Aspects of Editing 3Q19

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3rd Qtr, 2019

There are many excellent television directors who understand the pace and limitations of series television and guide the actors to subtle performances. They know how to shoot coverage and maybe design a few cool-looking camera moves. But on occasion we get directors who are mismatched for a show. They can’t block, get hung up on unimportant story points, and miss key scene beats.

On most long-running TV series the actors know their characters, the photographic style is set, most departments from casting to set design answer to the showrunner not the director. Here is a thought experiment: Imagine a show without a director, where the actors block themselves, the camera operators figure out the shots, the AD runs the set. This occurs when an unseasoned crew member is moved up to director. Usually the show turns out okay. Some jokes may be missed, some moments are flat but usually about 80 percent of the script
makes it to the screen.

The horror that I confront as an editor is the rare occasion when a terrible director gets the gig and I have to contend with 40-50 percent of the script realized on the screen. These rubes make the show worse than if there was no director. They may be maestros with a skill such as shooting live sport events or excellent at pitching network execs but fail miserably at working a nuanced comedy.

When writers, directors of photography, actors, editors, set designers and others on a crew don’t perform well, they don’t survive. But directors are different. A director with poor skills can build a reel of material that can be very impressive after rewrites, reshoots, opticals and intense editing go into fixing the show. For the purposes of this article I am going to fictionalize and create a composite director named Myron Smith and a composite series I’ll call MacDriver which is not related to my experiences on MacGyver (1985-92). Hopefully, using anonymity I may continue living my life without a bodyguard and food taster.

Executive producers brought Myron Smith to direct MacDriver, because they had great experiences with him 20 years before on TV westerns. In that time, audience expectations had changed a lot. Old TV westerns were shot in seven days. Action scenes were composed of a wide master of cowboys shooting at each other and a few choice medium shots for dialogue. Smith’s episode was so badly directed it required 108 second-unit insert shots (many were technically principal photography) shot over three days to make the scenes coherent. In one scene, the director covered an intense four-page car chase setting the camera on one hill to capture the cars on an opposite hill thinking this was enough action to engage the audience. Along with a lack of coverage, the close-ups were shot at the same angle as the master, making matches difficult.

So it begins for the editor. What are we going to do to make this episode look and feel like other episodes of MacDriver? First off there is the ‘brilliant edit.’ We run the scene and the dailies over and over again looking for inspiration. Then a conversation with my assistant; a late night revelation; encouraging words from the showrunner; and the answer is there. Aha! Use the bad take for picture but repo it and steal dialogue from another episode. It was so clearly the answer!

Maybe I can use the tried and true blow-up. If a wide shot is in sharp focus, a 200 percent blow-up can create coverage when there was none. I have heard editors refer to slow optical push-ins as Dramanators. They add tension to lifeless scenes. Speeding up or slowing down the frame rate will build moments. If the director didn’t get a reaction maybe a bit of the actor can be found before a slate and slowed down to look like an intense look. There is a very poignant Wonder Years episode ending made from Mobius strip loops of manufactured reactions.

When scenes are blocked badly and jokes or beats are not working I will trim out pages of dialogue. I enlist the writers as reinforcements. On Arrested Development with the help of the writers we often came up with a graphic joke, insert of a newscaster, or a flash to another scene to bridge missing story.

Often poor directors will miss the sense of urgency in a scene. Well-placed ADR and insert shots can help create urgency. Underscore can build emotion when there was nothing. Sometimes it’s just a matter of when to start and stop a cue to underline a story point. I often joke after hearing in the final mix how the composer should get the directing credit.

Back in the day on MacDriver (totally fictional), one of the editor’s tasks was shooting inserts. Sometimes they are details like a bomb ticking to create tension, or tight shots of Mac building his gimmicks for clarity. The inserts might be a wide shot which doubles to create geography that the director missed. Very often the careful use of inserts and sound can fill out drama where there was just a limp master shot with the actors lined up like a remake of A Chorus Line. An insert can create a scene transition when the director left bupkis.

