Tag Archives: Emmy Awards

Creator Justin Simien talks Netflix’s Dear White People

By Iain Blair

The TV graveyard is bursting at the seams with failed adaptations of hit movies. But there are rare exceptions, such as Netflix’s acclaimed hit comedy Dear White People, which creator Justin Simien adapted from his 2014 indie movie of the same name. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. Simien went on to also win Best First Screenplay and a nomination for Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Justin Simien (Photo by Rick Proctor).

Now a series on Netflix and enjoying its second season (it was just picked up for its third!), this college dramedy is set at Winchester University, a fictional, predominantly white Ivy League college, where racial tensions bubble just below the surface. It stars a large, charismatic ensemble cast (most of whom appeared in the film) that includes Logan Browning, Brandon P. Bell, Antoinette Robertson, DeRon Horton, John Patrick Amedori, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Marque Richardson and Giancarlo Esposito (as the narrator), dealing with such timely and timeless issues as racism, inclusion, social injustice, politics, abortion, body image, cultural bias, political correctness (or lack thereof), activism and, of course, romance in the millennial age.

Through an absurdist lens, Dear White People uses sharp, quick-fire dialogue, biting irony, self-deprecation and brutal honesty to hold up a mirror to some of the problems plaguing society today. It also makes the medicine go down easy by leading with big laughs.

The show is also a master class in how to successfully make that tricky transition from the big to small screen, and tellingly it has retained a coveted and rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for both seasons (take note, Emmy voters!).

I recently spoke with Simien about making the show, the changing TV landscape, the Emmys and his next movie.

The TV landscape is full of the corpses of failed movie adaptations. How did you avoid that fate when you adapted your film for TV?
(Laughs) You’re so right. Movies often don’t translate very well to TV, but I felt my film was in the great tradition of multi-protagonist ensemble films I love so much. I also felt that in the confines of 90 minutes or so, you can never really truly get into the hearts of all the characters. By the end, the audience wanted more from them, so it lent itself to the longer format. And I felt it would be much more interesting than the typical show if we [borrowed] a bit of that cinematic tradition — like films by Robert Altman and Spike Lee — where you really get a strong point-of-view and multiple stories are carefully woven together, and then apply it to TV.

It seems that in many ways, the film’s concerns and issues work even better in an extended TV series. What were the big themes you wanted to explore?
As with the film, it’s really a conversation about identity and self, and the roles that you play in society. We all do it in order to navigate society, but for people of color, those identities have been chosen for them, so it often takes us a lot longer to get to the heart of who we really are and what the self is. We’re taught from a very early age to always be aware that you’re different, and that people see you differently. We deal with all that through comedy and satire. It has a lot on its mind.

Where do you shoot?
All in LA. Most of the interiors are done at Tamarack Studios in Sun Valley, and then we shoot our exteriors at UCLA and at a former school in Alhambra.

Do you direct a lot of the episodes?
I direct some. I did three in the first season, and four in the second, but since I run the show along with Yvette Lee Bowser, I’m just too busy to direct them all. So I handpick other directors who come in, such as Barry Jenkins, Charlie McDowell, Tina Mabry and others. But they don’t come into this world to paint by numbers. It’s more a case of them riffing off of what I did, like a jazz musician. It’s a very cohesive and collaborative process, and I’m very involved in all the episodes.

Do you like being a showrunner?
I do, but to be honest I like directing and writing more. The storytelling is the part of the gig that I’m in it for. But it is satisfying to run the larger operation and work closely with all these fantastic writers, directors and actors, and creating this environment where they can all do their best work.

Where do you post?
All at Tamarack, and it’s very convenient since it’s important for me to be able to bounce between the set and the edit bay on each episode. We did all the sound at Warners, and the DI at Universal with colorist Scott Gregory.

Do you like the post process?
I love post because it’s where you figure out if what you shot really works, and it’s your last chance to write the show. It’s the final rewrite, and a chance to fix the things that don’t work, so it’s scary and challenging. Post is also where you get to see the arc of the whole season and see all the episodes as like a five-hour movie. It’s where I get to apply all my final ideas. When I’m writing the show, we’re in a process of discovery, and it’s not until post that you really get a sense of how the beginning fits with the end, and that what you’re trying to say is there and working.

Justin Simien

Can you talk about the editing? You have several editors on the show, yes?
We use two editors per season. Phil Bartell, who cut the film for me, is always one of them. Steve Edwards was the other one on Season 1, and Omar Hassan-Reep was on Season 2. Post schedules are so jammed in TV that using two editors helps speed it all up. We allot a certain amount of time for each episode, so I can spend time with it. Same with the director and the editor.

