This interview is part of the larger series about Performance Enhancing Visual Effects. Alan E. Bell (ACE) is the editor who invented the term and made it his trademark. He is most known for his work on The Green Mile, (500) Days of Summer, The Amazing Spiderman, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and recently The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part 1 and part 2. Read on to learn his thoughts about PEVs.
You have coined the term “Performance Enhancing Visual Effects” (PEVs). Can you briefly explain what they are?
Simply put, it’s compositing, as opposed to editing, as a way to change and improve performances of characters in a scene.
What was the first time you realized that you can do such a thing?
I first started using some of these techniques in the late 1990s. At that time I was an assistant editor working my way into the editor’s chair and I was doing many comps for the editor I worked for at that time. As I began to get better at compositing, I realized it could be used as a tool to improve on edits. So that’s when the seeds were planted in my mind, that compositing could be used as a tool support the cut in an invisible way.
Do the knowledge about PEVs and your ability to execute them change the way you approach editing?
It doesn’t change it all that much, but it does change the manner in which I am able to solve common problems that present themselves in the cutting room. I am an editor first and foremost. Most performances are enhanced by cuts only – I mean that is what editors do, we use edits to enhance the story, performance and the structure of scenes. PEVs are just another way to enhance the cut. However, they require a skill set that goes beyond what an average editor can do.
You mentioned a few times in your interviews, that PEVs are one of your main skills that you bring to the table. How do the directors you work with react to you having this ability?
I like to think that the ability to do PEVs is a value added bonus directors, actors, producers, and studios get when they hire me. It is certainly not my only skill set as editing is much more than being able to adjust performances by manipulating images. I like to think that I would get hired if I didn’t have these skills. Though I often highlight them when interviewed, as a way of having something other than the usual editorial conversation. I also know that using PEVs has made a huge difference in the quality of my work and I enjoy sharing that with others.
Do the actors know that you are enhancing their performance? How do they feel about it?
Some actors do. Certainly all editors enhance performances, that’s what editing is. All films are a set of finely blended takes and cut points which in essence enhance performance. Frankly, it’s not something that I would even know how to discuss with an actor unless he or she was in the cutting room at the time of the work. So far I have never had an actor or actress tell me they were unhappy with the way they were edited or portrayed by my work.
At what time in the editing process do you decide to resort to PEVs?
It’s a natural part of my workflow. Generally it’s a tool to solve issues where I want to drop a line or add or remove space between lines. I may need to change the timing between two actors in an over the shoulder shot for instance. At some point I always go through the scene to make sure things match. Due to PEVs I never worry about matching, when I am cutting a scene. It’s about everything else, because using these tools I can always make it match later.
Are you censoring yourself and consciously decide not to use PEVs in certain situations?
Not that I can think of, no.
What would be your most complex PEV up to date?
Oh boy, when you consider that I do close to 100-300 shots per film, it’s hard to say – some are easy and some are difficult. There was a shot in Catching Fire that was pretty difficult, when Mags dies. She turns and walks away from Katniss, Finnick and Peeta into this cloud of smoke. It was a shaky handheld camera. The timing was off and to make the scene more efficient I did a sort of Frankenstein on the shot, where I changed the timing of all three characters, as well as erased Mags and replaced her with a different take. That was a fairly difficult shot to pull off but it worked and literally nobody could tell it was effected.
What would be the shot you are the most proud of or get the most satisfaction from?
Hard to say, really. It’s less about the shots themselves and more about the overall films and how they feel and play, when they are done. I am proud of all my work.
How much time do you spend on creating a shot? How often do you resort to PEVs during editing?
As I said before, I usually add close to 300 shots per film. These range from simple split screens, retimes and multi split retimes, and full on take blended morphs. Most shots take me about 10-20 mins to complete. Some take longer and those I usually do when the director isn’t around. I have gotten pretty good at estimating how long a shot will take and usually inform the director what it’s going to take.
Do you ever create the final version of a shot as an editor? When do you decide to send it to the VFX time for finishing?
I do, but it’s more of point of pride. I usually do one or two shots as finals per show that I am editing. Frankly, if I was working with the o-neg or original footage many of the shots I do would be finals as soon as they were done, but currently most of the films I work on are using proxy resolutions.
How important do you consider PEVs to an editor toolset? Do you think they should be taught in schools?
I think it’s important. Should it be taught in schools – yes. If editing is taught in schools, then compositing for editors should also be on the docket. As a self-educated person, it’s a lifelong pursuit in order to be good at this. So even if it’s taught in schools it’s up to the individual to get good and capable at it.
What kind of skills and attitude are necessary to be able to perform the PEVs?
Its not something that can be learned on the job very easily. So I would say you need to have a certain amount of dedication to learn this stuff and be quick and effective with it. You have got to be good at rotoscoping quickly. Tracking, stabilizing and blending and morphing images. Understanding how and where these techniques can be combined and utilized is very important and only comes with experience. So you need to have patience with yourself and try things when failure isn’t important. I recommend getting a free copy of Blackmagic Fusion and taking the time to learn it.
When I mentioned PEVs to an experienced editor, I heard that he is more interested in the “proper” storytelling, than in the “tricks”. Do you think this is a common attitude? Where do you think this might come from?
Laziness. Every edit is a trick, it’s a sleight of hand, to ignore these tools is nearsighted and lazy. This experienced editor you mentioned this to is welcome to their opinion. I personally do not choose to limit myself in this way. “Proper” storytelling? I don’t even know what that means, and frankly, I don’t care. I think it stems from a fear of change and a desire to keep things easy for themselves. The problem is, of course, that as more people are able to use these techniques and directors and studio executives see the value in them – which they do – then the “proper” storytelling editors who have no clue how to use these “tricks” may find themselves on the road to early retirement.
Can you imagine yourself editing without using PEVs?
I can, yes, but why? If I can make it work better, make a scene more emotionally satisfying, make it match and keep the best takes, why wouldn’t I want to do that?
Thank you for sharing your insights.