Inside The Nutty World of Post-Production on $100M+ Budget Movies
From breaking in as a lowly PA to delivering "Pokémon Detective Pikachu", Laura Yanovich knows Hollywood the way only a First Assistant Editor can.
Pacific Rim: Uprising. Jumanji. Star Trek Beyond. Furious 7. Almost no one has seen these films come to life more intimately than Yanovich. “Assistant editing is a very left-brain activity,” she explained to No Film School. “You do get to be involved in the artistic side, but you have to be able to keep track of stuff, look at a schedule, and think ahead.” Yanovich was kind enough to sit down with No Film School to not only explain how to break into this part of the industry, but how a feature film is pieced together on a studio scale.
When Yanovich started out on the path to filmmaking, she quickly realized that she hated being on set. “There are too many things that can go wrong…I like having all the elements together to put into a half a dozen different ways.” Once she realized that Post was the most interesting field, she took an extension course from UCLA on assistant editing. Then all she had to do was break in. Easy! After working from one low-budget project to the next, she made the jump to big-budget feature by...working on the part of production she hated most.
“I was a production assistant on a movie called Legends of the Fall. The crew from that movie went on to do Braveheart.” The production was shooting in Ireland and non-union, but it was rumored they'd go Union when back in the States. “The first assistant editor from that show, Cindy Thornton, called me and said, ‘Hey, here's your big chance. If you want to come on as our apprentice, you will go Union with the production.’ Which is exactly what happened.”
Working on a Blockbuster versus TV & Indies: What’s the big difference?
Laura Yanovich is often a First Assistant Editor, which means that in addition to regular Assistant Editor duties, she coordinates with the Post department at the studio, all of the department heads, and her own team to coordinate who gets what and when.
Yanovich: On one side, I have the benefit of having many people around me at all times. Because the budgets of what I work on are so much higher, the studio themselves are willing to help solve your problems for you. On the other side, there's a great deal more pressure. I'm dealing with $150 million, I'm not dealing with $6 million, so we have to get it right. I'm generally the First Assistant, so then I have to have the administrative skills and the managerial skills. Who do I delegate what to and when?
I would describe it as turning a giant cruise ship. There are so many ingrained ways that the different departments (sound, color, music) have to work when you're releasing 4000 prints of something. What ends up happening for me is that on almost every show, the last couple of months, I get no days off. I'm working nine in the morning till midnight every single day. With smaller things, there are certainly times when you're crazy like that, especially right before a screening. But in general, it's just not that intense.
“I would describe it as turning a giant cruise ship.”
Why the assistant editor starts working many (unpaid) months ahead of time
As Yanovich explains it, before you start a movie, the Post Supervisor and people from the studio organize many conference calls between your department, the camera department, the sound department and so on to figure out how everything technically is going to happen.
Yanovich: I'm prepping for another big action movie right now, and they're deciding whether they're going to shoot on film or digital. The benefit of shooting on film is that it still has a better look than digital. Although digital looks very good, a lot of directors still love film because it has more of a richness to it. But it’s more expensive. And it changes your whole system, as it's time-consuming to get the dailies developed. Are we going to get dailies in the morning? Are we not getting them until the afternoon? That depends on how many people you hire. They have to balance, do we want this artistic side of it, or do we want it to be more cost-effective?
Then, of course, the editors will have their own specific needs. I work exclusively with Avid, but it could be that they want to use Final Cut or Premiere, and then you have to adapt for that. From there, we figure out how many people we need to hire. Then you figure out how much space you need for cutting rooms.
NFS: This is all discussed over the phone with everyone, in a conference call?
Yanovich: Yes, a lot of conference calls. There are weeks that you are not getting paid, but you're still working very hard because you're preparing for everything.
“I'm prepping for another big action movie right now, and they're deciding whether they're going to shoot on film or digital.”
Working on a film like Detective Pikachu
For Yanovich, Pokémon Detective Pikachu was a unique situation because it combined animation-style with live action. That required a series of comical editing stages!
