Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dead Harvey Interviews David Michael Maurer: Editor of "Splinter"

Ted's Note: Thankfully, Brad is still functioning and was able to get something together. I, on the other hand, have slipped a bit below a functional level... but I do hope to purge the system and be a useful member of society soon. In any case, Brad managed to get something together to post and it's actually a helluva post. If you're into the editing and post-productions side of things, you'll want to give this a read...

BRAD - A short while back, I nerded out hard about an indie horror film called "Splinter" and we ran an interview with the director, Toby Wilkins. I'm stoked to now give you an interview with the film's editor, David Michael Maurer. He's got a reality TV background and has been working as an editor since the age of sixteen.

His time in the trenches paid off because he cut the hell out of "Splinter", earning him an award for best editing at Screamfest 2008. What makes this interview really special is that it's the first Dead Harvey has had with an editor. If you're even somewhat curious about the craft, there is a ton of helpful information in his answers. Dead Harvey salutes Maurer and reminds everyone to rent or buy a copy of "Splinter" today and support independent cinema! - 'Nuff said.

Tell us about your background and how you became interested in editing?

I actually started off doing musical theater when I was really young. I was lucky to have lived near the Children’s Musical Theater of San Jose ( which is the largest theater of its kind in the nation and had opportunities to do shows that I may not have been able to do outside of an institution of its scale. Friends from the theater would make films and I got into editing them on tape to tape systems. That lead me to other professional gigs where I met a friend Daniel Korb ( who is a director/writer/editor who taught me about the Avid. Film school at De Anza College ( Loyola Marymount University ( gave me a playground to experiment learn so that when I graduated, I had built up enough experience to start working as an assistant editor. The interest in editing stemmed from a love of storytelling, performance, and film training. I also studied some Meisner based acting technique with Andrew Benne in L.A. ( and story with Robert McKee to help grow as an editor. Everything ends up helping you think about the work in a different way and see things in the story or performance that can improve the film.

What are the most influential films to you from an editor's standpoint?

For Splinter, there was a lot of influence from the Bourne movies. They used a lot of handheld coverage, with multi-cam, and quick cuts to show fragmented action. I’m also a big fan of Jill Bilcock who edited Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet, and Road to Perdition. Love watching Mary Jo Markey’s work on Star Trek. I also think enjoy re-watching the classics like Battleship Potempkin and Metropolis from time to time.

Film School: Yes or No?

Absolutely for undergrad though I’d skip it if you already have a Bachelor’s Degree as it can be expensive in Grad School. The contacts that a good film school can open up for you are everything in this business. Plus, film school is one of the few times in your creative career where you can experiment big, fail, and grow without major repercussion. It helps you find your voice as an artist, and without that definition, it can take longer to get a career off the ground. Also with the status of being a student, a lot of professional organizations will let you join such as the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences where you can attend events and meet major players in the industry. You can also get massive discounts on film/tape stock, equipment rentals, insurance, and more. It’s helps so much.

How long did it take you to become a professional editor and what steps would you recommend for those starting out?

It took quite a few years. I started editing when I was 16 in industrials and commercial work for smaller projects that would trust me with my skill set at the time. After film school, I was able to work as an assistant editor for several years in television which I recommend to anyone starting out. You’ll learn so much from working under great editors and if you do good work for them, they tend to help you grow in your career. I made the jump to a full time editor on the first season of “American Idol”. It was a right place, right time sort of thing that kept growing. The director Bruce Gowers really took me under his wing and taught me a ton about multi-cam performance editing. For those just starting out in the business, I recommend learning the equipment so that it’s second nature to you. The creative will follow in time with great mentors. Avid and other editing systems out there have student rates a lot of times so you can get into a box without much financial impact.

For those out there looking at learning the skill of editing, but are strapped financially, what system would you recommend?

I would say, find a way to buy a student system of Avid Media Composer. They’re not expensive at all and you’ll need to know how to operate one to work on most of the big projects. FCP is good to know as well, but I haven’t worked on a large project that has used it due to the media management issues and workflow. I find a lot of smaller production houses use it because they think it’s cheaper but it’s not really overall, and if you want to work on big stuff, Avid is the box to learn. If you’re an expert at one, you can learn them all. The buttons are just in different spots. If the price tag for getting into any system is too much, I recommend trying to get into an internship as a post house. I learned so much from playing on equipment when I was younger and watching editors work. You have to answer a lot of phones and get coffee, but after the doors close at night, most facilities will let you learn their gear.