You have a big cast and a lot of storylines. What are the big editing challenges?
The big one is that none of the show is turnkey. Directors don’t paint by numbers and the scripts are not written to any kind of format or formula — other than we stay with one point of view at a time. So that means that editing each episode is like editing its own mini-movie. One episode is film noir, another’s about mushrooms and hallucinations, so each one requires different styles, techniques, and different approaches work for different points of view. Each time we have to reinvent the wheel.

VFX play a big role in some episodes. Can you talk about working on them?
There’s far more than normal for a show like this, and mostly because social media is such an integral part of the characters’ lives. So we really try and use all that in a cinematic way and give you the feeling of what they’re going through instead of just cutting to the cell phone or computer every time. We really work hard to integrate all that.

Ingenuity does all the overlay VFX and it can take a while to figure it all out and get it right.

Unlike movies, sound in television has arguably always played second fiddle to the images, but this has a great score by Kris Bowers and great sound design. Please talk about the importance of sound and music to you.
Sound in movies has always gotten more attention, but TV’s changing and getting more cinematic. Music is so important to me, and I make sure the score isn’t just filler or interstitial — it has to be able to operate independently of the visuals, like it does with the movies of my favorite filmmakers, like Stanley Kubrick. It’s not just supplemental, and Kris is brilliant — just as adept at jazz as classical — and we have recurring themes and motifs and thematic hooks, and it’s very multi-layered.

How important are the Emmys to a show like this?
Very. We live in a world where there’s so much to watch now, and I don’t think there’s anything like it out there. But it can take effort to get people to watch and give the show and the characters a shot. So the Emmys can really help shine a light.

What’s next?
I’ll be directing my second film, which I wrote and is titled Bad Hair. It’s a horror satire that’s set in the late ‘80s about an ambitious young woman who wants to be a DJ but who doesn’t have the right look, so she gets a weave that may or may not have a mind of its own. I’m casting right now and hope to start shooting this summer.


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.

Broadway Video’s Sue Pelino and team win Emmy

Sue Pelino and the sound mixing team at New York City’s Broadway Video have won the Emmy for Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Variety Series Or Special for their work on the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony that aired on HBO in April. Pelino served as re-recording mixer on the project.

Says Pelino, who is VP of audio post production at Broadway Video, “Our goal in preparing the televised package was to capture the true essence of the night. We wanted viewers to experience the energy and feel as if they were sitting in the tenth row of the Barclays Center. It’s a remarkable feeling to know that we have achieved that goal.”

Pelino is already the proud owner of two Emmy awards and has nine nominations under her belt. Her career as an audio post production engineer rests on her early years playing guitar in rock bands and recording original songs in her home studio.

Additional members of the winning sound team for the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony — produced by HBO entertainment in association with Playtone, Line by Line Productions, Alex Coletti Productions and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation — include Al Centrella, John Harris, Dave Natale, Jay Vicari, Erik Von Ranson and Simon Welch.

Editor Josh Beal on Netflix’s ‘Bloodline’

By Randi Altman

Looks are deceiving, and that familiar saying is at the heart of Netflix’s dramatic series Bloodline. The show focuses on the Rayburns, a respected family that runs a popular and long-standing beachfront hotel in the Florida Keys.

On the surface, they are pillars of the community and a perfect family, but when you dig below the surface they are a mess — long-standing family secrets, a black sheep with a criminal record, drug use, alcoholism. It’s all there.

Josh

Josh Beal at his stand-up desk.

So, if you are into intrigue, drug cartels, paranoia, gorgeous scenery and damn-good acting (Kyle Chandler was just nominated for a Lead Actor Emmy for his role as John, and Ben Mendelsohn got a nod for Supporting Actor for his role as Danny), the show’s first two seasons are available now for streaming.

Josh Beal joined the editing team of Bloodline around Episode 7 of Season 1 as the show’s only LA-based editor. The other three were in New York — Aaron Kuhn, Deborah Moran and Naomi Geraghty — working with East Coast-based show producers Daniel Zelman and Todd Kessler. Beal, at the time based at the Sony lot in Culver City, worked closely with producer Glenn Kessler, who was headquartered in Los Angeles.

Coming into Season 2, Glenn Kessler was the one who was going to be driving the episodes through editorial, so they moved the whole thing to LA. While Beal hesitates to be called the show’s main editor, he was the first one on and did cut the majority of episodes for Season 2, which is shot on a Sony F55 camera in 4K by DP Jaime Reynoso.

I reached out to editing veteran Beal, who uses the Avid Media Composer, to find out more about his process and the show’s workflow.

How many episodes would you say you cut for the second season?
I’m credited with four, but Bloodline is a unique show in that all of the editors — Lynne Willingham, Louise Innes, Sue Blainey and Michelle Tesoro — may end up working to some extent on episodes where they don’t get final credit. I’m credited as the primary editor on the second season’s last episode, but the other editors helped me out with it. That’s usually due to issues surrounding scheduling and the workload.

