Art of the Cut: The VFX-Heavy Editing of Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead”
Zack Snyder’s latest zombie action flick, Army of the Dead, made news before it was even released when the decision was made to remove the already-filmed performance of one actor with a last-minute substitution.
Naturally, this step is never taken lightly, as it significantly affects the editorial and VFX departments, not to mention the post-production budget. We were keen to learn about these effects, as well as what it was like working alongside one of the most talked-about directors in Hollywood.
Both have long lists of high-profile titles in their filmographies, and also worked together on Zack Snyder’s other big ticket, Justice League.
Check out the Art of the Cut podcast to listen to this interview, and stay up to date on all the latest episodes.
HULLFISH: The first thing I have to ask about is the replacement of an entire human being in the movie. When did you find out that this was going to be a problem that needed to be solved? And what did that mean for editorial, outside of special effects?
DORN: First, we had to identify every shot where the replaced character was and create a list of that. Carlos and the VFX department did that together, Right, Carlos?
DORN: That was the first thing, and then a decision had to be made whether or not we were going to replace the character, reshoot, or omit the shot or the scene. Then, there was a huge process—and this is where Carlos was working hand-in-glove with the VFX department to look for alternate takes and things like that—if we were going to do a replacement, sometimes it made sense to do alternate takes.
HULLFISH: Why would it help to choose an alternate take? Because the camera move or blocking made the replacement easier?
CASTILLÓN: Yeah, exactly; for both of those reasons, sometimes we can swap a take-out. Because it’s an ensemble cast, a lot of the replacements are just digitally removing a blurry character from the background and then replacing it with another blurry character. If we can get away with cutting around seeing the other actor, then we would do that.
HULLFISH: And when in the schedule did you find out that that was happening?
CASTILLÓN: It was after our preview, so I think we were close to being locked. Then, the decision was made to basically finish the current version, and then the reshoot was done after the first final mix was completed, and we didn’t bother with the DI.
DORN: The reshoot was during COVID lockdown, so we went to the location. We were there for the two weeks of shooting, but we couldn’t do what we would have normally done, which was go and be on set. But the director, the VFX supervisor, and the producers would come to our room and see the material cut in on the same day from the video tap. I think the video tap editor was doing that too, or the video tap guy was slotting things in; they were doing overlays and that sort of thing.
HULLFISH: There are a couple of storylines in the movie. Did the storylines layout the same way that the script did? Or did you find that you needed to rebalance things when you were in post?
DORN: No, I think we pretty much went with the structure of the script. I would say just some of the scenes were either eliminated or thinned down. So, maybe less dialogue than was initially written. In the beginning, the real heart of the movie was the Scott/Kate relationship, but that became more of a side story. I would say that was the biggest change. Our first cut was about three and a half hours, so we knew it was going to come down, and that was the obvious place to get it down as long as you understood what was going on.
HULLFISH: I noticed a couple of pre-lap edits. What does a pre-lap get you? Is it just interesting and it’s a new way to do something, or does it help with the pace? Why do you do a pre-lap?
DORN: It’s just a nice tool to use to create cohesion. I like to use audio pre-laps because, whether it’s music, sound effects, or dialogue, they pull you into the next beat. You can do that more efficiently with a pre-lap rather than closing down a moment and opening up a moment.
HULLFISH: There are several music montages. Can you talk to me about creating those? Were some of those actual scenes at one point that got turned into montages?
DORN: No, they were all designed as montages, and the opening title, actually, was all shot high-speed, so everything was playing slow motion. The first cut that I did of that, I wasn’t doing speed ramps or anything; I was just quickly getting it all in there. I think it was something like 16 minutes long. It was just a really quick slam together to get everything in there. Then, Zack had the idea to get Jenn Horvath, who’s one of his long-time collaborators as a trailer editor, to bring it down to a more rational running time and to also craft it. She was really good at crafting all the speed ramps.
We were using a different song at first, and then she got it as close as she could without ever having the song. She was quite frustrated by not having the song because, as a trailer editor, that’s definitely what you’re doing: you’re picking your music and then cutting to the music. She did a great job, but then she handed it back to me, and I continued to craft it and work it back and forth between the music and the VFX department because we had the gunshots, so that meant adding muzzle flashes, blood splats, speed-ups, jump cuts… all of that, in fact, was one of the last things we locked.
