Diving into the Complex, VFX Workflow with the Editors Behind Sony Pictures' Thriller, Missing

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

In our latest interview, we spoke with the filmmakers behind Sony Pictures’ MissingTold entirely through computer screens and smartphones, the mystery thriller was made using advanced technology that’s just as exciting as the action in the film itself.

The film theaters on January 20th and is directed by Nicholas Johnson and Will Merrick. Missing follows a teen girl June (Storm Reid) whose mother (Nia Long) goes missing while on vacation with a new boyfriend (Ken Leung). Stuck thousands of miles away in LA, June creatively uses all the latest technology at her fingertips to find her mom before it’s too late. 

And just like June, the filmmakers relied on cloud-based and AI-powered tech to tell their digitally crafted story. Editors Austin Keeling and Arielle Zakowski chose Adobe Premiere Pro, After Effects, and Frame.io? to edit, build shots, and design thousands of graphics simultaneously. The complex and VFX-heavy workflow was custom-built to make the audience feel as if they’re logging in, clicking, and typing along with the characters in real time. 

PH: Can you share a bit of your background as an editor? What are some of the projects you've worked on?

We had actually never worked together before becoming editing partners on this film. We both went to film school at USC, along with the directors and producers (and many other members of the crew!). From there, Arielle spent nearly a decade in the commercial world, first as an assistant editor and then as an editor. She also edited a number of documentary series and films, including episodes of Chef’s Table and Making A Murderer.

fter film school, Austin wrote and directed an indie horror feature, The House on Pine Street. He then spent many years freelance editing digital videos for brands like Nike, Samsung, and Airbnb, as well as directing immersive theater. We both had always worked towards editing feature films and were so excited to board the Missing team.

PH: Where do you draw your inspiration from? Did you always know you were going to work in the production industry? (Why or why not?)

Storytelling has always been a part of both of our lives. Whether it was making short films as teenagers that we edited on iMovie or participating in high school theater, we’ve both always been drawn to the collaborative process of working with others to tell stories. Film school allowed us to dig deeper into our mutual love of editing, and we’ve pretty much been following that lead ever since!

PH: How did you become involved with Sony's Missing?

As we mentioned, a lot of us knew of each other from college, so we were all sort of on each other’s radar. Austin actually worked on the localization of the first film, Searching, and both of us had attended early test screenings of that movie. When the editors of Searching became the writer-directors of Missing, we were lucky enough to be considered by them for the job.

PH: Can you describe your creative approach?

Editing Missing was a completely unique editorial process unlike anything else we had ever done. We started editing over 6 months before production began, putting together a previz edit of the entire movie while the directors were still finishing the script. This phase of the process was filled with creative exploration and story discussions, many of which ended up influencing the final script. Once production began, our editing process became a bit more traditional, filled with many, many months of working together with the directors and producers to refine performance and story beats - all with the added element of needing to animate graphics and create shot coverage with the “virtual camera” as a part of the editing process.

Once locked, we worked alongside the rest of our incredible post-team to replace all graphics with hi-res elements and add tons of finishing details to the film, everything from motion tracking every mouse move to adding handheld camera shake to each shot. The amount of detail put into every frame of this film is like nothing else we’d ever experienced, and being involved from day 1 allowed us to really dig in creatively every step of the way.

PH: How much did you rely on cloud-based and AI-powered tech to tell this digitally crafted story? Can you give us a deeper look into that?

During the previz phase of the edit, we were still deep in the pandemic and were all working from home. We did rely heavily on cloud-based servers to keep us all on the same page and share media back and forth instantly. As far as AI-tech, because most of our footage is placed within Facetime windows, we actually used a lot of morph cuts in our edit to condense time or even combine takes, often adding fake glitches and video compression to further sell those moments as realistic video stutter.

PH: What was your experience with Adobe Premiere Pro, After Effects, and Frame.io? How did they help you achieve the final product?

When we say that this film was made head-to-toe in Adobe Creative Cloud, we really mean it! We worked in Premiere Pro through the entire editing process, using Productions so that we could easily share projects with each other and our Assistant Editors. The entire film was then dynamically linked over to After Effects once we were locked, where Illustrator and Photoshop were used to build high resolution graphics and plenty of final detail was dialed in. The finished film was actually rendered directly out of After Effects! Frame.io? was used to share work-in-progress cuts with our team, as well as with the studio. During the work-from-home phase it was especially useful as the directors could leave notes directly in Frame.io? for us to address.

PH: Adobe partnered with you to build a custom script in After Effects. How did this come about, and how much time did you ultimately save because of this?

[The script was built early on in our process and - while it did help tremendously as our team nailed down our workflow, ultimately was not used for the finishing of the film.]

PH: How do you think this new advanced technology genre will redefine storytelling in the digital age?

The most exciting thing about making a screen-life movie like this is that really, anybody can make one. While it took a tremendous amount of time and creativity from every member of this filmmaking team, the tools were all out-of-the-box Adobe tools that anyone with a Creative Cloud license can access. As filmmaking tools become more accessible, everyone carries a camera in their pocket, and people become more naturally media-savvy, it really does feel like we’re entering a golden age of DIY filmmaking. The possibilities are endless!

PH: What have you learned (professionally and personally) about yourself as an editor over the years?

If this project taught us anything, it’s that it always comes down to story. This filmmaking team - directors Nick Johnson and Will Merrick, along with producers Natalie Qasabian, Sev Ohanian, and Aneesh Chaganty - is an incredibly collaborative group of storytellers. Hours and hours were spent with all of us in a room, debating story ideas and problem-solving in the edit. Learning how to communicate your ideas is a skill in and of itself. No matter the technical challenges (and on this film there were many!), editing is at its core a storytelling craft - working on Missing reminded us every day that keeping the film grounded in character and story always made the movie better.

PH: Can you share any upcoming projects?

After 2.5 years of working on this movie, we’re both excited to take a little break from looking at screens :). But are hoping to dive back into narrative editing very soon!

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