‘The Hobbit: The Tolkien Edit’ and Screener-based Fan Edits

In my previous post, I wrote about the anticipation for fan edits of The Hobbit trilogy as a single film and I characterized them as “inevitable edits.” Last week I encountered TolkienEditor’s The Hobbit: The Tolkien Edit, which is the first of these recombinations to be publicly released. Culture bloggers and journalists picked up on it this week and they have already published a handful of brief articles on the project (e.g. Jaworski 2015; Bogos 2015; Adams 2015; Bricken 2015).

TolkienEditor’s work is the first of several book-inspired fan edits of The Hobbit trilogy likely to appear — today, reddit user skyofcoffeebeans announced the completion of a similarly conceived edit, and in the comments section of TolkienEditor’s website Dustin Lee directed readers to his ongoing project, JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which does not draw from the leaked DVD screener. There is also The Hobbit: Dwarfed Edition, a work-in-progress by Austen “Gorman Korkskrew” Halpern-Graser and Anthony “Bartek the Unkind” Ceceri that presently contains The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013). Although not strictly book-based, fan editor Kerr has reportedly conceived of his forthcoming edit of The Hobbit trilogy as the first part in a newly revised quadrilogy of the Tolkien film saga. For some fans, the anticipation for these fan edits has eclipsed Peter Jackson’s original films. Even as The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) marched toward cinemas last month, fans were clamoring for a fan edit to “fix” Jackson’s film series. It’s also likely there were some who were just waiting for the final episode of this adaptation to get released so fan editors could complete the revisions they had already begun with the first two films.

Screener-based Fan Edits

As of this writing, news coverage on The Hobbit: The Tolkien Edit has neglected to mention that its scenes taken from The Battle of the Five Armies are actually derived from a DVD screener (designated “DVDSCR”) that was recently leaked onto torrent sites along with nearly all 2014 Academy Award nominated films. Ernesto (2015) reports that of all the titles made available by torrent release group CM8, The Battle of the Five Armies is the most popular with over 2 million downloads in a week. It has been widely reported that CM8 was able to purge the visible and invisible forensic watermarks from the screener by removing frames, which I recognize as a subtle re-editing of the film. This process, and perhaps some problematic video compression, appears to have caused slight stuttering during playback of the pirated copy which is still present in The Hobbit: The Tolkien Edit. This fan edit also bears a CM8 signature during the end credits:

Screengrab from TolkienEditor’s THE HOBBIT: THE TOLKIEN EDIT depicting the CM8 release group’s signature.

Fanedit.org has a community rule that everyone should own a legitimate copy of a given film before downloading any relevant fan edit discussed in the forums or listed in its extensive Internet Fanedit Database (IFDb). This is the expectation for any work shared in that creative community and it is essentially a stance against associations with media piracy. However, fan edits like The Hobbit: The Tolkien Edit defy this rule by being based on material that is not commercially available to the public. This is reminiscent of the first fan edit of The Lord of the Rings film series, The Two Towers: The Purist Edit (2003), which was also based on a leaked DVD screener. That anonymously released edit is excluded from the IFDb. In both cases, these edits represent a response to an intense demand from fans to see a film transformed by any means possible. Given advanced access to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies in the form of bootlegged DVD screeners, it’s not surprising that some fans are unwilling to wait until they can recut sanctioned, higher-fidelity copies of the films. On the contrary, Dustin Lee and Kerr are two fan editors whose recombinant versions of The Hobbit will not be completed until the extended edition of The Battle of the Five Armies is released on Blu-ray later this year. At approximately 4 1/2 hours, The Hobbit: The Tolkien Edit feels a bit overlong, but it is not without merit. As the first of its kind, it gives viewers a glimpse at the shape of Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy as contained in a single, more literary reverent film. TolkienEditor has removed much of the superfluous expansions to J.R.R. Tolkien’s original story, including the prologue featuring Frodo and the elder Bilbo Baggins, all the appearances of Radagast, Saruman, and Galadriel, as well as the love triangle between Kili, Legolas, and Tauriel. Many of the changes in the fan edit are well executed but there are a few exceptions. For example, by diminishing (but not eradicating) the role of Legolas in the film he seems strangely absent when his father, Thranduil, leads an army to the gates of Erebor. And although some characters were removed in this fan edit, their profiles still appear during the end credits. Also, by removing the scene in which the dwarves temporarily trap Smaug under a flood of molten gold, it is bewildering that the dragon emerges from the mountain dripping with gold on his flight to raze Lake Town. These are some rough edges that TolkienEditor might refine in subsequent revisions.

The Hobbit: Dwarfed Edition

Alternatively, the current version of The Hobbit: Dwarfed Edition restrains the first two installments of The Hobbit trilogy to a mere two hours. Its structure is largely in step with The Hobbit: The Tolkien Cut, but its cuts and trims are more bold: the dwarves do not sing together at Bilbo’s house on the night before their journey, the barrel chase sequence is reduced to a swift escape with no orcs in pursuit, the presence of Bard the Bowman and the drama in Lake Town are significantly trimmed down, and Smaug resolves to attack Lake Town directly after meeting Bilbo instead of encountering any of the dwarves or molten gold. Not all of these cuts are seamless but it is impressive work.

Poster for THE HOBBIT: DWARFED EDITION, designed by Michael Tomaszewski.

Inevitable Edits: Waiting for the Hobbit Superfilm

Yesterday I came across Peter Sciretta’s story on /Film about The Hobbit: The Complete Journey, a fan edited trailer by Joel Walden that combines material from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014):

Reflecting on the trailer, Sciretta writes:

Since the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I’ve been saying that once Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings prequel trilogy is released some fan will edit together an awesome epic three hour movie using all the footage. Well with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies gearing up for release, we are already beginning to see what this might look like.1

I think it’s safe to say that many fans have anticipated a recombinant version of all three Hobbit films since it was first announced that J. R. R. Tolkien’s relatively brief novel would be produced as three separate (and expanded) films. A cursory search on Twitter for the terms “Hobbit” and “fan edit” yields several statements from fans who not only want to see a 3-in-1 Hobbit fan edit, they expect it. Here is a sample:

Warners: Sell me a copy of Hobbit that yanks about 45 minutes from the movie, before I download some fan-edit that just does it for you.

