Bringing Metamorphosis to the Screen: An Interview with Jerry Harned
Jerry Harned is the Editor for Illustra Media. Illustra's latest achievement is the beautiful documentary film Metamorphosis: the Beauty and Design of Butterflies. ENV asked him about the work that goes into a top-flight production like this.
Jerry, Lad Allen is your Writer-Director and Producer. How long have you worked with him?
Since 1984. We have completed about one film a year since then. (See interview with Lad Allen.)
Each one a stunner, too. How has your profession changed over the years?
As opposed to the old days (I'm showing my age) when we shot and edited on film, we are now using computers for every aspect of filming. Even the material that cameras shoot comes to the editor in the form of a computer image file. Metamorphosis was our first film to be edited entirely in high definition and on an Apple Macintosh computer. We've been editing and animating on computers since the inception of Illustra Media in 1997; however, until now it was on a variety of PC editing platforms.
Tell us a little about the life of a film editor.
My responsibilities are a lot like those of editors who work for large feature film companies. I start by processing all the material that comes in from field and studio videography. I need to organize it in a form that makes sense to Lad and me; otherwise, the project may lose an important visual or audio element just because it wasn't labeled properly.
Give us a short overview of the film-editing process.
Once Lad develops the script, I start searching for video material, and fashioning it into a story that is visually interesting and compelling. When I've got it "roughed together," I start adding elements such as music and sound effects.
Yes, the audio-visual elements that accompany the interviews are what make Illustra films so rich in content and appeal. How do they all come together?
When a film is nearly completed, the final music score and narrator are added. The sound effects are embellished and smoothed and I mix all the audio elements together. In Metamorphosis, Illustra Media produced its first 5.1 surround sound track. With the help of our composer, Mark Edward Lewis, we have a superb audio experience for our viewers (see the interview with Mark Lewis).
The most humorous moment in Metamorphosis starts with a Model T. Tell us where that idea came from.
Lad and I were in the editing room with Paul Nelson, our consultant and a philosopher of biology interviewed in the film, discussing the argument for design in butterflies. After some thought about what the metamorphosis process could be compared to, he looked up and said, "It's like a Model T Ford changing into a Boeing 747 all by itself. And not only that, it builds its own hangar to facilitate the change!" My graphically oriented mental gears started turning; how could we bring that analogy to the screen? While they kept talking, I poked around online and found 3-D object models of the car and the plane. The idea for the transformation sequence in the film was born.
As it developed, the 747 changed into a jet helicopter and the hangar became a military style Quonset hut. We chose the desert location for its starkness and simplicity to design; it also provided an ample supply of dust for when the copter takes off and flies away. The most extensive work was needed to dismantle the model T. Because in a butterfly chrysalis the cells actually break down in a process called apoptosis, or programmed cell death, the car had to literally fall apart. The 3-D object we purchased needed to be processed in several ways to get it to crumple, break, bend and dissolve away from its original form.
You destroyed your Model T?
I was virtually putting firecrackers in my toys, every young boy's dream!
To save time and budget we made the construction of the copter happen inside the Quonset hut, relying totally upon construction sound effects to carry the story. I found every clink, clank, hammer, impact wrench or stamping mill sound I could find to help our audience "see with their ears" the magnificent piece of new equipment that was being assembled inside. When the copter rolls out and takes off we really wanted the viewer to say to themselves, "Yeah, well, of course that can't happen for real!" so at that point we added the dust and some very low end surround sound effects to emphasize the point. We applied some special filters that take the whole sequence into a semi-dreamy non-reality visual look.
How have audiences reacted to that moment?
It's very satisfying to hear the audience chuckle as the Jet-copter takes off into the sunset. Perhaps someone in the audience will have a seed of doubt planted regarding gradualism and the origin of butterfly metamorphosis.
Were there other scenes that were more difficult to make than they appear?
Another animation challenge was the cell apoptosis sequence. Often visual materials from research organizations are not available to us, either because of cost or philosophical disagreement; therefore, we have to generate them from scratch. You can find good photographs of apoptosis on the Internet, but as we were not able to acquire them for our purposes, we began to experiment with an animated representation of the process.
You made the process look so fluid and natural; how?
Our animator, Joseph Condeelis of Light Productions in North Carolina, went to work. He created about 20 different visual representations of cell death. Each was sort of right, but not quite. We shelved the sequence for a few days to get a grip and try a fresh look later. Before he tried again, though, I noticed that parts were good representations of cell death, but not entirely. So I went to work in Adobe After Effects and composited (visually blended) bits and parts of all that Joseph had developed. The result was one animated cell that beautifully illustrated the cell breaking down. From there I could duplicate the animation and create tissues of cells being dissolved, just like what happens in the chrysalis.
I'm sure editing involves many long, lonely, thankless hours. How do you stay focused?
Lad and I and the whole team work together well. Everyone is very conscious of the message in every editing session. The message we want to convey - intelligent design - is one we all are committed to. It's what drives us to give our best, and when it all comes together, it's as satisfying as the birth of a child - or a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.
To learn more about butterflies and the evidence they reveal for intelligent design, visit Metamorphosisthefilm.com, where you can watch the trailer and order this outstanding film, now available in both DVD and Blu-Ray formats. While there, be sure to download the free companion e-book, Metamorphosis: The Case for Intelligent Design in a Chrysalis, edited by David Klinghoffer -- a beautiful and informative resource to enhance your appreciation of butterflies.