“A Coming of Age Story–with Jump Scares”: Jason Ballantine on Editing It
In horror movies, kids are often exempt from the carnage. It’s a trope of the genre—the cute moppet that any experienced horror viewer knows is in absolutely no peril within the confines of the film. Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of It opens with a grade-schooler in a yellow rain slicker having his arm torn off by a sewer dwelling clown—a creature who then drags the child into the underground bowels of Derry, Maine. The film’s brutal ground rules are immediately established – anyone is fair game and no appendage is safe.
“I am very conscious watching any film where the main cast seems to have this force field around them,” said It editor Jason Ballantine. “In those movies the secondary cast are easy game, yet the villain never seems to be performing at their full commitment when it comes to main cast.”
Updating the setting of Stephen King’s source material from the ’50s to the ’80s, It follows a band of outcast adolescents dubbed The Losers as they battle a malevolent shape-shifting entity that most often takes the form of a clown named Pennywise. Though the opening scene and the film’s trailers emphasize the horror, Ballantine considers the movie equally in the tradition of The Goonies or Stand By Me. “For me, It isn’t a horror film – it’s a coming of age story with jump scares,” said Ballantine, whose credits include Wolf Creek and The Great Gatsby. “I challenge people that they will laugh more than they will be spooked. The film is as sensitive as it is suspenseful.”
With It still going strong in theaters – the movie’s box office tally sits at nearly $300 million domestically after four weeks in release – Ballantine spoke to Filmmaker about editing one of the most successful “horror movies” ever made.
Filmmaker: It is pretty much a phenomenon at this point. How early in the process can you tell that you’re working on something special? Do you get a sense of it even with the first day’s footage?
Ballantine: Receiving shoot day one’s material is a very anxious moment for any editor, I think. It’s very telling as to what the next year of my life is going to be like. Obviously you read the script before committing to a project and you meet with the director, maybe talk about other films that the director likes the style of. So you have some understanding going in, but, being an image junkie, I definitely cannot wait to see the first day’s footage to get a true idea. What are the performances like? What is the style of the photography, which will dictate the style of the cutting as well? As filming progresses, I will sit and watch all the dailies. So if the movie shoots 400 hours of material, I will literally sit and watch it all. Then it’s my responsibility to put the best moments on the screen.
Filmmaker: Were you editing on location or remotely during the shoot?
Ballantine: The movie was shot in Toronto and I followed up there, which isn’t always the case but it’s nice to be close to set. I was dealing with the dailies from the start, assembling the film for [director] Andy Muschietti. We were using the PIX System, which is a secured dailies viewer that I could upload my assemblies to every Friday for Andy to watch over the weekend. Sometimes we would meet for a few hours on the weekend just to get some facetime together and talk about what had been shot and what was going to be shot.
Filmmaker: Explain the function of having the editing crew start work at the beginning of principal photography.
Ballantine: The editing crew serves a couple important roles during production, the first being that the assistant editors run a technical check on dailies, making sure everything that was shot has been transferred, copied and backed up. Nowadays, with digital shooting, we want to make sure that everything is accounted for before those camera cards are deleted and re-circulated back to the camera department. The second important thing is putting together an assembly, helping to identify any shortfalls in coverage – whether we might need an insert of a story detail or something like that whilst we have the cast, crew and sets. It’s a lot easier to schedule a couple pickups by second unit before cast disappear and go shave their head for their next film.
A week or two after the shoot wraps is usually sufficient time for me to have an assembly of the entire film. The assembly is a fine cut of the script — it’s not slapped together by any means. However, a good read is not necessarily a good watch. The assembly is my best foot forward in terms of watching all the dailies and my interpretation of beats and the script. But it’s fat. It’s usually overly long. The first assembly of It was around three hours and forty minutes. The assembly has every scene that was shot. I might drop lines of dialogue or rearrange scenes as I’m assembling, but principally I don’t steer too far off course from the script because that’s where the director’s mind is at… for the time being.
