Art of the Cut: Old Doc, New Tricks in Peter Jackson’s “The Beatles: Get Back”
Today we’re speaking with Jabez Olssen about editing the Peter Jackson documentary, The Beatles: Get Back which is airing now on Disney+. I last spoke with Jabez when he edited Star Wars: Rogue One.
Jabez began his career working on The Lord of the Rings in various capacities. He was also an additional editor working with the legendary editor, Michael Kahn, and director Steven Spielberg, on The Adventures of Tintin.
His work as an editor includes The Lovely Bones, all three Hobbit movies and Jackson’s last documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old. He was nominated for a BAFTA for his work as Additional Editor on The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
Check out the Art of the Cut podcast to listen to this interview, and stay up to date on all the latest episodes.
HULLFISH: Did your work on They Shall Not Grow Old prep you in any way for working on this project?
OLSSEN: Both were a process of restoring the footage, up-rezzing it, and making it look as good as it could. So, that was sort of a dry run for this Beatles project in a way because it developed a lot of the restoration techniques that the team has been using to improve the footage.
HULLFISH: Is that with both picture and audio? I heard about how the audio was restored very specifically so that you could separate instruments.
OLSSEN: That’s right. The audio is a new thing that was just developed in the last year or so, but the picture restoration was the plan from the beginning on this film, which came out of the previous documentary we did where we restored a lot of that World War One footage.
HULLFISH: It was shot on 16mm film and looks fantastic. It looks like they shot it last year to me. It looks beautiful.
OLSSEN: Great. That’s the idea.
HULLFISH: So, you mentioned the audio was something that really just happened in the last year. Did that affect the storytelling and the kind of things that you could do because you’ve been on this longer than that, right?
OLSSEN: Yes. In the last few months, we were able to add in a few things that we otherwise wouldn’t have because the clarity wouldn’t have been there. The new audio technique was an artificial intelligence machine learning-based technique, and the team has had great results.
We started off thinking maybe they could separate the guitars down a bit where they’re drowning out the conversation, and by the end, the guys had machine learning models that could separate one character from another—if I can refer to The Beatles as characters. For example, Paul [McCartney] and John [Lennon] might both be talking and we had great success with being able to separate them into individual tracks so that we could have just Paul talking or just John talking.
If they’re talking to each other, we probably want them both, but we don’t want the background noise. Often there were instruments being tuned, clatter, or talk from the crew. On the original audiotapes, the Nagra tapes that were recorded for the documentary film they were making 50 years ago, it’s all just a mono track with all the sound mixed together.
Often, the dialogue you’re really interested in is muddy and unclear and covered with other noise. What machine learning has really allowed us to do is to bring down the background noise, strip out any instruments that are covering up the dialogue, and just be left with the dialogue that we’re interested in hearing.
HULLFISH: That’s fantastic. Does cutting docs use different muscles for you than doing scripted narrative?
OLSSEN: I think it does. In one regard, you have the director in the cutting room with you for a lot longer and a lot earlier in the process. On a feature film, you are able to assemble the rushes and use the script as a guide so you get to have the first pass on your own; whereas with a documentary, there is no script. So, you’re looking at the footage and you’re trying to discover what the story is from what the footage tells you. It’s quite a different way to go about it.
There were so many hours of footage for every day that The Beatles rehearsed back in January 1969. It was like an archeological discovery. We were watching the footage, finding new things that you couldn’t predict or weren’t expecting, and it was like finding treasure.
HULLFISH: The last time we spoke was when you did Rogue One, and you mentioned how your approach to dailies on that was to make selects reels and then continuously refine them. Did you have the same approach on this or did you have to find a different approach?
OLSSEN: I guess I did to some degree early on, but after a while, you’re not really selecting just individual shots, you’re selecting scenes in the documentary. There might be a conversation that’s fascinating, so you take that. Then there might be a rehearsal of a song that’s really good, and then they change something in the song and they do it again.
You’re taking what could be ten hours of audio and video for one day and trying to refine it down to something smaller just by keeping the most interesting bits and the most interesting storytelling scenes, but when you’ve done that once you’ve probably still got far too much. So, you’ll do that again. Then, at a certain point, you try and make the scenes work.
Because they were shooting on 16mm film, it was expensive and they didn’t want to be reloading every 15 minutes. So they were quite disciplined in how much they would shoot. What that means is that we didn’t always have coverage for entire scenes, or what I keep calling “scenes” even though this is not fiction.
