It Takes a Village: The M:I-6 Editorial Crew and What They Do
- Creating a Critics’ Choice Award-winning film takes a crew of behind-the-scenes pros who upped their post-production game in much the same way Tom Cruise and Chris McQuarrie raised the bar on heart-pounding action sequences.
- When you’re working across multiple locations and vendor contributors, choreographing the workflow is as vital as choreographing the stunts.
- Dividing the tasks while working closely as a unit is essential to managing the huge volume of work.
- Having information meticulously documented in a centralized codebook is key to keeping everyone on track.
- Collaboration, cooperation, and communication are vital to the success of the project.
In a year when action movies ruled the box office, Mission: Impossible – Fallout earned the Critics’ Choice Award for the Best of the bunch, beating out heavyweight competitors like Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. But it’s not just because Tom Cruise risked life and limb (literally) to make Ethan Hunt the baddest-ass action hero on the big screen.
In the same way that it took a team of trained technicians to choreograph and capture sequences like the HALO jump and the helicopter chase, there was an equally badass team of post-production pros who worked behind the scenes to create a groundbreaking workflow that included editing at 4K over numerous locations while employing multiple key vendor facilities, incorporating some 1600 visual effects shots, and getting it all done on a compressed schedule.
It takes a village
If you’ve heard the expression “It takes a village to raise a child,” you’ll realize that gestating a project of this magnitude took a rather sizable “village” to bring this film, the sixth and most successful of the Mission: Impossible series, from script to screen.
In our recent profile of Eddie Hamilton A.C.E., we asked the question of whether you have to work like Eddie to work with Eddie. Now, here’s a chance for you to look at the equally considerable efforts of the assistants and support crew who make an achievement of that proportion possible.
When we first approached Eddie about doing this story, he connected us to Riccardo Bacigalupo and Tom Coope, his two longtime first assistant editors (they’ve previously worked together on several large-scale films, including both of the Kingsman movies) to coordinate the interview, no small feat in itself considering that the core group for the editorial department alone was composed of nine people (not including Eddie):
- Susan Novick – Post Production Supervisor
- Riccardo Bacigalupo – First Assistant Editor
- Tom Coope – First Assistant Editor
- Ben Mills – VFX Editor
- Robbie Gibbon – VFX Editor
- Christopher Frith – 3D Assistant Editor/Second Assistant Editor
- Ryan Axe – Second Assistant Editor
- Hannah Leckey – Trainee Assistant Editor
- Chris Hunter – 3D (Stereo) Editor
Beyond the editorial group were approximately an additional twenty people under Susan’s direct supervision, supporting the other post-production areas: sound, music, DI, and visual effects. And that number, of course, doesn’t begin to include the literally hundreds of artists and techs who worked at the numerous outside vendors such as Cinelab London (film processing), Pinewood Post (film scanning and digital dailies processing), Fluent Image (data storage and distribution), Double Negative (VFX), Molinare (color correction and DI), and Prime Focus (stereo conversion).
Setting up the pipeline
Because the beginning of the M:I schedule overlapped with the wrap up of Kingsman: The Golden Circle, not all members of the core group were immediately available; some, as in the case of Eddie himself, worked on both jobs concurrently.
“Susan came over quite early on (she, unlike the rest of the crew, was based in the U.S.), and we had a big discussion off the bat as to who would be the best vendors and labs,” Ben explains. “We were shooting digitally and on film and Eddie wanted to cut everything in 4K, so we needed to find a lab that could scan the film at that resolution and turn it around quickly.”
Susan was instrumental in deciding on the vendors and establishing the workflow. “Rob Hardy, our DP, likes to work with Asa Shoul at Molinare (the digital intermediate facility),” Susan says. “So we had to create a workflow between Pinewood and Molinare. Typically, on a film of this size, the norm is to go to a DI facility that handles all of the processes and is a one-stop shop—which isn’t always possible. We had intended to keep all of our dailies online and accessible through production and post rather than relying on our LTO backups, but because the various vendors we were using all had other large-scale productions working at the same time, no one place had the capacity to store all of our media, which is why we needed Fluent Image.”
The fact that they were working with an a la carte pipeline added another level of complexity to an already complicated project. “Every time you add a vendor into the mix, you have to do tests to make sure that they are getting what they need in terms of resolution and color space and file formats,” Susan explains. “Fortunately, Fluent was able to accommodate everyone’s needs.”
Once the vendors were lined up, the essential process of workflow testing followed. Eddie is a huge proponent of thoroughly identifying any potential problems prior to cameras rolling, and because he was using Avid DNxHR LB for the first time, the team had to ensure that the workflow was stable.
