A Master Class in Film Editing

After 20 years in the business, editor Eyal Dimant learns a few new things working with the Coen brothers on “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”.

Everyone wants to learn from the best—whether it’s cooking tips from Gordon Ramsey or photo tricks from Annie Leibovitz. For most people, the closest they will come to getting first-hand advice from these experts is by taking a paid master class. But that wasn’t the case for Eyal Dimant.

When he was given the opportunity to sit in the editing room next to Academy Award-winning filmmakers and brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, he asked how much it would cost him. Instead, he ended up being credited as the associate editor for the feature film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The western anthology film was written, directed, produced—and edited under a pseudonym—by the Coen brothers, and stars Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, and Zoe Kazan, among others.

“I was very fortunate,” says Eyal. “Usually, you’re an editor and you’re working with directors, or you’re an assistant to other editors. Here, I got to sit next to the directors, who were also the editors, for nearly a year. I learned a lot about how they edit, which is very different from most other workflows.”

The film was edited entirely on Adobe Premiere Pro CC, with extensive use of Shared Projects between Joel, Ethan, and the visual effects editor. Eyal, who already had a lot of experience with Adobe Premiere Pro and other Adobe tools, was initially tasked with ensuring that Shared Projects was set up in a way that matched the brothers’ workflow.

“Joel and Ethan are usually writing and directing, so they’re not in Premiere Pro every day,” explains Eyal. “We wanted to make sure they had a seamless editing experience that allowed for maximum collaboration.”

That said, the successful siblings were no strangers to Adobe. Several years ago, the duo committed to using Premiere Pro for editing. The result was Hail, Caesar!, which combined both old and new filmmaking techniques.

Supporting an unconventional filmmaking process

The brothers are known to keep all of their dailies and only cut after shooting is complete, which is unusual in filmmaking today.

Both Joel and Ethan had their own editing stations. Ethan would pull his selections from the dailies and move them into a bin. When he was done, he’d ring a bell. That was the cue for Eyal and his fellow editors to refresh Joel’s system, where Joel would pull all the selections and insert them into the timeline. If one of the selects didn’t work they’d ask Ethan for new ones, which would pop up immediately in the bin, keeping the workflow going.

“The most fun part of the job was being a sounding board, giving them suggestions and ideas as they worked,” says Eyal. “I would usually jump in to do split screens, or any other optical effects that Joel wanted to be able to see immediately in the cut.”

One of Eyal’s favorite features in Premiere Pro is the ability to set up functions ahead of time on his console. “The ability to customize Premiere Pro is a great thing—from the palettes to the keyboard shortcuts,” he explains. “We ended up just having a client monitor. Most of our screen was just the timeline because Joel wanted greater visibility so that he could dock his projects. Being able to shift things, pre-set, and organize work spaces was very helpful.”

Creating a western look and feel

Premiere Pro was also used for the temporary sound design on the movie. “We would finish Joel’s scene and then I would just sit there with our library of 10,000 sound effects and pull gunshots, arrow whooshes, horse clops, cheering, and whooping sounds,” says Eyal. The temp sound work was then turned over to the sound department and completed by the supervising sound mixer and sound editors.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a compilation of six different stories from an anthology book of Western shorts. Between stories, the book’s pages turn, signaling the transition from one story to the next. These sequences were built with the Coens and titles designer Randy Balsmeyer using the 3D camera feature in Adobe After Effects. The timing and framing of the page turning and camera movements on the book were then refined at Phosphene, one of the VFX vendors. The book was then physically printed and the master After Effects project was given to the motion control camera operator at the live-action book shoot so he could mimic the sequence as designed in After Effects.

“After Effects was instrumental in creating all of movie scenes that go back to the book,” explains Eyal.

The visual effects editor relied heavily on After Effects to create temporary visual effects for approximately 750 shots. They were mocked up and retouched using After Effects before being sent to various visual effects vendors to create final versions.

Always a student

Eyal credits his successful 20-year editing career to a bit of fortune—but mostly to the fact that he is a keen learner. This has allowed him to continuously hone his skills and work on every aspect of a film, from offline editorial and crafting a story, to color, finishing and delivery.

“My ideal project is one where I’m surrounded by people who are smarter than I am,” he says. “I like to learn new things and be challenged on a daily basis, which is exactly what happened with this film.”

The film premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in August and is currently available in select theaters and on Netflix.