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Art of the Cut

CODA

20 minute read

The subtle differences between editing ASL scenes versus hearing ones on this year’s Best Picture winner. Plus how the film found its voice and more.


Today, on Art of the Cut, we’re speaking with the editor of this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture CODA. I think we can all agree that you can’t have a Best Picture winner without also having a beautifully edited film, so I’m excited to share my discussion with its editor Géraud Brisson, ACE.

Géraud was born and raised in France (south of Lyon). He came to the States and graduated from USC Film School with an MFA. In addition to CODA, Géraud has edited the feature films Camp X-Ray and Big Sur which were both official selections for the Sundance Film Festival. He’s also edited TV series including This Close, Counterpart, Looking, and Little America — which is where he met CODA’s director, Siân Heder.

HULLFISH: It's so nice to meet you.

BRESSON: Very nice to meet you. I feel like I have a headstart because I've been listening to your podcast for a few years now. I'm very flattered.

HULLFISH: That's fantastic. Thank you. CODA is one of the movies that I've truly enjoyed this year. I liked it just as much the second time as I liked it the first.

BRESSON: Thank you so much.

HULLFISH: How did you get this gig? How did you meet this director?

BRESSON: So, I met Siân Heder because of a series that is also on Apple TV+ called Little America. She interviewed me for the job, and we first worked together not in a director-editor relationship but as a producer-editor relationship because she is a co-showrunner of the series along with Lee Eisenberg.

She directed one episode of the first season, but I didn't edit her episode, another friend of mine did. So, as we do in a TV series, we worked together past the director's cut and that's how we started our working relationship. 

I think she hadn't noticed me, and I think the reason why they were interested in talking to me for Little America, is my unique sound. I'm not from here originally, and I think they were trying to pair the episodes with the sensibilities of people who had an experience immigrating or living in a different culture.

Also, I didn't know at the time, but Siân actually knew the series that I worked on before called This Close, which is a series for Sundance TV. It's created, written, and acted by two writers who happened to be deaf, Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman. That was my first experience working on dialogue in ASL [American Sign Language], and Siân had actually visited the set on the first season. I did not meet her there, but she was friends with the director on the first season, Andrew Ahn. So, even though we never spoke of it and I never confirmed it, I feel like that's also a reason why she noticed me in a pile of resumes.

So, that's how we started. At the end of Little America, I knew that she was preparing to direct CODA. That was the next thing that she did. We ended up talking about it at the very end. I think it was around the last week on the job, and we chatted about the film. She passed me the script, which I read, and then it was a pretty informal interview as it goes because we already knew each other. We talked mostly about how to approach the ASL scenes and how to approach the deaf culture. She mentioned that she wanted a specific cast for the film. So, those discussions started early on.

CODA_Photo_0107-1200Siân Heder directs Emilia Jones and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo in “CODA,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

HULLFISH: What was the schedule like? Because this is not a Marvel movie with 190 days of shooting or something, right?

BRESSON: Not as many VFX either [laughs]. It was a pretty tight schedule. It was 30 days. They did such a great job. There are more scenes that didn't end up in the film. So, it was a tight schedule and obviously very challenging because of filming on the boat, as well as those music performances, and trying to record them live. It was also decided at the time that they will be using as much as possible, if not all the time, performances that were going to be done live during the shoot.

HULLFISH: How long were you on the film after the shooting wrapped?

BRESSON: 14 weeks. 10 of those being the director's cut. We tried really hard to get the film as close as possible in those 10 weeks. There was something that we didn't know how it was going to be perceived, and that was living in the ASL scene with that pretty music.

We had talked early on on that day that we didn't want to affect those scenes in a way that would be to please a hearing audience first. We wanted them to be realistic of course, but also we didn't mind in the end that it may feel awkward for a hearing audience to spend time with people that they don't usually spend time with in a world where there are no more voices.

Therefore, in the film when those scenes hit, you may feel that things are slowing down. At least, we were scrutinizing this question of pace when those things were hitting. In fairness, the last four weeks didn't have that many notes. To the producers' credit, they really supported the way that Siân wanted to make the film. They had already loved the script, but when they saw the cut, even more so, I think.

