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    Appreciating the Art of Film Editing

    Years ago, I interviewed a number of film editors, which was a fascinating experience for me. You can learn a lot about the storytelling process from editors; they're in charge of one of the most important and under-appreciated aspects of filmmaking: choosing not only what shots to leave in, but what to leave out. The collaboration between director and editor on a movie is crucial, because having complete freedom with no outside guidance can ruin a film just as much as having no freedom at all.

    Over the history of cinema, film editing went from physically cutting celluloid on flatbed moviolas to editing digitally on Avid machines, but the most important pieces in an editor’s arsenal have always been the same: timing, instinct, patience, and personal chemistry.

    Photo credit: Flickr user ahhdrjones via Creative Commons

    Steven Kemper’s area of expertise in the editing room is in the action genre. He has cut a number of films for John Woo, including Face / Off and Mission: Impossible 2. Woo’s action sequences are tight and well constructed, yet surprisingly Kemper says Woo gives his editors “tons of leeway” in the cutting room. Woo storyboards his action sequences, “but very often he wings it on the set if he doesn’t get a shot, a shot isn’t working out the way he hoped or he ran out of time. None of the scenes look like the storyboards when you’re done, but you do get an idea of what he’s going for, there are focus points in the sequence that we make sure to hold on to. You end up doing much more than John originally intended. That’s what I really enjoyed about working with him, is he’s totally open to stuff.”

    Working on a John Woo film, the editor has many options open to him considering Woo has multiple cameras rolling during an action scene, sometimes as many as 16 shooting all at once. Woo’s action sequences are famous for deftly blending together numerous camera angles and speeds, which breaks the monotony of typical action editing. “A lot of movies I see today, it seems gratuitous that they go to slow motion in certain spots,” says Kemper. “One of the things I worked particularly hard on, on all of Woo’s pictures is to carefully meld the over-cranked, under-cranked, and normal speed material. If you catch it at the right action, it’s almost seamless. It’s almost like you haven’t realized for a beat that you’ve gone from slow motion right back to a 24-frame shot. I found it not only challenging, but a heck of a lot of fun.”

    Photo credit: Flickr user andrew_saliga via Creative Commons.

    In talking with Kemper, I learned that patience is one of the most important skills for an editor. In cutting the last forty minutes of Mission: Impossible 2, Kemper spent ten weeks--seven days a week, from seven in the morning to eleven at night--editing that portion of the film. For forty minutes, the editor sifted through 12 to 15 hours of film, which he cut down to what you see in the movie. “Woo shoots so much great stuff, to not sift through every frame is a crime!,” Kemper says.

    X-Men: Days Of Future Past VFX Breakdown

    From effects production house Digital Domain comes this awesome VFX breakdown for some scenes in the most recent X-Men movie. The amount of reference footage, modeling, rendering, and compositing required for an effect like Mystique's transformations is staggering, even if it's just for a three-second transformation. The demo reel runs through the production work on three sequences: Mystique's transformation (from Raven and to Raven), Magneto's lifting of a stadium, and White House battle scene. Fox had previously released a behind-the-scenes featurette about the memorable Quicksilver scene too. And if you have an hour to spare, here's a NOVA special about the magic of special effects, circa 1984. Visual effects have come a long way. (via io9)

    Bits to Atoms: Building an 'Evil Dead' Chainsaw

    Evil Dead 2 is one of my favorite movies of all-time; one that I may have bought more times than even Star Wars. (I own it on Betamax!) My wife even took me to the site of the original Evil Dead cabin near her home in Tennessee. For those who have not experienced this gem, at a pivotal moment in the film, Ash, played the amazing Bruce Campbell, replaces his severed hand (which he cut off because it was possessed) with a chainsaw. He then uses said chainsaw to saw off the barrel of his shotgun, holsters it and as the camera zooms in, proclaims, ‘groovy!’. Instant classic.

    My original chainsaw with fabricated top.

    About three years ago, I find myself at the grocery store and look at a jug of Arizona Ice Tea. My brain connects the dots and I decided that it looked like the base of a chainsaw, which lead to me building an Evil Dead 2 chainsaw replica for Halloween. Unfortunately, that was also the same year Hurricane Sandy hit New York, so we were evacuated and Halloween was cancelled. But the year after that, I am even more ready with an exact costume that’s weathered and bloodied…and I get one of the worst colds ever which cancels Halloween again. Mark my words--this is the year that I will finally get to use my Evil Dead 2 chainsaw--and maybe you can too!

