Editing of “The Call of the Wild” – interview with David Heinz

February 25th, 2020

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome David Heinz. In this interview he talks about the transition of the industry to digital, the evolution of tools at the disposal of filmmakers to bring their stories to our screens, the role of an editor in that process, and whether great visual effects can save a bad story (spoiler alert, they can’t). Around these topics and more, David goes back to his earlier work on the two “Planet of the Apes” movies and the rise of motion caption performances, his collaboration with other key storytellers throughout the process, and dives deep into the last 2.5 years that he spent working on the just released “The Call of the Wild”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself, and the path that took you to telling these stories.

David: For me it’s always been about being sucked into that rectangle that can take you into any place in time and story, and make you empathize with a character who is quite different from myself. That to me is the key, and I’ve had that experience and that relationship with movies my whole life. I was enamored with it.

I remember watching movies since I was a kid. I grew up watching things like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Back to the Future” early in my life. I remember not only being drawn to the story and the characters. I also remember appreciating the fact that I could sit down and watch those films with my family, and we could all just enjoy it and have a good time.

Movies were a part of my family’s life growing up. My dad had a Super 8 camera, and I would play around with it a little bit. And then he got a Hi8 video camera, and I started playing with that. I was filming things with friends, and I would do any school project that I could possibly do as a video or a movie instead of a paper [laughs], even if that meant trying to convince my friends to do five takes of something when they were bored after the first take. I’d then try to edit those pieces together using a VCR and my dad’s camera, pressing pause and record on one and then trying to quickly time out everything.

But it was just a hobby. I loved watching movies and I loved making movies, but I never really thought of it as a potential career. I grew up near Chicago, and there weren’t a lot of people in my family or in our larger circle in that field. There was no precedent in my family for pursuing a creative profession, so I never really considered it.

When I was in high school, Wes Anderson’s first movie called “Bottle Rocket” came out and I just fell in love with it. I had an interesting personal connection to that movie – in a different way than I had with films prior to that. There was something about the specificity of his style of humor and aesthetic that felt so in line with what I was drawn to at that point in my life. It felt like that film was personally speaking to me in a way that made me want to know who these filmmakers were. Who was Wes Anderson? Who was Owen Wilson? Who was Luke Wilson?

That movie came out in 1996 and I was about 16 at the time. And as I read more about who these guys were, I realized that they’re just regular, average human beings. I realized that all the people who were making movies for a living were just people who chose that as their given profession. There was something about it that clicked for me at that moment. I was in that period of time where I was starting to think about going to university, what I might study, where I might go and what I might do for the rest of my life. I really felt like I needed to give this a go.

I ended up going to business school for one year and I didn’t like it at all. I dropped out and I transferred to film school in Chicago. Then I finished my studies in Los Angeles and moved out to California. I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t have any job prospects or anything of that sort. I came out here with a tiny bit of money saved up, hoping something might you know happen.

And nearly 20 years later I’m still here.

Kirill: Is there still anything particularly unexpected or surprising for you when you join a new production?

David: Something that’s vastly different on every movie I’ve done has been understanding the director’s process, respecting that and trying to give the director the space they need for their creative process. Every director is completely different.

Matt Reeves, for example, will sit at the AVID with the editor and will go through every single take from top to bottom. On every single setup, every single shot, every single scene he will work chronologically through the movie. That’s just how he works. He works meticulously and diligently from the beginning to the end. And when he gets to the end, he goes back to the beginning and he does the same thing. That’s Matt’s process.

Other directors are not that way. Other directors would prefer to keep fresher eyes on the cut. They’ll give overarching large notes and then they’ll step away to let the editor those notes and try to implement the changes as they see fit. Then they’ll come back and look at it.

Chris Sanders who is the director on “The Call of the Wild” has an animation background. His process has a lot to do with storyboarding. He will come into the cutting room, and he’ll bring a pad of paper and a set of pencils, and he will be sketching as we’re cutting things. Sometimes we cut those storyboards into the cut and sometimes we don’t. I think it’s just part of how he thinks and how he writes.

