2019 Oscars Workflow Breakdown of Every Best Picture and Editing Nominee
Last year, our most popular article (by far) covered the workflows of the Oscar-nominated best picture and best editing nominees. In fact, you responded so enthusiastically that we decided to do it again.
So, back by popular demand, we present our second annual Oscar workflow roundup, covering the eight films that were nominated across the two categories.
And the nominees are…
A Diverse Group
First, you’ll note some similarities from last year—more “independent” films have broken through, and the trend toward increased diversity has continued. Granted, there are no women directors nominated this year, but two of the nominated directors are African-American men, and three of the nominated films are squarely focused on stories that prominently feature Black main characters and themes.
In terms of the diversity of the overall crew, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler hired not just African-Americans but also numerous Africans. Of note are production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth E. Carter, both African-American women and both nominated in their respective categories.
Further, the movie was shot by a female director of photography, had female production and costume designers, a female co-editor, and focuses on strong female characters in the roles of warriors, scientists, spies, and rulers, whose roles are as important as any male character’s.
Similarly, The Favourite features three leading ladies, two over the age of 40, with the men taking a backseat in terms of both story and screen time. And Roma’s central focus is on a nurturing woman who acts as the backbone of the family for whom she works.
Even A Star Is Born sends a message to women that strength of character, talent, and hard work trump conventional standards of beauty, while Bohemian Rhapsody reinforces the notion that becoming your best self, as unconventional as that may be, can result in unexpected success.
The filmmakers represented this year, by and large, embraced topics in which they were personally invested and cared passionately about.
Audiences responded, certainly, with both Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody exceeding the $1 billion mark at the box office (per IMDbPro) making Bohemian Rhapsody the largest grossing music biopic.
But the members of the Academy responded, too. Since 2016, when it was uncovered that 92% of Academy members were white and 75% were male, the Academy extended invitations to over 900 women and non-white film industry professionals to join.
The result? As we look at the eight films that led this year’s Oscars nominations, the diversity of approaches, technology, and workflows have made for another fascinating dive into how the filmmakers working at the top of the industry bring important and indelible stories to the screen.
By the numbers
As we did last year, here’s a breakdown of the budgets and scale of each film.
It’s no surprise that two of the three lower-budget films (BlacKkKlansman and Roma) had the smallest crews. In the case of Roma, the lengthy pre-pro, production, and post-production schedules meant that they needed fewer people to do the considerable amount of work that went into making a film that was nominated for a total of ten Oscars. In the world of production, the adage “fast, cheap, good: pick two” bears out here.
By comparison, The Favourite employed a substantially larger total crew, falling somewhere between the $36 million A Star is Born and the $52 million Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s probably fair to deduce that as a UK-based production, they got more bang for their buck (or pound) and still managed to pull off a lushly beautiful period piece that also garnered a total of ten nominations.
And before your head explodes when you see the crew size on Black Panther, bear in mind that all the numbers include those who were credited for make-up, costumes, and visual effects as well. If you’re wondering why Vice, Bohemian Rhapsody, and The Favourite had such large crews, think about what it takes to pull off period pieces, including the number of “invisible” visual effects necessary to make environments look authentic or to replicate crowds.
The common denominators
Looking at all the films, there are a couple of what you might call “givens.” First, all the features were edited on Avid, using either DNxHD 36 or DNxHD 115 codecs at 1080p. Sure, Eddie Hamilton upped the bar by editing Mission: Impossible – Fallout in DNxHR LB at 2160 (with a 144 MPBs data rate), which sent a buzz through the editorial community, but given the offline/online workflow, all the productions listed here elected to work at the lower resolutions.
Second, and perhaps more significantly, in all of the films the directors worked with editors with whom they’d had long and fruitful creative relationships (except for Roma and Green Book, in which the directors had limited but memorable previous collaborations). This, of course, supports the idea that it doesn’t matter how high-tech your workflow is (or isn’t). What matters most is the strength of the story and the ability to tell it compellingly.
And so, without further ado, we dive in.
