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"Hot Fuzz": Police Raids & Color Grades

One of the surprise early summer hits is Rogue Pictures' Hot Fuzz,
a whodunit spoof of action/buddy cop films like Lethal Weapon and Bad
Boys
. It was crafted by the same team responsible for the cult classic Shaun
of the Dead
and stars co-writer Simon Pegg as Sgt. Nicholas Angel. His London
colleagues at the Metropolitan Police think his stellar arrest record is making
them look bad, so Angel gets "promoted" to a sleepy village in rural
England. That's when the fun begins. Part action film, part comedy, director/co-writer
Edgar Wright used Tony Scott's films, such as Domino and Man on
Fire
, for stylistic inspiration.

Chris Dickens, the film's editor, is key to this visual style. Dickens graduated
from the Bournemouth Film School in 1990 and started his career as a film and
linear editing assistant in television documentaries at Channel 4 and the BBC
in Britain. He got his early editing break cutting comedies and later moved on
to dramas. While working on the TV series Spaced, Dickens hooked up
with Wright and went on to edit his first feature film, Shaun of the Dead (released
in 2004). Other features include Goal!, Gone and Seed of
Chucky
.

Paying Attention to Sound
I had a chance to watch the film in a theater to prep for this story and was
impressed by the degree of cutting and sound design. This seemed like a natural
start to my conversation with Chris Dickens, the film's editor.

He explains, "Hot Fuzz used sound in a very stylized way, because
it is a comedy. I did a lot of sound editing when I started in the business,
so sound has been very important to me. Of course, it is 50 percent of any feature.
In Hot Fuzz, we used a lot of whooshes and other elements to help pay
off the jokes. This effect would certainly be over the top for a drama, but Edgar
[Wright, the director] and I both saw this in the same way, so I built up the
soundtracks to create a sense of heightened realism—to be like a superhero
film. Then the sound editors took that to the next level. When you work with
sound, you have to think about what works for the picture and how to manipulate
the audience's emotions. I love to intertwine music and sound effects to create
a 'soup' that is very atmospheric—so you can't tell the difference between
the music and the effects."

The Tony Scott influence is evident in the pacing of Hot Fuzz. I
was amazed to learn that there are more than 5,500 cuts in the film! Dickens
continues, "Edgar wanted a fast-paced style to mimic action films. There
are quite a lot of cuts in some sections to create transitional elements and
to show police procedure. We used a hand-cranked camera for some of our mug shot
montages. This naturally created a lot of flash frames, so in many of these sequences
I edited together a series of flashes as part of a transition or interlude scene.
A lot of the cuts are nearly invisible and others are intentional, such as jump
cuts. We wanted the cutting at times to draw attention to itself. There are also
other invisible things, like hidden split-screens in a shot to pick up the pace
within that shot."

Universal Themes
The film is as action-packed as any thriller, but you can't ignore the fact that
it fits the mold of many classic British comedies. I wondered if Hot Fuzz had
set out deliberately to be Pythonesque, or does it just seem that way to Americans?
According to Dickens, "No. We weren't trying to mimic other comedies—just
the action films. British humor certainly has a style that the rest of the world
recognizes. English comedy is distinctive because we have a sense of our own
ridiculousness. The film was intended to be quirky, but, at the same time, it
has a universal nature. Sgt. Nicholas Angel is the man who is taken from the
sophisticated city and dropped in the middle of the 'sticks,' where he has trouble
fitting in and even understanding the language. The story is set in England,
but I'm sure the same would be true if it were a New York City police officer
dropped into the deep South in the U.S. There is a universality that works in
any country."

Making It Work
Production ran from March to July of last year. Dickens joined the project during
the production phase and had a locked picture by December 2006. "We followed
a fairly typical workflow," explains Dickens. "The film was shot on
Super 35mm film [2.35:1 aspect ratio] with the intention of doing a digital intermediate.
Something this intensive couldn't really have been done by cutting negative,
and the norm these days is to do Super 35 as a DI anyway. Technicolor
London
did the processing, and Midnight
Transfer
telecined the dailies to HD and DVCAM.
We used the DVCAM tapes for editing. The HD footage was used by Double
Negative
[the visual effects house] and for preview screenings."

