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Quick Chat: Editor Chris Peterson takes on ‘The Sixties’ for CNN

By Randi Altman

What do you think of when someone mentions the 1960s? Hippies protesting the Vietnam War? Woodstock? Putting a man on the moon? There is so much to reflect on when thinking of this pivotal time in history, and CNN agrees.

At the end of May, the news network launched a 10-part original series called The Sixties. It airs on Thursday nights. The series takes a closer look at the moments in a decade that brought the civil rights movement, the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X, the Vietnam War, the British Invasion and so much more.

The Sixties has some big-named Emmy Award-winning producers behind it: Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman (HBO’s John Adams and The Pacific) of Playtone, and Mark Herzog (History’s Gettysburg) of Herzog & Co. (HCO).

While the series began officially in May, two episodes — “Assassination of President Kennedy” and “British Invasion” — ran a couple months prior to the entire series to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Beatles “Coming to America” anniversary.

Chris A. Peterson, ACE, was the supervising editor on the project. In fact, he recently won a 2014 Eddie Award for cutting the series’ two-hour feature, “The Assassination of President Kennedy,” and was recently nominated for an Emmy. Editing was via an Avid Media Composer 6.5 with ISIS shared storage.

Chris Peterson won an Eddie for his work on  the two-hour JFK episode. He is also nominated for an Emmy.

Chris Peterson won an Eddie for his work on the two-hour JFK episode. He is also nominated for an Emmy.

While the Kennedy episode and “A Long March To Freedom” are two-hour specials, both edited by Peterson, the rest of the documentary-style offerings are one-hour long.

“Our aim was to capture the raw, visceral experience of the events with archival ‘in-the-moment’ reporting of the time… and without narration,” explains Peterson. “We supplemented that with modern day-shot interviews for context and understanding.”

You were supervising editor on the project. What did that entail?
Every editor had their own episodes, so my job was essentially to make the series feel cohesive… ensuring that individual episodes stayed true to the style we established in “The Assassination of President Kennedy.”

How many other editors worked on The Sixties? If so, how did you decide who worked on what?
There were six or seven editors. Each of us was responsible for our own episodes, and we would alternate a bit between them when there was a time crunch with air dates. I was editing the two two-hour specials and “The British Invasion” episode, so I was plenty busy myself, but gave feedback on the other episodes as needed.

How much of the footage was archival?
The shows were roughly 75% archival footage and 25% modern-day interviews. We wanted to immerse the viewer in these critical historical moments, so we challenged ourselves with using ONLY archival footage shot between 1960-1969. I think we succeeded 99.9% of the time.

The Beatles

The Beatles coming to America

The archival footage must have been in a variety of formats. What were the challenges of working with that and different quality images?
The archival came from countless formats, and the quality of the material varied quite a bit. Since a primary goal was authenticity, if footage looked awful by nature, sometimes we’d just let it ride. But, overall, I was impressed with how well that old film and video footage holds up.

Can you talk about the workflow? How you were getting footage, how often, etc.
The team of researchers and producers spent months finding and organizing as much footage as possible for each subject. Usually we were dealing with hundreds of hours of footage for each episode.

Each day the assistants would give editors anywhere from a few minutes to 10-plus hours of footage. Culling that down was definitely a challenge, to say the least. I’d build scenes out and we discovered the story throughout the process.

How did you work with the producers in terms of your process?
The executive producers —Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman and Mark Herzog — all have a keen eye for story and a vast knowledge of just about anything pertaining to the sixties, and beyond. Their input was crucial in maintaining the visceral mood and historical accuracy of the series.

What was the most challenging section/part of the series for you personally?
Normally, I work on a feature narrative or documentary film for six months to a year. Because of the schedule, I had about 16 weeks to cut each of the two-hour feature length specials. Sometimes working at that pace was overwhelming, but in the end I am extremely proud of the results.

Kennedy small

What part of the project are you most proud of?
We’ve gotten amazing feedback from viewers — on Twitter, Facebook, etc. There’s something about the series that resonates and sparks dialogue about these historical events and allows people to experience history in a fresh way. I’m definitely proud of that.

It also feels great to have my work on the “Assassination of President Kennedy” episode recognized. First, winning a 2014 ACE Eddie Award for “Best Edited Documentary—Television,” and most recently, a 2014 Primetime Emmy nomination for “Outstanding Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming.” I feel incredibly honored.

So what’s next for you?
Well, half of my professional life is in scripted work and half in documentary. So after spending a year on The Sixties, I have been editing the scripted drama called The Librarians for TNT about an ancient organization committed to protecting an unknowing world from the secret, magical phenomenon hidden among them. And I am about to start on a scripted sci-fi television series for NBC/Universal.

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