The team at Zoic Studios discusses what it was like to tackle invisible VFX on the Best Picture nominee and the importance of Boris FX plugins.
Art of the Cut: Mark Sanger, ACE, Shapes Jurassic World: Dominion
19 minute read
Oscar-winner on the importance of timing, editing action sequences using your imagination, and working remotely on the epic end to the franchise.
Today, on Art of the Cut, we’re speaking with Oscar-winning editor Mark Sanger, ACE, about the blockbuster film Jurassic World: Dominion. Mark was one of my very first Art of the Cut guests eight years ago when he won the Oscar for Gravity.
Since then, he’s edited Transformers: Last Knight and we last spoke on Art of the Cut about the films Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle and Pokemon: Detective Pikachu.
Mark worked his way up through the ranks as an assistant editor and VFX editor on films like Tomorrow Never Dies, The Mummy, Die Another Day, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Children on Men.
And now, to talk all things Jurassic, with Mark Sanger, ACE.
HULLFISH: So Mark, you and Joe Walker were my very first two Art of the Cuts. So it's great to be back with you. Let's talk about some of these things that I wanted to chat about after I saw the film. Talk to me about trying to build these action sequences from pretty small moments.
SANGER: Whenever you go on to a different movie with a different director and different team, they all manage everything in different ways. I'd never worked with Colin Trevorrow before and I was intrigued to see how we would handle this sort of thing. What I found interesting was it was a combination of Colin and Dan Bradley, the second unit director, and they were really in sync from the beginning. What I found astonishing is Colin's handling of action and Dan's handling of action are actually very similar.
There was a synchronicity between the main unit and the second unit, which as an editor is so important because often you get these talented directors who do amazing action but when you try and intercut it with the main unit action, there's a disparity between styles.
Editing of the sequences came together fairly fluidly. What we had in this scenario was this was essentially a James Bond, Jason Bourne-style action sequence but with dinosaurs. Under normal circumstances, these guys are choreographing very specific beats and moments, and you do get that amongst all the dailies, but what you also have to accommodate for is that the bad guys don't exist in reality. So you're cutting with clean plates, you're cutting with camera moves, whip pans, often nothing, and as an editor, that's both a curse and a privilege. It's a curse in that you have to use that imagination with any CG creature sequence.
credit: Universal Pictures
It's a privilege in that it actually allows you to have some fun playing with different ideas when it comes down to your edit because the dinosaurs always can be doing whatever you want them to do. There was the flexibility of being able to play with different scenarios, and the only limitation really was your imagination. Every single camera angle has its own dynamic and rhythm.
For me, the tricky part actually is gauging the rhythm and the pace of the sequences. What you don't want it to become is relentless. You need to be tracking these characters as they're going around all over the place plus showing off all the beautiful dinosaurs. So there was a lot of work that went into the balance of the edit.
HULLFISH: I'm really interested in that. Talk to me a little bit about determining the structure of that scene.
SANGER: The key for me, and Colin agreed, is to start with it really fat and big and to gradually chip away at it and then stand back and look at it again and gradually reduce. If you're doing it that way then you get perspective on things.
It took some time, but I think that's the only way you can really handle it. Look at all the small details and what's working in terms of driving the rhythm and the pace and the shape of everything.
Whatever we took out we didn't put it back in. We just felt we were constantly refining it into a good place. I think if you were to do it any other way, there's no way that you could get a gauge on whether or not it's working or not, because there's the age-old problem that any of us has editors have, which is, once you got used to it, then it's actually quite easy for you to lose a handle on whether or not it is running at the right sort of a rhythm and tempo.
We would watch the sequence within the context of the reel and then within the context of the movie because what may play really sharp and slick and fluid as a standalone sequence may not work with everything else around it.
I count reels from the moment we start shooting. I get the assistant to take the timed script and to build cards to the scene length that the script supervisor's timed the scenes out to. Then, what you have is six reels from day one, and you start adding your scene assemblies into each reel. One of the benefits of that is you can see how long you're running versus what the script timings are.
Another benefit is that for big movies like these it's very useful for every department that is going to be there with you in post-production to be looking at everything in terms of reels, from the moment you start shooting. We turn over these big visual effects sequences, and sometimes, musical sequences or sound sequences fairly early on in these movies.
credit: Universal Pictures
HULLFISH: You're saying your timing is based on how long the script scene really should be, which is really interesting to me.
