Editor extraordinaire Paul Machliss, ACE, carved out some time in his schedule to talk with Avid about the unique role he played cutting the hugely successful film Baby Driver.
Paul gave us an in-depth look at his relationship with Media Composer, his editing setup for Baby Driver, and his on-set workflow with Director Edgar Wright, who he worked with previously on Scott Pilgrim vs the World and The World’s End.
Before we jump into the Q&A, do yourself a favor and check out the trailer for Baby Driver. The film follows Baby, a young getaway driver who constantly listens to music to combat tinnitus and heighten his focus. Baby’s personal soundtrack plays a huge role in the film, and the music is incorporated into the action in unique and innovative ways.
And as you watch it, listen and see how the music ties in flawlessly with each movement, action scene, and dialogue on the screen.
Avid: How long have you been using Media Composer?
Paul: I think I first sat in front of one probably in 1996 because up until that time I was actually an online editor. As an editor, I remember sitting down in front of Media Composer and placing two clips on a timeline and then taking a third clip and being able to put it in between the other two and push the second one down so it became the third one. Now of course this sounds incredibly basic, but I’d been doing linear editing for the previous 8 or 9 years, so the first time I saw that happen, I remember running into my manager’s office and declaring, “This is the most amazing machine I’ve ever seen.”
I spent a few more years as an (increasingly frustrated) online editor. Interestingly, a job that came through in 1999 was a sitcom which needed online editing called Spaced. The young director of Spaced was a chap called Edgar Wright. This was my first encounter with him and we seemed to get on well. The online took about two weeks and then we were done. I thought ‘that was a nice gig to have worked on’ and moved on to the next job.
Eventually, I took the plunge in 2000 to nonlinear editing and started working on Media Composer. I made the decision to leave a pretty well paid full-time gig as an online editor to go become a freelance offline editor with almost no real experience and the vague promise that some of my online clients would throw me a few little stints. About six months later, I got a phone call from Nira Park, the producer of Spaced asking, “Edgar was wondering if you’d love to come on board and edit the rest of the second series of Spaced with him.” So up until then I’d only done a few little comedy pilots. I did one big documentary on David Beckham, the footballer, which is where I really learned a lot about what the Avid could do, and started to realize little tricks and things, and just really come to grips with it. Then suddenly, come and edit the second series of Spaced. So, it really couldn’t have been more of a ‘trial by fire’ way of learning. Working with Edgar, being thrown in the deep end, and then having to suddenly operate Avid at a particular level that he expected from a very experienced editor like Chris Dickens, who edited the first series. But that’s really where it began—how I went from onlining to offlining from linear to non-linear and from videotape to Avid. I’m sort of glad I went through that learning curve from linear to non-linear – the hard way to the easy way – because it really does make you appreciate just how incredibly easy it is to edit in Media Composer now and how much is at your fingertips in terms of what you can do with the software nowadays.
Avid: How did you collaborate with Director Edgar Wright and other members of the production team on Baby Driver?
Paul: We took a process that he and I started back on Scott Pilgrim – editing on-set – and pushed it forward to almost the ultimate way of working in this style. By the beginning of 2016, I’d been doing quite a bit of prep with Edgar for Baby Driver because so much of it is ‘music based’ action. This time around he said, “Music is such an important part of this and getting it right, the action and the choreography and everything; it would be great if you could be on set almost all the time.” Every single day. So I thought, “Yeah, sure, why not.”
In order to receive the footage from the video assist I networked to his Mac Pro via an Ethernet connection. It basically meant that I could use his computer’s hard drive as my source drive. When he would record the video files, he would record them as ProRes QuickTime – which is an option on QTAKE. What it meant was as soon as he stopped recording, I could see the new clip come up on my finder window.
Now because of AMA – the ProRes codec is now built in to Media Composer – I could just grab that clip, throw it into a bin immediately, put it onto the timeline, and begin editing with it instantaneously. That was a lifesaver. We couldn’t really have done it if I didn’t have that facility. So it meant that Edgar could go, “Right, cut.” And then yell out from the other side of the set, “Paul, how does it look?” And suddenly of course everyone is waiting, all the cast, all the crew, especially all the producers, looking at their watches wondering how long it’s going to take. I could drop the clip into the sequence and more often than not go, “Yeah it’s great; it worked perfectly.” And Edgar would go, “Great, we’ve got it; we’re moving on.”
