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How Spike Jonze's Films Come Together in Editing

Also during EditFest LA: Pixar detailed its storytelling process, and the lead editor on "Conan" brought tears to audience members' eyes.

Her Joaquin Phoenix Against Window - H 2014
Warner Bros. Pictures
Joaquin Phoenix in "Her"

Editor Eric Zumbrunnen — whose longtime collaboration with Spike Jonze started in music videos and most recently included Her — got a big laugh during American Cinema Editors' EditFest LA.

He joked that the stages of editing included " 'It's going to be amazing.'; 'I don't know what I can do with this.' 'What if everyone finds out I'm a fraud?' 'Damn the deadline'; and finally, the 'I'm a genius' point."

Saturday at Disney's Frank G. Wells Theatre, Zumbrunnen discussed plans for a new editing venture that he's starting with two-time Oscar-winner Kirk Baxter, who is currently cutting David Fincher's Gone Girl.

Film historian and editing champion Bobbie O'Steen, who moderated the panel, noted that Jonze "very much finds his films in the cutting room," a theme that ran throughout the conversation.

Zumbrunnen admitted that the first edit of a Jonze film often comes in just under four hours and that the story is cut and shaped from there.

As an example, he said 2013's Her — which tells the story of a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who forms a relationship with his OS, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) — gave him and co-editor Jeff Buchanan plenty of opportunity to "rewrite" in the cutting room since the audience never sees Samantha. "It was like getting to reshoot a character in a movie as many times as you'd like," he said. "The character really evolved through the editing." As a result, several new scenes were written and Johansson's voice was rerecorded.

Zumbrunnen noted that, during the editing process, he tried more cutaways to break up some of the conversations between the man and OS' voice, particularly in the bedroom at the end of the film. "There were wonderful visuals [in the cutaways], but it felt like it was taking you out of the movie. Joaquin is such a good actor, we could hang on his face for a long time."

A related decision was not to show the mobile device too often. "It dehumanized her. If you see it too much, you can't feel the connection maybe as strongly."

Also during the day, a panel examined what moderator Norman Hollyn (The Cotton Club) calls the "lean forward moment." Hollyn — who is head of the editing track at USC's School of Cinematic Arts — defined this as the moment in a film that causes you to lean forward because it's crucial to the plot. He illustrated this by asking each editor on the panel to select a "lean forward" clip from a movie that they did not edit.

That included clips from Aliens and JFK, but it was Conan's head editor, Rob Ashe Jr., who got the biggest reaction from the audience when he announced that he had selected the "Married Life" clip from Pixar's Up — the emotional montage that shows the joy and heartbreak of a married couple.

By the end of the clip, the reaction was exactly what the audience had anticipated. The lights came up and sniffling and sobbing were heard, with editors wiping their eyes across the room.

Ash recalled how he tried to fight tears when he first saw Up in a theater. "I felt betrayed! I thought, 'You're a cartoon!' " he said. "By the end [of the 'Married Life' sequence] — and I'm not a big crier — I was holding my wife's hand and shaking. That part in the doctor's office, I remember leaning forward."

"It was the answer to my question as to how they were going to make me care about an old man who doesn't like people. Imagine taking that scene out of the movie. Then he's just a cranky old man," he said. "I couldn't think of a more lean forward moment of anything else I had seen."

During the afternoon, four assistant editors from Pixar Animation Studios gave the crowd a look at the extensive amount of editing that goes into making a Pixar movie with constantly changing storyboards. "For the first two and a half years, we are writing the movie over and over. Editorial is very involved," said Pixar's Noah Newman.

Pixar's Oscar winner Brave, for instance, involved creating 84,421 storyboards and boarding 160 scenes that were edited during production, though only 36 scenes made it into the final film.

Another example of the timeline, the first scene for its 2016-scheduled Finding Dory, the sequel to its Oscar-winning Finding Nemo, just went into production.

To manage all these elements, Pixar uses a pipeline built around Avid Media Composer editing systems and Avid's ISIS shared storage. Software demonstrations from Avid, as well as Adobe and Blackmagic Design were available through the day. The event concluded with an open house of Disney's Digital Studio Services.

Coverage of EditFest LA's panel about nonscripted series can be found here.

Email: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA