Tips for Editing Horror and VFX with ‘The Blazing World’ Editor James K. Crouch

The Blazing World
Carlson Young appears in 'The Blazing World' by Carlson Young, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
We chat with editor James K. Crouch about editing his first Sundance feature, getting started in the industry, and bringing director Carlson Young’s VFX-heavy horror dreamscape to life with The Blazing World.

For those who missed it, The Blazing World premiered here at Sundance 2021 last week. The film stars and was directed by the talented Carlson Young and produced by Brinton Bryan. (She also co-wrote the film with young adult novelist Pierce Brown.) The film tells the story of Margaret Winter (Young’s character), a self-destructive young woman who returns to her family home decades after the accidental drowning of her twin sister and subsequently finds herself drawn to an alternate dimension where her sister may still be alive.

It’s a Lynchian mix of supernatural motifs and horror homages ranging from Pan’s Labyrinth to The Shining. If you get lost, Udo Kier is a magical firefly-eating demon who serves as the film’s Virgil guide. And while Carlson’s feature debut roams between family trauma and lush dreamscapes, it’s held together with a concise story and well-edited narrative.

We sat down with The Blazing World editor, James K. Crouch, to talk about how he was able to help bring Carlson’s blazing world to life—as well as the practical aspects of editing together a VFX-heavy production for his first Sundance feature.

The Blazing World
The Cast and Crew of 'The Blazing World' from L to R: Udo Kier, Carlson Young, Brinton Bryan, James K. Crouch and Isom Innis.Credit: Austin Film Society

No Film School: The Blazing World is the first feature film directed by Carlson Young, who also stars in and co-wrote the film. What was that like? And what tips would you give a fellow editor for working so closely with an invested director? 

James K. Crouch: It really just started with Carlson and I talking, not always just about film either. She shared a long list of films to check out to help with the tone and vibe. And from there we kind of just jumped right in. She was really eager to start on the intro, which was a really big sequence for the film.

As a rule of thumb, by the way, I’d always recommend cutting to script, don't cut lines, don't make any major decisions. The director needs to see the film according to script. Even if it's completely obvious, they need to see it for themselves first. Keep all your ideas in your back pocket to collaborate with the director later.

From there we honestly kind of just went in chronological order, scene by scene and reel by reel. It went very, very fast. I loved working with Carlson, she knew exactly what she wanted but was also open to my ideas and was open to collaborating—and as an editor, you can't ask for anything more than that.

Other than that, some general advice that I’d share would just be to make them feel at home. Coffee and snacks are much appreciated. The edit should be a fun process for them after a long and grueling production. You are there to help bring their vision to life and make the process as painless as possible. Then it's all about finding the best creative flow between you and the director.

James K. Crouch
James K. Crouch, the editor of 'The Blazing World', in his home studio.Credit: Roadwings Post

NFS: While not only a horror film, per se, TBW certainly has a lot of horror elements and tropes. What was your approach to editing jump scares and horror in general?

Crouch: I have not edited a horror feature before, which was something I was looking out for as I was looking at other movies and studying the theory for going in. But at its heart, it's still editing drama—or the common element of suspense. So, with horror, you're just doing the same thing. You're trying to find those beats to maximize the suspense in the scene.

So it was a lot of trial and error, but it was also another thing where I felt like, "I know where the scary part is, so I'll put the sound effect here," but that was often cheesy so I had to go back to just trying things visually to see where it felt right first.

NFS: With a soundtrack composed by Isom Innis (Carlson’s husband of Foster the People fame), the sound and audio are both quite notable and very much part of the story. As the editor, where does the audio and soundtrack come into the process?

Crouch: Honestly, more often than not, I'll cut completely without sound first just to make sure everything flows visually. The cuts, the timing, the pace, even if you're just seeing mouths move it can be helpful. This is how every movie really should be, you edit without any temp music and you give the composer a blank slate to score to picture. 

If it can work without any music you know it's going to work with music. I think Christopher Nolan refuses to use any temp music in the edit. That being said, every once in a while a director needs that music, Carlson trusted Isom enough to edit without music for the most part. However, I did occasionally use a bit of temp sound, but that was mostly just to help out with the green screen and VFX shots to give us a better base until the VFX were ready.

Credit: Greenbelt Films

NFS: Speaking of the VFX, overall how did you handle working with so many slates and green screens in your initial edit? What advice would you pass along for other editors trying to manage so many effects?

Crouch: Like I said, I think that sound design is definitely a huge help. I would also recommend making sure to use VFX titles. It seems simple and they are, but when I sat down with Carlson and could ask her, "What is this shot going to be?" That not only helped us visually in the edit, but it also helped our VFX artists visualize what we were going for.

Generally speaking, a cut is always locked when you send an edit to a VFX house. The studio in turn will usually send you back all the VFX with one- to two-second handles on the head and the tail of the shot which gives you a bit of freedom to move edits around a bit. But it's expensive to have them even work on one frame, so you don't want to send things early until it's locked.

As far as workflow goes, my talented assistant editor Mattias Marasigan was a huge help running dailies from the set to my studio. We also maintained a very detailed Google Doc with pictures for each VFX—which I would highly recommend!

NFS: This is the first feature film that you’ve edited which has premiered at Sundance. How did you get into editing in the first place? And what tips did you wish someone had told you when starting off?

Crouch: So for me, I didn't go to film school. I think if I had known if I wanted to do film early on I would absolutely have gone to film school. But I started film editing at 24. I started in the industry and saw that everyone was wearing so many hats. But I was thinking in my head, “How do you have any time to perfect a certain craft?” Because I'm not a multi-tasker. Early on I was like, “I’m not going to focus on VFX too much, or sound too much, but I'm going to focus on fiction editing.”

To learn the technical stuff I learned the nuts and bolts from editors on YouTube like Vashi Nedomansky, as well as life and career advice from people like Zack Arnold (who has a great website called Optimize Yourself). I also started buying every film editing theory book out there. 

A secret tip for editing for assembling dailies, I use a combo trick from Vashi that uses his trademark pancake timeline with two sequences (one on top, one on bottom). My working sequence would be on the bottom, and whatever I’m pulling from would be on top. I'd literally pick and choose and pull them on down.

Another trick I’d recommend is from Eddie Hamilton and his "long string out of the dailies cut up by beats" technique. He’ll basically have Take #1 through whatever strung out. And you do that basically for each beat of each scene. I have my assistant do that because it helps tremendously with finding performance quickly, which becomes handy when the director comes in and says, "I want to see this line." It's basically a bootleg script sync, because Premiere doesn't have a script sync like Avid does.

Overall though, I’d say that I owe everything in my career so far to being a mix of being in the right place at the right time, and just figuring out how to be in that place. 95% of all my work has been a referral, 5% were online ads. You still have to send out cold emails, go out for coffees, force yourself to be an extrovert (even if you're an introvert like me). But to get into someone's circle you have to put yourself out there. 

James K. Crouch is a film editor based in Austin, Texas. You can check out more of his work at Roadwings Post.     

Can’t take part in this year’s festivities? Check out the rest of our 2021 Sundance Film Festival coverage here.

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