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All Aboard: Post Mysteries Solved for ‘Murder on the Orient Express’

'Murder on the Orient Express' editor Mick Audsley talks to Neal Romanek about collaborating with Kenneth Branagh, a 65mm workflow and how sometimes it's good to have to wait.

Mick Audsley has cut several career’s worth of classic films. He has been a go-to editor for many of Britain’s top directors, including Stephen Frears, Mike Newell, Terry Gilliam and Neil Jordan. So it was no surprise then that when Kenneth Branagh decided to take on Agatha Christie’s transcontinental mystery Murder on the Orient Express, Audsley was selected as editor.

Audsley, and many of the directors he has worked with, began their careers at a pivotal time for the industry. The late 1960s and early ’70s were a wellspring of social change, experimentation and new ideas. Free British education meant that working class nobodies like Brian Eno, Freddie Mercury and Joe Strummer could go to art school full time and create whole new ways of reaching audiences. Film schools were still thin on the ground, and it was British art schools that were also incubating film talent.

Kenneth Branagh as detective Hercule Poirot in Twentieth Centry Fox’s Murder on the Orient Express
Photos by Nicola Dove

An interest in still photography and animation drew Mick Audsley to art school.

“Film schools weren’t that easy to get into, especially at graduate level,” Audsley remembers, “so I did an art school course in photography, animation and graphic design and that led me to a place at one of the film schools that was operating then, the Royal College of Art. I did a post-graduate M.A. course there, but, ironically, the one thing I never did was cut. I learned every other discipline, but I really didn’t edit films.”

Breaking In
When Audsley left, he fell into a job at the British Film Institute, which was at that time making short drama films.

Johnny Depp as Edward Ratchett

Audsley began by doing some documentary work, but began cutting feature dramas quite quickly.

“By accident, I started ending up cutting when I was there and discovered that was what I wanted to do.

“I fell in with people who were kind enough to give me their time and teach me the editorial processes,” Audsley remembers. “There were people at the British Film Institute who I looked up to, who I admired greatly, and they encouraged me and helped me, and in a way gave me another education. I was very lucky to fall in with them at that time, in the early 1970s.”

Olivia Colman (left) as Hildegarde Schmidt and Judi Dench as Princess Dragomiroff

Another factor that blocked progress of an aspiring filmmaker during that era was the heavy unionization of the industry. This protected jobs and kept food on the table in what is a notoriously unstable sector, but it meant that newcomers were not always welcomed with open arms.

“You could work outside of that unionized industry, but it was very hard to be within the industry itself. A few things worked outside it: the BBC and the British Film Institute and the Arts Council of Great Britain. But the British feature film industry at that time was a closed shop. You weren’t able to work without a union ticket, and you didn’t get a union ticket without working. It was impenetrable. I found it exasperating, until I did get union status.”

Josh Gad (left) as Hector MacQueen and Johnny Depp

Audsley sees today’s industry as a far friendlier place 
for young people. “It’s much healthier now. The gear makes a difference. You can cut a film in your bedroom. In those days you had to have a Steenbeck or a Moviola and projectors, and that wasn’t something you could do at an amateur or student level easily.”

Going Digital
We pat ourselves on the backs for the industry’s great technological leaps, but most of the masterpieces of cinema were laboriously cut on film—stuff you could hold in your hand, generally covered in scratches and grease pencil marks.

Sergei Polunin (standing) as Count Rudolph Andrenyi

“I made the switch to digital editing in about 1995. The last film I did on a Moviola was Twelve Monkeys, which was all cut on film with projected rushes on film. By the time we finished that project, the Lightworks system was just coming forward and I realized that if I was to continue, I was going to have to get to grips with that. Or at least to the extent that I could bluff my way through a job. But once I turned that corner, it was wonderful and very liberating.
 It seems crazy what we used to do. I feel privileged to have spanned both eras.”

Go to the Avid web site and you can find endless links to training programs and support forums, but when nonlinear editing was first introduced, training was nearly exclusively by word of mouth.

Kenneth Branagh and Daisy Ridley as Miss Mary Debenham

“I was lucky that the first job I did I was given an assistant who knew the system and could say ‘Press that button there and this will happen.’ It was pretty crude compared to what we have now. People were much more tolerant—and still are—about how quickly the gear was changing. It is much more stable now.”

65mm Murder
Audsley worked on Murder on the Orient Express for almost a year, editing on Avid’s Media Composer. From his original meeting with Kenneth Branagh, he became intrigued to be working with someone who was not only the director of the project, but also its star and producer.

From left, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Biniamino Marquez), Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr. (Dr. Arbuthnot)

“That proved to be fascinating to have a combination of those different sensibilities. I’ve worked with a lot of the same people over the years. It’s always exciting to meet new colleagues. And it was a different spin on the process in the cutting room too.

“Ken had a very clear understanding of what he wanted this film to be. It’s one that, because of the Sydney Lumet film in 1974, has lodged into people’s psyches. We had to honor it, but also make it contemporary. Ken was pursuing, in the case of our film, the story of a moral dilemma for this invincible man who comes across a problem that’s bigger than him, and changes him.”

Johnny Depp

For Murder on the Orient Express, Mick Audsley’s first collaboration with Kenneth Branagh, the editor worked with a trusted team—whom he regards more as equals and friends than assistants. Assistant editor Thora Woodward acted more as an associate editor, and Audsley had regular collaborators in the visual effects department too.

Murder on the Orient Express was shot on 65mm film, Branagh’s second foray into the format, after his 1996 unabridged Hamlet. The movie wears its reverence for film on its sleeve, going as far as to use rear projection in window scenes rather than greenscreen.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard

“Our processing moved from London to FotoKem in Los Angeles and there was a lag of about a week, which near the end of the shooting period made one a little nervous. You couldn’t clear stuff quite as rapidly as you’d like to.”

The crew viewed 2K dailies down-resed from the 65mm negative, which was scanned at 8K. Visual effects shots were also down-resed to 2K to make them more manageable. The film will be digitally distributed in 4K.

Speeding Ahead
“The speed with which material can be made available is key to everyone’s piece of mind,” says Audsley. “It was quite strenuous having the gap on this film. It started as film negative, then went back into the digital domain, and in some cases it will come back as film, since we are making some prints of this film.

Judi Dench and Olivia Colman

“Anything that makes it easier to understand what you have early on is helpful. Soon we will be taking stuff straight out of the camera and into the cutting room.

“The only caveat to that is that in the process of making films, the digestion process is not unhelpful. I think sometimes we’re showing versions and cuts a little too soon before people have disengaged themselves from the process of shooting and have an objective view of the material. There is something to be said for a bit of a time lag on that side, but from an editorial perspective, the speed with which you can view something, with audio on it, is invigorating.”

“There haven’t been any surprises so far. I saw a test recently. It’s gone from 65 to 8K then to the DI at 4K and then back to film and it looked pretty impressive.”

When Audsley isn’t working 45 weeks a year on groundbreaking films, he runs, with his wife and daughter, Sprocket Rocket Soho, a London-based networking group that hosts regular events where filmmakers can share ideas and keep each other up to date.