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Editor Alan Edward Bell on The Amazing Spider-Man

Editor Alan Edward Bell began his career in the late ’80s, working first as an assistant editor (Heathers, Lord of the Flies, Misery, A Few Good Men) and then, a decade later, as editor on a string of both independent and studio films including Little Manhattan, The Story of Us, Water for Elephants and (500) Days of Summer. It was the latter film that connected Bell with director Marc Webb, and the two recently completed their second project together — The Amazing Spider-Man. Below I talk to Bell about cutting a blockbuster, 3D, the AVID, Final Cut Pro, how multiple editors work together on movies and what advice he’d give to a young editor beginning today. We’re joined at one point by his first assistant editor, Jennifer Vecchiarello.

FILMMAKER: The Amazing Spider-Man seems to be the first tentpole film that you’ve been involved with. How did you land in this world?

BELL: Well, The Amazing Spider-Man came about because I did a smaller movie with the director, Marc Webb, called (500) Days of Summer. I guess he enjoyed working with me, so he asked me to collaborate with him on The Amazing Spider-Man. Even though I really like the Spider-Man character and the mythos behind it, I’m not really a superhero comic book guy, so I wouldn’t have sought after Spider-Man if there wasn’t the relationship with Marc already there. Of course, once you’re ensnared in that world, you’ve gotta give 150 percent. It was challenging, but it was very rewarding at the same time.

FILMMAKER: Were there elements of (500) Days that Marc was hoping you’d provide some continuity with, or was it just the two of you guys both doing something radically different?

BELL: Well, obviously it’s quite a different movie than (500) Days. I can’t speak for Marc, but I think he would agree with me on this: whether you’re on a small movie or a huge movie, it’s all about the characters — being able to identify with them, how they connect with one another and what their journey is. Those are the human kind of universal truths that allow us to connect with the material. Going into Spider-Man, I certainly had that in the forefront of my mind, just recognizing that Peter Parker, Gwen Stacy, and even Dr. Connors, the lizard — you really had to be able to identify with them and put yourself in their shoes. I think that that’s one of the most compelling things about filmmaking; it’s a moment in time when we sit down collectively, disengage from ourselves and land in another character. And, when movies are really working well, we’re feeling what the character’s feeling. We’re right there on the edge of our seat with the characters, whether they be in 500 Days or Spider-Man. So, I was very excited when I found out Marc was going to do Spider-Man because he’s a very mature storyteller when it comes to getting characters and actors to connect and having the storyline really work on that level.

FILMMAKER: What about this reboot — was there something particularly interesting to you about this take on Spider-Man?

BELL: Obviously everybody was familiar with the Sam Raimi version, and while they’re really good films, we wanted to update the story and the character a little bit. But, we didn’t want to completely reinvent the wheel. There’s a certain mythos, you have to maintain certain things. [Peter Parker] has an uncle, the uncle’s going to die and he’s going to get bit by a spider. And then, from there, we basically said, “Well, what can we do to make this more real, more believable?” I wasn’t involved in a lot of the early story meetings, obviously. I’m an editor, so they give me the footage and I do what I can with it. But, between the writers and the studio and Marc and the producers, they came up with the idea that Spider-Man would be a little bit more physics-based. In all the Sam Raimi movies, he’s really just flying. I mean, he’s shooting the webs up. You’re not really paying attention to what they’re connecting to. In this incarnation, Spider-Man, if he shoots a web and it lands on the edge of a building, then physics dictate that he’s going to go flying down into that building. So, there’s a physical component to his web shooters. And of course, they’re not integrated into his body. He has to make them himself. He shoots them, and there are a finite number of webs in each web shooter, and when they connect with something, there’s a physical reaction. It makes it interesting because there are limitations on what he can and can not do. And I found that very interesting.

And then there’s also this idea that it’s a story about a kid who’s trying to figure out who he is vis-à-vis his past. He had this incident happen when he was a child, and he doesn’t really know who his parents are. A lot of understanding of who we are is based off an understanding of where we came from, and so he’s kind of struggling with these ideas as he’s coming of age in the story. And, he’s a real positive superhero. He’s a good kid who wants to do good, but he’s struggling with these kind of inner ghosts about his past. He’s trying to search out some answers, and that’s what lands him in this predicament of being bit by a spider.

