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How to make movie magic for Penn & Teller

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When I get stuck in Apple Motion, I turn to How to Cheat in Motion by Patrick Sheffield. I was following one of his tutorials when I hit some problems so I emailed Patrick and asked for some help. He answered my questions and he even took a look at my project file!

Many authors might say they’re job is done once the book is sold and ignore help requests; but not Patrick! I really appreciated that he took time to help me out.

Patrick has been editing for 24 years! He’s edited music videos for Iron Maiden, R.E.M., Michael Jackson, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins and many more.

He recently edited a documentary called Tim’s Vermeer (produced and directed by Penn & Teller) about an inventor trying to duplicate the painting techniques of Johannes Vermeer. The movie is captivating and I highly recommend it!

Patrick was nominated for an Eddie Award for Tim’s Vermeer and after watching the movie I knew I had to interview him about his life as an editor and the challenges of editing Tim’s Vermeer.

There are a few minor spoilers below so read at your own risk!

How did you first become interested in editing?

In 1990, I was working as a software engineer at a company in Santa Monica and my best friend from high school (Matt Mahurin) took me out for lunch. Matt is a very successful photographer and illustrator and had started directing music videos. During that lunch, Matt told me that he thought I’d make a good editor. That software engineering, while creative, was a pretty esoteric art form. He said that editing was the right combination of technical and esthetic. He had been editing his own material, but offered that he could give me some work to get me started. Not enough to make ends meet, but that was my job.

I considered it and a short while later, I decided to quit my day job and join the circus.

How did you get involved in Tim’s Vermeer?

I was working on a series of commercials in New Orleans and was contacted by my friend Eric Zumbrunnen. He and I had come up through the ranks in music video editing. Eric had cut Being John Malkovich and knew Farley Ziegler (producer of Tim’s Vermeer and production executive on Malkovich) from that time. She had asked Eric if he was available to edit it, but he was just starting John Carter of Mars, so he recommended me. After meeting with Farley and Teller, they offered me the job.

What was it like to work with Penn & Teller?

I must admit – I was a little nervous when I was first hired by Penn and Teller; I’ve been a fan of them for years. But the nerves soon dropped away, and working with them was fantastic. They are creative, collaborative, thoughtful, and considerate. (not to mention entertaining!)

How was the film organized before you were given the footage?

Some basic edits of the existing material had been done, but largely it was organized into a series of projects based around what had been captured at that time.

In the beginning we were casting about, trying to find the best way to tell the story. Was it a mystery? Was is it a science show? Or was it an expanded episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit TV series? The original working title of the movie was Vermeer’s Edge because we all thought it was a movie about Vermeer. At one point it almost became a movie about Penn. We asked Penn to go into his home studio where he records his weekly podcasts and record his own telling of the story entirely from his point of view.

In the end, it was apparent that this was Tim’s story.

It’s a very difficult tale to tell, because the audience has to know some things about art history, some things about optics, some things about the human retina, etc… if they are to appreciate and understand the story. One of the challenges was to determine the pacing of when to introduce concepts to the audience. Like some just-in-time automotive assembly plant, the information had to arrive at the perfect moment for them to understand the next portion of the movie.

We had many meetings and conference calls as Teller developed the script and when he had completed it, it was time for me to put together the film and just as “No plan of battle ever survives contact with the enemy”, no script completely survives encounter with the material, but it was a structure to start from and a living document that was continually modified as needed.

What was the editing process like?

The first two years were fairly relaxed, as I was basically being a filter for the material as it would come in and I interwove work on the film with commercial and music video work.

Tim kept a blog, tracking his progress from when he had started building the room. After Tim had seen the Queen’s Vermeer, The Music Lesson, and he returned from England, he kind of went into overdrive, churning out all these amazing optical devices – something new would show up on his blog every day (the filmmaking team joked that there was a lot of activity in Vermeer Labs).

One day he posted that he’d cracked the problem. I had not realized until that point that there was a big problem to be fixed. You see, none of the available reproductions of The Music Lesson showed the amazing level of detail that Tim had witnessed on the original Vermeer. Tim’s first design would have produced a painting up to the level of detail visible in the reproduction, but he knew if he couldn’t capture the detail of the original, his experiment was a bust.

The team had a discussion and decided it was critical to document all this activity to explain why Tim’s original idea needed to be modified. Since Teller was unavailable, I went to Texas for a week to help film Tim’s discoveries.

Finally, when the painting was complete and everything was shot and the script completed, I needed to put together a film. It was a very intense year of editing to produce the final movie.

Interestingly, the entire edit was handled with the team in different locations. Penn & Teller were in Vegas, Farley was in Santa Monica, Tim was in San Antonio, and I was at home in North Hollywood. There were rarely any face to face meetings. Nearly everything was handled by conference calls, email, and posting edits to the team.

Teller gave you 2,400 hours of raw footage and you whittled it down to 80 minutes. How did you do that?

I didn’t get it all at once. I was brought in fairly early in the process, before Tim had finished building the room. Some material had been shot like Tim visiting Delft and Amsterdam in Holland, the material with Martin Mull, some footage of Tim’s construction of the room, etc.

Essentially, as footage would come in, I would filter it and condense it and present an edited down version (by posting quicktime movies online) to the team.

By the time the actual editing started, I had around 10 to 20 hours of selects and I worked from that, going back to the original material to flesh out bits that needed it.

What did you do to prepare for this project?

In a way, I’d been preparing for this job my whole life.

I’d always been a science oriented kid and I’d experimented with optics. At one point, I turned our backyard clubhouse into a camera obscura as an “early warning system” so we could see when anyone was approaching. I’d been a big fan of Tim and his company NewTek and considered him the “Father of Desktop Video”. I owned one of their first products – the DigiView video digitizer. I also built an Amiga based edit system in the early 90’s so I could use a Video Toaster.