Part of my job is trying to create an environment that the director can do their best work in, and every director works differently. That’s something every editor has to honor. It always takes a little bit of time to figure out each director’s process when you work with them the first time.

Kirill: When do you usually get involved with your productions?

David: On some of the smaller movies I’ve worked on, for budgetary reasons I haven’t started until they were just about to finish filming. But usually I start right around the time the film begins first shooting, or sometimes a couple weeks before.

On “The Call of the Wild” that was not the case. I started that film nearly a year prior to any shooting whatsoever, because the main character is a fully computer-generated, animated character. On a normal movie I would get the dailies, see what the actors have done and try to help craft a performance for the main character. But there was none of that on this film, so the planning and the prep work had to be much more detailed than they would be normally.

Chris Sanders the director, Ryan Stafford the executive producer and a large team of storyboard and pre-vis artists were working on the film well in advance of shooting. And they needed editorial help to put all of those elements together and create a cohesive story.

It was a real luxury as an editor to be involved that early. I was able to look at early drafts of scripts and help Chris visualize how he might put a scene together, how we might think about transitions in and out of scenes, how we might create a montage before we’ve ever filmed it.

Going back to your question, that is not typical. But it was a great opportunity on this movie.

“The Call of the Wild”, image courtesy 20th Century Studios/Disney.

Kirill: Earlier in your career you’ve worked on “Underworld: Evolution”, “The Jungle Book” and two of the “Planet of the Apes” movies – all quite heavy on effects-enhanced or augmented characters. Would you say that on these kinds of films the traditional separation into three phases – pre-production, production and post-production – is a bit more blurry? Does that become one continuous production cycle?

David: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. Each one of the films you mentioned were a little bit different in their approach. But on each one of them, “The Call of the Wild” included, there was a period of time in which there was no shooting, then shooting, and then post production. Maybe on “The Jungle Book” those lines were blurred a little bit more, but on every one of these films there’s always a period of time in which the cameras are rolling and the actors are there on sets, and then a period of time on which that stops.

What you’re describing in terms of workflow is closer to an animated movie. There they’re constantly writing and rewriting, recording voices, animating and reanimating all the time. We did a little bit of that on this film, because there’s portions of this film that are entirely computer-generated. We didn’t have to film anything and we weren’t beholden to any footage, so there was a little bit of that. But overall there was still a pre-production, production, and post-production workflow.

Kirill: As you look at you professional career so far, what do you think about the transition of the industry from film to digital? What was involved in it for you? Is there anything that it enables you to do today that wasn’t feasible, financially or technologically, back when you started?

David: Absolutely, and you’re right to point that out because my career has bridged that gap between film to digital. When I first came in, everything was being shot on film, although I never worked on a film in which we cut and spliced films. I worked on films where we were screening dailies or finished visual effects on film. I worked on films where we would finish with a film print that was struck at the end of the process. But, aside from film school and some small projects I did around that time, I never worked on a flatbed and spliced film together.

That transition has done a lot of things in terms of editorial crews. We used to have these gigantic crews working through millions of feet of film, synching film, organizing film, reconstituting reels of film – and that’s not necessary anymore. It’s thinned out the crews a little bit on my side of things.

And in terms of the process and the filmmaking, it’s allowed filmmakers to shoot a lot more. It doesn’t cost them much to keep the camera rolling if you’re shooting digital. A bit more space on a hard drive is really all it costs. I’ll get a tape that’s 10 minutes long and it’ll have 8 takes in it, because directors just keep rolling.

All that being said, I don’t know that it’s changed that much. The format you’re shooting on doesn’t affect the story you’re telling. It’s primarily an aesthetic choice, and some people have strong feelings about it one way or another. That’s all well and good, but at the end of the day it’s just a way of capturing the story. A lot has been made about this film to digital transition, but at the end of the day – at least in terms of my work – it hasn’t changed that many things for me.

Kirill: Would you be able to tell the story like this one, with the CGI dog, when you started 20 years ago?

David: I don’t think so. The state of visual effects [VFX] has changed so much. Our film is being called a hybrid film – a hybrid of live-action and animation, and it’s one of the first films of that kind. And it will definitely not be the last. These visual effects continue to improve. Things will become more photo-real. People with a trained eye can tell the difference between what’s CG and what’s not, but a lot of average audience going forward won’t be able to see the difference between what is VFX and what is not.

It’s going to open up all these different stories that filmmakers previously haven’t been able to tell. I don’t think that either of the two “Planet of the Apes” movies I worked on could have been made 20 years ago with a fully CG motion capture character. That motion capture technology didn’t exist 20 years ago. What Andy Serkis did with Peter Jackson and Gollum in “Lord the Rings” is one of the first successful uses of motion capture.

This stuff is all happening quickly, and it’s exciting. Our film is coming out this weekend, but the technology that existed to make our film is now a year or two old. There’s films being made as we speak that are using much more cutting-edge technology than you or I have ever seen, and those films will be out in a couple years from now. It’s going to continue to move forward and evolve, and it’s going to continue to change the types of stories we’re able to tell.

Kirill: Can great technology save a bad story? Or does it need to be a good story to begin with that needs the matching technology to be brought to our screens?

David: There are certain types of movies where you know what you’re getting into, and you’re not expecting to see an epic story. You’re going into the theater with a bucket of popcorn, and you’re OK with that. You just want to go see something else, and that’s great.

Films should be engaging, and above all, entertaining. This is entertainment. People watch movies to be entertained, and to escape their life for a couple hours. If in the process of doing that, we could tell a story that resonates with them or affects them emotionally or intellectually, that’s great.

To your original point, I don’t think VFX can save a story that’s not there. As great as the technology is, at the end of the day if the story is not good, audiences won’t respond to it.

Kirill: Do you feel sometimes overwhelmed by how much material you need to work with?

David: Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by how little I have to work with, and that is much scarier [laughs]. It can happen on any film, but mostly does on smaller indie films which have tight schedules. The amount of footage they get makes things challenging to try to tell the story.

On “The Call of the Wild” I had a ton of footage to work through. There’s a ton of animation, storyboards and CG footage to work through, but it doesn’t come to me all at once. It’s a day-by-day process. I take it day-by-day, and think about the larger story we’re trying to tell. That way, every little moment works itself out.

Kirill: How do you talk about what you do for a living with somebody who is not in your industry? What do you say when people ask about spending 2.5 years on a movie that is one hour and 40 minutes long in its final cut?

David: It’s hard to describe. The best way to describe it is to say that for any single moment of any movie you’re watching, there were thousands of subjective decisions that were made that led to that specific moment.

You have decisions made by the screenwriter on any given moment of a scene. You have decisions made by the actor on set how to play that moment. You have decisions made by the director on how to direct the performance, how to block the actors in that moment, where to put the camera. Then they do it 30 times in 30 different ways. And then it comes to me.

I’m picking one of those moments. I’m putting music to it or not. I’m putting sound effects to it or not. Sometimes we do all of those things, we put it in the movie, and then we say we don’t need it and we take it out. Sometimes we take that moment and we shuffle it to a different place in the movie. Sometimes it becomes the opening of the movie. Sometimes it becomes the ending of the movie. Sometimes it’s repurposed and made into a flashback or a dream sequence.

Why it takes so long to make a movie like this? It’s because all of these tiny decisions that lead to this larger product – the movie – take time. If you want to do a film justice, you have to take time with it. You have to craft it moment by moment. There’s 24 frames in every second of any movie you ever see. Every one of those frames has thousands of decisions behind it.

Kirill: How hard is it to make those subjective decisions? How do you choose the “best”, so to speak, take out of those 30? Is it intuition, a judgement call, flipping a coin, taking a nap and coming back to it later?

David: I wish I could take a nap during the day [laughs].

