A historical opening night
On the night of Thursday, April 25, 2019, Avengers: Endgame editor Jeffrey Ford found himself sitting in a movie theater close to tears. Together with Marvel Cinematic Universe mastermind Kevin Feige, as well as directors Joe and Anthony Russo, Ford had snuck into an opening night screening at the Village theater in Westwood, California, to watch Endgame.
This was the culmination of a massive journey that began in 2008 with Iron Man, and Jeff wanted to see how audiences reacted. Would they love it? Would they hate it? When would they laugh, or cry, or cheer? He wanted to be carried away by the reactions of the audience and become, for those moments, not an editor but a fan.
That night’s screening of Endgame overwhelmed him in the best possible way. “The audience was just in every moment and it seemed like they were having the ride of their lives. It was one of the best screenings I’ve ever been to,” he says, but goes one step further. “It was one of the best nights that I’ve had in my career.”
Endgame would go on to shatter just about every major box office record, racking up a “Thanos-sized” opening box office of $1.2 billion. As of this writing, Box Office Mojo has its worldwide B.O. at $2.3 billion—in just TWO WEEKS (it’s safe to say that Avatar’s nearly decade-long record of $2.7 billion will soon be beaten).
Let’s take a look at the amazing behind-the-scenes editorial work that went into making what is arguably one of the great achievements in cinematic history.
Setting the stage with previz
Throughout Phase 3, editors frequently were brought on extremely early on their respective films. Editors like Craig Wood (Ant-Man and the Wasp) and Michael P. Shawver (Black Panther) were brought in weeks before production even started. A large reason for that is the significance pre-visualization plays in creating a Marvel Studios film.
Editors would edit existing pre-visualization, or influence their creation, in order to provide sequences that would guide production on what to shoot once the cameras started rolling. As for who Marvel’s go-to pre-visualization company is: The Third Floor.
Pre-visualization and assembling an editorial super-team
Before shooting on Endgame even began, they did extensive pre-visualization to help realize and visualize footage of characters, locations, and action sequences that can’t exist outside of a computer, but are needed to both influence shooting and Ford’s early edits.
For previz, Ford worked with Gerardo Ramirez from The Third Floor, whom he calls a genius. “Ramirez was literally an additional director/writer/editor on the movie because he would come up with these sequences for us based on our pitches and our ideas and what was in the script,” says Ford. They would pitch or show stills and storyboards, and Ramirez would run with them. “Ramirez starts animating them in Maya and creates these fully realized animated sequences,” Ford says. These became instrumental for Ford to work with and guide what was shot during production.
Endgame: The tech and team
As for non-previz footage, Infinity War and Endgame were shot back-to-back and resulted in more than 890 hours of footage between the two films. The film was shot on the Alexa 65, and edited offline with DNX115, Mac Pro “trash cans” with 64GB of RAM and Nexis storage.
Every day the ARRIRAW footage was recorded to Codex mags and offloaded to the Pinewood Atlanta Studios dailies team. Next, it was backed up to LTO and large offsite storage, then colored, synced, and transcoded to DNX 115 for Avid and H.264 for PIX upload.
Ford had a sizeable team to help him – a necessity with all the material a movie like Endgame produces. “When you have four or five units shooting, you need four or five assistants to pump out the dailies each day,” Ford says.
First assistant Robin Buday leads the way. “He can knock out 100,000 feet of dailies in an hour, the guy’s so good at it,” Ford raves. “He’s the guy that can birddog the workflow and make sure that it’s flowing perfectly and that you don’t even see a bump in the road.”
1st Assistant Robin Buday from Avid’s “Avengers” BTS video.
Ford’s second assistants were Cory Gath and Hector Padilla, who helped wrangle some of the dailies workload, motion capture footage, as well as second and third unit material. “Hector and Cory would be on set everyday,” Ford adds. “One would be with the main unit and one would be with the second unit, holding the reference of the cuts that I had made, so that the directors could see what I was cutting instantly.”
