By Randi Altman
Rock Paper Scissors (RPS) is a veteran editing house specializing in commercials, music videos and feature films. Founded by Oscar-winning editor Angus Wall (The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), RPS has a New York office as well as a main Santa Monica location that it shares with sister companies A52, Elastic and Jax.
We recently reached out to RPS editor Biff Butler and his assistant editor Alyssa Oh (both Adobe Premiere users) to find out about how they work, their editing philosophy and their collaboration on the Michelob Ultra Robots spot that premiered during this year’s Super Bowl.
Let’s find out more about their process…
Rock Paper Scissors, Santa Monica
What does your job entail?
Biff Butler: Simply put, someone hands us footage (and a script) and we make something out of it. The job is to act as cheerleader for those who have been carrying the weight of a project for weeks, maybe months, and have just emerged from a potentially arduous shoot.
Their job is to then sell the work that we do to their clients, so I must hold onto and protect their vision, maintaining that initial enthusiasm they had. If the agency has written the menu, and the client has ordered the meal, then a director is the farmer and the editor the cook.
I frequently must remind myself that although I might have been hired because of my taste, I am still responsible for feeding others. Being of service to someone else’s creative vision is the name of the game.
What’s your workflow like?
Alyssa Oh: At the start of the project, I receive the footage from production and organize it to Biff’s specs. Once it’s organized, I pass it off and he watches all the footage and assembles an edit. Once we get deeper into the project, he may seek my help in other aspects of the edit, including sound design, pulling music, creating graphics, temporary visual effects and creating animations. At the end of the project, I prep the edits for finishing color, mix, and conform.
What would surprise people about being an editor?
Oh: When I started, I associated editorial with “footage.” It surprised me that, aside from editing, we play a large part in decision-making for music and developing sound design.
Butler: I’ve heard the editor described as the final writer in the process. A script can be written and rewritten, but a lot happens in the edit room once shots are on a screen. The reality of seeing what actually fits within the allotted time that the format allows for can shape decisions as can the ever-evolving needs of the client in question. Another aspect we get involved with is the music — it’s often the final ingredient to be considered, despite how important a role it plays.
What do you enjoy the most about your job?
Oh: By far, my favorite part is the people that I work with. We spend so much time together; I think it’s important to not just get along, but to also develop close relationships. I’m so grateful to work with people who I look forward to spending the day with.
At RPS, I’ve gained so many great friendships over the years and learn a lot from everyone around me —- not just in the aspect of editorial, but also from the people at companies that work alongside us — A52, Elastic and Jax.
Butler: At the risk of sounding corny, what turns me on most is collaboration and connection with other creative talents. It’s a stark contrast to the beginning of the job, which I also very much adore — when it’s just me and my laptop, watching footage and judging shots.
Usually we get a couple days to put something together on our own, which can be a peaceful time of exploration and discovery. This is when I get to formulate my own opinions and points of view on the material, which is good to establish but also is something I must be ready to let go of… or at least be flexible with. Once the team gets involved in the room — be it the agency or the director — the real work begins.
As I said before, being of service to those who have trusted me with their footage and ideas is truly an honorable endeavor. And it’s not just those who hire us, but also talents we get to join forces with on the audio/music side, effects, etc. On second thought, the free supply of sparkly water we have on tap is probably my favorite part. It’s all pretty great.
What’s the hardest part of the job?
Oh: For me, the hardest part of our job are the “peaks and valleys.” In other words, we don’t have a set schedule, and with each project, our work hours will vary.
Butler: I could complain about the late nights or long weekends or unpredictable schedules, but those are just a result of being employed, so I count myself fortunate that I even get to moan about that stuff. Perhaps one of the trickiest parts is in dealing with egos, both theirs and mine.
Inevitably, I serve as mediator between a creative agency and the director they hired, and the client who is paying for this whole project. Throw in the mix my own sense of ownership that develops, and there’s a silly heap of egos to manage. It’s a joy, but not everyone can be fully satisfied all the time.
If you couldn’t edit for a living, what would you do?
Oh: I think I would definitely be working in a creative field or doing something that’s hands-on (I still hope to own a pottery studio someday). I’ve always had a fondness for teaching and working with kids, so perhaps I’d do something in the teaching field.
Butler: I would be pursuing a career in directing commercials and documentaries.