VFX editors and assistants who are masters at temp effects are heroes. In order to be in the bad directors club you have to ignore framing. Why is there a piece of that distracting character floating at the edge of frame? Presto! Gone. Why don’t the overthe-shoulder shots match? Voila! Clean Cut. Why don’t the actors react at the same time in that group shot? Bam! Frankenshot. And by Presto! Voila! and Bam! I mean many growling hours in After Effects pounding out traveling mattes.

We employ these technical measures to fix mediocrity; the tricks learned since I picked up my dad’s 8mm camera and started shooting war stories with neighborhood kids in the backyard. But these schemes are not the whole story. There is another ingredient to successful TV repair.

Back when I was an assistant trying my damnedest to move up to editor there was a guild rule that assistant editors had to assist for eight years. I had cut about 800 commercials and many industrial films before coming to Los Angeles. However, because of how I changed guild jurisdictions I could not keep my status as a picture editor and had to work as an assistant editor. It was frustrating forced to assist even with so much cutting under my belt. I remember asking the president of the guild at the time, Irv Rosenblum, why is there an eight-year rule? He told me that an assistant had to gain a certain amount of maturity to navigate the politics of the editing room. The rule may have been arbitrary but there is wisdom to the thought.

Marco Zappia (1937-2013) may have been one of television’s most successful editors. He started physically cutting twoinch videotape on Laugh In and became the most sought-after multi-cam editor. He lived and breathed editing. He didn’t take vacations, he told me once he had only been out of the state once on a sports remote. On the weekends he took home dailies to cut as side projects. I had the pleasure of working with him on a couple shows. What I learned from him had nothing to do with split screens or selecting a performance.

Marco was the nicest person. He treated everyone with respect. He was soft spoken. When he worked with producers he did not resist or make faces, he gleefully executed their notes. However, he had a secret super power. If he had a better idea of how to fix a scene, using humility he carried out the fix and somehow he allowed the producer to feel it was their idea. It was a humble transference of ego. The producer would sit behind him and say, “That joke isn’t landing.” Marco would quickly trim a few frames, steal a reaction and praise the producer for his comedy chops. This was not condescending. Marco sincerely communicated gratitude with subtle expressions and knowing nods. The producer left feeling success and empowered. In this world of ‘lean in’ and ‘sharp elbows’ Marco’s zen approach had him cutting several sitcoms a week, taking a percentage of the video facility profits, and buying apartment buildings throughout Los Angeles.

Myron Smith has pissed off the performers; missed moments; missed technical fundamentals like the 180-degree rule; and called me every morning in an attempt to have me fawn over the dailies. He insists on sitting next to me while going through his cut and his touches and goofy punches are a bit over-friendly.

It’s as if Myron has hidden a flaw in every scene for me to find. His scenes remind me of the kids magazine, Highlights, What’s Wrong with This? Look closely to find 24 silly things. After sitting with Myron for a day hoping he could give me a clue of how to unlock these scenes I realize he is as clueless in the editing room as he is on the set. We swap out a performance; find the camera move he loves even after I point to the c-stand clearly passing by; we end with a reaction though the scene was over long ago. We add top-40 music he brought in though the studio warned us about licensing costs. I summon the inner Marco Zappia in me and happily perform his lateral notes praising his comedy chops. His DGA-designated days are over, he tells me he can’t wait to work with me again, and I sigh with relief as his Ferrari speeds off the lot.

A few days into cutting a poorly-directed show are voyages into darkness. The first thought upon waking is the disaster awaiting on the file server. I drag myself to the studio and procrastinate by chatting with the guys down the hall. I take my time preparing caffeine strong enough to keep me focused. Even scary emails from the IRS are a preferable distraction. When I ask my assistant about the dailies he just drops his face into his hands and shudders. I approach yesterday’s shots and am a kid again looking at Highlights magazine. What’s wrong with the picture? The next 10 hours I am immersed in damage control, looking for order where there is nothing but chaos. I call on the editing gods to help find the hidden moments and accidental treasures. Strangely, the editing gods answer my pleas as if I am worthy, uncovering story, building arcs. Keystrokes and mouse movements are elevated to moments of grace. In the end I have the gratification of having a show that matches the episodes in the series. It may have added 30 hours to my week but I’m done and ready for the next one. This is the job and that is why I’m paid the medium bucks.