Filmmaker: If you have a production that’s heavily storyboarded, will you look at those to get an idea of the way the coverage was intended to be used?
Ballantine: Not at all. Well, maybe just a glance. Storyboards are a brilliant device for everything prior to the camera rolling. They’re great for a director’s confidence in having a fallback guide for what must be covered on set and it’s a good communication tool between the cinematographer and the director, but once a scene is shot I don’t use storyboards whatsoever as a cutting guide. The dailies inform me of how to cut the scene.
Filmmaker: Are you still an Avid user or have you jumped ship?
Ballantine: No, I’m blindly sticking with it. In fact after 40-odd feature films through assisting or editing, there’s only been two films that didn’t use Avid. One was Happy Feet (Final Cut) and the other Moulin Rouge (Lightworks), and that was the choice of those editors.
Filmmaker: What is it about Avid that you prefer other than just your familiarity with it?
Ballantine: Familiarity goes a long way. It’s what I first learned and it holds its place in the market. It’s really a fantastic tool in a shared working environment. There’s not too many other systems that have multiple seats sharing one central media bank. It’s been a long marriage with Avid, over 25 years. I was first introduced to it in 1992. It’s a tool I don’t have to think twice about. I can keep my focus on the storytelling and not what button to press.
Filmmaker: Especially in horror films, the score and the sound effects can go such a long way toward selling a jump scare or a special effect. Do you like to cut with temp music and sound effects?
Ballantine: The film had a music editor, Lise Richardson, and it was really fantastic to have her support, because repurposing score is such a skill as well as a massive time-suck. It was great to have Lise both for her knowledge and her ability to lay music to my assemblies. Music is obviously a great contributor towards emotional drive as well as the scares, assisting in setting the tone of the film.
Sound effects were probably more of a contributor in terms of story beats. Sound effects can help instigate a character’s motivation or help move them through a space—for example, Hockstetter following The Losers into the sewers. For those sorts of things I will temp up sound effects in some form, or the Assistant Editors will get creatively involved drawing from a pretty standard sound library. In the latter part of the filmmaking process, our sound supervisor Victor Ennis designed and sweetened sound specifically for the film.
Filmmaker: Going back to your first assembly, what scene was the most brutal to get rid of from that nearly four-hour version?
Ballantine: There weren’t many scenes that bit the dust that I dearly loved. However, there were moments within scenes that we definitely had daily discussions about as to the merit of them staying in the film. At first those discussions were between Andy and myself and then later in the process of cutting the film they included producer and studio feedback. Then there were the audience test screenings too. Usually you start the test screenings with a small trusted circle—a friends and family screening where everyone politely says “it’s amazing.” (laughs) Then you go out to a public audience who can tear you a new one. That’s when you get exposed to what you need to hear—the truth. So it was in that latter process that we started to be challenged on things that we liked. At the end of the day, the film is what Andy wanted and was the best derivative of our resources and creative discussions with the producers and New Line execs. It was a happy conclusion.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to get right?
Ballantine: Talking generally, I’d say the jump scares, the fright moments. There’s a lot of consideration in those. They were all somewhat longer in their scripted and shot form. It was really just a matter of finding their rhythm and also each scene’s placement within the film. There were seven characters to jockey, all with their own individual Pennywise experiences prior to coming together as “The Losers.” We had to be conscious of the setups not feeling episodic or repetitious and trying to tackle each spook in a fresh way.
Some of the jump scares are force of hand, where it’s editing that’s driving them. Like the scene with Ben in the library, where Pennywise suddenly appears from what was the headless boy. Probably the most effective jump scare was performed with a single camera move, when Pennywise appears and strangles Bev in her bathroom. That’s a really effective jump scare because it’s not manipulated through an edit. I think people feel these edit manipulations, so it’s really satisfying when it’s successfully performed within the camera.
Filmmaker: My favorite jump scare is when the kids are in the garage watching the slide projector and a giant Pennywise leaps off the screen.