— Bobby (@BobbyRobertsPDX) February 5, 2013

I haven’t even seen The Hobbit yet, and I’m already looking forward to the fan edit… 😐 Screw you internet!

— Michael Heilemann (@Heilemann) December 14, 2012

I find these expressions fascinating because they demonstrate one of the potential social effects of fan editing popularization: that the novelty of fan edits is waning and contemporary audiences increasingly accept these unsanctioned revisions as part of their film viewership. Moreover, they expect fan edits to be made.

Public awareness of fan editing has been building since 2000 with the wide and controversial reception of The Phantom Edit, and in the ensuing years we have seen the formation of two vital fan editing forums and the release of hundreds of fan edits that creatively and critically revise films and television texts. In varying degrees of accuracy, journalists have reported on fan edits while scholars have written essays that mention fan edits in context with other fan works or as examples in ongoing debates about intellectual property and media piracy. For better or for worse, all of these publications have contributed to a greater cultural awareness of fan editing.

Outside of the online fan editor communities, knowledge of fan edits is typically driven by word-of-mouth, social media, and occasional profiles on pop culture news blogs. Through these channels the concept of re-editing the three Hobbit films into one presentation continues to spread, illustrating how fan editing is gaining wider cultural acceptance. Some years ago, public response to such a project would have been met with surprise; the idea that someone could recut a Hollywood film on their home computer seemed outrageous to many and was branded as artistically blasphemous by others. Today, the promise of a condensed Hobbit fan edit, and especially one that could approximate Tolkien’s original novel by removing all the unfounded subplots and diversions added by the filmmakers, is not met with skepticism but a clamor of expectation. The public response is no longer a question of “if” or “how” but a persistent “when?”

Mutable Movies and the Horizon of Expectation

The potential for fans to re-edit feature films is not lost on filmmakers like Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens. During an audio commentary for the extended edition DVD of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), Jackson and Boyens casually acknowledge fan editing while they chat about the idea of making a chronological version of their film:

PETER JACKSON: I mean, well, people could do that with their… I shouldn’t suggest this, [but] you could do this with the sort of editing software on home computers these days. It’s something that any fan could do.

PHILIPPA BOYENS: Maybe they could do it for us and then we wouldn’t need to do it ourselves.

For its time, The Phantom Edit shook Star Wars fandom not only because it provided fans with an alternative and admittedly stronger version of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), it also surprised many viewers who would never have thought that such a feat was possible. Fan edits, as well as their sanctioned revisionist counterparts like extended editions and director’s cuts, encourage wider audiences to accept the inherent mutability of cinema and to anticipate potentially unlimited permutations.

I expect there will be several fan edits that rejoin the fragmented Hobbit narrative, some meant to reconstruct Tolkien’s original tale and others more experimental in their approach. While we wait for the inevitable Hobbit superfilm, it’s important to note that some fans have already produced edits of the extant films:

Hobbit: There and Back Again, Part I (menbailee, 2013)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — Arkenstone Edition (Kerr, 2013)

The Hobbit: Fire of the Dragon (ranger613, 2014)

The Hobbit: Into the Fire (ranger613, 2014)

Hobbit: The Expected Cut of An Unexpected Journey (Lord Elrond St. Hubbins, 2014)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Superfluous Narrative (Lord Elrond St. Hubbins, 2014)

  1. Sciretta, Peter. 2014. “The Hobbit: The Complete Journey Trailer: One Epic Trailer Binds the Trilogy. /Film, December 8. http://www.slashfilm.com/hobbit-complete-journey-trailer-one-epic-trailer-combines-trilogy/.

Remix Roundup: Loki, Godzilla, Transformers

This is part of an ongoing series of posts in which I share some interesting revisionist/transformative video works that relate to fan editing.

Loki: Brother of Thor

First appearing in September 2014, this fan edit by Loki Odinson culled material from Thor (2011), The Avengers (2012), and Thor: The Dark World (2013) to form a composite film centered on the character of Loki. The feature length edit appeared on Vimeo and after a flurry of glowing reviews on sites such as ComicBookMovie.com, io9, Wired, and the AV Club, it was taken offline.

In October 2014, Loki Odinson announced a re-release of this edit on his Twitter profile as a private video (password: “Loki”).

Literal Supercuts: “Godzilla” and “Transformers”

The Verge was among several sites in September 2014 that reported on a video made by YouTube user John Nemesis that compiles all eight minutes of Godzilla’s screen time from Godzilla (2014). Looking at this remarkable sequence of Godzilla footage, it suggests that a coherent, beast-centric short film version could be made if a fan editor were to judiciously add a little more non-Godzilla content to fill in the narrative gaps.

John Nemesis has created similar videos in the past, including a compilation of all the transformation instances in the first three Transformers films. Much like the literal Godzilla assembly that focuses on Godzilla’s screen time and excludes nearly all of the characters that aren’t mentioned in the film title, the Transformers compilation treats its supernatural characters as literally as possible: we get to see Transformers transforming, with all their intricate animation on full display yet stripped of all plot or context, performing their own hypnotic rendition of a ballet mécanique.


Update 2015/09/19: This and other videos by John Nemesis are often removed from YouTube on copyright grounds. John Nemesis’s YouTube channel may contain a re-uploaded version as well as other projects.

Welcoming the Raiders Guys at KU

In 2013, I was fortunate to catch a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation (1989), the famous shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) produced by Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala over the course of seven years while they were growing up in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. This fully costumed, fully action packed remake has been called the greatest fan film ever made, and I believe it. Chris (“Indy”) was present at the Alamo Drafthouse in Kansas City that night and during a Q&A after the screening I mentioned there was one thing missing from their otherwise spot-on recreation: the flying wing scene that follows Indy and Marion’s escape from the Well of Souls. Chris explained that he and Eric were unable to recreate that set piece as teenagers but they would soon launch a Kickstarter campaign in order to raise enough funds to film the missing scene and digitally remaster their film.

From Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. Photo: Raiders Guys

True to their word, the “Raiders Guys” hosted a Kickstarter fundraiser for that effort and raised over $58,000 in donations. The production took place in the summer of 2014 with Chris, Eric (“Belloq”), and others involved in the original film reprising their roles. They reconstructed a full scale airplane set, captured the scene in meticulous detail on high definition video before detonating the airplane on camera, and have since been at work incorporating the footage into a newly restored version of their unique film. As a proud supporter of their Kickstarter, I was happy to learn that DuArt is restoring their original footage and Skywalker Sound is mixing the audio. In the ongoing story of this heartfelt tribute to a Lucasfilm production, the participation of Skywalker Sound is especially impressive.

Since my first screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, I remained in contact with Chris Strompolos and eventually suggested that a screening of his film would be most welcomed at KU. I thought that the students here would appreciate what the Raiders Guys were able to accomplish as kids with limited resources and also how they have continued to work as filmmakers in adulthood. Chris liked the idea and last Friday he brought this adventure before an audience of aspiring filmmakers in Lawrence, Kansas. As I had hoped, Chris (in person) and Eric (via Skype) shared their inspiring and thoroughly entertaining story of making their film, their breakthrough into mainstream attention several years later and eventual meeting with Steven Spielberg, as well as their subsequent reunion as filmmakers.

On set during the 2014 production of the airplane scene. Photo: Raiders Guys

Each academic year, the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of Kansas hosts a Film Rally to welcome its students. In screening Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, I wanted to impart on the Film and Media students that Chris and Eric were able to create an exciting and unique adventure film using a small fraction of the technology and money available to most contemporary film students.

Dreams and determination compelled the Raiders Guys toward their film’s completion, and the on-screen preamble to Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation reflects a creative impulse shared among a generation of fans (myself included) who grew up watching the classic Lucasfilm and Amblin Entertainment productions:

This film is a tribute to Steven Spielburg [sic] and George Lucas for their giving birth to what we consider to be the ultimate adventure film. It is because of their genius that a film exists with such an enduring and nostalgic adventurous spirit. For eight long years we have been driven by an almost obsessive inspiration. This inspiration was fueled by the collective brilliance of these two men. It is to them we give our thanks for the work they have wrought which has left a permanent impression upon the direction of our lives. It is through them we have discovered our love for film.

The recent production of the flying wing scene, as well as their new films in development, prove that their creativity is still alive. Chris and Eric were wonderful guests and offered some great advice to the students, including the invaluable maxim of never giving up and never letting anyone tell you that you can’t make your movie.

Prior to screening the film, Chris premiered a trailer for a forthcoming documentary about them which they hope will be included in the next Sundance Film Festival. In fact, the trailer was an exclusive preview that had not been seen by any audience until that night. The story of the Raiders Guys was recently recounted in an excellent book by Alan Eisenstock and a narrative feature film based on their adventure is currently in development.

Discussing fan edits with Chris Strompolos (third from left) during his visit to KU.

Anticipating the screening last week, film critic Eric Melin colorfully wrote in the Lawrence Journal-World that Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation would “melt faces” at KU, and I think there’s no better way to put it.

From the official press release for the KU event:

LAWRENCE — In 1982, 11-year-old Chris Strompolos asked 12-year-old Eric Zala a question: “Would you like to help me do a remake of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’? I’m playing Indiana Jones.” And seven years later, a cult classic film was created. That film, “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation,” will be presented by the Department of Film & Media Studies during its annual film rally at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26, in Woodruff Auditorium, Kansas Union.

Following the screening, Strompolos will be present to lead a discussion about the film and the recent Kickstarter campaign that raised $50,000 to film the final scene not previously afforded. Eric Zala will Skype in for the discussion. A meet-and-greet with film & media studies faculty and alumni, as well as several campus organizations, will take place at 7:30 p.m. The event is free, and the public is welcome.

Every shot is the product of Strompolos and Zala’s creative collaboration and their self-taught filmmaking skills, along with assistance from their friend Jayson Lamb. This fan film shows people that even with a lack of resources, it is still possible to create something passionate and meaningful.

“The creative machine is filled with both turmoil and bliss, and it’s important to learn the tools now to be diligent and tenacious,” said Strompolos. “Hopefully after watching our tribute to ‘Raiders,’ it will excite and inspire and plant the seed that if kids can remake ‘Raiders’ shot-for-shot, then the sky is the limit. As far as staying motivated, choose great material, choose a great team, and don’t ever give up. Finish it. Always.”

Strompolos and Zala did it all themselves – every shot, every line of dialogue, every stunt. They borrowed and collected costumes, convinced neighborhood kids to wear grass skirts and play natives, cast a 15-year-old as Indy’s love interest, rounded up 7,000 snakes (sort of), built the Ark, the Idol, the huge boulder, found a desert in Mississippi, and melted the bad guys’ faces off.

“This is an opportunity to see a rare and incredibly unique film. ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation’ illustrates how rewarding creativity and persistence can be,” said Joshua Wille, doctoral student in film and media studies, who was instrumental in bringing the film to KU. “The university is an ideal space to present this film because students of KU, particularly in the School of the Arts and film & media studies, can appreciate the imagination and aspirations of filmmakers like Chris and Eric.”

Flyer for the KU FMS Film Rally.

Publication Notes: ‘Fan Edits and the Legacy of The Phantom Edit’

“Fan Edits and the Legacy of The Phantom Edit is my first essay published in volume 17 of Transformative Works and Cultures, which is an international, peer-reviewed journal published by the Organization for Transformative Works. In my essay, I provide an extensive history of the controversial reception of The Phantom Edit, discuss its various effects on the critical reception of contemporary fan editing practice, and argue for new perspectives on the expanding field. I also argue that fan edits join sanctioned film revisions, extended cuts, and redux versions in communicating the inherent malleability of cinema to wider audiences.

