by Patrick Cavanaugh, ComicBook.com
For the past century, fans have turned to Jack London's The Call of the Wild for a timeless tale of perseverance, survival in the face of adversity, and companionship, with a film adaptation of the iconic tale landing in theaters this upcoming weekend. Starring Harrison Ford, Dan Stevens, and Karen Gillan and directed by Chris Sanders, the film blended action, adventure, and a heartwarming message to audiences of all ages. The film was edited by David Heinz, who was so integral in bringing the story to life that he worked with Sanders for a year to develop the project, ensuring a seamless blend of practical and visual effects.
The film vividly brings to the screen the story of Buck, a big-hearted dog whose blissful domestic life is turned upside down when he is suddenly uprooted from his California home and transplanted to the exotic wilds of the Alaskan Yukon during the Gold Rush of the 1890s. As the newest rookie on a mail delivery dog sled team — and later its leader — Buck experiences the adventure of a lifetime, ultimately finding his true place in the world and becoming his own master.
ComicBook.com recently caught up with Heinz to discuss bringing the film to life, the film's visual effects, and how this venture compares to a film with only a handful of edits.
From Effects to Editing
ComicBook.com: Earlier in your career, you worked more closely with visual effects before transitioning to being a film editor. Was that always your planned trajectory or did that change of pace come unexpectedly?
David Heinz: Even working as a visual effects editor, I was still part of the editorial crew. Visual effects, for me, it wasn't something I set out to get into. I did sort of stumble into it through the films I ended up working on, but I was very intrigued by it and I ended up working on really some of the most substantial visual effects movies in recent memory. I worked on two of the Planet of the Apes movies, and then I worked on Jungle Book before I hopped over to this movie.
And, honestly, that background was huge for me in taking on this project because this was a really complex film in a lot of ways. It's really unique in a lot of ways, too, because, for example, on the Planet of the Apes movies, those are motion-capture-driven films. We had these great actors like Andy Serkis and Terry Notary, and guys like that who were performing as the apes. They were doing that in motion-capture suits and that performance and that movement was captured and directly translated to the CG characters.
Now, on Jungle Book, it was different. It was the CG characters who were talking, so the audio was recorded first and the audio was cut together. And then the animators would put together computer-generated, animated performances based in part on the timing of that audio.
But on The Call of the Wild, it was none of the above. We had a motion-capture performer, Terry Notary, there, but because of the physiological differences between a human and a dog, there was really no actual movement or motion that Terry was going to do. As talented a guy as he is, he's great, there's just nothing really movement-wise that he was going to be doing that the animators were going to use.
Terry ended up being mostly reference for the other actors in the scene and for the camera operators and the cinematographer, but in terms of the visual effects, it was a completely different undertaking than any of those films. But had I not had that experience, I don't think there's any way I could have taken on this project.
The dog in the film is adorable but was brought to life through visual effects. Since you were involved with the film before shooting began, was there any discussion of using a real dog for the film?
That decision was made before I was even part of the film, that the dog was going to be CG. And I know a lot of people have been talking about that decision. And it's, again, it's so tough to have these conversations before anyone has seen the movie, because I just feel like the mystery of that, "Oh, why did they go this route as opposed to training a real dog?" that question's going to be answered as soon as people sit down and watch the movie.
Because, really, the truth of it is I think ... and, again, a decision was made before I was on, so I wasn't necessarily part of the decision, but I think what people will see when they watch the film is that there really wouldn't be a way to tell this entire story using a real dog. And The Call of the Wild has been adapted before, but in truth, none of the adaptations I've seen have tried to tell the entire story, which our movie does. And the book is largely, if not entirely, from the dog's point of view.
The other adaptations I've seen haven't taken that approach, whereas we did. I think it's just one of those things where, yeah, people will just have to wait and see, because that's a mystery that's going to be quickly solved by watching the movie.
And it must be difficult when a trailer for a film comes out and people have any sort of confused reaction to that filmmaking decision. From The Jungle Book to The Lion King to Lady and the Tramp, there are all these approaches to blending CG and live action, and it seems like you can never please the audience.
Oh my gosh, no. And you can't set out to make something that's trying to please everybody because you're going to please nobody in the process of doing that.
I think one thing that's interesting about the period of time we're in, and movies, in general, is that there's this really interesting ... we're at an interesting moment in time where technology is evolving so quickly, it's allowing filmmakers to take on stories that they wouldn't have even dreamt of taking on even five or 10 years ago. I think we're in an interesting time now where audiences will be seeing a lot of these kinds of hybrid live-action/animation movies. And it remains to be seen how people respond to them.
From what I gathered, there was a reaction to the trailer when Lion King came out. Then, by and large, I think a lot of people went to see that movie and they were pretty happy with it. People will have to wait and see the movie and I think they'll understand the approach, why we did things the way that we did.
Editing Visual Effects
Is there a different pressure when you're editing a film that's heavy with visual effects as compared to a movie that focuses on human actors? Just knowing that you could be cutting effects that were expensive to create?
It's certainly different pressures. I'd say, maybe in some ways, if you're cutting a live-action film, the pressure might come earlier. Meaning, you are handed all the dailies and you have to make it work. Whereas a visual effects film, you're filling in the gaps, you're handing off a scene to — in this case, it was MPC and all the great animators there — and then you're waiting to get dailies back on some of the scenes, which is an interesting process.