In my first interview with Teller, he presented all the evidence and told me that Tim had come up with a simple, elegant device that allowed him to use optics to capture the scene by allowing the artist to essentially become a human camera and exactly copy not only the shapes, but the tones of a scene. I thought he was going to continue, so I said, “Wait, before you tell me, I want to guess how Tim’s device works”. I told him my guess and he looked a bit surprised, then smiled and said, “Oh, but I was not going to tell you exactly what Tim’s device is.”

SPOILER

Because the comparator mirror is such a simple concept, the process was kept a secret by all involved so the movie could serve as reveal. If the information got out too early, it might steal some of the joy of the movie. After I was hired, Teller told me that I had guessed correctly. I think my guess helped me get the job.

What was most challenging about editing Tim’s Vermeer?

As well as the massive amount of footage, another challenge involved the painting section where Tim is actually painting. We wanted the audience to feel Tim’s pain and the tedium without them actually becoming bored. At one point we tried trimming the footage of Tim actually painting to the bare minimum and realized that paradoxically, that actually made the section more boring because it glossed over and made seem unimportant all the work Tim was doing. We found that by actually expanding some of that material, the section improved enormously.

How does editing Tim’s Vermeer compare to editing music videos?

In many places, it does not, but there are two sections where I actually cut the film as though I was editing a music video. That is the Holland Montage and what was listed in the script only as “Thrilling Montage” where Tim builds the room. I had free reign there and tried to build them in the best music video tradition.

What did you use to edit? Why?

I used Final Cut Pro 7. Partially because I am extremely familiar with it, having used it for years, championing it’s replacement of the Avid in editing music videos and commercials. And partially because Final Cut Pro 7 had the best support for the RED camera media.

During the course of editing the picture, Apple introduced Final Cut X and while it couldn’t translate Final Cut Pro 7 projects (and it had no support for RED media), so I would not be able to utilize all the work I’d already done, I thought I could try it to edit a segment that was entirely shot on multiple consumer cameras as this was exactly how FCX had been intended to be used. However, I gave up after a week or so since the early version was just too buggy.

Tim says “as tools improved, painting improved.” How has editing improved as your tools have improved?

I’m not entirely sure it has. As the tools have given the editor power to do more things, more expectations have arisen that have noting to do with actually editing. The editor is often expected to do titling, color correction, graphics, sound mixing, etc… While I have risen to the task and am able to tackle these new responsibilities, I often feel that something is lost by reducing the number of creative individuals involved in a project.

That said, I recall many times where I didn’t like the effect achieved by the online editor or sound mixer nearly as much as what I had produced in my offline, so having more creative control, can be a good thing as well.

The serendipitous discovery or happy accident has also taken a hit with the newer editing systems. I can’t tell you how many times – back in the day – when shuttling through tape after cassette tape, searching for the shot I thought I wanted that I found a shot that was much better. When I first started using non-linear systems, it took me a while to realize that my editing didn’t have some of the “pizzaz” that I thought it formerly did. It took me even longer to understand that when I can instantly find exactly what I am looking for, I only find exactly what I am looking for. To make up for that, I purposely don’t “over log” my footage. I make it so I can find what I want, but not without at least a little searching.

Tim talks about getting his Eureka moment taking a bath. When do you get your Eureka moments?

Usually when I’m not sitting in front of the edit system. Back when I was editing a lot of music videos, after I’d digitized and logged all the footage, I’d go into what I called “walking around mode” and I would leave the room and wander. I’m sure the people watching thought, “Geez, does this guy ever work?” But it was then when I would get my best ideas.

How did you feel when you first saw Tim paint his father-in-law?

Once I saw Tim’s device in action, I really wanted to try it – but I haven’t had the opportunity yet.
However, even though I think with Tim’s/Vermeer’s device, anyone can paint, I don’t know that it makes them an artist. Just like I don’t think everyone with a camera (and these days EVERYONE has a camera) is a photographer.

My daughter has always displayed a good eye for photography. I used to tell her that her pictures looked like photographs and her friends’ looked like snap shots.

Tim talks about a small mistake Vermeer made and calls it the seahorse smile. Are there any Seahorse smiles in the Tim’s Vermeer?

There is something that still bugs me about the movie. There’s a shot during the explanation of why you can’t paint on a projection. Tim approaches the projector screen and slides a piece of colored paper into the projection. It used to be a match cut, but somehow during the final assembly, the timing of the shots slipped slightly. Not so much that anyone has ever mentioned it. I myself didn’t see it during the final assembly, but I see it now and it always bugs me.

Tim said he tends to build until it’s good enough. Do you edit until it’s good enough?

I try to edit until I’m happy, but (and this harks back to your earlier question about improved technology) with the increasing speed of the edit systems, deadlines have shrunk and shrunk. However, a faster computer doesn’t make ME think any faster. But while my first idea isn’t always my best idea, sometimes it’s the only idea there’s time to do. There are certainly times when I see a commercial I’ve worked on and think, “Oh! I should have done XYZ!”

In the case of Tim’s Vermeer, we tried to edit until we got everything right. But eventually, there has to be Picture Lock and everything has to stop Editing so we can get on to Finishing. I’m happy to say, I think we got enough editing.

What suggestions do you have for new editors in the industry?

That’s a tough one. The industry is changing so fast. I could say stay current or fall behind. Be as much aware of your Art as you are of your Craft. Your job as an editor is to tell a story, drawing from the material you have. It matters not one bit how quick your are, or how many tricks you master if you don’t tell a good story.

About Dylan Higginbotham

Hey there. I'm Dylan Higginbotham, and I'm pretty dang obsessed with Final Cut Pro X plugins. Subscribe below because I love giving away free plugins and contributing great content.

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