A Career in Post with "Midsommar" & "The Irishman" Finishing Artist Chris Mackenzie

Jul 23, 2021

The super talented Finishing Artist Chris Mackenzie recently sat down and spoke with Filmmaker U about his career in post and what is it he exactly does.  

With over 20 years of experience in post- production, Chris Mackenzie is a lead
finishing artist that has worked on a host of award-winning feature films from some of the industry’s most revered directing talents.

Chris’s most recent and notable work includes Amazon’s "Sylvie’s Love," Ron Howard’s "Rebuilding Paradise," Netflix’s "The Irishman," Robert Egger’s "The Lighthouse," Ari Aster’s "Midsommar," and FX’s "Fosse/Verdon."



Gordon Burkell (GB) - This week I'm joined by Chris Mackenzie, who's the finisher, on "Midsommar," "Eastern Promises," "Away Way Go" and so many other films.  How would you explain the role of a finisher to a young person coming up? I feel like that's something not many people are aware of.

Chris Mackenzie (CM) - I guess I like to explain it by saying, it's a little tough because, the other terminology is online editor. That's a little hard to explain too, because then it's like, oh, do you work on the internet, it's like, no! It's not quite a VFX Artists position either. But how I like to phrase it is kind of like, if you were to bring me your book for publishing, I would be the person who basically formatted or helped to format it as a paperback, or an audio book, or a hardcover book, and basically helped kind of put all these loose pieces of paper all together and bind it and make it something presentable that can be sold in the store. So basically, I'm doing kind of all the nips and tucks at the end, and kind of putting it together, in order to basically put it into its presentation format, being that on Netflix, or the theater, or TV, or your phone, whatever. Basically getting it up to spec, but also doing all the little last minute adjustments and fixes to it, which could include titling and could include a lot of beauty work and clean up, it could include fixing up a few mistakes, or a last minute edit or something like that. Just kind of like that last shove before it goes out the door.

GB - Why is it really important to separate the finisher from something like a Colorist or an online Editor?

CM - There's people out there who will do both the color and all the finishing work. But I feel that you get a little thin if you're doing both. I feel like a colorist should just specialize in the color. Kind of leave up all the extra doodads and worry about all the other stuff to the finishing person. I work in parallel with the Colorist, but yeah, I find it's just too distracting for the colorist to worry about this stuff. Also winds up being like too big a skill set for most people to be able to handle. To be worried about all the little incidentals and be able to do all kinds of clean up and touch up and also keep on top of all the standardization and the formatting and all that stuff. You know, if you're going to do color, you can just do color, I know a lot of Colorists, they like to move out of their lane a little bit. But I remember actually doing a little bit of color work on a movie once just where I had to just fix it up a little bit. I figured I'll color this in to match it and the colorist told me "don't cut my grass." You can stay in your lane, I can stay in my lane! There's no rule to say you can't do both, but I've generally found that people who stretch their skill sets a little too wide wind up not being so hot on everything. With the online editor, I feel like this position just evolved from being an online editor before. Like 20 years ago an online editor was very distinct in certain positions. And you definitely needed it when you were dealing wit the really low rez editing and then the master that you would need to do broadcast. That's where the online editor came in, just basically making the high quality master that was necessary to broadcast from your really lossy, Avid or Final Cut Pro compression back then.

GB - So besides the occasional grumpy Colorist, what are some of the challenges you find in this role?

CM - I wouldn't say grumpy, it's more of a joke! Definitely deadlines, it's constantly deadlines, deadlines, deadlines, deadlines, and that's what I'm up against this week, too. You kind of run out of two things. It's either you run out of money or you run out of time, and that's when it's finished.

GB - So how do you tackle the deadlines? We've seen over the last 10 years as budgets keep getting squeezed down, they want to get more for their dollar but also want to make sure that the quality is there. So how do you tackle tight deadlines?

CM - You learned to work a little bit smart. It's just trying to save a little bit of time when you're working. I try to do like 85% of the stuff in 15% of the time and then figure out what you can do to get rid of big chunks of work first and to get that off your plate, and then spend a little bit of time refining those last little bits that are going to make a difference. Basically try to get organized in the very beginning, try and take care of enough stuff ahead of time, when time is not an issue, try to get through enough material, and then really focus on the little bits. I see people all the time, they get super focused on the small little details, right in the very beginning, they wind up burning so much time that by the end, they're stuck. You just wind up pulling all nighters at the end just because you didn't manage your time. I described it once to somebody, it's kind of like painting a house, you use the rollers and all that stuff in the beginning to take care of the big areas and then go in with the little trim brushes and do the neat jobs where that's necessary. A lot of people will start off with the trim job, and then try to paint the whole thing that way. So you got to kind of, basically look at this huge task that you've got and basically try to not be sloppy, not be disorganized, but just go at it and and try to get as much done as quickly as possible. Where there's real details involved, spend your time and energy on that.

