Jabez Olssen On Editing The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Posted: 11 December 2013
Category: Features
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Jabez Olssen, the editor of The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, discusses some of the challenges the team faced, what it is like working with Peter Jackson, and what hardware and software is crucial to getting the job done on such a massive filmmaking project.

Jabez Olssen On Editing The Hobbit: The Desolation Of SmaugJabez Olssen is the principal editor of The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, the second installment in the The Hobbit series, which comprises three films. He is the man in charge of keeping the pace lively, and the story flowing, for all three films, which are based on the children's book of the same name by JRR Tolkien.

Olssen has an editing background that goes back to the early 2000s, where he first began editing for television (notably the cult favourite Cleopatra 2025, which will be known to fans of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess as they were all produced in New Zealand by the production company Renaissance Pictures). He begun his career on the The Lord Of The Rings/The Hobbit franchise, which is also shot in New Zealand, working in the editorial department as an assistant editor on both The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers.

In this interview, which is courtesy of Warner Brothers and which was conducted about a month ago when the team was close to wrapping up post production on the film, Olssen talks about the editing software the editing team uses as well as some of the hardware that's needed to get the job done on location. He also discusses previsualisation (previs), which is a process used in filmmaking, starting in pre production, to visualise scenes and sequences using 3D animation instead of live footage, and he talks about filming in 48 frames per second and working with 3D.


Jabez Olssen On Editing The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Question: Can you talk about working with Peter Jackson and what editing system you used on these films?

Jabez Olssen: We use an Avid-based system. We have a series of Avid Media Composer systems that are all tied together with the Avid Unity ISIS (Infinitely Scalable Intelligent Storage) shoot storage system. These days, it's pretty standard and typical for a film like this. It allows our assistant editors to work on the same project that we're working on and transfer sequences back and forth.

What Peter and I do that is still slightly unusual is that I sit beside him on set with a smaller portable Avid system while he's shooting the film. When we're shooting on the soundstages this portable Avid system is networked into our storage, so I get access to all the footage. That way, when Peter has time on set between setups he's able to work with me and choose performances and takes, which we do to get ahead of things.

We don't tend to do much actual cutting on set. I often do assemblies and editor's cuts on set but usually we wait until a weekend or a day off from the shoot before we'll actually come into the main cutting room and cut what was selected on set.

So, we do a lot of that during the main shoot, which led up to post-production on the first film and then, this year, we had a pick-up shoot, so we did it again. Since then, we've been back in the cutting room every day, working through the footage.


Question: You shot in some fairly extreme locations on this movie. What was that like?

Jabez Olssen: We did three months of location shooting around fairly remote areas of New Zealand. My assistant and I would set up my laptop and a bunch of portable hard drives at each location; we'd take it down to a riverbank or climb up a mountain, wherever the crew was shooting. That was pretty great because it's really unusual for an editor actually to get out on location and see the amazing environments where the film is being shot.

In addition to the laptop system, we also had a mobile cutting room. It was a cross between a truck and camper, with a full-size Avid setup and a large plasma screen. When we had a bit more time between setups we could do proper cutting in there. It also provided a bit of weather cover. On the odd day that it rained we would just spend the day in the truck editing.

Jabez Olssen On Editing The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug


Question: How does shooting at 48 frames per second (fps) and in 3D affect your editing process?

Jabez Olssen: It affects other people in the post-production process a lot more but we made the decision early on that we would edit at 24 fps, because that's what the Avid system can currently do. Park Road Post, the digital facility we use, takes all the footage we shoot at 48 fps in 3D and does a one-light telecine grade on the footage. In doing so, it also converts it to 24 fps 2D material for the Avid system, which we then edit.

At a certain point we need to see it in 48 fps and in 3D so, once we finish a basic cut of the scenes, we send it back to our DI [digital intermediate] department and the team conforms it using the original 48 fps 3D digital negative and then we watch it in that format. It's part of our process. We edit and then we check it.


Question: Has watching footage at 48 fps ever inspired any editorial changes?

Jabez Olssen: We haven't had to make any major changes because we're now seeing it at 48 fps. Sometimes we'll lengthen the duration of the wide shots because when we finally look at them on a huge movie screen we find you need slightly longer to take them in than when you're editing on a television screen in the cutting room. That happens less these days because we're lucky to be editing with a 102-inch plasma TV.