Ballantine: That scene probably required the most work in terms of getting it right. Andy was very clear as to how he saw it in his mind. So it was just a matter of reworking it until we achieved maximum impact. It did require a round of additional photography to get it in its finished state. It went through a lot of changes, that scene, and of course was assisted by visual effects and a thumping soundtrack.
Filmmaker: At what point in the test screening process were all the VFX in there, rather than maybe a card that describes the shot? Also, how does it change your edit once all the VFX come in? I imagine if the effect is better than anticipated you can maybe hold on a shot longer than you thought or vice versa if maybe it doesn’t turn out so great.
Ballantine: There ended up being over 700 VFX shots in the movie, but the one huge benefit we had on It was that everything, even if it was just a plate, was available to edit with. There were no holes in the film where we had a hand-drawn storyboard or, as you say, text on screen saying “imagine there is a huge monster here…” So for something like Judith, the painting that comes to life for Stan’s spook, there was an actress who performed that role on set. Mind you, she had tracking dots on her face, but at least we still had a representation of something as opposed to it being entirely created via CGI. Andy had a lot of ideas for Pennywise shape-shifting permutations through visual effects, but budgetary limitations made us scale down certain things. So there was a process of editing to “what can we afford.” As you say, maybe something wasn’t looking quite as good, so we’d tighten the edit, or, more often than not, it would look amazing so we’d just hold the shot. There’s definitely a lot of to and fro in that regard between the two departments.
Filmmaker: Do test screening results alter the edits of jump scares? I would think – almost like a comedy – you don’t know if those moments work until you see an audience react to them. And by the time you test, you and Andy have seen those scenes a million times so it’s hard to properly gauge them.
Ballantine: I think the biggest tussle for the editor and the director is maintaining an objective stance to a film that you’re just too familiar with at times. It is hard to determine whether four frames here or there is really making it better. We just draw upon our own instinctual feelings for how things are playing with an audience. Then, of course, there is the collaboration bouncing off the producers and studio execs, who were really close in the making of this film. We actually did nine audience preview screenings for It – from a smaller 110 seat screening to a final 475 seat screening. It was a long process of testing with lots of variations.
Henry (the leader of the bullies who torment The Losers) had quite a lot of backstory, basically to give him a reason for why he’s such a bent kid. But when you’re dealing with a cut that’s well into the three-hour mark, things have to go. So it’s just a matter of cherry picking what can be pulled without any real detriment to the overall pacing and feel of the film. Interestingly, the audience didn’t really carry that much compassion for Henry as a character even with that backstory—I guess because he’s messing with the main characters, who the audience is really connected to.
Filmmaker: What were the challenges of dealing with so many lead characters, particularly in long dialogue scenes that involve all of them?
Ballantine: The best thing about this film was that every single kid was an awesome performer. So I didn’t have to prop up one of the cast because they weren’t as strong as the others. It’s just a matter of cutting for what’s true to that moment. And obviously with seven kids you want to bounce around a little bit to keep them all involved in the scene. Then you also have to be mindful of how a moment or glance might impact further downstream.
Filmmaker: To finish up, I want to ask about one specific cut, where you go from a sheep coming out of a pen at Mike’s family farm to a shot of kids coming out of a school classroom. It reminded me of something you’d see in an Eisenstein silent film.
Ballantine: That was a designed scene transition. Andy had envisaged that transition and so he shot for that purpose. It worked well and subconsciously lends to the narrative that the people of Derry being herded by Pennywise. There are other moments I can think of that are not necessarily the force of the edit, but merely the edit supporting what was performed in camera. There was a character moment for Stan where he decides to put his bike stand down before sprinting out of frame with the other kids. Naturally, because the kids are running off, you kind of want to cut with that wiping motion, but I chose to hold the shot for a character moment that is rewarded with an audience giggle. You could see the audience starting to respond to and understand the nuances of the characters.