Tell us how you landed the gig on "Splinter"?

I had worked with producer Ted Kroeber on a drama called “Four Sheets to the Wind” that Sterlin Harjo wrote and directed. The film went to Sundance in 2007 and was a critical success around the world. Ted and I have a great deal of trust when it comes to post and when this project came around he called me up. It’s nice when you find folks you like to work with and there’s that mutual respect, it makes the editing process fun and collaborative.

Describe the transition from editing reality tv to horror and how did you develop the style you used in "Splinter"?

Reality television is a unique genre to itself. You have a tremendous amount of footage and the vérité storytelling presents a lot of challenges for an editor that you don’t face in many of the other genres. Reality editors don’t just shape story, they create it through looks, body language, and time compression in an environment that was never intended to visually connect. Shots are sometimes moved to create relationships that may have existed in the room, but were not shot due to camera position, and so you build moments way out of context to strengthen the story. From an editing standpoint you’re constantly forced to find solutions to big problems and come up with creative fixes to make it seem as though it all really happened that way.

In scripted, you’ve been handed this footage that is hopefully intended to work together, it was shot to specifically create those moments, and so your charge is to find the best way to make them play with the best performances possible.

In horror, the challenge was to create scares through the editing. Toby Wilkins had done a lot of shorts in the genre and knew from experience how important and tough the “kills” would be to achieve in Splinter, so there were multiple options on key scenes that gave us flexibility in post. We could create tension and release patterns through those options and due to the small scale of the project, my reality skills came in handy to figure out solutions on the rare occasion when something needed a patch. For instance, I know the end sequences of the movie had a fast independent shooting schedule, plus the creature destroys the store which would be far too expensive to reset and get inserts. I suggested transposing a flopped shot of Lacey’s head hitting the exterior glass from earlier in the film to achieve a close-up of the creature hitting the fridge at the ending. It’s technically a repeat, but it’s effective in showing the force of impact and helps makes the threat greater.

What particular challenges did "Splinter" represent to you that you hadn't faced before as an editor and how did you overcome them?

I’m used to large scale productions from my television work. We normally have very big post teams and many assistant editors working day and night. The hardest part about Splinter was posting a massive production on an independent scale. We had limited resources and staff, we also shot in HD which has upsides and drawbacks. The great part about HD is the speed in which you can work with the material and the workflow. The downside is that the amount of footage shot for a low-budget production was more like a big budget movie because it’s cheaper and easier to shoot more on a daily basis and that takes a lot longer to get through in post. In the old days of film, the independent budgets would have restricted the number of takes and film stock which significantly limits the options in post. Now HD requires productions to open up their post schedules a bit to realistically get the job done which is exactly what we did. My team worked round the clock on little to no sleep. We also had hundreds of shot enhancements, optical effects, and pre-visualization to build and manage from various vendors. There was a massive database formed that I managed to track our reels and edls. On a bigger project you’d have more staff to handle early marketing needs, vfx editing, and possibly an entire division just dedicated to building the effects for the movie. For us the challenges were to meet the needs of the financiers to help sell the movie, complete it in a timely manner, and yet work within our independent budget means which was very difficult to balance. It was a wonderful challenge and hopefully the hard work of everyone shows on the final cut.

Describe the process of working with Toby Wilkins and how you were able to achieve his vision through the editing process.

Toby has directed so many projects and shorts that came to the table with a specific vision. He knew the creature inside and out. He knew the rules of the world. He pre-visualized and studied every detail from how a glass impact would look or sound, to the burning temperature of lighter fluid, to the movement of the creature, and the effect of the black goo in the hand scenes. Everything was tested, vetted, and work shopped before production. It’s wonderful to work with someone who has such a detailed vision and knows what they want. When it came to post, Toby and I would talk through scenes and work the material. I have a lot of experience editing drama and action so for scenes like the night driving sequences and the carjack, Toby gave me a great deal of freedom to play and explore, and with his experience in horror, effects and big scares, he would be very hands on for shaping the kills and tension. In post, the director has this vision and set of rules to work within, but through editing you’re able to have a sort of push/pull on new ideas and create something magical. It was a wonderful collaboration and I count myself lucky to have worked with someone as talented as Toby.

"Splinter" featured some really fantastic acting. Are there any tricks you can share with us in editing for performance?