    The parts and tools needed to build your own Evil Dead 2 chainsaw are all actually pretty reasonable. A key piece is 3D printed--I’ve provided the files for download--and we’ll discuss alternatives if you don’t have access to a 3D printer. To start off, I captured a bunch of screengrabs from the film for reference, but the best photos I found were from the excellent Evil Dead Chainsaws site, which makes amazing replicas.

    The original prop was based on an actual Homelite chainsaw that was heavily modified and cast in plastic and rubber so Bruce could fit his hand inside and use it safely. I tried to duplicate key aspects of the original for my first version, which required some light metal work for the top piece and 3D printing the distinctive side-grill. For the version I’m presenting here, I’ve simplified the parts and process while still producing a killer chainsaw replica.

    Behold The Eyes of Hitchcock

    From the Criterion Collection, a supercut of actors gazing directly at the camera in Hitchcock films. Short clips looped in just the right way and extended to the edge of discomfort. Unsettling and beautiful! See more work from the editor of this montage here.

    In Brief: Steven Soderbergh's Raiders Study

    You may have seen this being shared around today in social media: director Steven Soderbergh's blog post about his appreciation for the staging and editing in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It includes an edited version of Raiders where Soderbergh removed all the sound and color from the film, adding his own soundtrack to encourage viewers to study the editing choices made by Spielberg and his Editor Michael Kahn for the film. The challenge: "watch this movie and think only about staging, how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are. See if you can reproduce the thought process that resulted in these choices by asking yourself: why was each shot—whether short or long—held for that exact length of time and placed in that order?"

    In Brief: Star Trek's Original Enterprise Model Gets Proper Restoration

    For the past 13 years, one of science fiction television's more enduring icons has had a less-than-prominent home for public display. The original studio filming model of the Enterprise from Star Trek (not the motion picture refit) was mounted in front of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's gift shop. The large wood prop actually spent several years hanging as part of a "Life in the Universe" exhibit in the Smithsonian's Art & Industries Building, but that method of display fractured the wooden frame of the ship, which was never meant to be hung from the ceiling. But the Enterprise is finally getting some respect--the Air and Space Museum announced that it has taken the model off of public view for an 18-month restoration (just in time for Star Trek's 50th anniversary!) and will have a new home in the Museum's ground floor, in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall. I've never actually seen this model in person, so time to start planning for a trip a year and a half from now!

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    In Brief: Star Trek in Cinerama Widescreen

    Concept artist Nick Acosta wanted to imagine what Star Trek: The Original Series would look like if it had been shot with a cinematic widescreen aspect ratio, like the Cinerama 2.56:1 curved screen format of the 1950s (even though Star Trek debuted 48 years ago in September of 1966). To accomplish this look, Acosta took screengrabs from the HD remaster of TOS, during scenes with slow pans across the set, like a panoramic photo. The resulting stills show Star Trek, which was shot in 4:3, in a uniquely cinematic perspective with dramatic deep focus, like this tense scene in the episode Amok Time. A lovely byproduct of this process are images where character interactions seems overly staged and isolated from one another, or surreal situations in which a character appears twice (having followed the camera pan). (via Reddit)

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    Tested Mailbag: Not the Police

    We get an large package in the mail from a reader, and open it for the latest edition of the Tested Mailbag! This mailbag is filled with goodies, including snacks, something for our office set, and the story of a maker project! Thanks to Chris for sending the care package!

    In Brief: Why Archaeologists Hate Indiana Jones

    National Geographic writer Erik Vance recently blogged about his conversations with scientists and archaeologists about the problem of looting in their field. Academics pointed to Indiana Jones' character as more looter than archaeologist, who would rather attempt to steal a gold statue than study the amazing mechanisms built into the temple at the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Vance studied the problem of looting of Mayan artifacts for this recent NatGeo feature, and a black market trade that is far from the glamour that Hollywood portrays. "The real life Indiana Joneses of the world are not wise-cracking professors with bullwhips. They are poor farmers and hooligans pushed by desperation and warfare to the fringes of society where they eke out an existence, destroying our only opportunities to understand ancient cultures." (via Boingboing)

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    Kong vs. Kong in Hollywood

    We've seen happen in Hollywood again and again: the simultaneous production of two movies about the same subject. Whether it's asteroid movies, werewolf movies, or even two different takes on the Snow White story. Once an idea is in the zeitgeist, studios start a mad dash to see who gets a movie made about it first. And back in the mid-seventies, this happened with the first remake of King Kong.

    In 1976, producer Dino De Laurentiis got his version to the big screen, starring Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, Charles Grodin, and Rick Baker playing the big ape in a gorilla suit he created.But some fanboys who weren’t happy with the remake have often lamented about what could have been with the other planned remake of Kong, which Universal had been planning for ’76 as well.

