By Emory Parker
As a young filmmaker and editor, I was very excited to be attending Manhattan Edit Workshop’s Sight, Sound & Story conference that took place right off of Madison Avenue in New York City recently. On my way to the event, I passed men in slick suits walking into shiny buildings, evoking thoughts of my favorite show, Mad Men.
Once inside the venue, my thoughts remained on Mad Men — I saw that one of its editors, Cindy Mollo, ACE, was scheduled to speak about her process during the upcoming TV panel. All of the editors lined up for the day had equally impressive credentials working on a diverse group of projects, which ranged from the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work to the classic film Jurassic Park, and everything in between.
The schedule included panels on documentaries, sports docudramas, sound editing and editing for feature films. While all of those were impressive, personally I was most excited for “TV is the New Black: Television’s Cinematic Revolution.”
Editing for Television
Michael Berenbaum, ACE, who had been an editor on Sex and the City and currently cuts the series The Americans, moderated this particular television panel. He began the discussion by comparing 1950’s “Golden Age” of television to what he referred to as the current “Glorious Age.” He asked the panel why they feel today’s small-screen offerings, like Game of Thrones and Mad Men, to name a few, are so good. Mollo replied, “Great writing,” and all seemed to be in agreement. But, in addition to quality writing, there is a string of artists who play a big role, and that includes the editor.
Gary Levy, ACE, who currently edits Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, reported that there’s a lot more to work with nowadays, as well as resources such as money and technology, which help facilitate production, post and distribution to the viewers. This could explain why screenwriters, directors, actors and editors who have typically worked in film are now making the move to television.
Mad Men’s Mollo revealed that working with a higher level of talent motivates her even further. She recalled the positive experience she had at a Mad Men tone meeting for the episode “Maidenform.” A tone meeting is when the head writer sits down with the director, producer, AD, editor and other key members of the crew to discuss what the upcoming episode is about.
As creator Matthew Weiner read the script’s words aloud, Mollo realized that the episode’s theme of identity “was baked into every line.” Weiner explained that the episode was meant to ask, “Are you who you think you are, or are you who everyone else thinks you are?” This type of direction helped Mollo take the footage and mold it into an episode for which she was nominated for an Emmy. She added that in her experience, editors are not always invited to these vital meetings.
If an editor has done his or her job, audiences don’t even notice their work. It takes many hours of sorting, assembling and shaping, and years of experience to achieve the illusion of effortlessness. Editors often stare at the computer screen for hours debating one take or another. Just holding a reaction shot for one extra second could change the audience’s perception.
Mollo talked about trusting her “internal metronome.” She does not base her decisions on a formula; she listens to her heart. While editing can appear to be very mechanical, it is also emotional. The other panelists agreed about the need to trust their instincts.
Meg Reticker, also on the panel, spoke about the difference between cutting the 30-minute NBC comedy 30 Rock and one-hour HBO drama True Detective. The switch was, as you could imagine, an adjustment for Reticker. On True Detective she found herself trying to tighten up certain sequences that might be perceived as slow moving. Once she took a step back, she was able to see that allowing certain shots to linger could be extremely powerful.
In life, not every conversation is a tennis match. We take our time moving from thought to thought and we don’t always use words to express what we’re feeling. A good editor acknowledges this truth and tries to replicate it in the fictional world.
At the end of the day, I thought about what makes some TV characters seem so real. Of course, one component is gifted actors speaking the words of gifted writers, but astute editors construct their performances in a way that helps us understand the character as a whole.
One of the documentary panelists, Jonathan Oppenheim, described a scene as a “collection of behavior.” The editor reveals little flecks of the characters’ personalities. Though the actor may speak the words and perform the actions, the editor manipulates the way we interpret them through their meticulous juxtaposition.
The editor can make our hearts break just by cutting from a shot of Mad Men’s Don Draper in bed with his neighbor, Sylvia, to a shot of his wife, Megan, waiting up for him in an empty apartment one floor away. We are able to sympathize and even identify with these characters not only because of the environment built by the creator, but also the emotional landscape sculpted by the editor. So let’s raise a glass to the artists of the cutting room.
Emory Parker is studying film and television production at New York University. She began editing with iMovie at 15 years old and switched to Final Cut Pro X at 15 when iMovie could no longer handle her projects. While she still uses FCP X from time to time — and she recently completed her first project in Adobe’s Premiere — at NYU she is being trained in Avid Media Composer.