HULLFISH: What about some of the other montages that were in there? Did you have music locked in before you started the montages?
DORN: The song, The End, when they’re heading toward Vegas, was a late addition, and we added some VFX to make it more interesting. Then, Zombie at the end of the movie was always there from the beginning, which is Vanderohe’s journey to go to Utah to get the jet. That was always the plan for that to be Zombie.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about your collaboration between the two of you and how you and Carlos worked together.
CASTILLÓN: I came in with a lot of experience in dealing with Zack and that camp, so that was very useful because this was the first time that Dody worked with Zack. There’s a lot of expectations as to what the director is expecting when he receives a cut, and Zack is very laid back, and he loves to get everything. Like that main title sequence, I think it was closer to 20 some odd minutes initially because everything was 240 frames [per second], and he loves it.
He loves to sit there and just watch everything together. It was a lot of that, a lot of Dody wanting to get all the dailies cut, but not wanting to spend too much time on stuff, so then I would watch stuff, and I would say, “Oh, this is something that Zack would totally be into.” Then, I would pass it along to him, and he would pass me notes, and I would give them to her. I was this conduit between the two while they were both busy shooting and cutting daily.
DORN: I really loved that I could go to Carlos’s room and say, “Come and watch this,” and then say, “Can I stop working on this so I can cut the dailies from yesterday instead?” That was really helpful just to know where it fell with Zack in terms of how refined he wanted things right there and then at the moment because my goal always is to get everything cut as quickly as possible to make sure that we have all the material that we need. There were a couple of places where doing that proved useful, as it would, that they had to go back and get a couple of things.
“Can I stop working on this so I can cut the dailies from yesterday instead?”
HULLFISH: What were some of those things that made you think, “Oh man, I really miss this moment or this angle?”
DORN: It’s worth knowing that Zack planned from the beginning not to shoot a lot of inserts, which I like as a concept. In his other films, inserts play a big role in terms of storytelling, but he’s known for turning inserts into masters, so it might start on a closeup of something, and then it widens out or starts wide and ends on the insert, which is nice. It’s a nicely designed shot. In this case, because it was a heist, there were lots of things that you might think would be really inserted, but weren’t. It was mostly in the shot with the characters and very nicely covered.
There was one beat where Dieter puts the key card that Martin had given him to open up the lock and one of the outer doors of the safe room, and I thought, “Huh, that would be nice to have an insert of that,” but it made sense when we added the sound. Zack didn’t want to do inserts. So, I get it. Then, I sent him the scene, and a few days later, without saying anything, I got an insert. He just intuited that. “Oh yeah. I should have an insert of that.”
The two other places with inserts were a closeup of the safe after the zombie squish when Dieter and Vanderohe are looking at the safe. I didn’t have that, I asked for it, and they shot it. The way that’s set is really interesting because it changes throughout the scene because he’s putting all these scratch marks and numbers and things to match his efforts, so they had to go back to the previous set for that. Another insert was the shot of Cruz on the ground after she’s had her neck snapped. I didn’t have a shot of a main character when Scott leaves that area. We really needed a shot of that, and they got it.
HULLFISH: So, talk to me about that balance between knowing that you have to hold on to something long but then also not going too long.
DORN: Well, I’ll tell you it’s a small thing, but one of the last changes we made was to take out the jaw rip-off. So, we have Zeus, the character that comes out of the container, and he rips off the jaw of one of the soldiers, the driver. We had played it all the way out with two angles; one, sort of an angle looking down and one from the side, and you ripped it all the way up, and his tongue lolled out of his mouth. It was really a lot to take in during the first five minutes of the movie, and so we trimmed out the side angles, so you don’t see it come all the way off. In that area, I had been playing the other soldier in real-time, looking at it happen. Then, he grabs his gun and stands up, and all of that was in very real-time. It was really uncomfortable.
Once we took out the jaw, I thought, “I have to speed all this up.” So, I cut all of that tighter. It’s more like a series of jump cuts. He looks, he sees, he grabs, he gets up. So, those two are like opposite approaches. One is jump-cutty and edgy; the other is we’re showing you that the people who are there are seeing it, and they’re subtle. It might’ve been ten frames here and there, some six frame, eight frame trims, but they made a difference.
