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Quick Chat: Robert Ryang on editing Netflix’s Zion doc

Back in May, Cut+Run’s Robert Ryang took home a Sports Emmy in the Outstanding Editing category for the short film Zion. The documentary, which premiered at Sundance and was released on Netflix, tells the story of Zion Clark, a young man who was born without legs, grew up in foster care and found community and hope in wrestling.

Robert Ryang and his Emmy for his work on Zion.

Clark began wrestling in second grade against his able-bodied peers. The physical challenge became a therapeutic outlet and gave him a sense of family. Moving from foster home to foster home, wrestling became the one constant in his childhood.

Editor Ryang and Zion’s director, Floyd Russ, had worked together previously — on the Ad Council’s Fans of Love and SK-II’s Marriage Market Takeover, among other projects — and developed a creative shorthand that helped tell this compelling, feel-good story.

We spoke with Ryang about the film, his process and working with the director

How and when did you become involved in this project?
In the spring of 2017, my good friend director Floyd Russ asked me to edit his passion project. Initially, I was hesitant, since it was just after the birth of my second child. Two years later, both the film and my kid have turned out great.

You’ve worked him before. What defines the way you work together?
I think Floyd and I work really well together because we’re such good friends; we don’t have to be polite. He’ll text me ideas any time of day, and I feel comfortable enough to tell him if I don’t like something. He wins most of the fights, but I think this dialectic probably makes the work better.

How did you approach the edit on the film? How did you hone the story structure?
At first, Floyd had a basic outline that I followed just to get something on the timeline. But from there, it was a pretty intense process of shuffling and reshaping. At one point, we tried to map the beats onto a whiteboard, and it looked like a Richter scale. Editor Adam Bazadona helped cut some of these iterations while I was on paternity leave.

How does working on a short film like this differ — hats worn, people involved, etc. — from advertising projects?
The editing process was a lot different from most commercial projects in that it was only Floyd and me in the room. Friends floated a few thoughts here and there, but we were only working toward a director’s cut.

What tools did you use?
Avid Media Composer for editing, some Adobe After Effects for rough comps.

What are the biggest creative and technical challenges you faced in the process?
With docs, there are usually infinite ways to put it together, so we did a lot of exploration. Floyd definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone in prescribing the more abstract scenes, but I think those touches ultimately made the film stand out.

From Sundance, to Netflix, to Sports Emmy awards. Did you ever imagine it would take this journey?
There wasn’t much precedent for a studio or network acquiring a 10-minute short, so our biggest hope was that it would get into Sundance then live on Vimeo. It really exceeded everyone’s expectations. And I would have never imagined receiving an Emm, but am really honored I did.


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