Further, I attempt to dispel an incorrect perception of fan edits as merely the reactive work of disgruntled fans. As a researcher and a fan editor, I can speak from experience that fan editing is more creative and complex than that. Fan editors approach their work with varying attitudes and intentions, and while some edits try to improve on an existing film, a great many others are experimental works and film preservation projects. As I argue in the essay, to simply label these revisionist filmmakers as disgruntled fans doesn’t appropriately engage with their creative subculture.

For that reason, I share several examples of fan editing works to illustrate the diversity of recent projects and include embedded videos and photos. I emphasize that fan editing practice and communities have evolved since The Phantom Edit and I argue that scholarship should address contemporary works instead of basing nearly all fan editing commentary on one text. This is especially important given that The Phantom Edit has been so misunderstood since its initial release in 2000. My essay attemptto clarify the history of The Phantom Edit and observe its influences on the subsequent fan editing communities.

To be clear, The Phantom Edit is a remarkable work and is an impressive revision of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999). Fourteen years after its release, The Phantom Edit is still among the most popular fan edits and it’s often the one that introduces people to the concept of fan editing, whether they actually watch it or not. Its reputation has shaped many perspectives on this practice and, for some, “phantom edit” is even a metonym for “fan edit.” Scholars, critics, and journalists frequently cite The Phantom Edit in passing when they touch upon the subject of fan editing, but they tend to avoid in-depth discussions of the work itself and neglect the expansive body of fan edits that have appeared in its wake. Unfortunately, The Phantom Edit is often used as a touchstone rather than a significant example of a particular style or genre of fan edits.

The legacy of The Phantom Edit is dysfunctional because it draws newcomers to this field and is so frequently used to represent fan editing, but it is increasingly not representative of this practice and its communities. I argue for further study of contemporary fan edits in order to explore the evolution of this exciting form.


Wille, Joshua. 2014. “Fan Edits and the Legacy of The Phantom Edit.” Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 17. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2014.0575.


  • “Fan Editors Are Artists, Not Disgruntled Viewers.” KU Collegian, Spring 2015: 11. (URL)
  • Christine Metz Howard, “Fan editors are artists, not disgruntled fans, KU scholar argues,” KU Today, November 6, 2014. (URL; KUFMS mirror)


The following is another example of my argument that revisionism is recursive, or rather, fan editing is contagious.

In my endnotes for this essay, I refer to the re-editing work of Steven Soderbergh, including his mashup edit of Psycho (1960 and 1998 versions) and an abridged cut of Heaven’s Gate (1980). Soderbergh usually shares his remixes as embedded streaming videos on his website Extension 765. His recut of Heaven’s Gate was derived from an unrestored DVD edition of the film and its visuals were noticeably compressed for online streaming, but a fan editor called Take Me To Your Cinema (TM2YC) reconstructed Soderbergh’s version using the 2012 Criterion Blu-ray edition as its source. According to TM2YC:

I really wanted to enjoy Soderbergh’s dramatic slashing-in-half of this overlong but beautiful film but the poor quality stopped me. So now I’ve recreated ‘The Butcher’s Cut’ frame-by-frame based on the restored 2012 ‘Heaven’s Gate’ Blu-Ray. It’s Steven Soderbergh’s fanedit with me just presenting it in the best possible light.’Heaven’s Gate’ has many strengths, including some the most beautiful cinematography you’re likely to see, a wonderfully poetic script and one of the greatest scores ever recorded. But pacing, strict editing, character motivation and narrative clarity weren’t among them. I think Soderbergh has addressed many of these flaws and also reduced the inflated running time down to almost exactly a half.1


It’s also worth noting that TM2YC’s version, like many recreation efforts, introduces new variations. He explains that his intentions were

To match Soderbergh’s visual cuts frame-by-frame using the newer 2012 HD source (Which was not available when Soderbergh made his fanedit). While every care has been taken to reproduce the 180 or so visual cuts exactly, some shots differ by a frame or two. This is due to tiny differences in the source movie from the DVD to the Blu-Ray. I have also tried to reproduce the “spirit” of Soderbergh’s soundmix. However, I’ve made my own adjustments to the mix, to further smooth transitions and improve small areas, when I thought it necessary.2

The following are comparisons between frames used in Soderbergh’s original recut based on the unrestored DVD and TM2YC’s remake based on the restored Criterion Blu-ray:

In January 2015, TM2YC released Heaven’s Gate: The 2nd Director’s Cut, which is a high-definition reconstruction of a rare version of the film that was not included in the 2012 Blu-ray distributed by the Criterion Collection. TM2YC explains:

The much shorter cut is not a studio-imposed hatchet-job but the result of 6 months of Director Michael Cimino’s further work in the cutting room, trying to perfect the film. It’s 67 minutes shorter, features a voiceover, radically rearranged scenes, altered dialogue, music and SoundFX and 18 minutes of new footage.

For whatever reason he did not chose to restore this cut of the film for Blu-Ray and opted to present his first much longer cut that he himself had withdrawn.3

TM2YC derived most of the footage for this second Heaven’s Gate project from the 2012 Criterion Collection Blu-ray and the 2013 Second Sight Blu-ray, Heaven’s Gate: Restored Edition. He primarily used a French DVD release of the second director’s cut, La Porte du Paradis, as a screen reference.



  1. Take Me To Your Cinema. 2014. “Heaven’s Gate: The Butcher’s Cut.” Internet Fanedit Database, July 31. http://www.fanedit.org/ifdb/component/content/article/79-fanedit-listings/fanfix/1050-heaven-s-gate-the-butcher-s-cut.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Take Me To Your Cinema. 2015. “Heaven’s Gate: The 2nd Director’s Cut.” Internet Fanedit Database, January 8. http://fanedit.org/ifdb/component/content/article/87-fanedit-listings/custom-special-edition/1119-heaven-s-gate-the-2nd-director-s-cut.

The Woes of ‘Watchmen’

“I don’t know why Hollywood is fascinated by my book when they never care to film it as I wrote it.”