The camera would not always be turned on for the entire conversation or for an entire rehearsal of one song. They shot most of January 1969 with two cameras, and we would be very lucky if both were running at the same time— even more lucky if they were shooting any sort of reverse so that we could cover a conversation back and forth. That was quite rare.
So, what we were often left with was the bones of a conversation that we wanted to include where a few lines might be on camera and in sync. Then, there would be black holes where the camera turned off and we’d just have the audio, and so then we had to go searching in the surrounding areas. A few minutes earlier, they might’ve done a wide shot that could work as a wide shot for this conversation.
It became a real artistic jigsaw to try and put scenes together and actually have coverage that worked for the entire scene. You’ll see in the documentary that there are times where we have to cut away from a conversation to show other people in the room and things, but that’s all part of the fun and part of the creative process.
HULLFISH: Even though you said there were only two cameras if you were lucky, the opening conversation in the film almost feels like there were five cameras rolling. It was wonderfully cut because it felt like there were tons of angles with different shot sizes.
OLSSEN: Oh, that’s great. You’ll have to realize that when there are three setups cut back to back, only two could have existed in reality. So, the third came from somewhere nearby.
HULLFISH: Very interesting. How long were you working on this project?
OLSSEN: It’s probably been over three years now. And pushing into a fourth.
HULLFISH: Do you think that this experience of editing this doc will inform your editing of narrative as you move forward?
OLSSEN: It’s hard to say. I’ll only know that in the future when I’ve looked back. It would be hard to predict at the moment. Cutting a documentary series like this is very different from cutting a narrative feature film, but it’s all storytelling at the end of the day.
You’re looking to see if the film is working, if the story’s being told as clearly as possible, not being overexplained, not being under-explained, whether the pace is right, and whether there are any places where it’s getting boring. These are things that you look at with any film no matter what the genre, fiction or documentary.
I often feel that almost every film is different anyway. I often find that the way I organize footage or put scenes together from a technical point of view changes on every film. Organizing rushes and making selects has changed quite a lot over the years for me. From one film to another, it can be quite different.
HULLFISH: It seemed like the storytelling came a lot from the audio. Can you talk to me about how you would start to piece scenes together?
OLSSEN: A lot of interesting conversations were audio-led. At times I think The Beatles could tell when the cameras were running. That would be very obvious to them because the cameras would be pointed at them and there’d be a crew behind the camera.
They probably felt a little shy when that was happening and they wouldn’t talk quite so candidly, but when the camera was not being operated and they could see that, I think they would often forget that the audio was still recording. Whether they actually forgot it or whether they just got used to it as the days and weeks went on, you would often get a lot more candid conversation happening just on audio-only material where there was no picture being filmed at the time.
What we would do is we’d listen to the rushes, watch them, and we would put all the interesting things together as we could, but then as the years went by and we had a rough cut, we would re-examine the rushes to ask, “Now we’re telling the story perhaps about how they’re discussing shooting in Sabratah, Libya. I wonder if on this day anyone else mentions that?” So, we would watch and listen to the rushes again, just listening to see if anyone else had brought that up either an hour or two before the main conversation or later in the day if the plan changed.
There were things that might not have jumped out on the first pass through the material, but once you knew what the story was wanting to be, they would become really interesting little pieces to go and find.
HULLFISH: Is that something that you do in your scripted work as well? Once you’ve got a scene together, do you think, “Now that I see the structure of this scene, I think I have to re-examine my dailies”?
OLSSEN: Yeah, but I think less so than something like this where the material is just a vast, unorganized treasure trove of pieces that were never planned and were never written. It’s a lot more hunting and gathering, as it were, to find the best moments. Whereas usually in a scripted film—particularly Peter’s ones—there is a plan that we stick to with the footage.
“If it’s a more improvisational film, you have to hunt, you have to know the footage very well, and you have to look at everything.”
In some ways, if it’s a more improvisational film, you have to hunt, you have to know the footage very well, and you have to look at everything. There were moments of that on Rogue One, and Peter sometimes shoots that way too. If he’s shooting a performance capture animation, he works a bit more like this, too, where things will be improvised between takes and the coverage that he’s shooting might change from take to take. One take might be a close-up, the next might be a wide shot, or at some moment halfway through he might pan around and shoot an insert.
In those cases with improvisation, which was what this documentary was like, you could never rest and think. “I’ve listened to this. I’ve watched that and I didn’t grab anything from it so there won’t be anything useful in there.” A few months later, once the story has changed a bit or you’ve altered the editing, now there might be something very useful in those ten minutes that you previously hadn’t counted.
