By Randi Altman
While Conan O’Brien was airing his traditional one-hour late night talk show on TBS, he and his crew would often go on the road to places like Cuba, South Korea and Armenia for Conan Without Borders — a series of one-hour specials. He would focus on regular folks, not celebrities, and would embed himself into the local culture… and there was often some very mediocre dancing, courtesy of Conan. The shows were funny, entertaining and educational, and he enjoyed doing them.
In 2019, Conan and his crew, Team Coco, switched the nightly show from one hour to a new 30-minute format. The format change allowed them to produce three to four hour-long Conan Without Borders specials per year. Two of the places the show visited last year were Ghana and Greenland. As you might imagine, they shoot a lot of footage, which all must be logged and edited, often while on the road.
Matt Shaw is one of the editors on Conan, and he went on the road with the show when it traveled to Greenland. Shaw’s past credits include Deon Cole’s Black Box and The Pete Holmes Show (both from Conan O’Brien’s Conaco production company) and The Late Late Show with James Corden (including Carpool Karaoke). One of his first gigs for Team Coco was editing Conan Without Borders: Made in Mexico. That led to a full-time editing gig on Conan on TBS and many fun adventures.
We reached out to Shaw to find out more about editing these specials and what challenges he faced along the way.
You recently edited Conan Without Borders — the Greenland and Ghana specials. Can you talk about preparing for a job like that? What kind of turnaround did you have?
Our Ghana special was shot back in June 2019, with the original plan to air in August, but it was pushed back to November 7 because of how fast the Greenland show came up.
In terms of prep for a show like Ghana, we mainly just know the shooting specs and will handle the rest once the crew actually returns. For the most part, that’s the norm. Ideally, we’ll have a working dark week (no nightly Conan show), and the three editors — me, Rob Ashe and Chris Heller — will take the time to offload, sync and begin our first cuts of everything. We’ll have been in contact with the writers on the shoot to get an idea of what pieces were shot and their general notes from the day.
With Greenland, we had to mobilize and adjust everything to accommodate a drastically different shoot/delivery schedule. The Friday before leaving, while we were prepping the Ghana show to screen for an audience, we heard there might be something coming up that would push Ghana back. On Monday, we heard the plan was to go to Greenland on Wednesday evening, after the nightly show, and turn around Greenland in place of Ghana’s audience screening. We had to adjust the nightly show schedule to still have a new episode ready for Thursday while we were in Greenland.
How did you end up on the Greenland trip?
Knowing we’d only have six days from returning from Greenland to having to finish the show broadcast, our lead editor, Rob Ashe, suggested we send an editor to work on location. We were originally looking into sending footage via Aspera from a local TV studio in Nuuk, Greenland, but we just wouldn’t have been able to turn it around fast enough. We decided about two days before the trip began that I’d go and do what I could to offload, backup, sync and do first cuts on everything.
How much footage did you have per episode, and what did they shoot on?
Ghana had close to 17 hours of material shot over five days on Sony Z450s at 4K XAVC, 29.97. Greenland was closer to 12 hours shot over three days on Panasonic HPX 250s, P2 media recording at 1080 60i.
We also used iPhone/iPad/GoPro footage picked up by the rest of the crew as needed for both shows. I also had a DJI Osmo pocket camera to play with when I had a chance, and we used some of that footage during the montage of icebergs.
So you were editing segments while they were still shooting?
In Greenland, I was cutting daily in the hotel. Midday, I’d get a drop of cards, offload, sync/group and the first cuts on everything. We had a simple offline edit workflow set up where I’d upload my cuts to Frame.io and email my project files to the team — Rob and Chris — in Burbank. They would then download and sync the Frame.io file to a top video layer in the timeline and continue cutting down, with any additional notes from the writers.
Generally, I’d have everything from Day One uploaded by the start of Day Two, etc. It seemed to work out pretty well to set us up for success when we returned. I was also getting notes on requests to help cut a few highlights from our remotes and to put on Team Coco’s Instagram account.
On our return day, we flew to Ilulissat for an iceberg expedition. We had about two hours on the ground before having to return to the airport and fly to Kangerlussuaq, where our chartered plane was waiting to take us back to California. On the flight back, I worked for another four hours or so to sort through the remaining segments and prep everything so we could hit the ground running the following morning. During the flight home, we screened some drone footage from the iceberg trip for Conan, and it really got everyone excited.
What are the challenges of working on the road and with such tight turnarounds?
The night we left for Greenland was preceded by a nightly show in Burbank. After the show ended, we hopped on a plane to fly eight hours to Kangerlussuaq for customs, then another to Nuuk. The minute we landed, we were filming for about three hours before checking into the hotel. I grabbed the morning’s camera cards, went to my room and began cutting. By the time I went to bed, I had cuts done of almost everything from the first day. I’m a terrible sleeper on planes, so the marathon start was pretty insane.
Outside of the little sleep, our offload speeds were slower because we were using different cameras than usual — for the sake of traveling lighter — because the plane we flew in had specific weight restrictions. We actually had to hire local crew for audio and B and C camera because there wasn’t enough room for everyone in the plane to start.
