Art of the Cut: “Kingsman” Gets an Origin Story in “The King’s Man”
Today we’re speaking with film editor Rob Hall about his work with colleague Jason Ballantine, ACE on The King’s Man.
Rob’s filmography includes feature films Final Score, Bobby, Son of God, Penguins, and The Tournament, among others. Also TV including Works on Fire, The ABC Murders, and Waco: Madman or Messiah.
Check out the Art of the Cut podcast to listen to this interview, and stay up to date on all the latest episodes.
HULLFISH: Thank you so much for joining me. I really enjoyed the movie. Congratulations.
HALL: Thank you. It was a long time waiting for it to finally see the light of day.
HULLFISH: Let’s start there. What was the schedule like? When did you start dailies? When did production end?
HALL: It seems like an eternity ago. I wasn’t on the show at the start of the job. I came in nine weeks into the shoot. Principal photography lasted 16 weeks. There were a couple of editors hired, but one of them left halfway through and I was brought in to replace that guy.
It was on the recommendation of the editor Eddie Hamilton, who I know you’ve spoken to in the past. He’s been a constant proponent of me over the years. I assisted him on four features many years ago, and he’s constantly put me forward for work since then, for which I’m always going to be eternally grateful. So I came in nine weeks into production.
HULLFISH: Which was approximately what month?
HALL: Let me try to remember what year [laughs]. That’s going to be 2019. They had started filming in March, I believe, and we went for four months from there. Then, we went through quite an extended editing period. As we went on, we were refining the plot and moving forward with various avenues. It’s a very complicated story that we’re trying to weave around, so it took longer than expected.
Then, the process got extended by the pandemic, and we had the opportunity to keep going and we took it. We knew that the release date was going to be delayed by then, so we took the opportunity to step back a bit. By then, the editing was mainly done, but we took the opportunity to revisit some things like the music and do a few more tweaks of visual effects and so on. I guess we had completely finished by around August 2020. Since then, it’s just been waiting.
HULLFISH: That must be so hard to wait to see your work up on the big screen. Did you have any audience screenings before the release?
HALL: We had one test screening, actually. It was quite limited on that front, but I’ve seen it many times in many theaters with the various checks that you do for things like the HDR version and various sound mix versions.
HULLFISH: There’s a World War One montage that sets up the history for the rest of the movie. Can you talk about how you decided how compressed or expanded that montage was going to be?
HALL: For sure. That area of the film has quite a lot of history, actually. I’m not sure how much I can reveal here, but the sequence that establishes the foundation of the global situation was something that we originally tried to intertwine with the villainous plot of the Shepherd.
So, we did have a thread where he was not only instigating the war but also trying to sustain the war through an industrial arm that was manufacturing and constantly developing the weapons and so on, which became too blurry an intention for the main villain. So, we ended up refining, paring down, and eventually removing that element of his scheme, and that certainly allowed us to focus on that montage.
Again, it all comes down to the incredibly complex machinations of the early stages of World War One, which involves Queen Victoria having three grandsons who end up becoming the King of England, the Tsar of Russia, and the Kaiser in Germany through completely bizarre reasons. We had Tom Hollander playing all three roles to reflect that relationship in kind of a fun way.
The aim of that montage was always going to be to get the basic information down as quickly as possible to allow our hero’s plot to progress and leave the audience in that comfortable position, so they don’t have to think about it too much. They understand what’s going on, and they understand that war started. That was really a case of pushing through as fast as we could and giving the audience the bare amount of information that they needed to rejoin our heroes, basically.
HULLFISH: It would be really interesting to see the script for that montage, because a lot of people don’t realize that all those beats aren’t necessarily spelled out in a script. Sometimes they are, but sometimes it says, “World War One history montage,” and you think, “Okay, what do I do for the next minute and a half?”
HALL: Oh, absolutely. A good chunk of that was in the original script, but Matthew [Vaughn] and the writer would work out and help us pare down a good amount of it.
Originally, the script went into more information than can necessarily be digested by the audience in such a short amount of time because not only was it setting up those three leaders, it was also setting up the repercussions. You’ve got a leader in Germany, a leader in England, and a leader in Russia. Then, the war is triggered by an archduke being assassinated in Serbia. When you write it down, it’s not easy to be able to draw that link.