Yanovich: With Pikachu, they actually had multiple takes with some kind of mime and puppeteers. They had little Pikachu puppets that would be somewhat animated. They didn't talk or anything, but they would be in the right spot for the actor to look at, and they would turn their head. Then you'd have a puppeteer or a mime in a complete green suit. It’s very funny looking. But it’s so they can act out scenes and make sure the eyelines work and the timing works.
They would shoot that. Then they would also shoot blank plates with nobody in the frame because that's easier to put together for the visual effects department. They would also shoot without any of the green screen in there, again, so you could get the background plates and everything else. They had multiple layers for everything.
Ryan Reynolds was doing the voice, and he was on set for a couple of weeks, but he wasn't really there for most of the shooting. They had the script, and they had a stand-in actor do his lines, again, so that they could get the timing right, and talk to people. Then all that gets replaced by Ryan Reynolds later.
NFS: What's the order that your team would piece those elements together?
Yanovich: We started with what our editor referred to as the “puppet pass.” We cut together a version of the scene with all the puppets, made sure that we liked the way it flowed, and showed it to the director. Then you replace the puppet shots with the plates, so there's nothing there. Then we have visual effects editors who will put a still of Pikachu into the frame, so that while we're watching it, we know that's where Pikachu goes, or that's where the Bulbasaur goes, or whatever else. Then you have the temp dialogue underneath it.
Sometimes when something has to be happening and we don't have anything that can be used as a temporary placeholder for it, you can literally just have a title that says, “They jump off the cliff and splash in the water.” They don't have anything yet but you just try to time things out so that it makes sense.
“Then you'd have a puppeteer or a mime in a complete green suit. It’s very funny looking.”
Going from start to finish as an assistant editor on a big budget feature
Dailies to Editor’s Cut: a quick turnaround
According to Yanovich, editorial usually starts a week before shooting does. (With the exception of big action movies that have Previs, where one of the editors may start working several months prior to shooting so the director can play with the Previs and figure out which angles they want to use when they go to shoot it.)
Yanovich: Assistants don't start until the week before, where we set up the rooms and just get ready. Then the editors keep up to camera. Whatever gets shot the next day, gets cut. I love dailies. We've read the script, so seeing how it changes from the script to being performed is fascinating.
In general, when [Production] is done shooting, they'll give us about two weeks. Oftentimes the director’s so exhausted, they go to Hawaii or something. Then we get two weeks. We add music and sound and cut it all together so that each individual scene has been cut and strung out into the full feature. Then the director comes back, and they watch what is known as the ‘editor's cut,’ or less respectfully, the rough cut. Then the director will have 10 weeks–that is what is given to them by the DGA–to work on the cut themselves.
How the assistant editor keeps track of it all
Yanovich: We get tons of paperwork, We have the list of all the shots. We have to make sure all the shots, and all the cameras that they used for the shots, all the footage has come in. In Avid, or whatever system you're using, we organize it, we make sure the sync is correct. They burn in what the time code is, and the name of the take, and we make sure all of that information is correct. Down the line, lists are going to be made out of Avid for the DI [digital intermediate], for actually building the picture at the end for the sound department. If all of your numbers are not correct, then they can't build it correctly. It's the “garbage in, garbage out” problem.
All of this takes hours and hours and hours to do. Plus, when they shoot multiple cameras, there's something called group clipping, where you take all of the shots that were shot with the same camera and sync them up together so that when the editor is cutting, they can cut just between the cameras easily, and change the angle slightly. Then, in your spare time, the editor will give you the scene they have just cut, and we put temporary sound effects and music to it.
Next: Riding the ‘Director’s cut’ wave
Yanovich: During the director's cut, the music editor and sound department comes in. The assistant editors are sending everything out to the music and the sound department. They do their work. Then we bring their work back in, make sure it's in sync, maybe conform it because things will have changed, and then give that to the editor. And they keep working. Then we send it out again. It's the same thing with visual effects. We send out all the elements that the visual effects houses need. They need the plates, they need the timing, they need maybe the dialogue, depending on what they're doing. They work on it, then they send it back to us. We bring it back in and cut it into the sequences. It's this constant wave of "stuff goes out, it comes back in."
