The Watchers

Job ter Burg, ACE/NCE, discusses how the textural and terrifying sound design of The Watchers started with the director Ishana Shyamalan’s cinematically descriptive script, how collaborative discussions evolve as choices are made to include or drop scenes, and how producer M. Night Shyamalan passed down his method of watching dailies to his director daughter, Ishana.

Today on Art of the Cut, we speak with Job ter Burg, ACE, about the film The Watchers.

Job has been on Art of the Cut before - most recently to discuss Gareth Edwards’ sci-fi film, The Creator, and before that for Paul Verhoeven’s film, Elle. His other work includes Benedetta, The Informer, and Brimstone.

Job, you and I have known each other for a long time and it is so nice to have you back on Art of the Cut.

It’s great to be back, Steve. It’s always a pleasure and lovely to talk to you to talk shop.

The last time we talked was on Elle, I think.

 I was also on the team that you talked about The Creator.

Of course! About The Creator!

Last September. But the last big one with just the two of use was for Elle.

I looked through your IMDB credits — and you’re a solo editor most of the time. Tell me about those films when you get to work with a team. Do you like it? What do you get out of it? Or is it difficult?

It’s very different. Sometimes I’m brought onto a project where somebody else has started it and I’m brought into either do revisions or take over because someone is no longer available.

Sometimes I ’ll actually be working together with someone and those latter ones I find the most interesting actually. So I hardly ever get to do it. 

When I get to do it, I think it’s quite inspiring. It sort of depends on if it’s logical - if it makes sense for the project - but on something like The Creator, which was such a big endeavor with so much footage and so many practical challenges to overcome, that was just a joy.

Also if the people you’re working with are colleagues that you really admire and appreciate their work, then that is obviously a great plus. Just seeing other people work up close or seeing what they do and how they approach things has always been really interesting and stimulating. You hardly get to do that ever.

On The Watchers I was lucky enough to have a situation where [director] Ishana [Night Shyamalan] and I were cutting her film. Her father (M. Night Shyamalan] - who was also the producer on our movie - had shot his own film while we were still in editing, they were editing that as well.
His editor, Noemi [Katharina Preiswerk], whom I’ve known for quite some time, was cutting literally next door from me. Her team was there as well, so that was really great because then we get to chat with each other from time to time and sort of see the process that others are going through that you’re not normally not privy to.

So yeah, it’s quite exciting to me. This can sometimes be a little bit of a lonely job and that is a nice change of pace.

How did you get this gig? Of your previous work, what do you think resonated with the producing and directing team?

What I understood is that they were pretty enthusiastic about Elle. That was one of the reasons that they were very interested in me, but it was actually - to the best of my knowledge - it was Noemi,  Night’s editor, who suggested they chat with me about this project. I think they were specifically looking for someone with some European background.

I got to talk with them and we really got along well, then I ended up being hired on the movie. It all went pretty quickly, not too far before the film started.

That was a bit of a weird way to land the gig, but a cool way because I had known Noemi for quite some time and she had worked for Blinding Edge and with Night before and with Ishana as well on Servant - the Apple TV Plus show - so she really knew their way of working, the sort of vibe that was going on at their offices and the way they liked to work.

Her knowing me as well, she sort of figured that might be a good match and as far as I’m concerned, she was completely right about that because I loved it there and I think they were very happy with me and it was all just a very creatively stimulating environment to be working in. It was a very inspiring experience for me.

The movie is based on a book. Did you read the book first?

I first read the script, then I think I perused the book. I didn’t study it or anything. I just went through it just to sort of get a glimpse of how things were.

I bought, the ebook so I could carry it with me wherever I was, so I could always check it for anything that might give me a clue or a hint or anything that I might find useful. But I have to say, it never got to that.

Maybe because Ishana was so well-prepared for this movie that she knew that book inside out. The story was so much in her whole system and in her veins that I never needed to look back at the book.