The tightly budgeted passion projects
Three of the nominated films were made for $15 million each. When you consider that two of them, Roma and The Favourite, garnered ten Oscar nominations each, with BlacKkKlansman earning six, all three prove that even low budgets can yield big results.
Unlike BlacKkKlansman and The Favourite, Alfonso Cuarón elected not to shoot his period piece on film. In fact, he chose the Arri ALEXA 65, shooting at 6560 x 3100 in Open Gate mode at 24 fps. Although the final film was delivered in black and white at 4K, he decided to shoot in color—both because there would be green screen composites, and because it was ultimately easier for Technicolor’s colorist, Steven J. Scott, to desaturate the footage by isolating colors in order to retain the nuances between various shades of gray. (If you want more in-depth information about the cinematography and DI process—which took nearly 1000 hours to complete—the ASC Magazine has a great article about it.)
Cuarón’s relatively small crew came as a result of his long production time. With a lengthy pre-production phase, a 110-day shoot (longer even than Black Panther’s!), and a year of post-production, some of the original crew were scheduled to move on to other projects—including Cuarón’s original DP. Consequently, Cuarón, no stranger to the role of cinematographer, assumed DP duties.
Using primarily one camera throughout, Cuarón shot long (as in approximately five-minute) takes, with multiple variations—often twenty, sometimes as many as sixty. Everything was transcoded from ARRIRAW 6.5K to DNxHD 36, with special LUTs created at Technicolor so all the footage could be viewed in black and white throughout.
The editorial crew was small—editor Adam Gough worked side-by-side with Cuarón in different cutting rooms from London to Italy, between which Cuarón divides his time. During production, Adam stayed in London while the three assistant editors were based on location in Mexico City; all of them received dailies via Aspera. The assistants had Avid running on iMacs with a NEXIS server, while Adam used a 2015 MacBook Pro because of his need for easy portability.
In the several cutting rooms he and Cuarón occupied during the year of post-production, he had a standard setup that he’d dock into: BlackMagic Ultrastudio 4K, breaking out to a 65” Sony A1 OLED, a 27” color balance display for the Avid, and stereo sound using Yamaha speakers. Two 27” computer monitors were also used with the laptop in clamshell mode, and he had a BlackMagic Ultrastudio mini on hand to plug the laptop up to any screen. Main storage was an 8TB G-RAID with backups.
The soundtrack for Roma is incredibly intricate, capturing the sonic texture of the city, and sound designer Sergio Diaz began his work one week into the edit. As soon as scenes were cut, Adam turned them over to Diaz so he could, in turn, give them back to Adam to drop into the cut. Throughout the course of the ten-week final mix they used Dolby Atmos, and Adam says that when they turned the final files over, Dolby initially thought there were corruptions in the media because it was one of the largest files (and most comprehensive mixes) they’d ever seen.
So much about the process of making Roma was challenging: from the single-camera, long-take shoot to achieving the uniquely pristine look that Cuarón wanted, to the logistics of an editor who is not a native Spanish speaker editing a Spanish-language film, to working with post-production vendors in Los Angeles (Technicolor) and London (MPC for visual effects), to having the editor and assistants on different continents. As Adam says, “It was an extreme case of organization and preparation to manage the workflow.”
If Roma is characterized by a grain-free black and white look, The Favourite is its opposite. Director Yorgos Lanthimos elected to shoot his historical period piece on 35mm film, using as much natural and available light as possible. The resulting film is gorgeously lush, with a depth of color and texture reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.
Principal photography, most of which took place at Hatfield House in Hertforsdshire, England, lasted 43 days. Film was processed in London and transcoded to DNxHD 115 MXF for Avid Media Composer v8.10. Because there were three different cutting locations, the kit fluctuated depending on the facility.
At their primary cutting room, all of editorial operated on Mac Pro towers: 12 Core Apple Mac Pro 5.1 running El Capitan, 2.4GHz 6-Core Intel Xeon E5645 with 36gb RAM. They chose this model because they felt that the older design was better for accessing ports. All shared a NEXIS 16TB storage system that traveled with them from facility to facility.
Editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis and first assistant James Panting’s setups also had an Avid Mojo DX Breakout Box with a client monitor for playback. In the editor’s case, there was a 50” plasma screen for the director’s viewing purposes. The audio setup was a 3.0 sound mix (left-center-right) and both Mavropsaridis and Panting had three Genelec speakers so they could either perform their own mix or play back any outside sound work in a three-speaker audio space.
Mavropsaridis was also equipped to cut from his home suite, where he had an external hard-drive based clone of the NEXIS that he used with his laptop. If necessary, the editorial crew could receive additional Avid bins at the cutting room to cater to any ideas that might arise while he was offsite.
It became a real necessity later in the editorial process when he returned to Athens after picture lock—but there were more tweaks to make. In that case, Mavropsaridis could make the necessary adjustments, send them back to the first assistant in London (who would show them to the director and make any further tweaks) and then send them back to Mavropsaridis for sign-off.
As was the case with Roma, The Favourite benefitted from a lengthy post schedule and had a similarly small editorial crew—from one to three people at different times. The editorial team spent approximately three months on the initial assembly, and the director’s cut process took another three months. They spent another six months fine cutting, and once they had a locked picture, they spent another three months to finalize the VFX, titles, sound mix, conform, and DI color grading (for a 2K finish).
The inevitable extra-challenging factor on The Favourite was the decision to rescan and regrade all of the dailies during the director’s cut process. Like Cuarón, who had custom LUTs created so he could view the footage in black and white throughout the offline, Yorgos Lanthimos wanted to be able to see a version of the footage that was much closer to the look of the final product. This necessitated substituting the Avid media on a lab roll by lab roll basis to ensure that everything was ingested and replaced accurately. The extra work paid off, boosting their creative engagement with the material and giving any early audiences a better viewing experience.
The one thing BlacKkKlansman did not have is the luxury of time. In fact, editor Barry Alexander Brown worked through the Christmas holidays to get a complete first cut ready three weeks after wrapping principal photography. Spike Lee was so pleased with it that he decided the post schedule should be accelerated by two months in order to submit the film for consideration to Cannes. Sixteen weeks later, they had a mixed version ready for Cannes, where it earned the Grand Prix and a lengthy standing ovation.
Given that principal photography was also a brisk 36 days and the total budget was only $15 million, is BlacKkKlansman a kind of cinematic miracle? Fast, cheap, and good. Who does that?
For one thing, having long-time trusted collaborators helps. The director and editor have been working together since 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It. For another, Lee is a brilliantly accomplished filmmaker who can surround himself with talented, accomplished people in key roles.
One of those people was DP Chayse Irvin (perhaps best known for shooting Beyonce’s “Lemonade”). His choice of shooting on 35mm, using a Panavision XL2, was not unlike Cuarón’s for shooting digital black and white. While Irvin wanted to evoke a period (in this case, the 1970s) by “infusing certain techniques that they used back then,” he also wanted to “come at it with the POV that we have now.” In that regard, form follows function.
Film was processed and dailies, as MXF media with their corresponding bins, were delivered to editorial via Aspera Faspex media shuttle, ingested to Avid and cut at DNxHD 36.
Brown’s small editorial crew consisted of first assistant Jason Battle, assistant David Valdez, and an in-house production assistant. The cutting room setup, located in Brooklyn, had three Mac OSX running 10.11.0 with 20TB EditShare storage. The final delivery was a 4K digital intermediate.
If working on a compressed post schedule wasn’t enough of a challenge, the complications of shooting on vintage film stocks—including five rolls of Kodak Ektachrome reversal stock that Irvin had tracked down—led to extra processing and color correction time, according to post supervisor Susan Lazarus. But not only did BlacKkKlansman make the Cannes deadline, it went on to earn many more accolades, awards, and nominations, including Spike Lee’s first Oscar nod for best director.
The “dramedic” American biopics
Not unlike BlacKkKlansman, Green Book and Vice shared a similar editorial challenge—both are serious stories about serious events that incorporate comedic flourishes. Peter Farrelly (known for iconic comedies Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary) and Adam McKay (known for his numerous collaborations with Will Ferrell as well as directing The Big Short), along with their editors, have succeeded in finding the right balance of drama and the organic humor that seems to infuse both films.
