A Conversation with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Assistant Editor Alain Fleury
Alain Fleury joined COTC to discuss the ins and outs of assistant editing for big-budget Marvel movies
It’s no secret that editing can be intense, time-consuming, and pivotal to the reception of the finished product in filmmaking. What may be less common knowledge is how much teamwork and communication editors must exhibit to make a large-scale project run smoothly (or at all). Cup of Tea Critiques caught up with Alain Fleury, a VFX editor on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and assistant editor on Transformers: Rise of the Beasts and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Alain shared his insights on the importance of knowing the structure of every department, having editors on set, and learning as much as possible from an intensive college program.
Alain shared with us what his first Marvel project taught him about working on editing staffs for big-budget, effects-driven films.
Dr. Strange was my first Marvel studio gig. And that was probably the biggest budget film that I was working on at the time. It really shed a light on different workflows, and how that works. When you're on something as big as a Marvel film or at a studio, you can't just do your workflow, and then you move on. There's a lot of different departments, a lot of different people, that need to also be involved. When I do something, it affects everybody else down the line, whether it’s the send out to the vendor or send out to music, or whatever I do, everybody needs to be in the know.
When you're in the VFX Department, your job is [to go] between the editor and the VFX vendors. We're not VFX artists, we are VFX editors. Basically, what that means is that we take what the VFX artists do, and bring that into the edit. And we keep track of every shot throughout the whole film; where they're at, and the different phases. ‘Oh, we're at the animatic phase here. Oh, now we're getting a color pass.’ We're just keeping track of everything, the different versions that come in, we show that to the editor and the director. If they like it or if they have notes, then we do a temp mockup of that note in the Avid system, and we send that out to the VFX vendors. They kind of go ‘Oh, okay, this is what they're trying to do; this is what they're trying to accomplish.’ So that everybody can get a clearer picture.
That's your main job as a VFX editor. You bring the shots you edited into the timeline. And sometimes you have to do some temp comp work, a lot of the blue screen or green screen. Just put something in the background so that they can really visualize and see, but this is not going to be the final CGI or anything like that. I've learned a lot as far as working with a team of that magnitude, and how to communicate throughout that. Which you take on to the Black Panthers, which you take on to the Transformers. When you get to those kinds of levels of film, it is different, communicating with people and making sure you get the right things. You’ve got to know how to do office politics and who to talk to. You're talking to so many different personalities, so many different people that have different jobs. Knowing the hierarchy of every department is very important. And that definitely taught me that to take on to do other films.
The perception of editing is that it can be an isolating, solitary job, with professionals confined to a room for hours staring at cuts. Alain enlightened us on the collaboration necessary for editors.
On an independent project, or when you're at home, and you're editing your own short or your own independent feature, there's not a lot of resources and you tend to do a lot of things yourself. There is the editor and there's a VFX editor. If I was on that [independent] project, I’d probably be doing both jobs. But [on a larger project] I'll be like editing and then later on, I have to turn over all these different VFX shots to my VFX vendor.
Occasionally, directors and even actors wield influence over the final edits of a film. Alain informed us as to when this is the case.
As far as the actors, it's not a typical thing where you see the actor in the editing room, not at all. The times that you see actors have actual input in what is going on in the editing room is when they're also a producer on the film. That's why, sometimes you watch movies and you see the name of the actor, as an executive producer, or as a producer, that means that's what they negotiated. That's what they have in their deal. ‘Hey, I'll do this film, but I need input.’ Depending on how big you are, like if you're a Tom Cruise producing Mission Impossible, he has a lot of say in how things run. I don't really get to interact a lot with actors on a daily basis. Except for if I am on set, then I will see them and talk to them, have a casual conversation.
For Wakanda Forever, I was on set. I was in Atlanta, so I got to be on set and see the actors, have lunch with them, and talk to them. It's not really part of my job to do that, but that happens if we're all there. What happens on these [big-budget] movies is that they are edited as they go along. The editing starts on these big projects even before the actors are on set, because they edit the animatics. They try to get the big picture, because there's a lot of planning that goes into these films. You got to make sure that you're getting the right shots. Everything is pretty much edited without actors before we even hit the set so that they know exactly, ‘Okay, this is what we have to do on set.’
