The Polymath: Chatting With John Ottman, Composer and Editor of Jack the Giant Slayer
Perhaps one of the most famous film sequences of the past thirty years was edited together in a living room using a splicer. By somebody who is also a composer. A composer who has gone on to score a slew of films (while somewhat begrudgingly continuing to edit, too), making him one of the few people in the film industry who is a professional at both of these demanding positions. John Ottman, the composer and editor on Warner Bros. upcoming release Jack the Giant Slayer, is a man of many talents.
That aforementioned film sequence Ottman was cutting was the very end of Bryan Singer’s 1995 neo-noir The Usual Suspects, in which Keyser Soze’s (one of the best villains in any film of the 1990s) identity is revealed through an ingenious sequence of edits, in which dialogue from earlier in the film is layered over a quick succession of shots of a bulletin board in an police investigator’s office, all set to a pleasant, almost gorgeous score. It's a few minutes of film that's hard to describe, but when seen, it equates to a stupendous ending, on that quickly became one of the most wild (and satisfying) resolutions of any film in recent memory.
Ottman has gone on to edit a list of very large films (many directed by Singer), including X-Men 2, Superman Returns, and Valkyrie. He has composed scores for films ranging from The Cable Guy, Gothika, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and The Fantastic Four.
Jack is a modern take on the classic fairytales “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Jack the Giant Killer.” In this adaptation, directed by the aforementioned Singer, an ancient war is reignited when a young farmhand (Jack, played by Warm Bodies Nicholas Hoult) unwittingly opens a gateway between the world as we know it and a race of terrifying giants, who are set free on Earth for the first time in centuries, and, who long to reclaim the land they once ruled.
We talked with John about finding the right sound for Jack, why he thinks this film might have been harder to edit than Avatar, and stumbling upon the right way to cut that final, infamous montage in The Usual Suspects.
Okay, so you were the composer and editor on Jack the Giant Slayer. How did you manage it all?
It’s totally an act of insanity. Especially this one because I didn’t know how insane it would be because of the motion capture element. I went in knowing there would be a lot creation in the editing room, not in terms of just editing the scenes together, but also having their inception in the editing room, having them be designed, in other words.
What is it like to edit a film that requires motion capture technology?
Well, motion capture is really data collection, there’s no real shot that has been created that you need to cut, so basically you take the data and you ‘lens’ it, which in this case means you create a composition of a shot from the data. So I could create a shot starting at a giant’s feet, say, and then come up over his shoulder and see, behind him, the little people. But the thing is we haven’t shot the little people yet, so this was an ongoing process.
It sounds almost like, as the editor, you’re actually doing some directing in the editing bay because of the motion capture?
Yes and no. When I’m cutting my scene together, I have to describe the shot I’m looking for to another person, who then creates those shots for me from the motion capture data. I worked with this company called The Third Floor, and they were sort of my lensing partner, so you come up with a shot from the data, and I’d describe, say, a tracking shot of a giant, and twenty four hours later I’d get that actual shot back. So after I described the shots I want, I get a whole bin of dailies The Third Floor came up with, and from those shots I would start to create and cut a scene.
That sound very labor intensive.
Yeah. You know, with Avatar, the whole entire world was manufactured, for us on Jack and the Giant Slayer, we’re combining the manufactured world of the giants with the little people, who are real actors. I would say about a little less than half the movie involves motion capture elements, that’s like 1,100 shots, and each shot is its own project, its own movie. I had to be careful about how many giants I used, as each close up of a giant could be $50-100K a shot.
Whoa, and on top of all this, you’re also writing the film’s score. Again, how do you handle all of this?
Through panic and fear (laughs). You see the deadline and know you’re dead meat if you don’t hit it. This film gave me license that to write an adventure score, so I tried my best to bring some depth to it. There’s a fine line with the music, because if I tried to go too ‘meaningful’ it might bring the film down, yet if I go too frivolous, it would be dismissed as being silly. I didn’t want the score to be storybook like–this was a world we set out to take seriously, so the music had to take it seriously as well.
What kind of specific sounds were you going for with the score?
Aside from some eclectic percussions instruments I used for the giants, I though it would be cliché to use period instruments for this, so the idea was to have a more timeless score. We had an orchestral score, with ethnic drums for the giants.
So the giants have their own specific sound?
Yeah, I wanted it to be like a Jaws motif for the giants, something instantly recognizable so you knew they were around.
Very cool idea. What did you use to make the sound?
I used Taiko drums, and we did this technique we called the boom/clack, which is hitting the skin as hard as you can and then the sides of the drum right after. So that’s the indicative sound of the giants, then I’d follow that with atonal woodwind clusters and brass clusters.
