Peter Lonsdale

Posted by Ingrid Heyn, Philip Jong.
First posted on 05 September 2009. Last updated on 23 May 2014.
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Peter Lonsdale
Peter Lonsdale has once worked at Sierra On-Line as the editor in film production for The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery.
Peter Lonsdale

This interview was originally conducted between September 2008 and September 2009.

Fans of Gabriel Knight may not immediately recognize the name Peter Lonsdale, but those who have played The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery, the second game in the Gabriel Knight trilogy series, will surely recognize this work. As the editor in film production for the Gabriel Knight sequel, Lonsdale has worked alongside director Will Binder and designer Jane Jensen during filming of the live action sequences for the game. Lonsdale is a veteran in the film industry, having served as editor for many big budget Hollywood movies, including Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), The Rocketeer (1991), The Jungle Book 2 (2003), Shark Tale (2004), Beowulf (2007), and many others. His latest credit is Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Furious Five (2008). His uncredited works include Madagascar (2005), Over the Hedge (2006), Flush Away (2006), and Monsters vs Aliens (2009), amongst others.

More than a decade has passed since the release of The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery, we are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Lonsdale about his memories of working at Sierra On-Line on this game. In the interview, Lonsdale speaks to us about his approach in film editing for the game, his experience of working with the game's cast and crew, his favourite scenes from the game, and his philosophy on video games as an artistic medium. He even tells us how far he has managed to play through the game himself!

The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery was the first and only video game which you were involved. What led you to this "gig" at Sierra On-Line? What uniquely attracted you about this project back then?

I had just finished a feature editing project and the people who were renting us the AVID had the lead. I had never done a game so it sounded interesting and a friend of mine had just finished editing the game for the film: Johnny Mnemonic (Johnny Mnemonic: The Interactive Action Movie (1995 video game)) and told me he had a good experience editing it.

Who among the cast and crew did you work with most closely during the shoot? What exactly was involved in the editing? How closely did you work with designer Jane Jansen in the postproduction?

Jane Jensen was in the cutting room almost every day. And Will Binder came in whenever he could break away from the shooting. When I started on TBW there was already about 30 half hour BetaCam tapes on the shelf ready to edit, which was daunting. I'm used to beginning a project from the start and keeping up to camera. But there was a nice sense of job security for a while as I never ran out of work to do. Will was very methodical in his approach and very thorough. He covered the scenes much like a feature film and usually had a full complement of angles to choose from. All of the footage was shot Blue Screen for compositing with the photographed and detail enhanced Backgrounds that were shot in Germany prior to production. Every detail on each shot was carefully logged and filed for later use during principal photography so that the same angles, lighting & lenses were used throughout the shoot. That way the compositing would be relatively easy. Each day I would get new tapes from the studio that had the backgrounds rough composited into them so that I had a good sense of what the final might look like. As I finished sequences they were sent back to the studio for final compositing. The sequences were reviewed by Will & Jane daily or every other day and actually very few changes were asked for. Not because we couldn't improve on them but that there was very little time to go backwards in the process.

I don't do rough cuts anyway. I try to present the sequences tightly edited and ready for the assembly machine...

When and how long did you work at Sierra On-Line? How different was this work from feature film editing?

I started in July of 1995 and finished in November. Working 9AM to 8PM 5 or six days a week. It was more like television editing I suppose in that Will & I worked out a style early on and then followed it to the end. It had to be very assembly line styled editing or else we would never get it done. The script was 540 pages! (Cut down by Jane prior to shooting from about 765 pages I was told.) An average two hour feature film usually has a 120 page script, takes about 60 days to shoot and about 5 months after principal photography ends you have a finished film. We had 4 and a half times the pages and only 5 months to do the whole thing. Will ran a tight ship on the set and I had to have the same discipline in the cutting room.

What were your favorite outtakes from the shoot that ended up on the cutting room floor (digitally speaking)?

I think very little ended up on the floor. It's been 13 years but I don't remember lifting much out. Some may have been left out of the disks after I left however.

What were your favorite scenes from the game?

The opera sequence at the end was the most fun probably. Robert's music was terrific. A great Wagnerian tribute. The parallel cutting was fun to do in a video game realm. Also I liked the opening movie of all the townsfolk walking up to the castle with "torches".

Bluescreen work had obviously metamorphosed enormously since your time of working at Sierra On-Line. What had been the most obvious changes? What were the particular difficulties you had to surmount in editing given the technical limitations of that time?

Actually the process has been around for a very long time.

The differences now are that Green Screen is used more often and that the matting software has gotten much more sophisticated and much more accurate and cleaner.