HULLFISH: One of the things you mentioned was that a lot of scenes got cut. I really loved the beginning of this film: the first act, the structure, and the storytelling of being able to set up the world and set up the story and conflict. Tell me a little bit about what you had to do to get it to that efficiency of storytelling in the first act.

BRESSON: I feel like it's hard to speak about the beginning without talking about the whole process, meaning it's related to the whole process because the film was longer at first. When we watched it, we knew we had to find a way to condense the story without losing a certain sense of character or complexity.

It seems also that when a story point is hitting at the right time and perfectly timed — more than I think any project that I had the chance to work on — it was not working as well. Especially by the time you get to the second half of the movie — even though we had those great and strong scenes — your perception of them was that the scene was affected by the sense of time you spent before getting there.

So, that was part of it was knowing and learning that in the process. We wanted to get the film to be quick and at the same time set a tone that would allow you to laugh but also be with the characters, especially by the time Ruby goes back to Mr. V asking if she can join the choir after running away from the audition.

What ended up being the first scene in ASL was not originally the first. The first one was on the boat. There's a scene that got omitted partially for time. Also, we felt we didn't need it as much for the explanation. The scene involved a discussion about hooking up the voice-to-text device to the boat. Then, what ended up being the first ASL scene was actually when Ruby tells her dad and her brother after they come back from fishing that she has to go to school.

I think it's interesting that that became the first scene. As you wait longer for it to really become clear about how they interact, it made a difference in terms of naturally switching from one way of expressing yourself to the next. Obviously, it propels us forward and you get to see the different sides of Ruby's life faster between living with her parents, going to school, and then interacting with all the different characters. 

Photo_01-1200Emilia Jones in “CODA,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

It also set up that we had all those storylines that were in there between the fishing, the family dynamic, her love interest, her relationship with her friend, discovering music, and her love for singing. So, in the middle of all that was that relationship between a scene in ASL and a scene when dialogue was spoken. That balance came little by little.

The one scene that we added — which is a very short scene that didn't exist and we created — was a scene after she heard about her dad's financial problem and they were talking about selling the boat at the very beginning. There's a scene after that where we see them working on the boat and that scene didn't exist in a script. 

When I was assembling, I remember asking if they could go back on the boat and get me more footage because I felt that transition was a little abrupt. But also, we were wondering, "Why do we feel that Ruby needs to go back and join the choir after she runs away?" And we realized that having a moment on the boat may help. Then, I remembered the shot of Troy smoking that was shot at a different time. We sort of created that moment where she turned around and saw her dad. I think it's interesting because that was a discovery that tied up the two stories together.

HULLFISH: The scene is only the two shots, right? It's the dad smoking and her looking at him. Back and forth.

BRESSON: Yeah. It's a few more shots because you see them working at first altogether, and then when they're done talking, she turns around and we see him smoking.

HULLFISH: That's after the discussion at the table that they're in some financial trouble. What's the next scene after that?

BRESSON: Then, there's a discussion on the dock between all the fishermen about how there's a new rule that they're going to have to have monitors on their boats.

HULLFISH: So, that felt too close between the discussion of the card getting declined and the fishermen on the dock?

BRESSON: Not that it was too close. It felt like we needed a moment that was more centered on Ruby and less on the fisherman storyline. We realized that the more we were streamlining the stories with the tension that was in the family, the more the movie seems to have found its voice and its life.

We focused on the moments of the coming of age story of Ruby wanting to break away from the family but still feeling the ties to a family, not just because of the pressure that the family seems to put on her but also the love that she has for them makes it hard to walk away from that.

CODA_Photo_0111-1200Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin, and Daniel Durant in “CODA,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

HULLFISH: Right, because you want to know that she does love her family and doesn't want to get out of there. They're not mean to her or anything and that makes the decision harder.

BRESSON: I feel that's something that a lot of us have experienced in our lifetime. That moment of time when you have to leave home. That was definitely part of Siân's script. There was the heart of it. I think she was also looking to explore that time. She had done it herself in a way as well. She's not from Gloucester, she's from Cambridge, Massachusetts. She spent a lot of summer in Gloucester and she wanted to be an artist. I think a lot of us working in this industry have felt a similar impulse at some point.