HULLFISH: I heard a great piece of wisdom from some editor that said that his notes when he puts markers in are always positive notes because the negative notes are pointless because you never know whether something is unusable or not until you’re done.
“Negative notes are pointless because you never know whether something is unusable or not until you’re done.”
OLSSEN: That’s right. That’s a good idea. I tend to not put locators and markers on the rushes. Well, I actually did on this documentary, but in a narrative film, I’d be cutting the pieces I like into selects reels, which I did on this documentary too. But because I knew we were going back to the rushes so many times, I did start to put markers in that would describe what was happening so I could have a roadmap the next time we went through them.
HULLFISH: The graphical theme of this is a calendar, and the structure of the documentary is very linear. Can you talk to me about the structure, and was it always like that?
OLSSEN: That was something Peter settled on fairly early in the process. There were some thoughts about if it could be done another way—by perhaps following a song at a time on its progression from being written to being performed—but we settled fairly quickly on just telling the story in the simple linear fashion.
I think that was the right thing to do because so much of the narrative threads of these films are about the guys trying to work out what they want to do and where they want to do a show or if they want to do a show. It’s all very linear and changing over time. If we were jumping back and forth between the days, it might be a bit more confusing and a bit harder for people to follow the progression of where the thought process is at any one moment.
It also made it simpler for us, in a way, because when we were cutting a day’s worth of material we could just focus on that one day. We didn’t have to be thinking about if there was anything a week later that had a bearing here that we should go and grab. If we were doing it that way, we might never have finished, but because we were able to limit ourselves to one day’s footage at a time, it would take us weeks to edit a first pass on any particular day.
We had 22 days of footage from when they rehearsed in January 1969. Well, actually 21 days, because there was one day that The Beatles didn’t allow the cameras to come in and film them.
You’d work for weeks cutting the best material from one day. So, going to a new day was a relief in many ways. It was a fresh start. You could forget everything that you’d cut up to that point, just look at a new film’s worth of rushes, and start again to cut all the best material from that new day.
We didn’t cut them all in chronological order. We would jump around. We started chronologically and then we got bored a bit and thought, “Well, let’s jump a couple of weeks later and cut something from the other location.”
The whole rehearsal period is broken into two locations. The first half is at Twickenham Film Studios; that’s when they thought they were going to be doing a live TV show there. Then, the second half is there at Savile Row Studios, which is in the basement of their own building that they had bought and they were turning into a recording studio. Visually, they’re very different, so it was quite nice to be able to move from one to the other so that visually we weren’t stuck with the same sort of look for the whole time.
Twickenham Film Studios. Not the most glamorous location.
The Savile Row terrace The Beatles used as a recording studio.
HULLFISH: A lot of times I think documentaries start out having to explain the world or explain the circumstances of the documentary, but The Beatles are such a known quantity. Talk to me a little bit about the setup of the documentary and why it could be different from some other documentaries.
OLSSEN: We have a ten-minute prologue to summarize The Beatles career up to when we start. We just run through some of the highlights of Beatlemania in their early days in Liverpool and beyond. We use a bit of text and music just to set the world and let everybody know where they’re at when they first come into Twickenham on the 2nd of January.
HULLFISH: Was that always the plan that you would start with a historical perspective?
OLSSEN: Whether it was always the plan, I’m not sure, but it’s been the plan for a long time. It was one of the last things we did. We didn’t really go and tackle the prologue until we had cut all the actual January footage.
We don’t use any narrator. We don’t use any interviews or talking heads. Apart from the odd bit of text on screen to bring context and an explanation where we felt it was necessary, we try just to let the footage speak for itself and to have The Beatles tell their story themselves, to dramatize their story, as it were.
HULLFISH: There is a little section in that first episode explaining what’s going on with Yoko and John with some newspaper clips, I believe.
OLSSEN: But, even there, those were all inserts that were shot at the time because John and Yoko had brought in a book they were working on, which was newspaper clippings about them to show to everyone else. They brought in the mock-ups and the layouts for this book they were going to publish, and it was basically a collection of all the news stories from the past year that had mentioned John and Yoko.
That was good because it provides for the audience here in 2021 some background and some context, but it was all true to the moment. They brought these newspaper clippings in and they laid them out on the grand piano, and they were showing Paul and everyone else. So, we cut to inserts of those stories and our audience at home can read them too.
