I’m working on a series of posts that are less about the technology used in the projects I work on, and more about the workflows involved. Tips and techniques that can be used no matter what edit system you happen to use.
I have blogged about going back to Avid and editing with a single user setup on the series, A HAUNTING…now to talk about the challenges with editing a TV series with multiple editors working on one episode at the same time.
I will mention that Avid Media Composer is involved only to illustrate that we are working from shared storage (ISIS) and using a shared project file…all accessing the same media and able to share sequences. Beyond that, it doesn’t matter, as what I am going to talk about is more generic.No matter what editing software you use, these are the challenges one faces when multiple editors work on a single show. Most of this advice can be applied to narrative shows as well as reality and documentary. In this case, I’m referring to documentary TV and some reality, since that is the majority of what I cut.
When you edit a TV series, you need to work within the show style. You might have your own sense of style and story that you’ve used on other shows or projects, but now you need to conform to style of the series you are now working on. Who sets that style? Typically the lead editor. The lead editor might have edited the pilot, or the first episode…or just served as the main editor for a group of editors. Whoever it is, they set the style. When you join that pool of editors on that series, it’s your job to conform to that style. It’s very important for the episode, if not the whole series, to look seamless, as if it were edited by only one editor.
The first way to figure out that style, is to watch previous episodes. Take note of the music used, how dramatic emphasis is added, how visual effects (VFX) and sound effects (SFX) are used. Whenever I start a new show, that is what typically happens on the first day. Fill out the start paperwork, get the script, and get access to previous episodes so that you can familiarize yourself with the show. I will watch the episodes first, then read the script, so that I can get the show style in my head while I read, and picture how it should be cut. I might even make notes about what sort of b-roll I picture in certain spots. And if I don’t have it in the project already, then I’ll request it.
One big part of the show style is the VFX…the plugins used and how they are used. This is what I call the “language of the VFX.” Some shows will have a certain style…an approach to the subject that will dictate how the VFX are utilized. A civil war era show might have smokey transitions, or flash explosion transitions. Robot reality shows might have transitions and SFX that try to convey something robotic, like we are looking at shots in a robot workshop. Like mechanical steel doors closing and opening as a transition. All the SFX being mechanical in nature. Another show might want to present itself as though you, the observer, are reviewing files on a government computer and surveillance system, so the effects are geared towards camera sounds, picture clicking and shutters, spy cameras and scan lines with vignettes. Or a show that explores the paranormal so there are ghostly SFX and flash frames, light ray transitions, eerie sic-fi music beds and transitions.
One way I make sure to stick to the show style is I will copy and use the effects the main editor, so that I can mimic what they do. I might use an effect they use, so be a reoccurring theme, or modify something they do so that it is similar, yet different enough to keep the viewer from thinking, “I saw that same effect 10 min ago.” It might draw them out of the story. I will also find the music they use, and match back to the bins where that music is and see if cues next to it are similar. If not, I’ll search for cues that closely resemble the style, yet are different enough and fit the story I’m trying to tell.
As I mentioned before, music is also key. How long does the music typically last? One one series, I had the music change every 20 seconds, pretty much every time a thought was concluded and we moved onto a different topic. Music sting happened, layered SFX and WHOOSH light ray transition and we were onto the next topic. Very fast paced. Another show might be more investigative, more mysterious. So the music cues are dark, mysterious, with hits. It might last 1 min or so. Used to underscore a particular thought, and again, end with a hit to punctuate that thought and transition to the next music cue for the next thought. Or, at times…no music to add particular emphasis whatever is being said next. Sometimes the lack of music, when it is almost constant, punctuates a statement more than having music at that time. It might seem more important…”Oooo…there’s no music here…what they are saying must be so important, they don’t want to distract us.”
A bit more on working with VFX…meaning filters and transitions…in a show. One thing that I find very important is not to have the VFX distract the viewer from the story. The VFX are to emphasize the story point, punctuate what I am trying to say. If it is too flashy, or too fast, or happens on top of what the person is saying then I’ve distracted from the story and taken the viewer out of the moment. I’m lucky that many of the producers I work with feel the same way. Story is king…let the story happen. TELL the story. The story is the cake…the VFX are the frosting. The cake is good on it’s own, but frosting makes it better. A pile of frosting with no cake is too sweet (although my wife will disagree with me on this). Too much sweet with little to no substance. Filters and transitions used well, will add to your story.