It’s all intuition. It’s all gut. It’s all taste, and it’s all subjective. There’s a lot of times I make a decision that the director doesn’t agree with, and we do something else. And that’s fine, because an editor without a point of view is useless.

It’s my job to look at seven takes of Harrison Ford being amazing, saying that he’s amazing in all of them because he’s Harrison Ford, and to see that there’s this one little moment in this one take where it’s just so right for that moment in the story where his character is. It’s my job to always try to hold on to those little things. As an editor, I try to put myself in the theater. I try to be the audience as much as I can. When I’m watching dailies, I’m trying to watch it with fresh eyes – not knowing anything about what they went through on set to get this footage.

I have to sit there and think. What am I responding to? Which of these takes is resonating with me emotionally? Which one of these things makes me laugh? I have to trust my gut on that at all times.

Kirill: In one of my recent interviews, the production designer of “Little America” said that the more experiences she has in her life, the better she gets at telling these stories. Would you say that the choices you are making today are different from the choices you were making 10-15 years ago?

David: That’s smart and absolutely true. Your life experiences inform everything you do, and it certainly informs the stories I’m telling and the way I’m telling those stories.

And it’s not even 10 or 15 years ago. I directed a movie a few years back, and I happened to see 15 minutes of it a couple of weeks ago, even though I don’t tend to go back and watch my old stuff too often. And as I was watching that, I immediately started thinking about all of the things I should have done differently, and that was only 3-4 years ago. I’ve grown as a person meanwhile. I’ve become a father. I’ve grown as a filmmaker. I’ve had the experience of this film now behind me.

You’re taking each one of these experiences in life and in work with you, and you’re applying it to the next thing you do. I think that’s true of any industry. You take the experience you’re getting on any given project or any given moment, and you’re applying it to the next piece of work you do.

Kirill: Do you find it hard to detach from the daily work? You just spent 2.5 years on this movie, probably obsessing over those thousands of decisions that went into every frame. Do you get a chance to detach from it in the evening or over the weekends when you’re in the middle of it?

David: I probably need to get better at detaching from it. I’m sure my wife would tell you that I’m never detached from it [laughs].

I try to use every break I get from work as an opportunity to come back to it with fresh eyes and see it as new. But in terms of head space, a creative problem we’re trying to solve, or something we’re trying to crack within the story, there’s always a little something going on in the back of my mind. I’m always trying to solve that mystery or crack that code. Maybe I’ll get better at that over time. I’ll make that a goal with the next one.

Kirill: When one of the main characters in the story is a fully CG one, how does that affect your workflow?

David: It was probably the most challenging part of the movie for me. Normally, I’m getting the footage and seeing the dailies of what the main character is doing, understanding how the story’s told through this character, crafting the footage at every given moment with them. On this film, there was none of that. Instead of getting the footage or the dailies back the day after they’ve shot it, I had to wait months and months to get the footage of the dog. That was difficult.

That process was done by animators and directed primarily by Chris the director. I did have a bit more say in the details of that performance than I would normally. So in that part it was creatively rewarding. But in the other sense of being able to cut something together, see how it’s working, move on to the next scene, watch those two scenes together, see how they’re working as a whole – it was tough. I’m eager after this one to try to do something where I have a performance to work with from the main character.

Kirill: That actually brings me to my next question. Do you want to be known as an editor that works in these hybrid productions, or do you want to be involved in a variety of different forms of storytelling?

David: Definitely a variety. Visual effects are interesting, but truth be told, I didn’t set out to get into VFX-heavy movies. At the end of the day, I’m looking for a great story and to work with great storytellers. If they’re telling stories with a lot of VFX in them, that’s fine. But that’s not the goal for me. I’d be just as happy with something with real-life humans in it, telling a great story.

This movie being 2.5 years was great. I was certainly happy to have the work and had a great time making the movie. But I wouldn’t mind something a little shorter term, maybe, for the next one. We’ll see. Never say never. It’s just a matter of timing, what comes up, and what the best story and movie is available to me at the time I’m ready to start work again. Right now I’m taking a few months off to be a dad.