First, work with great actors. Shea, Paulo, Jill, and Rachel all brought something unique to the table and they really pushed each other on set to raise the bar with each new take. A lot of people have this misunderstanding that the actor is supposed to just redo the same thing consistently every take which is totally not their job. As an editor, I could care less if they’re even standing in the same place as long as the camera grabbed it and they’re in the moment. If anything their task is to find something fresh and authentic in each moment, even with the repetition of film production. The four of them were a joy in dailies.

As far as editing specifics, I look for eye connection points. The eyes are so subtle and they vary greatly between the various choices actors make. If someone throws a solid accusatory glance, I search for the best reaction of the other camera to shape the moment. If we swap the take, I swap the reaction to make sure the emotional rhythm of the scene flows naturally. I also look for body position and language. In real life, we store up our emotions in our body and great actors do the same. I’m always looking for shoulder position, muscle tension, voice quality, forehead tension, twitches, breathing patterns. It’s all there on a great actor. I suppose a lot of that is gut reaction and details but for me if I don’t buy the authenticity of the characters, I check out of the movie. Sometimes when a character just exhales out their energy, it could be a moment for the story to move forward. Everything is important.

One of the things I really noticed about that film is that it was remarkably well paced, especially for a film that centers around one location. What were the toughest decisions you faced on material to remove?

The screenplay was really lean and mean so condensing wasn’t a huge deal on this one. The biggest pacing considerations were cross cutting sequences to speed up the flow such as in the beginning between the two couples. We also shifted beats within scene, like when Dennis is telling his story during the part where they’re taking the door off it’s hinges. We move the time when he was telling it through editing since it made more sense to have him say it while Seth was present instead of searching for the screwdriver.

We also stretched moments out when we felt we needed to slow down a little for a breath between action sequences, like after the cop kill there’s a set of slower sequences.

I think the only other major cuts were for logic. There were missing limbs and things wondering around in the gas station that would have been confusing or drawn attention to the fact that we dropped a story beat. By cutting them from the film, it had the effect of helping the audience forget they’re even around so we focus on our cast.

"Splinter" maintained an edge of your seat intensity from start to finish. What elements did you utilize and/or combine to achieve this effect?

The film has tighter cuts then I’ve done on other project which came from Toby’s vision, he wanted to give the film a distinct style. During slower scenes, we keep the takes longer but when the tension is in play the vision was to use the edit style to pace up the tension. Even in the sequence before Lacey’s kill where our characters are doing various activities, we used quicker cuts contrasted by slow music and ambient sound. Just getting a bag of chips off the counter becomes an action moment for Dennis and Lacey’s battle with the bathroom door uses jump cuts that pop into her. It’s unsettling because we’re waiting for something bad to happen.

I also tried to sneak in shots with lots of negative space. Right before the bathroom creature attacks, Lacey argues with Dennis and we cut to this wide shot of Dennis from behind Lacey. The expectation is that she’s going to get hit from behind but the first time we see it, nothing happens in the shot. I’ve seen it hundreds of times and I still get a little scared when I see it.

From an editor's perspective, talk about the indie horror scene and indie horror filmmaking. Where do you feel it is now and where do you see it going?

You know, I’m hoping with the success of Splinter that there will be a resurgence of old school style horror films. I’m not a big fan of the modern sort of “torture porn” horror stuff and wish there were more John Carpenter and Sam Raimi type films out there.

I’m glad Toby stuck with his vision on our film, and fans of the movie all said they were thrilled to see a horror film that wasn’t loaded up with bad visual effects and played with traditional conventions of the genre. He knew from years as a visual effects artist that when an object is practical, even if it looks a little cheesy, it’s more believable. We could have gone nuts with low budget CG on this film and instead we only used it to enhance existing practical effects. I think when the two are used together, it’s way more effective, especially in lower budget projects. I hope to see more of that.

What’s next for David Michael Maurer?

Well Splinter is out on Blue Ray and DVD so that’s exciting, we did two commentary tracks so if you want to hear from the cast there’s one for you, and Toby, Nelson Cragg (Cinematographer), and I did one for those filmmakers interested in more technical stuff.

I just started finishing episodes for the new season of “Jockey’s” for Animal Planet which is one of my favorite shows so I’m thrilled to be a part. It’s got great action, lots of drama, and is fun to edit.

Also did a film for Sterlin Harjo called “Barking Water” that premiered at Sundance this past January, was in New Directors/New Films in New York, and is going to be making some major festival appearances this coming year. I’ll post info on my websites when I’m allowed to share more....



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