The director's cut is exciting because you're seeing the movie come together. The connections that get made, like “Oh, we don't need that.” That's the fun, putting the puzzle together part of it. People always make scene cards for the whole movie and put them up on a wall. You can just reorder it. What would happen if we put this scene here instead, and this one there? It’s fun to play with it.
Assistant Editors: First line of defense in creative back-and-forth
Yanovich: It's very important that the editor get eyes on this stuff when it comes back in because they will know more what the director's intention is. They can say, “Oh, no, this is the wrong direction. This sounds way too much like a cartoon, we need to have it sound more realistic.” Or with the sound effects, it's like, “Oh no, you know what, the rumbling, it doesn't sound scary, it's annoying. Can we shift that a little bit?” They can get into the real nitty-gritty of exactly the details they want. They can tell us, and then when we get the stuff back, we can be the first line of defense. “Oh no, this is absolutely not what we want, we want this instead.”
We never throw anything away, everything is labeled by date, specifics, and kept in separate places. They can say, “Hey, you know what, two months ago there was some music in that spot that I liked much more, can you go dig that up?” We have to be able to do that, so everything is very meticulously kept track of. And it's important for us to watch the movie, and still know what's going on, so that we can be a part of that decision-making and knowing what to look for.
The end: when all hell breaks loose
As Yanovich explains it, human beings being what they are, decisions don't get made until they have to be. And that’s at the end! Here's how it goes for each department.
Yanovich: The composers actually often will send us mock-ups of their entire score, that we can then use in the movie to screen with. But they still have to record it in the end. Depending on the style of it, even if it's just guitars and piano and drums, or if it's a full orchestra, that scoring still has to happen. That music, even if we have the mock-ups of it, it will have a different feel and a different bigness. Horns have a different clarity when they're real as opposed to digital. All of that affects one of the other things we have to do, which is mixing.
Yanovich: Mixing sometimes starts when you're screening. Sometimes you'll do what's known as a temp dub, where the mixers—who will be your final mixers—get three days to a week to work on the movie as it is, with the temp music, whatever sound you have, and the dialogue. Oftentimes, you're just dealing with your sound department, your music editor, and your editor to make that part happen. After that, at the very end is the first time that mixers have a chance to get in there and mix everything together. The whole sound side of things has its own evolution, just like the visual effects.
Yanovich: As visual effects come in, you have to change the cuts. The speed of it might look different, or even just the action takes longer. It has to either change because of sync issues, or it just doesn't feel right anymore. So the cut constantly changes while they're trying to finish everything. We have to keep everybody updated with the current reels, which means sometimes turning over several times a day to, again, all of these departments, visual effects, music, sound, and the mixing stage, once they get started on that. But seeing the visual effects come in is great! You've been looking at this green screen or this cheesy looking 2D model of something, and then it comes in and breathes life into it.
Yanovich: One of the things that people often don't understand is how much work goes into the sound side. I think the total process is about two months, where they start with what's known as predubs. They have hundreds and hundreds of tracks of audio, from birds, gunshots, background noise, but very specific things. They have to be able to work with that. They mix it down to smaller chunks, and then they go into the final mix so that they can bring up the background, bring up the hard effects, bring up in an easier way. That takes weeks. And then we have the final mix with the final score, which then has to get adjusted by more music editors because the cut has changed. It's just a constant flow and change.
Finishing at 2K
When Yanovich started as an assistant editor, you would send the only copy of your film (terrifying) to a negative cutter who would literally take scissors and cut it. In the digital age, it’s a little less nerve-wracking, but still quite time-consuming.
Yanovich: Even with that side of things, they scan the negative. Usually it's at 2K, although some things are being shot at 4K. As far as I know, movies are still being finished at 2K right now. When we work in Avid, we can't work that high quality, it would take up too much memory. VFX, cutting or doing the DI, color timing, mixing, scoring, it's all simultaneous. That's why we don't go home.
"As far as I know, movies are still being finished at 2k right now."
How long it takes to finish a blockbuster
Yanovich explains why it can take anywhere from 10 months to a year and a half.
