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Think Small: Alexander Payne and Kevin Tent Reteam for ‘Downsizing’

The bond between a film director and editor is often an enduring one.

The bond between a film director and editor is often an enduring one. The industry is full of pairings that continue film after film. One such team is director Alexander Payne and editor Kevin Tent, ACE, who have collaborated on films including Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska and now Downsizing. Tent has edited every film that Payne has directed, with the exception of Payne’s contribution to the anthology film Paris, je t’aime. In fact, Payne also served as producer for Crash Pad, a film directed by Tent. (Another of Payne’s long-term partnerships is with director of photography Phedon Papamichael, ASC, who shot Payne’s Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska and Downsizing.)

Downsizing (@downsizingfilm) is a sci-fi satire starring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz and Kristen Wiig. In the film, scientists perfect human miniaturization as a way to combat overpopulation. Paul (Damon) and Audrey (Wiig) decide to give it a try, exchanging their average life in Omaha for Leisureland, one of the “micro-communities” sprouting up. Their modest $100,000 in personal assets will make them multimillionaires, so they take the tiny plunge.

Audrey and Paul Safranek (Kristen Wiig and Matt Damon, center) learn about downsizing, a little program with a big purpose. Researchers believe that convincing 6 percent of the world’s population to voluntarily shrink themselves to 5 inches tall would minimize the possibility of human extinction.

Sci-Fi and Satire
The sci-fi genre is a new one for Payne, which is where I started my conversation with Kevin Tent. “The sci-fi theme is a departure for Alexander, but this is still very much an ‘Alexander Payne movie,'” Tent explains. “It’s still about the human experience. In the plot, shrinking is seen as a way to save the human race, but people get greedy. They can make themselves instantly rich, save money on food and medicine, and move into big ‘McMansions.’ Human nature takes over, which makes the film funny and also thought-provoking. It covers a lot of ground and politics.

“It’s easy to ask, why sci-fi?” Tent continues. “Alexander Payne is an artist who is always looking for ways to challenge himself. He co-wrote the script ten years ago, but it took this long to get it made. For one thing, Downsizing is more expensive than his past films. As an editor, I first looked at the cutting differently because of the visual effects, but I quickly realized that this film, like Alexander’s others, is about the characters and the story. [Those are] still the most important elements of the movie. I had recently worked on The Audition, which was shot mostly with greenscreen, and a while back The Golden Compass, which was a serious visual effects movie. I had enough knowledge about the process to know one thing: these people can do anything! We had a terrific VFX team headed by our creative guru, Jamie Price. ILM and Framestore did most of the visual effects.”

Paul talks to Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis), a former classmate who now has the perfect life, living luxuriously in the flawless planned Leisureland community for the small.

Digital Production to Aid the Process
Alexander Payne shifted to digital acquisition with Nebraska and followed suit with Downsizing. “Alexander shoots a lot of coverage, so he likes digital for that. It’s also easier to deal with when compositing visual effects,” Tent says. “We had over 130 hours of total footage. Of course, a fairly good chunk of that was plates for VFX and second unit footage. Most of the scenes were shot with single camera, but sometimes with multicam—especially for some of the big speeches, which were covered with two and sometimes three cameras.

“We synced up the takes in the Avid, which makes it so easy to switch from camera to camera,” Tent continues. “Mindy Elliot is our amazing first assistant. She’s a total pro and a total joy to work with. She’s been running our cutting rooms since The Descendants. Angela Latimer was our second. She did 99 percent of the scripting [for Avid’s ScriptSync feature] and also helped cut early versions of Paul’s drug montage [a scene in Downsizing]. Joe Carson was our VFX editor. I met him while working on The SpongeBob Movie. I was one of the live-action CGI editors on that film. Joe is awesome. He not only kept all of our visual effects organized, but he was also kept busy with the countless comps, morphs and speed-ups that we tossed at him on a daily basis.”

The Leisureland tour is a jaw-dropper. Pictured is Neil Patrick Harris as miniaturized sales rep Jeff Lonowski.