In terms of adjusting for 3D we've become pretty good at knowing what it will feel like. We watch the footage in 3D when it's shot on set and we have good stereographers both on set and in post production so, by the time we see our cut conformed in 3D it's generally working pretty well. It's very rare for us to have to make a change. Not totally unheard of but very rare.

Jabez Olssen On Editing The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug


Question: What are some of the biggest challenges you faced on the second film?

Jabez Olssen: Much like the first film, one of the big challenges is the sheer scale of it. It's a huge amount of footage that we have to deal with.

The challenges of the second film are much the same as when we worked on the second film in the The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. We're working on the middle chapter, which is harder to make work in its own right, because you don't have the natural beginning and the natural end to the story, but the benefit of that is that we don't have the amount of setup that had to occur in the first film. We can get into the story a lot quicker and get things moving.

We're very happy with the second film. It's got a lot going for it, particularly for the new characters and the new locations that you see.


Question: How do you organise and catalog such a tremendous amount of footage?

Jabez Olssen: My team of assistant editors and I do a lot of organising as the footage is being shot. I go through the takes and select which shots I think are usable and then my assistants create sequences based on my selections so we can watch every usable piece of every shot. By the time I show footage to Peter it's a manageable amount that we can go through and choose the best takes.

It's taking every scene, every take, and every line of dialog one at a time and making our selections. We'll round it down to our favourite few takes and then go back through it all again and we'll keep going until we get it down to one take of every piece. Then we'll start assembling it and cutting it together to see what we have.

In many ways it doesn't matter how much footage we've got or how big the project is, we deal with it like we would any other film - one piece at a time.


Question: Do you have a favourite sequence in the film?

Jabez Olssen: It's hard when you're so close to it. We're so busy, it's hard to step back and point out one scene or sequence or see one piece as being different from another.

There are different stages of the process that are enjoyable for different reasons.

At the moment, we're recording the score for the movie here in Wellington with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. We have another portable Avid system set up at the Wellington Town Hall so Peter and I can keep working on the film while the music is being recorded all around us. That's quite a different experience.

Jabez Olssen On Editing The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug


Question: Are you utilising previsualisation (or previs) on the The Hobbit movies?

Jabez Olssen: Yes, previs is an ongoing and important part of what we do. We had previs back before we started principal photography and we've continued the process since then. We still have a previs team working on sequences.

We treat previs like any other footage - we cut it into the film and make selections - but it gives us an enormous advantage in that we can add or make changes to it and Peter can have entirely different shots created, which, of course, you can't do with live action footage.


Question: Peter has such a distinct style as a director. How does that inform your work?

Jabez Olssen: It's hard to say because he's the one choosing the footage. The options we're presented with have his fingerprints all over them but Peter is a director who shoots many options for the cutting room. He doesn't limit himself to just one way to cut a scene when he's shooting it. He will shoot a lot of coverage and a lot of great shots and then decide in the cutting room which way to go.

One of the big joys of working with Peter is that we get to experiment in the cutting room and try things different ways.

Also, Peter and his writing partners, Fran [Walsh] and Philippa [Boyens], are not afraid to rewrite and reconstruct things during post production so, often, we'll be combining bits from different scenes together and creating an entirely new scene. Because we can create fully digital characters and fully digital shots it's possible for the story to change once the shoot is over.

There is a chaotic side to this approach as well and it can cause some last minute work but the great thing about it is that it means you never settle for second best. They're always looking for ways to improve the story and the film right up to the last minute. It can be tough and challenging and exhausting but it's very inspiring to be part of.

Jabez Olssen On Editing The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug


Question: Having worked with Peter and the team for so long on the The Hobbit movies and The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, what is it like for you to be part of this filmmaking family?

Jabez Olssen: It's a huge honor and privilege to be part of this team making these films and being part of the crazy rollercoaster ride that we've been on for over a decade. There's no other opportunity like it in New Zealand or anywhere else in the world. It's a unique opportunity and a unique point in time for our filmmaking industry.

We're right in the thick of editing at the moment. It's hard to step back and remember what we were doing a month ago or even think about what we will be doing in a month's time. We're entering the final phase of post production. We're about to go into the sound mix and the crazy period of trying to get hundreds of visual effects finished. It's a process that keeps changing every week, and every week there's something new.



[ YouTube link ]



Additional reporting by . The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug will be on circuit worldwide from Friday 13 December 2013.


Tags: #screen, #speculative_fiction, #technology



On The Internet
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Official Site, Official Blog, IMDb, Wikipedia
Jabez Olssen: IMDb, Twitter, Wikipedia






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