Zinzana - also known as Rattle the Cage - is a stylish Emirati thriller produced by Image Nation, combining violence with black comedy in a way that echoes Quentin Tarantino. It is also notable as the first feature film edited by Shahnaz Dulaimy, who entered the film business as an assistant in 2012 using a variety of nonlinear editing systems. Qualifying as the first certified Avid Media Composer user in Jordan enabled her to fulfill her ambition to become lead editor on productions. Here she discusses her techniques, the challenges of editing Zinzana – which subsequently won the Best Editing Award at the Digital Studio Awards - and her next projects.
DS: Tell us about your career and how you became an editor.
Dulaimy: I started out as an assistant editor four years ago and was constantly switching between different nonlinear editing systems such as Final Cut Pro and Premiere. I had a basic knowledge of Avid Media Composer but knew that to step up my game and become a feature film editor I would have to master the art of Media Composer.
To do that, I enrolled in an Avid training course at VET Post Production in London in January 2014, took the Avid Certified User exam and became the first certified Media Composer editor in Jordan.
Not long after that I got my first feature as main editor on Zinzana. Initially the producers were looking for an editor to cut together the first ten scenes so they could make sure they were getting the material they wanted, and I was in the right place at the right time with the right set of skills. I wasn’t briefed before I started work; I just received a hard drive containing the footage.
I cut the scenes and a couple of days later I got a call from the director, Majid Al Ansari. I went to the set the same day and he was very excited about the sequences I had sent. He said they were exactly what he had in mind for the edit, so I was brought on board to edit the rest of the film.
DS: Tell us about the story.
Dulaimy: Zinzana means ‘cell’ in Arabic, and the setting for the film is a cell in a rural police station in Jordan. The story revolves round Talal (played by Saleh Bakri), who is a recovering alcoholic and is in custody. Events take a bizarre turn with the arrival of a charismatic but clearly insane police officer (Ali Suliman) who wreaks havoc and threatens Talal’s family. From there it becomes a game between the two men.
DS: How was the challenge of keeping the momentum and pace given that the film is all set in one location?
Dulaimy: The film was shot on one set/location, so it was important to establish the environment without making the shots feel repetitive. I would sometimes resize them and shift their positions to make sure that the audience’s eyes follow the movement from one cut to the next, engaging them in the story despite its confined setting.
DS: Can you tell me about the technology you used for editing?
Dulaimy: At the beginning I was working without an assistant, and I set up the project by myself in the way I’m comfortable with - syncing the footage, labelling the clips and organising the bins. I was using Media Composer v8.4.2 on a Mac Pro with Nitris DX. The great thing about Media Composer is it allows me to do all that easily and efficiently, without holding up the assembly cut. I imported the footage as DNxHD36 and synched the audio instantly based on timecode using the Auto-Sync function, creating grouped clips for multi-cam shots.
The Commit Multi-Cam Edits feature is one of my favourite functions. I would switch between camera angles in grouped clips as I was editing, and then would use the Commit Multi-Cam edit just before export to commit to my final choice of camera angle.
I always work with the standard Avid keyboard settings but I map out the shortcuts Shift F5 and F6 to toggle between the Source/Record Editing workspace and Effects Editing. I had saved that shortcut to my command set a while ago, and now it’s a natural hand motion for me on the keyboard.
DS: What were some of the most challenging scenes for you?
Dulaimy: In terms of effects Zinzana has a major sequence in which one character spits alcohol on a lit match to set someone else on fire. I had plates of the stunts blowing out real fire on set, so I used Animatte to isolate the flame and composite it on to the clean shots of the actors. Temp effects make it much easier for me as an editor to visualize the scene better and pace it accordingly.
The flashback scenes were probably the most challenging scenes to edit. They were shot against a black background and were not giving the right emotion for the story; instead of coming off as an ethereal, dream-like sequence, it was dark and confusing. I had to experiment a lot with the scene using crossfades, superimposing the footage and intercutting, as well as ramping time with key frames and adding audio effects to the dialogue. I managed to get the scene as close as possible to where we wanted it to be emotionally, which helped the director determine the exact shots and pace he would get in the re-shoot, and it turned out beautifully.
Majid and I trusted each other from the beginning, and he let me complete the rough cut without any guidance or direction. I had the first cut ready within three or four weeks, and Majid and I worked on it at Optix [post-production facility] in Dubai. He had specific ideas of what he wanted to achieve and he communicated his thoughts very clearly, which made editing a breeze.
DS: What have you been doing since finishing Zinzana?
Dulaimy: Since completing Zinzana I have been working on The Worthy, another Image Nation production that is set in a dystopian future. It was shot entirely in Romania, so for the duration of the shoot I was working with a post team in Bucharest. We had two Avid stations set up and connected through a network server. The assistant editor, Natalia, would sync the material - which would include eight camera set-ups at times - and then save the bins for me in a folder on the server. This was very efficient for the tight shooting schedule that we had, and proved even more useful when I had to move the edit to Dubai and still receive bins from the post team in Bucharest. I couldn’t have asked for a more comfortable and efficient workflow on what was a VFX-heavy film with a tight schedule.