We learn from Spark brothers editor Paul Trewartha!
Debut at Sundance Film Festival 2021, The spark brothers takes the audience on a musical odyssey through five strange and wonderful decades with brothers / bandmates Ron and Russell Mael, who 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 way to success.
The film combines archive footage, animation, interviews with celebrities and fellow artists, and insights from the Sparks themselves to celebrate the band’s legacy and how they helped set the stage for musicians for decades to come.
We went behind the scenes with editor Paul Trewartha to discuss how he was using the story. composed Premiere Pro, After Effects, Audition, and Photoshop. He tells us how he managed the many hours of archive content, his favorite workflow hack, and how he achieved it Film’s Overall aesthetic.
How and where did you first learn to edit?
I studied animation and got my first experience of editing in a tiny room (closet) with a VHS tape-to-tape setup which was a lot of fun. After graduating, I became a runner in a post office in London.
Shortly after I started there, the in-house editor left and I was tossed in the deep end cutting with clients (and reading the manual in the bathroom if I was stuck). It was a trial by fire, but an invaluable experience.
How do you start a project / set up your workspace?
My father was a carpenter and he always told me that a closet should be just as good inside as it is outside, so that I can organize my projects really well, so that I can find what I need when I need it. Each film presents a unique challenge. Although my projects are always identical at the highest level, the way I break down the hustle and bustle is specific to the thematic requirements of the story I am telling. Finding the best way to dissolve the huge amount of rush you are getting is crucial.
Tell us about a favorite scene or moment from this project and why you noticed it.
We had a lot of fun playing with a pretty eclectic archive throughout the film. My favorite example of this comes after about 25 minutes, where the Halfnelson album’s release hasn’t had the commercial success they’d hoped for. We represent this in a number of ways, including a shot of a belly flop from a high springboard. In reality, however, defying trends and going their own way has never been a failure, it has been their greatest achievement. So we’re going to use the same setting again in the conclusion, but we’re going to reverse it to show that they have taken back this bug. We then use a Matchstick cut to Russell landing on stage in front of a loving contemporary audience.
What were some specific post production challenges that were unique to your project? How did you go about finding the solution?
Documentaries always present an almost overwhelming amount of material at the beginning of a project, but also in this context The spark brothers was pretty extraordinary. Edgar interviewed eighty people and recorded the brothers himself eleven times. We had footage from filming in five countries, over 6,000 separate archival holdings including 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 archiving team was incredibly meticulous in numbering each asset in Filemaker prior to inclusion, and with regular housework and communication, the editing and customization went incredibly smoothly.
What Adobe tools did you use for this project and why did you choose them originally?
We used Premiere Pro, After Effects, Audition, and Photoshop throughout the edit. I created all graphics and name tapes offline and then exported them directly to the grading as QuickTimes. I was able to animate posters, flyers, and album art in After Effects, and edit hundreds of contact sheets right in Premiere Pro by importing the still images as high-resolution files, then cropping and repositioning them to bring them to life. I don’t know how we would have achieved the final aesthetic any other way.
Why were you the best choice for this project?
We worked with countless formats, aspect ratios and frame rates, which we constantly interpreted as frame by frame in the project window, in order to remove dissolves at every opportunity. My incredible assistant Andy Laas then reproduced this interpretation with the high-resolution material after the lock and completed the full customization in Premiere Pro, matching over 2,000 separate archive cuts alone before passing these mixes with the associated XMLs to the note. It was a lot of work, but we were able to fix the bugs in a controlled environment before we dump it.
What do you like about Premiere Pro and / or other tools you’ve used?
Premiere Pro feels like a very tactile way of editing which I love, and the interface is a nice environment to spend countless hours in. I’ve always made my selections in timelines rather than sub-clipping so I often have a stack of timelines visible at each stage so the flexible workspaces are great. The speed of the recording is crucial as you can just go ahead and start creating the narrative.
Adding a compressor / limiter to your master track is a quick way to ensure levels never peak. By assigning a specific track or two with a reverb effect, you can quickly add small sections of sound design or music to it, which then sound beyond the boundaries of the clip.
Also, set the timeline to the codec that will support the majority of the footage. For all other codecs and clips with effects, render regularly when rendering, especially when working with long timelines to relieve the system and speed up the native export.
Who is your creative inspiration and why?
That is hard. I think creative inspiration totally depends on being drawn from multiple sources, and it is the quirky patchwork of all of these that will help you make your creative decisions. As for documentary filmmaking, however, I have to say that I am awe of Adam Curtis, his aesthetics, his storytelling ability, and his courage to tackle such complex subjects. He just knocks me out every time.
What was the hardest part of your career and how did you cope with it?
I would say the hardest part of being a freelance editor is learning to ride a roller coaster. Either you are absolutely indebted to the movie you just dealt with (which means everything else in your life is being put on hold) or you are obsessed with what the next gig will be. I’ve struggled with this for years so if anyone found a way to overcome it please let me know!
What is your advice to a budding filmmaker or content creator?
Try to position yourself in the area of filmmaking you want to work in as early as possible while having the flexibility to do so. Moving from commercials to feature films or documentaries to script features after a decade or two of building a reputation, building relationships, and assuming a ton of life commitments is very possible, but certainly difficult.
Since freelancing over a decade ago, I’ve mostly worked in my own suite, which has been very useful for the last year or so. I’ve consistently optimized this setup in terms of both hardware and software, and it’s a place I feel incredibly comfortable in that allows me to fully focus on the challenge (unless my giant cat is sitting on the keyboard ).