On Thursday, July 3, The Games Maker (El Inventor de Juegos) was released to cinemas across Central and South America. Directed by Juan Pablo Buscarini from the young adult novel by Pablo De Santis, the film was edited by Canadian editor Austin Andrews with assembly assistance from Daniel Prync (EDA). Interview and translation by Jonathan Smeke and Daniel Prync.
EDA: How did you get interested by the editing process? What were your first steps and how did you become an editor?
Austin: I was making movies all through my teens, and I was the only one among my friends with a computer capable of handling the video we’d shoot, so by default I took on the editing too. But I found real purpose soon after that. Learning what were then the earliest versions of Final Cut Pro meant a chance to get my amateur footage to move—if not exactly look—like a real movie, and I got hooked. My iMac was a place where I wasn’t bound by other peoples’ schedules and could be free to indulge my appetite for total control. I’ve since learned to switch off that need for perfection—working under impossible deadlines in enough television factories has taught me the fine art of “good enough”—but editing still holds that same allure that it did when I was 14.
Going back even further, I’d give Lego the credit for preparing me to think as an editor does. The process of taking a bunch of pieces that are worthless on their own, identifying a grand design that might be different from the pictures on the box, and ending up with a genuine honest-to-God product that evokes emotion in another person (and in the case of film, a bunch of strangers you’ve never met)? How cool is that?
EDA: Who or what were your influences at the beginning of your career?
Austin: I think it’s great for editors to always be on the lookout for fresh influences and ideas to push their work to new places no matter what stage they’re at in their career. If anything I’ve leaned on my influences too heavily over the years. Working in TV commercials made me adept at mimicking styles and techniques I saw elsewhere, often down to the letter when that was what the client requested. What I’ve struggled with is originality, such as we know it: learning to solve problems from clues within the film’s formal system rather than just grafting on influences from outside it. I’ve always been a better remix artist than a from-scratch creator, and part of the appeal of editing is that it’s one of those rare fields where this can be a strength.
But luckily there’s a lot to learn from works in different mediums. For me that’s one of the greatest thrills to be found in editing: finding ways to carry meaningful resonances from one medium to another. It’s also one of the best ways to challenge yourself. Taking inspiration from a disorienting use of negative space you might see in a cool print ad, then transposing that to film by experimenting with stretches of black to keep suspense sustained out of a big scene. Or trying to mirror a throat-clutching tempo shift in a song by forcing yourself to shave a bunch of frames from a string of shots during an action scene. Often these tactics call attention to themselves in all the wrong ways, but when the result hits the same mark as the influence it can feel like a huge breakthrough.
EDA: In your opinion, what does it mean to be a good editor?
Austin: All the usual answers apply here. Obviously there are certain character traits an editor should possess. A genuine curiosity about human nature is one. Having faith in your own ideas but being able to stay flexible enough that your convictions don’t get in the way of a healthy collaboration with people whose sensibilities might sometimes clash with your own. An ability to block out the noise of the outside world for hours or days at a time until after a deadline has passed. Etcetera.
But beyond the obvious, I can’t emphasise enough how important it is that an editor’s mind remains elastic. Reassess everything you do always. As good as your first instincts may be, they are always deployed based on the of-the-moment shape of something that changes over time, be it a scene or sequence, and when that shape changes the original decision can look better or it can look worse. Reassess performance moments if a character needs to grow or shed dimensions. Reassess favourite scenes in a broader context if they’re at the root of a problematic sequence’s woes. Reassess music choices if they’re working against a new direction for a scene. You’ll have to cut out stuff you love. It sucks but it will happen on every film. Over and over again. The trick is to see these cuts as something that can improve the movie.
EDA: How did you get involved in “The Games Maker”? How did you get to work in Argentina? Were you able to suggest things during the shooting stage?
Austin: The Games Maker is a rare beast in that it’s an international co-production between three countries, and the film’s Argentinian, Canadian and Italian co-producers all had the opportunity to nominate a certain number of key creatives from their respective countries. Post-production fell under Canadian jurisdiction, and it had already been determined that the editor would be Canadian before I joined the production. I had just finished up a years-long documentary with the Canadian producers when they began talking about The Games Maker, and I am forever grateful to them for introducing me to Juan Pablo on his first trip up to Vancouver. We only had an hour together and it passed in such a blur that I have very little memory of what actually happened, but thankfully we didn’t broach any subjects that would have called my relative inexperience into question. To my astonishment, he was secure enough entrusting his film to me that we didn’t meet again until months later in a Buenos Aires parilla a few nights before the shoot! It was dark children’s fables like The Games Maker that got me hooked on film and eventually filmmaking as a kid (to this day it’s still a favourite genre), and summoning the passion to dedicate a year of my life to a project has never come as easily as it did on this one. I would have fought tooth and nail for the opportunity, and it’s my very good fortune that I didn’t have to.
