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Editing an ‘Empire’ for Fox

Zack Arnold talks about his process on the first two seasons of this hit show.

By Ellen Wixted

Zack Arnold dreamed of being an editor before he even knew the job existed. As a kid, he and his brother shot short films with a VHS camcorder — but it wasn’t until his brother added music that the process captured his imagination. Before long, he was using two VCRs to re-mix existing movies, and loving every minute of the process.

Happily for Arnold, that’s still true today. After studying film at the University of Michigan, Arnold moved to LA, where he quickly landed a job editing trailers. That led to work on indie features, and eventually episodic TV. Editing Burn Notice was a breakthrough moment (one that lasted four seasons), and the experience opened other doors.

Arnold worked with show runner Ilene Chaiken on a medical drama that was cancelled, but the partnership was solid. When Chaiken was named an executive producer on Fox’s Empire, Arnold was brought on board as well. He edited the entire first season and was on through Episode 15 of season two. He’s currently working on a new series for Paramount called Shooter. “I’m an additional editor on the pilot and will be editing three additional episodes, including the season finale. It’s a 10-episode first season.”

I asked Arnold, who cut the show on Avid Media Composer, what makes Empire different from other shows, and his response was lightning-quick: “Empire requires an unusually varied skill set of its editors. Every episode combines elements of performance, comedy and drama. The musical numbers are so high-energy and require a lot of style. To make sure the jokes hit, you need to have great comedic timing. And weaving it all together is a performance-driven character drama, which requires a different approach.”

Arnold’s experience editing across multiple genres gave him a clear advantage here. Most editors tend to work within a single genre, but Arnold’s work editing trailers, combined with his experience editing a range of episodic content, mean he’s able to draw from a wealth of experience.

Musical numbers are central to Empire, and Arnold described the show’s accelerated editing process in some detail: “I’ll end up with eight hours of dailies from one day of shooting. After one of my assistants organizes the footage into multicam groups — there can be 50 to 60 different angles within a group — we’ll break the edit down into story-driven elements and the performance itself. With every music number, you have to tell a specific story, using rhythm to hold the viewer’s attention. Watching Cookie watch the performance may be critical to the story, and I’ve found if you watch everything while keeping the big picture in mind, it’ll wash over you, making it easy to decide what’s essential.”

Which edit is Arnold’s favorite? Episode 109. “The whole first season is about the family dynamic — the relationships between the parents and the children, and the current of homophobia in that community. In one cut, we went from a warm family scene to a terrifying psychotic break.” Arnold edited the club scene first and tackled the bipolar break sequence a few days later. The transition from one to the other didn’t work initially because they were too different emotionally, so a buffer scene with family members was inserted. “The studio didn’t respond well initially, but we fought back because it worked powerfully on an emotional level, and in the end the audience response on Twitter validated our approach.”

More Than Editing
In addition to his work as an editor, Arnold is the developer of Fitness in Post, a podcast that helps newcomers to the industry find creative ways to stay fit and healthy despite long hours sitting in darkened rooms. He also likes to give back to the community, and offers this bit of advice for those just starting out: “Figure out what you’re interested in doing right now, and go after it wholeheartedly. Starting at the bottom of a ladder you don’t want to climb makes it harder to jump off later. And as an editor, you should always be honing your storytelling craft — we are visual writers.”

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