Kevin Feige and (executive producer) Louis D'Esposito and (executive producer) Victoria Alonso would join by video conference. We were in Edinburgh for a month shooting the sequence that takes place in Scotland, so we were really global and mobile for the whole thing. It was a pretty amazing feat of coordination to keep everybody talking. We wanted everybody weighing in at all times because we all needed to talk to each other to keep the team on track.”

Post: Is Avid your NLE of choice?

Ford: “I’ve been editing on Avids since 1994, so for me it’s not only the system of choice, it’s the nonlinear system that I have been using for pretty much my entire career. I started in film editing, cutting celluloid back in the day, so I transitioned from film editing and was a film editing assistant back when you had to roll up the trims and have trim bins hanging with film, and sync up with mag. I transitioned into the Avid world and haven’t really gone back since. I have worked on other nonlinear editing systems, but by far and away, I prefer the Avid interface to all of them. I think, for me, the quality of the compression is stunning. And I use the soundtrack tools. The ability to create a nearly-finished soundtrack as you’re editing is one of the bonuses of the Avid system.”

Post: Watching the film, there doesn’t seem to be a single shot without some sort of visual effect? 

Ford: “I think there are four (laughs) that are original, untouched. Remember, a visual effect these days can also mean removing a piece of grip equipment that was way in the distance, or maybe we added a window in the background to add some compositional features, so we do a lot of that — sort of grooming of the photography. Things we couldn’t do in production because we were rushing or didn’t have the location available to us. We sometime augment locations and augment lighting. Even shots that are original capture — as you might call it — that don’t have a visual effect designation or number to them — they still are affected in the digital intermediate stage with tracking, and they will grab certain color tones. Pretty much every shot in the movie has some degree of digital manipulation — whether it’s a visual effect or it’s been color graded with intense technical processes.”

Post: With so many visual effect vendors making contributions, can you explain how a scene evolves?

Ford: “The key to making this movie in particular — and I can’t speak to other studios or process — but what we did on this movie was, we had an open and constant conversation between all of the key players that were creating the shots and sequences for the film. I’ll give you an example: The end of the movie, there is an exciting sequence on Titan, where the Avengers — Tony Stark, Star Lord, Doctor Strange, Spiderman and Mantis — attack Thanos and attack him in his sweet spot, and try to get the gauntlet off. That sequence, we began working on the previsualization version of it in November of 2016. I began editing it then. Some of the shots that were in that sequence are in the final version of the movie. I worked with Gerardo Ramirez, who is the lead at The Third Floor. They are our previsualization company. He and I…and the director try to do a mind meld all the time and have a constant conversation where we are all pitching ideas to each other. And then I am bringing them together in the edit and showing them to the brothers. And then I show them to Gerardo as well, and then we all refine and talk together. We get in a room together and we look at the work. Sometimes material will come in from storyboard artists and those will end up being previsualized by Gerardo. Everybody is working on designing the shot up until we begin shooting, and even during shooting we are still previsualizing shots as we have ideas and are adding postvis to shots that have already been captured.

“In the sake of Titan, as one of the units was shooting the photography that was going to end up servicing the live action elements in those visual effects shots, we would take those live-action elements and integrate them into a piece of previs so that we had a really clear map for the vendors, and they knew exactly what they need to do compositionally and with rudimentary lighting. It gave us a shot to work with in the edit, and those kept getting refined right up to the very end. We were refining those constantly. It’s almost the same as re-editing a scene, you are also changing some of the internal details of the shots as you go to make the storytelling clearer.”

Post: Do you recall the last scene you worked on?

Ford: “Yes, I do. In fact, it’s also in that same sequence, but there’s a scene where Doctor Strange and Thanos have a conversation and Thanos reveals what Titan used to look like in the past. That scene – the moment where Doctor Strange sees Thanos use the Reality Stone to demonstrate what Titan was once like before it descended into a post apocalyptic dust bowl – that was the last thing we finished. We adjusted some cuts as the pattern was wiping along. We changed some of the edits there with Doctor Strange, and had to work on the backgrounds with him. So that was the last picture change of the movie and we had to do a little previs and postvis to make the picture change work. We were still working on it — that was happening in late March — right up to when we had to deliver.”

Post: The film runs two-and-a-half hours. Was it tough getting so much story and action into the final edit? And, is there a longer directors’ cut?

