2015 Emmy Prime Cuts
Emmy-honored picture editors discuss the challenges and craft of visual storytelling.
To create an 18-episode season of Deadliest Catch, Discovery Channel’s reality series about crab-fishing in the Bering Sea, the production shoots 30,000 hours.
The footage is worked on by others before it reaches the editing bay, but it’s the members of the editing team who ultimately devise camera cuts and shape the stories. This year, the team shared an Emmy Award for Outstanding Picture Editing for Reality Programming, the show’s fifth consecutive win.
“We have cameras on the different boats, on a helicopter and on the Coast Guard, working around the clock,” according to editor Alexander Rubinow, a first-time Emmy winner in September.
“We document two crab-fishing seasons [in a TV season]. There are loggers who watch every single second. It goes through the producers and executive producers, who decide what footage to use.
“We’re taking hours of footage – it’s like having all these different pieces of a puzzle. I gather all the camera angles, make notes and listen to the chatter, and read the transcribers’ [notes]. My producers will have mapped out what we need. And I have to score it – I work with my composer.”
Rubinow described his process during the 2015 Emmy Prime Cuts, an annual panel of Emmy-nominated (and in his case, Emmy-winning) editors from each of the picture editing categories who gather to discuss their art and craft in a Television Academy program open to the public.
Besides Rubinow, this year’s participants included Tom Wilson (AMC’s Mad Men, single- camera drama series category); Catherine Haight, A.C.E. (Amazon Instant Video’s Transparent, single-camera comedy series); Darryl Bates, A.C.E. (CBS’s 2 Broke Girls, multi-camera comedy series); Luyen Vu (ABC’s American Crime, single-camera miniseries or movie); Richard LaBrie (Comedy Central’s Key & Peele, short form segments and variety specials); and Kate Amend, A.C.E. (HBO’s The Case Against 8, nonfiction programming).
Producer Shawn Ryan (executive producer, Amazon’s Mad Dogs, creator-executive producer, FX’s The Shield) returned as moderator, a role he has filled for seven of the nine Prime Cuts panels.
The program was held at the Skirball Center’s Magnin Auditorium in Los Angeles 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
Each editor brought a clip he or she had edited; Rubinow’s showed an injured crewman’s dramatic airlifting from the boat, to receive medical care, amidst gale-force winds.
A rescue of a different sort – psychological and emotional – was the focus of the Mad Men selection from the series finale, where Don Draper (Jon Hamm), attending a group session at an Esalen-like spiritual retreat, was so moved by a participant’s speech about feeling invisible and unloved that he reached out to him in a deep embrace.
“That was the end of [Draper’s] emotional journey,” Wilson noted. “He’s been cast off by people, and he’s given away his things. Tragedy strikes at home, and he discovers nobody wants him.
"He’s in a dark place – while he finds himself, he loses everyone in his life. Then this stranger talks, and that really keys in to what Don’s been going through. [He realizes,] ‘Maybe people have been trying to show me love all this time, and I haven’t realized it and known how to accept it.’ Something clicks, and he can do for this guy what he wishes people had done for him.”
Wilson did not learn the nature of the very last scene, a re-creation of the real-life iconic Coca-Cola “Hilltop” commercial that the fictional Draper created after his time at the retreat center, until the episode’s tone meeting, an eight-hour gathering of department heads during which creator-executive producer Matthew Weiner went through the script line by line.
In the script, there’d been the notation, “Final Scene Redacted.” “Even Coca-Cola didn’t know,” Wilson said. “They had cleared [use of the commercial], but they were pleasantly surprised.”
Amend’s clip showed the concluding sequences of The Case Against 8, the documentary about the successful legal battle to overturn the California proposition which rendered gay marriage illegal.
She did not yet know the outcome of the U.S. Supreme Court decision when she started editing the documentary; to shoot those final scenes, which showed people tensely waiting for the decision and then their jubilation amidst a surge to apply for marriage licenses, “We had one producer here in L.A. and one in San Francisco,” she said.