Editor Job ter Burg, ACE and director Ishana Shyamalan

On any movie I’ve done that was based on a novel, sometimes I would’ve read it, sometimes I wouldn’t because sometimes you also don’t want to be distracted by this different way of telling this story because obviously Ishana had already made it her own in a way and made it cinematic in a way that the original had some clues for, but that wasn’t there.

She writes very cinematically. That was one of the reasons that I absolutely adored the script: the way she writes things. It’s all about what you see, what you hear. It’s very, very cinematic. It’s very engaging, very visual, but also with a lot of focus on sound.

There were so many sound notes in the script that were actually useful to how this story was developing. Sometimes it can be helpful just to focus on this version of it.

I did a movie early in my career where I read the book only after we did the movie. Now I can appreciate it in a different way. It never got in the way while I was making the movie. The movie is its own thing, right? As much as it’s based on a novel, you still try to make it your own.

Especially when you really get into editorial, it’s all about the stuff you’ve shot at that point, right? So you’re working with whatever the movie is becoming, and in a way the movie becomes its own thing and that is what you’re finding out and you’re trying to shape it and you’re trying to kick it into submission as much as you can, but you’re also trying to find out what this movie wants to be.

And that is part of the process that I really like as well.

Writer/director Ishana Shyamalan on location in Ireland

You mentioned how cinematically she writes and that sound is so important even at the script stage. I’ve talked to Randy Thom, who is a famous sound designer and works at Skywalker Ranch, and he begs scriptwriters to write more sound into their scripts. Can you describe a little bit about what sounds you were getting from the script?

 It’s not even so much that it’s the exact sounds you need to hear, but there were all these clues about how these Watchers sound. If you take the first night that Mina enters the coop in this movie, she stands in front of the mirrored window and hears something. She doesn’t really know what it is.

Mina asks, “What is that sound they’re making?” Ishana describes it in a specific way, then one of the characters says, “Applause, Mina, for you. A welcome to the show.” Then there’s a shot of the outside of the coop and you hear something rhythmic that you don’t really know what it is.

When they say “it’s applause,” you sort of start to understand it and there is sort of an applause. It has some wood, it has some bony sound in it. That revelation is very much something that I recall being in the script.

The execution of it is an art in and of itself - that art and craft of designing that sound was a totally different step - but the idea behind it, first we hear something, then we reveal something about it so that you better understand the sound and you get a glimpse of it, but you don’t see any Watchers yet.

It takes a while before you see any of the creatures that we suggest are there all the time.

That applause, it didn’t sound like applause, but you understood what it was supposed to be, but it was a weird sound.

It is a weird sound because you don’t want it too human. You don’t want it to sound like people are smacking sticks to a tree or whatever. Even though some of that is that, I think.

It starts out with the idea of sound being part of the story and being a way to sort of tell the audience something and make them experience something without showing it to them, yet postponing that actual visual reveal. All those ideas were in that script and that was really appealing to me.

It is pretty cool to hear them before you see them.

You probably hear more Watchers in the movie than you ever see them. The sonic part of their presence is quite an important part, especially the first part of the movie.

Job’s Avid editing set-up in Philly

When we talked for Elle, you specifically mentioned how much you do with sound in your picture cut - mix with things like izotope and really working with plugins. What do you find the value of that is for you as a storyteller?

First of all, to me it helps me see any version of the scene that I make as a potential finished thing. Those are not fully fleshed out, mixed things, but I try to make sound a part of how I present the cut, even to myself. If I try some idea, I try to make sure that that sound is helping convey the best version of that idea or the best presentation of that idea.

The other reason is that I just really like not losing any - or too much - time doing extensive pre-mix sessions for screenings. And on the European movies I do, we often don’t have time or money to do any of that.

Then I just need to make sure that when we play the movie to any audience - whether that is the producer or whether that is a friends and family screening or a preview audience - you need to make sure that the movie works. So I try to get as close to a working scratch mix - even in 5.1 - as I can.

I cut in 5.1 usually, or at least 3.0, right? It’s the left-center-right thing, then sometimes we’ll play around with the surrounds because we have them or add a little LFE because we’re making scares and that kind of stuff, but that is later in the process. It’s a time-saver in that sense, and even a money-saver when we’re talking about the European films where you don’t usually have the time or money to do a scratch mix pass.