So, I feel like that story was interesting because it was a familiar story in a lot of ways, this coming of age. You feel that you are in a familiar environment storywise and plot-wise, but what we felt was less explored is that moment in time, or that kind of dynamic between parents and children.

HULLFISH: You mentioned the difficulties or the challenges in editing the ASL scenes and that you'd done it before on another show. Talk to me about the need to edit differently than a common dialogue scene. What were some of the challenges with those ASL scenes?

BRESSON: My first experience was on This Close and that was the beginning of an education not just in the technical side of it but also an education in the culture and about shifting your point of view on what dialogue is as well.

I felt like I'm an outsider. Siân is an outsider. We felt a lot of pressure, rightfully so. We took a lot of care about how we were going to approach scenes. We set ourselves a few rules. For example, we were pretty determined really early on not to let the pace of music influence the scenes.

Also, as I mentioned before, we wanted to make it so it would be an easier watch for a hearing audience, in some ways. We had this sense of responsibility, but even more so, that there were not that many chances for our cast to be in the center of a story like this. We're not the only story like this, but there is still not a lot of them. This had to matter. We had to do it right. Even if it's to show it in a different way.

Then, on the more technical side, first of all, I don't know ASL. I've learned a few things before I started. I knew the alphabet, I knew a few phrases, and I knew how to count numbers, but that obviously doesn't get you to converse or to understand. So, what they did — which is a pretty typical way of working, I believe — is that we had interpreters on set and while they were shooting a scene one of them was in video village with a mic and was recording on an additional track on the same take and translating along when they were expressing themselves. That happened almost for every take and for every scene.

That's the way I learned the dialogue in the film. I only used it to watch dailies but I didn't use it in my cut at all. I feel like I realized that after a few takes, a few setups, you actually know the dialogue. You're not using the translation anymore.

What was different, and I'm sure everybody noticed, is that the framing was slightly different. Sometimes the wides obviously were very important because you needed to see the sign. We had no other choice than to have the sign on camera. We didn't want to be hiding anything. It should be enjoyed by the largest audience that we could reach. So, the medium shots were a little wider than what you would normally do. Our actors were signing a little higher than they may be typically signing in life.

We were very careful about when we used close-ups, which in a way I think pays off because we had to be super specific when we wanted to use them. I think you realize the force of a close-up that way, because when you're in them, suddenly you just realize you hadn't been until then. I think it ended up being a strength in telling the emotional story. You learned that you couldn't use a typical trick to speed a scene up.

You couldn't necessarily be on somebody's shoulder. They also were careful of doing over-the-shoulders, where you could see the heads of the person who was speaking over-the-shoulder.

So, we had ways of shaping the scene this way, but we had to not be afraid of being pretty obvious with the dialogue. It was difficult to make the scenes shorter sometimes, although we did, but it took a while. I had help doing so. There was an occasional moment where I could see that the cast was not exactly delivering the same dialogue, and in that case, we had an ASL master who ended up checking everything before the movie got into the world. As we were doing it, I could reach out to her and send her Quicktimes. When Siân and I were working together, she was texting Molly occasionally to confirm that we got the dialogue correct.

There were a few instances where I had to cut scenes very quickly while they were on set and I could see the differences in a line, or I could somewhat interpret it. I was looking up signs on Google to make sure. That happened a few times, but overall it was interesting to lose the instinct that you had because you were a hearing person and to just learn to be confident that you could tell the story.

I mean, we have extremely amazing performances. We knew we could trust that audiences will love to spend time with them. Then, you learn also that physicality is a big part of communication. There are a few things that we may not even notice, but for them, it's a way of expressing themselves. Their interactions next to one another or a shoulder going up means slightly different things with the same sign. The physicality was important to show, and therefore having people in the same frame was also an important part of the dialogue and also to show the culture.

