Behind the Scenes of Molli and Max In The Future: Crafting an out of this world rom-com
Image source: Michael Litwak.
A sci-fi romantic comedy set in an absurd world, Molli and Max In The Future brings us one billion years into the future, and back again, following the unlikely love story of two polar opposites whose lives intersect over the course of 12 years, four planets, three dimensions, and one mysterious space-cult. This genre-bending film challenged its filmmakers to explore new creative frontiers, particularly in their editing process due to the abundance of VFX shots they had to work with. With the help of Premiere Pro, After Effects, and Frame.io, the filmmakers were equipped with the cutting-edge technology to turn their futuristic vision into a cinematic reality.
We spoke with director Michael Lukk Litwak and editor Joanna Naugle about their collaborative post-production process, and how Adobe’s creative cloud tools played a crucial role in their editing workflow. Given the film’s over 900 VFX shots, the duo had to grapple with the task of creating a streamlined and organized process for cutting and reviewing raw footage repeatedly.
“One of the biggest timesavers was being able to just copy-paste clips from Premiere into After Effects and avoid any in-between steps,” shared director Michael Lukk Litwak. “Premiere was the only editing software we could have used for this project since it was so efficient and seamless with After Effects,” added Joanna Naugle, editor of Molli and Max In The Future.
The film team also relied on Frame.io as a key tool for collaboration and progress-sharing during post production, in addition to Premiere Pro and After Effects. With the help of Frame.io, the editors were able to send DP and VFX Supervisor Zach Stoltzfus different versions of the VFX shots, share feedback, and make edits in real time. Joanna Naugle shared, “It basically served as our cloud storage on this project and has been a convenient place for the three of us to share, organize and back-up media.”
Molli and Max is set to premiere at SXSW on March 11. Be sure to read on for a behind the scenes look at how the film team brought their Sci-Fi vision to the big screen.
How and where did you first learn to edit?
Naugle: My exposure to editing started with silly projects my siblings and I would make with our dad’s video camera when we were kids. I would spend hours putting them together on iMovie. Later, I attended NYU’s undergraduate film program and really fell in love with editing while taking a class called Sight & Sound Film where we’d shoot on 16mm film and then actually cut and tape the footage together on Steenbecks. Something about getting to experience the editing process in a tangible way really made me appreciate it even more. From that point on I only took classes related to postproduction. After graduating, I met Josh Senior and started cutting videos at Senior Post which lead to opportunities cutting for television, starting with comedy specials and then leading to scripted shows like “Ramy” and “The Bear.”
How do you begin a project/set up your workspace?
Naugle: This project was a bit unconventional because we didn’t have an assistant editor beyond production. So I would receive synced footage but otherwise I was doing all of the organization myself. I’ve been spoiled by having amazing AEs on my TV work, so having to create line by line string outs and re-labeling clips on my own was humbling. The feature was originally scripted to be broken down into eight chapters, so it made it super easy to just use that formatting for our reels, and so we broke the film into eight separate Premiere projects.
Litwak: We picture-locked the film in only five weeks! Joanna started to cut scenes while the crew was filming to hit our deadline and she had a full rough cut to share with me within a few days of picture wrap. Normally that would have been impossible but since she had been reading drafts of the script for years and knew my style and taste so well, we were able to put something together insanely quickly. (It also helps that we’ve been dating since 2012 and just got married last year!)
Tell us about a favorite scene or moment from this project and why it stands out to you.
Naugle: My favorite scenes to cut in the film were Chapter 3 and 4 -- when Molli and Max are catching up and travel back in time to recount their lives over the past few years. Both sections are essentially long montages paired with voiceovers and filled with so many amazing world-building details and lightning fast jokes. Some of my favorite supporting characters are introduced in these sections. There was a lot of hilarious improv on set so choosing the funniest moments was a blast.
Litwak: Finding the right pace for these sections was also a fun challenge because we wanted them to feel fast and exciting while still finding moments to highlight the loneliness and disappointment Molli and Max felt in their memories. I really fell in love with the temp music we were cutting to and was absolutely blown away when our composer (Alex Winkler) wrote music that was even better.
What were some specific post-production challenges you faced that were unique to your project? How did you go about solving them?
Naugle: This was definitely the project I’ve worked on with the most VFX elements. We tried to do a temp version of most of the shots in Premiere while cutting, whether that was doing a color key with green screen or overlaying different shots with temp backgrounds to get a feeling for how the shot would look. We had a pretty ridiculous temp version of Moebius (a character that looks like a floating brain with tentacles) that always made us laugh when we saw it in the edit. But it was helpful to be able to have even a very rough version of the more complicated VFX shots so we could feel confident about the timing before Zach and Michael started building them out in After Effects.
Litwak: We had more than 900 VFX shots in the film, and there was a year and half of prep where we were building scenes in After Effects so that we could then throw it up on the LED screen during principle photography. Figuring out the technical logistics of color space and resolution for plates that were going on the LED screen versus plates that were going to be traditional rear screen projection versus plates that were going to be combined with green screen after production was a lot to keep track of. We built a google spreadsheet that had every VFX shot in the film and just tried to stay as organized as possible, and would periodically re-organize the spreadsheet so that it would serve our purposes.