Rounding out his team were…
- Dave Cory who served as Matt Schmidt’s first assistant
- Post-supervisor Adam Cole and post-production coordinator Tien Nguyen
- Post-production assistants Brian O’Grady and Lee Ann Patrick.
- Music editors: Steve Durkee, Anele Onyekwere, and Nashia Wachsman.
- VFX editorial team was headed by Emily Denker and included Tom Barrett, Steve Bobertz, Hannah Long, and Francisco Ramirez.
Much of the team had worked together before, which helped the workflow on Endgame greatly. “We’ve been together so long that by the time we got to Infinity War, there was a shorthand among all of us,” Ford says. He worships his team. “They always come through and that’s such a gratifying experience when your team just never lets you down.”
The team doesn’t just work closely together, they’re also close away from work. “We spend so much time together, that if we didn’t love each other, we couldn’t do the job,” he says. During the making of Endgame, they would often gather for bowling nights to socialize and bond, using the names of their favorite Marvel villains and heroes to put up on the bowling screens. (Ford always used the name Ebony Maw).
It takes two
As close as Ford is with his whole team, one of the most significant collaborations he has is with his co-editor, Matthew Schmidt. The two met working on I, Robot in 2004 and have been working together at Marvel since The Avengers, where Schmidt was Ford’s first assistant editor.
By the time the pair got to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Schmidt was moved up to co-editor at Ford’s side, where he has been ever since. Because of the challenges of Infinity War and Endgame shooting back-to-back, the immense amount of footage that was produced, and the fact that sometimes material for both films was shot at the same time (in order to accommodate actors’ schedules or set availability), Schmidt’s presence was invaluable. The co-editors would work on material as it came in. Their workflow is a fluid one.
“There’s no propriety, ‘He’s got these scenes, I’ve got those scenes,’” Ford says. They’ll even frequently trade back and forth to take advantage of each other’s objectivity and to refresh their own. “I’ll throw him a scene and say, ‘Hey, I don’t think this is very good, see if you can do better.’ And he’ll do better. Then he’ll give it back to me, and I’ll go, ‘Wait a minute, you did that, I have another idea,’ and I try that. Then he goes, ‘Oh wait, I have an idea about this.’ So it’s really just sort of jumping in where you can.”
That process also allows for a useful shared knowledge base regarding the film, materials, and progress. “We both know everything that’s going on, pretty much, all the time,” Ford says. “There’s always somebody there that knows where to find what needs to be found, and knows how to help with the directors.”
That was crucial for when, at a certain point, the Infinity War release became more pressing. Ford started working exclusively on the first film, as Schmidt kept Endgame materials up to date. “When the Russos had a little bit of time, they’d go work with him,” Ford says. “Once Infinity War was delivered, Matt and I went back to work together on Endgame, and we started in for a final pass.”
When it comes to Ford’s individual process and setup, he likes it pretty straightforward. He likes to watch footage on a big screen, to ensure the technical quality of the photography, focus, and sound are all up to par, and he doesn’t need to call the Russos about any hiccups.
He also likes to work with one primary track of dialogue—no music or sound effects. He does so in order to assess the rhythm of the actors and visuals. “If the cut works with dialogue and picture, in a mono configuration, it’s going to be amazing when you put music and add 5.1 audio,” he explains. (Below is another clip from Avid’s BTS video. All rights reserved.)
As for the processing of dailies: “It’s really about having an edit of what we shot each day ready as soon as possible,” Ford says. “When material comes in each day, we assess it, I watch as much of it as I can (which is usually most of it). Then I cut it the next day while I’m watching the material from that day.
“Getting it together, getting it sketched out, getting a feel for what they’re shooting each day, is almost more important than getting polished, finished cuts.” It helps keep him from falling behind, something that is risky for a massive project like Endgame. “Letting it accumulate is deadly on something like this,” he says.
Ever since his first film, Ford immediately breaks down dailies for dramatic scenes into three acts – beginning, middle, and end. He wants to get footage shrunk down into smaller, more manageable pieces in order to better enable narrowing down selects. “My select reels are built into the part one, part two, part three of the scene rather than one long select reel,” he says.
