Niven Howie. Portrait by Gregory Schwartz.

EDITORS GUILD MAGAZINE
September-October 2010 : Volume 31, Number 5

NIVEN HOWIE
When the Rhythm is Right
by Garrett Gilchrist

Director Paul W. S. Anderson made a name for himself helming high-octane action films, often based on popular video games, such as Mortal Kombat (1995) and Alien vs. Predator (2004).  Having directed Resident Evil (2002) and written and produced two sequels, he has returned to direct Resident Evil: Afterlife, in full 3-D, which opens via Sony Screen Gems September 10.  Taking on the difficult task of editing an effects-filled stereoscopic blockbuster-hopeful is fellow Brit Niven Howie, who has proven his chops as a clever and unique action editor with such films as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Dawn of the Dead (2004); Death Race (2008) and Resident Evil: Extinction (2007).  Howie also has a real passion for music, and worked with Julien Temple on documentaries about the Sex Pistols and the late Joe Strummer of the Clash. Editors Guild Magazine caught up with Howie to discuss this challenging project.

Resident Evil: Afterlife. (c) 2010 Constantin Film International GmbH & Davis Films/Impact Pictures Inc.  All rights reserved

GG: How would you describe Resident Evil: Afterlife?

NH: It's a classic rollercoaster ride of a movie. This is my third movie with Paul, and he's extremely talented at creating very fun, pure entertainment. People's lives are quite difficult right now, so they're turning to complete escapism. Each film has been a rethink- the third film was zombies in the desert, which felt very different. Hollywood always tries to copy the latest success, which is a big mistake. Modern audiences tire of the same thing very quickly. Paul is always looking to try new tricks and break new ground, and he's excelled himself. The film looks amazing, especially in 3D- very sleek and stylish, completely cinematic.

GG: Has the 3D changed how you approach editing?

NH: We have some very fast cut action sequences, but not quite as fast as I would have made them in 2D. Paul went back to the rulebook and started again, in a more traditional style of filmmaking. A closeup is head and shoulders- never too close to camera, because the gap between the image on one eye and the other becomes so great that it hurts the eyes. But you can flatten the image in post to make it less 3D- separate the two images, or pull them together. Our DP, Glen MacPherson, worked on The Final Destination, and they needed to wind in the convergence on certain edit points. Otherwise it hurt your eyes, jumping from a very deep shot to a very shallow shot- your eyes took a few frames to take it in.


Resident Evil: Afterlife. (c) 2010 Constantin Film International GmbH & Davis Films/Impact Pictures Inc.  All rights reserved.
GG: Paul's films tend to be very fast cut.

NH: Everything has a natural rhythm, and there's a limit to how fast you can cut between images. I've seen films where they shouldn't have cut so quickly. But everything has its time and place. On Death Race we broke the record at Efilm, one of the busiest labs in LA, for the number of edits in a movie- 3000 edits. Paul is a big fan of the blipvert, where you bombard the audience with extremely rapid images- an assault on the senses. But obviously that's just for an effect. The dramatic scenes were quite slow and traditionally shot and cut.

GG: Is Paul's style inspired by him knowing he's filming a video game, whose fans might be a younger audience?

NH: He cares about the fans, but his style is really what he likes. He plays the games himself, and felt that Resident Evil would make an excellent movie. The films are quite different- they've created characters that don't exist in the game, and Paul got some stick for that. But people love Milla's character, Alice- they identify with her. Milla Jovovich is incredible as ever. She's matured into an extremely talented actress and brings an awful lot to these movies, this one in particular.

GG: How do you approach editing an action scene?

NH: Modern action movies tend to surround the action with cameras, and film a lot of angles that you just throw out. Or do the old John Woo trick and repeat the action several times from different angles. We have less coverage, since the 3D camera rigs are not easily moved around. They're very carefully boarded and choreographed, and shot for the cut, but covered very well. They're quite easy for me to tackle. Even so, Paul is quite happy to let me throw the storyboard away and get on with it. Except in commercials, the storyboard isn't necessarily reflective of what's gone into the camera. I look through all the dailies, make notes, and cut completely from my own instinctive gut feeling. Nine times out of ten we're pretty close to the locked scene. Paul might remember something from filming that he particularly liked, and we'll put that in, then just the usual trimming and cutting of unnecessary lines. I cut out a lot of the dead wood as I'm going. It's a waste of everyone's time watching a four hour assembly. Our first cut was 2 hours, which isn't bad at all. Death Race was longer, but we had more to trim out. In a car race, you put in all your best, favorite shots, then try to cut it down to size.