“I intercut between the [action in the two cities]. The scenes had so much energy. We’d go to the heavier stuff and then go to the [first] wedding, which was very emotional.”
And yet another ending sequence was the focus of a clip, this time the end of the pilot of Transparent, the series about a family patriarch who comes out as a transgender woman named Maura.
A montage, set to a Jim Croce song which characters perform on screen, shows various characters coupling up – and ends with a punch: Maura, who has not yet revealed her secret to her family but is now in full women’s clothes and makeup as she believes she’s alone in the house, unexpectedly encounters her married (to a man) adult daughter, here romancing her college girlfriend. It’s a revelation for everyone.
Though the cross-cutting was in the script, “I tied it in to the song, so you’re not quite as flexible,” Haight said.
“No two takes are the same,” she added. “There’s a fair amount of improvisation – blocking is only a suggestion.” Similarly, creator-executive producer Jill Soloway “always trusts her editors to make their own choices.”
For the anthology miniseries American Crime, which this season depicted a murder and trial propelled by racial elements, “[creator] John Ridley wanted us to use editorial in every way possible, and no rules,” Vu said. His clip was an uncompromising look at people buying and using drugs, the latter action shown from various angles in a cluttered, dirty apartment.
“When they took the drugs, we went further,” in the way the scene was shot and edited, Vu said. “The meth addicts’ lives are messed up. The experience [for] the audience should be a little jumbled up as well.”
On a lighter note, LaBrie’s Key & Peele clip showed a sketch of characters’ responses to seeing a horror film – “The challenge was to create enough cuts to communicate the reactions to the audience,” he noted – and Bates’s 2 Broke Girls selection showed diner waitress Caroline (Beth Behrs) being annoyed by the surveillance drone her boss has bought.
“We shot the scene and put the drone in later,” Bates said, “but I still had to make it seem live.” Nowadays, he added, about half of each episode is not shot in front of a studio audience; he has a four- or five-hour turnaround to cut enough of that footage, with music and effects, to show the audience. “We have to make it seem seamlessly live.”
The panelists took various routes to their current success. Some attended film school and had a student film to showcase their styles; some had connections or made them as time went by.
Luck played a part, but so, certainly, did perseverance: No job, editing or otherwise, was too menial or time-consuming to perform; night-shift work abounded; friends’ couches sufficed for those who couldn’t afford rent.
Bates had the most colorful account of finding his first editing job. After an interview at a company where the producer interviewing him was too distracted to pay much attention to viewing his student film, he wrote the producer a “vicious, poison-pen letter,” chiding the man. Two months later, another company producer hired him as an assistant editor, referred by the first producer.
“I asked [the first producer], ‘What happened? Did you get my letter?’” Bates recalled. He had, and couldn’t stop thinking about the young man, full of passion. So when the assistant job came up, the producer thought, “Oh yeah, the crazy guy.”
How do the editors react to notes from their producers? “You don’t necessarily do the note – you do the spirit of the note,” Vu said. “It’s our job to find the right way,” Haight added.
Getting to know the boss helps: “You create a relationship with your producer,” said LaBrie, who is currently in training to become a psychotherapist in anticipation of the time, in the not-too-distant future, when he will no longer want to work such long hours.
The editors rely on their instincts about how scenes should be cut, as well as on their talent. “Practice helps,” Haight said. “You can fine-tune your instinct – that comes with practice.”
Added Amend, “Every editor I know says they cut through their gut. Instinct is developed through practice. I trust my emotions, and usually that translates to an audience – usually I’m right that something is funny, or poignant, and the audience will respond.”
Above all, as Wilson said, “It’s really about learning to tell a story. You step back and react to it with your cuts: How does it make you feel? Have you created something that makes you feel? I tell my assistants, ‘Take this footage and tell me a story. Tell a story that will sweep people along with it.’
“Anyone can do a word-for-word play-out of everything on the page,” he added. “It’s about telling the story.”