By Iain Blair
The TV landscape is full of scripted police procedurals and true crime dramas these days, but the indisputable and legendary king of that crowded landscape is Emmy-winning creator/producer Dick Wolf, whose name has become synonymous with high-quality drama.
Since it burst onto the scene back in 1990, his Law & Order show has spawned six dramas and four international spinoffs, while his “Chicago” franchise gave birth to another four series — the hugely popular Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. His Chicago Justice was cancelled after one season.
Then there’s his “FBI” shows, as well as the more documentary-style Cold Justice. If you’ve seen Cold Justice — and you should — you know that this is the real deal, focusing on real crimes. It’s all the more fascinating and addictive because of it.
Produced by Wolf and Magical Elves, the real-life crime series follows veteran prosecutor Kelly Siegler, who gets help from seasoned detectives as they dig into small-town murder cases that have lingered for years without answers or justice for the victims. Together with local law enforcement from across the country, the Cold Justice team has successfully helped bring about 45 arrests and 20 convictions. No case is too cold for Siegler, as the new season delves into new unsolved homicides while also bringing updates to previous cases. No wonder Wolf calls it “doing God’s work.” Cold Justice airs on true crime network Oxygen.
I recently spoke with Emmy-winning Arthur Forney, executive producer of all Wolf Entertainment’s scripted series (he’s also directed many episodes), about posting those shows. I also spoke with Cold Justice showrunner Liz Cook and EP/head of post Scott Patch.
Dick Wolf has said that, as head of post, you are “one of the irreplaceable pieces of the Wolf Films hierarchy.” How many shows do you oversee?
Arthur Forney: I oversee all of Wolf Entertainment’s scripted series, including Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., Chicago Med, FBI and FBI: Most Wanted.
Where is all the post done?
Forney: We do it all at NBCUniversal StudioPost in LA.
How involved is Dick Wolf?
Forney: Very involved, and we talk all the time.
How does the post pipeline work?
Forney: All film is shot on location and then sent back to the editing room and streamed into the lab. From there we do all our color corrections, which takes us into downloading it into Avid Media Composer.
What are the biggest challenges of the post process on the shows?
Forney: Delivering high-quality programming with a shortened post schedule.
What are the editing challenges involved?
Forney: Trying to find the right way of telling the story, finding the right performances, shaping the show and creating intensity that results in high-quality television.
What about VFX? Who does them?
Forney: All of our visual effects are done by Spy Post in Santa Monica. All of the action is enhanced and done by them.
Where do you do the color grading?
Forney: Coloring/grading is all done at NBCUniversal StudioPost.
Now let’s talk to Cook and Patch about Cold Justice:
Liz and Scott, I recently saw the finale to Season 5 of Cold Justice. That was a long season.
Liz Cook: Yes, we did 26 episodes, so it was a lot of very long days and hard work.
It seems that there’s more focus than ever on drug-related cases now.
Cook: I don’t think that was the intention going in, but as we’ve gone on, you can’t help but recognize the huge drug problem in America now. Meth and opioids pop up in a lot of cases, and it’s obviously a crisis, and even if they aren’t the driving force in many cases, they’re definitely part of many.
How do you go about finding cases for the show?
Cook: We have a case-finding team, and they get the cases various ways, including cold-calling. We have a team dedicated to that, calling every day, and we get most of them that way. A lot come through agencies and sheriff’s departments that have worked with us before and want to help us again. And we get some from family members and some from hits on the Facebook page we have.
I assume you need to work very closely with local law agencies as you need access to their files?
Cook: Exactly. That’s the first part of the whole puzzle. They have to invite us in. The second part is getting the family involved. I don’t think we’d ever take on a case that the family didn’t want us to do.
What’s involved for you, and do you like being a showrunner?
Cook: It’s a tough job and pretty demanding, but I love it. We go through a lot of steps and stuff to get a case approved, and to get the police and family on board, and then we get the case read by one of our legal readers to evaluate it and see if there’s a possibility that we can solve it. At that point we pitch it to the network, and once they approve it and everyone’s on board, then if there are certain things like DNA and evidence that might need testing, we get all that going, along with ballistics that need researching, and stuff like phone records and so on. And it actually moves really fast – we usually get all these people on board within three weeks.
How long does it take to shoot each show?
Cook: It varies, as each show is different, but around seven or eight days, sometimes longer. We have a case coming up with cadaver dogs, and that stuff will happen before we even get to the location, so it all depends. And some cases will have 40 witnesses, while others might have over 100. So it’s flexible.
Where do you post, and what’s the schedule like?
Scott Patch: We do it all at the Magical Elves offices here in Hollywood — the editing, sound, color correction. The online editor and colorist is Pepe Serventi, and we have it all on one floor, and it’s really convenient to have all the post in house. The schedule is roughly two months from the raw footage to getting it all locked and ready to air, which is quite a long time.
Dailies come back to us and we do our first initial pass by the story team and editors, and they’ll start whittling all the footage down. So it takes us a couple of weeks to just look at all the footage, as we usually have about 180 hours of it, and it takes a while to turn all that into something the editors can deal with. Then it goes through about three network passes with notes.
What about dealing with all the legal aspects?
Patch: That makes it a different kind of show from most of the others, so we have legal people making sure all the content is fine, and then sometimes we’ll also get notes from local law agencies, as well as internal notes from our own producers. That’s why it takes two months from start to finish.
Cook: We vet it through local law, and they see the cuts before it airs to make sure there are no problems. The biggest priority for us is that we don’t hurt the case at all with our show, so we always check it all with the local D.A. and police. And we don’t sensationalize anything.
Patch: That’s another big part of editing and post – making sure we keep it authentic. That can be a challenge, but these are real cases with real people being accused of murder.
Cook: Our instinct is to make it dramatic, but you can’t do that. You have to protect the case, which might go to trial.
Talk about editing. You have several editors, I assume because of the time factor. How does that work?
Patch: Some of these cases have been cold for 25 or 30 years, so when the field team gets there, they really stand back and let the cops talk about the case, and we end up with a ton of stuff that you couldn’t fit into the time slot however hard you tried. So we have to decide what needs to be in, what doesn’t.
Cook: On day one, our “war room” day, we meet with the local law and everyone involved in the case, and that’s eight hours of footage right there.
Patch: And that gets cut down to just four or five minutes. We have a pretty small but tight team, with 10 editors who split up the episodes. Once in a while they’ll cross over, but we like to have each team and the producers stay with each episode as long as they can, as it’s so complicated. When you see the finished show, it doesn’t seem that complicated, but there are so many ways you could handle the footage that it really helps for each team to really take ownership of that particular episode.
How involved is Dick Wolf in post?
Cook: He loves the whole post process, and he watches all the cuts and has input.
Patch: He’s very supportive and obviously so experienced, and if we’re having a problem with something, he’ll give notes. And for the most part, the network gives us a lot of flexibility to make the show.
What about VFX on the show?
Patch: We have some, but nothing too fancy, and we use an outside VFX/graphics company, LOM Design. We have a lot of legal documents on the show, and that stuff gets animated, and we’ll also have some 3D crime scene VFX. The only other outside vendor is our composer, Robert ToTeras.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.