— Richard Matheson, on the adaptations of his novel I Am Legend

In a 2009 interview for Ain’t It Cool News, Terry Gilliam voiced some of his dissatisfaction with Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009), which he found to be “too reverential,” and claimed that his own adaptation would have been more loosely based on the original comics by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Although fans remain divided on the merits of Snyder’s film, Gilliam lightheartedly teased fans for their reverence to Alan Moore’s text:

See that’s the problem with fans. Fans are terrifying. I have always hated fans, because they have such high expectations … They have such high expectations! I thought “Fuck off, just fuck off. Let me fuck it up on my own. I can’t put the weight of you people on my back!”1

In a Feburary 2014 interview for ComingSoon.net, Joel Silver, who was once the producer on Gilliam’s failed Watchmen project, ignited a brief controversy when he argued that Synder’s adaptation is “too much of a slave to the material” and championed Gilliam’s revisionist take on Watchmen, based on a screenplay by Sam Hamm:

What he did was he told the story as-is, but instead of the whole notion of the intergalactic thing which was too hard and too silly, what he did was he maintained that the existence of Doctor Manhattan had changed the whole balance of the world economy, the world political structure. He felt that THAT character really altered the way reality had been. He had the Ozymandias character convince, essentially, the Doctor Manhattan character to go back and stop himself from being created, so there never would be a Doctor Manhattan character. He was the only character with real supernatural powers, he went back and prevented himself from being turned into Doctor Manhattan, and in the vortex that was created after that occurred these characters from “Watchmen” only became characters in a comic book […] So the three characters, I think it was Rorschach and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, they’re all of the sudden in Times Square and there’s a kid reading a comic book. They become like the people in Times Square dressing up like characters as opposed to really BEING those characters. There’s a kid reading the comic book and he’s like, “Hey, you’re just like in my comic book.” It was very smart, it was very articulate, and it really gave a very satisfying resolution to the story, but it just didn’t happen. Lost to time.2

Silver, who has produced some excellent films over the course of his career, also produced V for Vendetta (2005), a stylish but politically incongruous adaptation of Moore’s graphic novel. For Watchmen, the metafictional scenario described by Silver would have been much further afield than any of the liberties Zack Snyder took with the source material in his film. 

In March 2014, Zack Snyder and his wife/producer Deborah Snyder responded to Joel Silver’s critique in an interview with Mike Ryan for The Huffington Post:

Mike Ryan: Was ‘Watchmen’ the most ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ project you’ve ever been a part of? Now Joel Silver is criticizing you for being a ‘slave’ to the source material while touting a very different from the source material script that Terry Gilliam was going to film.

Zack Snyder: It’s funny, because the biggest knock against the movie is that we finally changed the ending, right?

Mike Ryan: Right, you used Dr. Manhattan as the threat to bring the world together as opposed to the alien squid.

Zack Snyder: Right, and if you read the Gilliam ending, it’s completely insane.

Deborah Snyder: The fans would have been thinking that they were smoking crack.

Zack Snyder: Yeah, the fans would have stormed the castle on that one. So, honestly, I made “Watchmen” for myself. It’s probably my favorite movie that I’ve made. And I love the graphic novel and I really love everything about the movie. I love the style. I just love the movie and it was a labor of love. And I made it because I knew that the studio would have made the movie anyway and they would have made it crazy. So, finally I made it to save it from the Terry Gilliams of this world.3

The Devil’s in the Details

Zack Snyder has often described his film as a love letter to the original comics, but his work represents a struggle between two different industries and two very different art forms. In its initial cut, Snyder’s Watchmen struggled to balance the authenticity that fans expected and the conventions of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, which favors spectacle and brevity. Snyder expanded his film in the “Director’s Cut” and again in the “Ultimate Cut” but neither of those revisions provided a satisfying amount of character depth, especially with regard to the original “Minutemen” crime-fighters and their role in shaping the story world of Watchmen.

It’s no secret that the adaptation of narrative structure, characterizations, and aesthetics between media inevitably leads to something “lost in translation” but there are some remarkable cases of misguided adaptations. For example, three films have been based on Richard Matheson’s influential horror novel I Am Legend (1954) but they bear little resemblance to the source material. To the question of why Hollywood adaptations of his comics have never lived up to their sources, Alan Moore clarifies:

…it’s simply because they weren’t ever designed to be films. This is what I’ve been trying to explain to these stupid bastards for the past 20 years. They were designed to exploit all the things that comic books can do and that no other medium can. I wanted to give comics a special place when I was writing things like Watchmen. I wanted to show off just what the possibilities of the comic book medium were. And films are completely different. This assumption that if something works in one medium it will work as well or better in another, I’ve got no idea where that comes from.4

A crucial narrative element in the original Watchmen comics is its climactic sequence, in which a grotesque “squid monster” is teleported into mid-town New York City in order to fake an alien invasion. This outrageous culmination of a stylized comic-book-villain scheme was an ironic twist in an otherwise realistic treatise on superhero types, and it worked brilliantly. Whether they were economically or artistically prohibited, the filmmakers who adapted Watchmen decided it must be changed.

The “missing squid” is one of the most popular questions I receive about Watchmen: Midnight. Unfortunately, the ending sequence in Zack Snyder’s film, in which of Dr. Manhattan assumes the role of a patsy in Ozymandias’s plan to trick the US and Soviet Union into peace, is nested too deeply in the movie narrative be removed entirely. Further, it is impossible to cohesively recreate Moore’s original ending scenario in the film due to insufficient filmed material. Like Zack Snyder’s “Ultimate Cut,” Watchmen: Midnight is an experiment, and the challenge for me as faneditor has been to achieve a closer approximation of Alan Moore’s narrative and characters on screen.

Manipulating the fabric of this film has been a rewarding experience but it has also provided me with a practical demonstration of the pitfalls of adaptation, especially the formal disparity between comics and cinema. As a writer of some notoriously “un-filmable” comics, Alan Moore is well aware of that incompatibility:

If we only see comics in relation to movies then the best that they will ever be is films that do not move. I found it, in the mid 80s, preferable to concentrate on those things that only comics could achieve. The way in which a tremendous amount of information could be included visually in every panel, the juxtapositions between what a character was saying, and what the image that the reader was looking at would be. So in a sense… most of my work from the 80s onwards was designed to be un-filmable.5

From Moore’s perspective, the ironically titled Watchmen: The Motion Comic (2008-2009) could be described as the strictest rendering of Watchmen as well as the most abominable. Using limited animation based on the original comic book panels drawn by Dave Gibbons, the motion comic succeeds in cinematically representing some unique aspects of the comic book (e.g. speech bubbles) but its uncanny, constrained animation seems to prove Alan Moore’s theory of “films that don’t move.”