But on this one we had a pretty tight schedule with a lot of VFX to take into account. Obviously there are the story elements: we needed to have Watcher sounds in this movie to convey what they were going to be.

Obviously we were bringing in our sound team as soon as we we could and and as soon as we had them on board to make sure that they were feeding us with stuff to put in and move around. But also on a practical level, it just allowed us to keep working much later than we would otherwise have done.

If a sound mixer has to do a two day scratch mix, that’s not the most fun because in two days you don’t get to spend any time on anything. You’re just basically getting everything sorted out. It requires a turnover from picture editorial to sound and before you know it, you’re losing three days of work, which - if you’re hitting preview after preview - at some point that’s just not time that you want to lose. I just want to keep working.

So my idea of adding sound as I go and involving the stuff that sound editorial and sound design is offering me and incorporating that in and making the sound grow means that the whole sound design sort of has an evolution alongside the cut.

So that is informative to the cut. It sort of makes the movie grow as you work on it and it saves you a bunch of time where you can just continue to work and tweak and get more out of the week, basically.

Job’s Avid timeline screenshot

I’m always interested in the idea of “cinema time”: how editing either slows down time or speeds it up or skips time. An example from The Watchers that I was thinking of was: when Mina first gets out of her car, when she’s in the forest, it doesn’t continuously show that she opens her door, she stands up out of the car, she walks to the trunk. Instead it’s jumping time: cut, cut, cut, cut. Talk to me about the reason to do that; when you do that; when you try to be continuous; when you’re leaping in time?

Ooh, that’s a difficult one because that depends on so many factors. I don’t think there’s just one recipe for that. I will say obviously because this is - in large part - a mystery, suspense movie, there’s a lot of continuity because you’re just trying to stretch time a little and not be too fast in order to let the suspense rise.

But obviously that doesn’t work for enormous stretches of time. So it’s all about dynamics, right? Sometimes you have to compress in order for other moments to let them sit and extend them. At some point you need to tell that time has passed, then usually you will want to be explicitly non-continuous at that point.

And then being short and tight can help. It’s one of those things that is constantly - even if it’s not consciously on your mind - it’s constantly there.

You’re playing with the time and the pace and that helps you sell the suspense. It helps you find the rhythm of the movie. It makes you focus on the stuff that you want the audience to be engaged with - the stuff they sort of have to figure out for themselves.

It’s all of that. It’s probably one of the hardest things we do. I totally agree with you that cinema time is this thing that we are working with. It’s what we do. It’s what we try to figure out.

Justin Rosen (VFX Editor), Joel Figueroa (First Assistant Editor / Voice of Darwin, Job ter Burg, Ishana Night Shyamalan (Screenwriter / Director), Nick Allen (VFX Producer) taken outside the editing offices.

In the example of the car, the car is not the important thing, right? The point is that the car is being left behind and what’s about to happen is important. You need to get to that. You’re also starting to stretch time probably right after that. I would think as she’s walking through the forest, you’re starting to elongate things. So do you compress before you elongate?

Something like that. I think the opening of the trunk of the car - the front with the engine - I think that was a pickup that we did at some point just to make sure that people knew that she checked the car and that she couldn’t get anywhere with it before getting the bird out of the car.

Also, that whole walk into the forest from the car was actually much, much longer. Then at some point we realized it was much scarier if she was just walking pretty much around like a couple of trees and the first time she turns around - just where she would expect the car - there is no car.

Whereas if she walked into the forest for a pretty decent amount of time and she turns around and then she’s not seeing the car, but we’re not really expecting the car to be there because it’s not supposed to be, right? It’s supposed to be somewhere in the distance, but if you expect it to be close by and it’s suddenly gone, that’s a different thing to tell.

It was scarier that way: “The car should be right behind me” and it’s not.