“The Call of the Wild”, image courtesy 20th Century Studios/Disney.

Kirill: You talked earlier about advancements in technology and what tools are available to storytellers. We have deep fakes, motion capture performances, de-aging, this fully CG dog in “The Call of the Wild”, green screen sets, etc. Without trying to predict the future, do you think there’s space for a form of storytelling that doesn’t involve any human actors and any physical sets, if it’s almost indistinguishable from the “real thing” – for a live action movie?

David: I could be wrong, but I’ll go out on the limb and say that I don’t think we’re ever going to get there. Keep in mind when you watch a movie like “Planet of the Apes” for example, that that’s an entirely motion-capture based performance. You have Andy Serkis, Toby Kebbell and Terry Notary, who are all great actors, giving those performances on set. Yes, they were wearing motion capture suits, but every nuance of movement and vocalization came from the actors.

Might there come a time where human actors through visual effects could be translated to characters that look more and more real? Yes, but I don’t think there’s going to come a time where we can capture the nuance and empathy of a human being through pure animation – in the way that you can capture a great human performance on film or digital.

As talented as the animators are now, and as talented as they ever will be, I don’t think that they will be able to fully capture the nuance and fascinating idiosyncrasies of a human. I just don’t see it ever happening. Not in my lifetime, at least.

Kirill: How often do you hear the phrase “We’ll just fix it in post” and how flattering or annoying is it?

David: People jokingly say it a lot more than they actually mean it. I don’t know that I consider it to be very flattering [laughs].

Problems tend to continue on until they’re solved. In some ways, the editor is the last person who can solve the problem. “We’ll fix it in post” should not at all be a mantra. It should be a last resort. That being said, there are a lot of things that are fixed in post that appear on screen. You would never think twice about them, but they have caused great consternation and much discussion and grief on my end of things [laughs].

Kirill: Do you want for me as a viewer to be aware of what you do?

David: No, never. Never never. I want people to see a movie, and be engaged, moved and entertained, and maybe find it thought provoking. I never want them to think about the editing of the movie.

That’s part of why I’m so interested in this part of the process. You become one of the ultimate storytellers, if not one of the last storytellers on the movie. But people don’t fully see your work. They see it in the sense that they’re experiencing it. Everything you do, people are experiencing.

If it’s a great movie, you don’t think about the editing. So anytime somebody is talking about the editing, I think the movie maybe hasn’t grabbed them as much as it should.

Kirill: There’s a lot of moving parts in post production. The director’s there, you have color correction, the composer, the sounds effects people, the production designer and the cinematographer sometimes, the VFX people, etc. Is there an ideal setup for you that doesn’t have too many cooks, so to speak, in it?

David: You’re right. There’s a lot of different parts in post production. There’s sound, music, color, VFX and any number of things. I’ve heard the role of the editor described as a general practitioner. So the editor is the doctor who’s overseeing the entire patient, but there might be a lot of specialists involved that the patient is referred to. That might be taking that analogy too far [laughs].

When I’m in a meeting with the sound designer, in a meeting with the composer or in meeting where we’re looking at VFX, it’s my job to always be the person in the room who’s thinking about the larger story. My job is to be thinking about the point of the scene, the exact emotion we’re trying to evoke in any given moment, how that scene fits into the story as a whole, how that scene affects the characters’ arc and changes in movement throughout the movie.

We have all these different, very talented, great storytellers involved, but it’s always my job – obviously along with the director – to keep everybody along, to keep everyone working, making the same movie.

Kirill: Do you ever find yourself losing the forest for the trees? You’ve seen so many takes and so many cuts. As you’ve been working on this movie for 2.5 years, do you find that it’s sometimes hard to view it through my eyes as the first-time viewer?

