Acclaimed Film Editor Chris Witt Relied on Virtual KEM Rolls to Cut Short Film ‘Drink’

By in Timeline Tuesday, Video Editing

Drink is a sci-fi cautionary tale that follows Alice and her two sons, Clint and Billy, as they flee their home in the middle of the night. They arrive at an old desert motel, and it doesn’t take long before Alice realizes she has a strange connection to this place. A tragedy of the past begins to reveal secret desires that could send Alice down a path of freedom or insanity.

The motel was built on a sound stage in Los Angeles

Director Emily Moss Wilson on the bathroom set with the cast

I’ve been a friend of the director Emily Moss Wilson and her husband Greg (who produced) for several years and was excited Emily asked me to cut her directorial debut. Emily and her producing partners usually do their own cutting, but were open to working with an editor on their next project. Fortunately, they were also open to me cutting the movie on Avid Media Composer, my favorite NLE.

Locked Timeline of ‘Drink’

My stand up edit bay

One really enjoyable thing about Media Composer is my ability to work in a film flatbed editing style. As soon as the dailies are synced up, I virtually create what are commonly still referred to as KEM rolls to work from. (A KEM roll combines multiple takes onto a single roll and used to be the roll of film used on a KEM flatbed editing system.) In a bin I name “KEM ROLLS” I create one sequence per scene with all the media shot for that particular scene alphabetized by setup and each setup spaced with filler.

KEM Roll for scene 6. To make it easy to spot the setups, I added 30 seconds of filler between each setup block.

When I cut a scene, I drag the KEM roll for that particular scene from the bin into the Source Monitor. While other NLEs allow you to load sequences into their version of a “source monitor”, Media Composer also has the ability to let you actually view the sequence in the timeline window (as though it were the active timeline you’re cutting but read-only). You activate this mode with the Toggle Source/Record in Timeline button. You can find it in the command palette and at the bottom of the timeline window. I’ve routed it to my keyboard. On the timeline window, the button and the play head turn green when activated. This feature is definitely one of my absolute favorite timeline features.

Toggle Source/Record in Timeline button in the Command Palette

So, by using the Toggle Source/Record in Timeline feature to toggle between the timeline of the scene I’m cutting and the KEM Roll sequence in my Source Monitor, I find the angle I want, use markers to help identify the edit points, use my Go to Previous Marker and Go to Next Marker keys to audition the various takes of the angle, then having made my in and out points, I cut my selection into the scene as you would with any clip loaded in the Source Monitor. Because I’m not in the bins clicking around for the next clip I want, it feels like I’m crafting the scene with two hands (not one with the other tied behind my back). My “left hand” holds the KEM Roll and my “right hand” holds the scene I’m working on. And by toggling between the Source and Record monitor, I can actually see what is in each hand, which helps immensely.

Another benefit of working this way, is that when I sit down with the director or producer, and they want to see alternate takes of a particular moment, I can pull up alternates in seconds. I just drag the KEM roll to the Source Monitor, hit my Toggle Source/Record in Timeline button, zero in on the setup in question, and more often than not, I already have markers in place to cue up the takes. Then, if needed, it’s a breeze to toggle the timeline back to the film and cut in the alternate.

A frame grab from the offline showing Clint’s makeup before the VFX work

I also really appreciated having Media Composer’s Motion Effect Editor help me smooth out the VFX sequences. In particular, when Alice, the mother, opens the bathroom door and sees Clint transformed, the footage needed to begin at full speed, ramp down to slow motion, and then ramp back up to create that psychological moment. I like how easy it is in Media Composer to create a very smooth speed ramp.

Check out the full short film Drink:  a Twilight Zone-inspired cautionary tale about a young mother forced to come face-to-face with her deepest desire.

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I’m a film editor residing in Los Angeles, California. My work has been acclaimed worldwide including Kavi (2009), a 2010 Academy Award nominee and The Butterfly Circus (2009), a film online with over 40 million views. Follow me on Twitter as @chriswittcuts.