That’s one of the great things about cinema: that stuff that puts you - as an audience - inside a character’s head. You’re really experiencing what she’s experiencing and that’s what makes movies so exciting: that you can get so involved or so connected to a character.

Job’s Philly editing room

Tell me about temp score. What did you use or did you use anything?

Ishana likes to work without temp score for quite a bit. To be honest, I used some temp, even when we were still in production. I sometimes used a little temp just to see what would happen. Nothing that I spent too much time on - just to see what would happen.

Ishana and I  basically just cut with just sound and no music added and at some point - when we needed to hit previews - I think we did one sort of friends and family screening with zero score. That is a bit challenging, especially with a scary movie.

After that we sort of started adding some temp and then we brought in Del Spiva, a music editor. I’d actually worked with him before on The Informer in 2017 or so.

He presented us with a couple of bins of stuff that he collected from existing scores and asked, “Is anything in here resonating with what you think will match your movie or your idea of the tone of the movie?” Obviously, there were some great things in there.

Then he used that as a starting point. We had also already started working with Abel Korzeniowski, our composer, so while we were temping, we were also bringing in demos of his.

So at some point it was like 80/20 (temp to demos) and then it became 60/40 and then it became 70/30. And at some point we had screenings with zero temp score and just his demos.

What were some of the things you discovered as the cut evolved? Did you need to get to big story points earlier?

Quite quickly we had sort of a nice pace to the story and the movie was playing quite well. When you’re at that point, you still find stuff to sort of finesse and there were absolutely moments where we felt like the second reel wasn’t quite working. It was sort of like, “Well yeah, the movie is still a little too long and there are lulls in there and let’s start working on them.” 

For instance, you start with: “It kind of plays well. It’s just that those first 10 minutes sort of needs tidying up, then after that, those 20 minutes seem to flow really well. Then there is a lull at 30 minutes” or whatever.

Then you work on those 10 minutes but those 20 minutes after that you liked all of a sudden makes zero sense because you’re in a different flow and at a different pace.

You changing something here and it has an effect on what is happening afterwards. That’s just the way you attack it, right?

After an editor’s cut or after a director first cut, you just constantly work on small things that influence the whole thing because you’re constantly working on the whole thing, but everything is sort of related. You never see the whole thing and immediately say, “Oh well, the first 15 minutes we have to take out two minutes, then the second reel we have to take out that scene and flip it around.”

Obviously you have a lot of those types of ideas, but those are never the full recipe to getting a perfect movie. You keep having those ideas and you keep iterating on stuff. That’s part of the fun of what we do, right?

The characters in the movie are trapped in this shelter - this coop - for many days, weeks, months. They go out multiple times during the day and come back and go out and come back. You could have had more days than you had in the movie and you could have less days than you had in the movie. Were you close to the script or did you find: we don’t really need this day or we don’t need this moment?

I don’t think we lost any days, to be honest, because it was written quite economically. I do know that we restructured what was happening on day one and two. We made a huge flip there. According to the script, there was something that happened on day two, but we moved it to day one.

Obviously, we want you to be invested in Mina and follow her arc and understand the decisions that she makes. One of the things that was a little weird is that she seemed to be a little too easily persuaded to just stay in the coop with those people.

So her walking out on the first morning after getting to the coop was actually a decision that she did on day two in the script, but we felt it played better if we flipped that around. That was our main concern. At some point there is a bit of a time jump in the movie - which is after Mina has found a video camera.

Then after that, when they throw the bike back into the borough, we play a a flashback of the little girls, then we return and it feels like a time jump. It is a time jump. We jump to winter. That was scripted. We did mess about a lot with the flashbacks in the movie.

When you have flashbacks like that you always get to play with them. Like, when do we play them? How do we disperse them? Do we cluster them as we’re doing now? But we also had it where there were more slivers of flashbacks throughout the movie. That is all part of a journey of exploration, right?

What kind of discussions were there about changing it to the way it is now?

Ooh, there were so many thoughts about that because it was something that we really wanted to incorporate, but because of the mystery suspense nature of the main “A” plot, whenever you cut away from that to something else it needs to be warranted and you need to be interested enough as an audience at that point in the story to be fed this other “B” storyline that we as filmmakers want you to be interested in.