Yanovich: It really depends on the visual effects. Animation is a two-year minimum. Some of the Fast and Furious movies they've done in less than a year, but that's insane. Honestly, I don't recommend it. Pikachu, I wasn't on for production, because they shot it all in London. I came on when they were about to begin the Director's cut. And I was still on that movie for nine months. The small movies, like a comedy or a romantic story, nine months is probably okay. On average for a feature, I’d say it's about a year.
To break in, learn Avid and make contacts as a PA
Yanovich explained that nowadays, people work on non-union shows, reality TV, night shifts, whatever, to get a certain number of days. You need to have 100 days working as an assistant editor, and then the Union will let you in.
Yanovich: Reality TV isn't what it used to be. You can walk into a lot of those places and not have a lot of experience. As long as you can work a computer, you can pretty much figure out how it all happens. If you can get some low-level job, somebody will train you. You might have to work a night shift, which will suck. Get the skills, learn Avid. There are courses you can take to learn Avid if you want to, but it's pretty easy to pick up on your own if someone just trains you a bit.
Then the key thing with everything in the film industry is contacts. You have to be able to meet people, so you can go and be a PA. Being a PA is a pretty horrible job, but it gets you two things: connections and proving you have stamina. That's the other thing you have to prove: that you can hack it. It is high pressure and long hours. If you can't deal with that side of it, or if you cannot deal with having to cancel vacations, don't go into it. It's very unpredictable, and you have to be able to focus on doing this. If you have that attitude, and you just learn the technical skills, and then you put yourself in a situation where you're meeting people—that's how you get in.
“Being a PA is a pretty horrible job. But it gets you two things: connections and proving you have stamina.”
Why you don’t pick gigs based on the story, but on the people and place
Yanovich: I don't really choose a movie for the content of the movie, because my job doesn't change whether it's an Oscar-worthy drama, a slapstick comedy, or an action movie. My job still is essentially the same. The most important questions are: where is it going to be, and who am I going to be working with?
Because I'm working with large groups of people, it's really important to me that I like them. What's true of every assistant is that there are a couple of editors that you work for over and over again. The shows that I work on—in our lingo we refer to movies as shows—there are usually several editors. Sometimes up to five. I've done a bunch of comedies where you'll have five editors, and sometimes they switch out. On the big action movies, three editors is very common. All of those editors can then go on to do other things, so they may call and ask me, “Hey, you want to come with me onto this?”
For me, one of the most important things is the location. I have two children, so I don't travel. If they're going to London or Atlanta, I can't do it. Then also, literally where they're going to cut the movie factors in. I live in Hollywood. I have done movies all the way on the West Side, but I don't like it, because it's an hour and a half to get there or back. It just comes down to quality of life for what I choose.
“What's true of every assistant is that there are a couple of editors that you work for over and over again.”
Post-Production: the only family-friendly field in film?
NFS: It's really cool to hear that you have two kids and you can do this.
Yanovich: It's not easy, but post-production is traditionally a little bit easier for women to get into than a lot of the other departments, except for hair and makeup. Camera is very much a men's club. There still are more male editors than there are female editors, but in general, you'll see women all over the place, in all levels of post. Generally don't have to travel as much, because post houses are here, and all the final work happens here. That makes it easier. If you’re working on set, you're going to have to travel.
I like working on the big movies, who wouldn't, right? But another reason I prefer it is because of the large crew. If one of my children has a performance at school, or if your parent is sick, I can leave for an hour, and I know that someone can cover me. If you're in a small feature and you're the only assistant, it's very difficult for you to leave and take care of those things. That's a broader conversation for our society in general. But yes, I think it's easier in post to have a family than it is other aspects of the film industry.
Overall, it's a very collaborative field to be in. It's fun being with people, watching it, agreeing on what works better. Being able to be on the inside and see all of the pieces as they come together is just fascinating. Even though a lot of the job is technical and repetitive, there's so much interesting stuff every day that I always have a good time.
NFS: You have one of the most unique perspectives on all the aspects of how a film comes together.
Yanovich: I think it's awesome, personally. It's why I keep doing it.
Thank you, Laura!