Inside ‘The Expendables 3’ Editing Room with Sean Albertson, ACE and Paul Harb

By in The A-List, Video Editing
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Veteran editors Sean Albertson (above middle) and Paul Harb (above right) have a deep history of working closely with Sylvester Stallone on action films like Rambo, Rocky Balboa, and their newest collaboration, The Expendables 3. Recently, Matt Feury (above left), Director of Pro Video Marketing at Avid, sat with Sean and Paul to discuss their experience working with Sly on The Expendables 3 and other films.

Meet ‘The Expendables 3′ Editors

Sean and Paul first joined forces with Sly to edit the film, Rocky. They developed a bond while working together with a team of editors recruited by Sly to focus solely on training and fighting montages for the film. Since that project, they have not only become best friends and blood brothers in the editing room, but each has grown to be an expert in the craft.

“Each action beat has its own story arc. That’s what we try to bring to each project.” 

—Sean Albertson, ACE

Learning the Storytelling Craft

Sean and Paul are known for their action sequences, but storytelling is their true passion. Their ultimate goal is to create a story that thrills an audience. “My heart is in storytelling, Sean says. “Our goal is to tell a story in each action bit. Each action beat has its own story arc. That’s what we try to bring to each project.” To get there, both editors worked for years under editors who painstakingly guided them through the process of crafting stories. “These days the editing tools are out there for everybody,” Sean says. Everyone can learn the technique, but great action is more than just gunshots and excitement. “The craft is to grasp the intended audience. It’s story and it’s character and it’s meaning that bring[s] greatness to an action sequence.”

The Expendables 3

Sean Albertson, ACE (L) and Paul Harb (R) discuss the action-packed editing process on The Expendables 3

“For the creative thing to work among a group of people, there has to be a trust. There has to be a safe place where the creator can be who he is.”

—Paul Harb

The Process Behind the Action

Storytelling is a collaborative process, and Sean and Paul have developed a thick skin to manage Hollywood egos and politics in the editing room. “There can be a tense, combative energy. It can be fun, but sometimes we yell at each other,” Sean says. Stallone has a very strong vision for what he wants, and “the push and pull is part of Sly’s creative process with us.” So for the three to work well together as a team, they have to maintain a creative environment where the creator feels comfortable. “For the creative thing to work among a group of people,” Paul says, “there has to be a trust. There has to be a safe place where the creator can be who he is,” even in moments of tension. Sean agrees. “The most important part for every filmmaker that I’ve worked with is that the editing environment is a super safe place,” Sean says. “What happens in the editing room stays in the editing room.”

Editing The Expendables 3

The Expendables 3 features a huge cast of A-list action stars, which posed a major challenge for the editors. “You’re trying to fit in a lot of big personalities, and a lot of big sequences,” Sean says. “There are about 17 main characters in this movie, so we needed to make tough decisions about which individual character stories got told.”

Adding to the challenge was Sly’s bare bones editing style. “The first thing Sly does when he comes in to cut a movie is to pare it down to nothing,” Sean says.” Every story arc comes out. Then we slowly start adding things back into the edit.”

For Paul there was a transition going from short form production to working in long form film with Sly. “It was a shock to spend two months meticulously working on a montage, making tiny cuts to complex sequences, and then to have someone say it isn’t working,” he says. “It can feel like a circle where you feel like you’re doing the same work over and over again.”

With The Expendables 3, the editing team was under the gun to finish quickly, so there were moments when it was especially tense. Paul and Sean have learned how to support each other during moments of frustration. “Paul is my best friend, and we switch off being the ‘guy who’s had it,’” Sean says. “There [are] a lot of therapy sessions. It’s painful to have to tear apart your own work…but that’s just part of the process.”

Though it can be frustrating and even painful, “the process and the craft of storytelling [is] what [editing] is all about,” Paul says. Now, they take the time to mentor aspiring editors. “It’s important to have someone to look up to who has been doing it and has been through the ups and downs.” Sean agrees, “I was given opportunities—now I’ve got to give it back.”

For Sean and Paul, Media Composer is the only choice for crafting the best stories possible. “Avid is a tool to put together a story that entertains people. And that is a craft.”

The Expendables 3: Editing Room Action

For more on what it’s like to work with one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, watch the raw interview. They’ll cover challenges like cutting monster-sized, fast-paced action sequences, keeping the story intact while balancing action and egos, and navigating the politics of the editing room.

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