When did you start getting footage?
We received footage as soon as they started shooting. If they were shooting today I would be getting footage tomorrow morning, and it would just go like that through the production.

Camera files were uploaded to Sony’s 24p Dailies Lab from the shoot in Florida. The Avid media was then copied to a portable hard drive and delivered to our assistant editors each morning by our post assistant. Our assistant editors would then load the media onto our Avid ISIS and prep scenes for the editors.

Can you talk us through your workflow?
It followed a pretty typical workflow for episodic television. I would try to stay close to camera with the dailies and cut scenes as they were shot. Then I had a couple of days to put together my cut of the episode, which I would present to the director. The director would then get four days for the director’s cut, which would then be shown to producers. The producers then shared their cut with Sony and Netflix.

Often, in my case, the distinction between what was director cut and producer cut would start to break down because the majority of the episodes that I worked on for Season 2 were directed by one of the producers, with the exception of one. The typical division between those phases of the edit ceased to really apply and it all sort of became a long director’s cut, which was actually really great creatively to have that continuity.

The direction and feel of the show was established during season one. Can you talk about that?
One of the defining characteristics of the mood in Bloodline is a voyeuristic feel to the way a scene might be covered, and therefore the way a scene would be put together.

Sometimes there are behind-the-bushes kind of a shots that might pop up of in the middle of the scene in a way that is a little atypical. It gives the viewer a sense that they are always being watched, which is especially applicable thematically for Season 2. It heightens the sense of paranoia and unease. So editing-wise, it’s about finding a way to use that material and maximize that feeling while at the same time keeping the audience in the character’s perspective, keeping them in the scene.

As Season 2 progresses, John Rayburn’s world starts falling apart — you could feel his desperation. How did you handle that from an editing perspective?
At that stage, it’s trying to stay rooted in a character’s perspective and leaning into it and finding performance. Any decisions that you are making in terms of shot selection begin and end in large part with performance.

For example, with Kyle Chandler (John), I thought he was doing incredible work. Sometimes it was just about getting out of his way; it’s about watching the performance and trying to make that work first. It’s not so much a visual thing.

You edited the show on Media Composer. Do you use the script tool to help pick different takes?
I did for the first season, but I’ve never felt 100% comfortable with that tool. I did something else to help me with me with the sorts of problems that ScriptSync is intended to solve.

Can you talk about that a bit?
One of the challenges with it is you’ll have exceptionally long dialogue scenes. For example, two people sitting in an interrogation room speaking to one another. That kind of scene offers very few visual cues as to where you are within the text of the scene, and this is often what an editor might be going off of when looking for a specific line. If you want to audition line readings, especially when you are working with the producer in the room, you are frequently going off of these visual cues, but you don’t have many when it’s just people at a table.

My solution was every time someone spoke in the script, I’d put a number next to that chunk of dialogue. If a character’s name was mentioned for dialogue within the script it got a number. Then I would put a locator in my clip at that point — “L01, L02, L03 — all the way through the script. Then I would throw all the clips into a KEM roll in the Avid and sort that by the marker name in the marker window. I can also make notes as to whether or not I like a given reading over another. I can just see it listed in my description of it.

In fact, KZK (producers Glenn, Daniel and Todd) do something that I don’t often run into on other shows. They will write alternative lines into the script, and they’ll shoot it both ways. Then the decision gets made later as to which way it’s going to go in editorial.

Season 2 has a ton of flashback sequences. Did you have to tackle that in a different way?
One of the things that I appreciate about the way that flashbacks are handled on Bloodline is that they don’t talk down to the audience. We aren’t throwing some sepia tone effect on the flashbacks. There aren’t any flashy visual transitions in and out of the flashbacks. We are assuming that the audience will know pretty quickly where they are at within the timeline based on context.

In watching Bloodline, it almost seems sweat and alcohol play characters on the show.
Yes, it’s deeply threaded throughout the world created for the show. The sweat, I suspect, is simply unavoidable when it comes to shooting in the Keys. It is an element, however, that really helps sell the sense of place. It feels real because it is. It’s part of the atmosphere and is also something that perfectly dovetails into John and his siblings’ growing feelings of stress and dread.

The drinking was something that came up in conversation with producers and directors when we were chatting in the cutting room. All reports I heard are that indeed there’s a real drinking culture down there.  It’s just another detail I think that adds to the strong sense of place the show excels at presenting.

Is there a particular scene that stands out to you as more challenging than others?
In Season 2, there is an episode where (Rayburn siblings) Kevin and Meg were being interrogated again by (police officer) Marco. They are very long scenes, just back and forth between Kevin and Marco and then between Meg and Marco.