He also just likes having an early grasp of a scene’s structure before moving forward. He identifies the act breaks usually by watching for story. “There’s always a certain turning point in scenes,” he explains. “I also like to cut the scene with everything that’s in the screenplay, and anything that the actor’s improvised, so that I have a full version of the scene first, before I begin eliminating.” But it can get more logistical too. “You can also base it on blocking. The actors usually have three or four positions they hit over the course of the scene.”
But his story choices are anything but logistical, ultimately. “What I’m doing is watching the movie with the script in mind, and saying, ‘Where have these actors given the incredible performances that also intersect with story?’” he says.
The emotion within the performances is especially key. “With the variance between actors’ line readings from take to take, I’m not always looking for what they said. I’m really looking for what they’re feeling in it.” Emotions and feelings were especially important for Endgame given that it’s a more deliberately paced film, with greater emphasis on dialogue and emotion.
“I think the movie has very few cuts per reel compared to the other Marvel movies,” he says. “It’s because we wanted to play really long moments with the actors and let them make the transitions. Not cutting away is probably a bigger decision than cutting away for me.”
Ford continues. “Especially on Endgame, it was about when not to cut. Let Scarlett make the transition. Let Evans make the transition. Let them get to the place they’re going, let the audience watch them do this beautiful thing where they go from one idea to the next. If I don’t interrupt that, and I don’t do something artificial, the audience feels that it’s real, and it gets you more connected to the character.”
Collaborating with the Russos
Working with the Russo Brothers starts early for Ford, in order to start getting a sense of the shape of the film. “The Russos and I like to screen the movie very early, even a few months or weeks into production,” Ford says. Those early viewings will still include storyboard, previz, and screenplay pages, as well as whatever has been shot to that point.
The way he collaborates with them sticks close with the consigliere philosophy of his mentor, Richard Marks. “Drawing out the essence of the thematics and the dramatic aspects of the story from the directors is part of my technique,” Ford says. “The same way that directors coax the performance out of the actors, that the actors are going to give. I’m trying to coax notes out of the directors.”
Ford does, naturally, offer his own opinions as well. He says it’s his job to do so, but he never forces them. “There were arguments that I lost on Endgame, where the directors wanted to do one thing, and I wanted to do another. But once those decisions were put to bed, I accepted them and I did the best I could to make those moments work with those decisions,” Ford says. “If I imposed my case on Joe and Anthony, then in essence, I’m going to suppress whatever they’re going to bring to the party and I don’t want to do that.”
Character point of view matters
Given the number of characters and plotlines that Endgame juggles, it’s hard as an audience not to wonder, “How the hell did they pull this off?” It was, understandably, not without its challenges, says Ford. “You can get overwhelmed just being episodic and hitting everybody’s story. We’ve had that problem, by the way, since the first Avengers movie,” he says. “During editing that, it was an exercise in balancing how much time we spent with each team member, how we brought them into the team, how they fractured, and how they came together again. It was delicate, and we took a lot of time to get that balance right.”
That challenge and the experience of overcoming it carried forward with crucial know-how. “They have to flow, and they have to relate to each other for it to hang together,” he says. Story is what provides the glue. “The movie’s a fluid, changing organism as you’re putting it together. But, I think that balancing is really related to story. Endgame is a good example because the movie is bound and determined to follow those original six Avengers on a journey. That’s important for the way the movie works,” Ford says.
The other glue is point-of-view, which is the crucial baton that helps pass audiences from one POV to another. “Solving point of view in these movies is not easy. It’s actually the biggest challenge editorially, much more so than the action or the visual effects,” Ford says.
The screenplay provides an early jumping off point since scenes usually make POV clear. But determining how to move from POV to POV is also influenced by techniques like transitioning in and out of close-ups or keeping an eye out for emotional ebbs and flows in a character’s story.
[Spoiler warning: minor spoiler in next few paragraphs from the beginning of the movie.]
The power of a well-placed POV is clear right out of the gate in the opening scene of Endgame where Hawkeye is at home, and his family is taken by “The Snap.” Originally, it was actually meant to be a scene featured at the end of Infinity War. “At first, I was reluctant to move it out of the first movie,” Ford admits.