That can be tricky. Especially when the mystery and the suspense are there, it’s sort of like, “Well, why are you showing this to me when I’m so curious about what’s happening in the forest?” Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.

So it was really dependent on where we dropped those scenes in as to how people responded to them.

Early in the movie there’s a scene where the lead character - Mina - puts on a wig and goes to a bar. In the overall PLOT of the film, it doesn’t mean anything. Can you tell us what the discussions were around leaving that scene in, or why that scene was important to the film?

It’s a good question, Steve. That scene has been out of the movie and back in maybe more than once, and we played around with it and we could even play a little bit with how long we played it and stuff like that. The funny thing is that somehow when we left it out, we were missing something about her character.

And the funny thing also was that in previews we would sometimes get the question: “What is that scene and why am I seeing it?” Which is a valid question.

When we DIDN’T have it, we felt that there was a lack of response to her character in the very first reel of the movie, and I can’t really explain what it is. It’s such a character beat that is JUST a character beat. It’s sort of emblematic, symbolic of her wanting to be someone else. 

It’s very much rooted in the whole idea of mimicry and shape-shifting. So it made a lot of sense, but obviously it’s a scene that is basically just about character. Illustration can be very tough, especially because it’s in our first seven minutes probably. It’s very early on.

We felt we gained a little on Mina’s character and we felt that that was the best thing to do and that the movie had enough of a pace in the first 15 to 20 minutes for us to indulge in that and take the benefit of investing in Mina’s character there. But it’s a good question because that scene has been up for discussion.


I liked it for the two reasons, like you said, it has to do with she’s mimicking and shapeshifting herself, and also it’s interesting because there are these questions of how good of a person she is and she already feels like she’s sinned in her life.

Not wanting to be herself. Not really appreciating who she is right now and being in this environment that she doesn’t really belong in. It’s all that. On any movie you’re trying to balance plot and character and tone. Those are maybe the three big pillars.

And pacing obviously, but I consider that part of the tone in a way. But especially on a mystery/suspense film, you’re trying to balance all three. It’s very easy to just go with plot because it’s mystery, but if the characters in that mystery aren’t as interesting as they need to be, then you’re losing it.

Then all of that has to fit the tone of the movie and it has to have a consistency to it. That was definitely part of our path of discovery on this one.

I also love that it gave her a chance to have a moment with the bird, like almost developing their relationship.

Absolutely, yeah. And the bird is mimicking. One of our two First Assistant Editors, Joel Figueroa, actually voiced the bird! That started out as a temp. We even tried some different versions of it and then at the very end we decided, “Nah, that’s the version we think is most funny and most loved.

So he’s credited in the movie as being the voice of Darwin, and he did a great job at it.

Director Ishana Shyamalan with actor Olwen Fouéré

I have done multiple temps in movies that stayed!

I think I’m two different FBI agents than The Informer - even two who are speaking with each other on radios at some point!

I always knew you talked to yourself! You and I have known each other for decades, literally, and I’ve always known you as an Avid editor. Was this cut in Avid? And have you ever cut in anything else?

I haven’t cut in anything else. Not seriously, no. No, I’ve never done a project in Premiere or Resolve or Final Cut. Here in Holland -  where I started my career - most editors own their own equipment. We all pretty much started on Avid and by the time other options became interesting, we were already invested in the Avid stuff.

And on this film, Avid is very robust when it comes to collaborative workflows. So having access to the same footage and media at the same time and the same project for me and Justin Rosen and Joel Figueroa - my assistants - it’s such a robust workflow and turnovers to sound are relatively easy.

We had some struggles with that, but that was a different story. But in general it’s just a much more robust workflow.

I know you were in Philadelphia, which is where the Shyamalan’s live, right? Were you and your assistants all in the same facility?

Yes.  We were at a facility that Night has outfitted where his production offices are and his creative executives are. The president of the company is there. Everyone is there. It’s a really wonderful place to work and to collaborate.

