Hello Film Doctor friends.
Joe Walker is known for editing director Steve McQueen’s awards triumphs Shame and 12 Years a Slave as well as Denis Villeneuve’s equally revered films Sicario and Arrival.
Now the talented, British editor has been nominated for an ACE Eddie award and a BAFTA for his stunning work on Villeneuve’s epic, sci-fi sensation, Blade Runner 2049.
Here Joe joins us for a Film Doctor In Conversation to talk about how he got started in the industry, post workflows, editing with Denis and what editors can do to keep their perspective fresh.
Joe, tell us how you got started in editing? You started composing music first, right?
Well, I was in bands to begin with which led to studying composition at the University of York, which was a very practical training, writing for orchestras. When I graduated I developed two careers in parallel for a while, music and editing.
I got a job as a first assistant editor on staff at the BBC. The culture there was that the assistant would be the one looking after the track-laying at the end of the project. Perhaps, as a way of dealing with a mind-numbing level of librarianship that came with running a film cutting room, you’d be thinking ahead to what ideas you could try out in the soundtrack and you’d collect little sound effects over a period of time.
I’d worked a lot in electronic music so it was a natural fit to become a full-time sound editor. Around the same time, I was writing a lot of music – kids’ shows, documentaries, a drama for HBO and BBC at one stage, called Dirty War – that was a big orchestral score. So that’s the background – sound and music.
I don’t think I’m so different now. I suppose I see the editing role as the rhythm section of a movie; the Charlie Watts of the ensemble. Setting the tempo and carefully placing all the rhythmic elements – be they dialogue or sound effects or the twirl of a hologram in the corner of a shot. The editing that goes into music is not so different from the editing that goes into a film.
Amazing. Were there any specific moments that you remember getting you into editing or film? Or that encouraged you to pursue doing it on such a large scale?
Well my interest in editing goes back to childhood. My parents were given an 8mm camera as a wedding present in the 1950s and we’d have these little ‘shows’ at home. My Dad would run the projector, and occasionally the film would get stuck and burn – you know, making that disturbing ‘lava lamp’ effect on the sitting room wall [laughs]. So that was around and I just took it over and started my own little experiments. I had a paper round and I’d spend the money on these B&W prints of Keystone Cops comedies, and I’d run them very slowly. I was very interested in people like Terry Gilliam at the time and was thinking like an animator, just exploring how motion was conveyed in film. I can remember projecting a Keystone Cops comedy Stepping on the Gas really slow and accompanying them with my dad’s Wagner LPs played very slow …and sort of getting depressed [laughs].
Then I bought my own Super 8mm gear; this fantastic Russian clockwork camera, the Quartz 5. It got me into a lot of trouble [laughs]. I was really into tennis and the 70s was a really great time for star players coming over to London – Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe et al. I’d bought this camera because it had a slow-motion setting and I wanted to capture a good serve – specifically : Roscoe Tanner’s, at the time the fastest serve on Earth.
Fresh out of its box, I took my Quartz 5 to Wimbledon and managed to con my way into Centre court – I think I was 12 [laughs]. I mean, I can’t imagine this happening now…where were my parents in this? [laughs] I set my tripod down on the edge of the Press section and waited. After a few sets, I had Roscoe Tanner nicely framed on the baseline, took a deep breath and squeezed the button. What I hadn’t realized is that in slow-motion the camera sounded like a road drill [laughs] So, this thing basically went ‘Brrrrrrrr’ and before I could stop it, I’d ruined his concentratiion. The Umpire shouted at me and Tanner turned and looked at me and went “Thanks” [laughs]. When I got the film back from the chemist it was like looking at a man being killed by firing squad – Tanner’s worst ever serve – before the shot fogged out and the screen went blank [laughs].
I think it took a bit of positive reinforcement from elsewhere, as well. A very successful editor, Bernie Gribble, was a family friend. He’d cut The Man in the White Suit when he was only 23. My Mum had connections in the Foreign Office and helped him procure a visa to cut Death Wish in New York, and by way of a thank you he’d invite us to Pinewood to look at finished cuts and dubbed prints of things.
So it was the combination of being interested in something and also seeing somebody being wildly successful at it. As soon as I got out of university, I did everything I could to get into the BBC cutting rooms; despite not having any directly relevant experience or contacts.
How did you get involved with Denis Villeneuve to begin with? Sicario was the first film you worked together on, right?
I was working with Michael Mann, a year-long commitment that was coming to an end and Steve [McQueen] didn’t have anything planned for a while. I had seen Denis’ film Incendies some time before. I was blown away by that and really wanted to work with him.
It was as simple as my agent reaching out at a time when Denis was looking for an editor on Sicario. We just met, discussed the script and got on well.
Denis has released a film a year (Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) and they’re all hugely ambitious films. How did you fit it all in and what’s it like working with Denis?
Looking back to Sicario, that was very well planned, a very solid script …the subsequent films were just as well planned but had scripts which were more open to re-telling the story in the edit.
Arrival was a prolonged edit. We had a lot of work to do to try and communicate successfully what is really going on in the story. I had the freedom to put the ‘flashback’ material in any order and also use montages and tv screens to amplify the sense of the outside world, the increasingly paranoid position of the military, etc. It was a really complex edit.