Did you know from a young age that you would be involved in this industry?
Oh: In all honesty, I didn’t know that this would be my path. Originally, I wanted to go into
broadcast, specifically sports broadcasting. I had an interest in television production since
high school and learned a bit about editing along the way.
However, I had applied to work at RPS as a production assistant shortly after graduating and quickly gained interest in editing and never looked back!
Butler : I vividly recall seeing the movie Se7en in the cinema and being shell-shocked by the opening title sequence. The feeling I was left with was so raw and unfiltered, I remember thinking, “That is what I want to do.” I wasn’t even 100 percent sure what that was. I knew I wanted to put things together! It wasn’t even so much a mission to tell stories, but to evoke emotion — although storytelling is most often the way to get there.
At the same time, I was a kid who grew up under the spell of some very effective marketing campaigns — from Nike, Jordan, Gatorade — and knew that advertising was a field I would be interesting in exploring when it came time to find a real job.
As luck would have it, in 2005 I found myself living in Los Angeles after the rock band I was in broke up, and I walked over to a nearby office an old friend of mine had worked at, looking for a job. She’d told me it was a place where editors worked. Turns out, that place was where many of my favorite ads were edited, and it was founded by the guy who put together that Se7en title sequence. That place was Rock Paper Scissors, and it’s been my home ever since.
Can you guys talk about the Michelob Ultra Robots spot that first aired during the Super Bowl earlier this year? What was the process like?
Butler: The process involved a lot of trust, as we were all looking at frames that didn’t have any of the robots in — they were still being created in CG — so when presenting edits, we would have words floating on screen reading “Robot Here” or “Robot Runs Faster Now.”
It says a lot about the agency in that it could hold the client’s hand through our rough edit and have them buy off on what looked like a fairly empty edit. Working with director Dante Ariola at the start of the edit helped to establish the correct rhythm and intention of what would need to be conveyed in each shot. Holding on to those early decisions was paramount, although we clearly had enough human performances to rest are hats on too.
Was there a particular cut that was more challenging than the others?
Butler: The final shot of the spot was a battle I lost. I’m happy with the work, especially the quality of human reactions shown throughout. I’m also keen on the spot’s simplicity. However, I had a different view of how the final shot would play out — a closer shot would have depicted more emotion and yearning in the robot’s face, whereas where we landed left the robot feeling more defeated — but you can’t win them all.
Did you feel extra stress knowing that the Michelob spot would air during the Super Bowl?
Butler: Not at all. I like knowing that people will see the work and having a firm airdate reduces the likelihood that a client can hem and haw until the wheels fall off. Thankfully there wasn’t enough time for much to go wrong!
You’ve already talked about doing more than just editing. What are you often asked to do in addition to just editing?
Butler: Editors are really also music supervisors. There can be a strategy to it, also knowing when to present a track you really want to sell through. But really, it’s that level of trust between myself and the team that can lead to some good discoveries. As I mentioned before, we are often tasked with just providing a safe and nurturing environment for people to create.
Truly, anybody can sit and hit copy and paste all day. I think it’s my job to hold on to that initial seed or idea or vision, and protect it through the final stages of post production. This includes ensuring the color correction, finishing and sound mix all reflect intentions established days or weeks ahead when we were still fresh enough in our thinking to be acting on instinct.
I believe that as creative professionals, we are who we are because of our instincts, but as a job drags on and on, we are forced to act more with our heads than our hearts. There is a stamina that is required, making sure that what ends up on the TV is representative of what was initially coming out of that instinctual artistic expression.
Does your editing hat change depending on the type of project you are cutting?
Butler: No, not really. An edit is an edit. All sessions should involve laughter and seriousness and focus and moments to unwind and goof off. Perhaps the format will determine the metaphorical hat, or to be more specific, the tempo.
Selecting shots for a 30- or 60-second commercial is very different than chasing moments for a documentary or long-form narrative. I’ll often remind myself to literally breathe slower when I know a shot needs to be long, and the efficiency with which I am telling a story is of less importance than the need to be absorbed in a moment.
Can you name some of your favorite technology?
Oh: My iPhone and all the apps that come with it; my Kindle, which allows me to be as indecisive as I want when it comes to picking a book and traveling; my laptop; and noise-cancelling headphones!
Butler: The carbonation of water, wireless earphones and tiny solid-state hard drives.