ART OF THE CUT with editor Chris Lebenzon, ACE on ?umbo

Chris Lebenzon, ACE has been widely recognized by his peers with numerous ACE Eddie nominations and wins, including for The Secret Life of Plants (1978), Crimson Tide (1995), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Sweeney Todd (2007), Alice in Wonderland (2010), and Frankenweenie (2012). He also received Oscar nominations for editing Crimson Tide and Top Gun.

Other notable work includes Days of Thunder, Batman Returns, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and Planet of the Apes. 

I spoke to him several weeks ago as he wrapped up work on his latest collaboration with Tim Burton, Disney’s live-action version of Dumbo. Lebenzon has edited nearly all of Burton’s movies and often alternated between working with Burton and director Tony Scott.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

HULLFISH: Kiddingly – as I read through your filmography – did Tony Scott and Tim Burton have a special deal that they would only direct movies every other year just so they could both always edit with you?

LEBENZON: No. Not at all. It worked out for me in many ways because some projects were canceled for each one of them and coincidentally and it made me available for both directors for nearly every movie they did.

HULLFISH: You’ve edited for both of those guys a lot. Do you think there’s anything similar between the two of them? Or is it just they both discovered you and loved you and just want to keep working with you?

LEBENZON: They’re completely different in their approach to film and in their style of shooting and in the kind of movies they make — which is pretty obvious. That made me attractive to both of them because I could bounce from one to the other and have a totally different experience — both personally and in terms of the style of editing.

HULLFISH: You worked with them both so many times. How different were their collaboration styles and the way in which you interacted?

Chris Lebenzon, Editor on Dumbo.    photo credit: Derek Frey

LEBENZON: Very different actually. Tony was a commercial director and I go back to Top Gun with him and he would shoot enormous amounts of film with many cameras and developed into an action genre director. He got called for a lot of action movies and he always wanted to ramp up the pace and keep it very exciting. In terms of working style, he’d leave me alone during shooting because he was busy on the set. He never came to the cutting room, so I didn’t always have to even go on location. And then, in post-production, he was involved an enormous amount. We’d make select rolls together and work through the material and he loved to be a part of the whole process.

Tim is quite the opposite. During shooting, I was always with him. He makes predominately set movies, so I could be right off the set in the cutting room and he would come in every couple hours — between shots — and monitor the cut. And then in post-production, he would leave me alone a great deal. He’d come in, take a look, we’d talk about what we should do and then I’d go for it.

HULLFISH: Must have been refreshing to switch between those styles.

LEBENZON: It was great for me. It kept me in both worlds: stylistically and emotionally. Coming from different backgrounds they were very different personalities.

HULLFISH: What was the principal photography schedule and editorial schedule on Dumbo?

LEBENZON: We started in June of 2017 for 20 weeks of shooting. They would have liked the movie to be finished by November of 2018. But our release date wasn’t until the end of March. So as almost always happens, we worked right up until the end.

As an aside, the more we saw of Dumbo in the movie — as he got more developed and final shots were coming in — the more informed we were of his character, which in turn created additional shots. So it put a lot of pressure on the visual effects department who rose to the occasion and did a stellar job of giving us what we needed.

HULLFISH: That’s really an interesting thought — especially with animation and the difficulties of that — because I’ve been on movies where a certain actor is given a bigger or smaller role in post when you realize how great they are so you want to add more of them, or how weak they are and you want to have less.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you are saying that you and Tim and maybe the studio were seeing how great the character of Dumbo turned out in the animation and so you wanted more of it in the movie?

LEBENZON: Yes. We added shots to improve the story and emotional resonance. With the actors, there was coverage but Dumbo was signified by a man in a green suit in the master shots. And plates were shot for his close-ups as needed. If there wasn’t a plate, I could cut in a banner, a drawing, or a still frame.

HULLFISH: I’m assuming you chose those places where you wanted to add some extra Dumbo by feel. Or did you color code his appearances in the timeline so you could see big gaps where Dumbo wasn’t?

LEBENZON: No. That’s funny. We didn’t do that kind of analysis. It was more of a subjective feel when looking at the movie. The studio, to their credit, rose to the occasion as well. They felt — after early cuts — that we needed more emotional moments between Dumbo and his mother alone. so we inserted a scene that wasn’t scripted. We used parts of backgrounds as plates. It helped to bond their relationship and strengthen the emotion between them.

HULLFISH: What was the workflow like for that? Animation is a very different kind of editing than live action. How did you integrate the two?

LEBENZON: We had some pre-visualization, but it was only a guide for Tim. The visual effects department would give me post-visualization when I needed it. The cut would be developing during the entire process but shots would get turned over early and we’d start to see iterations of them and as we got further and further along in post-production — they’d send us shots and the VFX editor would cut them in and Tim and I would go through and talk about them and then meet with the VFX team and talk more about them: give them notes and get their feedback and there would be final reviews at some point where we would go to the big screen and look at the final shots – often times accepting the finals and in rare instances kick them back for other changes.