We were really still deeply entrenched in Arrival when Blade Runner 2049 came along, so I had to ‘share’ Denis. He had Roger Deakins, Sam Hudecki (storyboard artist) and Dennis Gassner (Production Designer) all holed up in a hotel room in Montreal. Denis would work with them in the mornings and then hit the Arrival edit suite couch in the afternoon.
It worked very well for us, actually; I needed that time to perfect all the editing details – all the motion effects and ‘repos’ etc. before a sequence would be ready to view.
On Sicario I’d found Denis to be the most editor-friendly Director you can imagine – he gives you true direction, leaving the minutia to your own intuition. We’d root out what the problems are and keep up a constant conversation to find possible solutions, re-fashioning the material to tell the story better.
So tell us about Blade Runner 2049. When did you hear about it and get involved?
Well first off, let me say, with Denis, whatever he does, I’d want to cut it [laughs]. I have complete faith that he’s doing a project for all the right reasons.
Before the shoot I read the script, made a few points, – he accommodated some of them, not all of them, that’s just normal. The first filming days were pre-shoots, like Joi as the giant pink hologram. I got involved with a lot of the pre-vis work, much more than I had done on Arrival.
A scene like the Las Vegas hologram fun-house had months of to-and-fro. Many, many iterations of the cut – to decide what music tracks to use, where the glitches would be – so that everything, music, sound and lighting could sync up when they’re shooting it for real. We tried to keep the pre-vis true to the storyboard, but leave enough flexibility for Denis and Roger to adapt it when the actors arrived on set.
The sets on Blade Runner 2049 were staggering. VFX complimented and extended them – but when you’re standing in K’s apartment looking out of the window, you’d see a full cityscape complete with atmospheric effects and strafing lighting from passing spinners. Breath-taking.
For an editor, the impact of this is that there is far less to imagine and allow for in selecting and timing a shot – certainly with Arrival, I learned every trick in the book to try and have progressively less and less to imagine as the cut progresses, because for a lot of the time the dailies had a blank white screen where two major characters would one day exist. From temping in clip art from the storyboards, to incorporating the sound the heptapods made, from sound designers Dave Whitehead and Michelle Child.
With Blade Runner 2049, from the outset, even though it was shot in Budapest in summer, K would be walking down a street with snow falling and real vehicles passing and lighting effects from the spinners overhead. Knowing there will be more riches to come from VFX it was easy to give the shot its rightful time on screen and start to build the sound track.
How long do you usually have to wait for those graphics shots to come through? How long are you using temp things for? Is it a quick turnover?
Despite having a year before we had to down pencils, we knew going into it that we needed to turnover some sequences to VFX almost straightaway. Things like the ‘Rachel’ shots which had to be picked that night to give VFX the time they needed to do such complicated work.
Our editorial team has evolved to be able to respond to that. 12 Years a Slave only had a few VFX shots. My assistant Javier Marcheselli is a master of Nuke and the visual side of things, so he could temp up shots by himself. I could get things into the ballpark of how I wanted it to be, how big in frame, how fast it’s moving.. I’d pass the shot to him and he’d hand it back. So in a day or two you had something good enough to show a test screening audience – which we did many times. That freed up time for me to concentrate on sound.
With Sicario there were a lot more shots like that, 200 or so For example the shots on the bridge – Javier would paste in little cars for the convoy and so on. It acts as a guide for how long to hold on a shot, what the impact of the shot is going to be; otherwise, you’re just cutting plates and that can be less exact and certainly less compelling.
There were 750 VFX shots on Arrival and then 1150 VFX shots on Blade Runner 2049, all of which had to be temped. So the team got bigger; there was a group of artists under Javier’s command, making the most amazing temps. Once we’re in the ballpark, those sequences get turned over to the VFX companies like D-Neg and MPC to bring their own amazing magic – but we had to get it as close to final as you can within Editorial.
What sort of dailies did you get? All single cam? Any multi-cam seeping in?
Yes, for the most part it was single camera; that’s the way Denis and Roger like to work. Scenes like the Trash Mesa had two. Anything from second unit was shot by multiple cameras, to capture the stunts.
Roger and Denis prepare very carefully – the storyboards were amazing! A complete conceptual workout of a scene; almost part of the writing process. And, of course, that gives them the freedom to discover something better on set and abandon the storyboards where necessary.
They are economical in what they shoot, allowing it to be cut by just one editor. I didn’t need an assembly editor because I’m only viewing 1 or 2 hours of dailies maximum. I have worked on shows where you with five cameras running you just can’t look at it all and cut it. There’s no time.
The Editor’s duty is to respond to the dailies and have an opinion about it [laughs] which informs his or her own path through a scene. Many times Denis has pointed out there are sequences in the final cut that are left unchanged from that assembly. He could see no improvement so they stayed the way they are. But the majority endure upheaval on every level imaginable over the course of a year.
I like to go into it knowing that I’ve looked at everything, every take. I use the dailies to mind-read what Denis is going for on set and what he’s searching for with the performances and the sequence.
