How To Cut Scenes for both IMAX and 35mm Distribution with ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ Editor Alan E. Bell, ACE

By in The A-List, Video Editing

Veteran editor Alan Bell, ACE is known for his innovative work on The Green Mile, The Amazing Spiderman, and Water for Elephants. His recent collaboration with director Francis Lawrence on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire resulted in a blockbuster epic that grossed over $800 million at the box office­–the highest grossing film of 2013.

Bell wasn’t familiar with The Hunger Games books before Lawrence called him to edit the second film. But “[Francis] has such good taste that I knew it was going to be something special,” he said. “Then when I read the books, I could see why he was compelled to be involved. And of course I was as well.”

Catching Fire, the second installment of The Hunger Games trilogy, picks up the story of Hunger Games winners Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark as they embark on their Victory Tour. The pair soon find themselves in the arena again for the deadly Quarter Quell, an event that takes place every 25 years and is designed to quash sparks of rebellion brewing in the districts.

“Because the books are so solid, we tried not to deviate too much from them for Catching Fire,” Bell says. “From the dailies, we could see the fantastic sets and great performances and how much scope there was in the movie. There were no real story issues, but there were a lot of big action set pieces that took a lot of working and reworking to get them to where they are today.”

For example, a muddy water park in the middle of winter was ultimately transformed into the arena, which is set in a lush jungle surrounded by water. “Very few exterior shots stood on their own without some type of digital work being done: Even District 12 required set extensions. The actors were so good they easily transported you to a place that didn’t exist,” but “we needed to shape scenes so they worked from an action standpoint and gave the audience an understanding of what Katniss was going through.”

“It’s like an extension of Avid and is particularly useful for a movie with so many visual effects.” 

To create the post-apocalyptic world we see on the screen, the editorial team used a Windows-based Avid Media Composer system coupled with eyeon Fusion compositing software and its Connection plugin and Avid Unity shared storage. At his personal workstation, Bell selected a “giant” Wacom Cintiq flatscreen LCD monitor with a pen interface instead of a mouse–a unique setup he created to edit faster and more effectively.

“It’s awesome. It has changed the way I work,” he says. “It’s so second nature to me now. I do a lot of stuff where I can’t even remember the key combinations any more. It’s super fast.”

To cut Catching Fire, Bell took “an approach I used when Connection was in beta during The Amazing Spider Man. I’ll be working on the Avid interface, quickly export clips that open in Fusion, do my temp comp and hit render, and it updates in the Avid timeline. It couldn’t be easier for me. It’s like an extension of Avid and is particularly useful for a movie with so many visual effects.” The temp visual effects were then recreated and finalized by the visual effects department in postproduction.

Bell and his team used video and audio tools from Avid to cut scenes for both IMAX and regular theaters.

Director Francis Lawrence’s decision to shoot Quarter Quell scenes in IMAX added complexity to the final stage of the editing process. Bell and his team used video and audio tools from Avid to cut scenes for both IMAX and regular theaters.

To accommodate the format change, Bell “cut pillarbox so we could see everything in Avid’s 16×9 format. That meant when the picture was locked and in the DI process we had to perform a tilt scan. We’d take a 2.40 frame and decide where it’s going to be when viewers see it displayed in regular, non-IMAX theaters. I did versions of the tilt scan for setting the 2.40 look from the IMAX frame using the Avid resize effect. Then the assistants replaced the Avid footage with a black-and-white trackable grid pattern, which we then rendered out and delivered to EFILM. EFILM tracked the tilt for each reel preserving the ease in and out curves, which I had tailored to each shot. It turned out to be the most effective way to communicate the translation between Avid and the EFILM DI process.”

Avid also proved to be a good solution for the very loud IMAX camera. “Imagine cutting dialogue with a team of leaf blowers next to the microphone and you’ll get an idea of what it sounded like,” Bell says. “The actors often did wild track recordings of their lines so I would have something to replace the IMAX audio with. The Avid waveforms and smart tools made it very easy to slip the wild lines into place.”

“I’m really proud of the movie,” Bell says. “I think it’s a good film. It’s rare that you’re not burned out after [editing] a movie. I like the characters.”

It’s a good thing–Bell is returning as the editor for the last piece of The Hunger Games trilogy, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, which will be released in two parts.

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