HULLFISH: I’m assuming — because there is so much animation in this movie — that the first assembly was relatively close to your final running time.

LEBENZON: It was, but not because of animation. The script was long and several scenes came out and almost every scene was shortened but that didn’t have much to do with the animation. It really had to do with clarifying the storyline.

Animated movies tend to stay close to the length of the first cut because animated shots take so long to plan and execute. But in this case, it was a live action movie in production and it became an animated movie in post-production.

HULLFISH: The cost of deleting a scene that has a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of animation is probably some bean-counter’s nightmare.

LEBENZON: I know. Luckily, I did it early enough. And for the most part, those scenes didn’t have too much animation in them. They were generally scenes with our live action characters and very little of Dumbo.

In fact, one of the challenges was to get to Dumbo earlier. As you know, act one in first cuts are generally too long. In our case, it took too long for us to meet Dumbo. So two scenes were cut out — neither of which involved him.

HULLFISH: Do you remember the assembly length?

LEBENZON: I think the final running time without end credits was 1 hour 44 minutes. I want to say the first cut was 15 minutes longer. We nipped away at every scene.

HULLFISH: I just talked to somebody who said, “Doesn’t every editor tell you that the first cut is 35 minutes longer than the final?” So 15 is pretty good.

LEBENZON: I think the first cut on Pearl Harbor was four hours and something. I felt we had to show Michael Bay everything he shot before cutting it down.

But Tim is in the cutting room all the time, so we’re monitoring the length and he’s always asking the question: “How long are we?”

HULLFISH: The last time I Interviewed you about a Tim Burton film, you talked about how you’re almost editing on set — near set. On that film, Miss Peregrine’s School, you said that you were getting every single shot off of a videotap as they shot and then your assistants would eye-match the actual dailies to your cut of those “instant dailies.” Please tell me that you have a better workflow on this film! ?

LEBENZON: Yes, there’s a better solution now. I’m not on set, but I’m not far. Tim drives a golf cart over from the set. We get the videotap from our playback man on the set and he actually has numbers this time which match the numbers on the film. So it’s not an eye match situation anymore.

HULLFISH: But you are cutting from the videotap continuously?

LEBENZON: Yes. Every shot comes in and — you can imagine that I don’t know what the next shot is but I’m guessing.

I start cutting, but it only really comes together when I get the last shot. It’s a different way to work.

HULLFISH: It also means that you’re not straying too far from the director’s vision because he’s always checking in as he’s shooting instead of a day or more later.

LEBENZON: We actually watched dailies on this one with the director of photography and the AD in the morning. The day before I had cut the scene from the videotap. After watching dailies I might have another idea, so I would go right back to the Avid and make changes in the conformed version. Tim would follow me – and on occasion would want to pick up another shot which he would immediately do. It’s an interesting way to work.

You can imagine doing that for five months. But when production ends there are no surprises. There’s not the usual: “Oh my God! I’ve got to run a first cut for the director!” and he hasn’t seen anything. It’s quite the opposite. He’s seen everything. He’s responsible for it and he owns it. And then we can talk about how to cut it down.

HULLFISH: When you get past the dailies stage of editing and you can see the context, what changed in the movie in terms of the re-cutting?

LEBENZON: A big part was actually getting the main character in it. Tim knows how fast we both work. It’s easy to cut things down. I would do a lot of that on my own. I’d do an alternate cut in my own bin and not integrate it into the movie. I’d make alternate versions of thoughts that I had about how to shorten and clarify the story. I had versions when he wanted to talk about it.

But the main emphasis was getting Dumbo in the movie so we could see the full effect of his presence. We had to get the character right and put him in the right places. The more that his facial expressions and activities developed, the more we realized where he should be placed — or taken out.

We were careful not to over-reveal him. We didn’t want him to fly too much too early because then the next time he would fly the audience wouldn’t be as engaged.

HULLFISH: You mentioned that you had a VFX editor. On a nuts and bolts level, how were you dealing with plates and VFX that were coming in in the timeline?

LEBENZON: They would go on another video track. But with 80 or 90 versions of each effect, I obviously wouldn’t keep them on the timeline. I like to keep my timeline simple. So I think we had three or maybe four video tracks at most. The plate would be on one and then the most updated effect would be on another and if my VFX editor needed another couple of tracks he could use them. We were always referring back to other versions. He did a great job of keeping all the VFX versions organized without complicating the timeline.

HULLFISH: I interviewed Robert Fisher Jr., who cut Into the Spider-verse and he doesn’t keep old versions at all. There’s a bunch of animation editors that would stack the storyboard on the bottom layer and then layout on Layer 2 and he doesn’t do any of that. He said, “Once I replace it we have an old version of the sequence if we ever have to refer back to it, but I don’t keep any of those layers.”