FILMMAKER: Let’s talk a little bit more about the process of the editing. So, you’re part of a team of editors on the film. How did that divide up?

BELL: Well, basically, when the film was set to go, at that time they were going to start shooting in the beginning of December. I got a call from Marc the previous June, as I was working on Water for Elephants. Marc said, “Hey, when are you available?” And I was like, “Well, I’m probably not available until February.” He’s like, “Oh, I don’t think you’re going to be able to do Spider-Man.” I said, “Oh, well that’s too bad. Can you get somebody else to start it?” And he’s like, “I don’t know. I don’t know if [the studio] will go for that.” And then, Marc would call me up and go, “Hey, what do you think about this editor? What do you think about that editor?” And I’d tell him what I thought about various editors. “Well, there’s this guy, Pietro Scalia. Should I hire him?” I’m like, “He’s a great editor — absolutely.” And he goes, “I don’t know if he’s available the whole time.” “Great. Well, what if you hire him, he starts the movie, and then I come on?” Marc goes, “That’s kind of what I’m thinking and the studio might go for it.” And so, they did. Pietro started the movie, went off and did Prometheus with the understanding that if he finished Prometheus, he would come back and kind of consult. And it worked out really great. You know, I always find this interesting: on a little movie like 500 Days of Summer, the director shoots the movie over 21 days or something, and then he gets 10 weeks to come up with a cut. Then, you’ve got a movie like Spider-Man that shoots for well over 90 days, and he gets 10 weeks to come up with the first cut. But there’s a huge difference in terms of the amount of work and the type of work you’re doing in that 10 weeks! So Marc was like, “We’re going to need some help.” We called my friend Mike McCusker, who’s a fantastic editor and a super nice guy. We were thinking it would be for just a couple months, but we managed to keep him on for close to six months. So, Pietro started the movie, and then I came on in February. We had about a two-week overlap and he went off. And then, I continued cutting the movie until they finished shooting, for another six weeks or eight weeks. And then, Mike came on a couple weeks after the director started his cut and stayed on until our first or second friends-and-family screening. And then, shortly after that, Pietro finished Prometheus, and he came back on for lthe last month-and-a-half or two months of the movie.

FILMMAKER: When Pietro came back, were you guys editing it together, or were you trading off reels and scenes?

BELL: We were trading off reels and scenes. You know, it becomes a divide-and-conquer situation. There’s so much to do, and there are so many bosses to answer to. And I don’t mean that in a literal sense — I mean it more in a technical sense. You’ve got music, sound effects and mixing, you have color timing and you have this huge visual effects machine. And it’s all churning at the same time. On top of that, you’re dealing with a movie that was shot in 3D. And that is very hard to do simultaneously for even two people. So, between Marc, Pietro, myself and [first assistant editor] Jennifer [Vecchiarello], we all kind of divided and conquered. Any number of us could be at any particular place at a given point of time, but no single one of us could be at all places at all times. So, Pietro kind of focused on the mix, and I focused on the visuals. Marc kind of bounced around in between. And Jennifer just made sure that all the machines were fed. And I don’t mean the literal machines — I mean the DI facility, all the effects vendors, the mixing stage and the sound effects supervisors. She played a huge role. So, that’s how we divided it up.

FILMMAKER: So, was it your first 3D movie?

BELL: It was my first 3D movie.

FILMMAKER: And how was that for you, learning that process?

