Alex Familian grew up in Las Vegas, NV and currently lives in Los Angeles, CA. In 2013, he founded his own production company, Neon Pig, with which he has produced and edited narrative films, TV shows, and national commercial campaigns that have screened at Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, Slamdance Film Festival, and have received multiple Vimeo Staff Picks. His clients include Hulu, 20th Digital Studios, Nickelodeon, and Impossible Foods. In 2022, Alex will produce and edit Appendage, a Hulu Original feature film, based on the Sundance short film with the same name.
I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Appendage editor and producer Alex Familian about the collaborative process with the film's director Anna Zlokovic, what personally draws him to material, and about Premiere Pro, his go-to editing software, and so much more!
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What initially drew you to the script as an editor?
Alex Familian: Well, the director and I are married, and I’ve worked with Anna [Zlokovic] in different capacities; whether it's editing, visual effects, or producing for the last five or six years; that's how we actually met -a mutual friend of ours, a cinematographer who shot Appendage, actually introduced us. And so, when Anna first was pitching the script to 20th Digital Studio, she had told me about them. And when I first heard about this idea, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I relate to this so much. I totally have an appendage myself, this is such a great idea.’ And I immediately wanted to be a part of it. I edited Anna's last short film, so she asked me to edit this film, and also produce it with her.
Sadie: That definitely gives more weight to my next question, what was the collaborative process like with Anna from the early stages of the script through post?
Alex: Anna is just such a collaborative director. She has such a strong vision, and she knows exactly what she wants. But she's really great at empowering the people that work on her crew, especially the department heads to bring something to it and stay within the confined boundaries of what she gives us. She’s just so good at being open to collaboration and hearing other people's ideas. And it's always about the best idea wins. We talked about stuff from day one. She storyboarded the entire movie; every single shot that's in the movie was storyboarded. And so much of it was planned. We even cut together some of the storyboards in Premiere beforehand, to figure out some pacing stuff and to see if stuff would work. And then obviously, in terms of the producing element, there was a lot of collaboration in terms of getting the actors, the locations and all that fun stuff.
Sadie: That's so cool that you were able to string some things together beforehand and have that as a reference while shooting, in which I assume you used to keep yourself on track?
Alex: Yeah, exactly. Anna always storyboards, which I love as an editor. I used to do a lot of visual effects and I just feel like storyboards are the best way to understand what the director is trying to do, even if they're stick figures. Anna's storyboards are beyond stick figures, but even if a director just gives you stick figures, it can be really helpful. And I think it just helps everyone get on the same page. It was so easy to just cut it together in Premiere and we got some sound effects together that we put under the storyboards and then we ended up using a lot of those sound effects in the actual movie when we actually put it together. It was kind of cool to start building that soundscape before we even started shooting.
Sadie: It helps set the mood and tone on set too, I'm sure.
Alex: Exactly, and the composer Nick [Chuba], we've all worked with him a bunch and he was composing stuff before we got on set too, which was always really helpful as a way to help get the tone across. And obviously, we're all watching movies, and she's having us watch Beetlejuice and then The Conjuring and it's like, ‘OK, we're starting to understand the tone a bit.’
Sadie: It’s interesting that you bring those two movies up, because this film certainly straddles both comedy and horror beats. As an editor, do you find similarities in finding those beats while putting this together?
Alex: I think comedy and horror are definitely related. I don't know if I thought about the comedy too much when I was cutting, it sort of just naturally was funny. And the voice of the appendage was naturally funny and what it looks like, wasn't naturally funny. In terms of horror, like the type of sound that you use, does the jump scare need the loud boom? Or can you rely just on diegetic sound? All that kind of stuff, I think we really thought about a lot when putting together the horror.
Sadie: With your background as a visual effects artist, the appendage I assume was a practical effect on set, did you have any creative challenges working with something that was more practical than having to make it up yourself?
Alex: I always love practical effects, way more than visual effects. I feel like even though I do a lot of visual effects [laughs] practical is always so much more fun. And there's something so visceral about it. And so, when we had it made, Anna brought on this special effects house are Amber Mari Creations, and they also worked with Ojala FX, and they just did such a great job making it. The one thing that we ended up wanting to do is we augmented the eyes of the appendage with visual effects. The eyes are kind of like plastic blue eyes and we couldn't afford to have them look around, they could blink, it was actually a remote control that was controlling it, but it couldn't look around. And so, with visual effects, I brought it into Premiere and After Effects and it was a lot easier than I would have expected. I just rotoscoped the eyes out. And then we had taken some photos of Rachel the lead actress's eyes and we mapped her eyes onto 3D spheres, which we then put into the appendage to kind of replace the appendage's eyes with Rachel's actual eyes. And then we created this cool system so you control the eyes in post-production really easily. That was a really cool combination of practical and visual effects, where we kind of worked together. And it was fun, because I got to talk to the special effects team about it and they were really cool. It felt like we were on the same team. It wasn't like I was trying to be like, 'Ha-ha! Let me get my visual effects in there.' [laughs] We were all part of the same team which was fun.
Sadie: That is such a cool Easter egg.
Alex: Yeah, Anna really wanted to figure out all these ways to tie the appendage and Rachel together. I think the initial design of the appendage was maybe even going to look a little bit closer to actually what Rachel actually looks like and then ended up the way it is, which is really funny and awesome. But you know, Rachel also does the voice for the appendage, which was really fun to record. And then we wanted to also tie it with the eyes, and so we thought it was a cool opportunity to do that.