Resident Evil: Afterlife. (c) 2010 Constantin Film International GmbH & Davis Films/Impact Pictures Inc.  All rights reserved.
GG: And you can cut wherever you want- in a car race, people generally don't notice.

NH: Absolutely. I think we cut each one down to just long enough. (laughs) Less is more. Beginning and ending a film is always the hardest. We lock every other reel first. Reel two always has all the talky exposition.

GG: How did you start your career as an editor?

NH: I was a musician at college and kind of got sidetracked. I edited about 400 music videos over five years in London, starting in the late 80s. It was exciting; we were experimenting- breaking new ground. I moved into commercials, then television drama and short films. Eventually one of my music video clients gave me that break and let me loose on a feature. That was Bullet, for Julien Temple, in 1996, with Mickey Rourke and Tupac Shakur. I'm still very involved in the music that's temped in and I work very closely with the composers. I feel it's extremely important that music is married perfectly to the image.

GG: In 1998, you worked with Guy Ritchie on Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

NH: That was a fun experience. Two weeks into filming someone recommended me, because their first editor didn't really know how to use the system. It was this quirky, funny little low budget British movie. Everyone was on deferred payment. We knew we had something special- the performances were so delicious, and the comedy was coming across so well. We removed the love story, which had been forced into the script and not shot particularly well. It had a very boring, obvious ending- the nice young guy gets the girl and the money. We completely changed the film into a total lad's movie- which is what it was written as, and should have been from the start. The film was so much better for it. I used techniques I'd used in music videos and commercials, and I was extremely nervous, thinking people would say it wasn't cinematic. But those scenes tested so well that Guy shot more, made them longer. There's a scene we affectionately call the drunk scene, where I ramped lots of shots- speeding up, slow-mo, cutting frames, jumping around in time and space, like a music video. I cut a lot of the scenes to music I was listening to at the time. I tried it, and people liked it, and the studio were happy to pay for the songs. Everyone did well out of that film. It didn't have much commercial impact in the States, but the industry saw it and took a lot of interest.

Niven Howie.


GG: What other music video techniques have you kept in your feature film work?

NH: I think I've used everything at some point. A music video has a three-act structure, if you're telling a story- intro, verse, choruses, climactic ending. Our own lives have a similar structure. So does sex. Sometimes it's a real struggle and you have to give things up. Directors need someone to say, I know it's a beautiful shot and it took two hours to get, but the film is better without it. Some things, you try very hard and get them in there somehow.

GG: You worked as an additional editor on Still Crazy (Brian Gibson, 1998).

NH: Suddenly people considered me a good doctor to hire if you had problems. At first they just wanted me on the musical performances. But they were running out of time, and the editor (Peter Boyle) wasn't delivering quite what the director was feeling. So my role expanded. It's quite a nice little movie which I always think quite highly of. But I think the studio had lost faith in the film and didn't push it.

GG: You worked with Julien Temple again on the documentary The Filth and the Fury (2000), about The Sex Pistols.

NH: On day one, Julien and I went to a storage center near Heathrow Airport where all these 25-year-old film cans were stored, to see what we could find. Our first cut was around 4.5 hours. There was no script. We pieced together the drama found in these rusty old cans. A very special film- I'm extremely proud of it. The Sex Pistols tapped into a whole movement of social unrest, a revolution really, with disenfranchised youngsters finishing school who felt there really was no future. It was a rough time, but a very interesting time to be in London. Punk officially started in New York, but the Sex Pistols were the first band that anyone took note of. The Clash followed soon after.

GG: And in 2007, you worked with Mark Reynolds and Tobias Zaldua on Julien Temple's documentary Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten.

NH: It was a bit of a passion project for all of us. I knew Joe, he lived quite near Julien down in Somerset and we'd socialized a lot. I came on later, not in the eleventh hour, but maybe the seventh hour, to help polish and structure the film. It was hard to whittle it down. Julien's so thorough, and it was all really good stuff.
NIVEN HOWIE
Selected Editing Credits
Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)
After.Life (2009)
Death Race (2008)
Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)
Goal II: Living the Dream (2007)
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (2007)
Glastonbury (2006)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Paul McCartney: Back in the U.S. (2002) (TV)
The Hole (2001)
Pandaemonium (2000)
The Filth and the Fury (2000)
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Bullet (1996)
Sting: Ten Summoners Tales (1993) (video)

GG: You worked with Zach Snyder on Dawn of the Dead (2004).

