Devs

Science fiction limited series Devs has a bigger picture on its mind than the machinations of a spy thriller. Made for FX and premiered on Hulu, the eight-part Silicon Valley-set drama poses philosophical questions such as whether the future is preordained or do we have moral responsibility for our actions.

Created, written and directed by Alex Garland, all eight episodes were made by the same core team including cinematographer Rob Hardy, BSC; production designer Mark Digby, as well as the composers, colorist, sound and VFX teams, all of whom previously worked on Garland’s features Ex Machina and Annihilation.

The newcomer to this collaborative group is editor Jake Roberts, ACE, who earned an Oscar® nomination for Hell or High Water and whose additional credits include Brooklyn and Outlaw King.

“Alex was determined to treat it exactly like a film,” he says. “When I met him he was very clear that he only wanted to work with one editor despite the industry norm of having two or three on a project like this. I think for him it was about wanting a consistency of vision but also wanting the consistency of the single creative collaboration so he wasn’t having to have multiple conversations in multiple rooms with varying outcomes.”

Roberts received a call out of the blue from Garland in March 2018 asking if he’d be interested in cutting the show. “Ever since I’d seen Ex Machina he was literally at the very top of my list of directors I wanted to work with so for me it was a no brainer,” he says.

“The main thing I wanted assurance on was that it was going to be a standalone piece and not an ongoing series,” Roberts says. “I’m often annoyed as a viewer when you become aware that the story you’re watching ceases to be true to its narrative arc. Alex said he had no interest in spinning it out, so that was good enough for me.”

He continues, “I was pretty overwhelmed by the scale of Devs’ ambition and ideas and was just really excited by the challenge of trying to make such cerebral material accessible. I remember having no idea if episode 8 ultimately made sense. On the page it was really hard to track whether the logic stacked up but I trusted that at least Alex knew what was going on.”

Shooting began in August 2018 for six weeks on location in San Francisco and Santa Cruz, then switched to Ealing Studios, UK followed by six weeks in Manchester where sets of the Devs ‘cube’ were built. In the story, Devs is a secretive project run by a quantum computing company. Roberts and the editorial team remained in London throughout.

Editorially, the show’s lengthy dialogue scenes proved most challenging. “It is exponentially far harder to edit a four-page scene than eight half-page ones,” he says. “It’s really diffi cult to impose a structure on them and you only really have the same tricks at your disposal as you do in the shorter scenes – such as cutting to a close-up for dramatic effect.”

The script was not only ‘full of’ six- or seven-page dialogue scenes but was required to convey intellectual concepts about life and the universe.

“I subscribe to the idea that if an actor is saying a really important piece of information then it’s more likely to register if you play it on their face, preferably in close-up,” Roberts explains. “I also find that you can often make a point more clearly if you cut away the text around it. If an actor has five lines but only one is really important, then it’s worth at least considering losing between one and four of the other less essential lines. Pauses are good too and quite easy to manufacture if the actor hasn’t provided sufficient gravitas.

“But with the best will in the world we were never going to make all the science involved comprehensible to the average audience member, and to be fair that wasn’t Alex’s intention.  I was lucky enough to have him give me hours of ad hoc physics lessons and I still don’t fully understand all of it. It was enough for him to know that if someone were really engaged and they kept hearing a phrase like ‘multiverse’ and they then Googled it, they would discover a whole bunch of very real science which would not only explain it but that would sit in harmony with the narrative.”

Roberts worked particularly hard to refine the opening to episode 1 and ultimately removed over half of what would have been the first 10 minutes to try and get to the bigger themes and the introduction of Devs quicker.

“It’s still slow by conventional television standards,” he concedes. “We were bound into having a fairly large chunk of the first morning of the story because it was essential to reprise it in episode 8 so to an extent our hands were tied.

“We didn’t help ourselves by beginning with a 90-second montage when the script had only called for a single shot of the Golden Gate Bridge but Alex was essentially saying to the audience, ‘This is the kind of show this is going to be and if you can’t handle some choral music mixed with alto saxophone and the juxtaposition of seemingly esoteric images then maybe it’s not for you.’

“In riffing that montage in the edit we created a template to begin each episode. We felt that these unique unscripted montages helped establish the vibe of the show and formed a kind of threshold between the show and whatever else had been on before.”

