Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi spectacular Gravity is, it’s afe to say it’s a visual gamechanger. Here, the film’s editor Mark Sanger takes me behind the scenes of the four-year journey to make the movie, the importance of authenticity and the challenges of editing in deep space…
“Gravity has an intensity that could easily become too much for an audience if they were over-exposed. Alfonso [Cuaron] wanted to leave the audience breathless, not unconscious.” – Mark Sanger
Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi spectacular Gravity is finally in UK cinemas, and it’s safe to say it’s a visual gamechanger. Here, the film’s editor Mark Sanger takes us behind the scenes of the four-year journey to make the movie, the importance of authenticity and the challenges of editing in deep space…
Note: While this interview doesn’t contain plot spoilers, it does contain a lot of behind the scenes and effects detail. For that reason, you may not wish to read it until after you have seen the film.
You started your career as a locations assistant; how did you make the move from that to editing?
I consider myself very lucky, for a number of reasons. One of them is that I have always known what I wanted to do as a career. My memories of my brother and I making films at home as children go back as far as I can remember. I was also realistic enough, however, to know that there was little hope of the words ‘Mark Sanger’ and ‘auteur’ ever being in the same sentence together. (Except in that one, of course.)
For me, the most accomplished film crews are those with a broad understanding of how all departments work together. That’s how the machine works best. So when I left school I was after any opportunity to break into the industry; and that meant any department. I didn’t choose location work, it was just one of the first opportunities presented to me. A camera operator friend got me my first work at a special effects firm in Pinewood Studios; they learned pretty quickly that I shouldn’t be left in charge of an acetylene torch, let alone a wind machine or any explosives, so I moved on. I ended up working for a company called Snow Business and this led to me working on a TV show called Plotlands for a location manager by the name of Russell Lodge. Russell’s sister Janine Modder was a production manager who needed a location assistant on Hamish MacBeth, and Russell suggested me. I went up to Scotland and worked for a location manager named Casper Mill. Everybody I have just mentioned will testify to the fact that I was absolutely useless in the job; on one occasion I almost killed Casper. Luck struck again, however, when Janine started work on a James Bond film and needed an editorial runner; three weeks later I was running dailies for Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson. It was a windy road but I got there in the end.
How did you get involved with Gravity?
More luck. I spent a few years working my way up through editorial, first as a runner, then as assistant and occasionally sidestepping to visual effects editor. I was lucky enough to learn with some of the best. It was as visual effects editor that Alfonso first hired me for Children of Men.
Traditionally the role of VFX editor is twofold. Firstly, working with the director and editor to populate the cut with temporary versions of those shots that will require visual effects work. In a scene with actors shot against a green screen, for instance, it is invaluable to have temporary backgrounds or characters added by the VFX editor in order to accurately edit the scene prior to any visual effects work being undertaken. Secondly, once the scene has been edited, the VFX editor bridges the gap between the editorial and visual effects departments, communicating both creative and technical information between the two.
Different directors need different types of VFX editor. Some never speak with them and deal with you through the editor. Alfonso, however, likes to dart around between the whole crew, like he’s mixing all the flavours in a recipe. At the very least I think I was able to translate onto the screen what Alfonso had in his head, albeit in a very rough fashion. The moment he sees his ideas forming on the screen, his imagination goes into overdrive. From that point onwards the job for any of us is mostly just trying to keep up with him!
One of the assistants on Children of Men was a terrific guy by the name of Pete Lambert. The film finished, the years went by and a colleague asked me if I knew of an assistant editor who was available to work on The Golden Compass. So I suggested my mate Pete, who not only got the job, but also got on very well with that film’s director [Chris Weitz], and subsequently ended up following him to Hollywood. Meanwhile Alfonso was developing Gravity and had decided whom he would approach to be his co-editor… Pete. As Pete was unfortunately unavailable, Alfonso called me at home and offered me the job instead. I swear I didn’t plan it that way; the cards just got dealt in my favour!
You previously worked as VFX editor on films like Troy, Children of Men, Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland. How did those experiences help when itcame to editing Gravity?
I think that from a technical standpoint, it was crucial to Alfonso that he found a collaborator who could not only cut the movie but also understand visual effects and the mechanics of a visual effects facility. My background, and that of my team, encompassed all of these. This harks back to what I was saying about the importance of having a broad understanding of all departments.