The other place where some of that plays is when Kate and Geeta are escaping, and Daisy gets attacked by now zombie-Martin, and she falls to the ground. Then, Kate kills Martin. When that is not an immediate kill either, he’s sort of snapping at her, ready to get her, and then there’s a beat, beat, beat… and then she kills him. Then, there’s a pause again, then there’s the look, and they see Zeus is down the hall with his band of merry zombies. All of those things, they need these rise and drop, rise and drop, and rise and drop. That, again, is supported with music in terms of things dying down and then making room for them to build up again.
HULLFISH: There’s a scene where the zombies are in hibernation. That scene has great tension. Something happens that lets the audience know that all of the zombies will probably be woken up suddenly and unexpectedly. How was that moment of tension built in editing?
DORN: I got all the material I needed in the dailies, and they went back and forth a couple of times to get the perfect feeling of that tray sliding out of its grooves and ready to fall. It existed in the dailies, so I was able to cut it and cut back to it to remind you, and then it falls. The idea is that you want it to fall a second before or a second after when you think it’s going to fall so that you feel off-kilter. You don’t want it to happen exactly when you think it’s gonna happen. You want to be in the position of the character who’s surprised by it. That’s just trial and error. You have to try it and see what feels best.
HULLFISH: Carlos, when you’re helping Dody with some of these scenes, does your knowledge of what Zack likes for, say, temp score one of those things that you’re providing your Zack Snyder knowledge on?
CASTILLÓN: We knew who the composer was going to be, so we came in with a lot of Junkie XL’s music loaded up into the Avid. Sometimes when he gives notes on a cut, Zack will very rarely mention the score. A lot of times, the cuts will go to him without a score on them. He likes to look at stuff without music. It’s back and forth. Dody didn’t really spend that much time on music only because it’s such a big ensemble that you have to get everything in at the same time, but our music editor came on, and he started tightening the bolts on the music. Then, Junkie started sending stuff right away. He came out to set a couple of times, and so he had all these ideas of things that he wanted. It was all shepherded that way.
Zack puts in a lot of the needle drops there in the script. Before we even started, Zack had a playlist of all the songs and the different versions of the songs. He said, “Look, this is the feel for the movie.” This is the soundtrack of the movie, basically in his head. So, we use that as a jumping board.
HULLFISH: Dody, is that something that you feel comfortable with, cutting without temp score in there? I know for some editors, it makes them a little nervous, but some editors love not adding temp.
DORN: I love cutting without temp score. When you’re doing that, you’re really relying on the performances, and we know that music will support, but you’re not relying on it to get through something. We did do a lot of sound effects work, though, and that was really effective for this film; we really put a lot of effort into that, and I think that was really helpful.
CASTILLÓN: Yeah, a lot of zombie growls, gunshots, and creepy ambiances.
DORN: We worked with Scott Hecker, who has done sound on all of Zack’s movies, and he gave us a toolkit.
HULLFISH: Do you find that the sound effects can affect the pacing of the visuals?
DORN: More than can affect it, I’m a big believer that you have to leave room for sound effects because even if we have a temp sound, it’s not as fleshed out or complex as what’s going to be there in the final cut and you need to leave room for those things. I really liked that we would have the sound effects before we’ve done temp music, because temp music sometimes is trying to do the same work that the sound effects are doing, and then you just have a collision.
HULLFISH: Tell me about the balance between the tension and the release of tension. What were some of the things that you felt like, “Oh, we had this funny moment, and it was too long, or it was too short, and we needed it longer? ”
DORN: I think that there’s an expectation that in a three-act structure, things are going to move along at a certain clip, but we really did start with a fully fleshed-out rough assembly. We watched it again with no temp music except for the needle drops, so there was music; there were quite a few more needle drops and ended up in the finished film. We had a good time watching the film from there; we just kept crafting and whittling until we got to what we felt was a complete story with enough character development, context and that all the action scenes were really rocking.
HULLFISH: Carlos, you claim your job was to be a conduit, but what else were you doing?
CASTILLÓN: A lot of the sound work was a lot of fun because we’re creating a whole spooky environment. I loved the scene at the beginning where the two soldiers are running through the desert. There was a whole other animal involved at one point, everything works individually as a little scene, and then you put it all together, and you’re like, oh, it’s three and a half hours long. Who knew that was going to happen?