Do any other characters get their own sound?
Sure, we have one for Jack—it had to be a theme that was a little sad at first because he’s an orphan, raised by this grumpy uncle, but it had to also be designed in such a way that later in film it could become a triumphant, heroic and hopeful theme—which we typically used the clarinet or cello for. And then later in the film, his theme becomes large strings and brass.
Does the treacherous Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci) get a theme?
Yup, his was sort of this saloon piano, a mustache twirling kind of sound surrounding dulcimer rising classical chords. He has two motifs, a main motif above, and sometimes, when his gears are turning and he’s plotting, it was a pizzicato (a playing technique that involves plucking the strings of an instrument) and tremolo strings with dulcimer.
You are a rare bird, as both a composer and an editor. Tell us about how you managed this and why are you making the rest of us look lazy?
I was originally editing movies for my friends at film school, and as a hobby at the same time I was writing music. To make a long story short, when I was editing Bryan [Singer]’s first feature, Public Access, the composer dropped out at the eleventh hour, and we had a Sundance deadline. The film was about this sinister character, and I said to Bryan, I know this character better than anybody, I can write this score! Bryan’s back was against the wall, so I scored the film, and we ended up winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. So, when we were putting The Usual Suspects together, Bryan said ‘don’t think you’re just going to score this movie, you’re going to be the editor as well.’ It implied blackmail (laughs).
So it seems pretty evident you prefer scoring over editing?
Yes, I wouldn’t put my worst enemy through the process of being a film editor (laughs). It’s like, imagine from morning to night, trying to solve a math problem. And you do this for a year and a half. And while you do try to solve this problem, you have a million and a half other problems. When people ask me what a film editor does, it’s too complicated to explain, so I say imagine being the editor of a magazine or a newspaper–that person oversees the whole thing–that’s what the film editor does, you’re the liaise between the director and studio, the visual effects department, every single facet of the making the film, because the director is often doing other things and just not around.
You are old friends and collaborators with Bryan Singer. Tell us a bit about your relationship with him?
The biggest value of having a longterm relationship in this business is the shorthand. He’s busy and he’s got things he’s trying to do, and I’m busying trying to manage the movie, and if I give an eye twitch, he’ll know what I mean. I could start a sentence I spoke three films ago and I don’t even need to finish it because he knows. And him having somebody there he can trust so he can concentrate on all these other things, like putting these other films together, which I hope he doesn’t so I can relax (laughs), is huge. It’s also a trust factor in taste, because taste is a subjective thing, and for twenty-two years we’ve trained each other in terms of taste. Nothing, as we call it ‘goofy,’ will be allowed to happen as long as one of us is there.
Tell us about editing The Usual Suspects?
I cut this in my living room with a splicer on a flatbed and I had piles of film all over the house. It’s funny, because I always saw it as a student film we were making, and we just wanted to make a good movie. Anyway, films are told three times, once by the writer, once on set by the director, and once again by the editor. Everything changes in the editing room. For the ending of Suspects, the idea was there to be this catharsis with the things you saw on the bulletin board, but when I cut the scene together with the limited shots of the bulletin board, our biggest issues was the end of the movie sucked (laughs). So I cut together a visual montage [using moments from earlier in the film], and for some reason it was completely unsatisfying. So I sat there trying to figure out why it wasn’t working, and then I realized there’s far more information available by taking all the previous lines from the film of things the characters said to each other. So I made an audio montage. So this was where all the editing was, all these multilayered lines of dialogue that were ironically placed together, but there was still something unsatisfying about it, and that was the music.
Wow, this seems like it was demanding all of your skill sets.
Well I didn’t know what to do, and I had this sinister music playing because the bad guy’s getting away, but then I thought, what If I want totally against grain, and chose something more euphoric, you almost feel good he’s getting away, so I found this piece of movie from this French composer, it’s called “Carnival of the Animals,” so I threw that in, and it transformed the entire scene, and made it otherworldly in a way, so as soon as his foot straightens out the music really kicks in.
We interview filmmakers like you who are often unheralded to the extent that the actors and directors are, yet who are directly affected by film piracy. How does piracy affect someone like yourself?
Well, as a composer, we get residuals when the film is being shown in theaters in Europe and on TV, so anytime a film is pirated, that would affect composers livelihoods. Composers, by the way, whose fees have plummeted in recent years. For most mainstream and lower budget films, they’re half what they were.
Featured Image: (L-r) NICHOLAS HOULT as Jack and ELEANOR TOMLINSON as Isabelle in New Line Cinemaâs and Legendary Pictures action adventure JACK THE GIANT SLAYER, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy Warner Bros.