Sadie: As an editor, what initially attracts you to material?
Alex: If I have an emotional attachment to the script, if I can read it, and I can relate to it, and feel like I can bring something of my own to it, then I think that's first and foremost, for sure. Obviously, a good director, there's a level of trust where it's like, ‘OK, I trust that this director is going to bring something really special to project and I want to be a part of it.’ But first and foremost, for sure, it's the script. And if there's any materials like a look book, or the director's previous work, you can get a sense of is there going to be something emotional that I can attach to here?
Sadie: What inspired you in wanting to become an editor?
Alex: I've always really liked post-production. It was just kind of like a natural thing. I've always really liked computers, and when I was really young, my grandpa taught me how to use Photoshop. I've just always been attracted to that kind of post-production energy. I love that in post-production you can work without shoes on, you can relax, and you're in a cozy office sometimes. I just I like that pace, a lot more than being on set, I think it just naturally works for me. And also being able to play around the way you can in post; where you can put a scene together one way, and then you can put it together a completely different way and show a totally different perspective. I think it's a fun psychological way of working things out.
Sadie: Do you feel like there's a lot of pressure to stay true to the original script or stay true to what's been shot or trying to add things to it to make sure the story is more cohesive?
Alex: That's a great question. I think it's always about the first cut. Try and stick with, for the most part, what the director has intended and how it was shot. And then from there, if I have ideas about how to change things, or something I can pitch the director on, ‘Let's save this close up for this moment?’ Or maybe, ‘Let's use an insert from this other thing there?' But I think it's just about initially staying true to that vision, and then kind of go off from there and play around.
Sadie: Do you prefer to be hands-off from set and rely on your Script Supervisor? Or do you ever chime in and talk to the director during production?
Alex: I've done both of those experiences. With Appendage for instance, I also was a producer on the project, I was there on set doing contracts, and I knew everything that an editor probably shouldn't know. [laughs] But I don't know if it really affected the edit. I feel like so much of this is just about using your imagination and putting all that stuff out of your head as much as you can. On this one, I think both Anna and I were able to lose ourselves in that process and not think too much about what happened on set, because when you're dealing with the budget, it's like, ‘Oh, my God, this shot costs so much money, how can we ever cut this shot out of the movie?’ I feel like we both have a pretty good sense of what works for the story or what doesn't work.
Sadie: And doing your due diligence and having all that prep work ahead of time, I'm sure helps day of.
Alex: Oh, yeah, we shot this movie only in two days on a budget that was definitely a lot smaller than it should have been in a lot of ways. The practical effects and all added a lot of time on set. And so, because Anna storyboarded the hell out of it and she literally figured out, the whole movie beforehand. It made my job a lot easier, especially for the first cut to just put it all together. I can't stress enough how important that prep work can be.
Sadie: Any advice for first-time writer-directors working with an editor on a short film project?
Alex: I think the main thing is to just be open and be collaborative. A lot of directors, I think, when they're younger or first-time directors come in and they think being extremely meticulous means moving one frame that way, or one frame that way. And I think it's about just remembering that you're hiring your department heads, because they have specialties in their craft, and it's important to trust them. But also give them the kind of direction that you're going for, but you shouldn't be doing their job for them, which is something I guess I've maybe seen. I think that's part of it.
The other part of it is also just learning to not be so precious. I think that's something that Anna and I have learned over the years of working together of just killing your babies can often be a good thing. And if something's not working, it's really important to be able to figure that out and problem solve. Also, in terms of being less precious, like an example is on Appendage, we had a studio, 20th Digital Studio, that we were working with who are really great, and they had notes on a particular scene with Rachel and Eric Roberts. And I think a younger version of myself and maybe even a more inexperienced director would be like, ‘Ah, studio notes! Let's fight them on it!’ [laughs] And I think something Anna is really great at is collaborating, and I really learned that their notes aren't bad. And we ended up doing some of their notes and they ended up in the final product and they really did make the movie better. And I think it's just about being open for collaboration.
Sadie: You mentioned earlier using Premiere Pro and After Effects, is that your go-to editing software?
Alex: I've been using Premiere for about 10 years now and haven't looked back. I think it's the only way I do things.
Sadie: What kind of camera did you shoot on? I know that Premiere is so great about transcoding on a lot of new media these days.
Alex: Totally, we shot it on an Alexa Mini shooting to ProRes four by fours, I think as MXFs and we ended up making transcodes for ProRes LTS, but for the offline, but then even when we onlined it, Premiere can handle using the raw footage. I'm also cutting on a solid-state RAID drive and so it's really fast. But Premiere handled all what we threw at it. I think initially we made the transcodes because it's almost out of habit. But when we onlined, it was all running on my computer perfectly smooth, which was great.
Sadie: Love to hear that. In terms of memory and storage and all that can be a pain. And sometimes people don't think about until the very last second.
Alex: Totally! Luckily, myself, Powell, the DP and Anna are all very tech heavy. And we were talking about different formats of the camera and the transpose like a month before; and the different LUTS and how the color is going to get it and all that. We really we nerd out about that stuff all the time.
Appendage is now a Vimeo Staff Pick, see what all the rave (and scares) are about!