A fight scene at the end of episode 2 maintains the deliberately off-kilter tone. Garland had choreographed the fight “to be as messy and undignified as possible” but then shot it at a high frame rate (for a slowed-down finish) “which gave it a kind of grace.” It is played out, counter-intuitively, to a pop music track.

“The track [‘Congregation’ by the band Low] is there by virtue of the fact that we really liked it on the opening montage and by that point we had decided that we were going to bookend each episode with the same track so having put it at the start we had to try it under the fight at the end,” Roberts explains.

In terms of sound design the main conceptual decision was to make the sonic space inside Devs as otherworldly as possible while making the outside world as natural as possible. This was something Roberts began in the temp.

“My choice of hum for the Devs cube was an element of a throbbing ship engine which sounded fine in my edit suite but had so much low end in it, it played havoc with the music team’s 5.1 speaker system,” he says. “Ultimately, sound designer/ supervising sound editor Glenn Freemantle came up with something far more beautiful and interesting but conceptually it followed a similar shape to what we had laid down in terms of delineating the spaces.”

During the period shooting in the U.S., Roberts would upload all the assemblies at the end of each day for Garland and producers Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich to view. “This openness and trust between director and producer is quite unusual in my experience but a really refreshing way to work,” he says.

Once the shoot moved to Ealing, Roberts and Garland began to form a relationship. “The three months of studio work were essential as it not only allowed Alex and I to become much closer – and therefore I was far better equipped to deliver him what he was after – but more importantly he was able to become really familiar with the material. While he still had so much to shoot, he was able to learn what was working. By the time the shoot left for Manchester we had fairly thoroughly gone through every episode and had a pretty solid framework to plug the Devs scenes into. It pre-empted so many of the issues that first assemblies are often beset by.”

With the exception of the opening montages the only places the story moves [backward or forward] are when the characters use the Devs computer to look either at the past or the future. Episode 5, however, is structured almost entirely as a series of time shifts and was the first thing tackled in the edit.

“The scene order we settled on is very different to the scripted one and is actually much more linear in that we tend to jump to the beginning of a story strand and then follow it chronologically before leaping to another one. The script threw you around a lot more but the juxtapositions which felt logical on the page ended up feeling incoherent or disengaging so we simplified it.”

They kept all the episodes unlocked until the final two weeks of post in order to make changes in earlier episodes if choices in later ones informed them – another similarity with feature workflows.

“Alex likes to work by getting the shape exactly right without worrying too much about performance,” Roberts shares. “For months we only really dealt with scene order, length, text cuts and grammatical choices within a scene and then, only once we had that precise framework, did we do another pass and check every performance take but only of that particular shot. It’s a way of not getting too bogged down in the details while you’re still dealing with big picture issues.

“Over the course of the edit I offered up hundreds of suggestions that I thought were pretty good only to have Alex say, ‘That doesn’t work at all.’ That’s not to say he isn’t collaborative – far from it. He’s very open to anyone’s positive input. It just has to fall within the spectrum of his very particular taste. This is of course true of every director, but with Alex it is somehow more definitive.”

Roberts acknowledges his “wonderful” assistants Jens Baylis and Sam Shelton, and “a very diligent and dedicated additional editor Erline O’Donovan-Clarke, without whom it wouldn’t have been possible to get it all done in the time.”

He adds, “The biggest factor that allowed us to cover more ground was that we were never under pressure to cut significant amounts of time out of the episodes. We had eight 40-page scripts that were allowed to be anything from 40 to 60 minutes long and a channel that [was] happy for Alex to fulfill his artistic intention.”

 
[vc_row row_type=”row” type=”full_width” in_content_menu=”” text_align=”left” css_animation=”” css=”.vc_custom_1592680641916{background-color: #000000 !important;}”][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”20384″ img_size=”full” qode_css_animation=””][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row row_type=”row” type=”full_width” in_content_menu=”” text_align=”left” css_animation=”” css=”.vc_custom_1592682899490{margin-right: 15px !important;background-color: #ffffff !important;}”][vc_column width=”2/3″ css=”.vc_custom_1592679310198{padding-right: 20px !important;}”][vc_single_image image=”25638″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center” qode_css_animation=”” css=”.vc_custom_1593197578932{margin-bottom: 15px !important;padding-top: 30px !important;}”][vc_column_text]Science fiction limited series Devs has a bigger picture on its mind than the machinations of a spy thriller. Made for FX and premiered on Hulu, the eight-part Silicon Valley-set drama poses philosophical questions such as whether the future is preordained or do we have moral responsibility for our actions.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″ css=”.vc_custom_1593214461612{margin-top: 30px !important;margin-bottom: 15px !important;}”][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1593214472859{padding-bottom: 15px !important;padding-left: 10px !important;}”]

