“A Very Sculptural Process”: Editors Natalia Almada and Dave Cerf on Users
Natalia Almada’s Users is an inquisition on technology and its inextricable nature from modern life. Juxtaposed against Californian wildfires and oceans on the rise, the film questions what progress means when we sacrifice so much in the process. Almada, alongside her co-editor Dave Cerf, describes the unique collaborative process used in editing the film.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Almada: Well… I’ve edited all my films. In part I think it is because I need the editing process in order to articulate my ideas. I wouldn’t know how to connect to the footage without the time in the edit room and then it would follow that I wouldn’t know how or what to communicate to an editor. The process of trial and error that happens as you’re cutting, especially a film like this, brings the footage to life. You learn what it can do and what its limitations are. It’s like it speaks to you.
But it would only be half the story if I didn’t mention Dave Cerf our sound designer, composer and post-production supervisor. Dave was sound designing the film as I was editing. We passed the project back and forth such that the picture edit is as informed by the sound design as the other way around.
Cerf: I’ll just add that while Natalia was the primary picture editor, we worked outside the conventional siloed structure of picture and sound departments, which meant I would make picture changes in the process of sound design.
Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?
Almada: The hardest thing about this film was making it work without explanations. To do this we had to think about the images in many layers and not just at face value for its content.
Cerf: The overarching challenge was to create a single “space” in which all the ideas felt like they belonged.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Almada: This film was not only cut as we were shooting which is how I’ve always worked, but Dave Cerf was also doing the sound design and scoring at the same time. This made it a very sculptural process. Sometimes the sound would precede the visuals or I would try to make a visual canvas to accompany a soundscape.
Cerf: Often, Natalia was working in broad strokes ordering the narrative at a high level and I would use sound as a kind of polish to make things hold together. Early on, we decided to avoid music for fear we’d rely on it too much to create a false sense of cohesion. That also pushed the sound design a lot further. When we finally decided music would be appropriate, we used it to complement rather than to problem solve.
Almada: I edit my films but I don’t work in a bubble. My producers, especially Josh Penn and Daniela Alatorre worked really closely with me once we were nearing the end of the edit.
One thing that COVID really deprived us of was work in progress screenings. With my previous films I’d always gather an audience of maybe four people in a theater to watch the edits. Aside from their comments it would allow me to see the film with fresh eyes. Somehow just watching others watch it was as if I were watching for the first time. Not being able to do this and having to relay on feedback through Zoom was really tough for me.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Almada: I’ve only edited two other films that weren’t my own. I think as an editor in many ways when directing but I don’t actually consider myself an editor. I believe that takes a whole different set of communication skills that I’m not sure I have.
Cerf: My career has been a bit like a four-legged table: picture, sound, music, and the tools to manipulate those. I really get excited by projects that weigh these elements equally—not just in the final product but throughout the process. I really resonated with Walter Murch’s equal embrace of picture and sound and was lucky to work with him on a couple of films. I’m sure there are many examples, but I think about Hans Zimmer developing music early for Christopher Nolan’s films or Jóhann Jóhannsson’s work on Arrival, where music and sound design become indistinguishable. My other big influences actually come from the software side. After working on Final Cut Pro at Apple for a number of years, I started exploring radical timeline and media-editing interfaces with Robert Ochshorn and Bret Victor. For example, we explored systems where every clip has a physical representation and you simply edit on a table with additional interface elements projected on top. Or Robert’s sound effects explorer where you could navigate the 100,000 or so effects in my library in real time on a single screen. It’s sort of hard to explain in text.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Almada: Final Cut Pro X. One fundamental reason is that I have the best in-house tech support with Dave, and one of our executive producers’ company Simplemente works with Apple as well.
But one of the things I love about Final Cut Pro is that it is a very visual software. In the past I relied so much on my notes and folder organization to find shots but working in Final Cut Pro I rely much more on seeing the clips. It reminds me a lot of the chapter in Walter Murch’s book about NLE where he describes the unexpected discoveries scrolling through reels of film. Or how watching it forward and backwards at different speeds allowed you to see new things in the material. I think that Final Cut Pro brings a little of that process into the digital editing experience.
We also really benefited from the way you can manipulate the organization and display of the audio using “roles” rather than tracks. It allowed us to build complex soundscapes without it making the editing cumbersome.
Cerf: Because I helped to develop the still controversial Final Cut Pro while working at Apple, I have a kind of familiarity with it unlike other tools. Towards the end, we started experimenting with using Final Cut Pro in real-time sync Pro Tools as we migrated more to our final mix, and this is something I’m considering doing earlier on my next project.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Almada: The most difficult thing was finding the structure of the film. Without it we couldn’t figure out how each scene should be cut.
Like so much editing it just took a lot of trial and error and a lot of digging within to figure out what the film was ultimately about. The more clarity we could find and articulate about what the film was trying to do and say then we could find the structure.
Cerf: The question itself highlights one of the challenges: not all of the parts worked as “scenes,” and when the film felt too much like conventional scenes strung together, all the non-scene content, which was in some cases the most vital material, felt random or extraneous. For example, there were a number of interviews in the film, but in the end we left only a single one. That scene cut together fairly easily on its own, but it took a lot of work on the rest of the film to make that scene fit in (I still think it’s a bit of surprise when it arrives in the film, but hopefully in a refreshing way and not entirely a confusing one).
Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?
Almada: This is a hard question to answer just from an editing standpoint for me. But, to me the incentive behind making a film is the discovery. There is a seed of an idea that carries through to the end but the film reveals itself to me through the process.