Dickens continues, "Working Title, the production company, wanted to
see a first assembly about a week after the production wrapped. At this point,
the film was two and a half hours long, so we needed to cut out 30 minutes. Edgar
and I took 14 weeks to get to a director's cut and had a very tight film by the
first screening. Very little actually changed between this time and the locked
picture. It was mainly tightening and refining. People are obsessed with the
length of a picture. If you concentrate on making things work—picking up
the pacing and making sure the jokes pay off—then the length takes care
of itself. When everything feels right, you have the impression that the film
is shorter."

Edgar Wright is a hands-on director who stayed involved in the edit, so I
wondered if a lot was rearranged during post. According to Dickens, "Hot
Fuzz
is really Bad Boys II meets The Office meets Agatha
Christie meets The Wicker Man. It's a linear whodunit, so you can't
really change the script very much during editing or it won't make sense. Edgar
shoots for the edit, with two and three cameras at times, lots of angles and
various styles. He likes to try out different things, and often this only makes
sense once you actually cut the shots together."

Dickens continues, "Our editorial team used four Avid
Media Composer Adrenaline
systems connected to Unity shared storage. Jonathan Amos, my associate
editor, would be cutting some sequences for me in one room while I was cutting
in another. Tina [Catriona Richardson, first assistant editor] was editing sound
effects for me in the third room, while the fourth Avid was used by Steve Mercer,
our visual effects editor. Edgar would bounce back and forth among the rooms.
He liked the interludes between scenes—for example, the sequence when the
police are pulling guns out of their lock-up that leads into the next scene.
To make these interludes work, I needed more close-ups and inserts than had originally
been filmed, so there were a few extra days of second unit photography. These
were the main items added as a result of editing."

More Than Color Grading
Hot Fuzz went through a digital intermediate process. "Framestore
[CFC Digital Lab]
in London did the film scanning and DI. We were running two
rooms for about three to four weeks. Double Negative did our visual effects,
and they were very involved from the beginning, but many elements were added
during the grade. For example, a lot of the sparks and bullet hits were added
during our DI at Framestore. They used the [FilmLight]
Baselight
system, so our
DI sessions were a combination of visual effects and color grading. This was
going on while the mix was proceeding on the dub stage, so Edgar, Jess Hall [the
director of photography] and I worked in shifts. In the morning, we'd review
work done at Framestore and then in the evening move to the dub stage to supervise
the mix."

Hot Fuzz had a budget of under $20 million, but it looks like a lot
more on screen. Dickens adds, "I doubt you could normally do this kind of
film for the budget we had. We got a lot of good deals from all the folks. They
had the time, and it was a labor of love for many of them. Our composer, David
Arnold, was even able to record for several days with a full orchestra at Air
Studios. Having a full orchestral score in a film of this budget really helps
to bring everything up a notch."

Although Dickens is still young, his career spans film, linear and nonlinear
editing, so I was interested in his perspective on the technology. "The
only other NLE I've used at this level is Lightworks. I like the Avid, but it
really has an interface designed for typing, so I find myself 'fiddling about'
with the interface more than I should. Lightworks is strictly focused on the
ergonomics of cutting. I use a lot of soundtracks when I edit, so I wish that
the Avid Adrenaline had more sophisticated audio tools. We also experienced some
slowdowns on the system because our project was so large, but I find that if
the equipment basically does its job, you'll find a way to make it work. In our
case, we had four systems connected to shared storage so that Jon, the assistants
and I could all work on different scenes and assemblies as the schedule dictated.
It's hard to envision doing this on another system. Of course, the most important
thing to me is how to best tell the story. Feature film cutting doesn't really
require a lot of effects, and Lightworks was so good because it focused on storytelling.
On the other hand, directors are the ones who really expect more out of edit
systems these days. They expect the sort of features included in an Avid or similar
systems so that they can mock up more visual effects. Editors have to learn how
to use more of these tools to satisfy the directors."

Whether your movie tastes are for comedies or action thrillers, Hot Fuzz offers
a bit of each. Students of film will certainly recognize the work that's gone
into this one. If you study film editing technique, you won't be disappointed
by taking a break to check out Dickens' latest work.