But it’s a testament to Juan Pablo’s foresight that the editor on The Games Maker wasn’t looked at solely as a “post-production” position. Sometimes I’ll join productions after filming has wrapped and get tasked with stringing together a whole bunch of material I had no say in the creation of. That’s fine for some productions, but that kind of approach on The Games Maker would have been a disaster. Its 50+ day shooting schedule certainly sounds luxurious, but consider that the lead actors were both children, and with Argentinian labour laws technically limiting David and Megan to six hours on set per day it became important to prioritise shots and define what was necessary and what we could live without. Occasionally during key scenes I would take my laptop to set and mock scenes up on the fly, taking clips from the live video feed and splicing them into the cut moments after the cameras stopped rolling. These preliminary cuts bore little relation to the scenes viewers will see in cinemas in July, but it was enough to tell us whether we had what we needed for a scene or whether there was any reengineering in order. And that was fun.
But most of an editor’s input comes long after those flickering frames have fastened in concrete, and our ratio of pivotal decisions to working hours was higher on this film than most. Going back to your original question, it was suggestion by reduction, and in the months following wrap we engineered hundreds of cuts to dialogue, exchanges and occasionally entire scenes, often altering character motivations or resequencing conversations along the way. Most of these changes were initiated by delicious debates or those kind of lightning-strike “aha!” moments that remind you that editing has perhaps more in common with screenwriting than any other part of the filmmaking process. Juan Pablo is an exceptionally collaborative director, and even when a suggestion ran contrary to how he had imagined something he was always still willing to hear me out. I think it was this freedom and spirit to try anything that allowed us to have such a creative string of sessions.
EDA: Tell us about your method of editing. How do you get organized to edit a movie? How do you arrange the material and edit the scenes? Do you select complete takes or fragments of takes to edit a scene? What was your method in “The Games Maker”?
Austin: This was the first time I began a film feeling comfortable enough as an editor to bypass the usual crash course in craft, and instead I spent that same time studying the genre. I steeped myself in every family adventure film I could find—particularly animated films where assembly is deliberate rather than serendipitous, as is more often the case with live action—wrestling knowledge of their conventions from my subconscious and into my conscious mind. I steeped myself in their music too, gathering a collection of genre scores that I listened to exclusively for the month before production. Music has become my single most important part of getting ready for a film. Even after I start editing, it’s my door to entering the right mental space whenever I need one. These scores eventually became the backbone of my temp music library, their best tracks split into one of twelve mood-sorted playlists for easy deployment in timelines.
But total immersion would be meaningless without discussions to give parameters. Juan Pablo and DP Roman Osin had already been working together for months by the time I began, and hearing their thoughts on scene design helped me make more informed decisions when it came time for me to add my paint to the canvas. Scenes would often be built around master shots that would unfold and develop in their own time, with minimal interruption. This posed a particular challenge as an editor because the relative lack of coverage would rob me of my most important tool for manipulating pacing, which was a big adjustment for someone as obsessed with control as myself. But it turned out to be a great trust exercise, and I learned new ways to enhance the swirling effect of their constantly roaming cameras with less invasive editing techniques than the ones I’d use when building scenes from scratch in editorial, as is the norm with television, say. I’ve never edited a film with as rich a formal system as this one and it was a lot of fun to help build (and occasionally break) the rules!
I also like to start working with the script supervisor as early as possible. In the week before principal photography began, Claudia and I would wander the streets of Buenos Aires and encourage each other to dig deeper in our understanding of the film’s world. We’d debate the number of in-world days that would pass during each act and exchange thoughts on scene timings and which sections were mostly likely to need tightening. Those were some of my favourite conversations and they’d come in handy weeks later as I was finding the rhythm of entire sequences during that mysterious stage of editing when first assemblies get strung into sequences and sequences into acts and, finally, acts into a movie.