HULLFISH: You mentioned how the dailies were organized and that it was shot in days. Is that how the footage was organized in your NLE? Did you have any other organizing principles other than just days or hours?
OLSSEN: The main collection of rushes or dailies were organized by day. We had 21 different days worth of rushes, and these collections could be ten hours long or more. It was all the audio because the audio was the longest bit. Then, wherever picture existed to match that audio, that would be in the timeline as well. If there were two cameras running at once, we would split screen them and put them side by side.
So, if you were to take a full ten hours’ worth of rushes for any given day and hit play at the beginning, you would be listening to audio with just black picture where there was no picture shot, and every now and then a camera will turn on and you will get some sync picture for a while, but often not as long as we would like because then it will turn off again and we’re back to just black picture with the audio. Then, when the camera turns on again, there we go. If two cameras turn on, they split-screen.
That was our main form of rushes, but from there we would make selects, cut them into other reels, and organize it in various different ways.
HULLFISH: Was the determination of what stories you wanted to tell or what scenes to use picked by Peter for the most part? How did you decide that?
OLSSEN: It was an organic process, particularly because it took so long that we tried different things and went different ways. Obviously, Peter is the director and he has final say on these things, but it was all fairly pleasant, cordial, and organic because we do try different things, look at it, change things, and then re-examine the rushes.
Then, maybe something that you cut a couple of calendar days later might have an influence on an earlier storyline that we didn’t really think was important here when we cut it, but a few days later in The Beatles’ lives, it becomes a major thing. So, then you want to go back and emphasize where it first started. There was a lot of that.
There was a song that we didn’t really think was all that important which suddenly made some major changes in a few days’ time and you want to show the beginnings of that when it first happened. There was a lot of back and forth and reexamining the whole flow of the narrative.
HULLFISH: I’m assuming that you explored a bunch of scenes that we didn’t get to see—if we want to call them scenes.
OLSSEN: Yeah. I think our longest assembly was about 18 hours long. So, there is a bunch more material. For anyone who wants an extended cut, we could probably find a few things.
“I think our longest assembly was about 18 hours long.”
HULLFISH: 18 hours extended cut. Trust me, there are fans that are going to want to see that 18 hours.
OLSSEN: Yes, I’m sure.
HULLFISH: That’s just an interesting thought to determine that, “18 hours is what we can make that’s interesting. Now how tight can we get this to be?” Because you could have made this a six-part series if you’d wanted.
“I’m sure it would have been a very different project if the pandemic hadn’t come along.”
OLSSEN: Exactly. Originally, it was going to be one theatrical feature film, so it would’ve been two to two and a half hours. We always knew we wanted the complete rooftop concert at the end, which was about 42 minutes. So, if it had been a feature film in a cinema, we would have been limited to about five to ten minutes of material per rehearsal day, which would have been fine and great, but it would have been harder to show the complete picture and show the narrative that does unfold. There’s such an interesting story that, when the opportunity came along to include more, I guess we ran with it.
You have to remember, we’ve been working on it for three or four years, and when we started none of us had heard the term COVID-19, so that threw a big spanner into the works. I’m sure it would have been a very different project if the pandemic hadn’t come along, but it did and now we’re getting to release on Disney + and we get to show the world a lot more than they might’ve seen otherwise.
HULLFISH: It’s very verité.
OLSSEN: That’s what was shot. We couldn’t really manipulate that [laughs]. Also, the guys were working hard and they were getting tired, and at times they probably didn’t want cameras in their faces. The footage was sometimes shot on a longer lens—almost spying on them from a distance—but overall what was shot and what historic moments were actually captured is amazing.
I think we’re very lucky as Beatles fans and as historians almost to be able to have this material that the world’s never seen. We’re actually going to now be able to see one of the most creative bands of all time at the height of their powers, I truly believe. We’re going to see them working together, creating amazing songs. To me, it’s just an honor to watch it.
It’s also a relief to see that their creative process isn’t that different from any other creative person’s. They’re not walking in with a perfect work of art instantly. They have to work at these things. They have to iterate. They have to try things. They have to work together, bounce ideas off each other, practice again and again, and layer their creativity up until after a lot of hard work, they end up with something amazing. Obviously, the seeds of those amazing songs are often very obvious from the start, but they do iterate just like any of us do, and to me, that’s a huge relief.
HULLFISH: So, did you learn anything about editing from The Beatles?