    Titled The Legend of King Kong, Universal's flick was going to be more faithful to the original, staying in the ‘30’s, while the De Laurentiis version was updated to modern times. While the ’76 remake had plenty of drawbacks, there were certainly no guarantees the Universal movie would have been any better or worse. Yet looking back on it today, we get the impression it certainly had a good shot.

    With incredible stop-motion animation from Willis O’Brien, the original King Kong was the state of the art effects movie of its time. In fact, it was the film that inspired Ray Harryhausen to launch his own career in stop motion effects, and it also inspired Peter Jackson to become a filmmaker as well. (Jackson’s 2005 remake of Kong was not only his way of paying tribute to the film that enchanted him as a kid, but it was his way of trying to make up for the ’76 version as well.)

    While many modern remakes have basically done what’s called “movie karaokie,” redoing a movie practically verbatim from the original, in the ‘70’s remakes tried to bring old stories up to date. The ’76 Kong took place in modern day, with the added twist of Kong’s exploitation mirroring the then energy crisis. Here Kong is captured and exploited by an evil oil company, similar to Exxon, who first go to Skull Island looking for crude, then discovering the giant gorilla instead.

    Making the Automaton from Hugo

    I rewatched Martin Scorsese's Hugo last night, and was reminded of how much I loved the film--itself being a love letter to filmmaking. One of the standouts of the movie is the elaborate automaton that's at the center of the story--a small mechanical boy that winds up and draws a picture. I was pleased to find this behind this scenes video from production house Dick George Creatives that showed the making of this complex and beautiful machine. The propmakers used modern fabrication technologies to build 13 static models, and two that actually drew without the aid of CG (albeit slowly). As I've mentioned before, the Hugo automata was inspired by many automata machines of the 1700s, including watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz's 'The Writer' and the Maillardet automata now at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. And as expected, RPF members have attempted to recreate it, or at least the notebook featured in the movie with the automata drawings.

    Show and Tell: Star Wars Imperial Probe Droid Project

    For this week's Show and Tell, Norm invites you back into his home office to check out two of his new favorite things--both Star Wars themed! The first is a great Death Star rug from Thinkgeek, and the second is a 1/6th scale Imperial Probe Droid model that Norm has upgraded with some minor hacking.

    Photo Gallery: Comparing the Cain Replica to the Original

    Our video today showcased the Chronicle Collectibles Cain robot miniature, a painstaking recreation of the stop-motion puppet used in Robocop 2. We were told how each piece of the puppet was molded and cast for the replica, but it's difficult to appreciate the amount of precision that went into the model without looking at it up close. So here's a small gallery of photos I took comparing Chronicle's replica to the original to give you a sense of how accurate it is. I was also pleased to learn that the Chronicles Collectibles Cain miniature had its paint master done by modelmaker Jason Eaton, who we've previously featured on Tested. Jason is incredibly talented, as we saw in his amazing Blade Runner blimp miniature. You can actually find a ton of great photos of the completed Cain paint master on his website at www.mystery10.com

    Replicating the Original Robocop 2 Cain Stop-Motion Puppet

    During our visit to Phil Tippett Studio, we had a chance to inspect one of the original stop-motion puppets used to for Robocop 2's Cain robot. This intricately designed and machined miniature was actually recently disassembled so its hundreds of parts could be molded to create a series of replicas. We chat with Paul Francis of Chronicle Collectibles to geek out over the little details of this amazing puppet and learn about the replication process.

    Paying Tribute to the Twilight Zone

    The Twilight Zone first debuted on CBS in October 2, 1959, and ended on June 19, 1964, with 156 episodes in all. Not every episode was a winner, and there were varying degrees of greatness for many Twilight Zone installments, but the show’s lasting impact after half a century is still remarkable.

    The show is remembered for its many great elements: the strong moral lessons of the show, the skillful storytelling, the zappers at the end, the wonderful, moody cinematography, Rod Serling’s speeches that bookended every episode, and so much more. Today, let's go in depth into why we still love The Twilight Zone and which of those elements resonated strongest with us as truly effective storytelling.

    Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling first got into the entertainment business writing for radio, breaking into television in the early fifties. Serling came into prominence for writing the drama “Patterns,” which aired on the Kraft Television Theater, and “Requiem For a Heavyweight,” which aired on Playhouse 90 and swept the Emmys. Serling came up in the golden age of television, when the medium featured incredible writers and directors like Paddy Chayefsky (Network), and John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate).

