Coen Brothers Cut True Grit on FCP

So I totally stole this from the Apple website but I found it very interesting. This is probably one just for the editors out there.

Straightforward storytelling is the last thing anyone expected from the Coen brothers, more famous for tight filmic twists and dark comic turns. But in their new feature film, True Grit, based on the classic novel of the same name by Charles Portis, the Coens deliver precisely that. The movie’s narrative line is as unwavering as its precocious hero, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), whose determined pursuit of her father’s killer in the post-Civil War Indian territories drives and directs the plot.

Making the film was anything but straightforward. The Coens, in their fashion, co-produced, co-wrote, and co-directed True Grit. They also co-edited the picture in Final Cut Pro, which ultimately gave them frame-by-frame control of its pace and direction. But before they got to the cutting room, the brothers chased the project far and wide with a trusted posse of veteran production talent.

Talk This Way
In writing the script, the Coens stayed very close to the novel. “It’s such a good story, a very simple and compelling story, about a young girl going off into a wild and dangerous place to avenge the death of her father,” says Joel Coen. “It’s also a very funny book, and it felt like it would make a good movie. There’s no adaptation of a novel to a film that doesn’t change things in small ways at least, but I would say it’s pretty much the book.”

Adapting the novel involved lifting not only the plot — adjusted as necessary to make it more cinematic — but also much of the re-created 19th-century vernacular that Portis channels through his characters. “The language in the book is very specific and part of what makes it so interesting,” says Ethan Coen. “Some of that’s not translatable into a film because it’s told in first-person narrative, but a lot of it is in spoken exchanges that are also very specific. So we tried to carry that over into the movie.”

Key to bringing Mattie’s voice to the screen was finding an actress who could manage her rapid-fire period dialogue. After holding open casting calls across the country and looking at thousands of actresses, the casting directors finally turned up 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld in Los Angeles. “We cast Hailee pretty much just before we started shooting, and we were very lucky to find her,” says Joel.

Kids, Horses, Weather
Resourceful adjustments continued on location in New Mexico and West Texas as the Coens worked around Steinfeld’s union-restricted shooting schedule (no night shoots for minors), fickle weather (snow, then mud), tricky lighting setups, and the careful wrangling of horses and actors during difficult, dangerous stunts.

“We had bad weather, and it’s a largely exterior movie, so there wasn’t a lot of interior coverage to go to,” says Ethan. “Shoveling around our weather problems was the main production problem.”

“It’s a Western,” adds Joel, who, along with Ethan, reportedly wore a cowboy hat on the set. “You’re in distant locations far from a lot of the infrastructure that you need to make a film. You’re dealing with horses. And your principal character is being played by a 13-year-old actor. Children and animals are generally the things you’re told to stay away from in the movies, but we had both.”

All Assembled
When shooting wrapped, the Coens hung up their hats and returned to New York to face a dauntingly short post-production schedule that would get the film the Christmas 2010 release requested by the studio.

The close collaboration that marked pre-production and location shooting extended into post. Associate editor Katie McQuerrey worked with the Coens in their primary cutting room while two assistant editors, Gershon Hinkson and David O. Rogers, manned a satellite editing room at the Post Factory in Manhattan. Post supervisor Catherine Farrell moved between both locations. Each editing room was equipped with two Mac Pro editing stations with Final Cut Pro, as well as a dedicated MacBook Pro for secure file exchanges. All systems were connected to an Apple Xsan shared storage network, which allowed the editors to easily swap projects.

To meet their 24-week post schedule — “much tighter than normal,” says McQuerrey — the editors immediately began assembling dailies that had been scanned by EFILM at 2K and converted to ProRes 422 (HQ) files for editing. They imported the ProRes files with one track of mixed audio into Final Cut, created a master Cinema Tools database (“essential for a film-based project,” she says), and organized the footage into separate project bins for dailies, screenings, individual reels, sound, and visual effects. Because the editors frequently had many projects open at a time, the Final Cut Pro multiple-tab display in the Browser window became a critical tool for accessing and organizing their work.

Custom Cut
The Coens, who co-edit all their films under the credited pseudonym Roderick Jaynes, helped themselves significantly in post by directing a typically disciplined shoot that generated only 270,000 feet of film (“between half and one-quarter of the usual amount of footage shot on a movie,” says Joel).

But they found their primary leverage in an efficient Final Cut Pro workflow honed over the course of their last five feature films. “Because Final Cut gives editors tremendous flexibility in how they use the application, the Coens have customized it to fit their specific needs, and it’s now essential to their cutting process,” McQuerrey says. That tandem workflow mirrors the process they’d developed editing on film, when Ethan marked sequences on an upright Moviola and Joel cut them on a flatbed. Says Ethan: “Now I look at footage in Final Cut Pro, mark ins and outs of various takes, and send them over to Joel, who assembles them in a Final Cut timeline.”

Adds Joel: “We’ve always co-edited, and that’s actually the main reason we use Final Cut Pro. The application managed to match the way we were used to cutting together on film, so the transition was almost invisible to us. And Final Cut continues to reveal itself as being a very efficient, flexible way of editing.”

Transfer Effects
Besides streamlining the edit, Final Cut made it easy to generate and exchange effects files. “The movie had a tremendous number of visual effects, many more than are obvious,” says McQuerrey. “We used matte paintings to extend the Texas town we filmed on location. And we did wire and track removal, as well as dust, squib, blood, muzzle, and weather enhancements. The ease with which we can create and manipulate high-quality temp effects in our Final Cut timelines was a great advantage.” The enhanced markers in Final Cut became an essential tool for tracking effects, including numerous shots of digitally created rattlesnakes in a key sequence.

Final Cut also expedited the transfer of sound and music files. “Because the sound department was using Pro Tools, we used Automatic Duck to import and export the OMF files they gave us,” she says. “We’d cut the music in as it was being written and see it against a Final Cut Pro picture.”

To speed up these turnovers, the assistant editors created templates so the editors could simply drag the various file types required by different departments into Compressor while continuing to work in Final Cut Pro. This allowed the sound and music departments to keep up with the Coens’ edits.

With these workflow enhancements, the team was able to create a first temp mix that incorporated sound, music, and visual effects 16 weeks into post; another with final scoring 19 weeks in; and a final mix at 21 weeks. Screenings of the mixes were as compelling as they were timely. “We were very happy with the quality of the ProRes 422 (HQ) image, which meant we only had to output our ProRes QuickTime files straight from Final Cut to HDSR or D5 tapes to be able to screen them, and they looked beautiful,” says McQuerrey. “That was a huge bonus for us.”

Closing Credit
On one of their tightest post-production schedules, for a film unusually heavy with visual effects, the Coens were able to deliver True Grit on time and without compromise. Joel Coen credits Final Cut Pro for significant help in getting them there: “We had to get the movie done in a very short period of time. Final Cut Pro, because of its efficiencies and speed, enabled us to meet that deadline.”

3 thoughts on “Coen Brothers Cut True Grit on FCP

  1. ‘this is probably one just for the editors out there?’ – way to know your audience there douchebag. I’m about to plug this on the show and this is what your legions of new readers will see?

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