NH: Zach is full of energy, really fun, very focused, knows exactly what he wants. An ideal director. I don't know anyone who doesn't get on with him. It was Zach's first movie. He was a commercials director. Someone suggested me because I spoke that language. In our first conversation, he said he wanted the undead to be fast as hell. It was a risk, and a major decision to reboot the franchise. It was great fun. I would have worked on 300, but unfortunately I had someone very ill in my family and couldn't leave the country.

GG: You worked with Hammer and Tongs on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy film (director Garth Jennings, 2005).

NH: I'd known them since they first started, when they left college. Really nice, talented people, and they won so many awards with their music videos. Garth is extremely talented. It's a little bit of a shame, really, because so many people had their own opinion of how the Hitchhiker's Guide should be, and the film wasn't necessarily what the general public wanted. It was too much of a reimagining, aimed at a younger audience, the usual pressure to add a love interest... It shouldn't have been made for Hollywood, I think. Maybe for television.

GG: You first worked with Paul W. S. Anderson when he was writing and producing the third Resident Evil film, Extinction, in 2007.

NH: It'd already been assembled and pretty much everything was wrong with it. The rhythm was completely wrong. Wide shots when they should be on closeups, and vice versa. I said, give me three weeks and I'll recut the first reel from scratch. They loved what I'd done and I just continued on. It was a very enjoyable process. If a film feels to me like it's edited badly, it's quite hard to put my finger on what they've done wrong. It's a domino effect. If one element's wrong, everything tumbles down. The music doesn't fit, the sound effects are fighting, and it becomes a horrible mush. I let the actors' eye movements guide my cuts. When an actor looks to someone else, I wait until they've looked, then cut to where they're looking. It's a simple thing, but when it's not done right, it feels very weird. I pride myself on getting the best out of an actor. I want the final polished movie to be something the actor will be pleased with. Paul and Jeremy rely on me for that. It's about getting the best performance, choosing the best shots, and making the overall pace and rhythm feel right.

Garrett Gilchrist is a freelance writer, filmmaker and film editor. He can be reached at orangecow.org.





Photo by Tomm Carroll.
STEREO TYPES

Niven Howie, Ben Howdeshell and Mark Herman


Working in 3D added a new dimension of difficulty for Editor Niven Howie, First Assistant Editor Ben Howdeshell and Visual Effects Editor Mark Herman. The Editors Guild Magazine's Garrett Gilchrist spoke with them about how they made it work.


NH: The 3D is absolutely stunning. Throughout shooting we had Dave Watro from Pace, the company who developed, over several years, the Fusion 3D camera system for Avatar. They've perfected the rigs and the camera equipment further. Everyone has benefitted from what James Cameron did. I think we really come up to the mark.

BH: You see 3D films that were shot in 2D and they look like popup books, or paper cutouts. It's not the same as originating in 3D, with two cameras.

NH : We're doing all our sound mixing and lab work in Toronto, so the editorial team here is the smallest I've ever had. We had a very tight schedule.

Photo by Tomm Carroll.

MH: That's always an issue. But it's liberating in a way. We're not carrying any extra weight. The workflow is very streamlined.

NH: Before filming began, I explored different ways that people had tackled 3D. Normally you edit in 2D, with the Avid invisibly carrying both images, and switch to 3D to screen it. The week before filming, Avid came out with some new software and I took a gamble to beta test it.

MH: The Avid rep said we're the first to cut in 3D all the time. There's been tremendous interest from the studio, and the outside world in general. We're not in a cocoon here anymore. Other editors have come in to look at our process- Dennis Virkler, Bruce Green, Tatiana Riegel, Alan Bell, Andrew Dickler... they've walked away enraptured, convinced that shooting stereo adds another storytelling tool to your editorial toolkit. You relax and get immersed in the story. It's more engaging, more satisfying. I'm having more fun. I don't want to watch a 2D movie now.

BH: There haven't been many problems technically- everyone is so focused. Pace and Dave Watro spent a lot of time getting things right, by the time the media was in our Avid. Deluxe, our lab, is very good about extracting data from our bins. It's pretty much everyone's first time but it's just been working.

MH: We're working with many more video layers. But the storytelling process is still the same. We've just got a new dimension to work with. You write 3D moments into a script now, just like you script any other moment. Everyone had a learning curve certainly, but the work we did in weeks one and two is still solid.

BH: Niven is a true storyteller- hard-working, very good with the Avid, and self-sufficient. Mark and I are always shocked at how much of our job he does.

MH: Niven is himself a very talented compositor. Ben and Niven do the lion's share of the work. I'm riding their coattails. They're so proficient with what they do, they take the pressure off my shoulders.

Photo by Tomm Carroll.