Since we're editing as we go along, I had an office there on set close by. Whenever the footage was done, I would be bringing it in and prepping it and getting it ready for the editors because I was an assistant editor there. [My job was] making sure the footage was right and everything was good. I was in Atlanta, and the editors were here in California. When I got in over there at 9 a.m., it is 6 a.m. their time [in California]. We already got a head start on them. I've seen the footage first, and I already know what's good, what's not, and where to still have marked everything up for them. ‘Oh, this is the good stuff. Here's a string of all the takes that they did today.’ You could choose how you want to cut it. Then, if I have to do other things to the footage, I do all of that before they even get in there. By the time they reached the studio [in California] at 9 a.m., it’s 12 p.m. my time [in Atlanta], and they already have stuff to start cutting and watching.
Alain offered some advice to indie filmmakers about how editors can help your entire production run more smoothly.
I try to take that knowledge into my independent work that I do. When I work with independent artists, or independent directors, I tell them it's beneficial for you. I know a lot of people don't have the budget to have an editor from the beginning to the end, but do it if you can manage it. If you can make a deal with your editor, it's best to have them involved. Even when you're writing the script. If you already know your editor, you could be asking them, ‘How do you think this would cut? Or could we do something cool with this?’ That's how you get the best out of your time. I feel for independent projects, you'll go and shoot things. Afterwards, when you're in the editing room, you figure out, ‘Oh well, we didn't think about that. We didn't get this shot.’ And you don't have the budget to go back and film things. Now you're stuck with what you have, and you just gotta make it work. If you were planning already, and if you had your editor on set with you, they can already call out things. ‘Hey, you didn't get a reaction shot from this other actor; that's not going to cut well.’ When you get into the editing, you're already there.
Alain dished on what skill can make any aspiring editor better at his craft.
As much as people think that editors are supposed to be a little recluse and stay in their little Batcave, it's okay to have people skills. It is something that really helps you in the editing room. Being able to communicate with people, out and about, that's a skill that you learn by just doing in real life. Going out to events, being able to interact with people and hold the conversation. I would say that skillset really translates well in the editing room, where you're dealing with different personalities, different types of directors, different types of producers. The producer might want one thing, ‘No, you have to cut this in,’ and yet the director is telling you [another thing]. So now you’ve got to manage this situation. I have to give the producer what they want, but also give the director what they want. That's definitely a skill that [aspiring editors] should practice more.
Filmmaking can be a long process where unforeseen problems arise. With a big enough team where everyone has input, someone will come up with the solution. Alain shared a story about how his Haitian roots allowed him to be that someone on the set of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
Every day is a challenge, to be honest. You always think you're going into work, and going to have such a great day. And then next thing you know, the world is on fire. Especially in these [Marvel] films, there's a lot of moving parts. Anything can go wrong at any time. That's why it's great to have problem solving skills, on the spot. There's always going to be something that comes up and you just got to be able to adapt to whatever the situation is. For example, for Wakanda Forever, when we're looking for the Haiti shots. We're like, ‘Oh, we need to get aerials of Haiti.’ Everybody was brainstorming how to get the shots and all of that, and my background is Haitian. I'm like, ‘Well, I know people that can get your shots in Haiti.’ Even though I'm assistant editing on this project, I was able to have my input in there and say, ‘Listen, I can fix this problem for you.’ One big thing that definitely saved the day. Eventually, I recommended the shots there and they're in the film.
I read and write in French and Creole, so it was great for me to get that different perspective on life and how people live. Also, [I got] to reconnect with my culture, my heritage and where I come from, where my family comes from. I've had some great summers in Haiti.
Alain pinpointed exactly when he knew he wanted to go into filmmaking as a career.