I spent my formative years editing in a vacuum, figuring out what worked and what didn’t on my own, and developing my own weird methods for approaching material. The more I work with other editors the more I amalgamate their processes into my own, and if I were to take you through an average day now it would be very different from the days I spent stumbling around the dark editing In Their Skin four years ago. But I’ll still start my days the way I always have, by watching absolutely everything the cameras saw the previous day, and logging my impressions on paper before I make a single cut. This daily cram session to learn every second of every take has saved me more times than I can count over the years, on fiction features, yeah, but especially on documentaries. This is probably spoken from the part of me who as a kid read atlases from cover to cover, but I’d be lost without an encyclopaedic knowledge of all the material I have at my disposal. I want to have answers ready when we change the design of a scene on the fly, or when I need to yank material out of context and place it into another scene where I’m missing something. Printed “circle” takes are a good starting point, but in a digital world they’re not the end anymore. A complicated action scene that I cut might be as much as 30% of non-selects, and whether that material is just an eight-frame whip pan or a string of golden lines in an otherwise weak take, these discarded moments can mean the difference between a scene that shines and one that merely works.
But one of the things that’s helped make editing The Games Maker such a pleasure is how similar everyone’s goals for the film are. Often you see a film get pulled in a bunch of different directions and when its limbs rip out onscreen it can be a horrible sight. But on this one we’ve all been working within the same parameters and chasing the same vision. Plus I’ve had the good fortune to work with the two of the very best assistant editors anywhere. Daniel Prync in Buenos Aires, a talented editor in his own right, provided a second set of eyes on difficult scenes, while Shenyan Liu in Vancouver gave some much-needed perspective during a busy seven months of post-shoot editing and VFX approvals. Making films is best when it’s collaborative and I’d have a hard time going back to that vacuum.
EDA: Could you explain the “Facing pages – line script” method? We don’t use that method in Argentina and we want to know the advantages of using it.
Austin: Since I started editing “real” movies, whatever that means, I’ve come to look at the lined script as my bible. Okay, think of it this way. If a screenplay is the blueprint for the production, then it’s already a generation out of date by the time rushes arrive in the editing suite. Things change on set. Scenes get rewritten. Actors improvise or shuffle beats. So the lined script is best seen as a final draft of the screenplay as written by the director and transcribed by the script supervisor. Maybe not the final draft — the editor is responsible for that one — but certainly an evolution of what would be in your binder otherwise.
It’s also a way to plug yourself into the chatter on set when you’re locked away cutting elsewhere. The “facing pages” side of the equation is basically a log of takes from the script supervisor with impressions on what worked and what didn’t from each take. Director’s selects are circled, and back in the film days these would often be the only takes that would get printed for editorial. Set up in a binder opposite the facing pages are the pages of the “lined script”, which gets its name because each shot gets “lined” vertically in the margin on the screenplay page to give the editor a graphical representation of the sections of a scene that each shot covers. Sometimes scenes get reimagined on set, and when this happens people rarely think to tell the editor. But on shoots where the director might be too busy to visit the editor except on company days off, this document can give a direct line of communication. It clears up confusion and I love it.
EDA: Do you think there’s a difference between editing a 2D and a stereoscopic movie? Does it change the way you handle the material? Do you think it affects the storytelling?
Austin: In my head, having never edited stereo 3D before The Games Maker, logic scared me into anticipating a steep learning curve and a rather different cinematic grammar than 2D. So I prepared. A lot. In the months between my first discussions with the producers and the start of production, I would go to see every stereo 3D movie that the studios pumped into cinemas. I’d especially treasure the bad ones, where I wouldn’t get distracted by story, and study them to devise theories about shot duration, depth decisions and how the relationships between shots differed from films that were shot with 2D projection in mind. The more movies I saw, the firmer I became in my convictions that cutting stereo 3D was as different from cutting 2D as cutting 2D was from sequencing photo essays, say. But I now realise this was probably a worse approach than had I not prepared at all. It’s not that the theories I’d devised were wrong. It’s just that in practice the rules were more forgiving than I had expected, to the point where the 3D glasses that were a permanent fixture on my face in the early weeks spent more and more time on my desk as my understanding of what I could and couldn’t get away with became instinctive. By about week eight, the “3D” button on my monitor was just a novelty to turn on for visiting executives.