2nd Qtr, 2020

FEATURES
DEVS
New Normal
SNL-At Home
Tiger King

EDITOR’S CUT
Message from the Board
In Memoriam
   Marty Cohen
   Mort Fallick, ACE

STOCK FOOTAGE
Aspects of Editing
Tech Corner
Cuts We Love

BACK ISSUES

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row row_type=”row” type=”full_width” in_content_menu=”” text_align=”left” css_animation=””][vc_column][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1593197446094{margin-top: 5px !important;margin-bottom: 50px !important;}”]Created, written and directed by Alex Garland, all eight episodes were made by the same core team including cinematographer Rob Hardy, BSC; production designer Mark Digby, as well as the composers, colorist, sound and VFX teams, all of whom previously worked on Garland’s features Ex Machina and Annihilation.

The newcomer to this collaborative group is editor Jake Roberts, ACE, who earned an Oscar® nomination for Hell or High Water and whose additional credits include Brooklyn and Outlaw King.

“Alex was determined to treat it exactly like a film,” he says. “When I met him he was very clear that he only wanted to work with one editor despite the industry norm of having two or three on a project like this. I think for him it was about wanting a consistency of vision but also wanting the consistency of the single creative collaboration so he wasn’t having to have multiple conversations in multiple rooms with varying outcomes.”

Roberts received a call out of the blue from Garland in March 2018 asking if he’d be interested in cutting the show. “Ever since I’d seen Ex Machina he was literally at the very top of my list of directors I wanted to work with so for me it was a no brainer,” he says.

“The main thing I wanted assurance on was that it was going to be a standalone piece and not an ongoing series,” Roberts says. “I’m often annoyed as a viewer when you become aware that the story you’re watching ceases to be true to its narrative arc. Alex said he had no interest in spinning it out, so that was good enough for me.”

He continues, “I was pretty overwhelmed by the scale of Devs’ ambition and ideas and was just really excited by the challenge of trying to make such cerebral material accessible. I remember having no idea if episode 8 ultimately made sense. On the page it was really hard to track whether the logic stacked up but I trusted that at least Alex knew what was going on.”

Shooting began in August 2018 for six weeks on location in San Francisco and Santa Cruz, then switched to Ealing Studios, UK followed by six weeks in Manchester where sets of the Devs ‘cube’ were built. In the story, Devs is a secretive project run by a quantum computing company. Roberts and the editorial team remained in London throughout.

Editorially, the show’s lengthy dialogue scenes proved most challenging. “It is exponentially far harder to edit a four-page scene than eight half-page ones,” he says. “It’s really diffi cult to impose a structure on them and you only really have the same tricks at your disposal as you do in the shorter scenes – such as cutting to a close-up for dramatic effect.”

The script was not only ‘full of’ six- or seven-page dialogue scenes but was required to convey intellectual concepts about life and the universe.

“I subscribe to the idea that if an actor is saying a really important piece of information then it’s more likely to register if you play it on their face, preferably in close-up,” Roberts explains. “I also find that you can often make a point more clearly if you cut away the text around it. If an actor has five lines but only one is really important, then it’s worth at least considering losing between one and four of the other less essential lines. Pauses are good too and quite easy to manufacture if the actor hasn’t provided sufficient gravitas.

“But with the best will in the world we were never going to make all the science involved comprehensible to the average audience member, and to be fair that wasn’t Alex’s intention.  I was lucky enough to have him give me hours of ad hoc physics lessons and I still don’t fully understand all of it. It was enough for him to know that if someone were really engaged and they kept hearing a phrase like ‘multiverse’ and they then Googled it, they would discover a whole bunch of very real science which would not only explain it but that would sit in harmony with the narrative.”

Roberts worked particularly hard to refine the opening to episode 1 and ultimately removed over half of what would have been the first 10 minutes to try and get to the bigger themes and the introduction of Devs quicker.