“But then, when we looked at what it did for us at the beginning of the second film, just in terms of adding emotional stakes, it was a magical thing.” Putting it there, and firmly in Hawkeye’s perspective, helped them show the deeper and more human horror of what Thanos had done. “You needed that level of intensity emotionally, in order to play the heaviness of the rest of the reel—because it serves as a reminder to the audience about what happened, and the stakes emotionally,” he says.
[End of spoilers]
Anyone who has seen Avengers: Endgame knows that it wasn’t the only moment full of emotional stakes. A lot of factors went into making Marvel Studios’ magnum opus a record-setting box office monster; but the emotion that Ford and his collaborators brought out in almost every moment of the story is one of the most significant factors. But beyond the movie, and beyond his opening night experience, there was one more significant moment of emotion to come for Jeffrey Ford.
One more Endgame screening to remember
After Ford’s opening night screening of Endgame, he went to one more that Sunday with his two sons. They wanted to see it again, even though they’d seen it at the premiere and, much to his relief, had liked it. (“The people I sweat the most about seeing the final version are my kids. Them and Robert Downey, Jr.” Ford laughs)
That Sunday, as he mingled among hundreds in the packed multiplex, he had one more chance to see the impact of what he, and Marvel Studios, had done. “It was overwhelming and really moving at the same time just to see all those people at the theater,” he says. “It just felt great to see people going to a movie. But the fact that it was something I worked on was even more amazing.”
Original photography by Irina Logra.
Appendix I: Phase 3 workflow roundup
As you may already know, Endgame marks the end of Phase 3 of the MCU “Infinity Saga” (each of the previous two phases culminated with an Avengers movie). In much the same way we did with our Oscar Workflow Roundup, we wanted to know what the workflow processes were for the films in Phase 3.
Throughout Marvel Phase 3, the studio most frequently relied on the ARRI ALEXA 65 to shoot in various ARRIRAW formats, including 2.8k, 3.4k, 6.5k, and at 2.39:1 aspect ratio (with IMAX sequences shot in 1.90:1).
Speaking of IMAX, Endgame was shot entirely in IMAX. We asked First Assistant Robin Buday if this posed a challenge to the editorial team. It didn’t.
“Shooting on the IMAX cameras doesn’t really change the post workflow because it’s still just an ARRI 65 shooting to Codex mags in ARRIRAW. The only difference is the file sizes.
“We had already shot a sequence on Arri 65 for Civil War (the airport end battle) so we were familiar with it going in. On Civil War we had to repo several shots from that sequence for the 2.40:1 version, but for Infinity War and Endgame, we shot 1:90.1 the whole time while framing for 2.40:1. We would receive the picture 1:90 full frame and add a matte in the reels to see the 2:40. That’s really the only difference.”
Additional cameras used were the Arri Alexa XT Plus (Civil War, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Black Panther), Arri Alexa Mini (Doctor Strange, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Ant-Man and the Wasp), Arriflex 235 (Doctor Strange). The only outlier was Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which was shot on the Phantom Flex 4k and the Red Weapon Dragon in 8k Redcode RAW.
Buday continues: “Infinity War was the first time that our editorial crew cut 24 frames instead of 23.98 however. This was great because it saved the sound team having to do a conversion at the end for the DCP. It was not so great, however, when we had to pull old shows that were cut at 23.98 and add them to the sequences. In shots where there was a lot of motion, the image would often get artifacting and other weird anomalies so we would just pull them as VFX shots from Marvel’s digital lab and have them sent as 24 frame shots.”
As for editing, all Marvel Phase 3 films used Avid Media Composer and the latest, most stable build that Disney engineering approved. Before Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, all films were edited with DNX36, but after that, Marvel films moved on to DNX 115.
The crews (as in editorial teams)
The two-editor set up on Avengers: Endgame was not an anomaly within Marvel Phase 3. Marvel makes big movies with a lot of moving parts, and a two-pronged approach greatly helped manage the editing load. In fact, every film throughout the phase had two editors.