Ford: “This movie is two hours and 29 minutes. It’s only about three or four minutes longer than Civil War. It is the longest Marvel movie, but by Russo standards – they pack so much into these films in terms of character nuance that we never really think about running time other than how it feels when we play it.

“This movie, even in shorter versions, when we would screen it, it would feel long, and we would say, ‘There’s something not working in the structure of this movie. It’s not playing as fast as it should. It’s shorter than the last version that we watched, but it somehow feels longer?’

“In the last few months, I think most of our time went to working on new structural ideas for the middle of the movie that created a feeling of really moving from one character to the next based on a character transition. I think once we solved some of those transitions and re-ordered some scenes, that unlocked a whole new pace to the movie.

“Now, even though it’s two-and-a-half hours, I am pretty happy with how it is playing, pace wise. It’s actually a little bit longer than some versions of the movie that we had tested, but it plays better.  It’s always the best version of the movie that we go for.

“To answer your other question: There absolutely is no directors’ cut! This is it. There were some deleted scenes that were taken out, but we took them out — not because they were bad scenes — but because structurally the movie didn’t need them.”

Post: Many of the action scenes have extremely fast cutting. The fight in Wakanda for example.
Ford: “That sequence, and some of the fighting on Titan. We are working with the style the Russos have developed on Winter Soldier and Civil War. Their style of shooting fights is a pretty specific style and they like aggressive, fast cutting at times, and I like it too. I think it can be cool. One of the things we did on this film is, there are also some moments that stretch that we consciously put in the film. There are a few shots that are intentionally playing without edits. 

“I don’t want to give anything away but there is a post credits sequence that, if you watch it, if you didn’t think about it, you might this it had been cut together. In fact, it’s actually one shot. We tried to undercut that style in a couple of spots, but yes, as far as the action goes, it’s really about making it as character driven as possible. 

“The fast cutting is really in some cases what creates the momentum and drive that you need. Plus, it’s a lot of parallel action in this movie. There is no way around it. I’ve got to keep a lot of plates spinning. The Avengers are fighting on Wakanda. There’s Thor trying to get Stormbreaker. There’s are all of these things going on at once and that also dictates keeping up the energy and the parallel editing and the parallel action — like when Thor arrives in Wakanda. Those things have to sync up at that moment so you get the rush of the Avengers being reunited.”

Post: As an editor, is there room for creativity in a film like this, or is it more about managing a massive project?

Ford: “My job is to get the directors’ vision on the screen. That’s my job. Creativity is a huge part of it. I can go into all of the things that I contributed to the movie, but at the end of the day, I’m not really contributing to the movie. I am contributing to the directors who are making the movie. In other words, I always liken myself to Robert Duvall in The Godfather. I come in and advise. I try to help them get what they want. And I think it’s important as an editor. I like working that way. I feel like I’m someone who supports a creative endeavor and I add my own creativity to it for sure. I contribute ideas. 

“Matt Schmidt, my co editor, is brilliant, and we could not have done the movie without him. He works the same way that I do. We are a team. We contribute tons of ideas — whether it’s a line of dialogue or an idea for a sequence or shot — those conversations are going constantly. As does the production design contributes to things. 

“The Russos have this really open team, where we can all pitch, and the best idea wins. Joe and Anthony decide which way they want to go and we get behind them and support it. It’s really fun! It’s a team of people who are obsessively pitching their favorite superhero ideas all day long and trying to execute. That goes for narrative ideas as well as action.”

Post: Do you have a favorite scene, from an editing standpoint?

Ford: “I don’t want to spoil it for anybody, but there is a sequence in the latter part of the second act, where Thanos has to make a pretty big decision in order to get the Soul Stone, and I will leave it at that in terms of summarizing the scene. I am very proud of that scene. I think that’s a scene where we are maintaining the point of view of two characters at the same time, and what’s going on is not the dialogue — it’s what’s going on in the subtext.

“Visual effects is working at the top of [their] game in that scene in terms of creating a photoreal Thanos. (Josh) Brolin is incredible – and Zoe (Saldana) is incredible. That scene has so much going on in the subtext, and I think that we really delivered a performance that’s all visual and really nuanced. It all came together in a way that I never expected to be so powerful.”

Post: What’s do you have lined up next?

Ford: “I am actually on my way to work to work on 'Avengers 4.' We are going to show the directors our editors’ assembly on Monday. It comes out a year from now.”