    But soon television started appealing more and more to the lowest common denominator, earning the nickname “the idiot box.” Serling kept writing stories with a social conscience, but they were routinely shredded by the censors. He finally realized that sci-fi and fantasy could be the Trojan horse to get his messages through.

    “Rod was forever getting into trouble because he wanted to call a spade a spade,” says George Clayton Johnson, who wrote the Twilight Zone episodes Nothing in the Dark and Kick the Can. “They were forever stopping him for the pettiest of reasons, which made him even more of a little David against a bunch of Goliaths.”

    As Anne Serling, Rod’s daughter, tells us, “My father did an interview with Mike Wallace right before The Twilight Zone came out, and he was apprehensive about revealing too much about the show. He knew he was using it as a vehicle to get these messages out, and slip it under the radar. They never knew what hit them! Another one of my father’s quotes was the writer’s job was to menace the public’s conscience.”

    Bits to Atoms: Building the Millenbaugh Motivator, Part 4

    Your patience has paid off--it’s time for the final print of the Millenbaugh Motivator! All the measurements have been made, a rough version has been completed, the final version has been modeled and prototypes printed. After three months of work, it was time to get this delivered to Adam. And that meant making a flight back out to San Francisco.

    For my previous prints, such as the Octopod and Jetcar builds, I’ve used the trusty Objet Connex500. It's a high-end polyjet printer that can print in various materials--even rubber. But as much as I like this machine, I also had access to a 3D Systems ProJet 7000 HD which could print at even higher resolutions and in stronger material, all of which would be especially useful for the Motivator. The ProJet is a SLA (stereolithography) machine that prints by ‘drawing’ the part in a vat of liquid resin using a laser that solidifies the UV sensitive material. Once a layer is finished, the print platform sinks further down in the resin, a fresh layer of resin is distributed over the top and the laser draws the next layer. The resolution can be set incredibly high, and I was told the parts would be dimensionally accurate, meaning a hole modeled at 3mm in diameter would print at exactly 3mm.

    ProJet 7000 SLA 3D Printer & UV 'Oven'

    I was a bit skeptical of this claim, since typically you need to factor in some tolerances when modeling to accommodate the accuracy of the printer and behavior of the material. This has caused me frustration when 3D printing since a model built with tolerances for one printer won’t always print well on a different printer. I have done various versions of the same model with slight tweaks for different printers--an annoying and time-consuming task.

    The "Movie Physics" of Back to the Future Part II

    One of the things we love about science fiction movies is the storyteller's take of futurism. Films set in the near future take on the challenge of imagining a world filled with technological and cultural changes, and yet are still recognizable and relatable to the viewer. Movies like Blade Runner, Minority Report, and A.I (hey, all based on Philip K. Dick works!) fast forward us in time to create a setting that can be used to reflect on the problems of the present, and adorn that setting with props and effects that signify "the future." Those gadgets in turn have inspired a generational of roboticists, computer interface designers, and even toy makers.

    With 2015 right around the corner, we wanted to take a look back at one of armchair futurtists' most beloved movies, Back to the Future Part II. With technologies like Google Glass, video-recording drones, and ubiquitous video conferencing software, it does seem like BTTF II was particularly prescient in its wacky vision of the future. So what’s it like for a screenwriter to see elements from one of his movies coming true twenty-five years after its release? We talked to BTTF scribe Bob Gale about how he and director Robert Zemeckis went about predicting the future, how you can make an audience believe in time travel and hoverboards, and just exactly why Doc Brown infamously pronounced the word gigawatts 'jigawatts.'

    We first asked Gale if he was surprised that some of what was predicted in Back to the Future Part II has come to pass. “Well yeah, I kind of am,” he says. “There’s a lot of stuff we did a lot of research on, like using your thumb to make a money transaction, what the money would look like, that kind of stuff was all being theorized about back in the day. The video conferencing, there was a rudimentary form of video conferencing that that already existed back in 1989. So a lot of this stuff was me and Bob Zemeckis saying, ‘Let’s try to take these ideas to its logical conclusion.’

    “One thing that’s kind of interesting, is it’s like what came first, the chicken or the egg,” Gale continues. “We know that people who saw the movie have thought, ‘Is there a way to invent a hoverboard?’ Then people are out there trying to figure that out. We did the tie-in with Nike to make the shoes, then they started thinking, ‘Maybe we can [actually] make these things.’ Some of what we predicted may be coming true because people who saw it in the movie were inspired and thought, ‘Maybe there’s a way to make it come true.’ The guys at Mattel that worked on the hoverboard replica were excited about it, they wanted a hoverboard just like everyone else.”