At a relatively lean $23 million, Green Book straddles the line between indie and mainstream studio film. But director/producer/writer Peter Farrelly considers it no less a passion project than any of the other directors consider theirs. His motivation to tell a story from the past that can show people how to come together in our currently divided socio-political climate was his prime motivator.
According to post-production supervisor Bill Wohlken, everything about the production went almost perfectly. Shot on Arri ALEXAs at a 2:1 aspect ratio, the dailies were synced and transcoded from 3.4K ARRIRAW at FotoKem and delivered via DAX. Editor Patrick J. Don Vito worked on Avid at DNxHD 115, with a final delivery of a 4K digital intermediate.
The editorial team was relatively small: in addition to Wohlken and Don Vito, there were two assistant editors, a coordinator, and a PA working on three Avid systems with ISIS storage. During the 36 days of principal photography in Louisiana, Don Vito and an assistant worked from the film’s New Orleans production office. The efficiency of the process and the high quality of the acting allowed Don Vito to really focus on the creative cut, teasing out the best moments and finding the happy accidents that made the humor feel so natural to the otherwise dramatic scenes. After production wrapped, editorial moved back to Los Angeles and ran for approximately 22 weeks.
Given the period setting of the film and the fact that Mahershala Ali isn’t “really” a concert pianist, there was a somewhat significant need for visual effects work, with Pixel Magic handling over 300 shots from blurring out contemporary signage as they drove to head replacements to finesse the combination of Ali’s head with the real pianist’s (composer Kris Bower) hands.
With a significantly larger $60 million budget, Vice tackled an ambitious story spanning not only fifty years of its subject’s life, but six decades of American political history. Unlike Chayse Irvin on BlacKkKlansman and Alfonso Cuarón on Roma, McKay and DP Greig Fraser specifically chose to shoot on film in order to faithfully recreate the aesthetic of the multiple time periods, as well as to help match the look of archival footage that was used.
Using 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm film required a complex workflow for processing and dailies. Editor Hank Corwin’s first assistant, Alex Olivares, explains:
“The 35mm and 16mm dailies were processed every night at FotoKem and scanned at 4K for dailies. Super 8 footage was scanned by Pro8mm, also at 4K, and video footage was recorded at HD. FotoKem also processed the Super 8 scan files from Pro8mm and the video dailies in order to have all of the media there for the final conform.”
FotoKem’s nextLAB system was used to create the DNxHD 115 Avid media and bins, chosen because “we found this to be a good resolution for our multiple audience screenings with media size that was manageable for render time, playback quality, and storage space,” Alex said.
Media was sent daily on hard drives from Burbank to the cutting rooms on the Sony lot in Culver City, where they were shooting over the course of eleven weeks. The first director’s screening took place nine weeks after principal photography wrapped, with audience screenings beginning eighteen weeks after wrap. In all, they spent 49 weeks in post.
Given the scope of the film, the editorial crew was relatively lean. In addition to Corwin and Alex, there was a post-production supervisor, a VFX editor who also performed many AE tasks such as supervising the dailies workflow and final conform, and a post-production PA. They also had a researcher who helped go through the “vast quantities” of archival material.
The group worked on three “Trash Can” Macs on OS 10.10.5 running Media Composer v8.8.5, with a shared project and media using ISIS Client Manager v18.104.22.16850 and 25TB total for all ISIS workspaces.
In terms of challenges, Vice contained many. Beyond the multiple film formats and the sheer quantity of material, more significant was finding the best way into the structure of the film and dealing with the scale, scope, and complexity of the story. Reportedly, Hank Corwin spent many long days watching everything that was shot (including before McKay called “action” and after he called “cut”) and extensively reworking the footage.
Is it any wonder that Corwin’s already won the BAFTA for editing and that Vice was nominated for eight Oscars?
The performance-centric music films
On the face of it, the two films share much in common. Both stories are built around music, both contain elaborate concert numbers set at large venues, and both were big box office smashes.