In the following video, let’s compare the ways Watchmen: The Motion Comic and Zack Snyder’s live action film visually represent the first page of Moore and Gibbons’s Watchmen.

Fundamentally, cinema is temporal. Like music, a film begins and proceeds, unceasing, until its conclusion within a set period of time. Today, video technology provides viewers with the means to pause, rewind, zoom, and so forth, but films usually are not designed for that kind of viewing experience. Considering his affinity for the free reading experience of graphically dense comic book panels, it’s unsurprising that Alan Moore has been less than supportive of film adaptations:

I find film in its modern form to be quite bullying … It spoon-feeds us, which has the effect of watering down our collective cultural imagination. It is as if we are freshly hatched birds looking up with our mouths open waiting for Hollywood to feed us more regurgitated worms. The ‘Watchmen’ film sounds like more regurgitated worms. I for one am sick of worms.6

Disavowing Hollywood renditions of his work, Alan Moore refused to let his name appear in the credits of V for Vendetta and Watchmen, arguing that he’ll never watch Zack Snyder’s film just as he has never seen From Hell (2001) or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003). I’m often asked if I think Alan Moore would like Watchmen: Midnight, but I don’t expect he would have much interest in it. Moore intended Watchmen to be a comic, not a film. Watchmen: Midnight is primarily an editing experiment to continue the revisionary work in previous releases of Zack Snyder’s film and provide a more reverential adaptation of the original comics by Moore and Gibbons.


  1. Quint. 2009. “Quint chats with Terry Gilliam about THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS, WATCHMEN, Pixar, Ledger and much more!” Ain’t It Cool News, August 23. http://www.aintitcool.com/node/42118
  2. Ervy, Max. 2014. “The CS Interview: Producer Joel Silver (Literally) Talks Non-Stop.” ComingSoon.net,       February 26. http://www.comingsoon.net/news/movienews.php?id=115185
  3. Ryan, Mike. 2014. “Zack Snyder Strikes Back.” The Huffington Post, March 3. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/03/zack-snyder-batman-superman_n_4886277.html
  4. Dent, Nick. 2009. “Alan Moore – Writer of Watchmen.” Time Out Sydney, January 21. http://www.au.timeout.com/sydney/film/features/4187/alan-moore
  5. The Mindscape of Alan Moore. Directed by DeZ Vylenz. Shadowsnake Films, 2008. DVD.
  6. Boucher, Geoff. 2008. “Alan Moore on ‘Watchmen’ movie: ‘I will be spitting venom all over it’.” Hero Complex, September 18. http://herocomplex.latimes.com/uncategorized/alan-moore-on-w/

The Return of ‘Watchmen: Midnight’

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

I often receive requests, in person and online, from people interested in watching my fanedit, Watchmen: Midnight. Today is the fifth anniversary of the original film’s theatrical release, and to mark the occasion I’ve produced an updated version of Watchmen: Midnight. It’s currently available on DVD-9 (with new menus, pictured above) and MKV. I have plans to release a high-definition remastered edition later in 2014.

In addition to revised Tales of the Black Freighter segments and chapter inter-titles, this revision of Watchmen: Midnight also includes new opening and closing sequences as well as a color correction scheme intended to reduce some of the blue saturation throughout the film. Like many contemporary superhero/action films, Watchmen has a “dark” aesthetic and a blue tint. Unfortunately, this distorts human skin tones in Watchmen and obscures some of the incredible production design work that’s based on the art and colors of the original comics. Take a look at the following split-screen demonstration:

Please read more about Watchmen: Midnight here.

There and Back Again: Travels and Exhibitions in 2013

There were several experiences in 2013 that I did not write about until now, including some great opportunities to screen Watchmen: Midnight and talk about fanediting with academics, fans, and aca-fans alike.

April 17-19: StarFest 2013 in Denver, Colorado

StarFest is an annual science fiction and fantasy fan convention founded in 1977, making it one of the longest running fan conventions in the United States. On April 17, I led an interactive presentation on the history and methods of fanediting called “Fan Editing 101: Rip, Recut, and Remix Hollywood Cinema,” and on April 19, StarFest screened my fanedit, Watchmen: Midnight, in its entirety. Fanedits are typically screened in private homes and therefore any large public exhibition is quite rare. This was the first public screening of Watchmen: Midnight and I was happy that there was such a large attendance.

May 10-12:  BlasterCON 2013 in Los Angeles, California

I traveled to LA for the FanEdit.org panel at a science fiction fan convention called BlasterCON. Four administrators from FanEdit.org, including Neglify, L8wrtr, Reave, and Blueyoda, presented on the history of fanediting and screened excerpts from their work. This was the first public presentation by an organized fanediting community and it was great to see representatives from FanEdit.org discuss fanediting in their own words. After the organized panel presentation I screened comparative excerpts from Watchmen: Midnight for the FanEdit.org admins and enjoyed a nice exchange of ideas over the weekend.

July 4-5: MASH 2013 in Maastricht, the Netherlands

Next, I jetted to Europe for two academic conferences. The first was Making and Sharing: Conference on Audience Creativity (MASH) hosted by Maastricht University. MASH brought together scholars in fan studies and media studies with some very engaging research. For my part, I presented on fanediting and screened excerpts from Watchmen: Midnight with commentary. Following the rewarding experiences I had in Denver and LA at fan conventions, it was great to continue my tour with a presentation to an audience of academics who share close associations with fans and their work. I especially enjoyed the respective keynotes by Kristina Busse and George Landow, as well as Tisha Turk‘s presentation on authorship and production methods in vidding.