Almost all of the action sequences on Baby Driver and some of the other ones as well which required a level of musical choreography were put together in that fashion. It was incredible because there was a different kind of guideline on this because what happened is the edit would sort of affect the shot as much as the shots would affect the edit, both had to work together, and both had to be good in order to move on. So actually at that point the combination of production, the act of shooting, and the act of editing became symbiotic. One worked because the other one worked. So it was a very different way of putting a sequence together.
Now, of course, this was just assembling, this was just establishing that these shots cut together and we’re not going to have a continuity or timing problem because the main thing was we didn’t want to come back to London where we did all the post-production months later, and go, “Oh gosh, we missed that.”
So, it was very exciting to be there in the act of creation, where the editing played its part along with all the cast and all the crew. Of course the reason it worked so well was we had such a fantastic crew —everyone pulled together. I did my bit, but everybody contributed to make sure this incredibly different way of putting a film together worked as successfully as it did.
Avid: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in editing the film and how did Media Composer help you overcome those challenges?
Paul: I mean the only way I can really describe Baby Driver is, it is unique in the sense that so much of the film is driven by the music and so many things that go on within it, whether it’s dialog scenes or action scenes, music, score – it plays such a pivotal part in this film. It demanded a specific kind of a way of working and an approach that really we haven’t done before and unless somewhere down the track we end up doing Baby Driver 2, it may not be something that we will ever quite visit in this way again. It was such a unique approach to filmmaking. So there’s the challenge of working with all this music and integrating it into the dialog and having a lot of action still on various cues and beats because the main character, Baby… his whole life is driven by music.
So obviously, you want to make sure that the tools of your trade are up to the task and I’m glad to say that, we put the Avid and the Mac through all sorts of weathers, you know, especially when we were out on location, it was either boiling hot with terrible humidity or sort of freezing cold with a layer of dew forming on the surface of the laptop. But it didn’t let us down at all. When we got back to London, we utilized the tried and trusted method of shared storage and having all the various departments, editorial, and VFX, being able to handle the material and to be able to integrate it and share. You just knew you were working with very, very solid software that wasn’t going to really let you down at those integral points.
And the fact that now, Media Composer can handle a very large complex timeline, you can have all 120 minutes of a film running on a single timeline. Seven or eight years ago when we were doing Scott Pilgrim, we would stitch all the reels together to watch the film in a single run in order to review. But it was so complicated – there was so much going on in that timeline – that it was pushing the limits of Media Composer. We were thinking, “Will it play, will it crash, will it hang, will it stay together with all those kinds of things going on in the sequence?” But nothing we threw at the Avid this time seemed to faze it at all. It was very good to see that we could push the software as hard as we could and it was really up to the task in a very big way.
Avid: What features do you like in Media Composer? Are there a few that you couldn’t live without?
Paul: Well, the now standard features of resolution independence and AMA are so important to the way I work, I just couldn’t be without them. Over the years, Avid has refined it so now it’s very solid, very reliable. The background transcoding I find incredibly useful, but really I’m just cutting the pictures, there are VFX teams that work with us – they’re doing the really complicated stuff. I find the tools that I’ve actually used for years, tools not so much to do complicated visual effects, but actually using them to problem-solve issues with picture cutting. Old favorites like the Resize tool or the 3D Warper or the Motion Tracker or the Animatte, I could not do what I do in the way I do it if I couldn’t rely on these tools.
Avid: How did you develop your editing style for the film and what techniques did you use?
Paul: The editing style… it’s what happens when you do a lot of comedy over the years, you really get adept at what constitutes good timing. Music is one of my fortes as well. That all lends itself to editing. You realize all these things you learned over the years, even when you’re a kid learning to play piano and learning about rhythm and timing, it all helps. It all comes together during the edit and knowing what you need to do in order to tell a story. Certainly as far as Edgar and I are concerned we go back almost 20 years so I know what he wants — you develop a shorthand. Directing and editing, it’s a kind of dialog you have, you know, the director gives you rushes, you give sequences back.
Every one of Edgar’s films is a little bit different, but he always has his kind of trademarks, his technique and his approach so you learn from that, from film to film, and you take what you learn and you push it forward to the next project. Edgar is always challenging you and it’s great to be pushed into new creative endeavors – he’s a fantastic director to work for.