Filed in: Postproduction
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Negative cutter Mo Henry

January 1, 2004 | By

By Henry Turner
If you search Google for Mo Henry, an interesting fan site pops up, with a message board, photos, and chat room. There is a link to Mo’s incredible filmography on IMDB, which reads like a list of every blockbuster made since the seventies. Matrix, Spiderman, Harry Potter, Men in Black—Mo has worked on hundreds of classics.
One might think Mo is a star, what with her name gracing the credits of so many big movies. And indeed, she is a star, one of the film world’s few stars of negative cutting, a third generation veteran of one of the industry’s most unsung aspects of film craft.
“During World War II my aunt worked for a company called Revue which ultimately became MC Universal. She was like Rosie the Riveter—all the guys were gone so the labs were hiring women. She became a negative cutter, and headed Revue negative cutting for a long time. After the war my dad came home to L.A. He had been one of the kids in the Our Gang comedy series, and he needed a gig, so she got him into film labs and ultimately taught him how to cut negative. When I turned 18 and was a rebellious teenager, living on my own and starving to death, my dad offered me a job. My first film was Jaws, that’s what I learned how to cut negative on.”
What is negative cutting? In short, it is the finicky, post-production task of conforming original camera negative to a locked work print. This is done using synchronizers that keep camera negative and work prints aligned, so that edge numbers can be matched, negative cut, and then hot-spliced in A&B rolls that allow fades and dissolves—a checkerboard assembly technique in which black leader is substituted for every other shot, so that the end product is two reels of negative which are printed as one, to create the final answer print.
Mo also vaults negative at her facility located on the Universal lot. “We track where it goes at all times. We do all the movement for visual effects,” she says.
She and her staff of 25 are currently cutting 32 films. Naturally, dirt is the enemy, as is human error. Certain directors, Clint Eastwood among them, make special deals with Mo, guaranteeing that only her hands and those of certain colleagues touch their precious neg.
Even films that are shot on HD come through her facility. Negatives are struck from the HD masters, and vaulted. “All over the world there are little cinemas that still have regular film projectors,” says Henry. “Even if a film is shot on HD, it has to be translated to a piece of film that can be duplicated and sent out to theaters that have only film projectors.”
Working with digital, “makes our work harder because we don’t have a visual image juxtaposed to the negative anymore. So we purchased new software called Digiconform,” she explains. “Synchronizers are now wired to the computer and as you move the neg one frame at a time through the synchronizer, the image on the computer also moves one frame at a time and locks, and you’ve got an EDL from the Avid, that tells you where to cut.”
Despite the continued existence of theaters without digital gear, Henry sees the shift to digital well on its way. “The main film labs have bought digital facilities—they’ve said I’ve met my enemy, and I’m going to marry him!” She points out that Technicolor, Kodak and Delux have all built or purchased digital facilities.
Being a third generation negative cutter, she sometimes comes upon surprises in her work. “A couple of years ago Warner Brothers came to me to restore an old Cinerama film, How the West Was Won,” says Henry. Shot in three-camera Cinerama, the epic western presented the especially complex job of A&B rolling the three-strand original with no work print other than a 35mm print of the center strand. The only guide for the cutting was an old script and an envelop of the original cutter’s notes. “I was thinking, I can’t do this, I’m leaving for London to cut Harry Potter. Then all of a sudden I see these notes about the film, and at the bottom of this piece of paper was my dad’s signature! So I said, yeah, I have to go to London, but I’ll do it. So my dad did a big film, and because of him, I wound up doing the restoration, conforming the whole film to his notes and an old script.”

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