Bohemian Rhapsody, however, presented some unique challenges. As a biopic set in the 1970s and ‘80s, actual footage of the events contained within the film are readily available, as are actual recordings of Queen frontman, Freddie Mercury. Those who have seen Queen perform live or who remember the epic Live Aid performance would go into the film with high expectations. Yet, as evidenced by its five Oscar nominations (and an ACE Eddie award for editor John Ottman), it appears that they not only met, but exceeded, those expectations.
Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel’s main camera was the Arri ALEXA 65, using Open Gate mode at 6.5K. He also used the Arri SXT (also in Open Gate) at 3.4K. But, to imbue an additional element of authenticity, he chose to shoot 35mm film for the “I Want to Break Free” sequence, and even went as far as shooting the “Top of the Pops” sequence on an old betacam.
Colorist Greg Fisher at Company 3 in London (where they did both dailies and the digital intermediate), applied LUTs to give the earlier bits of the story that “film print” feel, which transitioned into a “cleaner” look as they moved into the 80s. On the Company 3 website, Fisher explains that the LUT for the more filmic portion was “opened up” for more contrast without constraining the colors.
The Live Aid concert—the very first sequence they shot over the course of a week—had to be recreated because the real Wembley Stadium has been extensively remodeled since the concert took place, so the stage replica was built at Bovingdon Airfield outside of London. Double Negative handled the job of turning 900 extras into a crowd of 70,000. The sound designers and mixers worked their magic throughout the film, combining real audio of Freddie with a sound-alike (in certain sequences). And because Rami Malek actually sang all of the songs the band performed, it doesn’t have the lip-sync feel of replaced audio.
John Ottman, Bryan Singer’s longtime editor and composer (their collaboration goes back to even before The Usual Suspects), took on both roles again—although rather than create an underscore for the film, he chose instead to complement the songs with appropriate music that Freddie liked and listened to—especially opera. It feels authentic to the flow of the movie without either overwhelming or interfering with Queen’s music.
A Star Is Born
In the case of A Star Is Born, although the story and characters are fictional, the singers are very real—and were committed to performing their music live during principal photography. The logistics of ingesting and processing huge amounts of sound during dailies presented, according to first assistant editor Mike Azevedo, the biggest editorial challenge on the film.
Shot primarily with Alexa Mini Anamorphic cameras at 2880×2160 ARRIRAW, they edited on Avid using DNxHD 115 at 1920×1080, ultimately delivering a 2K digital intermediate.
Editor Jay Cassidy (who’d worked with director Bradley Cooper on several of David O. Russell’s films in which Cooper starred) had a crew of five: Mike plus another assistant, a VFX editor, a music editor, and a post-production PA. They had six editorial stations (one for each person) plus two machines dedicated to turnovers. They used the 2013 Mac Pro “Trash Can” models, along with Avid’s ISIS 32TB for shared storage.
During principal photography (approximately nine weeks with some pickups after a month of editorial) the lab provided dailies on a drive to editorial, and processed PIX dailies for distribution to the production group and studio. While on the set, Cooper and director of photography Matthew Libatique had calibrated iPads for viewing.
In editorial, the dailies workflow included importing all of the production sound (frequently over 40 tracks for the music scenes!), assigning the Pro Tools timecode track from the on-set playback to an Aux TC track, syncing the production sound with the dailies and sub-clipping out the useful channels for editorial, and then using Avid ScriptSync to script the dailies.
As Mike further outlines, they “developed methods for carrying tracks in our Avid sequences that would allow us to leverage the metadata gathered by production mixer, Steve Morrow. This allowed us to quickly build AAFs for our music editor, Jason Ruder, that would reference every vocal and instrument mic from each take of a performance. We turned many sequences over to Jason during production, which allowed him to sort through the enormous amount of material. His process of creating and refining his music mixes early on meant that the music in our Avid tracks came very close to the final mix.”
Post-production lasted approximately 30 weeks, interrupted by a holiday hiatus. The director’s cut took approximately twelve weeks, followed by a ten-week period of previews. Sound re-recording and mixing (in Dolby Atmos) and the DI process lasted an additional eight weeks.