That said, there are some things that just don’t work very well in stereo 3D. Longer lenses, for instance, have a tendency to flatten perspective, and don’t mimic the way we experience the world as closely as wide lenses do. They look great in 2D, but somehow something get lost when you ask the eye to focus on a specific plane along their barrel. Dirty shoulders in the corners of frame create icky edge violations and trick the eye into favouring foregrounds when they should be watching characters’ faces, which is why you won’t see any over-the-shoulder shots in The Games Maker. An editor’s cameras have most of the same mobility to roam as in 2D, but fast movements, whip pans and quick cuts have to remain shallow (or totally flat) unless you want to exhaust your audience. All lessons learned the hard way.
As for storytelling, stereo certainly should be harnessed by filmmakers as another tool to wring emotion or immerse viewers in their worlds, but too often they don’t know what to do with it and instead settle for a mathematically acceptable but creatively dull layer that exists rather on top than inside the story, perhaps pierced by the occasional “cool” shot that does nothing but draw attention to itself. It may just be personal taste, but stereo should give additional meaning to your story, even if it means bending the laws of optics or physics in doing so. Realism shouldn’t always be the only aspiration.
EDA: We know about your previous experience in the VFX area and that “The Games Maker” is a movie with a lot of VFX. How do you handle this in the editing process? Do the VFX affect the storytelling?
Austin: For films that choose to use them and use them properly, visual effects are absolutely an integral storytelling tool. They allow for a level of immersion that was unimaginable thirty years ago, but more than that they also allow for scenes to be staged, shot and presented in new ways. On The Games Maker, most of our VFX had already been conceptualised before I entered the production. Most. At risk of giving my hand away, our VFX on The Games Maker could be divided into two categories. The majority of VFX shots were as fixed in concrete as anything else in the film, and were basically finished to the precise specifications they were conceived to (sometimes years earlier). Then there were the new VFX shots that came about as a direct result of the editing process. Most of these were in the spirit of the first category, and were developed based on opportunities that emerged when we played back scenes that I’d cut in new ways. But there were also instances when we used (and abused) our pre-existing VFX pipeline to add new shots that addressed beats that confused test audiences or smoothed out holes in the storytelling that opened up after we had removed or shortened other scenes. The section of the film in Zyl, for instance, used to be much longer, and as we trimmed it back we also needed to shift around the weight of a few story beats. To keep Ivan’s quest at the front of viewers’ minds in light of some of the moments we’d removed, we used VFX to place the Profound Park ad from the train on Ivan’s bed for his grandfather to find, for example. Or during the lead-up to the Possum treasure hunt, we changed and simplified the text on the invitation card so the viewer would be able to read all the necessary information. Some of the 650-odd VFX shots were just to flip text and reverse screen direction so a scene would cut better! So we had all types of shots.
EDA: How do you usually relate with directors? Is it different in every project or do you have a specific method? Do you think it’s one of the most important professional relationships in a movie?
Austin: I’m sure every lead creative on a film could argue that his or her relationship with the director is the most important, and when filmmaking is viewed through different prisms I’m sure they’re all right. But a case can certainly be made for the director-editor relationship being the easiest to underestimate and misunderstand, if only because ours appears to exist in a bubble after everyone else has packed up and gone home. Like music or dance, film is primarily a time-based art form, with emotional resonance coming more through the serendipitous sequencing of events than the arrangement of elements in a particular frame, as in a painting or photograph. That’s not to discount the work of the cinematographer or production designer, but is more to underline the make-or-break NEED to get rhythm and pacing right. You hear people talk about those things a lot when they’re wrong, but it’s rare that even the most seasoned producer, say, can diagnose why they’re wrong. But solutions always make themselves known when you remember that, nine times out of ten anyway, your cutting decisions are in the service of wringing the maximum emotional resonance from your material. That’s the editor’s magic in full force right there.
Every editor has a different approach to navigating that relationship with the director. But I believe there’s no place for an auteur editor unless it’s the director who’s editing his or her own film, so I take it as my job to remain flexible and conform my methods to the particular temperament of the director I happen to be working with at that moment. This is equal parts survival tactic and by-product of my own personality. But I think it’s right, too. Reduced to basics, the editor is there to latch onto the director’s vision, translate it into take selections and shot timings, then present it back to him. But that’s not to say there isn’t room to challenge his ideas. To the contrary. Often a director may be hung up on an ineffective way of seeing something that he can’t get past on his own, or have baggage from set clouding his judgement, and in those instances it’s the editor’s job to act as that hard surface for the director’s muscle to flex against. When something doesn’t work, you have to be there with solutions to build on the director’s ideas.