OLSSEN: I learned to respect the creative process and that you shouldn’t expect to get it perfect on your first go. You always have to be willing to put in the effort and to keep trying to improve it. That’s the lesson I really took away is that if The Beatles can put this much hard work into something, then we all should.
HULLFISH: I noticed some subtle sound design stuff as you moved from the studio to the control room. Is that something that you modeled in your picture cut or is it something they added later in sound design?
OLSSEN: A little bit of both. Sometimes we would start with the band playing in the recording studio and then cut to them listening back to the continuation in the control room. Sometimes that’s just a natural change in sound because they really were listening to what they had just recorded, so now the audio has gone from picking them up live as they play their instruments to picking up the playback out of the speakers that were in the control room. There is just a natural difference to what the Nagra recorder is picking up.
Maybe there will also be talking a little bit over the top as they listened to what they’d play as they’re commenting on it. Also, the control room is a much smaller room so it’s got different acoustic characteristics and ambience, but I quite like that. You cut from the recording room with everything being played live and then you cut into the control room as they listen to it back. That change in sound is quite interesting.
HULLFISH: I thought so, too. You mentioned that cameras weren’t always rolling and maybe even audio tape wasn’t always even rolling.
OLSSEN: That’s right.
HULLFISH: In the first episode that I watched, they’re performing Let It Be. As you’re listening to them iterate, as you mentioned, by trying something and then stopping, there are some very interesting edits where they would be performing Let It Be at full speed and volume, and all of a sudden they’d be talking about it. Obviously, you couldn’t just let that song go on and you probably didn’t want to let it die off and then have them start talking. Can you talk about making those edits?
OLSSEN: That’s an interesting question because it is something we were conscious of. After a while, you couldn’t let every song play to its full length, or at least every version of every song or rehearsal. They played some of these songs 60 times or more. You might want to show a certain aspect of the next rehearsal, but you didn’t want to be trapped into having to play the whole song again. I think the audience would have got quite restless if we’d played the full songs each and every time.
Then, the question became, “Well, how do we get out of a song? Do we try and show them ending? Do we try to create a little breakdown where they stop playing and announce that they’re stopping for some reason?” We did that a little bit, and the more that we went on, it became obvious that we could just cut out these things. At a certain point, the audience will understand that time has passed and we just don’t want to be trapped every time into starting and stopping every song because I think that would bore the audience.
So, after we set it up a bit and do it a few times, we’d just get brave and jump right out of the performance. That way there’s no shoe leather. There can be a lot more content.
HULLFISH: And it keeps the energy up, right?
OLSSEN: Hopefully. That’s the plan.
HULLFISH: What were some of the challenges in getting that 18 hours down to what got delivered?
OLSSEN: It’s about figuring out what can go and still not harm the story that you’re trying to tell. There were some hard sacrifices that had to be made, but at the end of the day, it’s like what I learned from watching The Beatles: it is just an iterative process. It’s working in layers, taking a little bit out, watching it again, taking a little bit more out, watching it again… “Oh no. That shouldn’t have come out. Let’s put that back in, but maybe we can take this other thing out.”
At the end of the day, you just have to be brave, try things, and keep forcing yourself to take things out and make it shorter. It did help that by the end we didn’t just have to be a two-hour feature film.
HULLFISH: I’m really interested in those “killing your babies” moments. This has happened to me in my cutting where you’ve got some great scene but you think, “If we lose this, we increase the energy and the pace to make the storytelling that much more efficient.” Can you think of a specific example of a great scene that had to be cut?
OLSSEN: I’m not sure how much I can say about scenes that aren’t in the film [laughs]. But each of the scenes works in its own right. They all told interesting little stories and showed some aspect of The Beatles’ story.
Peter is a Beatles fan. He would want this all to be seen so that people can have the most complete historical record of this time in The Beatles’ lives. We did have to sacrifice things. Some scenes are great on their own, but they don’t add to the overall story that’s being told, or they’re doing something very similar to another scene that we want to keep.
“There’s a reason for every version of the song that we have in there.”
Particularly with rehearsals of songs, some of these songs get played many times in our film, and you could say, “Well, do you need to have every single one of those?” The answer is no, and we have got rid of a lot of them, but the ones we leave in we hope are all showing something different. Some show the song getting better and changing. Some show an amusing thing that they do where they change the words and sing something different. There’s a reason for every version of the song that we have in there. As you pointed out, we don’t necessarily show the entire version of each song. We might just have what we consider the interesting bit and then move on.