“It’s still slow by conventional television standards,” he concedes. “We were bound into having a fairly large chunk of the first morning of the story because it was essential to reprise it in episode 8 so to an extent our hands were tied.

“We didn’t help ourselves by beginning with a 90-second montage when the script had only called for a single shot of the Golden Gate Bridge but Alex was essentially saying to the audience, ‘This is the kind of show this is going to be and if you can’t handle some choral music mixed with alto saxophone and the juxtaposition of seemingly esoteric images then maybe it’s not for you.’

“In riffing that montage in the edit we created a template to begin each episode. We felt that these unique unscripted montages helped establish the vibe of the show and formed a kind of threshold between the show and whatever else had been on before.”

A fight scene at the end of episode 2 maintains the deliberately off-kilter tone. Garland had choreographed the fight “to be as messy and undignified as possible” but then shot it at a high frame rate (for a slowed-down finish) “which gave it a kind of grace.” It is played out, counter-intuitively, to a pop music track.

“The track [‘Congregation’ by the band Low] is there by virtue of the fact that we really liked it on the opening montage and by that point we had decided that we were going to bookend each episode with the same track so having put it at the start we had to try it under the fight at the end,” Roberts explains.

In terms of sound design the main conceptual decision was to make the sonic space inside Devs as otherworldly as possible while making the outside world as natural as possible. This was something Roberts began in the temp.

“My choice of hum for the Devs cube was an element of a throbbing ship engine which sounded fine in my edit suite but had so much low end in it, it played havoc with the music team’s 5.1 speaker system,” he says. “Ultimately, sound designer/ supervising sound editor Glenn Freemantle came up with something far more beautiful and interesting but conceptually it followed a similar shape to what we had laid down in terms of delineating the spaces.”

During the period shooting in the U.S., Roberts would upload all the assemblies at the end of each day for Garland and producers Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich to view. “This openness and trust between director and producer is quite unusual in my experience but a really refreshing way to work,” he says.

Once the shoot moved to Ealing, Roberts and Garland began to form a relationship. “The three months of studio work were essential as it not only allowed Alex and I to become much closer – and therefore I was far better equipped to deliver him what he was after – but more importantly he was able to become really familiar with the material. While he still had so much to shoot, he was able to learn what was working. By the time the shoot left for Manchester we had fairly thoroughly gone through every episode and had a pretty solid framework to plug the Devs scenes into. It pre-empted so many of the issues that first assemblies are often beset by.”

With the exception of the opening montages the only places the story moves [backward or forward] are when the characters use the Devs computer to look either at the past or the future. Episode 5, however, is structured almost entirely as a series of time shifts and was the first thing tackled in the edit.

“The scene order we settled on is very different to the scripted one and is actually much more linear in that we tend to jump to the beginning of a story strand and then follow it chronologically before leaping to another one. The script threw you around a lot more but the juxtapositions which felt logical on the page ended up feeling incoherent or disengaging so we simplified it.”

They kept all the episodes unlocked until the final two weeks of post in order to make changes in earlier episodes if choices in later ones informed them – another similarity with feature workflows.

“Alex likes to work by getting the shape exactly right without worrying too much about performance,” Roberts shares. “For months we only really dealt with scene order, length, text cuts and grammatical choices within a scene and then, only once we had that precise framework, did we do another pass and check every performance take but only of that particular shot. It’s a way of not getting too bogged down in the details while you’re still dealing with big picture issues.

“Over the course of the edit I offered up hundreds of suggestions that I thought were pretty good only to have Alex say, ‘That doesn’t work at all.’ That’s not to say he isn’t collaborative – far from it. He’s very open to anyone’s positive input. It just has to fall within the spectrum of his very particular taste. This is of course true of every director, but with Alex it is somehow more definitive.”

Roberts acknowledges his “wonderful” assistants Jens Baylis and Sam Shelton, and “a very diligent and dedicated additional editor Erline O’Donovan-Clarke, without whom it wouldn’t have been possible to get it all done in the time.”

He adds, “The biggest factor that allowed us to cover more ground was that we were never under pressure to cut significant amounts of time out of the episodes. We had eight 40-page scripts that were allowed to be anything from 40 to 60 minutes long and a channel that [was] happy for Alex to fulfill his artistic intention.”

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