Also on my panel, Shannon Brownlee presented her excellent mashup video, Battleship Isildur, which combines footage The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), and Battleship Potemkin (1925) in a nearly seamless recontextualization of the miserable Orcs of Mordor. Suffering under the rule of Saruman, the Orcs produce a champion who calls on them to rise up against their oppressors and defend the innocent citizens of an city. Scenes from Sergei Eisenstein’s original film, such as the Odessa steps confrontation, are frequently excerpted for film studies courses and textbooks as exemplary in their application of parallel cutting and juxtaposition. However, Brownlee’s Battleship Isildur adds further dimensions to that scene and tests the limits of parallel action in an altogether fascinating narrative experiment.

July 29-August 2: Repeat-Remix-Remediate in Hamburg, Germany

The second leg of my visit to Europe was Repeat-Remix-Remediate: Modes and Norms of Digital Repurposing, a week-long symposium hosted by the Research Center of Media and Communication at Universität Hamburg. Structured like a summer school for a select group of PhD students in media studies, the program featured keynote presentations by international scholars, interactive workshops, and screenings, as well as excursions throughout the city, including a visit to Studio Hamburg ARD. There were many highlights from this event, including keynotes from Mirko Tobias Schäfer, Nishant Shah, and Allison Eden. Among the student delegates, Owen Gallagher and Martin Leduc provided some of my favorite presentations, both with a focus on critical remix videos.

Post-conference, many of the delegates from Repeat-Remix-Remediate collaborated to a symposium blog. My contribution, And Wilhelm Screamed: “Can I Get An Amen?” is a brief reflection on repurposed audio samples in film and music.

During my panel, I was provided with ample time to introduce fanediting to the audience of faculty and graduate students and screened comparative scenes from Watchmen: Midnight. After my formal presentation, I continued the exhibition of my fanedit in a video gallery that was specially installed for the week’s activities. My gratitude to the organizers of Repeat-Remix-Remediate, especially Andreas Stuhlmann and Uwe Hasebrink, for assembling such an exciting and hospitable program.

Credit to Owen Gallagher for the following photos:

‘Charade: 5 Minute Version’ and the 90to5 Editing Challenge

The “90to5 Editing Challenge” is an annual film editing competition in which participants must recut a feature length film (90 minute runtime as a generalization) down to approximately 5 minutes while maintaining the essence of the original film. In this post I will discuss some of the implications of the 90to5 Editing Challenge and share details about my own entry, a concise version of Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963) which I called Charade: 5 Minute Version.

Welcome to the Public Domain

Although there is an abundance of filmmaking contests and competitive festivals available today, 90to5 represents a response to the contemporary trend of remixing. One major distinction between a 90to5 edit and the myriad of fanedits, mashups, and recuts on the Web is the rule that source films for 90t05 reside in the public domain. This requirement limits the range of films that a 90to5 editor could revise for the competition but it serves as an simple solution to the questionable legality of remixed media which is often based on copyrighted content. Films enter the public domain for various reasons, but in most cases it is because the film is old enough for its copyright to have expired and its original authors did not pursue an extension of copyright.

Most of the fanedits and recuts available on the Internet are based on copyrighted films, and while the ostensible “challenge” in the 90to5 competition is to compress a feature film to five minutes, it is also an interesting challenge for the editors whose previous transformative works may have been entirely based on copyrighted media. Therefore, the concept of the public domain may seem alien to some because its antithesis — under copyright — is generally disregarded when recuts and remixes are made. The venues for those works are YouTube, Vimeo, and the expansive network of web forums, torrents, and newsgroups. Into that frontier, recuts and remixes are shared for the love of it, for laughs, for experimentation, and art as its own reward.

On the contrary, 90to5 offers participants the opportunity to showcase their editing skills in a centralized website and to win cash prizes and video production products. The only catch is that a typical 90to5 entry would be a five minute version of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) or a pre-1960s B-movie and not an abridged version of James Cameron’s Avatar (2009).

2012 Challenge

There were forty-two submissions in the 90to5 Editing Challenge for 2012 and were based on some of the most popular public domain films that comprise film noir, horror, and science fiction genres. In some cases there were two entries based on the same film, and it was interesting to compare the choices made by different editors. However, Night of the Living Dead was far and away the most popular source film with six versions submitted to 90to5. Romero’s cult zombie film is one of the most well known public domain films and therefore it was a predictable and somewhat uninspired selection for 90to5 editors to make. A version of Night of the Living Dead was eventually determined to be the winner of 90to5 in 2012, but unfortunately it was not very distinguishable from the other five versions of that film. More interesting to see were the entries that compressed more complex narratives such as Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959).

As a fascinating byproduct of the creative culture that 90to5 harnessed, some participants shared details about their process of adapting a film for the competition. Pablo Hernández blogged about his work on two entries, Hiroshima mon amour1 and Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945),2 providing insightful commentary and presenting before-and-after screen captures and video excerpts. His five minute cut of Hiroshima mon amour won the 90to5 Editor’s Choice award, which was voted on by all participating editors in the 2012 competition.

Perhaps it is comparable to close reading of a text with scissors in hand, but the deconstruction and reconstruction of media such as a fanedit or other remix may sometimes reveal secrets buried in the original material. By digging into the content of Detour during his re-editing, Hernández discovered a deft use of jump cuts in the original version of the film that he believed was nearly undetectable in traditional screenings.3

Charade: 5 Minute Version

My 90to5 entry for 2012 was based on Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963), which has been popularly labeled as “the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made.” I selected Charade for 90to5 because liked the challenge its complicated plot and host of characters provided, and also because of its controversial public domain status.