DORN: He’s being so humble. He cut some scenes during dailies, and they’re in the movie, so he did a great job. A really great editor/assistant relationship includes having somebody who can grab some scenes, cut them, work on the sound and really just be part of the whole editing refining process. Carlos was great for that because there was no question or wondering from Zack if I should be giving him scenes to cut or that he should be giving him the notes rather than me. It was all just very seamless that way.
CASTILLÓN: We also did a lot of working together where Dody would be cutting the scene, and then I would be going through checking the coverage to see if something more is needed or wanted in a scene. In particular, the casino night was a big one because we’re inside of the casino; there’s stuff happening in the basement still. There are these different areas in which there’s all this action happening, and so we went through a couple of late nights and just really fleshed out each of those action sequences and deciding when to go back and forth and how long to stay within something.
HULLFISH: When you’re intercutting those kinds of scenes, what were some of those factors that led you to go, “Let’s go outside for this, let’s come back inside for that.” How are you deciding when to switch those storylines?
DORN: You want to keep following, and you don’t want to be away too long because you don’t want to lose the thread. Even the stuff with Peters on the roof with the chopper, we had to have a few little scenes, but we didn’t want them to be big distractions either. We wanted to remind you. “Oh yeah. They can’t leave until the chopper’s fixed”. So you need to go back periodically. A lot of the scenes they’re designed very clearly, one to lead to the other, so you’re sticking to that model if you can. The Martin/Lilly stuff pretty much always queued up the Zeus stuff, and that was a more traditional montage.
HULLFISH: You were talking about story structure and how you expect things to happen in a three-act structure. They get to Vegas—where the zombies are—at almost exactly a third of the way through. Then they get to the target hotel and learn a critical piece of information at exactly the halfway mark. Were there story beats that you knew you needed to get to by certain points?
DORN: There was a consciousness of, “We need to get to them heading toward Vegas.” There was probably more in the first third of the movie that was taken out than anywhere else because once they’re on that road, all of the scenes, one triggers the next, the next, the next.
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Even the scene where Scott kills his wife, that scene was much longer, and then there were a lot more scenes with Kate and Scott on the phone where they were clearly not jibing with each other.
There were more scenes in the second act; there were more scenes with Kate and Scott or longer versions when they were starting up the generator and checking the hatch at the top of the stairs in the safe room; all of those got trimmed down.
HULLFISH: What’s guiding you on those trims? Is it the emotion that you know you need later on to carry something? Is it story beats? Is it the overall pace?
DORN: Anyone would like to be able to say the movie is as long as it needs to be, but at the same time, you don’t want to overstay your welcome. Sometimes you take things out, sometimes you put things back, you see how it feels. It’s just trial and error, and you have to stay as fresh as you possibly can to feel those beats in that rhythm. There’s a funny little beat between Guzman and Dieter where he admires Guzman’s hair. That beat was much longer, and we at one point took the whole thing out, and then we thought, “You know, that’s a funky beat. Let’s just put that back.” It’s kind of unexpected, and I think that it’s good to be kind of surprising to the audience in a place where they’re not expecting.
“It’s just trial and error, and you have to stay as fresh as you possibly can to feel those beats in that rhythm.”
HULLFISH: Carlos, you’ve been in the room to see David Brenner cutting with Zack, what discussions that you were privy to kind of opened your eyes to a creative solution? What did you learn by watching Zack work with the other editors?
CASTILLÓN:It really points to how collaborative Zack is. He has a very clear vision of what his movies should be, and when you read a Zack Snyder script, you see how this is going to work, so there isn’t a lot of restructuring that goes on. Like Dody was saying the little bits of added humor and the inserts he shoots, that’s where he really does interject here and there. A lot of those conversations are really interesting to see.
DORN: I felt from the beginning that the Kate and Scott story was going to be more pivotal. We talked about how there would be this tender but broken father-daughter theme for their scenes and Junkie XL did write something for that, but because the scenes were cut down, it’s not as featured as it was. It’s an interesting evolution because one of the first things I did when we got back to LA was continuity for each of the teams. Carlos helped by creating a cut of just Scott and Kate’s relationship as well as just the zombies so we could watch and see that the information was all flowing.
HULLFISH: In the scene in the hallway outside the safe, when Vanderohe is bringing a bunch of zombies down as guinea pigs, you used an editing technique that I’ve seen before, where show a repeated section of a scene longer the first time. And then, each time that you repeat the scene, you have to show it shorter and shorter.