SANGER: I don't think it will work for every editor and I certainly know that it won't work for every director. There's a solidity to it. The assistants go through and are adding sound effects and music by reel rather than by scene and by the time we get to the end of the shoot then you haven't been looking at a batch of assembled scenes, but you're used to looking at the movie in reels with the sound of the music in a sort of temp form that is already giving you a gauge on the shape of the overall structure.
HULLFISH: I love that. To play devil's advocate, I've had students and aspiring editors ask me this exact question, why do we still work in reels? Why is this a thing? Do you find that there's another reason beyond deliverables work in reels?
SANGER: I do. Historically we worked in reels because in the old days when we had film we had to ship six barrels of print and six rows of sound around to screening rooms. When I was a kid, I was a projectionist and I did the swap-overs and it was a beautiful part of the cinematic process.
In the advent of digital, you just deliver DCP at the end of the movie and it's one long thing. So what I find though, as editors, you start with the rhythm and pace and the structure of the scene. Then you come out a little bit further and you look at the surrounding scenes around that.
I still find that process of just gradually zooming out from a shot to a scene, to a selection of scenes, to a reel, is a very good way of judging rhythm and pace. It's just a means of managing your sanity. Scene by scene it might all be working well, but I think you need that interim step when it comes to the overall structure.
HULLFISH: I've never heard it described that way, but it also makes a lot of sense. There's quite a bit of score in this movie. What were you temping with? Did you have all the previous movies or did you temp outside of the world of Jurassic?
SANGER: The great news is that there are five other movies. We were able to tap into those as our benchmark. I won't necessarily stick to what the franchise has as a back catalog of music, but I will lean into the composer's back catalog to have a consistency of style.
When you're screening a movie, part of the problem (you will know as editors) is that if the audience feels like they are taken out of the movie at any point, and you lose them, then you're clearly not going to get the reaction you're looking for. Whatever can be done to mitigate the bumps in the road that you get from having to add temporary material, the better. And so I always find it. Stick with the composer. That immediately warms your audience to the picture edit that you're doing because it feels familiar to them.
HULLFISH: What are some of his other films?
SANGER: He's done Mission Impossible, he just did The Batman, he does Pixar movies, he did Star Wars movies. The list is quite extensive. It's very difficult to pin him down to one particular genre.
credit: Universal Pictures
HULLFISH: You mentioned that imagination is necessary to see some of the action sequences that are missing the dinosaurs. For you in this movie, so much of the sound was not there. Can you talk about trying to deal with the fact that your production sound is not really useful or you don't have much of it?
SANGER: I had never cut a movie on film, but I was an assistant on film. When you're cutting on a Moviola, you're dealing with the raw elements of a piece of the picture and a piece of sound. There was a discipline to that which I wholeheartedly respect. I try not to have too many versions of sequences and I try to stick to one version of the sequence and have the courage and commitment to sign off on it.
I tend to cut picture unless it's a dialogue scene without sound and music. Once the imagery's cut and I can get a sense of flow then add to it, the dialogue, the music, and the sound effects. All of that then is going to work because the baseline, your picture, is working.
HULLFISH: Wow. That's a brave thing to do. There's a lot of animation. You've got all these dinosaurs, lots of places. What are you actually cutting with? You were saying you use your imagination. Do you actually do the whip pan over to nothing? Or do you have an assistant or yourself comp something for the sequence?
SANGER: It depends on the size of the CG characters that you were putting in. So for instance, on Detective Pikachu, you've got this character who is interacting with the humans and they might be sitting in the bar with them and climbing up on the bar and walking around them.
In that scenario, it's useful to have either some boards or some post-vis in there in order to gauge how long that move takes. You're then getting a sense of the physicality of one foot over the other foot and therefore how long the shot should be. When working with dinosaurs, however, you tend to be working on a much bigger scale.
Colin and the camera team knew what they were looking at. We had whip pans from plates where dinosaurs would be down to our lead actors who were running around. There was less imagination required to work out geographically where the dinosaurs would be.
HULLFISH: Did you ever use pre-vis?
SANGER: No, we did not.
