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Chopping 'Ice'

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Ice from the SunRecently, I’ve been sliding down memory lane, and crystallizing some cold hard facts about an older project of mine, Ice From The Sun, a feature length horror/experimental movie shot entirely on Super 8 film.  An overview of my experience making this movie is here.

Using our old 1996 shooting schedule to light the path, I go into detail about slugging our way through this one-of-a-kind film shoot here.
 

… and I continue here.
 

After these recent blog posts, I was hit with a number of questions about the post-production of Ice From The Sun.  Often, people assume this movie was edited on a non-linear computer editing system (with film grain and scratches added during post), because that’s how movies are edited these days.  Not so.  All the film grain, scratches, and debris are authentic… and post-production would have been much easier if I really had edited this film on a computer.  Here’s how it all came together…

I began editing the movie in 1997, shortly after we wrapped.  The first step was to transfer 193 rolls of Super 8 film to BetacamSP.  Then, I started cutting the film linearly-tape-to-tape.  At this time, non-linear computer editing systems were becoming common, but they were almost exclusively used for off-line edits (a test, or “scratch” edit performed in advance of editing the actual master).  They hadn’t reached a level of quality sufficient to assemble the actual master of a program.  So, a non-linear computer editing system, such as an Avid, was not an option.  My circumstances dictated that I skip the off-line phase, and dive head-first into editing the actual movie.  Ice From The Sun became the last project I would edit on a linear system.

Ice from the SunNon-linear computer editing would soon become the norm in professional post-production.  Today, non-linear editing has permeated the consumer market, as well.  Nothing is edited tape-to-tape anymore.  Everything I’ve edited after Ice From The Sun (from my feature length films, to music videos, to editor-for-hire paycheck gigs) has been cut on Avid systems.

Today’s young filmmakers who edit on their computers, and have never edited anything on a tape-to-tape system, don’t realize how good they have it.  Cutting on the ol’ fashioned linear systems - especially the way I edited Ice From The Sun - was a cumbersome process that left almost zero room for mistakes, and little room for refinement after the fact.  While the film was not shot in chronological order (very few films are) it had to be edited in order.  I started with the opening logo, then the first shot of the first scene… then I continued from there until, at the very end of the edit, I put the last shot of the final scene into the movie.  I had to evaluate every cut until I was as confident as possible it was right… because going back later and adjusting an edit was not an option.  I could go back and go over footage - but I could not go back and slip an edit forward or backward, or lift a shot out of the film and close the gap.  I could replace a shot with a different take later, only if the replacement shot ran the exact same number of frames as the shot I originally used.  

Editors trained on these kind of systems learned a unique discipline.  There was no timeline, no throwing everything onto it and playing with the footage until you found a rhythm… and almost no going back to change edits later.  Editing on a linear system meant being 99.9% sure your edits were perfect before moving on to the next cut.  Back then, once the movie was edited, a finished sequence could be revisited and fine-tuned only by creating a secondary master and re-editing that sequence from scratch.  Today, on an Avid, I can go to any point in a fully edited movie and make a shot three frames shorter, or lift a shot out, or pretty much do whatever I want to do.  What used to take days can now be accomplished in minutes.

Ice from the SunObviously, editing non-linearly posed major challenges, no matter what kind of project was in the works.  Ice From The Sun, however, was more of a behemoth editing project than most films, because it is quite hyperactive in terms of cutting.  There are far more edits in the film than in an average feature length movie.  In the opening credits sequence alone, there are more than 430 cuts.  If it were being edited on an Avid today, Ice From The Sun would demand tremendous focus, even with the ability to fine-tune my cuts whenever I choose, in whatever order I choose.  Editing Ice From The Sun on a non-linear system sixteen years ago required a focus that was, at times, downright painful.

Dissolves were burdensome, too.  Dissolving from one shot to another in Ice From The Sun required syncing two playback decks to the system.  At the start of an edit, the system would roll both decks at the same time, and when I wanted the dissolve to happen, I would manually pull a T-bar on a switcher.  If I screwed up, or decided I wanted the dissolve to be faster, slower, sooner, or later, I’d have to perform the edit again, going over the shot until I was satisfied.  Making matters worse, the edit suite I was using had only one permanent playback deck.  If I wanted to put in a dissolve, I’d have to trek downstairs to another part of the building, un-cable a second BetacamSP deck, haul it upstairs to my edit suite (they weighed a ton), cable it into my system, finally edit the dissolve in… then, of course, carry the deck back to its original spot each night.  For this reason, there are very few dissolves in Ice From The Sun - they took up to half an hour to put in.  Today, a dissolve is achieved in seconds, with a few clicks of the mouse.

I edited Ice From The Sun’s picture / voice / sound effects from the BetacamSP film transfer tapes to multiple BetacamSP “pre-masters”.  (BetacamSP tapes were never made longer than 90 minutes - so the entire movie could not fit on a single tape.)  At the end of this phase of post, the dialog and sound effects were locked.  Adjusting levels of individual lines or sounds in the mix was no longer an option.  

I was nearing the finish line, now.  I packed up and moved to a higher-end edit suite, where another editor, Jay Johnson, joined in the fun.  There, my BetacamSP “pre-masters” were assembled to a single Digital Betacam tape.  At this point, if dissatisfied with anything I’d edited, I had but one option: delete.  I could exclude a shot or sequence as I combined my “pre-masters”.  (I think I removed a few shots at this time - probably thirty seconds or so.)

Jay and I added the music score and the more elaborate sound design elements to the additional tracks on the Digital Betacam tape.  Lastly, we created the final master of Ice From The Sun, mixing the multiple tracks (the mono dialog and sound effects, plus the stereo music and sound design) down to a final stereo mix as we transferred the movie to a second Digital Betacam tape.

Over the course of the film’s post-production, I had been provided the edit suites at a discounted rate by the production company where I worked at the time.  Unfortunately, due to this full time job, I only had time to edit Ice From The Sun on weekends (sometimes, every other weekend).  Furthermore, I’d been the sole picture / voice editor working on this edit-heavy 116 minute movie.  Still, I completed post-production in about a year - a minor miracle, under the circumstances.

The film premiered for cast and crew in 1998.  It was released to home video in 1999.  I’m glad I went through every challenge Ice From The Sun threw at me, including the arduous post-production.  It toughened me up, and instilled valuable discipline.  It’s great when things are easy - but I appreciate the easy stuff more, having done a lot of things the hard way.

Thanks for reading.

- Eric Stanze

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