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Emotional editing experience on ‘This Is It’

Jackson docu presented tech, grief, fatigue obstacles

The Michael Jackson docu “This Is It” is a prime example of a film created mainly in the editing suite — an achievement validated by the ACE Eddie Award nod all of its editors received last week from American Cinema Editors.

Helmer Kenny Ortega and his team not only overcame major technical obstacles to put together a cohesive film; they also had to fight grief and fatigue.

When Jackson died on June 25, less than three weeks before the first of his 50 scheduled “This Is It” comeback concerts, Ortega knew he was in for “a rough emotional journey.” As director of the concerts, he had spent weeks in rehearsals with Jackson. After the performer’s death, promoter AEG Live sold the footage from those sessions to Sony for $60 million, and Sony hired Ortega to transform it into a feature film.

The challenges were daunting. The footage had been shot only as reference for shaping the concerts, not for public exhibition. “We really didn’t have a lot of film of Michael,” Ortega says. “We had footage from cell phones, the Red camera, 35mm… we weren’t lighting. In audio, sometimes the sound in the camera was all we had.”

Nevertheless, Ortega and his team of editors put together a film that won praise from critics and grossed $256 million worldwide.

The editorial process was crucial,” Ortega says. Working at AEG, editors Don Brochu, Brandon Key and Tim Patterson took only a week to produce five hours of rough cuts that Ortega was happy with. The three editors then took their work to the Sony lot, where they were joined by a fourth, Kevin Stitt.

“We had a little factory going,” Ortega says. “I could jog from one building to the next, visit with each editor. I’d send in (choreographer) Travis Payne and (composer) Michael Bearden when there were questions about the dancing or music.” The team worked at four Avid edit bays seven days a week from the end of July until three weeks before the film’s October 28 release.

“It wasn’t easy. “People would sometimes hit a wall and needed a break from the emotion of it all,” Ortega says, “but knowing we had a limited amount of time for post, we really focused on the end result: telling the story of what might have been.”

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