GB - How did you get into this position? I haven't really heard of any finisher schools.

CM - No, definitely not! When I first started out, I actually started working as a bicycle messenger at one point, I did have a fine arts degree and I was really into Photoshop in the beginning. I'd done some of that work in school. That's kind of what kept my attachment to computers, but I didn't really have that much interest on the film side. It was mostly a desire to use Photoshop. I was comfortable with that toolset. When I was working, I started dropping material off to post-production houses... this was way back when everything was all tape based. I actually saw somebody using an Inferno once when I went into one of these places. They were kind of like the granddaddy of Flame, which is the tool that I use right now. I talked to that operator a little bit because that seemed like the ultimate version of Photoshop where you're actually, in command of this gigantic, expensive machine, but still kind of doing that Photoshop work. At the time, they weren't doing movies, but it was like music videos and things like that, and high end commercials. To me, I thought, "Okay, that seems like a really great progression to get to." I kind of started asking questions, once I knew what the actual system was, and kind of knew what it was for and then realized they made them in Montreal. I actually went to college in Montreal, so I moved back there. As luck would have it, I wound up getting a job as a technician at the company that made those systems. I basically knew them inside out, and then was able to get a job at Deluxe when they first started doing DIs just because they couldn't really find anybody that knew how to work the machine. I had never really worked in a production environment. I basically knew how to take this thing apart and put it back together again, which really helped working on a night shift. I started basically working on a night shift, just doing simple stuff at first and then slowly expanded from there. Sorry, long, long story, but that's that. You really got to take an angle and you got to come in from an angle to get some of these jobs, especially in the beginning. When stuff is kind of evolving. I mean, you've always got changes in technology, it's really hard to predict where things are going to be. If you find an interest in something, and you have the energy, just pursue it no matter what. When I run into younger people now, I say to them, you know if you're really interested in something, you'll find a way. That's really the biggest thing, that interest has to grab you, then you'll find a way. It just seemed like everything worked like magic when one opportunity opened after another. When I first started working at Deluxe one of the first movies that we did was "Pan's Labyrinth" and I was able to get involved on that one. After that, I felt like I could do anything! Maybe a little bit overconfident at the time, but it did give me that huge boost. To get right into the beginning of doing DIs, basically did help open the doors for everything else.

GB - What were those early days like with DIs? I remember the transition, but I wasn't in any of the finishing areas. I almost feel like it was the wild west, people figuring things out as they went.

CM - It seemed like such a complicated operation and beginning. I'm not sure if your audience is familiar with the term DI now, but basically, it's a whole new standard of doing laboratory work. At the time Deluxe and Technicolor were the big labs, but they were still very photochemical based. The lab in Toronto was actually the largest processing lab in the world at the time. They actually had a big facility out by the airport where they did all their printing. The digital thing was very new. We always seemed amazed that something would actually turn out. It just seemed like such a complex procedure in the beginning. Then when we broke it all down, and each of us got good at our own little steps, it was just a small crew of us, we all realized it's actually easy. It's just some fairly simple math and a little trial and error. Basically, it's just a little bit slower and more expensive than doing your own editing at home. It's all the same basic tools.

GB - I think about back then... that late 90's, early 2000's, where that sort of transition occurred. I remember everyone was always worried about the digital look, as well as the quality of the codecs that we could actually use. So how did you guys ensure that you know you're transferring from this beautiful film print over to a digital intermediate? How did you make sure you still had the quality?

CM - That digital look, that was more of a concern. I remember when people were doing the acquisition on digital cameras, but the process kept going up until like, you know, 2010 or so as far as people being like, "okay, this is going to look way too digital." We would have to prove it to them all the time. That would be the quality of our LUTs or lookup tables. It is basically that math that I was talking about before, that was a little scary in the beginning. You basically have people that develop the matrix that allows you to be confident in what you were doing on the computer was going to be able to travel through this lab process and wind up on a film. You do various tests as you'd work and bring the DP's in and show them. The main thing was getting the skin tones right. People had to put their trust in the colorist. Then, everything had to be set up well through the lab, but the big, big facilities had it all worked out. It did take a little bit of trial and error in the beginning. You had those lookup tables that were developed by that facility, that math matrix, to basically ensure that if I make it a little bit more red on this computer, that's somehow going to be able to translate onto that printed film. Which then had to work its way through the lab process and be represented on that final negative that got printed out. The thing was all in what we call the "POC," the proof of concept. You bring the director or the director of photography in and they'd watch the color happen on screen on a few crucial scenes, and then we get the film back and we put it up for them and make sure it was great. Then they sign off and say yes, and then hopefully nothing happened to your lab chemicals. Anything and any adjustments after that, and all should be good.