“Some editors like to work on tried and true systems, but Eddie is definitely not one of them,” Ben says. “He loves pushing the tech as far as it can go, and if trying something new will allow him to work faster or do something better, he’s all for it.”
The rationale for using 2160p DNxHR LB was that at 144 Mbps, the files were only 25 percent larger in size than the 1080p DNxHD 115 codec, but with four times the resolution.
“We had a huge visual effects component, approximately 1,600 shots, so we had to work out the kinks that inevitably come up early in the process and make sure that all color pipelines were tested,” Ben says. “And there were a lot of steps to getting the process of 4K files into the cutting room, but that worked out well for the VFX aspect because the additional resolution made our pre-compositing tasks easier.”
The dailies workflow
When speaking with the team, they distinguish between the dailies phase of editorial and the “post” phase. The dailies phase takes place during filming, and post begins as the director starts his cut, VFX shots start to filter through the pipeline, and the sound and music teams get involved, and continues all the way through the final delivery.
However, due to the lengthy filming schedule and relatively short post period, some of the VFX sequences needed to be addressed within a few weeks of filming, which meant that turnovers to Double Negative were happening throughout production.
In the case of M:I, because the crew’s schedule of availability was based on the completion of the Kingsman film, there was a natural division of tasks from the get-go. The responsibility for implementing and overseeing the dailies pipeline fell to Tom, Chris F., and Hannah, as they were the first to transition to M:I. They were the first ones to arrive in the morning to coordinate intake with Pinewood, Cinelab London, and Fluent Image.
“Typically, Hannah and I would get in around 7:30 a.m.,” Tom explains. “We had an application on our system called Aspera Cargo that would automatically check for packages to download when we weren’t in the office. During the filming period we used it to download the Avid MXF files for picture and sound, Avid bins, and the master production sound Wavs. Hannah would start by getting paperwork printed off for the studio (including digital and film lab reports, camera sheets, continuity reports, marked-up script pages, and sound reports) and also filed on our server. And then we’d have everything downloaded and I would go through all the master clips and enter some initial metadata and then split up the clips so that when the rest of the team got in they’d be ready to start working.”
Some of the metadata information would come straight from the lab, but some of it had to be input manually, which was another of Hannah’s responsibilities. “Every clip would get a description including the size of the shot, which characters were in it, what the action was,” Tom continues. “Then I would distribute sub-clips to Chris, Ryan, and Hannah to go through.”
The sub-clips were distributed on either a camera roll or a scene-by-scene basis, depending on the order of clips coming from the Pinewood lab. The second assistants would then work through the clips to prep them into Avid scene bins for Eddie, so that he had clips, dailies sequences, and line-string sequences.
They were also responsible for tracking, logging, and exporting the clips and all their metadata for the codebook, and for the studio and production dailies, which were hosted on the PIX server.
“At the same time,” Tom continues, “I would generate a single sequence of all the dailies for Eddie so that when he got in he could immediately see what had been filmed the previous day in case he needed to address any questions from the set.”
The codebook is a centralized database, initially created by Ben on previous shows, but always modified and optimized for each production. (Fun fact: the term code book comes from the days before timecode existed, when the edge numbers or edge code from the film workprint had to be logged manually so the cuts on the workprint could be sent to the negative cutter for conforming.)
Ben has been the longtime administrator, but each member of the editorial crew (as well as select members of other departments, such as VFX production) has access to it. It’s basically the post-production bible, essential to tracking every bit of pertinent information about every shot or process.
“It’s a kind of one-stop shop as opposed to having different databases for all the functions in and around the cutting room,” Ben says. “It’s got everything from the dailies and screening information to VFX shots and 3D tracking. You can export Excel files from it and text files that contain all the metadata about things like lens and color information about any shot that can go to the VFX house along with the elements. You can also track the differences from one cut to the next, which is useful to the producers from screening to screening.”
Additionally, they used the codebook to track any requests Eddie might have had for insert shots for a particular scene. Either Hannah or Ryan would stay updated on Eddie’s Avid timeline, where he would insert small captions requesting, for example, a close-up on a gadget. They would add that to the codebook with a thumbnail of the shot so that it could, in turn, be distributed to the production and tracked when it was received.
The “post” workflow and VFX
Because the other first assistant, Riccardo, stayed on Kingsman through its completion, he didn’t start full time on M:I until the point at which filming was interrupted by Tom Cruise’s accident and the production went on hiatus after 86 days.
The silver lining for Riccardo was that while Eddie and Chris McQuarrie began working on the portions of the film that had already been filmed, he was familiarizing himself with 86 days worth of dailies—a large task that would have been even more daunting had there been new dailies arriving as he was trying to catch up.