You always want to get extra information in the script so that you can pare it down. It’s better to have too much at that stage than too little, obviously. We had to almost brush over that link because it’s just too complicated of a political situation. You get into alliances between France and Austria, and it’s just too much.
HULLFISH: It’s entertainment, not a documentary.
HULLFISH: So, this is based on a comic book series. Did you read that before you started on this?
HALL: I didn’t. I have to say I’m not a big comic book reader, but I’d always been a big fan of the first two Kingsman films. The first one, in particular, gives a lot of key information that hints at the foundations that are laid out within this film.
That, combined with the stylistic departure to an extent within this film from the first two films, gave it some departure from the comic books themselves anyway, I think. That combined with me coming on a little bit later into the shoot and with a little bit less notice as well, research time was limited.
HULLFISH: Did you watch any of Matthew Vaughn’s previous movies?
HALL: I had already seen most of them except for Stardust, which he’d probably be ashamed to know that I haven’t seen because I think he’s proud of that one. But X Men: First Class and the first two Kingsman movies and Layer Cake and so on. So, I’d seen most of his work, and I’ve always stayed in contact with Eddie Hamilton, who’s done a lot of work for him as well.
There’s a certain unique aesthetic that Matthew has and that Eddie brings to the table when he’s cutting for Matthew that I was very familiar with from my past career and through watching Matthew’s films.
HULLFISH: I always think it’s interesting to talk about the value of shot sizes. When you’re at a certain moment in a scene, do you think, “I want to be at a wide shot here, a two-shot, a close-up, or an extreme close-up?” Or are you strictly focused on being wherever the performance is?
HALL: My background is in lower-budget movies, and in those situations, you tend to have fewer options in terms of wanting to construct a scene exactly how you want from a camera perspective.
“You end up really fine-combing the footage at a much earlier stage than you might necessarily do because you really need to pluck out every single usable frame.”
HULLFISH: I can relate.
HALL: In those situations, I would go down a very different path in constructing a scene. You end up really fine-combing the footage at a much earlier stage than you might necessarily do because you really need to pluck out every single usable frame to really have the best idea of how to construct it by combining the trade-offs of performance versus shot size.
But Matthew shoots a lot of coverage. He’s very focused on the framings that he wants through a scene and how he wants to highlight them through closer shots or through wider shots. So, that gives you the opportunity to construct a scene how you want from a camera perspective and then start digging into performances, especially when you have a higher caliber of actor than you might necessarily get in some lower-budget movies.
Somebody like Ralph Fiennes basically is very good to excellent in every take, so you become a lot freer. In some ways, even with the greater expanse of footage, it can actually allow you to get at least an initial cut of the scene out the door much faster.
HULLFISH: When you sit down, and an assistant editor delivers you a bin of fresh rushes, what’s your approach to a blank timeline?
HALL: There are two plans of attack depending on the type of scene. The method that I used in The King’s Man was to basically take a look at all the shot sizes, get an idea of everything that’s available to me in terms of setups, and then lay it down into a very rough construction of how I think it should go together. Then, I do a little bit of refining to make sure that it’s going to work, and then I do a pass on individual performances once I’ve got that construction of the scene.
There’s a method that’s used by a few editors, Eddie Hampton included, which is to have the assistant editors’ layout line strings, which is every single line of dialogue back to back in order of frame size in the order of characters.
At the time that I came on board, we were right in the midst of things, and the team hadn’t been doing that, at the non-request of the previous editors, I guess. The way that we ended up doing it, which gave me a bit of joy in doing it this way, was with a faster, more efficient way from the perspective of the assistants.
Because running out line-strings is very time consuming, what we did was take a PDF of the scene, scratch a number for each line of dialogue on the scene, and then for the group clips that we have for multiple cameras, we’d get the assistants to just go through each of the takes and drop a marker whenever there’s a start of a line of dialogue I’ve marked in the script.
Then, within the marker tool, just add a relevant line number to it. Then, I would get them to just lay a timeline of all the takes, and if there are multiple cameras, laying it down twice and switching the camera. Then, just put those takes in order of approximately shot size and character.
Then, if I wanted to look at a particular line or a particular delivery, I would just skim down the marker and just order it by number. So, you have that grouping of all the deliveries together, and you can switch between them.