So there's pressure on both sides, but it's different types at different times. The other thing to consider with this film is that I was a part of it for nearly a year before we built anything. What we were doing in that time was ... Chris and the storyboard artists were creating storyboards of every scene, and we were then cutting those together, and then from those storyboards we were creating previsualizations of every scene.
We went into shooting with a very, very good plan of — shot for shot, in some of these sequences — what we would need to get. And if you look at the finished film, I think I just saw this week, they released a clip of an avalanche sequence which comes in the middle of the film. And that sequence is almost shot for shot what we prevized a year prior.
Were there many unexpected discoveries when you were editing the film that you weren't anticipating when you first joined the project or did things mostly turn out as expected?
I think a little bit of both. Any film you're doing, there's a process of discovery as you're getting it together. You're finding the rhythms of stuff, you're finding little pieces of the story that need to be wrapped up in a different way, or some scene is telling a slightly different story than we originally set out to. That's all part of the process.
On this film, I think what we found was ... the book is a very tricky balance because, and I think this is why a lot of people have not attempted to adapt the entire story, but the story is about Buck the dog changing hands from these owners throughout, chapter to chapter. And so the movie does that, and I won't say too much, I don't want to give you any spoilers. A lot of the tricky part is editing the film and what we were working through in post was the balance of each one of those stories. So, how long was Buck with a certain character or group of characters? Which group of characters seemed to be resonating with audiences more than others? Are there ways to highlight some of the emotion of other sequences?
Naturally, I mean that's all part of the process and something we go through on everything.
Action to Conversation
This film blends both major action sequences and intimate character moments, do you find it more difficult to edit action-packed spectacles or those more subdued moments between characters?
It just depends on the scene. It depends on the two characters who are talking to each other, too. If one of them's Harrison Ford, you're usually in pretty good shape.
Each one of these sequences has its own sort of challenges. But, overall, I'm really pleased with what we were able to craft with this film. I think it's got a lot of adventure, and spectacle and action, but it's really got a lot of heart and emotion, and a lot of humor too. And I think people are going to really, really enjoy it.
Having seen the finished film, is there a specific scene you're especially proud of? Either one with seamless editing or a sequence you got to inject more of your own creative perspective?
I think if you look at the undertaking of this movie, it's wildly ambitious, and the fact that we're able to pull it off at all, I think it's pretty great. If you consider the fact that, if you just take like a 30,000-foot view and you think about the pitch for this movie, the pitch of the movie is we are going to tell this story, this classic adventure story through the eyes of a fully animated CG character who never speaks. I think it's a crazy idea for a movie.
In some ways, if it hadn't been a classic book, it's possible the film never would have gotten made. I think the challenge was scene to scene, being able to understand what the main character, the dog, Buck, is thinking and feeling in any given scene without him speaking, or us having to narrate his thoughts or anything like that. It's pure visual storytelling. And when it works, it's really something to be proud of.
Now, if you're talking about favorite moments in the film, I will say that there's a real kinship between the Harrison Ford character and the dog, that the few audiences we have shown the movie to have really fallen in love with it. And I think people will do the same. There's some really sweet stuff. I think it's the best Harrison Ford has been in a while. He's terrific, he's always great, but there's just moments in this film that are really beautiful and emotional.
Another film you edited is the John Hawkes-starring film Too Late, which really only had a handful of cuts and had been lauded for how long the takes were. Does a film like that make editing easier or more difficult?
I think we came up with like 11 cuts in all. The first, I don't know, 70 minutes of that film, I think there's three or four cuts in it. That was the easiest job I ever had.
Actually, it was the hardest job. People ask me about that movie all the time, thinking it was like a walk in the park. It was so difficult. The reason being, Dennis [Hauck], the director of that film, who's a great guy and really wanted to stand by ... he didn't want to do like a 1917, where they were hiding cuts all over the film. He wanted to shoot the film on 35mm, he wanted to shoot 20-minute takes. He wanted to cut 20-minute takes together. I kept saying in cutting, "Oh, this part of this take is great, and this other part, or this other take is better. Maybe as we pass this tree, I can slip a cut in here." And he's like, "No, we're not going to do it. We're not going to do it."
What ended up happening on that film, which was incredibly difficult is, I'm usually able to pick and choose pieces of takes that I can use. And instead, I had to choose a take, or a 15 or 20-minute segment of the film, and there's so much nuance in every moment. How do you say, "Well this moment's great, but this other take is great, too. Which is better? Which is more important to the story?" Ultimately, that was the hardest part of that job was trying to pick the takes that we would end up going with, and then seeing what I could do in terms of sound and music and highlighting the moments in the scenes that we used.
A completely different experience, but that's part of why I love my job, is that from that I can go from a noir, long-take movie, I can go do a PG family-friendly adventure movie, and go work with [director] Matt Reeves on something. It's super fun. It's great. I love it.
With both movies and TV, filmmakers have been embracing the long-take trend more regularly in recent years. What do you think of seeing such sequences become so popular?
Honestly, I think it's great. I think you won't find an editor out there who's looking to cut. I mean, if something works, let it play. It's always better if you don't have to cut. It always feels more authentic.
I watched 1917, I really enjoyed it. As a filmmaker, the first few minutes of that film, I was maybe thinking a bit more about the process than I wanted to be. But after that, I was totally in.
Is there a dream project that you'd love to work on?
I mean, if [Paul Thomas] Anderson ever didn't want to work with one of his normal editors, and was looking for someone new, call me. I would drop every single thing I was doing to go work with P.T. Anderson. But he's got his normal stable of terrific editors, so I'm not holding my breath.