It really showed that it was single cam. It looked fantastic. Everything felt so considered and meant.
Yes, thank God for single camera. It’s the same with Steve McQueen who shoots single camera on film. He’s also economical, there aren’t 66 takes of things, it’s much more likely to be six or seven. It makes my job easier than assembling from multiple cameras, where there’s way more marble being delivered to your studio from which to craft the perfect arm [laughs]
It’s horses for courses, though. With heavy improvising between two characters it’s really advisable to cover both angles. Or when shooting with children. One of the most remarkable films that I saw this year was The Florida Project and I keep looking at that and thinking “How did they manage to get that?” It seems to be shot single camera, but on expensive 35mm stock … with kids. Lots of kids. And that just speaks to their skills as filmmakers, that they’ve captured such amazing performances.
K’s “interrogation” scene/baseline test was amazingly, rhythmically cut. It really gets into the head of the character and the audience. Can you tell us a bit about it?
It was scripted as an exchange based on the Nabokov “Pale Fire” piece, a novel featured in the film. At the very beginning of his interrogation he’s going through his baseline and repeating the words. What Ryan Gosling brought to the table was the idea of using an acting technique where someone learning a speech is subjected to a quick-fire round of questions related to each individual word; it’s a way of burning a speech into deep memory.
They shot long takes, 8-9 minutes on each shot. I edited it to feature the questions that seemed most relevant to our story and would elicit some kind of emotional response in the character, “what’s it like to hold the hand of someone you love?” “do they keep you in a little box?” and so on. We experimented with its placing; at one point the second baseline test was where we first see the memory of that buried toy horse, K unable to stifle the memory while his synapses are under bombardment. It was very malleable material.
It’s hard to cut a scene like that and not think of how that sequence with Hal’s staring eye is cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There were various riffs on it at various stages which we abandoned in favour of what there is now. One where I’d cut to the eye on K’s response, not the question – it emphasized how tightly K is being scrutinised. The scene has the added tension of knowing that if he fails the Baseline Test, he’s going to be disposed of. I loved that material.
The baseline test sums up the approach of the whole film to the original Blade Runner: it pays homage to a masterpiece of cinema but in its own, very individual way. The opening line of the film is a kind of mission statement : “I hope you don’t mind me taking the liberty. I tried not to drag in any dirt.” So the “Voight-Kampff” test of the original becomes the “Baseline” test in the sequel, it has evolved but is a fresh idea in and of itself.
We would describe the original film as our Baseline Test and screened it many times, to keep on track of what’s permissible in the Bladiverse. From that strong soil you try to nurture some new plant.
How do you “refresh” your eyes for edits? How do you prevent “getting lost in the woods”?
That’s one of the biggest challenges of the job – finding mechanisms to keep you close to an audience’s first perception of the film. All the cuts with Denis [Villeneuve] and Steve [McQueen] are test-screened pretty comprehensively. Initially with family and friends. We tell people not to feel any pressure to compliment us, but to bring their baseball bats [laughs]. Lots of things come out of that.
It’s a duty of the cutting room to zero in on what might be an indulgence. Sometimes you get feedback that gives ‘permission’, if you like, to really pare something down. I find it an essential part of the process. It’s made a little more difficult on a film like Blade Runner 2049, because of the level of secrecy. Test screenings are far more covert operations.
The editor is a really invaluable ingredient in second guessing an audience’s reading of a film. You try to be in touch with that imaginary audience all the time, following a sense of what you think they want to be looking at and when. But at a test screening you can feel it, almost chemically. It’s no longer academic or intellectual – you can see when the audience is restless or head to the loo [laughs]. You can see where their attention is drifting and you have to respond to that.
On 12 Years a Slave, New Regency did an amazing job of testing it in many different places – we tested it in Atlanta and in two very different cinemas in Chicago, and then back in Los Angeles. It’s a triumph when you know from the test screenings that things click and people are glued. But even with that endorsement we still went back and did a few changes. For instance, the end sequence of 12 Years a Slave – Solomon reunited with his family – there was originally no music, it was a very quiet, measured ending. We realised we were just being ‘too cool for school.’ Seeing it with an audience, you can more easily spot a missed opportunity.
And what about personally re-charging? How do you stop your eyes from “burning out”?
Oh, there are all sorts of tricks. One I love is, once you’ve made all the choices of shots and performances and got the structure of the film sorted, my assistant writes out all the scene numbers on strips of paper, folds them up and puts them in a hat.
We pull each scene number out one by one, and the rule is that you open up the bins for only that scene. You forget about the context and just go back to first assembly mode and just see if there’s something that provokes an improvement. You’re trying to be fresh to the material one last time and confining your vision to just one scene.
98% of the time it’s fruitless, but sometimes you just look at the dailies and you see something. You’ve been so busy trying to control the material to be what you want it to, that you’ve missed a take where it happens quite naturally.
Let’s be honest, the best way to keep fresh is to have a day off at the weekend. At the end of 11 or 12 days on the trot, it’s near impossible to keep any sense of distance.
READ our interview with Blade Runner 2049 costume designer Renee April.
Any questions/thoughts/experiences of your own??? Leave a comment below! Have a great week!