CODA_Photo_0106-1200Emilia Jones and Marlee Matlin in “CODA,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

HULLFISH: I would think that it would also be difficult with the continuity if you decide to cut in the middle of the signing sentence. Someone's saying something and you want to go from the front shot to an over-the-shoulder where you still can see them signing. Were you worried about the continuity?

BRESSON: We were because we had to be very specific in case it was inadvertently saying something that was incorrect or making the sentence in ASL grammatically different or wrong. That was a part of the editing that we don't fully notice when we watched the film, but we had to be very specific.

Also, the pace was extremely important, knowing that however it was going to feel, we had to be certain that we had the right pace. We had to play with subtitles. We were trying not to affect the edit with the subtitles, which we didn't really I think at the end, but we definitely were considering the pace of all those elements together for the hearing audience.

I think in our decision-making, the default was always to let the hearing audience make an effort, and it sounds like people are totally up for the experience.

HULLFISH: Yeah, I loved it. I'm from the Rochester, New York area, and that's got one of the largest populations of deaf people.

BRESSON: I didn’t know that.

HULLFISH: So, I definitely recognize that. I also just did an interview with the editor of Drive My Car and there's an ASL-speaking character in that film.

BRESSON: Yes. I saw the movie. I loved it. I listened to the interview and it is extremely interesting.

HULLFISH: One thing about this film is there's so much swearing.

BRESSON: There is.

HULLFISH: I would think that he was improving a lot. Was there a lot of improv or was he always on script?

BRESSON: No. It was very much on script, but it is definitely a very fluid language. One person doesn't sign exactly the same way. Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur were definitely improvising, especially during the school recital when they were sitting in the audience. Not all of this was scripted. To go back to Troy, he is just a fascinating actor and he knew this part was calling for a lot of flourishments.

HULLFISH: I'm just thinking of the scene in the doctor's office [laughs].

BRESSON: Oh yeah. The hard part was to choose the takes because they were never quite the same. In this case, they had worked previously on the dialogue and in the middle of delivering the same dialogue, they would improvise signs. So, you picked up a lot from just the way the language has slight variations of his signing. But in the end, it was not that much different from what was on the page, to be honest.

HULLFISH: I also really liked the fact that you could hear them signing. You could hear the impact. Sometimes it was softer, but if somebody is trying to make a point you can hear the fabric on their clothes whip, and you can feel the impacts of hands for example. So, I really liked the sound of the signing.

BRESSON: We talked about this very early with Siân. Even in the interview, we said that it is worth having a lav on every actor. You probably will not be able to use most of it because there could be clothes rustling or noise, but you do get a lot of things that you can use at least as a reference for what it was like at that moment when they delivered that dialogue.

I knew from This Close that I felt like that was so important because it's not silent when they express themselves. They even vocalize part of their ASL. The level of what they do — be it a slap on the table or tapping on the floor to get somebody's attention — relates to the physicality and the way they perceive the world as well because it's about the vibration. It's about the sense of somebody touching your shoulder to make you turn around.

Also, sayings are very much part of the communication and are not often depicted on film. I think Marta, our sound supervisor, rerecorded a lot of it, so they would have almost a catalog of sounds. I remember sitting in production, specifically a Sunday night when we were saying, "Could we hear what it was in production?" because that was actually what felt right. 

And I remember saying during the mix, "Let's not be afraid to have the tap on the floor when they have the whole discussion about creating the co-op with all the family members and he's being dismissed and is trying to get Jackie's attention and he definitely slams on the floor. Let's not be afraid of making that louder than you would actually do it normally."

I think Siân and I were trying to reproduce all those sayings that we knew they had done in their performance and also were maybe less known because we don't get to see scenes like this very often.

HULLFISH: I loved it. I felt that the sound definitely helped portray their emotionality and the intensity of their emotions.

Tell me about that great montage, which I love, which is the "Happy Birthday" song montage. First, describe it to someone who hasn't seen it, and then talk to me about the editing choices of speeding things up and how you don't just show one person singing "Happy Birthday" after another person.

BRESSON: When Ruby goes to audition for the choir, a choir teacher asks them to sing "Happy Birthday" to just place them in terms of voice range. Every student sings one after another, and we had a lot of footage, three hours of "Happy Birthday." There was a joke on every single one of the kids’ shots. It was definitely about trying to pick the best without overdoing it.