They have great lunches with everyone around, so you get great interactions. Especially when Night and Noemi were cutting there as well. She and her team and Night, we’d all have lunch and discuss movies. Sometimes we’d invite each other to screenings of our movies or try stuff and show each other stuff.

So it was just a very great collaborative environment.

Has your workflow - your work process - changed over the years?

That’s a good question. I think the most important thing I changed over the last two years is something I picked up from Joe Walker. When I worked on The Creator with him, I was an additional editor on that, and was supposed to just help him out during production, basically.

That was the start of the process. I stayed on longer, but that was the idea. Obviously I had to prep stuff in a way so that Joe could track back things as well. He has this way of marking up his dailies. In his selects reel, everything starts out on video track 1. Then he will lift anything that is interesting to v2.

If it’s even MORE interesting, that goes to v3 and if it’s so good that it HAS to be in the movie, then it goes up to v5. So he sort of makes his selects reel in that way. I adopted that same way of working just to make sure that he would have those sequences for later.

I took that method and ran with it and made it my own and it’s part of the way that I review dailies now.

Something cool about The Watchers was that Night does classic dailies. So they started shooting on a Monday, then on Tuesday morning, that footage came into editorial and I could play around with it, but by the end of Tuesday, at the end of the shooting day, all the heads of department came together and we did a screening of selected dailies, which were ordered by our second assistant editor in Dublin, Louis Burrows, who was working from London, remoting in.

So he would prep those reels for us. So those would be the “print it” takes only from action to cut, then put in scene order so you’re watching anywhere between 25 and maybe 50 minutes of dailies every day, but you watch them all together and obviously it’s set up so that we can switch a take or skip a take or whatever, but everyone’s in the room.

The producers are there, creative producers were there, Ishana and I were there, that was the most important. The DP - Eli Arenson - was there and you’re watching stuff and people are sometimes responding to it. So Ishana will say, “I really like this one beat.

This is the reason that I flagged this take. There is this one turn that she does that I really like” then I make notes of that kind of stuff.

So that would help me the next day working on that scene. I mean it is sort of the way that people back in the original film days used to work and we sort of lost that and Night has this thing where he really likes working like that and loves having that be part of his process and he facilitated it so that we would do the same.

And I loved it. I hadn’t worked with Ishana before, so being able to talk with her about anything she shot at that point was such a pleasure. You’re already communicating about stuff you’re seeing and you’re in the room with all these people who have made these shots happen.

I’m sort of the first audience, but I also watch it with them and we’re also sort of feeling it out. So it’s the first time that you sort of get this vibe of how does this beat play? How does this line play? How does this scary beat or moment play? I absolutely adored working like that.

Yeah, I’ve done that on one film. It’s really nice to sit in a room with the director and DP and those kinds of people and get their feedback. So you were on location?

The movie was shot in Dublin, so I was there. We were there for nine weeks. I was working in Dublin at a post house and they had their studios and production offices about 20 minute drive south of Dublin, so we would go to those offices at the end of the day from editorial, so it would eat a little out of our day with the travel, but I would say it was very effective and useful.

The production offices had a screening room. Originally they wanted to do projected dailies. That was a little tricky, so we ended up with two giant OLED screens. Everyone would would be there and they would provide us with some light food, so at the end of the day you could grab a little bite to eat and watch what they’d done.

Matt Streatfield - my first assistant in Dublin - he and I got to hang out with all these production people that we would otherwise just be calling and emailing with, but we really got to know these people, work with these people, hear what they thought and stuff like that, so we felt a little more part of the whole machinery of the production in that way.

You left Dublin after the nine weeks and went to Philadelphia?

Yeah. In early September I flew to Philadelphia and teamed with my US assistants who came in from New York and we started cutting. I think we did our earliest friends and family screening by end of November or early December. Then from January through to the end of April was all just cutting, sound, and visual effects.

Job, thank you so much. This has been a really interesting discussion.

Awesome. Thank you for having me again, Steve, always happy to talk to you. Talk to you on the next one.