David: It’s a great challenge, and it’s something I’m working at every day. You’ve hit on probably one of the biggest challenges of being an editor. If you saw a take that you found funny 6 months ago, do you still laugh at it after seeing it 200 times? You probably won’t.

You have to remember how you felt when you first experienced it. That’s why, for me, watching dailies is such a key part of the process. I have to really sit and watch it, be open to it and take note of how I’m responding to it as if I’m just sitting down in a movie theater and watching the movie.

This is why screenings in general are so important as you’re putting a movie together. I’m a big proponent of trying to, whenever possible, screen the movie for an audience, to watch it in a different environment, to watch it with a group of people. Sometimes you’re in the theater, and that thing that you haven’t laughed at the last 200 times – all of a sudden the theater is laughing and it reinvigorates you. It reminds you that yes, this is funny, that’s why it’s in there.

Keeping those fresh eyes is a huge challenge of my job, and the longer the work goes on – this job being the longest job I’ve ever had – the harder that becomes.

Kirill: Going back to what was probably middle of 2017, knowing how much of your time needed to go into this movie, would you do it again?

David: A hundred percent. I am proud of the movie, and I’m very grateful that I got the chance to work with some really terrific filmmakers and storytellers for as long as I did. Chris Sanders the director of the movie is an absolutely terrific storyteller. You can look at his body of work and see that he’s a master storyteller.

I had the chance to work with terrific storytellers who are giants in the industry. To be able to spend a couple years with them? I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Kirill: From the technical perspective, what is your setup to make sure that what you are working on looks great on a variety of screens, including the huge IMAX ones?

David: I like to try to work as large as I can if I’m making a film for the theaters. Sometimes I work with the projector. It depends on where I’m working and what the setup is. But I always try to work on the largest screen possible.

When you edit on a small screen, you tend to edit a little bit quicker. I think the reason is that your eye can take in a small screen much faster than it can take in a gigantic movie theater screen or certainly an IMAX screen. So when I’m making a film for theatrical release, I’m always trying to watch it as big as possible, and see it in a theater as much as possible.

Kirill: We’ve touched on your earlier productions a couple of times. As you look back on your work from 5-10 years ago, what stays with you?

David: I found is that if the movie turns out good, nobody remembers the difficult parts of the process [laughs]. Those two things go hand in hand. If the movie turns out good and people seem to like it, everyone remembers it as the greatest experience they’ve ever had.

I’m not a person to hold grudges or dwell on negative things. Every film has its own challenges, but I think back fondly on every project I’ve ever done. I get to make movies for a living, so every day I’m grateful for that.

Kirill: What does it mean for you that a movie that you worked on turned out great? Is it the box office numbers, the critical reception, the audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, the reviews from your peers, or something else?

David: Any work you can do that touches people and engages audiences is great. There’s no way to say that this film was good and that film was bad, because this film made money and that one didn’t.

You know when you’ve done good work. Sometimes you do what you think is amazing work, and then the film comes out and people don’t respond to it. You can’t be beholden to critics or box office or things like that, as a filmmaker. You have to do what’s in your heart and what’s in your gut. And if you go with that, you’re going to be proud of your work – which I am.

Kirill: If you won the lottery tomorrow and you knew that you were financially set for the rest of your life, would you still want to be doing creative work in this field, or would you be buying a yacht and sailing across the globe?

David: I would do both [laughs]. This is all I’ve ever wanted to do in my whole life, and I get a chance to do it. This is my dream job. I’m doing it and I’m always grateful for that. I’m always cognizant of the fact that I’m very lucky. A lot of people don’t get to pursue the dreams in the way that I have.

So if I won a lottery tomorrow, I would still do this. I might work less [laughs] and travel around the world in between each project. But I would absolutely still do what I’m doing. One hundred percent.

“The Call of the Wild”, image courtesy 20th Century Studios/Disney.

And here I’d like to thank David Heinz for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of editing, and on what went into telling the story of “The Call of the Wild”. I’d also like to thank Katie Dooling for making this interview happen. The film is playing nationwide in theaters. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.