What Adobe tools did you use on this project and why did you originally choose them? Why were they the best choice for this project?
Naugle: Premiere was the only editing software we could have used for this project since it was so efficient and seamless with After Effects. I was skeptical when Michael suggested we cut the raw 4K footage during editorial, but I was amazed with how seamless the playback was, even when we started adding multiple layers for temp VFX. It paid off because the VFX timeline was so much longer than the time we spent cutting - it would have added so much unnecessary back and forth to have to switch between proxies and the raw footage before starting VFX. Being able to cut raw enabled us to dive right into the high-res VFX shots literally the minute we locked picture.
Litwak: One of the biggest timesavers was being able to just copy-paste clips from Premiere into After Effects and avoid any in between steps. It allowed us to very easily shift things or find additional footage if we realized that something that lined up in Premiere actually needed a slightly different clip once we got into the weeds of VFX.
Do you use Frame.io as part of your workflow? If so, how do you use it and why did you choose it?
Naugle: Frame.io has been a HUGE part of our workflow. We used it for sharing early cuts with collaborators and being able to see notes directly in the timeline was incredibly helpful. And then throughout the VFX process, Zach Stoltzfus (our DP and VFX Supervisor) and Michael have been able to send back and forth versions of the VFX shots and call out specific moments or details that need to be updated. It’s basically served as our cloud storage on this project and has been a super convenient place for the three of us to share, organize and back-up media.
Litwak: Just the ability to draw on the image is so useful when you’re going through draft after draft and dialing something in. Often there will be a glitch but it will only show up on one or two frames and to be able to have the timecode easily accessible made going back and doing revisions so much easier.
If you could share one tip about Premiere Pro, what would it be?
Naugle: Something that’s integral to my workflow is having “Enable/Disable” be a super accessible and simple keyboard shortcut. For me, it’s just “Q.” I’ve been doing a ton of VFX replacements and being able to enable and disable quickly to compare shots has been crucial and makes everything so much more efficient.
Litwak: Joanna thinks I’m insane for liking this but many years ago I worked for an editor who changed “Q” and “W” to be shortcuts for zoom in and zoom out and now I find it very difficult to live without that!
Naugle: It’s one our longest ongoing arguments — who has the better shortcut for Q in Premiere. (Not joking.)
Who is your creative inspiration and why?
Naugle: I think one of the best edited films of the last few years is “Mad Max: Fury Road,” which was cut by Margaret Sixel. I’ve watched the film multiple times and even though I know what’s going to happen, my heart is always racing the entire time. I find it really inspiring how Sixel keeps the story feeling exciting and surprising without sacrificing the moments of heartbreak throughout. It’s really just a masterclass in storytelling and I also personally love that it’s a husband/wife team as director/editor as well.
Litwak: For this film I was really inspired by ‘When Harry Met Sally.’ It’s so simple and elegant and feels so timeless while so many romantic comedies don’t age well. On one hand the beauty of it is that it’s 100 percent character and very little plot, but as I rewatched it I couldn’t help but think that right now we’re living in a very plot heavy time, where so many things outside of our control (Covid, Trump, Social Media etc) influence our daily life and the way we connect with other people. I think it’s a classic for so many reasons but I think the most important thing about the movie is that you really believe that the two characters belong together and that they really deeply know one another.
What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to face in your career and how did you overcome it? What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers or content creators?
Naugle: A lot of aspiring editors reach out to me saying they want to work in TV and film and ask me where to begin — and it’s tough to give concrete advice because everyone’s journey is going to be wildly different. But I think one thing that is consistent is that 99 percent of the time you’re going to get jobs in this industry from word of mouth and personal connections. So as you’re starting out, the best thing you can do is work with as many people as possible and find the collaborators who you communicate well with and have similar working styles. I can look back at my career history and draw a line between how certain projects led to others and being a co-owner at Senior Post has helped me meet so many people working in the industry. Even if a job is small, if you like the people you’re working with and you get along well, they will likely take you onto their next projects that will hopefully get bigger and bigger and will lead to your dream projects down the line.
Litwak: I think the hardest thing about working in Film & TV is that there are a million ways things can or can’t happen, and you can waste lots of time and energy thinking that you need to do something the “right” way. You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, there are plenty of things that don’t need to be re-invented or questioned but at the end of the day I think William Goldman’s advice is true: “Nobody knows anything!” Don’t waste your time trying to make something you think other people will like, and just spend your energy making something you will like.
Share a photo of where you work. What’s your favorite thing about your workspace and why?
Image Source: Joanna Naugle.
Naugle: “Molli and Max” was cut entirely in our home which was really fun because we could easily adjust the schedule knowing we could start as early or keep going as late as we wanted. And having our dog Maple there for moral support along the way was essential — she was a great Edit Room PA.