BELL: It wasn’t particularly hard to learn, but I tend to be kind of sensitive to [watching] 3D unless I’m in just the right spot [in the theater]. I’ve discovered there’s two sort of 3D concepts. There’s the Jim Cameron concept, which is very much about keeping whatever your primary attention is supposed to be focused on right at screen space. And then, most of the [rest of the] frame goes off into the distance. And then, there are the 3D stereographers who want everything to pound back [as deep] in the theater as possible. I tend to be more sensitive to things that have a huge dynamic range in the Z-depth, so if my eye has to start way in the background and then [follow an object] that comes really close into the theater, I suffer a lot of eye strain and get headaches and nausea. I tend to be more in the Jim Cameron school. Spider-Man kind of falls in between. I think it’s a very comfortable film to watch. I wouldn’t want to pigeonhole Marc because he wants people to enjoy the movie and be comfortable, but there are also times when he wants to really amp it up and use that extra space in the theater. And I think we do a really good job of it with this film. But, it’s a lot of work, you know? You have double the amount of footage, so basic temp comps are more difficult. Everything just takes a little longer and is more difficult.

FILMMAKER: [Laughs] Okay. So, you cut it on Avid. Tell me a little bit about working with that system.

BELL: Well, I mean, Avid was great because it allowed us to actually cut with side by side footage in 3D. Unfortunately, for us, we started the movie a little too early to take advantage of version 6.0, which has some really great 3D tool capabilities. 3D is now just integrated through the entire program. We were using version 5, which has rudimentary 3D capabilities. You can watch stuff side by side, you can have 3D footage in your timeline and group clip 3D. Everything worked except you couldn’t really do convergence and you couldn’t set the interocular between the left and right eye. And a lot of the effects tools weren’t quite there yet. So, that made things a little challenging, but it was great to be able to actually flip a switch and look at everything on a 3D monitor — to put the glasses on and see it the way the audience is going to see it. I tended to work in 2D mostly, just because of eye fatigue throughout the day.

Filmmaker: How do you work with audio in the picture edit phase?

Bell: I tend to use an awful lot of audio tracks. So, we had 16 tracks of audio, which were discreetly mapped out to three speakers. I cut with left, center, and right, and then I divided my timeline so that I could have all my dialogue in the center speaker only, and then effects and music could spread between the left and right speakers. Sometimes I’d bleed them into the center speaker as well. That was really cool. You know, the Avid’s a fantastic tool. This is my second film on Avid since abandoning Final Cut Pro, and I’m really enjoying it.

FILMMAKER: I presume you couldn’t do have cut this film on Final Cut Pro 10, but could you have done it on 7?

BELL: You could’ve done it on 7, but it really would’ve been difficult. It would’ve killed Jennifer. But you could have done it, no doubt about it. It just would have made things a lot harder. Final Cut 7, there’s no real support for stereo [3D], so unless we were going to do a conversion, we would’ve had to cut everything in 2D only, or figured out some crazy workaround for the stereo, which would’ve been a pain. And then, there’s no real ease of project sharing in Final Cut Pro. With Avid, it’s super, super easy to have eight systems. I mean, one of the things that we did — and I’ll let Jennifer comment on it ‚ was we had eight or nine systems at any given time all connected to the same media. And we would go from—how many different theaters at Sony or five are connected, Jennifer?

VECCHIARELLO: Oh, I’d say at least four of them, between the theaters and the stages. We could either bring in the Avid, just a regular tower, and connect it to that project, so it was great. We could screen directly from the Avid to most of the theaters on the lot.

BELL: That kind of capability is very hard to come by with other systems. And, it’s just super easy to share projects between multiple editors and assistants. The other advantage you have in the Avid world is to be able to edit with ScriptSync, which is super valuable for recuts. Basically, all the dialogue scenes, they’re laid out on a script page view, and simply by finding the line you need, you can click on the line and that piece can show up in your monitor and you can play it for the director or yourself. That’s fantastic when you’re trying to find a specific line reading, or you want to change something and need to go search for alternate takes. For instance, let’s say you need somebody to say, “Hey.” You can go through the script, find the word “hey,” and check all the readings from every single scene in the movie rapidly. And there are a lot of tools like that that Avid has that are very, very easy to use.

FILMMAKER: You know, since you brought it up and it’s a hot topic among our readers, what’s your take on Final Cut 10? Do you think it represents Apple’s moving away from the pro community?