Now, that’s not to say that I haven’t done over the top VFX. I most certainly have. I’ve worked on many reality shows and clip shows that lack a lot of substance, and to make up for that, we add flash. We will take one picture and milk it for all it’s worth…push in here FLASH, wipe there WHOOSH, pull out here BAM BAM BAM flashbulbs going off push in to have it settle on the girls face. Although a bit gratuitous, it might serve a point. “Britney Spears leaves the Mickey Mouse club…and moves on to pursue a career in music….BAM BAM FLASH FLASH WHOOSH BANG BOOM!” The VFX is there to punctuate the moment, and it has a language…paparazzi, stardom. And sometimes to cover up the fact that we really have no substance.
RECYCLE PAPER, NOT FOOTAGE
One of the challenges of working on a show where it is divided up among the editors, say one editor per act, is that we might end up using the same shot or still in Act 4 that someone used in Act 2. You can avoid this by occasionally watching or skimming the other acts to see if that shot is used. Or, if a shot really works well for me, I’ll ask the other editors if they are using it, or plan to, and if so…plead my case as to why I should be able to use it. And even when we do this, when we all watch the assembled show for the first time, we’ll see duplicate footage, or hear duplicate music. At that point we’ll discuss who gets to use what, and who needs to replace it. in a perfect world, this would happen BEFORE the first screening with the EP, either we screen it with the producer, or he watches it alone and finds the shots…but doesn’t always happen. Be hopeful that your EP (executive producer) understands the issues and just mentions the duplicate footage…rather than throwing a fit. “WTF?!?! I just saw that two acts ago! REMOVE IT!”
Of course the biggest thing in working in a multi-editor per episode show is communication. Besides the “are you using this shot” type stuff. I will go to the lead editor and ask for them to watch my act with me, and give me feedback. they know they show, they are in charge of the show style, so they will give me pointers to make my act cut together more seamlessly with the others. Sometimes I’m the lead editor that people come to for advice. One thing I found too is that often after the first screening, when all us editors are milling about after getting our acts picked apart by the EP…we tend to discuss our acts, and the style used. “Hey, I really liked that clever wipe transition you used in Act 5…mind if I steal that for Act 2?” Or, “I really liked how you amped up the drama in that reenactment. I can’t figure out how to do what you did…can you help me with that?” Or we’ll ask where they found a certain sound effect, or music cue and play off of each other. It can, at times, be like the Shakespearian era playwrights…each taking an idea and modifying it to make it better. Only in our case, we tried to tell a story in one way, but see how someone else did it, and try their approach.
One thing I forgot to mention is that sometimes the lead editor will go through all of the show…all of the acts…and do a “style pass.” They will take all the separate acts by separate editors and make it all conform to the style of the show. This does happen in docs on occasion, but I see it more in reality. I myself have been hired specifically as the “style editor,” or ‘finishing editor.” I might have an act of my own, but also be in charge of the overall look of a show.
To close on an anecdotal note…I once worked on a doc series and we were very behind. There were two of us editors on this one act, and the producer would write on page, give it to me and I’d go to work on it. Page two he’d hand off to my partner and he’d work on that. Page 3 was mine, and so on. This was tough because we weren’t editing separate acts…not even separate thoughts separated by a music cue. We were just picking up on the next page. To deal with this, we’d edit without music and effects, just get the story down and filled with b-roll and some slight pacing. And when we had assembled the act, or at least two separate thoughts, we then divvied them up and tackled them, adding music and effects. And when we finished the whole act, the other editor would take it over and smooth out all the edits and make it into one cohesive piece (they happen to be the lead on that show).
Note that narrative shows also have a show style that all the editors need to conform to. CASTLE has a very unique look and style, as do BURN NOTICE, PSYCH, LAW & ORDER SVU, MAD MEN and THE BIG BANG THEORY. Those editors also need to fit within the show style, and make it appear as though one editor cuts the whole series. And a few of these shows also happen to have two or more editors (note this in the TV series, LOST).