Astronada Captures New York State of Mind
Interview with Astronada’s Jeff Pinilla On NYCGO Tourism Video, Edited in Premiere Pro
In December 2018, Astronada co-founders Jeff Pinilla and Matt Pourviseh learned of an RFP (request for proposal) for NYCGO, the official guide for New York City tourism. The video was going to used as the official video for the new Famous Original New York City campaign. Amidst the holidays and Jeff’s own wedding, the two filmmakers brainstormed ideas and entered their bid. They won and the result is a riveting video that captures the heart and soul of NYC.
Jeff Pinilla edited the video in Premiere Pro. In this interview, he shares everything from how the duo approached the RFP to custom keyboard shortcuts for faster editing.
What is your opinion on RFPs in general?
JEFF: RFP's are usually a waste of time. You're up against a bunch of different production companies and you usually don't end up winning the bid. We thought, let's not waste our time. Let's make something crazy, something so outside the box they can’t say no.
What inspired the idea for this RFP?
JEFF: New Yorkers are very opinionated. Everybody has their own idea of what New York is. Our idea was to have an argument on camera. Let's talk to a variety of New Yorkers, all different ages, all different types and just let them argue on screen. Then, lets shoot it with this Andy Warhol/Bob Dylan look with 16mm black and white film. And let's intercut all this crazy imagery, as fast as possible, like it's stream of thought, stream of consciousness.
We put that all on paper and put it in a deck. That was the difficult part, putting that into a visual medium that could be sent via email. But we did it and then about two weeks later, they awarded us the job. At that point, we were like, oh shit, now we actually have to do this!
What was the timeline for this project? How long did you have to deliver the final video?
JEFF: We were awarded the project in the last week of January. We had to have something done by the first of March. We had about a week-and-a-half to two weeks to actually cast the entire thing.
On February 8th, we went into our first day of production shooting the interviews. Then, two weeks later, we spent a whole weekend doing all the locations. I believe it was the weekend of February 26th. We did two ten-hour days. We went everywhere, from Top of the Rock, to King's Theater, to the piers, to Dumbo, everywhere. The turnaround for editing was from the 26th to March 15th. That was the final deadline. We really only had two weeks to put it all together once we were in post-production.
How long was the video supposed to be?
JEFF: It had to be between 2-3 minutes. The final edit ended up being 4 minutes. Fortunately, the creative director of NYCGO basically told us, don't even worry about that. We're setting out to make the best video. Not the best 2-minute video. The story ended up being a 4-minute story. That's just what it was.
Your client was happy even though the final video ended up being twice as long as the target length?
JEFF: Yes. It's all about making somebody feel something. You can cut things out left and right as much as you want, but, in the end, you don't want the viewer to be bored. Otherwise, the video might only be a minute, but to the viewer it feels like 7-minutes long. The total run time of this piece is four minutes, but it doesn't feel like four minutes. It feels like 60 seconds, because everything's moving so fast. If you're going to make a piece that's a little longer, you want to make it feel shorter with the edit style.
Viewers might think the black-and-white look of the interviews was done in post. But you actually shot those on black-and-white 16mm film. What was that like?
JEFF: First we did our camera test, where we tested the different film latitudes. We had 13 reels, so we knew we had a finite amount of time with each person to speak on camera. We did a series of close-ups and wide shots with each subject, then we'd move on to the next.
By the time we wrapped up the shoot, all 13 cans were complete. We shipped them off to Cinelab, which is in Massachusetts. After that, it was about a week-and-a-half process of waiting.
What did you do while you were waiting for the film to be processed?
JEFF: Because our timeline was so short, we immediately took the audio and transcribed that. I started making a paper cut with the transcriptions. So we kind of knew on paper what this whole thing was gonna sound like before we started editing.
What kind of footage did you get back from Cinelab? How did you get it into Premiere Pro?
JEFF: When we got the scans back, they came on a hard drive. They were all ProRes files, which can easily be brought into Premiere. I think, total, it was almost about 1.2 TB worth of footage. You get all the negatives back as well, which in this case were positives, because it was black and white film.
How did you sync the sound to the film scans? Did you use a slate?
JEFF: You have to. That's a big reason why slates came to exist. There's no scratch audio, so there’s nothing to sync to. You can't use a program like Pluraleyes or anything like that to sync sound with film. I had to do it by eye, using the slate, in Premiere.
What was the most challenging part of the editing process?
JEFF: When you're a director and an editor, and nobody's guiding you, you can kind of get in your own head. You become your own worst enemy. Especially when you're a perfectionist.
Can you give an example of “getting in your own head”?
JEFF: It was Friday afternoon and I had to send the second cut out that evening. I had already spent seven hours editing. I felt like I was getting somewhere, but I hadn't played down the whole timeline in about five hours. When I hit play, I noticed things were way off, way way off. I realized that I had been working on the wrong version of the cut! I had just gotten so lost in the middle of editing that I ended up in the wrong sequence. I spent the next two hours fixing it as best I could. At that point, it was already 9:00 PM. I decided to just send it out to meet the deadline.
On Monday morning, once I had the fresh pair of eyes, within two hours I fixed everything that was wrong. I just needed to step away from it in order to come back and do it right. That happens a lot. You get so lost in the edit that you kind of lose your sanity and you lose your humanity. Sometimes you just have to walk away from it and then come back as a new person.
How would you describe the editing style of this video?
JEFF: It's definitely stylized. A lot of it is driven by the sound design, more than the actual cuts. The way I tend to work with my edit is I build the music and the sound bed first. Then the edits kind of land into that.
