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Editing The Phantom of the Opera

Film cutter Terry Rawlings used a Lightworks NLE to edit “The Phantom of the Opera.” The system enabled him to create multiple version of a given sequence for evaluation.

“The Phantom of the Opera” will soon creep triumphantly from its subterranean crypt this month onto screens first in the UK and then in the United States. Its majestic visual imagery will have been edited by Terry Rawlings, a film cutter who has moved smoothly into digital post after becoming famous for manipulating the dark and startling images in “Alien” (1979) and “Blade Runner” (1982), as well as lyrically spellbinding sequences in “Chariots of Fire,” for which he earned a 1982 Oscar nomination. This is Rawlings' second musical venture, after 1983's “Yentle.”

Based on the 1908 novel by Gaston Leroux, the musical stage version of “The Phantom of the Opera” was composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe. It premiered in London in 1986 and hit Broadway two years later. Briefly, the story involves a ghostly Phantom haunting the Paris Opera House. The Phantom intends to train an ingénue, Christine, to become a prima donna, despite rescue attempts by her lover, Raoul.

In 1989, Webber asked director Joel Schumacher to write a screenplay for a film version, but legal entanglements and concern over the age of the original singing stars delayed its production until 2002. After a four-month shooting schedule, Rawlings finished editing this Warner Bros. release of “The Phantom of the Opera” last August on a Lightworks NLE.

Rawlings chose the system, having used it since 1999 on the film “Entrapment,” because it has a layout and feel that are similar to a KEM or Steinbeck flatbed film editing table. In fact, most of the media control on the NLE is directed through a singular round “nudge lever” that any flatbed veteran will immediately recognize.

The system was first developed in the UK by Paul Bamborough in 1990. Partially because the system was designed to edit at 24fps right from the start, it was used to cut the first feature posted on an NLE to win an Oscar for Best Picture, “Braveheart,” in 1996. After some financial difficulties, the NLE evolved into Lightworks Touch in 2002 under a revitalized management team. It was purchased to be part of the Gee Broadcast group of companies in 2004, supported by new offices in Hollywood, London and Toronto.

Rawlings credits his two Lightworks assistants, Tony Trompetto and Tim Grover, for overseeing its internal technology, thereby leaving him free to concentrate on the outside creativity. With their help, Rawlings has used the Lightworks on “The Musketeer” (2001) and “The Core” (2003) before “Phantom.” Not only has it never suffered downtime, but also it has never missed a number when printing out EDLs for final conform to film.

This reliability is crucial to Rawlings' editing style because he regularly creates several different versions of a scene in a filing system only he has access to before deciding on a final cut. Working in genres that often involve significant special effects, this lets Rawlings assemble CGI elements, visual effects and sound material before having to lock down the final picture.

Because he is an intuitive editor, Rawlings lets the material he is given influence the way he molds sequences. But especially on a story as romantically emotional as “The Phantom of the Opera,” his interaction with director Schumacher and producer Webber guided several key scenes through a significant evolutionary process during editing.

Take, for example, the lavish costume ball sequence in which the opera patrons and participants alike sing a celebration of their society's “Masquerade.” The original live productions staged all the activities around a central grand stairway in the lobby of the Paris Opera. But the film's script called for inter-cutting their aristocratic pageantry with the more plebeian cavortings of the stagehands and dancers in the hallways below. Originally, Rawlings played off the juxtaposition between the goings on upstairs and downstairs continually throughout the scene until the frenzy was exploded by the dramatic appearance of the Phantom.

But as he worked with the footage, Rawlings discovered it would be more effective to delay bringing in this social counterpoint until halfway through the scene to heighten the dramatic tension between the commoners backstage and the “painted faces on parade” above them. This emphasized the original majesty of the masquerade ball and more effectively let the intruding whirlwind of the revelers build to the Phantom's sudden interruption. Of course, the final result was a collaboration between all the principles behind “The Phantom of the Opera,” but it is also an example of the way the system provides flexibility to Rawlings' editing thought process by enabling the creation of multiple versions of a given sequence for evaluation.

This also came into play while cutting the climactic scene in which the Phantom vents his rage by dropping the Opera House's huge chandelier down onto the heads of the terrified theater audience. This was seen in the live London and Broadway stagings at the end of the play's first half. In the film version, however, this ultimate act of vengeance has been moved more toward the end of the screenplay to heighten its impact.

Rawlings was presented with coverage from six cameras as the chandelier crashes down, with some running at various slo mo speeds for effect. But his editor's eye called for more visual impact, and he was able to increase the amount of variable speed shots in the Lightworks while putting the sequence together. Throughout, he insists it is not a simple question of editing to action or cutting on the beat of the music. Rather, he tries to tell the story through the visuals of the film and edit them together in a way that maintains each element's own intrinsic integrity.

Even the Phantom's evocative love plea to Christine — “You alone can make my song take flight/Help me make the music of the night” — is presented while bed curtains come down first across her face, then across his face, as if putting Sleeping Beauty to bed. Even the famous five rising gothic chords that elevate the song's ending are not used as cut points. The music stands on its own as do the visuals, and Rawlings lets the two combine in the audience's mind each with their own dramatic validity.

“The Phantom of the Opera,” which stars Gerard Butler as the Phantom and Emmy Rossum as Christine, debuted in London on 10 December 2004. It will be seen in a 600 screen limited run in the United States on 22 December. The film goes into general release stateside on 21 January 2005.

L.T. Martin is a freelance writer and post-production consultant.