The big-budget blockbuster
In a class by itself in terms of budget and scope, Black Panther is also the first superhero movie to earn a best picture nomination. Nonetheless, one could make reasonable comparisons to BlacKkKlansman. Although the approaches and stories (and budgets) could not be more different, both were directed and co-written by African-Americans, and both present a view of the Black experience and identity—and the ways in which they can be empowering.
Both also earned nods for best editing, with both directors working with longtime collaborators. Like Spike Lee and Barry Alexander Brown, Ryan Coogler and Michael P. Shawver have collaborated since their days at USC. Shawver likes to tell the story of how he and Coogler began their working relationship, saying that when he watched Coogler’s student films, he realized that they spoke to him in ways that exceeded those of the other student directors. He approached Coogler and proposed editing for him on a project, and they’ve been a team ever since. (Side note: If you admire someone’s work and want to work with them, reach out to them. Offer your services. Who knows? You might also end up with the kind of career dreams are made of.)
Okay, so you already know that the total crew was the size of a small country. But even focusing on “just” the editorial crew, it still took a village to put it all together. Shawver wasn’t the sole editor—Debbie Berman (originally from South Africa), who’d previously cut Spider Man: Homecoming (and is now on Captain Marvel), worked alongside him. Having navigated a Marvel movie, her expertise in large-scale VFX feature post was a huge asset.
According to post supervisor Nancy Valle, the crew was composed of the two editors, two first assistants, two second assistants, and an additional assistant who helped with ScriptSync for part of the time. During the 72 days of principal photography at Pinewood Studios in Atlanta, the entire editorial team was located there, moving to the Disney lot after shooting wrapped.
DP Rachel Morrison, who worked with Coogler on Fruitvale Station (his breakout film), shot Black Panther on Arri ALEXA XT Pluses with Open Gate at 4K (4096 x 2160). Primarily a two-camera shoot, she also used REDs for the car sequence VFX array and for the surveillance footage. Final delivery was a 2K digital intermediate, and there was a 3D version, as well.
During production there were two daily drops of footage that were handled by a dailies manager and colorist who would ingest, color, and transcode for the assistant editors. The assistants would then verify and prep the DNxHD 115 files for the editors and upload the PIX media for the executives and department heads. During the second-unit South Korea shoot, a dailies team sent files to the editorial department every three days. The editorial offices were also equipped with a screening room for anyone who wanted to view projected images.
With approximately 500 hours of footage (a whopping 250:1 shooting ratio!), including a lot of 48 and 72 fps material, dealing with the sheer volume and the extra processing presented one of the bigger challenges for the editorial department. Obviously, they also needed plenty of storage, for which they used Avid NITRIS. Oh, and did we mention that there were over 2000 VFX shots that needed to be turned over and tracked?
After wrapping principal photography, the editors had ten months to complete the cut. The two editors handled different sequences, but had an excellent working relationship, sharing ideas and feedback. Berman, who had never worked with Coogler prior to Black Panther, has said that she thought he was the best person she’d met, citing his openness, trust in his team, good humor, and extreme talent. After taking in over a billion dollars and earning six Oscar nominations, is it any surprise that Coogler is already working on Black Panther 2?
Find a story that’s meaningful and important—because if it resonates with you, chances are it will with others—and put yourself into it with all you’ve got.
Work with people whom you trust, and continue to build relationships with like-minded people. Be collaborative and be nice to others, because no matter how large or how small the crew, you depend on everyone’s contribution.
And remember: none of the people whose films we’ve covered started out thinking they’d be Oscar nominees. They made films because it’s their passion and their purpose—which is what drives them to be the best they can be. So learn from them. Be inspired by them.
We sure are.
Thanks to the following people who shared production details used in this article:
- Mike Azevedo, First Assistant Editor, A Star Is Born
- Jason Battle (First Assistant Editor) and Susan Lazarus (Post Supervisor), BlacKkKlansman
- Nancy Valle, Post Supervisor, Black Panther
- Bill Wohlken, Post Supervisor, Green Book
- Adam Gough, Co-editor, Roma
- James Panting, First Assistant Editor, The Favourite
- Alex Olivares, First Assistant Editor, Vice