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Academy News
September 29, 2014

PrimeCuts: Picture Editor Nominees on Editing

Emmy-nominated television motion picture editors share their journeys and discuss their craft.

Libby Slate
  • Editors Emily Hsuan, Kent Beyda, ACE, and Jason Bielski particpate in the "PrimeCuts 8" panel event.

To become an Emmy-nominated picture editor, you must have visual storytelling skills. But a little moxie doesn’t hurt, either.

Early in her career, for instance, Shannon Mitchell, A.C.E., nominated this year for Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black in the category of Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series, would check the Hollywood Reporter film production listings and make cold calls, scoring some editing jobs. 

Kent Beyda, A.C.E., a nominee for HBO’s special Billy Crystal: 700 Sundays in the Short-Form Segments and Variety Specials category, contacted his mother’s high school friend Gena Rowlands when he moved to Los Angeles from Boston and was invited to lunch; he wound up as a production assistant on a movie the actress was making, where he got a crash course in 35mm editing.

Finding a mentor is another plus. As a Mississippi college student, John Duffy, A.C.E., nominated for Fox/NatGeo’s COSMOS: A SpaceTime Odyssey in Nonfiction Programming, met Rocky’s Oscar-winning editor Richard Halsey, who invited him to Los Angeles and helped him get jobs. 

Chris McCaleb, nominated with Kelley Dixon for the “Granite State” episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad, had first met Dixon in 2010, when he was an assistant editor on the pilot of HBO’s horseracing drama Luck.

She later hired him for the ABC series Red Widow, and then, when her assistant editor retired, for Breaking Bad. “She called me and said, ‘Are you ready to go to the big show?’” McCaleb recalled.

She knew it was his favorite television show – which did create a bit of a downside, as it meant, McCaleb thought to himself, “I can’t watch the last season of Breaking Bad!”

McCaleb, Mitchell, Duffy and Beyda shared their stories during “Prime Cuts 8,” the eighth annual gathering of nominated editors held during the 66th Emmy Awards season.

This year’s panelists represented all of the seven picture-editing categories; also participating were Jason Bielski, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live (Multi-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series); Emily Hsuan, Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid (Reality Programming) and Skip Macdonald, FX Networks’ Fargo (Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Miniseries or a Movie), as well as the “Felina” series finale episode of Breaking Bad

Actor-director-producer Fred Savage moderated. The panel, which was open to the public, was held at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre in the NoHo Arts District and was presented by the Academy’s Picture Editors Peer Group Executive Committee and governors Scott Boyd, A.C.E. and Stuart Bass, A.C.E.

Skip Macdonald, as it would turn out, would go on to win the Emmy Award for his work on Breaking Bad.

His versatility, as evidenced by the two nominations, has served him well. “Yes,” he said, when asked by Savage if it were important to learn a variety of editing styles. “When you start cutting, you have a place to go if something isn’t working.” Macdonald’s father was an editor, so he’d visit his dad’s cutting rooms as a child, but started his own career doing sound effects before switching to editing.  

Colleague McCaleb had first learned about editing working on Michael Mann projects early in his career. Jason Bielski had “stumbled into editing,” he said, after joining the Jim Henson Company as a college intern and then staying on full time; he worked at Henson for twelve years and eventually was asked to cut segments.

“I liked the problem-solving nature of it,” Bielski said; because the Henson characters were puppets, “I could only show them from the waist up.” 

Mitchell also “fell into” picture editing, she said. She began her career at the National Film Board of Canada, where her tasks included synching dailies from the U. S. television shows being filmed in Vancouver.

She assisted for 12 years, also editing independent films at night and building her demo reel from that.

After various editing jobs in the U.S., her big break came with Showtime’s Californication

Hsuan discovered documentaries and editing in film school, but, returning to her hometown San Francisco, wound up working instead in the tech industry, where she was a project manager and did get to direct and cut corporate videos.

When the industry fell, she decided to try for editing for real, six weeks later landing a job as a night logging assistant at a reality production company.  