HULLFISH: There are some interesting emotional things too with just the interplay between The Beatles. There was some stuff where John Lennon might’ve been questioning whether the song was headed in the right direction or whether he liked a specific lyric. You could see it on his face. It was really interesting to see.
OLSSEN: Well, one of the interesting things that I will continue to wonder about—because I’m not sure there’s really an answer—is that John was obviously not happy with his song Across the Universe. It had already been recorded a couple of months earlier for a charity album. He had given away this amazing song just onto this little charity album, but he wasn’t particularly happy with the version how they’d recorded it, so he wanted to do it again for this album. Of course, he’s forgotten the words so he has to ask for a copy of the lyrics.
They try it a few times but they never get around to re-recording it here, and they don’t on the Abbey Road album either. What happens eventually is that Phil Spector, who’s given all these Get Back tapes and mixes them to create the Let it Be album, takes the older version that had been recorded for the charity album and he does a new mix on it. I think he changes the speed. They had some female backing singers on the first version and he removes those.
The version of Across the Universe that most people know now is that remixed version, but it’s not actually re-recorded, and that’s interesting because John is determined to re-record it. He doesn’t like how it was recorded the first time.
So, I always wonder what he wanted it to sound like in his head because to me, it’s a great song. I love both versions, the original charity album one and the one on the Let it Be album. I want to know how he could’ve made it better. I’m sure if John Lennon thinks he could’ve, then he could have, but that’s something I guess I’ll never know now is what he would’ve wanted to do with the second version of it.
HULLFISH: How did you make determinations of when you were going to split up the episodes? Was it just based on a specific number of days per episode?
OLSSEN: We didn’t cut it in those individual parts. We cut it originally as one long thing and then when we knew we were going to have multiple parts on Disney +, it was about looking for where we should break it. Part of that’s just a straightforward technical thing of looking at the length and dividing it in three, but you never quite get there doing that. You have to think, “What’s the story? Where would a break make the most sense?” So, we did that and we have act breaks.
I think we got them pretty good considering that we couldn’t artificially manipulate things because this is a real story and we’re talking about reality. I think we got pretty good split points and almost little cliffhangers at the end of each of the first two acts. Hopefully, it’s going to be enough that once people watch the first one they’ll want to watch the second one and then onto the third.
HULLFISH: Inside of each episode, was there any thought of act structure, or was it just about showing a bunch of scenes that are the right length and letting them just play out?
OLSSEN: There was definitely consideration of the narrative and the structure. Whether we broke each part down, I’m not quite sure. I don’t think we probably thought of it in that way, but it was a mixture between working on the songs and the various story threads that went through these things like George Harrison leaving after the Twickenham sessions. There’s a big storyline about the band trying to decide what they’re actually doing, whether they’re going to be doing a TV show or a live show somewhere. That’s a whole narrative thread that weaves its way through.
The problem of course with working in a linear chronological order is that the material has to exist and it has to exist in the right days. We were limited to what there really was and how it worked, but I think there is so much material that we were able to find enough on each day to keep the story alive and to keep people’s interest. Hopefully, it works.
One of the things we asked was, “Should we have broken this up into six individual hour-long episodes or something?” Well, we could’ve, but on the other hand, there is a natural act structure to these three parts.
“This is not broadcast television where it’s going to keep playing without them. This is not a cinema release where you don’t want to walk out of the theater halfway through.”
Also, because people are watching at home on Disney+, if somebody wants to pause it after the first four days and come back and watch the second half of part one the next day, they absolutely can. This is not broadcast television where it’s going to keep playing without them. This is not a cinema release where you don’t want to walk out of the theater halfway through. That’s one of the advantages people have with streaming is that they decide how much and for how long they will watch anything.
We do treat these 22 days as little chapters within our film. We have the calendars to divide them up so people could watch one or two days, or three or four, and stop there and come back a bit later to watch the rest. That’s just the natural structure that’s built-in.
HULLFISH: I haven’t seen all three episodes. What did you do about that day where The Beatles said that they didn’t want the cameras there? How did you get that day?
OLSSEN: Oh, you’ll have to see, Steve. [laughs]
We actually have some footage outside on that day and there’s an interview that the camera crew does with some Beatles fans who are camped outside the Apple building. We also see the arrival of The Beatles walking in. It’s a short day for us, let’s put it that way.
The Beatles themselves had a great day apparently. They commented the next day about how good the vibes were and how well everyone was working. So, it’s a shame we don’t get to see inside the building that day.
HULLFISH: The interesting thing is that it might not have been the same day with the camera crew there.
