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Editing ‘Zero Dark Thirty:’ Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg Assemble the Perfect Procedural

Few films have the potential to be as politically charged as Zero Dark Thirty. Director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, K-19: The Widowmaker) and producer/writer Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, In the Valley of Elah) have evaded those minefields by focusing on the relentless CIA detective work that led to the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs. Zero Dark Thirty is more of a suspenseful thriller than an action-adventure movie. It seeks to tell a raw, powerful story that’s faithful to the facts without politicizing the events.

The film was conceived before the raid on bin Laden’s compound occurred. It was to be about the hunt, but not finding him, after a decade of searching. The SEAL raid changed the direction of the film, but Bigelow and Boal still felt that the story to be told was in the work done on the ground by intelligence operatives that led to the raid. Zero Dark Thirty is based on the perspective of CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), whose job is finding terrorists.

Zero Dark Thirty was filmed digitally using ARRI Alexa cameras. Most scenes were shot with four cameras and some with as many as six or seven at once. The equivalent of 1.8 million feet of film (about 320 hours) was recorded. The production ramped up in India with veteran film editor Dylan Tichenor, ACE (Lawless, There Will Be Blood), on board from the beginning.

According to Tichenor, “I was originally going to be on location for a short time with Kathryn and Mark and then return to the States to cut. We were getting about seven hours of footage a day and I like to watch everything. When they asked me to stay on for the entire India shoot, we set up a cutting room in Chandigarh, and added assistants and Avids. I rejoined my team in the States when the production moved to Jordan. A parallel cutting room had been set up in Los Angeles, where the same footage was loaded. There, the assistants could also help pull selects from my notes, to make going through the footage and preparing to cut more manageable.”

William Goldenberg, ACE (Argo, Transformers: Dark of the Moon), joined the team as the second editor in June, after wrapping up Argo. Goldenberg continues, “This film had a short post schedule and there was a lot of footage, so they asked me to help out. I started right after they filmed the Osama bin Laden raid scene, which was one of the last locations to be shot and the first part of the film that I edited. The assembled film without the raid was about three hours long. There was 40 hours of material just for the raid, and this took about three weeks to a month to cut. Dylan and I then divided up the workload to refine and hone scenes, with each making adjustments on the other’s cuts. It’s very helpful to have a second pair of eyes in this situation, bouncing ideas back and forth.”

Dylan Tichenor, ACE

As an Alexa-based production, the team in India, Jordan and London included a three-man digital lab. Tichenor explains, “This film was recorded using ARRIRAW. With digital features in the past, my editorial team has been tasked with handling the digital dailies workload too. This means the editors are also responsible for dealing with the color space workflow issues, and that would have been too much to deal with on this film. So the production set up a three-person team with a Codex Digital Lab and Colorfront software in another hotel room to process the ARRIRAW files. These were turned into color-corrected Avid DNxHD media for us and a duplicate set of files for the assistants in L.A.”

Tichenor continues, “Kathryn likes to set up scenes and then capture the action with numerous cameras—almost like it’s a documentary. She’ll repeat that process several times for each scene. Four to seven cameras keep rolling all day, so there’s a lot of footage. Plus, the camera operators are very good about picking up extra shots and B-roll. There are a lot of ways to tell the story and Kathryn gave us, the editors, a lot of freedom to build these scenes. The objective is to have a feeling of ‘you are there,’ and I think that comes across in this film. Kathryn picks people she trusts and then lets them do their job. That’s great for an editor, but you really feel the responsibility because it’s your decisions that will end up on the screen.”

William Goldenberg, ACE

Company 3 handled the digital intermediate mastering. Goldenberg says, “The nighttime raid scene has a unique look. It was very dark as shot. In fact, we had to turn off all the lights in the cutting room to even see an image on the Avid monitors. Company 3 got involved early on by color timing about 10 minutes of that footage, because we were eager and excited to see what the sequence could look like when it was color timed. When it came to the final DI, the film really took on another layer of richness. We’d been looking at the one-light images so long that it actually took a few screenings to enjoy the image that we’d been missing until then.”

The film’s post schedule took about four months from the first full assembly until the final mix. Goldenberg says, “I don’t think you can say the cut was ever completely locked until the final mix, since we made minor adjustments even up to the end, but there was a point at one of the internal screenings where we all knew the structure was in place. That was a big milestone because from there it was just a matter of tightening and honing. The story felt right.”

Tichenor adds, “This movie actually came together surprisingly well in the time frame we had. Given the amount of footage, it’s the sort of film that could easily have been in post for two years. Fortunately, with this script and team, it all came together. The scenes balanced out nicely and it has a good structure.”