BH: Mark taught me to use AfterEffects. He's extremely technically savvy, always looking to push his knowledge further. He hates greenscreen- he's incredibly fast at getting rid of it.

MH: I work as fast as I can so the story doesn't stop in its tracks. That's doing temporary "slop comps" to tell a story- not when I'm compositing final. Stereo compositing is unforgiving. You have to composite, track and paint both right and left eyes, check it on the 3D monitor, and the offset isn't always right. There's no Avid software where you can do one eye and its algorithms will do the other eye for you. But those plugins are coming. I understand Nuke is good for stereoscopic work. Tim Dashwood's plugin for Aftereffects is pretty darn good. I can see both eyes, do a quick output and make sure my offsets are correct. My friends at the special effects houses have been tremendously helpful, teaching me. It's twice as much work, there's no getting around that, but it's also twice as much fun.

BH: More like four or five times the work. Before you could just throw a computer resize on a clip and zoom in, but now you've got to split it apart and resize both the left and right eye at the same speed, making sure you didn't cross any lines and that it's centered right.

MH: I probably did a hundred hours of reading on 3D, but it still took four or five weeks to develop an intuitive sense of it. I'd have to check a composite over and over. It takes time to know what's comfortable for the eyes.

NH: We've found we're cutting less, but the 3D makes the images sustain better, because they're so three-dimensional and interesting. There are problems. You might get a reflection in one eye that's not in the other.

BH: It's very helpful having it in 3d- if something doesn't look right, Niven will notice it right away.

MH: There's no ego-stroking- it's just about making a good movie. I've never seen Paul or Niven lose their temper. They're good friends. I don't know how a neophyte director would face stereoscopic filmmaking. They've done their homework and it certainly shows in the project. You want to keep working with good people. It gets easier each time. This is our first stereo show but we're so used to each other by now that it's very comfortable.

BH: We've done Resident Evil 3, Death Race, and After.Life together, and Niven did a doctor job on Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li. Niven was on Avid Meridian until halfway through Death Race. We're on Adrenaline now- Avid 4.02. My setup is the simplest since I'm a data junkie. I have two SD monitors, my HD monitor, mixing board and speakers. Niven's and Mark's are cooler.

Photo by Tomm Carroll.

NH: We have a 46 inch Hyundai 3D TV as our viewing monitor. We work with the RealD glasses on, the circular polarized glasses. My Avid setup looks like any other Avid, showing a normal 2D image of the left eye. We can switch the monitor to 2D if we decide we've been watching with the glasses on for too long, but we actually got quite used to it.

BH: We've had people drive back to their offices with the 3D glasses on. I had dinner with Milla Jovovich the other day, and my brain couldn't process, because I'd been looking at her in 3D all day. I've known Paul and Milla for a long time. Before I even got into post production, Paul was practicing his pitch for Alien vs. Predator. He had me spellbound. At the premiere I thought, this is exactly the way he told it to me. So is this film- it was all in his head. Paul speaks the language of editing and visual effects. He's very precise, very technical, a great writer and an amazing storyteller from start to finish.

MH: Paul is amazingly aware. He sees things I miss all the time. There's a flag in the upper left corner of the left eye on frame 14. How did you see that? We're playing it in real time! It's very difficult to have both an overview of the whole movie, and a micro-view of the scene, the shot, the frame by frame playback. Both Paul and Niven have that ability, to see the forest and the trees.

GG: Is this the last outing for Alice?

BH: She's still young, she's still a badass. There's a lot more that can happen. There's many characters from the videogames whose stories haven't been told. Resident Evil 5 is an amazing game, and we've inherited some terrifying things from it. The zombies have mutated even further and these mandibles come out of their mouths, with claws and hooks and spiky tentacles. The dogs, their heads break in half and they open up and there's teeth inside! It's frightening in the videogame, but seeing it in 3D with amazing visual effects, it's very disturbing.

MH: The reception of the film, and the stereo work, has been incredibly gratifying so far. Often when you work on films, you get sick of watching a scene hundreds of times, over and over. This film has no down moments- it's so deftly plotted. 3D is nothing to be afraid of. I've had a fun, fascinating time.

NH: 3D doesn't have to be things constantly flying in your face. If you feel like you're immersed within this space in front of you and interacting with this fantasy world, that's the perfect cinema. I really think we've pulled it off.

Garrett Gilchrist is a freelance writer, filmmaker and film editor. He can be reached at orangecow.org.


Photo by Tomm Carroll.

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Articles written by Garrett Gilchrist and (c) The Motion Picture Editors Guild Magazine, 2008-2011.
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