In general, I think the overall trip went as smooth as it could have. It would be interesting to see how it would play out for a longer shoot schedule.
What editing system did you use? What was your setup like? What kind of storage were you using?
On the road I had my MacBook Pro (2018 model), and we rented an identical backup machine in case mine died. For storage, we had four 1TB G-Tech USB-C drives and a 4TB G-RAID to back everything up. I had a USB-3.0 P2 card reader as well and multiple backup readers. A Bluetooth mouse and keyboard rounded out the kit, so I could travel with everything in a backpack.
We had to charter a plane in order to fly directly to Greenland. With such a tight turnaround between filming and delivering the actual show, this was the only way to actually make the special happen. Commercial flights fly only a few days per week out of neighboring countries, and once you’re in Greenland, you either have to fly or take a boat from city to city.
On the plane, there was a conference table in the back, so I set up there with one laptop and the G-RAID to continue working. The biggest trouble on the plane was making sure everything stayed secure on the table while taking off and making turns. There were a few close calls when everything started to slide away, and I had to reach to make sure nothing was disconnected.
How involved in the editing is Conan? What kind of feedback did you get?
In general, if Conan has specific notes, the writers will hear them during or right after a shoot is finished. Or we’ll test-screen something after a nightly show taping and indirectly get notes from the writers then.
There will be special circumstances, like our cold opens for Comic-Con, when Conan will come to edit and screen a close-to-final cut. And there just might be a run of jokes that isn’t as strong, but he lets us work with the writers to make what we all think is the best version by committee.
Can you point to some of the more challenging segments from Greenland or Ghana?
The entire show is difficult with the delivery-time constraints while handling the nightly show. We’ll be editing the versions for screening sometimes up to 10 minutes before they have to screen for an audience as well as doing all the finishing (audio mix, color as needed, subtitling and deliverables).
For any given special, we’re each cutting our respective remotes during the day while working on any new comedy pieces for that day’s show, then one or two of us will split the work on the nightly show, while the other keeps working with the travel show writers. In the middle of it all, we’ll cut together a mini tease or an unfinished piece to play into that night’s show to promote the specials, so the main challenge is juggling 30 things at a time.
For me, I got to edit this 1980s-style action movie trailer based on an awesome poster Conan had painted by a Ghanaian artist. We had puppets built, a lot of greenscreen and a body double to composite Conan’s head onto for fight scenes. Story-wise, we didn’t have much of a structure to start, but we had to piece something together in the edit and hope it did the ridiculous poster justice.
The Thursday before our show screened for an audience was the first time Mike Sweeney (head writer for the travel shows) had a chance to look at any greenscreen footage and knew we were test-screening it the following Monday or Tuesday. It started to take shape when one of our graphics/VFX artists, Angus Lyne, sent back some composites. In the end, it came together great and killed with the audience and our staff, who had already seen anything and everything.
Our other pieces seem to have a linear story, and we try to build the best highlights from any given remote. With something like this trailer, we have to switch our thought process to really build something from scratch. In the case of Greenland and Ghana, I think we put together two really great shows.
How challenging is editing comedy versus drama? Or editing these segments versus other parts of Conan’s world?
In a lot of the comedy we cut, the joke is king. There are always instances when we have blatant continuity errors, jump cuts, etc., but we don’t have to kill ourselves trying to make it work in the moment if it means hurting the joke. Our “man on the street” segments are great examples of this. Obviously, we want something to be as polished and coherent as possible, but there are cases when it just isn’t best, in our opinion, and that’s okay.
That being said, when we do our spoofs of whatever ad or try to recreate a specific style, we’re going to do everything to make that happen. We recently shot a bit with Nicholas Braun from Succession where he’s trying to get a job from Conan during his hiatus from Succession. This was a mix of improv and scripted, and we had to match the look of that show. It turned out well and funny and is in the vein of Succession.
What about for the Ghana show?
For Ghana, we had a few segments that were extremely serious and emotional. For example, Conan and Sam Richardson visited Osu Castle, a major slave trade port. This segment demands care and needs to breathe so the weight of it can really be expressed, versus earlier in the show, when Conan was buying a Ghana shirt from a street vendor, and we hard-cut to him wearing a shirt 10 sizes too small.
Greenland is a place really affected by climate change. My personal favorite segment I’ve cut on these travel specials is the impact the melting icecaps could have on the world. Then there is a montage of the icebergs we saw, followed by Conan attempting to stake a “Sold” sign on an iceberg, signifying he had bought property in Greenland for the US. Originally, the montage had a few jokes within the segment, but we quickly realized it’s so beautiful we shouldn’t cheapen it. We just let it be beautiful.
Comedy or drama, it’s really about being aware of what you have in front of you and what the end goal is.
What haven’t I asked that’s important?
For me, it’s important to acknowledge how talented our post team is to be able to work simultaneously on a giant special while delivering four shows a week. Being on location for Greenland also gave me a taste of the chaos the whole production team and Team Coco goes through, and I think everyone should be proud of what we’re capable of producing.
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.