Prior to 1978, films in the United States were required to include the word “Copyright” or the “©” symbol in all prints of the film in order to be protected under copyright laws.4 However, the British film laboratory responsible for making the prints of Charade merely printed the phrase, “MCMLXII BY UNIVERSAL PICTURES COMPANY, INC AND STANLEY DONEN FILMS, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED,” and, due to the limitations of copyright at that time and what would seem to be neglect or disinterest on the part of Universal Pictures to correct this error, Charade was released in December of 1963 and immediately entered the public domain. Although The Unsuspecting Wife, the story by Peter Stone and Marc Behm which provided the basis for the screenplay, and the original musical score by Henry Mancini may have retained copyright, Charade has been available from numerous distributors and generally marketed as a public domain film.5

Early into my work on Charade I contacted the organizers of 90to5 to confirm that my entry would not be disqualified on the basis of its pubic domain status. Despite its commercial history, the status of Charade remains somewhat disputed. For example, the Internet Archive freely distributes Charade as a public domain film but the visitor comments on its Internet Archive listing page are contentious. Some argue that due to the original story and musical score remaining under copyright, the film in which the music appears must also be copyrighted by default. However, others disagree with that logic and cite the wide availability of Charade as a sign of a consensus on its public domain status, almost implying that in spite of its official status,Charade is irreversibly in the public domain due to popularity.6 As of this writing, the Internet Archive alone had facilitated over 30,000 downloads of Charade.

Because Charade has been distributed many times in prints and video transfers of varying quality, I sourced my edit from the restored Criterion Collection DVD release. Boiling down the narrative on Final Cut Pro, I was able to maintain the essence of the plot but it was entertaining to see that through compressing the plot certain character quirks such as Regina’s (Audrey Hepburn) constant hunger and all of the name changes for Cary Grant’s character appeared more frequently and became more pronounced. I noticed that by focusing on the most crucial plot points, a film that was originally a light romantic-mystery film ironically transformed into something more zany. With some tweaking, I was able to draw out those irreverent moments and still keep the essence of the story intact.

As chance would have it, there was another 90to5 edit of Charade in 2012. It was interesting to compare my work with another editor working with the same material and to see how differently we condensed the same plot points through editing.

Forward and Reverse

One of the most profound aspects of participating in the 90to5 Editing Challenge was the task of breaking down the film and memorizing its plot structure. This experience is shared with feature length fanediting, which also requires the new editor know the subject film forward and reverse and to think critically about each scene. In each case, the faneditor or 90to5 editor grows closer to the text than a more passive viewer.

90to5 recently announced the Editing Challenge will return in 2013. Hopefully, 90to5 will continue for many years. I believe this is a filmmaking competition that answers for some of the contemporary problems facing some fanedits and video remixes, especially the lack of venues to showcase their creative reinterpretations of cinema. It will be exciting to see the shape that the competition takes … and how many Night of the Living Dead edits will emerge.

  1. Hernández, Pablo. “Hiroshima mon amour (90to5 Editor’s Choice Award).” Editor Under Construction. September 20, 2012: http://editorunderconstruction.blogspot.com.es/2012/09/hiroshima-mon-amour-90-to-5-editing.html
  2. —. “Detour (90to5 Editing Challenge).” Editor Under Construction. September 20, 2012: http://editorunderconstruction.blogspot.com.es/2012/09/detour-90-to-5-editng-challenge.html
  3. Ibid.
  4. “Copyright Basics.” Washington, DC. U.S. Copyright Office, 2008: http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ01.pdf.
  5. Pierce, David. “Forgotten Faces: Why Some of Our Cinema Heritage is Part of the Public Domain.” Film History, 19, no. 2: 130.
  6. Charade. The Internet Archive: http://archive.org/details/charade1963.

Copy, Transform, and Combine: ‘Everything is a Remix’

Everything is a Remix (2010-2012) is Kirby Ferguson’s short video series about remixing and why it is integral to creativity. To summarize his perspective, he recently delivered this presentation at TEDGlobal 2012 in Edinburgh, Scotland:

Ferguson’s maxim of the basic elements of creativity — Copy, Transform, and Combine — distills the process that artists, writers, engineers, programmers, musicians, and filmmakers throughout history have repeated in order to learn their craft and eventually produce new products and media. We all “stand on the shoulders of giants” by copying the works of others and modifying or combining existing designs and concepts on the path to creation. As an allusion to the sciences, this could be called a “general theory of creativity.”

Following the example of the musical remix, fanediting in the cinema also connects with the larger creative tradition described by Ferguson. If we recognize that remixing is integral to progress in the arts and industries, we should consider that the Hollywood filmmakers of tomorrow might be honing their skills as faneditors today.

To supplement Ferguson’s talk, the TED Blog published “14 brilliant quotes on remixing,” illustrating the tradition of copy, transform, and combine addressed by various creative people. The article provides sources for most of the quotations but also notes when some statements have been transformed over time and attributed to different people in various contexts. Here are some selections:

“I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work … progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready and then it is inevitable.” — Henry Ford

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination …  Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery — celebrate it if you feel like it.” — Jim Jarmusch

“All ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources. We are constantly littering our literature with disconnected sentences borrowed from books at some unremembered time and now imagined to be our own.” — Mark Twain

“Originality is the art of concealing your sources.” — attributed to Franklin P. Jones, or Benjamin Franklin, or Thomas Edison, depending on who you ask.

“It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” — attributed to Jean-Luc Godard

And here is the complete Everything is a Remix series by Kirby Ferguson, which expands on the ideas in his TED talk:

When I first encountered Everything is a Remix I recalled Nate Harrison’s Can I Get An Amen? (2004), which chronicles the evolution of a single audio sample in contemporary music. Although not as aesthetically dynamic as Kirby Ferguson’s documentary series, Harrison explores a remarkable phenomenon where an act of remixing inspired subsequent remixing, which continued to spread exponentially like a virus or the reproduction of an organism. The “Amen, Brother” sample that Harrison examines is the ancestor to so many songs that it might be impossible to completely retrace all of its usage and thus it has become essentially absorbed into our cultural DNA, both ubiquitous and invisible.

[Direct link to Harrison’s original video.]

Similar cases in sound design for the cinema could be the “Wilhelm scream” and “castle thunder” sound effects which have long pedigrees of reuse and recontextualization in several film genres. Recently, an intrepid YouTube user sought to overturn the “Wilhelm scream” with a new (comical) permutation. Watch as the following video revisits and remixes some classic “Wilhelm” cues with “The New Wilhelm Scream.”