Personally I didn't have to do any bluescreen compositing at all. It was all done at the studio by Bill and his crew. And they had a pretty slick system going for that early time period in video. I think they used the Ultimatte system for it and that in those days it was pretty much an analog video process. Where today we have plug-ins for AVID & Final Cut Pro & After Effects that can do the job faster and cleaner.

Had you ever played the game itself? How satisfied were you with the final edit?

I have tried to play the game but I don't get very far. I think I completed two disks of the game out of the six disks. I'm afraid I don't have the patience of the gamers(!), which is disappointing because I would still love to see the final outcome of the Opera sequence at the end. The transformation scenes were still being worked on when I left the project in November of 1995.

Mainstream film critics, including Roger Ebert, have argued that video games cannot be considered as art. What is your opinion of video games as an artistic medium?

There is definitely an art to game design and execution. And it certainly employs thousands of true artists to construct the worlds and characters involved in the incredibly complex games that are around today. I don't think one can make a blanket statement like that about this medium on cursory look at a couple of games or leaning over the shoulders of your kids. When photography started in the 1800's it was looked down upon by the art communities of that time as was filmmaking in the 1890's and early 1900's.

How big is the gap between the game and film industry on this debate?

I really don't hear much from people in the business about this argument. But I do know a lot of animators and they certainly are huge fans of video games. And don't say anything disparaging about games to my daughter (who was born just two weeks before I started on TBW), you'll get an earful!!

You have worked on a number of animated feature films, most notably The Jungle Book 2 (2003), and Shark Tale (2004). You have also worked on a number of live action feature films, such as Back to the Future (1985). How different is the editing process between animated and live action films?

The big answer is that it's completely reversed. In live action you finished the script first and then shoot it. In animation you are working on the script to the very end. The writing is part of the process, which is part of what makes animation as expensive as it is. The other difference is in the discipline.

In live action I learned that what you get (in dailies) is all you get. You have to make the movie from what is shot. A few reshoots may happen occasionally but you cannot rely on that to make the film work. In animation while I'm cutting storyboards and dialog together, if I don't have a particular angle or expression that I need, I can just ask a board artist for it. That was very hard to get used at first coming from live action. I had to break that rule I was taught for years.

Now if I was cutting a live action movie I guess I'd be tempted to ask a CG artist to create it for me.

What is the single most important aspect of editing that turns a work (such as a film, an animated short, or a game) from something mundane into something exquisite? Alternatively, is it a whole array of editing touches that makes that difference?

Most editors will tell you that you can't make something mundane into some that sparkles. The old silk purse out of a sow's ear syndrome. And even today with all the new tools we have in digital editing bays and all the fast MTV style cutting I think that all you would be doing is putting up smoke and mirrors and not really fooling anyone. On the other hand an editor can do serious damage to a good project. Our job as editors is really the same as it has always been: to get the best out of the material that director shot for you. And, to see the director's vision through to the end of the story. It's a collaborative medium and we as editors are not here to put our own stamp on a film. Editing is best when invisible, just like all the other crafts in filmmaking. The audience just wants to see a great story told well and to get so caught up in the film that they forget where they are for two hours, which means that nothing on the screen should make them jump out of that trance they are in until the end credits.

With Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) now approaching photorealistic quality, in what capacity will this someday replace live actors in movies and video games? How likely is it that video games and movies will merge as a single entertainment medium in the future? Why?

I don't really foresee games and film melding like that. It has been tried. Bob Gale, Bob Zemeckis' sometimes partner, made a short film some years back and test marketed in theaters that were set up to get viewer responses and to enable the audience to make decisions in the plot twists of the movie. I don't think it worked too well although a valiant effort. Gameplay seems to be either a solitary pastime or just with a few well connected buddies.

With whom, if anyone, from Sierra On-Line have you kept in contact after the project? Have you ever crossed paths again with the cast and crew from the game in any of your other projects?

Will and I speak every now and then and my assistant Eric kept in contact for a while. Other than that I haven't heard from anyone.

What is your current project? How long have you been working with DreamWorks?

I'm freelance, and usually only work with any particular studio only for one project, except for a good long run I had at DisneyToon Studios.

What would it take for you to get involved in another Gabriel Knight game, if Sierra On-Line would ever green-light such a project in the future?

I thought it was a great experience and would welcome a chance to do another one seeing that a lot has happened technically since then, it would feel like a whole new medium probably.

What can we look forward from you over the next 5 years?

Hopefully a lot more animation and maybe even some live action and the combination of both which is really where most of the industry is heading along with the new frontier of 3D, which is being examined seriously by DreamWorks right now.

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