When Thelma Schoonmaker picked up her richly deserved Academy Award for film editing at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, her name was properly among the permanent credits adorning Martin Scorsese's biopic, "The Aviator." But unless we see the film on DVD or in a theater, the version most of us will view on TV, on an airplane or in some other venue will have been altered by hands unseen and uncredited.
So this is a story about the most unsung editors working their magic at an innovative company called 2G Digital Post just outside of Los Angeles. It is also about a remarkable post-production entrepreneur who had the vision to re-think a process the stodgy old studios were making a hash of, and figure out a way to do it right.
The major function of 2G Digital Post is to repurpose previously released feature films to make them conform to the Standards and Practices requirements of broadcast networks and to the even more restrictive limitations of entertaining in-flight airline audiences.
As a case study, we'll focus on one of their most recent commissions, MGM's 2001 theatrical feature "Bandits," starring Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett, scheduled to air this summer on ABC. The story involves two charismatic bank robbers who wind up in an escapade with the bored wife of the manager of the bank they are intending to rob.
The comedy caper was originally cut by Stu Linder (Oscar nominee for "Rain Man" in 1988, Oscar winner for "Grand Prix" in 1967). MGM assigned editor Vinnie Laino to supervise the TV version of the film.
"In their primetime dramas, the networks can include more words and images some would consider objectionable than in feature-film presentations," Laino began, "often because they want their re-cut version of full-length movies to be available for airing at any time of day. I am given a list of necessary notes by executives at ABC, and then it is my job to incorporate those changes while still making the film as enjoyable as possible."
Laino has to wrestle with three general concerns during the process: indecency, time constraints, and--somewhat surprisingly--product placement for each venue where the film will be shown. These can vary widely based on each network's standards. For example, when he was involved with preparing the whole "James Bond" cycle for ABC, the limits were more stringent than the versions he supervised for airing on CBS.
"In their opening title sequences, Bond films often feature images of silhouetted nudity," Laino said. "ABC asked our CG artist to tone down the anatomical details, but the S & P folks at CBS are more lenient, so we left the shots alone. CBS had no comment about it at all."
"Bandits," however, presented some different challenges when Laino took it to 2G Digital Post, where one of its online editors, Hedio Lobo, had his choice of six Avid DS systems (four with Nitris acceleration) on which to post the project. "Every film is a different case," Lobo explained, "and we have our own tricks to get around language issues. Often, we just remove the middle part of a word, but for more conservative clients, we have to either cut the whole word or use the looped lines the actors recorded specifically for the TV version. Our DS Nitris systems provide plenty of power to handle both fixes for TV cut downs, and its multitrack audio capabilities come in especially handy when we are provided with discreet channels for music, effects and dialogue."
Airlines, by the way, have to be just as concerned about the images they leave in as the language they remove.
"I've been told to picture a room full of nuns," Lobo said. "Even if you replace the offensive words you still have to take into account that many passengers without headphones can be disturbed by lip-reading the looped dialogue. So you have to cut for picture and sound at the same time."
As it turns out, "Bandits" had a 120-minute running time, but ABC originally wanted to show it during a two-hour TV slot that allowed for just 88 minutes of program content. Lobo and Laino found that trying to cut 32 minutes from the movie resulted in an unintelligible plot. So Laino went back to the network and convinced them to give the presentation an extra hour. Now they needed to go back to the extra scenes included on the DVD release and actually expand the overall running time. They rebuilt nine minutes of new material into the ABC version that was never seen in theaters. So if you were curious about what Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton did in the bank manager's house the night before the robbery, you will have to see the network broadcast.
"When I tell friends what I do, they often look at me thinking 'Aha! You are the butcher'" Lobo said. "Instead, we go to great lengths to produce as enjoyable a version that is possible. Out of respect for the filmmaker, we fight to retain his or her original intent. Believe me, we care."
One aspect of repurposing, product placement, is deeply entangled in the intricacies of Hollywood contracts. For myriad reasons, the logo on the can of coffee seen in the background of the theatrical version may not be contractually permitted on the TV screen. That's when 2G Digital Post calls upon all-round editor and graphics artist, Tony Cacciarelli, to use the Avid DS Nitris to change the reality of a scene.
"In 'Bandits,' a couple of guys are drinking beer, and we had to go in and change the brand name labels," Cacciarelli said. "Sometimes we just blurred them out, sometimes we wrapped a new generic label on the bottle. We also had to remove the trademarked name on a tote bag the bandits were carrying. Whoever keeps track of this stuff at the networks has an interesting job, but in the world of digital post we can change almost anything. We strive to fulfill what S & P wants, but not make the audience feel they have missed anything significant."
2G Digital Post is the premiere facility specializing in these repurposing services to clients such as Sony, DreamWorks SKG, Twentieth Century Fox and MGM among other studios, and that is exactly what its founder, Chuck Filliettaz, intended to create. After starting out cutting previews and wraparounds for Columbia-Tri Star Home Video, Filliettaz decided in 1993 to set up his own outside service to streamline the process. He introduced barcodes to keep track of the archived film and video elements, rented one-inch mastering time at local post house, and saved Columbia 40 percent in preparing their home video releases.
As nonlinear editing gained viability, Filliettaz adopted the Avid Symphony for standard-definition finishing and then the Avid DS Nitris systems for both HD and SD. 2G Digital Post moved from offices in Hollywood to an abandoned hangar near the Santa Monica airport, and this year into their new facilities in Culver City.
"There is glory editing and there is meat-and-potatoes grunt editing," Filliettaz said. "The latter is what we do at 2G Digital Post, and since not a lot of other people want to do it, the editing efficiencies we have introduced have made us a success. We may be unsung editors, but we keep our clients coming back."
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