Tim Webber, our VFX supervisor, and I already knew each other from Children of Men and we built a process pipeline that became a symbiosis of the two departments. Nevertheless, the nature of the film meant that we were constantly refining this process to accommodate the technical requirements as they evolved. You must appreciate that none of us knew how we would do any of this at the beginning. Traditionally during production, editorial is led by the work of the other departments. I think it’s fair to say that, in conjunction with visual effects, the reverse was true on Gravity.
Alfonso Cuaron is your co-editor on the film; can you describe your collaborative process with him, and how long were you involved on the project?
I joined during pre-production; long before the film was green-lit, long before we had a cast and long before any of us had any idea how we would achieve the task that Alfonso and [co-writer] Jonas [Cuaron] had presented on the page. I left almost three years later, as we cut the end roller onto the finished product on the sound mixing stage.
Creatively, Alfonso likes to have a palette of tools that he can dip in and out of as the film grows in his mind—which can be disconcertingly fast. The script was our Bible but the dialogue could evolve minute-by-minute. As could the visuals. Alfonso would think of a change to a shot on the way in to work, would arrive and implement that change with VFX, then walk across the road to me to see how the change had affected the edit. Creatively, because his films are perfectly constructed, the tiniest lighting or blocking change to a shot would often dictate hours—sometimes days—of re-editing the rest of the scene to ensure it had been appropriately balanced to match.
How does your working relationship with Alfonso compare to your working relationship with Tim Burton, who you have collaborated with on several films?
I was Tim’s VFX editor rather than his editor, so Tim would usually need some visuals assembled in order to gauge how the scene [editor] Chris Lebenzon had cut was working. So I would generally sit with the two of them first thing in the morning, work on their suggestions and then present my work at the end of each day. They would cut with this work, and either move on or come back with revisions to work on the following day.
Tim has a very different creative process to Alfonso. While both men see their vision very clearly in their heads from the point of inception, I’d say that broadly Tim is more committed to matching his initial vision to the screen, while Alfonso is more likely to build upon it.
Did Alfonso have a clear idea of how he wanted the film to be put together from the outset, or did it come together through the edit?
As mentioned, while he sees all of his films very clearly in his head from the outset, he is not locked to the detail. Part of what I think drives the tension in Gravity are the subliminal aspects of what you’re seeing. For instance, the movement of the Earth and its relation to the Sun, and therefore light, becomes this slow, relentless cycle that is pre-empting the next arrival of the debris. There is a constant feeling of inevitability, and Alfonso used the natural environment as a tool to tell the story.
There’s only so much of this that can be visualized in advance. It’s only when you start assembling the pre-vis shots that you can start asking certain questions. So, typically, the physical blocking of the scene would drive the edit, which in turn would drive the lighting and animation, which in turn would change the blocking and the process was cyclical. Just as the sun was setting at one end of the cycle, it was rising at the other!
So much of Gravity’s success depends on its truly intense visuals; did you feel under pressure to sustain that though the edit, and how did you make sure the film stayed authentic?
I never felt under pressure in that respect, because Alfonso doesn’t leave the cutting room until he’s entirely happy that the pace and rhythm of the cut is aligned with the overall design of the rest of the film he’s carrying. That applies as much for music and sound as it does to the visuals.
In terms of achieving authenticity, my job was easy compared to the level of technical detail from Andy [Nicholson] our production designer and Tim [Webber], the VFX supervisor.
But there was certainly pressure to ensure their work was respected. When Sandra [Bullock] takes the time to learn the technical processes of an astronaut, then care was taken not to betray that work in the edit with a cutaway to her hitting the wrong switch. Equally, the accuracy of any technical dialogue we wrote during editing had to be checked with the technical advisors prior to inclusion. But although authenticity was crucial to Alfonso, story is paramount.
What were the particular challenges / difficulties when cutting Gravity, and how did you overcome them?
We had a complete cut of the film in animation form prior to shoot that became the script that everyone worked from. Without it, none of the other creative elements could have been planned to the technical level required to have the actors shoot a performance. So we’d been editing the film for 18 months before George [Clooney] and Sandra arrived. In fact, we screened a version of the movie to the studio before filming began, complete with temporary sound and music. Various actors filled the lead roles in that time, including my assistant Tania Clarke and myself. As I recall, Sandra was sometimes acting to my version of [Clooney’s character] Matt Kowalsky for the first two weeks of shoot; for that alone she deserves an Oscar!