OLSSEN: That’s right. That also reminds me that a lot of this audio will have been heard before by Beatles fans if they wanted to. It’s been bootlegged for many years, the Nagra tapes from these recording sessions, or at least a lot of them were. But there were something like 400 or 500 Nagra tapes that were shot over this month by the film crew for their documentary. Some of them are now missing 50 years later. There are a few that are missing and that’s a shame.
Apart from all those negatives and the Nagra audio tapes, the other thing that Apple had in their vaults was all the workprint from the original cutting of the Let it Be film. It was a workprint plus a sepmag [separate magnetic], the transfer of the audio onto magnetic tape for the cutting process back in the day. What we decided to do was to transfer all of the workprint and all of the sepmag.
For the workprint, I’m amazed that they did such a good job editing back then because they were having to deal with this fuzzy black and white copy of the rushes. It must’ve been a struggle. But the real breakthrough is that when we transferred the sepmag and digitized it, we discovered that about two and a half hours of the missing Nagra tapes were there. They were copied to the sepmag, and it was good quality. We were able to recover two and a half hours of previously missing audio that no one has heard before in 50 years. Nobody who’s listened to the bootlegs has ever heard this material, and we use it in our film.
It was quite the thrill that despite what the fans have been able to listen to for so many years, we’ve actually got some stuff in this film that they’ve never heard.
HULLFISH: That’s very cool. You mentioned working on this for three years. How do you keep your objectivity for that long?
OLSSEN: Do you ever keep your objectivity? [laughs] It’s the same way with any feature film. The hours become so long and the weeks and the months become so long. That’s one of the biggest challenges with editing anything is to keep your objectivity. I think you just have to trust your instincts.
“Whether it’s a documentary or a narrative feature film, you’ve really got to remember your first reaction to watching the rushes for the first time.”
Whether it’s a documentary or a narrative feature film, you’ve really got to remember your first reaction to watching the rushes for the first time. Whether you take notes or whatever you do, you’ve got to trust those original instincts because when you’ve watched them a thousand times, you might not be laughing at the same jokes anymore. You might not be finding them funny. So, you’ve got to really remember if you found them funny that first time.
Beyond that, you’ve just got to trust your instinct. Everyone has an opinion. You can show the film to a lot of people and they will all tell you something about it, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to trust your own opinion and your own instincts. There’s probably no more to it than that.
HULLFISH: Did you do screenings for the purpose of changing things?
OLSSEN: We showed it to other people on our team and also there were screenings for The Beatles, their families, and for Apple Corps, which is the company The Beatles set up and is still operational. It still runs all of The Beatles’ legacy. We had a close team there that we worked with and people from Disney.
There were many screenings just like you have with any feature film and notes and suggestions come back to you. A lot of them are very good and we incorporated what we could.
HULLFISH: I’m really intrigued by the note process and various people’s opinions of the note process. I think that you’ve got to have a positive attitude towards notes, don’t you think?
OLSSEN: Yes, I think you do. That’s something I’ve learned from Peter. Often on his films, he has what you’d call “final cut.” In a way, that actually makes him more receptive to notes than he might otherwise be because if you don’t have to take them, then you’re more willing to listen and you don’t treat them as an order to be defensive against. I think that’s just a healthy way to look at notes, even if you don’t have final cut. They are what they are.
Film editing and filmmaking is not just a creative process. It’s also a commercial venture and there’s a lot of people involved, a lot of people who have put a lot of effort in, and a lot of people who have a lot on the line. It’s always worth making sure that as many people can be happy with the final result as they can.
As the editor and the director, you do get very close to the material itself. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes is the most valuable thing, but sometimes it’s just a matter of showing it to other people who aren’t necessarily going to give you notes or might just give you some informal ones. Just watching their reaction to the material can be very informative too.
HULLFISH: I want to explore the idea of how things were organized, because it sounds like there were just 21 separate string-outs.
OLSSEN: There were and that’s what we would go back to often, but there were also hundreds or thousands of smaller collections that would be cut down from those that I would put together for different reasons, whether it was just making selects to then edit with or if I was going through looking for a particular shot.
Sometimes we might have a scene working but we were missing one reaction from John, and so we would look at all the similar material of John from that day. Again, we were often quite restricted at how far we would need to go look because they change their clothes most days. You were never tempted to steal too much because you couldn’t put a shot from one day into another day without it looking a bit odd.