“Because of the hiatus, the post work was starting to trickle in. Sequences were being turned over to sound and music, and it made sense for me to start in on those kinds of tasks,” Riccardo explains. “At the same time, there were additional tests that needed to be done for the DI, as trailers and marketing requests were coming into play, so I took that as an opportunity to oversee the DI workflow. I was available to help with dailies or anything to do with that as needed, but this was a logical way to keep the train moving forward.”
Riccardo and Tom worked closely with the two VFX editors (Ben and Robbie), helping to distribute tasks to the rest of the editorial team such as temp comps and blue screen shots; the sheer volume of effects shots was, at times, more than even the two of them had time to handle.
Note that in addition to the two VFX editors, there was the Production VFX team (Paul Ladd, Stewart Kojima, and Paul Roberts) lead by Robin Saxen (VFX producer) who handled all aspects of the VFX pipeline between editorial, DI, VFX vendors, and the marketing team.
On top of that, there was the team responsible for getting the cut sequences to Prime Focus for the 3D conversion. Because it’s a time-intensive process, it couldn’t wait until the entire cut was locked, so sequences that were determined to be as close to finished as possible were turned over as editorial was still in progress.
Chris Hunter and Chris Frith were responsible for the tasks associated with the process: tracking and turning over the shots to 3D that required visual effects work as well as those that didn’t, and making sure that if the cut changed, that material went to Prime Focus.
Nicola Ford, Post/3D coordinator, managed the 3D team, and Corey Turner, Paramount’s 3D guru, reviewed every shot from Prime Focus and the grading at Molinare. If you consider that the TRT of the final film is a briskly-paced 147 minutes, that’s a whole lot of shots to review.
Communication is key
The codebook was essential for keeping all the data in a centralized, accessible location. But as anyone who has worked on a large team knows, good communication is key, especially on a project where each day brings not only the tasks you plan for, but also the tasks that crop up as a result of any number of variables such as creative changes, marketing demands, or technical problems.
And then there’s the Eddie factor. One of the benefits of having a team that is familiar with his way of working is that they know what to expect.
“Eddie works very closely with the whole team of assistants,” Riccardo says, “so he tends to get on the intercom or pop his head out of his room and just ask whoever’s available to do whatever it is he needs. Fortunately, the team knows to tell me or Tom or Susan so we’re aware of the requests and can track what’s being done.”
For that reason, the two first assistants shared a room in order to be aware of what information was going through the cutting room, and they would meet with Susan, in person, regularly each day to keep updating one another on the latest information.
“Tom and I have a shared to-do list and we’d update Susan on anything she might not be aware of, and if she’d communicated with marketing or another department about something we might not have heard, she’d update us,” Riccardo says. “It was constant communication back and forth because there was so much information to keep track of.”
“There were constant turnovers for visual effects, sound and music, DI, marketing, and preparing for screenings, so it wasn’t as though there was just one point person and everything flowed downstream from there,” Susan adds. “And because Eddie does tend to have an open line of communication to whomever is available, there’s not always a strictly linear structure.”
The team utilized all sorts of electronic communications from the codebook to shared Google docs to iMessage groups. The VFX group used Apple shared reminders for doing the temp comps, listing what needed to be done and then ticking them off with their initials.
But even with all of the emails and group messages and to-do lists and spreadsheets, they still relied heavily on verbal communication. “Everyone talked to one another all the time,” Riccardo says. “There is so much going on and there’s no room for mistakes. No one had an issue with someone asking a question, even if they had to ask it multiple times to clarify it. Getting things right from the outset was important because if you didn’t it would ripple down the line.”
When you’re dealing with a film of this magnitude, with locations from Paris to New Zealand to Abu Dhabi, filming in digital and film formats and cutting at 4K, and doing all of it on an especially tight schedule, you need a team that is large enough to handle the quantity of work. But you can’t afford to sacrifice quality.
That’s why, in addition to having a strong organizational backbone in the codebook, the team acts as the technical backbone of the cutting room. “We’re all quite techy,” Tom says, “and I think we enjoy coming up with new ways of speeding processes up.”
Not every editor or every film will require a crew who is as tech savvy as the M:I group, but those who want to work at the very top of the game on big-budget, visual effects-intensive blockbusters should be prepared for such demands. The team is large, but it’s also incredibly nimble, able to navigate through scenarios such as working on location in New Zealand, where the helicopter chase sequence was filmed.
Second assistant Chris Frith, who accompanied Eddie to New Zealand, had to deal with the logistics of setting Eddie up to work with footage that came off of the video tap of the film camera while they were waiting for the actual film to be flown to London where it was processed at Cinelab.
