'La La Land': Magic, Music and Media Management

"'La La Land' is Damien [Chazelle]’s love letter to old Hollywood," says editor Tom Cross. "The challenge was to use these retro styles in a way that feels contemporary and grounded in realism.”
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As well as being a common euphemism for Los Angeles, La La Land is the name of writer/director Damien Chazelle’s newest film, a musical romance set in modern day L.A. A decade ago Chazelle shopped the La La Land script around town without much success and so moved on to another film project, Whiplash, which he wrote and directed. That film’s five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and three wins went a long way toward generating interest in and securing funding for the exuberant song-and-dance movie La La Land.

The film tells the story of struggling artists Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist. It harkens back to the MGM musicals of the 1950s and ’60s, as well as French musicals, including Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

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Photo by Dale Robinette.

One of the Whiplash Oscars went to Tom Cross, ACE, for Best Achievement in Film Editing. After working as one of David O. Russell’s four editors on Joy, Cross returned to cut La La Land with Chazelle. Cross and I discussed how this film came together. “As we were completing Whiplash, Damien was talking about his next film,” Cross says. “He sent me a script and a list of reference movies and I was all in. La La Land is Damien’s love letter to old Hollywood. He knew that doing a musical was risky because it would require large-scale collaboration of all the film crafts. He loves the editing process and felt that the cutting would be the technical bridge that would hold it all together. He wanted to tell his story with the language of dreams, which to Damien is the film language of old Hollywood cinema. That meant that he wanted to use iris transitions, layered montages and other old optical techniques. The challenge was to use these retro styles in a way that feels contemporary and grounded in realism.”

Playing with Tone and Time

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Photo by Dale Robinette.

La La Land was shot in approximately 40 days, but editing the film took nearly a year. Cross explains, “Damien is great at planning and is very clear in what he shoots and his intentions. In the cutting room, we spent a lot of time calibrating the movie—playing with tone and time. Damien wanted to start our story with both characters together on the freeway, then branch off and show Mia going through her day. We take her to a specific plot intersection and then flash back in time to Sebastian on the freeway. Then we move through his day, until we are back at the intersection where our two stories collide. Much like the seasons that our movie cycles through—winter, spring, summer, fall—we end up returning to this specific intersection later in the film, but with a different outcome. Damien wanted to set up certain timelines and patterns that the audience would follow so that we could ricochet off of them later.”

Cross varied his editorial style for different scenes. He says, “For Sebastian and Mia’s musical courtship, Damien wanted the scenes to be slower and romantic, with a lot of camera moves. In Griffith Park, it’s a long unbroken take with rounded edges. On the other hand, the big concert with John Legend is cutty, with sharp edges. It’s fragmented and the opposite of romantic. Likewise, when they are full-on in love and running around L.A., the cutting is at a fever pitch. It’s lively and sweeps you off your feet. Damien wanted to be careful to match the editing style to the emotion of each scene. He knew that one style would accentuate the other.”

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Photo by Dale Robinette.

La La Land was shot in the unusual, extra-wide aspect ratio of 2.55:1 to replicate the look of CinemaScope, a format commonly associated with musicals of the 1950s. “This makes ordinary locations look extraordinary,” Cross says. “Damien would vary the composition from classic wides to very fragmented framing and big close-ups. When Sebastian and Mia are dancing, there’s head-to-toe framing like you would have in a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film. During their dinner break-up scene, the shots of their faces get tighter—almost claustrophobic—to be purposefully uncomfortable and unflinching. Damien wanted the cutting to be stripped down and austere—the opposite of what’s come before. He told me to play the scene in their medium shots until I punched into their close angles. And once we’re close, we have to stay there.”

Tricks and Tools

The Avid Media Composer-equipped cutting rooms were hosted by Electric Picture Solutions in North Hollywood. Tom Cross used plenty of Media Composer features to cut La La Land. He explains, “For the standard dialogue scenes, we used Avid’s Script Sync feature. This was very handy for Damien because he likes to go over every line with a fine-tooth comb. The musical numbers were cut using multicam groups. For scenes with prerecorded music, multiple takes could be synced and grouped as if they were different camera angles. I had my assistant set up what I call ‘supergroups.’ For instance, all the singers might be grouped into one clip. The instruments might be in another group. Then I could stack the different groups onto multiple video tracks, making it easy to cut between groups, as well as angles within the groups.”

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Director Damien Chazelle (left) and Ryan Gosling on the set of La La Land. Photo by Dale Robinette.

In addition to modern cutting techniques, Cross relies on lo-fi tools, like referencing scene cards on a wall. Cross says, “Damien was there the whole time and he loves to see every part of the process. He has a great editor’s mind—very open to editorial cheats to solve problems, such as invisible split-screen effects and speed adjustments. Damien wanted us to be meticulous about lip sync during the musical scenes because he felt that anything less than perfect would take viewers out of the moment. His feeling was that the audience scrutinizes the sync of the singing in a musical more than spoken dialogue in a normal film, so we spent a lot of time cutting and manipulating the vocal track to get it right. Sometimes I would speed-ramp the picture to match the singing. Damien was also very particular about downbeats and how they hit the picture. I learned that while working with him on Whiplash. It has to be precise.”

Cross continues, “Justin Hurwitz, our composer, provided a mockup score to cut with, and that was eventually replaced by the final music recorded with a 95-piece orchestra. Of course, when you have living, breathing musicians, notes line up differently from the mockup track. Therefore, we had many cuts that needed to be shifted in order to maintain the sync that Damien wanted. During our final days of the sound mix, we were rolling cuts one or two frames in either direction on the dub stage at Fox.”

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Editor Tom Cross, ACE

Editors and directors have different ways of approaching the start of the cutting process. Cross explains, “I edited while they were shooting and had a cut by the time the production wrapped. It’s a great way for the editor to learn the footage and make sure the production is protected. However, Damien didn’t want to see the first cut, but preferred to have it on hand if we needed it. I think first cuts are overwhelming for most directors. Damien had the idea of starting at the end first. There’s a big end scene, and he decided that we should do that heavy lifting first. He said, ‘At least we’ll have an ending.’ We worked on it until we got it to a good place, and then went back and started from the beginning. It re-invigorated us.”

Tom Cross wrapped with these parting thoughts: “This was a dream project for Damien, and it was my dream to be able to work with him on it. It’s romantic, magical and awe-inspiring. I was very lucky to go from a film where you get beaten down on the drums to one where you get swept off your feet!”   



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