This may sound a bit techie or nerdy, but let’s say I just want to hear that back half of a line; if a chunk of dialogue in the script was a bit of a block, I would actually just stick the waveforms on and after two takes you know exactly what part of the waveform that it is that you want to jump to.
HULLFISH: We can talk techie and geeky anytime. I love that solution. So, you’ve got a sequence that’s strung out, not line-strung because it takes too much time, and by not changing the edit but by sorting the markers, you’re able to jump very quickly between those line readings. That’s a really brilliant solution. I am stealing that.
“The instinct is to cut too much because you’re looking at cuts at every line.”
HALL: To be honest, one of the foundations of where it came from was one of the criticisms of running out line-strings—which had often been levied against using it—which was that the instinct is to cut too much because you’re looking at cuts at every line. Whereas with this method, you go to the delivery of a line, and you can just let it run and see where it goes on any given take, so you’re not forced into seeing a cut at any point. It’s a two-fold benefit.
HULLFISH: That is very much the bash against doing line-outs is that it forces you to cut. The only solution that I’ve heard prior to that is that people use that line-out, not as a source, but they do a match frame on what they want, which takes them to the full clip so that you’re looking at something that’s longer so you can look ahead and behind. That’s also the same thing with ScriptSync. It causes you to be a little more cutty than you might want to be, I think.
La Venaria Reale was used as the location for the Winter Palace.
Let’s talk about dialogue and the pacing of dialogue cutting. How much of that is determined by performance of the dialogue, and how much are you trying to mold it either to speed it up or to slow it down?
HALL: To be honest, it’s really on a case-by-case basis. In general, I certainly always start with being led by the performance of the people on set because they’re the ones being directed by the director, and obviously, that’s only a starting point, so I’ll always start with their pace and then make an assessment.
It’s easy to get lost in the microcosm of an individual scene as to where you want to squeeze that scene down. It’s very rare for people to slow a scene down rather than speed it up, but it can always be a little dangerous, and I’ve fallen into the trap many times before of over-tightening a scene. Then, when you watch it in the wider context of the movie, you realize you need the time to breathe and to absorb certain moments. You’d always end up tightening here and there as you see fit, but I try not to do it too much too early. That’s my general plan of attack.
HULLFISH: There’s a Victoria’s Cross conversation where Ralph Fiennes’ character, Orlando Oxford, is being asked about his medal, and they’re talking about how he won it. There are several extreme close-ups in that sequence. Do you remember those? Can you talk about the value of those?
HALL: Sure. I guess that scene was as much of a commentary by the movie on some of the slightly shameful history of British colonialism as much as it is obviously leading Oxford to explain why he stands where he stands in his positioning about war in general. So, the initial shot we pushed in on Ralph Fiennes was obviously by design. Dollies into characters to punctuate moments rather than cutting into a close-up is a kind of stylistic hallmark of Matthew’s work.
The reason why we stuck around in such a close shot on Ralph was that we very much wanted to be in his mind’s eye and his recollection because it’s part of the past that haunts him as much as it is him telling Conrad about that history.
“Dollies into characters to punctuate moments rather than cutting into a close-up is a kind of stylistic hallmark of Matthew’s work.”
At one point, we were doing temp comps of the scene leading into the flashback with a reflection in his pupils, which ultimately made him look a little bit like a character from X-Men. The intention was to stay as intimate as possible and give a little punctuation to that flashback.
HULLFISH: There’s an intercut section of the film where there’s a letter either to or from Herbert Kitchener intercut with discussions between Orlando and his son, Conrad. Can you talk about how faithful the intercutting is to the script and if you had to change it?
HALL: Sure. I can’t take credit for it. The editor who I primarily worked with on the show was Jason Ballantine, ACE who’s a terrific editor and a terrific man. He was a joy to work with, and he absolutely took care of the intercutting there and did a great job on it.
If I remember correctly, the intercutting was not specified in the script at that point. They were written as two separate scenes. Often the scenes that intend to be intercut are not always written as intercut, even if the director fully intended for that to happen. That is often for the benefit of the actors so that they can get a continuity through the scene that will be intercut.
Unless there’s a specific visual moment or a visual transition in the intercutting, it’s often better to just let the actors have a run of it rather than give them sides with just little tidbits of dialogue.
HULLFISH: I hadn’t considered that before.