- Ford and Schmidt, of course, worked on Captain America: Civil War.
- Sabrina Plisco and Wyatt Smith shared duties on Doctor Strange.
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was edited by Fred Raskin and Craig Wood.
- Dan Lebenthal and Debbie Berman worked together on Spider-Man: Homecoming.
- Thor: Ragnarok was cut by Zene Baker and Joel Negron.
- Michael P. Shawver and Debbie Berman tackled Black Panther.
- Dan Lebenthal and Craig Wood edited Ant-Man and the Wasp.
- Lastly, Debbie Berman and Elliot Graham were responsible for Captain Marvel. You can see the pattern.
Every editorial team has their own preferences when it comes to bin organization, but Buday gave us a generalized overview: “We basically have dailies by day, dailies by scene, and various incoming and outgoing folders that have files we’ve received and files we’ve sent out. It’s obviously more complicated than that but that’s the basic layout,” he says. “On our show, everybody has a project of their own: the main assistant one, both editors, VFX, and 3D. We also have a separate project for old reels and one for turnover bins since those get big quickly. Once the show is over I’ll merge the old reels and turnovers into the main project and it’s generally around 160GB in size.”
Appendix 2: The road to Marvel
Now that you know how Ford and team pulled it off, let’s take a walk down memory lane to see how he got here.
Ford’s journey to that night began when he attended the USC School of Cinema-Television (now the USC School of Cinematic Arts), graduating to start out as a camera assistant, acting as a loader and focus puller. His first break as an editor came in 1994 through his film school friend, writer-director James Gray, who was getting ready to direct Little Odessa.
Gray asked Ford to join the project as an apprentice editor and help with dailies and it was a formative experience for the aspiring editor. “I felt like ‘Oh my god, I got the bug. This is really a life that I can have, and be a part of because I love it so much. I love being on set and being in the editing room,’” Ford recalls.
Pursuing his passion, his next turning point came in 1995 when his editor friend, Tia Nolan, hired him as an assistant on Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. There Ford met the legendary Oscar-nominated editor, Richard Marks (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather: Part II, Broadcast News), who became a life-changing mentor. “He taught me pretty much everything about how to be an editor that I’ve used every day,” Ford says.
Among Marks’ lessons were how to be a good collaborator with directors. “You have to be able to be a consigliere for them, give them good advice, and help them shape that narrative,” Ford recalls learning. “[Marks] was great at teaching you how to behave and be in the room with a director, how to understand the creative process so that you could contribute what you had as an editor, without subverting what the director was doing.” Marks also imparted advice about priorities. “It doesn’t matter how fast you are, it matters how good you are. Because, at the end of the day, there’s always a guy that’s fast. But there isn’t always a guy that’s good,” Ford recalls Marks telling him.
Ford would eventually earn his first lead editing job in 2000 by reuniting with James Gray for The Yards. From there, jobs with directors like Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), David Ayer (Street Kings), Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) and Michael Mann (Public Enemies) followed. His collaboration with Mann on Public Enemies not only provided a valuable experience (“After you’ve done a Michael Mann movie, nothing is intimidating,” he jokes), but also led to an opportunity through his co-editor, Paul Rubell.
One day Ford got a call. “Hey, I’m going to do a little picture called Avengers, and I need a second editor. Do you want to do it?” Rubell asked. Ford was interested and came in to meet with producer Victoria Alonso, but she was confused. She thought she was meeting Ford to talk about editing Captain America: First Avenger. “We need an editor on that,” she told him. “We’ll send you downstairs to meet with [director] Joe Johnston because we need somebody to start right away on that. Are you available?” Ford said he was.
“The next day I was working on First Avenger,” Ford says. “I never left.”
Over the next seven years, he became a creative mainstay of the MCU, editing The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Captain America: Civil War. (He points out that he has edited every moment Chris Evans/Captain America has been on screen, except for his cameos in Thor: The Dark World and Spider-Man: Homecoming). Then in 2018, came the most ambitious opportunity yet: Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame.
The rest, as they say, is history.