HULLFISH: I love the one where the camera's focused on the kid's chest because he's tall and so the camera has to tilt up.

BRESSON: There were so many funny jokes. Part of it was making the scene efficient, getting a sense of all the characters, which you're not gonna see that much in the film in terms of spending time with them, but you will see them as part of Ruby's world and we wanted them to have a personality. That was definitely the way Siân had conceived it.

In the process of this, we wanted the first few kids to be playing so that would we have Mr. V's reaction because we were setting it up as the first time you met him. Then, we were using the best of the things that made us laugh and kept making us laugh when we were watching it.

In the middle of this, we had fair Ferdia [Walsh-Peelo], who played Miles, and we wanted him to be noticed because you know he is important to Ruby and is somewhat the reason why she's running out of the choir at first. In the same way, we didn't want to make it about the love interest. It was about the music as well. So, we wanted to have all those different performances and build the pressure on Ruby to have to go audition and sing in front of people for the first time.

HULLFISH: I had to do one of those montages in a movie with a high school drama performance where everybody had to get up in front of the group and perform a drama monologue, and you couldn't show 20 kids doing a three-minute scene. You've got to go in and find the great, funny moments and cut them together.

BRESSON: Exactly.

Photo_02-1200Amy Forsyth, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin, and Troy Kotsur in “CODA,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

HULLFISH: Was your initial cut of it much longer, or did you cut it long and then shorten it as it evolved?

BRESSON: It was originally longer. There was a sense of where it would go. Very early on Siân said, "Let's edit it so that they sing the whole entire song, but everyone will then sing one part of it." It was a question of, "Can we keep our best moments and still have them even though they were not going to necessarily be in the right spot?” That was because of the song and the way that we were going to feature them inside the song.

In the first phase of it, I was forcing myself to cut them all the way through so that I was not missing anything that could have been missed. I did this for every music performance knowing that they would not play all the way through if I already had the idea of making it a shorter thing. There were a lot of slight little performances that I think were worth including in the middle of all those moments, and that was a way for me to find those.

Also, I wanted to leave the door open to ideas, so leaving it long at first was a way to not make decisions too early about the ways those scenes would unfold. I did it for the concert and for the last song as well, the Joni Mitchell song. The first cut was just in the concert room even though it was scripted that we would cut away to the montage in there, I still cut it all the way through. Also, it was in the first part of the movie, so we had to spend the right amount of time in the classroom, but we couldn't spend too much time there.

CODA_Photo_0104-1200Emilia Jones and Eugenio Derbez in “CODA,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

HULLFISH: The shot choices were so great. For the scene in the doctor's office, I thought, "You can stay on Troy for the entire scene, never cut away from him, and it would be hysterically funny," but you still want to see the daughter realizing what she has to translate, you've got to see the wife, and occasionally you've got to see the doctor even though he's not funny. Talk to me about finding those moments and realizing when to cut to Ruby or when to cut to the wife when you've got this fantastic performance of the father.

BRESSON: Part of it was telling the story, which established the relationships and the assigned roles that they had in their family. At the same time, it was really the first scene as a hearing audience when you experience being in the room with people communicating in ASL. Before that, there was always the world on the dock or in the car when they pick her up. So, even though there was ASL in those scenes, it was not quite the same feeling.

In this one, we wanted to push it a little bit further as well and stay longer because I think the first shot, whenever we see the three of them, it's actually probably longer than what it would usually be in a film with speaking characters. 

In our case, I think it was good to force you to be in the shot, not to cut that quickly, and instead cut it right when it mattered at this point. It was very specific that way. How long can we be in that shot? As you said, we could be in the shot for the whole entire scene, but it was important to eventually remember that we were setting up her role in the family. All this had to be set up in that first part of the movie. We were not afraid of slowing down the pace there.

HULLFISH: It's such a great concept, being forced to translate something you don't want to translate. This poor girl. I just loved that scene. Her father is saying all these horrible, personal things that she does not want to translate, and yet s

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