After eights months of gruelling shoot in South Africa’s Namib Desert, Margaret Sixel sifted through 470 hours of footage to create a 120-minute extravaganza that shocked, awed and …
After eights months of gruelling shoot in South Africa’s Namib Desert, Margaret Sixel sifted through 470 hours of footage to create a 120-minute extravaganza that shocked, awed and surpassed cinematic expectations, and landed her the ‘Best Film Editing’ Award at the 88th Academy Awards
Mad Max: Fury Road’ is the fourth film in veteran director George Miller’s Mad Max franchise and the first Mad Max film in 30 years. Set in a stark desert landscape, the film stars Tom Hardy as Max and Charlize Theron as Furiosa. The two team up to face a relentless enemy as they try to escape the desert wasteland on the Fury Road.
Margaret Sixel with director George miller
The film was well worth the wait—the post apocalyptic thriller is a technical and creative feat, receiving universal acclaim from audiences and critics alike. But the creative journey wasn’t easy. An intense eight-month shoot in the desolate Namib Desert in Southern Africa was followed by more than two years of post production. To cut the film, Miller’s long-time editor Margaret Sixel and her team had to weave together more than 470 hours of location footage into what would eventually become the final 120-minute film.
And not to mention the 2,700 individual shots that are an integral part of this 120-minute movie. One just cannot afford to go wrong with even one frame in any of these shots as it can jar the entire movie experience!
To achieve this monumental task, Sixel and her team relied on creative tools built upon the Avid MediaCentral Platform. By embracing Avid Everywhere, they were able to overcome immense challenges, including harsh production environments, limited Internet bandwidth, and great distances between creative teams to deliver one of the most innovative and exciting films of this generation.
The team used up to 20 cameras at one time
– from Arri Alexas to canon 5ds – that were often
fixed to moving vehicles to capture the action scenes
Staggering production challenges
The majority of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ revolves around an intense road battle, with dozens of vehicles, hundreds of extras, and mind-boggling stunts. To create these sequences, the team shot with up to 20 cameras at one time—from Arri Alexas to Canon 5Ds—that were often fixed to moving cars and trucks.
The editorial team on location needed to process 10 to 20 hours of footage on a daily basis—from ingest through transcoding to clearance—before finally sending media to the cutting rooms in Sydney. Furthermore, the more complex stunts had to be processed first to meet the shooting schedule and ensure they had been captured properly.
“All of the footage had to be flown back to Australia, which took at least three days, with essential material uploaded to Sydney daily,” explained Matt Town, Post Production Supervisor. “Unfortunately, the limited and inconsistent Internet bandwidth in Namibia made this extremely difficult. With over 470 hours of film, including 90 minutes of complex stunt work, the complexity of managing and sharing such a massive amount of media was staggering.”
Dealing with on-ground challenges
In order to meet these challenges, the team turned to Media Composer and ISIS shared storage. The system was comprised of nine Avid Media Composer stations running off a 44 TB ISIS system, including three Media Composer | Nitris DX systems to provide editors with highest performance for editing real time effects. Assistant editors used six additional stations to cut the film, with one running remotely in an in-house DI suite to facilitate greater integration with the DI process.
“For the most part the film was shot chronologically, which proved very useful,” Sixel explained. “Throughout the eight-month shoot in Southern Africa, I was in Australia building the cut. It was important to create decent cuts of the film early, so I could give George feedback and discuss pickups.”
All footage had to be flown back to Australia,
which took at least three days
The Media Composer system on location had its own separate ISIS system containing a copy of all the footage, which helped the teams overcome the difficulty of uploading cuts. Avid bins containing sequences were sent via email, which allowed them to turnaround sequences in as little as an hour—from the cutting rooms in Sydney to the desert of Namibia. The Avid system held up well in the two-year post-production process, including the time spent in the heat and dust of the Namib Desert.
“Throughout the entire process, Media Composer and ISIS allowed us to handle a massive amount of footage with ease,” said Town. “The ability to share bins enabled us to spread the load of sorting and arranging the footage across multiple assistants, so it could be easily reviewed. This is the bedrock upon which the whole editorial process stands. If you can’t find footage easily, you simply cannot edit it.”
“Our Avid workflow handled it brilliantly. It’s really the whole Avid package that makes it the only choice for professional editors,” said Sixel.
Working the material to death
Once the dust settled on the Namibia shoot, the real challenge for Sixel and her team began. Sixel spent countless hours experimenting, re-examining material, and searching for overlooked gems to provide Miller with as many creative choices as possible. The team created an enormous number of comps to build hundreds of shots, often combining up to eight layers. For example, they added missing vehicles, flames, muzzle flashes, extra war boys on the War Rig, and different backgrounds.
“I try to be as prepared as possible before Miller steps into the room, and I know what he expects,” said Sixel. “This was not an easy film to cut, and the overall orchestration was more challenging than any one scene. I created multiple versions of each scene and ordered them in terms of my favourites. Some of it looks deceptively simple, but the variables were enormous. Every sequence had many hours put into it, and every scene had to earn its place. No fat. No repetition.”
Once Miller was happy with a scene, Sixel asked the assistant editors to string together every available option for every shot, including numerous comp options. To create the alternate comp versions, the editors varied the timing of elements, used different takes, and experimented with alternate backgrounds. Miller and Sixel would then review all the alternatives and refine the cut further.
The team created an enormous number of comps to
build hundreds of shots, often combining up to eight layers
An intuitive editing process
“It was wonderful having all of this stunning material, but it could be mindboggling at times,” Sixel recalled. That is always a challenge when you have visually incredible footage like the screaming War Boys on The War Rig or other action sequences. At times like these, Sixel had to literally stick to the plot drop some scenes because the viewer might feel jaded with too much action. It meant looking at the same scenes, repeatedly.
“The number of possible variations was daunting, and we constantly returned to the original scene bins. When you first put a scene together, you look at a particular piece of footage one way. But as the film matures, you might look at the same material differently and see a new way to use it. We worked the material to death,” Sixel said.
The team’s relentless work ethic paid off, and ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ became a blockbuster success. Sixel believed that although the process was very time consuming, it is very satisfying to see the amazing results. She compared the process to creating a mosaic work of art or a musical composition—subtle rearrangements can have a potent effect on the final cut.
Sixel felt that editing the film on Media Composer made the creative process very straightforward and intuitive. “I could sleep easily at night knowing that our Avid systems would keep track of the hundreds of edit decisions we made everyday,” she added.
Ask her the secret about the perfect editing and she revealed that it is not merely a technical exercise. Instead, she said, editing is intellectual, emotional and ultimately, like all artistic endeavours, intuitive. And like Jonas Salk said, the intuitive mind will tell the thinking mind where to look next. The same principle applies to editing too!