There are the conventional creative hurdles that an editor faces on a film and then there are those presented by a story set in a void and executed by Alfonso Cuaron. Though the camera is on an axis with the characters, it is rarely locked to any spatial plane. So there was definitely a challenge to make cuts work in terms of an audience having geography when they needed it. But as we had the luxury of blocking the scene in the edit, this could be controlled in that cyclical process.
For such an expansive film, Gravity has a short running time. Was this an intentional decision?
It was a creative decision. The film has an intensity that could easily become too much for an audience if they were over-exposed. Alfonso wanted to leave the audience breathless, not unconscious. Had Alfonso been a self-indulgent director who wanted more of his creation to appear on screen I think it would have hurt the film.
When you’re re-watching Gravity, (or indeed anything you’ve worked on) do you ever think you’ve achieved perfection, or do you always see things you wish you had done differently?
It’s like buying a new house. The audience comes in as the buyer and is hopefully taken with what they see. But we’re the ones selling it, and know where we plastered over those cracks in the corner. And scenes are like rooms. The kitchen will hopefully seem perfect to the buyer but all I can remember is the trouble I had fitting that damned plumbing. I think it’s the same for anyone who works in this industry. It often takes years for any of us to have the distance from the film to fully appreciate it as an audience might. I don’t think it is an over statement to say that I have probably seen Gravity more than any person on the planet. I can count the frames in the shots and can probably recite the dialogue in reverse order.
You’re based in the UK but have worked on a lot of US-based productions. How challenging is it to work on something that’s being made in a different country / time zone?
I’m rarely on a different time zone to the shooting crew while we shoot, but during post-production we can be anywhere. Alfonso and I were often working on two different continents as if we were in the same room. A company called Audeo supplied the hardware necessary to streamlive HD video from my Avid direct to a plasma screen elsewhere in the world. So the only additional challenge for me was to adapt to whatever time zone Alfonso was on; otherwise the process was pretty seamless
How has digital technology changed the editing / collaborative process for you?
I started as an assistant editor on 35mm film, but by the time I got to edit celluloid had already had its day. Any of us who started then, however, can see the differences in styles and process. Nowadays we can have hundreds of different versions of the same scene; in the days of film there was one physical cut which got locked in the cupboard overnight. There was no uploading multiple versions to multiple sources. If people wanted to view the cut, they all had to be in the same room together. That is the optimum for making creative decisions.
Collaboratively we are now more splintered, yet the process is seemingly maintained. This is a problem because, unless you’re in control of the technology,the results can be different.
The reaction of a group of people to a cut while all in the same darkened room is very different than if the same group are watching the same cut independently of each other, perhaps even in different countries. They might even make crucial judgements based upon a viewing on their laptop in an airport lounge. That’s where Audeo helped us on Gravity. Their technology ensured traditional creative environments could be maintained separately and yet simultaneously. So whereas technology can often be blamed for hindering the process, the truth is that it is there to help. It’s the attitudes and bad habits of us as filmmakers that are often more responsible.
Stylistically I think the jump from celluloid to digital editing was a huge leap not only for film, but also for all media. It arrived at the same time as the Internet, and editing got tighter and faster in parallel with the consumer’s need for faster information.Digital editing made that so easy that, looking back, a lot of films of that era were cut as a stylistic reaction to that. I think we’re seeing a resurgence of a more measured style of editing at the moment; we’re seeing more films cut as if they’d been edited on celluloid.
You’re currently working on Kazuaki Kiriya’s The Last Knights; how is that experience differing from Gravity?
Well the characters walk on a terrestrial plane for starters, which was attractive tome after the last three years in space! The Last Knights is a traditional story about the consequences of honour and has its roots in Japanese folklore. Michael Konyves’ script is phenomenal and, for me it’s like cutting a rich, character-driven Western… with swords! Kaz is a visual genius and between him, Ricky Eyres the designer, Tina Kalivas’ costumes and Antonio Riestra’s cinematography, this film has a look and feel of something really cool and very different.
Finally, there’s been a lot of talk that you could be in contention for an Oscar for your work on Gravity. How important are such awards and accolades to craftspeople like yourself, whose work often goes unrecognised by audiences?
It’s certainly nice to be recognized by your peers, but if you’ve done your job properly this happens without awards. I certainly don’t know anyone whose choice of work is dictated by the awards they might get. Personally I’m here to pay the bills. The fact that I can be paid to do something I enjoy makes me one of the lucky few. There’s that luck again….
Gravity is now on general release.
This interview was originally published at movieScope