EDA: What new challenges did “The Games Maker” bring to you? Can you tell us about the most complex scene of the movie in terms of editing?
Austin: Without a doubt the most complex scene in the script was the hot air balloon showdown between our hero and villain. No question. In my Avid project, too. For identification purposes, an editor will generally allocate every shot in a scene its own unique letter of the alphabet, and each take of each shot a number to follow that letter. An elaborate dialogue scene, then, with nine separate shots would occupy letters “A” through “H”. Supposing an average of three full takes per shot, this then balloons out to 27 separate runs of the entire scene. That’s a lot of material! This showdown scene, however, ran through the alphabet three times. There were 76 unique shots, and 292 total takes spread across a main unit, a second unit, and various splinter and pick-up units at different points of the production. That’s more than four hours of filmed material for a scene that runs for less than five minutes in the final film! It had it all: explosions, wire stunts, wind machines and crash pads; spread across both the Profound Park backlot set and a greenscreen hangar on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. But editing isn’t a matter of parsing statistics, and once an editor has watched all the available material and formed a vision for the scene in his head, it becomes pretty easy to cut through those numbers with decisions you feel good about.
But complex doesn’t always mean difficult, and when I remember the difficult scenes, that showdown — despite being the most logistically challenging — isn’t even among the five that come to mind. We got that scene right early in the process, and only revisited it once or twice down the line to make some nips and tucks. No, the most difficult scenes were the ones where there simply was no right answer, or where that right answer was hiding under innumerable layers of red herrings, false starts and dead ends. A few scenes in The Games Maker only superficially resemble the scene as it had originally on paper, most often in those cases because we made deep cuts in order to keep the pace moving, but sometimes also because of challenges on set or compromises that had to be made before the material arrived in editorial. The museum scene, for example, where we sheared away nearly half of the original nine-and-a-half minutes of exposition, was a difficult scene because every incision beyond a certain point had domino-like ramifications on the scenes around it. To keep this balance, our solution included everything from new ADR lines to the out-of-context use of reaction shots from elsewhere to anticipate Ivan’s outburst at the end of the scene. Tens of hours were poured into experimenting with different configurations of the museum scene, and on March 7 it was the last one in the film that we locked.
EDA: Do you work with the script before starting to edit a movie? Do you make notes or suggest changes to the script? Do you get involved in this part of the process?
Austin: Absolutely! Wherever possible! While it’s not always a part of the process that is open to the editor, time spent immersed in the nitty gritty of story at script stage is some of the most valuable time you’ll spend on a film. I’m an editor who would rather talk about character and motivation than technique and technology, and there’s no better stage to have these discussions than during development, when you want to be identifying extraneous or convoluted beats before good money after bad gets thrown at them. For a writer/director, Juan Pablo was exceptionally gracious in hearing out every idea, embodying that beautiful ideal of director as the filter for ideas rather than their sole originator. In fact, he went one step further and sought to surround himself with collaborators who would generate ideas that challenged the status quo, right down to his decision to bring in Chris Munro, an Oscar-winning sound mixer/screenwriter (an unusual combination!), and dialect coach Mark Ashworth to act as guardians of the dialogue from the final polishes on paper through to their implementation on set. Not every idea proposed by us fit into the story Juan Pablo sought to tell, of course, but those that did were warmly embraced and in many cases are up on the screen today.
EDA: How would you explain “what does a movie editor do” to someone who doesn’t know anything about how movies are made?
Austin: I love this question! I get asked this all the time and I still don’t have a good answer! So maybe by thinking about it I might finally come up with a worthy explanation.
The usual way of looking at an editor seems to be as a master puzzle solver, taking a bunch of jumbled up pieces and putting them back in place. But I’m not too fond of this metaphor, and not just because I’m terrible at most puzzles. I think the editor as archaeologist is more apt, searching for (and occasionally finding) gems inside a shapeless mass, understanding or devising a connection between those gems, then arranging them to reconstruct something that previously existed in another form. Archaeologist and translator. There’s no picture on the box; the screenplay gives you a map and the script supervisor’s notes become depth charts, but they’re not the thing itself. It’s a collaborative process, of course — the director is usually right there digging with you — but ultimately this dig site is your domain and you become the only person who not only knows the whereabouts of all these component pieces but has the tools to put them together too.