For editors John Axelrad and Lee Haugen, cutting James Gray’s Ad Astra was a new venture into the world of the film’s epic space journey. In addition to the advent, for a James Gray film, of overarching visual effects, Axelrad and Haugen had to manage a motion picture that was both one man’s intimate story plus a screen template that stretched as far as the edge of the solar system.
Key to making the visual effects an organic aspect of the edit, the filmmakers enlisted veteran teams for both pre-visualization and post-visualization. “Our visual effects supervisor, Allen Maris, was involved from the beginning and got us a great company, Halon Entertainment, to help us structure the edit,” said Axelrad of the industry standards for integrating visual effects work into an edit.
“We were able to piece the film together with the previs and work the performances around it. We adjusted the edit to maximize the power of the visual effects after the scenes were edited. It was a symbiotic relationship.”
Whereas pre-visualization creates conceptual looks for eventual visual effects shots, post-visualization typically creates imagery close to the elements in a final visual effects shot, but developed more quickly than the visual effects vendor doing the shot. Editors insert both previs and postvis placeholder shots into their editing timelines, then eventually replace them with completed effects shots.
In keeping with the preponderance of feature films which do not bring in the project’s editors during pre-production, Ad Astra’s pre-visualization team edited their own pre-visualized shots. “As soon as we started, James wanted the previs edited differently,” Axelrad revealed.
Both Axelrad and Haugen worked for a total of 14 months on Ad Astra, integrating myriad effects shots, commandeered by Maris, and honing the cut for over a year. “We started right as shooting started,” said Haugen, “meeting with the previs company, James, and Allen. We worked hand-in-hand with previs, production, and postvis, to make adjustments accordingly.”
“Postvis uses the background elements that production shot,” said Haugen, referring to footage captured by film’s main unit in principal photography. In an early scene in the film, Brad Pitt’s character, Roy McBride, engages in an action scene on a tower, most of which was built on a soundstage. “They were able to take the live-action shots and extend the sky. When he falls and tumbles to the ground, that was completely computer-generated except the closeups of Brad’s face.”
Axelrad added that, “the wide shots around the tower were visual effects. The medium shots were a skydiver. We extended the scene and sent the skydiver out to do more stunts—we went back and shot some more.”
In one dynamic sequence, a lunar rover chase was shot during principal photography with a second unit. The chase was filmed in the middle of September of 2018 in the Mojave Desert. “I was sent there to work with the second unit team on location,” Axelrad explained. “The second unit director handled the stunts, shot over six days — I cut that together. From that, we had a shoot with the principal actors—Brad, Donald Sutherland, and Sean Blakemore — on a soundstage. They brought their own take on the material, and I incorporated them.”
However, what Axelrad discovered is that his edit of the sequence mandated that the stuntmen perform different things to match what the principal performers executed on stage.
“We brought the stuntmen on the stage,” Axelrad said, noting that visual effects vendors added the necessary geography overhead in the scene. “It was a logical way to do it. We had storyboards, but some of the practicality of it changed a little bit; it was planned that the stuntmen would go to the soundstage. The scene came together over a three-four-month period, including postvis and visual effects. It was a very complex scene that took a lot of different departments working together.”
Haugen explained that the cameras used for the lunar rover chase were shot at a faster frame rate, then transferred to 24 frames-per-second. “It gave it that 1/6 gravity feel,” Haugen detailed. “Actors’ closeups were shot that way. It turned into a huge challenge to process all of that that footage.”
However, Haugen noted that he and Axelrad worked back-and-forth on each scene in the film. “We have a fluid editing room,” Haugen revealed. “We all work on every part of the film: John and I with Jim. We are all working for the ultimate goal of making the best film we can.”
Even Scott Morris, an assistant editor, did a significant amount of editing halfway through post-production. He was officially promoted to editor status with the Guild. “It’s so rewarding and naturally fluid,” said Axelrad, “not having egos, but sharing ideas and perspectives and insights to the benefit of the edit and to the film. I would sit in Lee’s room and say, ‘Let’s try this.’ He would watch something I did, and take it, and try new things. We were able to get James to bounce between our rooms. If we’re both equally touching everything, the film itself benefits from a very even style and rhythm.”
Haugen further noted that collaborating with Gray is a rewarding experience, whether on a drama or an expansive science-fiction film as with Ad Astra. “He’s one of the most passionate directors out there,” said Haugen. “We had to balance being scientifically plausible and make an entertaining story. We always need to know what our main character is thinking and where his headspace is. You want to go on this journey with him—James really enjoys that type of storytelling.”
For Axelrad, Ad Astra was his most challenging film with Gray. “In a science-fiction movie, you have to create everything: vertical sets for working with gravity, and horizontal sets for closeups,” Axelrad related, noting that he has developed a communications shorthand with Gray after five films with him.
“He’s surrounded by high-tech toys, but his focus is really on story and characters, and being inside Roy McBride’s head—the further he goes out into space, the deeper we dive into his soul. This was a film about nuance. That’s what ‘s so rewarding about the experience.”
Haugen reiterated that regardless of the size of Ad Astra, post-production routinely focused on the human performances. “You can have fun with all of these toys,” said Haugen, “but we needed to make sure we got back to it from an emotional standpoint of where our characters are and what they were going through.”
Ad Astra’s Supporting Post-Production Team
First Assistant editor: Traci Duran
Assistant editors: Eddy Garcia, Jared Simon, Jason F. Voss, and Jonathan Thornhill
Consulting editor: Hank Corwin
Additional editors: Scott Morris, Nico Leunen