EDITING BLACK MIRROR with TONY KEARNS
ISE hosted our third editing workshop; this time we were in The Element with Tony Kearns. Over the course of the day Tony took us through his work on Black Mirror, concentrating on his work in the innovative interactive film Bandersnatch. Mark Gilleece was there and wrote this piece for us.
Tony Kearns suggests starting an edit by ‘finding the fun’. Get enthused, and then share that enthusiasm. It’s a philosophy that’s served him well, and it extends to the projects he’s worked on - culminating in the very fun (and very dark) Black Mirror episodes ‘Metalhead’, ‘Bandersnatch’ and ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too’.
The first half of this workshop was dominated by discussion of the unique and mind bending ‘Bandersnatch’ - an interactive meta-narrative about an increasingly paranoid programmer adapting a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style book into a computer game.
In approaching such a complex project, Tony emphasised the importance of organisation. Just how complex Bandersnatch would be was clear from the beginning. The script itself was written and presented in Twine - an HTML app more commonly used to write branching game narratives.
In order to breakdown the script, Tony made several passes through it, and used a spreadsheet to get a view of the structure. Spreadsheets would continue to be integral to the edit and review process, ultimately tracking more than 5 hours of segments and versions.
Though he often works with Avid, Tony chose to cut Bandersnatch on Premiere Pro due to the option of having multiple timelines open at once. This allowed him to move quickly between segments, and get a sense of how they played in sequence.
Then there were the multiple versions of each segment. Tony illustrated how one segment could have eight versions determined by the outcomes of two earlier choices. Once again, organisation was essential to keeping track of these versions, and the notes required for each.
Outside of the edit suite, a custom tool was required just to view ‘Bandersnatch’. This was Branch Manager, an app written by Netflix which was similar to the software later be used to present the film itself. The Branch Manager code was effectively the latest ‘cut’ of the film, where a reviewer could experience it in much the same manner as the eventual audience.
Assistant Editor John Weeks was critical to the maintenance of Branch Manager - not just in the usual capacity of an assistant, but also in his coding of each segment with the required relationships. There were apparently over 100 versions of the Branch Manager code before the ‘final cut’.
When Tony was asked how he and director David Slade approached the challenge of narrative consistency when there’s no guarantee of a common audience experience, he admitted that concern had to be set aside. Instead, they chose to focus on the individual segments, and accepted that each audience member would have an individual experience - sometimes fascinating, sometimes frustrating, but at the very least consistent with the choices made.
In the second half of the master class, Tony took a step back to his past life as editor of some of the most iconic music videos of the 90s and early 2000s. This was the first context in which he worked with director David Slade. Many years later, Slade would suggest Tony as the editor of ‘Metalhead’. Key to selling Netflix on this was Tony’s narrative work on two videos in particular: ‘Just’ by Radiohead and ‘Believe’ by the Chemical Brothers.
In ‘Just’ (directed by Jamie Thraves) Tony spoke of cutting three versions of the video: one with the band performance, one with the narrative of a man lying down in the street, and then a combination of the two. The third would become the final video. The value of cutting the narrative separately, and finding the rhythm within, was confirmed when the key dramatic moments aligned almost exactly with the key moments of the song.
The second video was ‘Believe’ by the Chemical Brothers (directed by Dom and Nic) which features a factory worker fleeing visions of a predatory robot. Tony detailed his technique of working with absent VFX as ‘cutting just a fraction too long on the empty frame, and the timing will be just right once the animation is in’. He would later apply this technique to the predatory robot in ‘Metalhead’, with similar success.
Finally, Tony gave us an overview of his work on the Black Mirror episode ‘Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too’. This was an instructive look at the value of sound and VFX to an edit, both at the offline stage, and with the final music and mix. It was also a refreshing insight into how the challenges of high-profile drama can be just as confounding as those in the low-budget arena.
As ever, Tony was an engaging and generous presence throughout the day. He gave thoughtful answers to our questions, and left us with a few extra tools for the tool kit. He also passed on some of that enthusiasm, which will probably serve us better than any software or spreadsheet.