Prime Cuts 7
Primetime Emmy–nominated Picture Editors Discuss their Art and Craft
After Susan E. Morse, A.C.E., received the footage for an episode of FX's Louie, creator-writer-director-star Louis C.K. told her, "Don't even bother putting this together. It's probably going to have to be rewritten."
"I said, 'Why don't you give me till the end of the day to see what I can salvage?'" Morse recalls of the episode, "Daddy's Girlfriend (Part 2)," in which the title character gets to know a new amour. "This was at 2 p.m."
Her boss gave her eight hours. Precisely at 10 p.m., Morse hit send and emailed the footage. The episode aired as she cut it — and earned Morse a Primetime Emmy nomination for outstanding single-camera picture editing for a comedy series.
Morse told her story as part of the seventh-annual Prime Cuts, a gathering of Primetime Emmy–nominated editors in various categories. Held September 14 at the Television Academy's Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre in the NoHo Arts District, the event was open to the public and was presented by the Academy's picture editors' peer group executive committee.
Panelists included Chris Figler (Mad Men, AMC), Chris A. Peterson (Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, Showtime), Lisa P. Trulli (Project Runway, Lifetime), Alexandre De Franceschi, ASE (Top of the Lake, Sundance Channel) and Chris Heller (Conan, TBS). Shawn Ryan, co-creator–executive producer of Last Resort and creator–executive producer of The Shield, hosted for the sixth consecutive time.
Louie is Morse's first foray into television series editing, following years of editing more than thirty-five features, including Woody Allen films such as Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters. The fast turn-around time — similar to Allen's — is routine for her. With Louie a combination of stand-up, sketches and stories, Louis C.K. has an idea of what each episode will entail, "but as the season wears on, some stories are longer than their imagined lengths and some are shorter," Morse noted. "The stand-up can be jiggered."
Morse began her career in the 1970s, working on film rather than computer. At that time, assistant editors were involved throughout the process, she said, learning not just technical skills but also story and character development, "which, in my opinion, are the most important parts."
Also working closely with his show's creator is Chris Figler, nominated for outstanding single-camera picture editing for a drama series. Though Mad Men creator–executive producer Matthew Weiner is "very particular, he's also very open — if you do something different that he likes, he's happy," Figler said. Weiner prefers a classic filmmaking style, in which whoever is speaking is on camera throughout the speech, but will also approve of overlapping, off-screen dialogue. Figler tried various approaches for his episode, "The Collaborators."
Star Jon Hamm directed the episode. "Matt has a vision, but the director has a vision, too," Figler pointed out. "You're in the middle; you're trying to serve each vision. This show worked out great — they've been together six years. They know the system."
Mad Men is driven more by character than by story, Figler has learned, and the stage directions in the script are important. About half the time he knows a future storyline, with Weiner sometimes dropping hints that a particular element is significant. "He lets it flow with the characters. There's an honest emotional response from the characters that will hold sway more than the plot."
When it came to cutting for story in the international coproduction Top of the Lake, miniseries-movie nominee Alexandre De Franceschi, ASE, had an unusual challenge: the New Zealand–set mystery was conceived and initially edited as a six-episode miniseries on the BBC2 but aired in seven episodes on Sundance Channel.
"That got a little bit tricky," he admitted. "The ins and outs, the endings and beginnings had to be changed. It was a bit of an adjustment, but it flows pretty well." As a result, the nominated episode is half his work and half that of fellow nominee Scott Gray, ASE.
As the investigation continued into the disappearance of the story's pregnant twelve-year-old, the editors tried to keep the audience guessing by "putting in a few extra frames," De Franceschi said. He worked closely with one of the project's two directors, Jane Campion, who wrote the script with Gerard Lee and had her own strong editing ideas. De Franceschi added his own vision "with a lot of subtlety," he described. "You go behind, you go sideways, you put a lot of love into it. The best part of the whole process is to put the story together, see it coming together. To go through the journey and reach the end — that's the challenge."
For reality-programming nominee Lisa P. Trulli, a key challenge is quickly establishing the personalities of the fashion designers competing on Project Runway so the audience can root for them. "They're not actors," says the editor, who shared the nomination with five colleagues. "You have to create a character, craft their personality. You're introducing sixteen [contestants] on the first show. I'm trying to find a way to get to know them. I want to say something revealing. I'm not being dishonest — I'm cherry-picking [aspects of their] personality, to make it entertaining."
Typically, two or three cameras capture thirty-five hours of footage each day. "You can't fast-forward [viewing] footage," Trulli said. "It's very nuanced, so you might miss something. It's real — there's nothing scripted about it. You're documenting, taking hours and hours of footage." Spending so much time with the designers in this way, she feels connected to them. But the reality of reality programming is: "They don't know me."
Getting to know a brilliant but troubled comedian was the plan for the documentary Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic: "We did try hard to find the real [Pryor]," nonfiction programming nominee Chris A. Peterson said of the erratic performer, who died in 2005. "I don't think anyone ever has." Peterson, director Marina Zenovich, a researcher and a producer all worked to unearth previously unseen footage.
The project took almost six months, with Peterson spending the first two months watching footage by himself. At first, "we had no idea what the movie was going to be," he said. "It wasn't until four months in that we knew. We were always trying to be honest. He was a complicated character. We were able to understand the dark passages."
Editorially, Peterson took what he called "the old-school documentary" approach, as did his colleagues. "We were journalistically correct. Everything was fact-checked. Our job… was to show the real him."
A very-much-alive comedian was in the editing spotlight for Chris Heller, nominated with three others for the "Occupy Conan" episode of Conan O'Brien's talk show Conan in the category of outstanding multi-camera picture editing for a comedy series. In this unconventional episode, viewers were invited online to duplicate portions of a particular Conan show in any way they wished. Selections ranging from five to thirty seconds long — featuring animation and even the Muppets — were chosen by the Conan team from about 1,000 submissions and aired alongside corresponding footage from the original program.
"When Conan does things, you can sit and watch him for five minutes, but with the fans, you couldn't, because it would be stale," noted Heller, who was an assistant editor at the time and did the original rough layout. "It has to be funny — that's the name of the game."
Funny — and, for regular Conan episodes, fast. Material has to be ready to present to O'Brien by 1 p.m., for a 4 p.m. taping. "You have one chance to do it," Heller said. "It gets your adrenaline pumping."
During the Q-and-A that followed the discussion, audience members were most interested in the role of the assistant editor and how to become one en route to being a full-fledged editor. "They're the most important thing in the room — a second set of eyes," Morse said. "I encourage them to speak, to give opinions. It's very much like the relationship with the director; you have an intimacy."
"They're a huge part of the process," Figler added. "[My assistant] Tamara is truly essential. Weiner likes the assistants in the room, taking notes."
Assistants must have a thorough knowledge of the equipment, such as Avid and Final Cut Pro, be organized but flexible, and have creative ideas. And, Ryan said: "A great attitude goes a long way. You're going to be spending a lot of hours [together] in a room. If you're annoying, you're going to be out."
Take every cutting-room job that comes along, Peterson advised: "You gain something from every project." And, as he's discovered, "It's about credits. I've been hired by people who've never seen a frame I've edited."
Scott Boyd, A.C.E., and Stuart Bass, A.C.E., are the governors of the Television Academy's picture editors peer group.