The goal was to take viewers on a journey with the edit and have them not just enjoy it the first time, but also want to re-watch it a 2nd and 3rd time to see all the little details that are in there. A lot of that is the sound design, the music, and how the visuals tie together.
The edit is very fast, some clips are only a couple frames long. Was there anything in the shots themselves that you were looking to cut on? Like a look or a movement?
JEFF: Oh, for sure. That’s the benefit of being the director and the editor. We knew we didn't want to shoot the city like everybody else. If you saw our raw footage, you'd be like, why were these guys shooting like this? This looks so clumsy. That's because we were shooting for the edit. For example, one night we were at the MOMA shooting the portrait of Van Gogh. We knew we didn’t want a static shot. So we ran into it. We had our DP hold the camera and sprint up to the portrait and then sprint back out.
We also did a lot of wiping off or panning over with the camera. We were doing all these camera moves for the edit, so the cuts had that stream of thought look that we wanted.
The transitions are all hard cuts. Did you intentionally avoid using transition effects?
JEFF: We wanted to do hard cuts, because again, the idea was to have it all be stream of thought. We knew we weren't going to live on a shot for more than a second. That was the design from the very beginning, just a bunch of quick cuts moving at a fast pace.
There's hardly any music track in the typical sense. How would you describe your music selections?
JEFF: We knew we wanted to hear the sounds of the city. It had to be a drum beat, just a beat that would move the edit. So we used a collection of different street drummers in the city that I recorded. That’s pretty much all we used to drive the whole piece. Until we get to the very end and then we have a little bit of a music track.
Did you do all the audio mixing and sound design yourself?
JEFF: Yeah, audio and sound design is something we try to do on all our productions. Cause that's the best part of it all. I love putting together an edit and then saying, this could be a cool moment for a sound element here or a cool moment for a sound element there.
Of course, if we need a sound mix, we do farm it out. Just to clean it up. But when it comes to the actual design, I'll do that myself in Premiere. Premiere makes it super easy to add multiple tracks for sound design.
How do you setup your audio in Premiere Pro?
JEFF: Basically, I try to make sure the timeline is organized. Any dialog is the first four channels. Music is the next two channels and then everything below that is all sound design. Total, I think we ended up with 64 audio tracks on this project. It might be a little bit more, actually.
As long as you keep your audio tracks organized, then it's easy to mix up and down. Also, when you're sending it out to a sound mixer to clean it up, you kind of have to have that structure anyway.
What do you like about editing in Premiere Pro?
JEFF: The good thing about Premiere is it can playback multiple formats simultaneously. You can do so much with that.
Another good thing about Premiere is Dynamic Link. There's a lot of graphic elements from After Effects in the video.The ability to take something from After Effects and drop it into Premiere using Dynamic Link was really helpful. That way, if there's a change that needs to happen in After Effects, it’s seamless. You just make the change and then it automatically updates in Premiere.
In the past when I used Final Cut, you'd have to pre-bake the After Effects element, export it out, drop it into Final Cut and then if you needed to make a change, you had to go back into After Effects and do it all again. Dynamic Link eliminates that process.
There are a lot of speed effects in the video. How do you like the speed ramping controls in Premiere Pro? Do you have any tips or tricks?
JEFF: The thing I like about Premiere is you can adjust the clip speed on the velocity graph. You're able to do an ease-in or ease-out treatment to create real speed ramps. Premiere allows you to work with speed keyframes like you would in After Effects.
What was it like color grading this?
JEFF: It was a tough process because we had over 350 shots. We knew we needed to make the b-roll look very vivid, so that it contrasted nicely with the 16mm stuff. There must have been over twenty different color passes on this before it was done. Even when it was done, I remember seeing it on the big screen during the premiere in Lincoln Center, I had to go back and make a couple more color tweaks before we actually delivered it.
That's the tough thing about color grading, sometimes you just don't finish. It’s only because you have a deadline that you say, this looks good, I'm going to stop now.”
Did you use the Lumetri color panel?
JEFF: Yeah, Lumetri made it so easy to adjust the colors for each shot. Sometimes I brought the contrast down a little bit or I upped the blacks. Then I would drop in a LUT inside Lumetri, if a shot called for it. I used a combination of different LUTS from the Lumetri color presets. They’re great.
Do you have any tips or tricks for editing in Premiere Pro? Maybe one that helped you with this project?
JEFF: Because I switched from Final Cut Pro, I was used to Final Cut shortcuts. Pressing B for the blade and A for the arrow, stuff like that. The nice thing about Premiere is it allows you to configure the keyboard like Final Cut Pro. So when I switched, it was a seamless transition.
Do you have any favorite custom keyboard shortcuts?
JEFF: Yes, a shortcut that I use a lot whenever I'm sound mixing is the nudge tool. I mapped the plus and minus keys to go up three decibels and down three decibels.
I have another custom shortcut for track height presets. Whenever I have a ton of layers, I like using small heights because then I can see my entire timeline. Whenever I have to zoom in on a clip to bring the audio levels up or down, I like to use big track heights, so I can see what I'm doing.
If I press the number 1 on the keyboard, it'll make all the track heights small. If I press the number 2, it'll make the audio track heights big, but keep the video tracks small. And if I press the number 3, it'll make all the track heights big.
So whenever I'm editing, I can move around the timeline real fast. I can hit the number 2, click the audio file, press plus or minus to adjust the clip audio and then press the number 1 to minimize my track heights again. My shortcuts allow me to move really fast whenever I'm editing all sorts of different layers.