Another interesting moment is Rasputin’s grand entrance. There’s a choice to drop the sound bed out from under the score. There’s a party going on, and you realize that you’re not hearing any of the background sounds anymore; you’re just hearing the score. Is that something that was modeled in the picture cut, or was it something that happened in the mix?
HALL: It certainly went in that direction in the picture cutting stage. It was really leaning towards the otherworldly nature of Rasputin and really punctuates it, especially with the style of the music at that point. It just gave him a lot more grandeur and mystique as he comes in. Then, within the mix stage was when all of that background sound, foley, and walla, was lopped out entirely.
As you see during that Rasputin fight scene, Matthew likes to go all out in one direction or all out in the other direction in the mix at times in a great, very bold way. So, those mix decisions really helped punctuate those moments.
HULLFISH: I’ve heard composers and sound effects guys complain about scenes that are trying to highlight both sound effects and music. They say, “It just collides so you don’t get the score and you don’t get the sound effects,” So, you make a choice whether you’re going to go all sound effects or going to go all score.
HALL: There’s always a trade-off. One of the things that was a very interesting process from my perspective from day one was how early the sound team and the music team had started. There were two composers, Matt Margeson and Dom Lewis, and the primary music team is them and the music editor, Jack Dolman. They did a constantly amazing job, and it started at such an early stage.
I think Dom started before Matt, and he was composing from day one of the shoot. He had already been working with Matthew on getting the foundation of the score laid down in terms of themes and continued to work on them. Also, the sound guys were already working at that stage, and we would send things back to them, and they would start feeding us stems to cut in.
Because the sound guys and the music guys were already working at that stage, they could see where each other were going with it. Often, a lot of the fight between sound effects and music isn’t because of levels; it’s because of frequency ranges and where it sits in the world. So, they could both sit in harmony at loud levels and have that constant interaction because they were hearing what each other was doing by us sending new cuts out with the latest work from either team. So, they could certainly work around that and really make sure that the mix became easier as a result.
HULLFISH: There’s a discussion on a train at Conrad Oxford’s birthday that gets quite heated and emotional while the shots build towards close-ups, which I love. It’s common for you to save the close-ups for the greatest moments of tension or importance. I don’t know whether you cut that scene, but there’s also a cutaway to the two people listening. That’s a tough thing to decide when to cut to the listeners when you’ve got this interesting conversation going on between two people, and there are other people in the room. How do you make that decision?
HALL: This was another Jason scene. Within that scene, in particular, the reason why Shola and Polly’s reaction to the news of Conrad saying he still wants to go to war is important is because, within the context of the film, Shola and Polly are our everyman characters. They are our relatable R2-D2 and C-3PO of the movie. Hearing such an important line made us want to go to those guys to react in the way that we — as the audience— are reacting and to underline the audience’s position, which is, “Oh damn. He’s going to do it.”
From a broader, not necessarily Kingsmen perspective, seeing non-primary characters’ reactions to significant pieces of information just helps punctuate and underline those moments, even if it’s just outside the main thread of the drama. Within this particular scene, I feel that Shola and Polly’s reaction is quite important to that scene because it’s very difficult with Oxford and Conrad, who don’t really sit within the world of the audience necessarily as wealthy aristocrats. So, Shola and Polly are definitely our audience’s perspective. That’s the foundation. It’s a very brief shot, but I think it serves an important purpose.
HULLFISH: There’s another cool intercut section where you’re going back and forth between military training and trying to decode this German cipher. Do you remember how that was scripted or how you changed the intercutting between one storyline and the other storyline in editing?
HALL: I believe that scene was originally conceived as just the investigation process within their “war room,” as we called it, in Oxford’s house. It was a montage of Polly working it out, and then we did go to one or two other things such as The British intelligence room where they’re working out the code, and then the Butler overhearing things. So, it was the servants investigating, feeding stuff to Polly, and Polly working it out.
We didn’t have the Conrad training element to it. That was something that we worked out with Matthew in the edit. We went and took a load of random WW1 footage off YouTube and put it in as placeholders, and that sat there as incredibly poor quality images for a while. Then, Matthew went and shot it at a later date.
When we cut it in, Matthew was very specific about exactly the beats and moments and highlights to really punch in there to get maximum punch on his training within very minimal time. I would like to think I’m a fairly tight editor in terms of getting stuff down to its bare bones, but that got some extra levels of crunch from Matthew, and it was very effective.