LEBENZON: I’m the same way. That’s exactly what we did. My guys know I like to keep things simple.

HULLFISH: Your assistant editors really had to be on the ball with that stuff. Tell me a little bit about choosing your assistants and why you use them as often as you do or what’s important to you in an assistant?

LEBENZON: Well the guys I used on this were the guys I had on the prior movie: Miss Peregrine. For one, they’re good. And they knew the drill: this thing of getting the playback quickly into the Avid and conforming the cut early the next morning adding sound effects when needed.

We had a little monitor in the assistant’s room where we could see the set and what they were going to shoot next. I’d take a quick look and start mocking up where that shot might go. It was quite a drill to do that every day for five months. I didn’t really want to re-train another crew.

HULLFISH: Tell me about the social interaction. What makes you feel like those guys are good? Why did you hire them?

LEBENZON: I like to ask the crew what they think about the cut. I don’t just hire assistants for their technical capabilities. Because I sometimes do different versions and I’ll ask, “Which one of these do you like?” I’ll even bring the P.A. in: the one with the least experience sometimes offers the clearest view.

HULLFISH: You mentioned in our last interview that Tim’s coverage is very simple and very specific. He likes a lot of takes but not a lot of angles. How does that change your approach in editorial?

LEBENZON: The challenge is to keep the pace up. Whereas when I am with a commercial director there’s no question that I always have somewhere to go and there’s always a close up where there is a wide shot and there are many angles in every scene. But Tim doesn’t shoot like that. He is very particular with the performance and staging, so there might be 18 takes to get something right. I might blow up a shot to get the sense of a different angle or double up a moment if appropriate.

HULLFISH: I suggested reshoots or pickups after principal photography on a couple of the last movies I cut. You’ve really got to make a strong case about that if you’re just the editor and not the director.

LEBENZON: Everybody does these reshoots nowadays. It’s almost built into these schedules, especially larger scale movies. The studio wants to make sure they have it right. The cost of reshoots is money well spent to help the narrative and have more choices to make the movie better.

HULLFISH: Anything you want to chat about concerning sound effects?

LEBENZON: In the case of Dumbo we had to create a language for him. A language that would communicate with the audience in an emotional way. So he didn’t have just one sound. There were many different sounds that Jimmy Boyle created — who is our very talented sound supervisor. We didn’t want to anthropomorphize him too much. So we didn’t want him to respond the same way to what he was hearing all the time. And we learned that sometimes no vocalization was more effective. Like a dog. They get the feeling of what you’re saying but sometimes a simple look from them communicates the strongest sense of understanding.

Screenshot of Avid timeline. To see this in greater detail, you can right click or control-click on a Mac and open the image in a second browser window that can be zoomed to the full original resolution of the image.

HULLFISH: What about temp score on this movie? Is it different than anything else you’ve done?

LEBENZON: Tim didn’t rely on it so much on this one because we didn’t have a lot of screenings. We had two previews and we used temp music, but Tim himself didn’t put a lot of effort into it. He didn’t want to influence his feeling about the music before Danny Elfman came on and delivered the final music. Because he didn’t want to cloud his thoughts with temporary music we never had that sense of: “Oh, I like the temp score better.” That never happened on this one and it DOES happen on almost every other one. (both laugh) “Temp love” never came up on Dumbo.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk about some scenes that I have access to. What do the scenes evoke in you as you think back to how you constructed them?

LEBENZON: In the Monkey in your Desk scene, the actors made it great and the dialogue was really good. In the original cut, the scene was longer, so I had to cut it down in order to get to the humor faster. The shot of an empty desk drawer opening and closing needed the animated monkey put in it. The question became “what should the monkey do?” Tim’s thing was always to make him as frenetic and as unpredictable as possible. And he worked with the animation team a lot because monkeys are more quiet and pensive, but he wanted this one to be overreacting and bizarrely unpredictable. So that was the mantra for his character.

HULLFISH: What about the flying scene?

LEBENZON: There were days where we just shot plates in the Colosseum set as backgrounds for Dumbo flying. The actors were shot another day and then months later we picked up more crowd shots. So the scene took a long time to construct.

HULLFISH: What about the scene: “Blow?”

LEBENZON: For the front-on shots of Dumbo we had a guy in a green suit, to be replaced later with Dumbo. There was no feather there at all. By the way, the original scene was much longer. Pretty deep into post-production — during the final mix — we decided to intercut the feather scene with what was going on outside. Danny DeVito and Colin Farrell are outside working out what they’re going to do for the circus and we intercut the scenes so it allowed me to shorten the part where Dumbo was playing with the feather.

HULLFISH: That’s a great solution. Chris, thank you so much for giving my readers – and me – so much great, actionable wisdom on editing. I loved talking to you.

LEBENZON: My pleasure.

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.

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