DORN: I always say in those moments the audience will be thanking you for not showing him go back, get in the elevator again and open the elevator doors again and come out. You don’t need that. You just need to see the wheels of the dolly come to a stop; that’s enough.
CASTILLÓN: Guzman’s line there is perfect. Right? He just says, “Where are you getting these?”
DORN: That was another one where you’re talking about tension, but this is comedic tension when Vanderohe says, “Is it safe now?” after the guns come out of the wall and they shoot the zombie’s arm off, and Dieter goes, “Yeah, it’s safe.” and then the two walls close on the zombie and when it opens it’s just this stretchy goo. You have to leave the beat where he’s processing this, and then he says, “Yeah, it’s okay. It’s okay. I think now it’s safe.” but that’s definitely where there’s something that you have to leave that little beat there for that to have the full humor impact.
HULLFISH: A lot of people would attribute that beat to the comic timing of the actor, but of course that beat is created. The timing is created in editing.
DORN: I have the choice; I could have cut it tighter. Sometimes those beats are the beats that go when you’re trimming things down, but you have to protect those. Sometimes when you tighten something else, you have to tighten other things around it, or it feels just proportionately weird if there’s not a good reason for it to be there.
HULLFISH: Even though Justice League came out first, You guys had started working on Army of the Dead before it, right?
DORN: Mainly because of the reshoot. We stopped working on Army of the Dead while they were casting and figuring all that out. Then we did the Justice League cut because we had to lock it pretty quickly, so the VFX could get in the work. Then we went back on Army of the Dead before the reshoots. We flipped back and forth a couple of times, actually, because we also had an additional shoot on Justice League.
HULLFISH: Did you know ahead of time you were going to work on both those films?
DORN: I didn’t know, but I really think that COVID played a role here because we were working at home whereas if we had been in the Army of the Dead editing rooms, I doubt seriously that Warner Brothers or Netflix would have wanted us to flip into those rooms. It would have been more complicated, but because where we were working was of no consequence, it allowed us to shift around. I think it would have been hard for Zack if he had another editorial team because he could switch in his mind kind of quickly, and we could keep up with both projects.
HULLFISH: Can you tell me what are some of the things that you had to do to be able to prepare to work remotely?
DORN: We did what everybody else did, except we were way ahead of the curve. Andrea Wertheim, our post-producer, ordered the computers for our homes. We went to Atlas and had tutorials on how to use the VPN and gear all before March 13th. By Monday, March 16th, we were getting equipment set up in our homes, and by Tuesday, we were up and running.
HULLFISH: Did you have a team of other assistants and second assistants and people that you were also trying to coordinate?
CASTILLÓN: Initially on Justice League, it was just me, and then we very quickly realized that in a perfect world, we would have had two additional assistants. We had one assistant on Justice League, Joey Amrun, and then on Army of the Dead we had another assistant, Jason Barnes; they had both worked as first assistants before, so that really gave me the flexibility to be able to go back and forth because it was not only managing the cutting room but also managing two big visual effects teams and managing the sound team.
There were some people that worked on both projects, but there was an ADR editor, so it was just keeping track of everything going on. It was a lot of writing stuff down, my computer was covered in post-its, and I filled up probably three notebooks of just notes trying to keep track of what is going on what show at a given time. Our favorite quote for the last year was. “Which project?”
DORN: He had to ask everybody that. I would ask you, you would ask me, I would ask Zack, Zack would ask you, Zack would ask Andrew because a lot of the same facilities were involved in both movies. We had Company3 on both; we had Scott Hecker on both; it really did get kind of tricky, but the VFX teams on both movies were pretty large, and they also had to integrate into our systems. We had a VFX editor on Army of the Dead, and then on Justice League, there were two VFX editors and a huge team. There were probably 10 or 12 people who all had to be kept up-to-date as well.
HULLFISH: Did you ever just cut in some zombies into the Justice League?
CASTILLÓN: There actually is. It’s at the end of Justice League. We have that flash forward to the post-apocalyptic future, and there’s a zombie skeleton in a burned-out car. It helped that it was the same look, the same shooting location. So we thought, let’s just put it in the movie.
HULLFISH: That’s very funny. Thank you so much for so many insightful answers and interesting topics.
DORN: Thank you for having us.
CASTILLÓN: It was fun.
DORN: I always enjoy talking with you.
HULLFISH: Dody and Carlos, thank you so much. I’m sure we’ll check back in with you on your next movie