“Getting to the end of that montage was the trickiest part because it ends with somebody realizing something, which is a much less physical beat.”
Then, the music guys were really working that in, and they might come along and say, “Can you just give us a couple of frames there? One frame off there?” That was how we got to that. Getting to the end of that montage was the trickiest part because it ends with somebody realizing something, which is a much less physical beat, but the music guys made it work terrifically.
HULLFISH: There are a couple of really elaborate, I’ll call them “constructed shots.” One being the submarine shot. Then, there’s also a shot where they’re talking about cashmere, and there’s a series of dollies that morph between each other so that it seems like a very long dolly shot.
HALL: The submarine shot. Absolutely. The cashmere shot is one that’s towards the end of the film.
HULLFISH: Yes. I just wanted to talk about those because they’re obviously VFX shots at some level, but before they become a VFX shot, how are you dealing with what you have in the cutting room?
HALL: I just took all the elements that we shot for the submarine, put them into After Effects, sketched out a submarine, and animated it myself.
HALL: That’s a lie [laughs].
HULLFISH: I was thinking, “That’s impressive. No wonder Eddie Hamilton is always recommending you to people.”
HALL: Oh no, no, just a joke. The VFX guys and the VFX team had already put that shot to a good stage of advancement at a very early stage of the movie. Obviously, it kept refining and refining, and then once we had that and sat within the context of the movie, we’d see exactly areas that needed just a tweak on the pace.
We’d then do some speed ramping, and then you’d get to the end of the push-in to the submarine, and there’s a finger that presses on a button. So I ended up cutting out the finger and just making it press it a bit faster. There was a back and forth process over a good amount of time, but it was an amount of time that was really just about fine-tuning, to be honest.
HULLFISH: Anything else that you would like to chat about?
HALL: Looping back to when you were talking about how I go about approaching a scene, we spoke about the drama, but we didn’t actually speak about action cutting. It’s a very different methodology and much more painstaking, but the way Brad choreographs both the camera and the actors for an action scene is what you would have heard referred to in the past as a kind of Hong Kong style of shooting. It’s very specific beats, very specific shots; it’s very heavily choreographed.
In my usual kind of anal way, I made sure that despite the excellent work from the set that was provided to me by (on-set stunt editor) Yung Lee , I still wanted to go through every take of every setup, of every moment. My first day on the shoot was cutting this 16 hours of footage and then trying to keep up with the other stuff coming in
HULLFISH: That Rasputin fight scene was 16 hours of footage?
HALL: Before additional photography, yeah. So 16 hours at that stage.
HULLFISH: Just for the people who haven’t seen the movie. How long do you think that sequence is? How long did that 16 hours of footage end up being in the final cut?
“My first day on the shoot was cutting this 16 hours of footage and then trying to keep up with the other stuff coming in.”
HALL: I think five or six minutes. You must remember that because it’s been so designed and so rehearsed that doing so many takes of every setup, they know exactly what they want to get to the millisecond of time. The editing process of that was to make sure that the chosen takes on set at the time were actually the best chosen takes and then refining every moment in terms of speed ramping and frame snips here and there so that when you watch it as a whole, it’s a case of finding ways to snip out little bits of the action, which actually in the Hong Kong style of shooting is a little trickier because you don’t have so much general coverage.
To get from one beat to another that wasn’t intended can be pretty tricky. We came so close to using the song Ra Ra Rasputin, but they decided against it at some point through the edit.
A particular favorite action scene of mine that goes into quite unusual territory is what we call the silent knife fight in no man’s land, where we made more about the reduction of sound. It goes down to very tonal music and foley, with very muted impacts because it’s all based around the fact that they have to keep quiet; otherwise, the machine guns on either side are going to get them.
That became a case of me doing a temp effects track play and sending it out to the guys at Phase, and they came back with a whole load of foley. I’d then put everything down and try and make it as quiet as possible to really draw the audience in. It really pays off with the brutality because you just become hypersensitive to bone crunches and blood splats.
The original reason I was hired for Kingsman was primarily to take care of the action scenes, and my role expanded over the course of the post-production process into more of the drama stuff in general.
HULLFISH: I really appreciate your time today. I love that approach of the markers in the timeline. That’s super valuable information for a lot of people, and I really thank you for sharing that with us.
HALL: My pleasure. Thanks a lot, Steve.