HULLFISH: Let's talk about the broader dynamics in the movie. We talked a little bit about this because we were talking about reels and trying to get a sense of the entire thing. Talk to me about how those moments evolve over the course of editing the movie.
SANGER: I was privileged because Colin's one of the writers, as well as the director, which meant that he really got the script into a really good place.
There are moments where we've beats and scenes out but the original script was really well defined, so we started off from a very good place. As an editor, I never felt like I had an uphill struggle trying to define and shape the rhythm and the pace of it all.
What you do have in this movie is a bunch of different characters coming together from all over the place. That was the first thing that I really wanted to be aware of and focus on. How long is too long to be apart from any of those characters as you're building the shape of the edit?
Then there are the legacy characters. You've got Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard at the beginning and balancing those different sets of meetings and character dynamics off of each other. There was a lot of whittling that went on with that.
There are the big Jurassic World fans who have come along to see their favorite characters, but they've come knowing that you're going to have the original cast in there as well, so you don't want them to wait too long.
credit: Universal Pictures
HULLFISH: Keeping the characters alive.
SANGER: Keeping characters alive, but also, not denying the audience the thrills that they were coming for. Under normal circumstances, if Sam Neill didn't turn up until minute 50, you might forgive that, but that would be unforgivable in Jurassic World: Dominion.
There was a lot of playing with that. How long should the opening action sequences be in order to get to Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, and then to Laura Dern and Sam Neill, and then also Jeff Goldblum. That took a lot of massaging.
There are a lot of tense scenes from before they all meet. If you just have one tense scene backed up against another, that could become relentless, even for the fans. There was a lot of work that went in to mitigate that.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about juggling the specifics of getting from one storyline to another. Was it scripted or did you find moments that made it easier to make those transitions between storylines?
The script was very specific about going to Character A, then we tangent to Character B, then we tangent to Character C. If you then take out, Character C's scene or try and move it somewhere else, you're pulling the pieces out of the Jenga pile and all of a sudden you're at risk of the tower falling over.
What I find is you structure it out as scripted and then you experiment, but without putting pressure on yourself to make it work. I would go through and just see what are the options we had in our arsenal were, working out what was the best possible cocktail to come up with based upon those ingredients. What was frustrating was if you had a structure that works really well up until this point, then there'll be that one scene that isn't working, and you then remove it, and everything that follows doesn't work.
Often I would find that, when you go in and delve into the nitty-gritty of why it's not working in the structure, you would then be able to work out what it is about the scene that needs to be addressed in order to to keep it where it was.
HULLFISH: There are a lot of scenes that amp up and I'm sure they were probably written that way. Talk to me about enhancing that and what you were actually doing to get that scene to climax.
SANGER: It depends upon whether or not it's a character scene or an action scene or a suspense scene. Actually, I would say the most complex to address are the scenes where there's no dialogue, no action.
There's a scene where Bryce Dallas Howard has to climb this structure in the jungle and out of the jungle comes to a number of dilophosaurus'. There's no dialogue in that scene but under normal circumstances, if you were using a typical Hitchcockian suspense build, you'd probably take much longer to execute it. There was a lot of playing with that scene to ensure that the tension and stakes were high.
Gradually we would find our path, but you go into those scenes knowing that the scene, as a standalone scene, plays great but we have the challenge of telling all of the story that needs to be told but needing to get through it economically.
It's an organic back and forth between editor and director, where you're just smoothing away and refining it in order to get it into the right place.
HULLFISH: I remember that scene very clearly. If you'd wanted to, I'm sure you had a ton of footage, you could have made it twice as long or half as long.
SANGER: There's that old film school thing about killing your babies. There are moments that you have to give up on beauty moments or detail moments in order to get through it with the same level of tension but in a more economical way.
There are a lot of goals that were exercised in a very confident way by Colin to ensure that those things worked the way they did.
credit: Universal Pictures
HULLFISH: I love it. I'd love to talk about choosing shots when you're trying to build a scene or building the structure of it, not just the timing, but what shots you're using and the emotional context of a shot. Can you talk to me a little bit about how that affects you?
SANGER: When you've got dailies that are as beautiful as we had on Jurassic World: Dominion and you're dealing with these big stars, these great actors, and huge sets, there's a lot of money in those frames.
You need to be able to have not only a sense of geography but a sense of the size and scope of even the smallest scenes in there. The production design is dripping off the screen. There's a balance to be struck between the drama and the visuals and then mixed in there you have the juxtaposition of the choice of angles.