Production wrapped in mid-August 2016 and Tent started cutting with Payne right after Labor Day. “When I cut with Alexander, we basically start from scratch,” Tent continues. “I do create an editor’s cut during production, which we go back to for reference during our time cutting together, but it isn’t the starting point when I begin with Alexander. He’s a good editor, so when we work together, it’s really like having two editors in the room. We start watching dailies and start building scenes. We often look back at my editor’s cut and realize the scene or a part of it was better in that earlier version. Or maybe not. If there is something we like, we’ll put it back into the current cut. We completed our first pass, kind of a director’s assembly, in January to show the studio. By early to mid-July we had a locked cut with about 80 percent of the completed VFX shots. The remainder trickled in afterwards. Altogether, that’s about ten or 11 months of cutting and finishing. Our DI/color grading was handled by the amazing Skip Kimball at Technicolor.”

Tools and Tips
As an editor myself, it’s always fun to talk about the tools and how to use them on a feature film project. Kevin Tent is a committed Avid Media Composer user. According to Tent, “This was a huge project and Media Composer never had a problem with it.” Pacific Post provided the Avid systems used by the editing team on Downsizing.

Alexander Payne and director of photography Phedon Papamichael on the set
Photo by Merie W. Wallace

One hallmark of Media Composer is Avid’s Script Integration. Notable within it is ScriptSync, Media Composer’s ability to automatically analyze waveforms and synchronize them—and, therefore, the associated clip—against text that has been input, such as a film script. When correctly indexed, simply clicking on a line of dialogue in the on-screen script brings up all of the corresponding coverage. An ongoing licensing dispute limited its use to older versions of Media Composer, but the issue was finally resolved this year. That is great news for devotees of Avid’s powerful ScriptSync technology.

Many film editors swear by Avid’s Script Integration tools, yet some never use them at all. Is Tent a ScriptSync user? “Hell, yeah!,” is his enthusiastic reply. “We stayed on Media Composer 7.0.6 because of the ScriptSync licensing issue, just so we could use it. I had Angela mark a lot of extra material and ad libs in addition to the scripted dialogue—an action like Paul opening a door, for example. That would help if they shot a lot of takes or resets within one bigger take, which tends to happen a lot when the shooting is on digital. There’s a massive party scene midway through the movie with people dancing, smoking pot, that kind of thing, and I asked Angela to add a ton of detail describing the scene. It made finding specific actions so quick. It’s an especially great aid when you are re-cutting scenes and looking for alternate coverage.”

Paul talks to Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese activist shrunk against her will and exiled.
Photo by George Kraychyk

Another aid that editors like is placing scene cards on the wall. Typically these are 3×5 note cards with written scene descriptions—one for each scene—that can be pinned to the wall in the order of the ongoing edit. Although Tent is also a proponent of this method—a remnant practice from the old film days—his Downsizing cutting room didn’t have enough wall space to accommodate cards.

The Downsizing script clocked in a tad long and the first assembly that Payne and Tent cut was 2:45. Obviously the team needed to do a bit of “downsizing” themselves. (The film’s final length is 2:08.)

“The biggest lost scenes were bookending storyteller elements to open and close the film,” Tent explains. “There was an old caveman from far in the future telling a group of children about the events of the film and how giants once roamed the world. This story element was painful to lose because it was very funny and effective emotionally, but it added three or four minutes before we get to Matt Damon’s character, and that hurt us. The audience wants you to get to your main characters and understand what they’re seeing within a reasonable amount of time. Fortunately, Alexander hadn’t shot that segment yet [when we decided to cut it]. We had only previewed with storyboards, temp music and voiceover. While it was tough to lose it from the point of view of the script, we weren’t leaving produced material on the cutting room floor. Ultimately, if you don’t know it was there, you won’t miss not having it.”

Downsizing opened in cinemas on Dec. 21. Whether you are in it for the thought-provoking social commentary or simply some laughs and a wild ride, this is a film to enjoy. Alexander Payne is bound to have another success on his hands.  

Download the January 2018 issue of Digital Video magazine