We had thousands of different collections of rushes for one reason or another, and often it was about selecting what was then to be cut. Then, we would go cut it, put it in the collection of cuts, and move on.
HULLFISH: When you were exploring, were you always going to a timeline as a source, or did you have individual clips from cameras that you would go to?
OLSSEN: It was always a timeline, more so on this than on other things. Part of the reason is because of the complexity of the audio. As well as having two cameras running for most of the shoot they also had two Nagra recorders. There would often be two audio tracks or sometimes just one, and just like with the cameras, they would turn on and off or overlap. Sometimes you’d get both running at once.
The cameras, for whatever reason, didn’t particularly sync well either to the Nagras or to each other. We didn’t want to alter the speed of the footage because that would look a bit odd usually. So, what we would do is leave the footage running at the speed it was and we would alter the audio fractionally to sync with the picture.
We were lucky in that they used a pulse sync system back then in 1969, so what would happen—as my understanding is—they’d have a cable running from a camera to one of the Nagra machines and whenever a frame was captured on the camera, it would send a pulse electrical signal that was recorded on the Nagra tape. We’ve been able to use that. If you digitize that track, you would get a pulse waveform on the audio track that would tell you whenever the camera was running at the same time.
This was hugely helpful in syncing up the audio because they didn’t use clapperboards, which are the normal means to sync separate audio to picture. They didn’t want to disturb the Beatles by having these claps going all the time while they’re trying to write songs, so they didn’t. They just relied on this pulse system, which didn’t always work.
I think syncing the audio to the picture back in 1969 must’ve been a huge challenge for the team then. I think they did a great job, but with our digital equipment, we were able to sync up even more. One of the first technical parts on this project was to try and get as much of the audio synced to the picture as we could. That was almost a creative process because you’d be listening and seeing if you could find matches between things because this pulse system didn’t work all the time. Often the cable would be pulled out or it wasn’t plugged into the right Nagra. So, there was a lot of eye matching, but when it did work, it was good.
“Syncing the audio to the picture back in 1969 must’ve been a huge challenge for the team then.”
What it provided was a guide to how much to re-speed the audio to make it match the picture. The trick is that the two cameras were running at different speeds from each other as well, not hugely, but if they were running for a minute or two they would definitely drift out of sync.
What we would end up having to do with the two different Nagra audio recordings is re-speed the first one to match the A camera, re-speed the second Nagra to match the A camera, then go back and re-speed the first Nagra to match the B camera, and re-speed the second Nagra to match the B camera. That’s four audio tracks re-sped to match our two different cameras.
We didn’t just want to have to rely on these re-speeds though. When we handed the film over to the sound department, they wanted the original unmodified Nagra recordings. So, we’d have to keep those in the stack as well, and it went from there. The timelines were very complicated and when you’re cutting from one camera to another having to try and find the right version of the audio to use, you’d realize, “Oh, that one’s out of sync. Go find one that’s been re-sped and is in sync. There it is. But maybe the other Nagra had its microphone in a better position. I’ll go check that.”
It was a very complicated technical process. It meant we had a lot of tracks, which means that the rushes were just kept in sequences and not as individual clips.
HULLFISH: Organizationally, did you say, “Here’s a scene,” and place it in a bin just like a narrative film scene would?
OLSSEN: No. We would start with the days and we’d have this big stringout of rushes, as you say, for each day. When I made selects from the rushes, that’s when it would get divided into scenes. I might have one sequence for a good three-hour rehearsal on the song Get Back. That’s going to be one scene in the film, so everything I select for that song will go into the sequence. Then, a couple of hours later, there might be a good conversation about what they’re having for lunch that will go into another sequence of their lunch conversation from that day.
The dividing into scenes would happen as I selected material, but not in the organization of the rushes before that. Just to give you a bit more of an idea of how complex the rushes were with their audio tracks, we would have other versions of the audio too as we got into this machine learning cleanup of the audio.
We started to run the entire day’s rushes through the machine learning process and then we would end up with individual stems for dialogue and the instruments. These had been mono recordings and now we were splitting them up as if they were multi-track recordings. Suddenly, we had to keep all these in sync as well and maybe use those when we’re editing but keep the original Nagras as part of the timeline so they can be handed over to the sound department. The technical process was very complicated and as frustrating and hair-pulling as anything I’ve worked on.
HULLFISH: I want to thank you so much for explaining this really interesting project. Good luck on whatever you’ve got coming up next.
OLSSEN: Thank you very much, Steve. It’s been great to talk.