We attempted to honor Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Michael Kahn in the way that those scenes with the original characters were assembled. Stylistically, there was a deliberate effort to stick to the Jurassic World editing for Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard and go to the original style of editing for Laura Dern and Sam Neill scenes.
That aside, I can only be driven by performance and I go line by line. I find the best performance of each line and if it happens to be in a shot that doesn't connect, then I'll make that decision there. There's this interesting thing that actors will do, which is, they will inherently save their great performances until the camera is either in a two-shot with them or in a closeup with them.
The wider shots tend to be the connective tissue in between the dynamics. So if you've got moving shots they'll end up being connective tissue in between closeups where there are clear golden performances going on. It's something that just gradually unfolds for you but in order to do that, you have to follow the performance.
HULLFISH: How much were you trying to compress the post-climax part of the movie as you were trying to wrap up the final threads of the film? The epilogue essentially.
SANGER: Colin Trevarow had this idea of grabbing some stock footage and cutting it together for our final epilogue and then turning those shots over to visual effects. We had dinosaurs too. The benefit of that was we were editing, so we weren't wasting time, and we didn't have a camera crew but we were sourcing material. It was a genius move by the director. And I don't think anybody would have noticed that, that little piece of magic.
It was one of several sequences that we put together during that period of going into the first lockdown and shooting again, and so the epilogue ironically is probably the one sequence in the movie that we played around with for the longest.
HULLFISH: Did you test screen different versions of the epilogue or not?
SANGER: We had a couple of test screenings and between those, there were two different versions of the epilogue. The music was the difference, not much about the visuals had changed.
My inclination was originally to go with something a lot more upbeat for the ending — to conclude it in a way that says this is the end of the six movies. Let's assume so for now. When we stood back and watched the movie, I knew the audience preferred a change of tone to the music that left it a little bit more open-ended. It's not like all of the problems are solved at the end of the story. So they needed something that wasn't so conclusive.
HULLFISH: You did mention COVID and your use of Evercast. I think none of us could have foreseen remote work three years ago and that you'd be separated from your director. Talk to me about collaborating with him and working on your own and using a remote solution to be able to work.
SANGER: I had never worked with Colin. The first time I really sat down with him was in between the first three weeks of shooting and the three-month period where we were getting to know each other, and getting to know each other virtually. Evercast saved our asses in that. Where I work, I have screens and then there's a sofa and a big screen on the other side of the room, which means that you're not face-to-face talking to your director. You're talking to the back of their head and they can't see you. Evercast just became a different version of exactly the same thing, because we're not looking at each other as we're communicating, we're both looking at the screen in front of us. We were extraordinarily lucky that we were able to do that.
Once we got that rhythm down in the first hour of working together then it was just like being in the same room. We would use a combination of Evercast and cineSync in order to have the bigger meetings. So there was a symbiosis of ideas and methods that just got us to where we needed to be at the beginning. It is all very fluid when you have people who are like-minded and they get on with each other.
There were about 18 months of remote working on the movie. It's a testament to Colin, his flexibility, his creativity, and the technical guys behind Evercast that we were able to achieve that.
credit: Universal Pictures
HULLFISH: Is there anything specific that you feel you missed being in the room? Is there a social component? Is there a going to lunch component?
SANGER: I think it comes down to the character of the individuals involved because I think there are a lot of directors out there who, given the situation where they're sitting in their home office and their kids are there or their partner's there, wouldn't be able to actually maintain focus.
It's difficult and not easy for everybody but we were placed in a scenario where we had a responsibility to deliver a movie. We had a responsibility to really plan how we were going to do all of this. It was the combination of Colin's focus and our commitment as an editorial team to just keep on working. I found that because of my team backing me up with the technical side of it, and because Colin was just easy to work with, it was actually a dream.
It was the first time in my career that at five o'clock, I wasn't still working or racing to get a train home, to see my family, but Colin would say, "Alright, that's our day. I'm going to have dinner with my family. You should have dinner with yours."
And I walked out of the office to the house and sat down with my family and had dinner. There were some tremendous bonuses that came from that.
HULLFISH: I love that time with your family was so respected by him and by both of you. Thank you so much for joining us, Mark.