How the "Searching" Editors Created a Thriller That Never Left the Computer Screen

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Image courtesy of Screen Gems.

Directed by Aneesh Chaganty and starring John Cho, Searching proves just how powerful technology has become by bringing viewers into the story through the lens of one MacBook and iPhones. The editors used Adobe Premiere Pro to craft a suspenseful narrative of a father searching for his missing daughter under the unique confines of FaceTime conversations, iMessages, Google searches and live-streamed news. Editors Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick shared their experience working on the film, its challenges and upcoming projects. 

ProductionHUB: How did you become involved with the project?

Nick: I went to school with Aneesh, so I knew him from film production and screenwriting classes, and we worked together in various ways throughout school. He was always someone I respected and wanted to work with in the future, so when he called me up a few years after we graduated and asked if I wanted to edit his first feature with Will, I was immediately interested. And after meeting up with him and hearing his vision for the film, whatever doubts I had about the format were immediately dispelled, so I met up with Will at a coffee shop and we got along pretty well, so I signed on.

Will: I met Aneesh in film school at USC. He was two years older, so I crewed his thesis film, and not long after edited a spec Google glass spot with him and producer Sev Ohanian. The spot went viral and Aneesh spent the next two years working at Google while I moved on to other short-form videos. Then out of the blue, he reached out to me with the outrageous concept of a film told through computer screens. After reading the script I was convinced it could work but would be just about the hardest first feature an editor could take on. I met with Nick Johnson, another classmate of Aneesh, for the first time at a coffee bean, and we hit it off immediately and decided to edit the film together.

PH: Can you talk a bit about the concept for the film and the decision to create it entirely on phone and computer screens?

Nick: The concept of the film was entirely developed by Sev and Aneesh. Bazelevs, the production company that made Searching, had made Unfriended a few years prior and had great success, so they were looking to develop more “screenlife” projects.

Both Will and I were skeptical at first (it’s safe to say that a lot of people are), but Aneesh and Sev assured us they wanted to approach this concept in an entirely new way. They wanted to treat this as cinematically as possible and elevate the “screenlife” format. So then it was up to figure out how to adapt traditional cinematic techniques to action unfolding entirely on screens. It was a movie language that we had to develop and learn through experimentation and by making mistakes, but in the end, I think it makes for a uniquely engrossing and immersive experience.

PH: How did this add to the film?

Will: On paper, the computer screen element was a limitation, but it forced us to get creative in the ways we show information. It allowed us to glimpse first-person into the character’s heads, and show their emotion through google searches, or even something as simple as a cursor motion. Also, not many films have been made this way, so we found ourselves on surprisingly fertile ground.

We decided early on that this film wasn’t going to take place in a wide shot of the entire desktop, but would cut in and around the screen for virtual ‘coverage’ of the action. We were finding new ways to push this language on an almost daily basis. It was a lot of fun to see how far we could go with injecting Hollywood cinematic language into a computer screen and have it still make sense to a viewer. There was a lot of testing whether people could read the text, etc. But what we found, on the whole, is people really relate to seeing life play out on screens.

PH: What were some of the challenges you faced?

Nick: We pretty much faced challenges at every phase of the process, mostly owing to the fact that there was really no blueprint for approaching something like this. We actually started editing 7 weeks prior to physical production, which meant we had to create the initial cut of the film from scratch by generating all assets ourselves. It was like doing a puzzle where you also had to create the pieces yourself. So you’d come to work one day, take a look at the script, see “…posts blur into a DIGITAL CACOPHONY…” and then have to figure out not only what a “digital cacophony” looks like, but how to create one. So in a lot of ways we were not only editing but animating. Which meant everything took an insanely long time to do. 

From the beginning, we were working pretty insane hours. We had some help with making the graphics, but for the most part it was just me, Will, Sev, Aneesh, Natalie, and two iMacs that were crashing constantly, so it became an endurance race, grinding through 14 hours a day (although we had a lot of fun, to be fair). One of the hardest things was trying to stay focused on story and character when moving something over 15 frames could take an hour. We were definitely dealing with things on a super micro scale, so the five of us definitely relied on each other to remember the more macro concerns of clarity and emotional effectiveness. I know as one of the ones dealing with near-constant spinning wheels of death, having four other people wholly invested in first and foremost telling a good story helped me stay focused and sane.

PH: Did it make it more complicated in post? How did the post-production process go?

Will: It made things infinitely more complicated. Nick and I both worked on this for a year and a half, starting seven weeks before production even began to create an animatic from scratch, so the crew and actors would understand what they were dealing with in terms of eyeline, etc. After shooting, we overcut the live-action footage onto our animatic and edited from there.

The decision to use a virtual ‘camera’ within the computer screen meant we had to make framing decisions on top of standard editing. Sometimes there would be multiple video feeds going at once, and we had to make sure they’d sync up. From a technical side though, the biggest challenge was we couldn’t use screen recording for anything in the movie. The resolution just wasn’t high enough. So after we locked the movie, we spent months working alongside our VFX company Neon Robotic, creating high-res vector files of everything that appears on screen, so that when we cut into an ECU of the dock, for instance, you still see crisp icons and not a pixelated screen-cap.

PH: What techniques and equipment did you utilize?

Nick: As far as equipment goes, we both edited on iMacs, which, to be honest, may not quite have been up to the challenge. We also had a magical 2009 Mac Pro which somehow rendered our sequences better than our iMacs could, so special shoutout to that hero, who I guess is now enjoying retirement in a dark closet somewhere at Bazelevs…

In terms of software, the Adobe Creative Cloud was instrumental. It’s painful to imagine trying to making this with any other software. We cut in Premiere, which is our preferred editing software, and then Dynamically Linked over to After Effects, where we replaced all images with Illustrator and Photoshop files. We even used Speedgrade to preview our DPX sequences. Adobe’s vast array of professional editing and motion graphic tools made using it a no-brainer.

PH: How did this project differ from others you've been a part of? 

Will: This is my first feature, and it couldn’t have started much harder. It’s rare as an editor to be one of the first people involved in a film and to be making decisions about framing and design of windows on the screen. It’s also almost unheard to work a year and a half on a project. Every decision we made affected everything else, so the process did become frustrating at times. The crazy technical challenges made it harder than usual to keep focus on the emotional core of the movie, which should always be an editor’s primary focus, but Aneesh and producers Sev and Natalie were around us constantly, keeping things light and keeping the focus where it mattered.

PH: What are upcoming projects you're looking forward to?

Will: I can’t talk too much about what’s next, but we had a dream team on this project, and I hope to keep working with them as long as possible. There’s definitely a lot of room left to innovate in computer-screen films, but at least as an editor, I’m looking forward to taking on a conventional live-action movie.

Nick: Ditto.

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  • Tom Luca said…
    Wednesday, September 19, 2018 3:03 PM
    I've got to get back into Photoshop and After Effects again and make some Matte Paintings. Miss it.
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