Chris Dickens Weaves the Tale of A Slumdog Millionaire


Since first winning acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2008, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire has gone on to win the hearts of audiences the world over. It’s the tale of Jamal, a young boy from the slums of Mumbai, who becomes a national phenomenon when he wins India’s version of “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” The timeline of the movie, which relates each of Jamal’s game show questions to an instance in his troubled past, is a key to its popularity. The clever story has arguably become one of Boyle’s most recognizable features, but more than that, has brought recognition to his cast and crew, who have picked up awards and/or nominations from every major awards ceremony this season, including recognition in 10 Academy Award categories. Among the Oscar-nominated crew members is editor Chris Dickens, who helped weave the unusual storyline into a touching and captivating narrative for our time.

At the time of the Academy Award nominations, Dickens was arriving at the movie’s Mumbai premiere and was “amazed” at the news. But before he started work on Slumdog, Dickens trained “as if doing a marathon,” eating, sleeping and preparing for his months in the editing room. It obviously helped as he was also nominated for a BAFTA and an Eddie from the American Cinema Editors.

Just days after receiving the news of his nomination, Dickens spoke with MovieMaker about the work that went into building the story and why he chose to use Avid Adrenaline for the project.

Mallory Potosky (MM): Slumdog Millionaire has become one of the most popular movies of the year and part of that is likely due to its timeline—in which it bounces from present to past and back again. Yet you cut the film as it was being shot in India. Was everything planned out beforehand, so that all pieces fit together in the final puzzle?

Chris Dickens (CD): It was both planned beforehand and evolved in the edit. In India we put together largely the film as written, but with a lot of extra material that was shot. Although it worked, it was quite long in that form and some of the timelines—particularly the game show—were too dominant. The stories needed to feel more part of a whole rather than separate. So we reworked the film: Added more flashbacks, changed the order in a few places, simplified some sections and elaborated on others. To try and set up the film’s story and the questions that frame it, we developed the beginning and the end of the film a lot as the edit went on. As we condensed the film in length it was still necessary to keep a lot of the elements, hence we inter-cut scenes at various places, too.

MM: Were there any pieces to the puzzle you saw as key elements that in the end just didn’t make the cut?

CD: One whole part of the storyline was cut from the film. The part that was cut involved the inspector being pressured by the police commissioner to arrest and convict Jamal for something, whether he cheated or not. In the end this revolved around being an accessory to the murder of Maman [a con man who collects orphaned children and has them beg for money on his behalf]. The inspector arrested Jamal after he won the show and took him away before setting him free outside the railway station.

MM: The pacing of the movie is followed closely by the soundtrack. Were you influenced by the music while you were editing? Or did the final music come later?

CD: The final music largely came later, but we had a number of temp tracks by A.R. Rahman from other movies. When he came on board, we were able to rethink a fair amount of sequences as a result. Most notably, the end dance sequence was shot to a different piece of music.

MM: To create the look of the different time periods—and whether Jamal was prosperous or facing more adversity—Danny Boyle used different film formats—35mm and digital among them. What challenges did you face in pulling each section together?

CD: By shooting mixed media (digital and film formats), our goal was to differentiate the various storylines and this was a challenge in itself. In places, different formats were used within the same scene, which made it difficult for the colorist, Jean-Clement Soret, to pull off. We developed a completely new workflow for conforming this film and decided to use Avid Adrenaline systems because of the platform’s color grading features and its ability to mix different resolutions and formats. Technically, the edit was much more complex than usual, handling everything in the same system—but the Avid helped immensely.

MM: What about Avid made it a good fit for this movie in particular?

CD: The reliable Avid Unity LANshare system we used was a necessity. Also, the adaptability and the large amount of sound, grading and VFX options made Avid’s editing system a must for this film. As an example, we had 12 tracks of audio by the end (final sound mixing was done with a Digidesign Pro Tools system).

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