BELL: I do. I don’t think 10 is a viable, professional product. I certainly couldn’t use it to cut Spider-Man, and I wouldn’t use it to cut a (500) Days of Summer either. I’m sorry that that’s the direction that they chose. Maybe it’s going to grow into some great product, but wake me up when we get there. I’m pretty much done with holding out for Apple to service the professional user.

FILMMAKER: You have worked as a film editor since the ’80s, and you’ve also been a visual-effects supervisor. Now, you’ve cut one of the biggest films of your career. If you were starting over, if you were in your twenties and starting again, do you think that your path would be similar? For those in our audience who are contemplating a career as an editor, what advice would you give them?

BELL: I guess what I should say first is that I’m happy where I am. I’m glad I got here. And, luck had nothing to do with it. It takes a huge amount of work and time to get to where you’re sought after by directors. And this sounds like I’m being hubristic or prideful, but my philosophy as an assistant editor was always, “How can I be super valuable so that that editors will always want to hire me?” That’s the only way to get job security in the freelance world — to be more valuable than all the other freelancers. It’s a service industry, so what services can I offer that nobody else can offer? Besides being personable, enjoyable to be around, you need to come up with other tools. When I started as an assistant, I started on film, but I had this great love for computers and technology. And, I was able to ride the wave from film into digital, nonlinear editing. A lot of my peers were deriding this as the end of filmmaking as we know it, and I looked at it and just went, “Wow, now I can cut scenes without butchering the movie. I can cut any scene in the film and it won’t hurt anything. I can come in on the weekends and I can cut until my heart’s content and I can learn the craft of editing.” And then, I started realizing that I could do things visual effects-wise as an assistant. I could do temps for the movies that I was working on, and that made me very valuable to the editors I was working with. And, as I progressed more I got to the point where I was like, “Okay, I’m going to make the jump and become an editor.” The one thing I noted is that this entire industry is built on relationships, and when you’re an assistant editor, you have relationships with the directors and producers and studios, but the relationship is fundamentally an assistant relationship to the editor – that’s the paradigm. You’re the assistant. There’s an editor between you and that other layer of individuals. When you make the jump to editor, you’re changing that relationship. And all those people that you knew before, it’s not going to be easy for them to naturally look at you as an editor. So, you’re going to be rebuilding all those relationships all over again. Now, that may not be true in every case, but that’s certainly what I found.

So, I realized that once I made the jump from assistant to deciding to become an editor, that if I ever went back to assisting, it would stunt my growth as an editor. I would never really be able to take off. And when I looked at my friends, my fellow assistants who made that jump, I could see that they were really struggling. And now, obviously there are financial reasons why you might drop back [to assistant editing], but it’s very, very difficult to make that jump and make it stick if you’re on and off the fence. So, I basically looked around and said, “How can I be more valuable than every other indie film editor out there? And also, how can I make more money and get a bigger piece of the pie than everybody else?” When I jumped off, I was making top dollar as an assistant editor on Rob Reiner films and then went of to movies with one- and two- and three-million dollar budgets. They had more money for Avid rentals than they did for me as an editor.

So, I realized that I had these great skills as a temp compositor, and I just started spending all my free time studing these visual effects tools — After Effects, Combustion, Shake. It’s like, I’m going to take the visual effects budget and make money off of that, and also become more valuable as an editor because I can look at footage and do things differently than other editors can. And that’s something that has really served me. It has made me more valuable because I can look at scenes and make changes to them in ways that you normally wouldn’t think of. And directors respond to that because you can cobble different takes together and make them appear as one take. You can make things match that didn’t match before. You can change pacing within the scene. You can change entire backgrounds and cut characters out of scenes and place them in new scenes and do stuff that is really kind of mind blowing when you understand the technology and are able to use the tools. So, if I had to say one thing to new up-and-coming people in editorial, is to just recognize that it’s a creative industry, but it’s also a service industry. You’re going to be serving the director and the movie and the studio. Ask yourself, how can I be more valuable to them than my competitors, because that’s what’s going to keep you employed. At least that’s my secret.

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