The Sparks Brothers: A tribute to the prolific art pop duo

 Brothers Russell Mael and Ron Mael

Image Source: Focus Features.

By Meagan Keane

Posted on 06-18-2021

Debuting at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, The Sparks Brothers takes audiences on a musical odyssey through five weird and wonderful decades with brothers/bandmates Ron and Russell Mael that pays homage to a cult favorite and introduces Sparks to a new generation. Edgar Wright’s debut documentary is a love letter to the band and explores the true story of the brothers on their journey to success. The film combines archival footage, animations, interviews with celebrities and fellow artists, as well as insights from the Sparks themselves to celebrate the band’s legacy and how they helped set the stage for musicians decades to come.

We went behind the scenes with the editor, Paul Trewartha, to discuss how he pieced together the story using Premiere Pro, After Effects, Audition and Photoshop. He tells us how he managed the numerous hours of archival content, his favorite workflow hack, and how he achieved the film’s overall aesthetic.

Image Source: Focus Features.

How and where did you first learn to edit?

I studied animation for my degree and my first experience editing was in a tiny room (cupboard) using a VHS tape to tape setup which was a lot of fun. After University I became a runner in a post house in London. Shortly after starting there, the in-house editor left and I was thrown in at the deep end, cutting with clients (and reading the manual in the bathroom when I got stuck). It was a trial by fire but invaluable experience.

How do you begin a project/set up your workspace?

My dad was a carpenter and he always told me that a cupboard should be as well made on the inside as the outside so I make sure my projects are really well organised so that I can find what I need when I need it. Every film presents a unique challenge so although my projects are always identical at the top level, the way I break the rushes down is specific to the thematic requirements of the story I’m telling. Identifying the best way to break down the huge quantity of rushes you receive is critical.

Tell us about a favorite scene or moment from this project and why it stands out to you.

We had a lot of fun playing with some pretty eclectic archive throughout the film. My favorite example of this appears at around twenty-five minutes where the release of the Halfnelson album didn’t get the commercial success they were hoping for. We represent this in various ways, including a shot of a belly flop from a high diving board. However, in reality it was never a failure to buck trends and tread their own path, it was their greatest achievement. So we use the same shot again in the conclusion, but we reverse it to show that they’ve taken that failure back. We then use a match cut to Russell landing on stage in front of a loving contemporary audience.

Image Source: Focus Features.

What were some specific post-production challenges you faced that were unique to your project? How did you go about solving them?

Documentaries always present an almost overwhelming quantity of material at the beginning of a project, however even in that context, The Sparks Brothers was pretty exceptional. Edgar interviewed eighty people and recorded the brothers themselves eleven times. We had footage from shoots in five countries, over 6,000 separate archival assets which include hundreds of full performances, boxes of personal photos, contact sheets, and 345 songs to choose from. It was a lot! The project was huge and could have become unwieldy, but the archival team was incredibly diligent in numbering every asset in Filemaker prior to ingest and with regular housework as well as lots of communication the edit and conform all went incredibly smoothly.

What Adobe tools did you use on this project and why did you originally choose them?

We used Premiere Pro, After Effects, Audition and Photoshop throughout the edit. I created all of the graphics and name-straps in the offline and then exported as QuickTimes straight to the grade. I was able to animate billposters, flyers and album covers in After Effects and also manipulate hundreds of contact sheets directly in Premiere Pro by importing the stills as high-res files and then cutting and repositioning to bring them to life. I don’t know how we would have achieved the final aesthetic in any other way.

Image Source: Focus Features.

Why were they the best choice for this project?

We were working with countless formats, aspect ratios and frame rates that we were constantly interpreting as frame for frame in the project window to remove blending at every opportunity. My incredible assistant, Andy Laas, then reproduced this interpretation with the hi-res material after lock and completed the full conform in Premiere Pro, eye matching over 2,000 separate cuts of archive alone before feeding these mix downs out with associated XMLs to the grade. It was a lot of work, but allowed us to troubleshoot in a controlled environment before feeding it out.

What do you like about Premiere Pro, and/or any of the other tools you used?

Premiere Pro feels like a very tactile way to edit, which I love, and the interface is a nice environment in which to spend countless hours. I’ve always made my selects in timelines as opposed to sub-clipping so I’ll often have a stack of timelines visible at any stage, so the flexible workspaces are great. The speed of ingest is key as it allows you to just crack on and start constructing the narrative.

What’s your hidden gem/favorite workflow hack in Adobe Creative Cloud?

Adding a compressor/limiter to your master track is a quick way to guarantee that levels will never peak. Dedicating one or two specific tracks, which have a reverb track effect on them, allow you to quickly drop small sections of sound design or music onto them, which then ring out beyond the boundary of the clip itself. Also, set the timeline to the codec that supports the majority of the footage. For all other codecs and clips set with effects on render regularly, especially when working with long timelines to take pressure off the system and speed up native exports.

Image Source: Paul Trewartha.

Who is your creative inspiration and why?

That’s tough. I think that creative inspiration is totally dependent upon being pulled from multiple sources and it’s the quirky patchwork of all of these that help inform your creative decisions. That said, in terms of documentary filmmaking I have to say that I’m in awe of Adam Curtis, his aesthetic, his storytelling ability and his bravery to tackle such complex subjects. He just blows my mind every time.

What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to face in your career and how did you overcome it?

I’d say the toughest aspect of being a freelance editor is learning to ride the rollercoaster. You’re either utterly committed to the film that you are currently grappling with (which means that everything else in your life is being put on the back-burner) or you are obsessing about what the next gig will be. I’ve been wrestling with this for years so if anyone has found a way to overcome it, please let me know!

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers or content creators?

Try and place yourself in the area of filmmaking that you aspire to end up working in as early as possible in your career while you have the flexibility to do so. Transitioning from commercials to features or documentaries to scripted features after a decade or two of establishing a reputation, building relationships, and adopting a ton of life commitments is very possible but certainly tough.

Share a photo of where you work. What’s your favorite thing about your workspace and why?

Image Source: Paul Trewartha.

I’ve predominantly worked out of my own suite from the moment I went freelance over a decade ago which has been very useful over the past year or so. I have tweaked this setup consistently in terms of hardware and software and it’s a place I feel incredibly comfortable working in, which allows me to focus entirely on the challenge at hand (unless my huge cat chooses to sit on the keyboard).

Image Source: Focus Features.

The Sparks Brothers premieres in the U.S. in theaters today, and in the UK on July 30.

Topics: How I Cut This, Creativity, Customer Stories, Media & Entertainment, Creative Cloud,

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