As a kid, I watched Ninja Turtles so many times, the original. I was the biggest Ninja Turtles fan; I still am the biggest Ninja Turtles fan. Seeing that in the theaters just opened up everything for me in my mind. Batman, Darkman, Ghostbusters. All those movies had a little bit of influence. I knew that I loved this type of storytelling. I also loved a lot of martial arts films; all the Jackie Chan stuff, all the Van Damme and Steven Seagal. I always knew I wanted to do this. I used to watch the movies when they would premiere on HBO on Saturday. Right after, it would have the “making of,” so I would stay to watch the whole “making of.” I was always intrigued by that. I can really say like the main film that got me to go ‘I have to be a part of this magic too’ is Jurassic Park. In theaters, seeing the dinosaurs on the big screen, my mind was just blown away. That film holds up so well, because it’s so well done. That movie made me go, ‘Okay, I definitely want to do this.’
When I was in high school, I discovered Robert Rodriguez. I already knew, ‘I want to do film’ from watching these big blockbusters, but how many people from my neighborhood or from my walk of life actually do these big blockbusters? I didn't know anybody. And then I saw Robert Rodriguez as El Mariachi. I read his book and found out, ‘Oh, here's this guy in college that had done some experiments, sold a part of his body to science to get $7,000 and made a whole film with his friends.’ That made it more tangible for me. And I thought, ‘Okay, even if I can't do the Spielberg stuff, this guy actually went out and shot a movie.’ So just grab the camera and let's just go do it.
Alain shared details on his educational background and how it prepared him for the industry.
I was [at Full Sail University] for a year and I got my bachelor's degree in that time. It was an accelerated program. Every month was a semester. You start the month, and you're in English and camera. They always have an academic class and a film class at the same time. So you're in English and also camera class. So that starts in the month. You only have those two classes for the whole month, and you have to go Monday through Friday. Four hours of lecture, and then four hours of lab right after it. It's a full-time job. And they were open. They had classes at all kinds of times. We’d have classes at 2am. It's all around the clock. There's classes on Saturdays and Sundays; it all depends on where you land on the schedule. I think what they were really preparing you for is how the real world works, as far as how films are made and how schedules are. You could be working on a Sunday, or a Saturday, and it could be all these weird hours and all these long hours. It's preparing you for that. I started with a lot of people in my initial class, but not everybody made it through the end, because it is grueling. If you miss a couple classes, then you're already way behind, and it’s hard to catch up again.
Some artists choose to stick to the genre they specialize in while others seek to branch out and experiment. Alain shared which approach he takes.
For me, I'm a filmmaker. I'm a storyteller. I like to tell stories; it doesn't matter if it's a romantic comedy, or if it’s a drama, or this crazy epic movie. They're all stories to me. They all have characters. They all have characters that need to change throughout the course of the story. It doesn't matter if it's a small indie project, or even if it's a Disney Channel film. As silly as they may be, they still have a structured story that they need to follow. I'll do whichever story that I find interesting. I love horror. I'm a big horror film fan, too. That’s why when I got on to Dr. Strange, I was like, ‘Oh this is great,’ because I'm combining my two loves of superhero and horror.
Lastly, Alain gave us a heads-up on the personal projects he has in the pipeline.
Right now, I'm currently editing a short film with one of my really good friends from college. We decided we wanted to do a really different type of short film for superheroes. We’re doing a dark superhero drama called Vigilante. Basically, it's in a world where superheroes exist, kind of like My Hero Academia or The Boys or something like that, where a lot of them fly over the underprivileged cities. They don't really patrol those neighborhoods, they don't really stop the crime. They focus on the big global threats. There's still crime, there’s still gangs and all kinds of things happening within those communities. So these four guys in this neighborhood have superpowers; each of them have a different set of powers. They decide for themselves, ‘You know what, nobody's coming here to save us. So we got to save our community.’ It's a dark, gritty superhero drama, and it stars Cleo Thomas from Holes and Maestro Harrell from The Wire; he played Randy. That's a really good one that I'm looking forward to. We pretty much have a full cut of that already. We're in the process of doing the visual effects right now, and the scoring is happening also. We have a really great team on this project. I'm excited to show to people what we can do.
Alain is currently editing a short film titled Rear and a feature film titled Restaveks.
You can follow Alain’s projects, articles and other updates on Instagram at @alain_inthecut