GB - You mentioned that digital image and people worrying about that digital look. What would you say was the craziest? I remembered there were so many ridiculous suggestions like, if you do this, it'll look like a film. If you do that, it'll look like a film. The one that I always think about was, someone said, "take the lens out and put pantyhose over the camera and then put the lens back on." I was like, "I don't think that's gonna work!"

CM - Well, people used to use ground glass. Do you remember the ground glass thing?

GB - Yeah, yeah!

CM - It basically is a motor that spun a frosted disc, I believe in front of the lens. That was to simulate the grain. Sometimes that motor didn't spin and the image of the grain didn't move. That was a hassle, at least on one production I worked on, they always were trying to simulate this grain, but they kept ruining their shots, because they didn't operate the thing properly! To me, it just didn't seem to make any sense to try to replicate this look that way. You could just put it on after the fact, if they even did need it. I think a lot of people wanted to rely on that film grain almost like a set of training wheels. If you acquire this with digital, have faith that your image just looks good and people will look at this image. It won't distract from the story, the film, it doesn't have to have that thick, heavy graining that you think you associate with something that's actually shot on film. What I'm telling you is, yeah, it's still to this day, we do have a lot of people who are like, "I'm really in love with this film stock, I want to simulate this grain on there." Then their project is usually seen on a streaming website that probably has so much compression that that film stock look is completely wiped out. They might be deciding "okay, I'm gonna put this Kodak stock from like, 1960... 16 millimeter film on this thing, but it's intended to be delivered for an iPhone, and then you're never gonna see that anyway!

GB - How would you describe working with the colors to ensure that you get the best final product?

CM - I guess it's good communication. I feel really fortunate, the person who I work with the most is Joe Gawler. He's somebody I've worked with all the way from Deluxe. So, you know, more than half my career! I've basically sat next to or basically in a room next to the same colorist! We get to know each other, I really get to know what he expects and I feel like I don't want to disappoint him in any way. I always feel like I try a little bit harder when I have something for him... and Roman as well. I feel like I have a really good partnership with Joe just because of working together with him for so long. It just kind of feels like on a project I'm almost a lieutenant, you know? He's the captain, he's in the room, he's doing his thing. When he needs an assist, I can come over.

GB -I've been asking this question to everyone I interview during the COVID crisis. What is a streaming show or a movie that you caught during this COVID time that you would recommend people watch?

CM - I'll just plug one of our own shows I just saw, "Pretended It's A City." I struggle to watch things that I've worked on, just because by the time I'm done, I'm over it! I don't really want to see it again. In this case, I'm really glad that I went back and watched it because I hadn't really seen all the parts of it. So once I started watching it, I was like, "Oh, this is really good!" That I was happy to watch. I've also been watching a lot of older movies just catching up on things.

GB - Anything in particular?

CM - Yeah, we just watched "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" the other night. There are still so many great films that are out there available to stream right now. There's such a wealth of stuff that's out there. So don't be lazy. Look it up. Now's your time. You probably have a little bit more time to watch things then you ever did so, you know, make those reaches! Go back and watch some older stuff, go back and watch some indie stuff! Really expand your library rather than just sitting down watching something comfortable or because it's the first thing you see coming up that ultimately is not that great.

GB - Well, it's weird, because I feel like people almost treat their hours like throwaway hours. So they'll just watch... whatever. "I'll just click on this and watch it for the next hour or two."

CM - That's the way I felt when I was like I've got 10 minutes to kill. So I'm going to just watch a bit of this other movie while I wait for my wife to watch "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," even though I really doubt it's very good.

GB - Or I"ll quickly search YouTube and watch some kid do some weird trick!

CM - Yeah, yeah, exactly! And then it's like, you know, I could have actually spent that time actually watching something good. If you got the choice between eating a good meal or eating some fast food, I'd say more often than not, you should go for the good meal

GB - When you were in Montreal, did you catch any Canadians games?

CM - Never really been big into hockey, but we used to go down to Verdun and watch the minor league games. It was quite a lot more action in them and was much cheaper.

GB - It's like a religion there.

CM - Yeah! I would like to go into the more minor league rinks because it's a lot more like that movie "Slap Shot." It was a little bit more like "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome." Almost.

GB - I'm in Toronto. It's funny, because that's what they say. You can go to the Leafs game, but if you want to see people who are giving 110% go to the Marlies because they are all trying to get into the NHL.

CM - Exactly. You could pay like $300 and be sitting a mile away from the ice or you could pay like $5 and you'd be right down next to the ice and actually see a lot of action.


TAGS: #chrismackenzie #finishing #finishingartist #harbor #midsommar #theirishman #thelighthouse #vfx #visualeffects chris mackenzie finishing finishing artist fosse/verdon harbor picture company midsommar the irishman the lighthouse vfx visual effects

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