When Chris received the 4K files, he had to replace the video tap materials (that had no timecode reference and had to be eye-matched) with the correct media. Meanwhile, Pinewood Post actually had a mobile setup alongside the NZ unit so they could prep the digital media from the IMAX cameras for Chris and Eddie.
Because the pipeline was so well conceived, Chris was able to work relatively normal days—even though his day was ending as the London team’s was beginning.
There is no “I” in “Team”
Throughout the production, the team members were able to easily shift their efforts to the areas that were most in need. For example, Chris Frith went from working with Eddie on location to working with Chris Hunter as the 3D conversion assistant. Again, this sort of fluidity in responsibilities is somewhat unique to this team, but it’s a model that works—mostly because of the extreme collaboration between all the individuals.
You’ll note that as the various crew members speak, they almost always use the pronoun “we” rather than “I.” In some ways, it’s made it difficult to clearly delineate where one’s responsibilities end and another’s begin, but the importance of teamwork is underscored throughout the discussion, and it’s clear that no one feels more or less an integral part of the process. Absolutely everyone is committed to doing the best job they can, and to making everyone else’s job no harder than is necessary.
That sort of collaboration is possible both because many of the team members have worked together previously and because the level of organization and documentation makes it much easier for everyone to understand what the others have done. It may be more time consuming at the outset to establish the tracking and documentation systems, but it pays dividends as the project progresses. (And, yes, these are things that anyone can—and should—do if you want to up your game.)
Another word that comes up during the discussion is trust. Because this team works at such a reliably high level, Eddie trusts them to share his live Avid reels and to make updates on their own to the actual cutting copy. He knows that each individual is as committed to perfection and thoroughness as he is, and knows that by entrusting them with access to the live reels, there are tasks they can take on in the background (updating visual effects shots, getting new cuts to the music composer, etc.), allowing him to focus on moving forward creatively. Again, this way of working isn’t the norm, and the team emphasizes how much it streamlines the workflow.
How hard do they work?
Susan’s the first to point out that working more than a twelve-hour shift doesn’t do anyone any good. But with thirty people at the core of the post-production process, “there was a large enough team to do all that needed to be done,” she says. “Even still, there were screenings and previews and trailers, and when all that hits at the same time, it’s inevitable that the work just needs to get done.”
One of the ways in which the team tried to keep their work schedules reasonable was to stagger shifts (Tom alluded to this earlier). Hannah explains, “Tom and I would come in around 7:00-7:30 a.m. during the dailies phase to get everything downloaded and start Eddie for the day. Then Chris (Frith, second assistant) would come in around 8:00-8:30 a.m., and then Ryan (the other second) and Riccardo (once he joined) would start at approximately 9:30 a.m. and close out the evening shift.”
Any large-scale film comes with those sorts of demands, but M:I is an extreme example. “Working like this was really useful because if you work longer than a ten to twelve-hour shift, you just burn out and end up not enjoying the process,” Riccardo says. “This way, Tom could start the day and I could finish it, and he could go home and see his daughter.”
Many readers in the industry know that in the U.S. the editor’s guild outlines hours and pay structure for its members according to the category of the production. But that kind of structure has been slow in coming to England, where many large-scale movies are now being produced.
Riccardo has been active in BECTU (Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications, and Theatre Union) for the last five years, and is on the PP&F (Post-Production and Facilities) division work committee.
“A few years ago things were terrible in post-production,” Riccardo says. “But it’s starting to change, and we have worked with PACT (the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television) to establish agreements and rate cards. We’re becoming more organized as a branch, but it takes time. “
Part of Riccardo’s and the post-production and facilities’ combined efforts involves raising awareness among the editorial community as to how becoming members of BECTU can help them, and how organizing makes them stronger.
One of the other reasons having time outside of work (apart from seeing their families and sleeping) is also so important is that given the technical demands of their jobs, they don’t have a lot of opportunities to actually do creative work. It’s not that Eddie doesn’t wish to give them creative work. “Everyone’s had a shot at cutting a trailer, which Eddie asked all of us to do. The opportunities arise, but that requires extra hours,” Ben adds. “So we try to keep our creative flow going elsewhere if we can’t necessarily do it in the cutting room.”
But for all the hard work, long hours, and intense demands, it’s clear that this is a close-knit group of colleagues with a high level of respect for one another and a bond of genuine friendship. They truly care about the project and about each other, and it’s that kind of cooperation and consideration that makes a challenging project come together so smoothly and elegantly.
In that sense, they embody the very essence of a highly functioning village. And just to extend the metaphor, though it may sometimes be a difficult birth, they always deliver.
Except where noted, photography by John McAllister.