“I was really focused,” Hsuan recalled. “I knew reality was booming. There was a correlation between reality editing and documentary editing. I let people know I wanted to cut. I put a reel together; I always took a copy of everything I cut to make a reel. I’d get recommendations, and get work.”

Taking the initiative has served the editors well as their careers have blossomed. “What I’ve learned over the years is, your first instinct is the best instinct,” Bielski said. Agreed McCaleb, “I would second-guess myself at the beginning. Kelley would say, ‘Trust your instincts. I’ll tell you if it’s not good.’” 

Still, instinct and initiative have to meld with the vision of the show’s creator and/or showrunner.

Fortunately, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan is collaborative: “He really wants strong opinions,” McCaleb noted.

Mitchell admitted, “I always weasel in what I want.” Fortunately, “Californication and Orange Is the New Black have very strong showrunners. The editor’s cut is very much closer to the producer’s cut than to the director’s. It’s very easy to know what [Orange creator Jenji Kohan] wants. What she’s about is, the funny. You can have the emotion, but it’s about the funny. I do that through the cutting, the interpretation of the performances.” 

On Fargo, Macdonald and executive producer Noah Hawley also shared similar visions, though, as Macdonald pointed out, “The longer you’ve worked on a show, the more you know what the vision is. This was a new show. A lot of times they had a clear vision of where they wanted to go, and I’d come in with an idea they hadn’t thought of. That’s where the collaboration comes in.”

For Bielski, “You’re ultimately funneling and trying to distill what Jimmy wants,” he says of late-night show host Kimmel, who tells the team each morning the roster of “bits” for the day. “We’ve all been there a long time. Because of the compressed schedule, we don’t have time to say, ‘Let’s try it this way.’”

Beyda and star-writer Billy Crystal were on the same creative page regarding the comedy and beats for 700 Sundays, which was fashioned from two performances of the comedian’s autobiographical Tony Award-winning show about his youth and the time he spent with his late father.  

There were nine cameras, but, “It wasn’t about coverage; it was about performance,” Beyda said.

One show was chosen as the better one to cut; Beyda also inserted Steadicam footage from the other show.  

“Billy was pretty much consistent from performance to performance, but he would improvise, a word or a line,” Beyda said. “It was almost a no-brainer: basically, you followed him.” On the other hand, “there was live music, which was a challenge to cut, when the music was different [in the two performances].” And with the show running too long, it fell to Beyda to tell Crystal, who was understandably close to such personal material, that it had to be shortened.

Hsuan faces other types of challenges with Naked and Afraid, in which two strangers on each episode, a man and a woman, must try to survive in harsh environments without clothes, food or tools.

She has 21 days of footage for each 42.5-minute show, and is usually provided transcripts of the action. 

“We work with story people, who tell us the major beats of the story,” Hsuan said. “In the first act, you introduce the characters.”

Besides the crew’s cameras, the participants have diary cameras, which they speak into and record. Not all footage is used in a linear manner: a shot of someone swimming underwater to catch a turtle for food, for instance, may have been recorded on a different day than the one in which it’s depicted on air.

Hsuan, at least, works with footage of people. For Duffy, editing COSMOS: A SpaceTime Odyssey, was, he said, “a study in placeholders. When I got there, there were no visual effects done, not a single one. I thought it was going to be a five-week job. It was seven months.” 

Scenes about the universe were highly scripted, and built up from title cards, graphic displays and visual effects; host Neil deGrasse Tyson stood on a green-screen floor. “The first time, we had to decide what size he was going to be,” Duffy commented. “The script said what to do; it didn’t say how to do it.”

The editors would first view each episode’s visual effects in a screening room before working with them; footage included actual photos that had been made three-dimensional. 

“It’s about pacing,” Duffy said of assembling all the elements. “If you got too slow, it seemed as if you were educational. If it was too fast, you couldn’t track it.”

In response to audience questions, the editors said they work with Avid software, and recommended that aspiring editors learn about special visual effects; they should also  network with as many people as possible.

Many editors work in windowless rooms; Bielski noted some aids Kimmel thoughtfully provided his team, who toil in a theater basement: sunlamps – and a fake window.


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