Editor Sean Albertson has worked with director Jeff Wadlow (“Truth or Dare,” “Fantasy Island”) on six projects to date, but their latest collaboration on “Imaginary” provided a new challenge: How to use editing to project human characteristics onto Chauncey, the stuffed bear that serves as the titular imaginary friend. In the Blumhouse/Lionsgate horror film, the audience quickly becomes aware that this new pal of young Alice (Pyper Braun) is very real and very dangerous — something that is largely conveyed through cleverly timed reaction shots that reveal what Chauncey is thinking and feeling even though his expressions barely change.

“I edited Chauncey the same way I would a human actor,” Albertson told IndieWire. “I believe that an audience knows how to feel based on the reactions of the other people in the scene, so precisely when we would cut to Chauncey mattered immensely. What is he reacting to? There’s a scene where Alice says to [her stepmom] Jessica, ‘He says you had a friend just like him,’ and instead of cutting directly to Jessica, I cut to Chauncey, who has a little smile on his face. So I’m projecting this notion of ‘I know something you don’t.’ It’s really a matter of troubleshooting those reactions all the way through the cut.”

Although the differences are often imperceptible, the filmmakers used three different Chaunceys with slight distinctions to give added resonance to the reaction shots. “We had what we called the happy face, and what we called the angry face,” Albertson said. “But those changes were very subtle, and we used them judiciously.” Ultimately, Albertson said that figuring out how and when to project human traits onto an inanimate stuffed bear was the hardest part of editing “Imaginary,” though it’s just one of the tricky challenges the film posed for its makers. Another was the numerous revelations about Chauncey and the world he comes from, which, if moved slightly earlier or later in the film, make a huge difference in terms of impact on the audience.

“There was a lot of trial and error in terms of revealing information,” Albertson said, noting that he relied largely on test screenings with recruited audiences and friends to gauge how the movie changed depending on when certain key points were made. “There’s a scene where Gloria, the creepy babysitter, introduces herself, and that was originally a six-page dialogue scene. There was a lot of information given there. And as editors we have to ask ourselves, ‘Do we want to give the audience this information now? Are we being additive, or are we taking away from something we’re going to learn two scenes later?’ In a thriller, it’s all about what the audience knows [and] when they know it, and how powerful that makes the big reveal or the scare.”

One element of the film that Wadlow and Albertson experimented with was what Albertson calls “the entity,” a dark monster that intermittently appears in the background and is sometimes so hard to see that the audience is unsure it’s there at all. “Jeff very smartly knew that it was always going to be a matter of degrees and we would need to futz with that a lot,” Albertson said. “So every time the entity was in a scene, he shot it both ways: with and without the entity in the background.” When Albertson began watching the movie with audiences, some guiding principles for the entity became clear. “We found that the audience didn’t like it if they saw the entity in every scene with Chauncey, but they liked it the way we ended up with it now — particularly in the scenes where it’s so dark in the background that only a few people catch it and you can hear them react.”

Pyper Braun as Alice in Imaginary. Photo Credit: Parrish Lewis
“Imaginary”Parrish Lewis/Lionsgate

Another key to making sure audiences would respond to “Imaginary” was making sure the film played even without a score. “I try to edit every scene and put the assembly together without thinking about sound and music,” Albertson said, “because I want to know it’s working on its own.” That said, once Albertson is confident that the picture is in good shape, he builds his own carefully layered soundtrack before handing the movie off to the post team. “I won’t show the movie to anyone until my crew and I have done a comprehensive sound and music pass on it. We have the tools and the technology today to present our work in the best possible way, so I don’t want it to sound like temp with some crappy sound effects that we’re just throwing in.”

At that point, Albertson credits collaborators like the producers at Blumhouse and the post-production sound team with helping calibrate how much music is helpful to the film and how much is a distraction. “Blumhouse is just so brilliant when it comes to this genre, they really know it and they know their audience,” Albertson said. “I tend to put too much score in my editor’s cuts up front, and they called it out, and they were like, ‘You know, there are some really good moments here that can be quiet.’ And in the end, I’m so glad that we pulled a lot of the music out of the movie and have these quiet, creepy moments where sound designer Mat Waters came in and gave us this brilliant, desolate sound bed.”

Although Albertson says that “Imaginary” was in many ways his most difficult project with Wadlow to date, it’s also his favorite. “I feel like this is his best directing yet, and collaborating with him is fantastic,” Albertson said. “It’s fun, it’s tense when it needs to be tense, but it’s always collaborative. Having that great work environment makes very hard, mundane tasks of getting a project like this finished so much easier.” Albertson has a co-producing credit on “Imaginary” as well, a testament to his all-consuming approach to his craft. “I see my job as everything — I’m an editor, which means I’m also a writer, a re-director of performances, a sound designer, I’m working on the music and color correction, and we set the template for the look and the tone. By the time we hand it over to the rest of the post-production process, I want them to be like, ‘Whoa, this is really good. And we’ve got to make it even better.’”

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