The audience thinks that Kevin is going to blow it and that Meg has her shit together, but she is the one that steps in it and puts everything at risk. I really liked those sequences, but they are hard to cut because it’s just two people in a room talking and yet the scenes had to have a shape. They had to twist and turn based on subtleties of performance. I often find those to be among the more challenging scenes because they can begin in a very unruly state and it’ll take time to carve them out just right.

When Glenn first saw those scenes he wanted to put a slightly different emphasis and rhythm to some of the performance — a slightly different intent to come across in the interaction between the characters. These were scenes that we worked on and modified quite a bit for the better as we went along.

Do you have a general philosophy about editing?
I guess my philosophy is not to get lost in the weeds, and try to keep perspective on the story. Try to always keep the big picture in mind, because there is all the minutia of editing. How can I get this cut to match? Or, how can I cut out this section that I’m being asked to remove without making the whole thing seem clunky? That type of thing is important but it can’t be the only way you look at the cut.

What’s next for you?
I’m working on a new show starring Pierce Brosnan based on a novel called The Son. It’ll air on AMC next year. It’s like a great American history lesson that follows a South Texas family over the course of multiple generations. It begins with the story of the family patriarch who builds a financial empire first in the cattle industry and later in oil. The storyline goes all the way up to the present.

Is there anything you would like to add?
I would like to emphasize how collaborative Bloodline was. Lynne and Louise and the other editors on the show are phenomenally talented. I was honored to be among them. I learned a lot working with them. That collaboration, for me, is one of the high points of working on the series. I’ve worked on shows where I hardly ever talked to the other editors, but we got to talk shop and bounce ideas off each other a bit. That was a really fun part of the show for me.

Kabir Akhtar: Editing The CW series ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’

By Randi Altman

When Kabir Akhtar, ACE, who cut season one of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, got the itch to start editing, he didn’t even know that what he was doing was actually editing… he was just having some fun. In high school, Akhtar would use his computer, multiple tape decks and stereos to record and mix different songs, creating mash-ups, remixes and even musical voicemail messages. An editor was born!

After moving out to LA and paying his dues working on unscripted and music video shows, Akhtar went on to earn one Emmy nomination for editing the Billy Crystal opening sequence from the 2012 Academy Awards broadcast and another (along with frequent collaborator AJ Dickerson) for his work on Netflix’s Arrested Development in 2013.

With an editing resume that now also includes New Girl, The Daily Show and Behind the Music, Akhtar took on directing (the pilot episode of the MTV series 8th & Ocean, Unsolved Mysteries, the Billy Crystal/Melissa McCarthy opening for the 2012 Oscars, and the TV Diaries pilot for Fox) and garnered an associate producer title on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

This Penn graduate, who went on to film school at the University of Miami, knew all along that he wanted to work in scripted television. “I moved out here to get involved in narrative filmmaking and storytelling, and I felt very strongly that until I got a job doing that, I wasn’t going to stay at another job very long.”

Akhtar also knew he didn’t want to do the same job for years at a time. He was young and wanted to have different experiences that allowed him to meet different people. “I think I intentionally avoided having a steady gig for a very long time because as I moved from one job to another, I continued to build a network of contacts and people that I liked working with. I got more experience and more credits, which I think served me well in those early years. Others like the financial security that comes with having a steady job. I know my path is not for everybody.”

Akhtar still works freelance, too. In fact, while on hiatus from The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, he cut the pilot for Speechless for ABC, which just got picked up.

Let’s dig in a bit deeper with Akhtar and find out more about what led him to this quirky TV series, which is a one-hour musical comedy.

When did you get involved on the show, and what’s your workflow like?
I edited the pilot, which was a half-hour show, in the fall of 2014. We thought we made a great show, but Showtime passed. The good news was it was shopped around to other networks and got a pick-up at The CW. They turned it into a one-hour show, which was such a unique thing because nobody was making a one-hour musical comedy.

You have cut traditional half-hour comedies in the past, how was this different?
When the show became a one-hour, it gave us the opportunity to do more dramatic storytelling in addition to the comedy. In half-hours, you’re moving really fast to try to tell a story and land jokes, but with a one-hour you have time to dig into supporting characters’ stories and have more built-out emotional scenes. We can take the time to land emotions instead of just being in a race to get X number of jokes out every minute.

How does that affect the way that you edit? Do you let a reaction go a little bit longer? Do you let a joke sit longer?
The thing that helps the most is that our writers don’t overwrite the show. My first cut will usually only be a few minutes over, and at the end we’re rarely stuck with a show that’s more than a minute over, which is great. It’s the worst when you get a show down to the end, to a deadline, and you’re still 30 seconds over and you have to take out a joke that everybody likes.

Doing Arrested Development for Netflix, we didn’t have those parameters. With a network show, you have to deliver a show exactly to time, but for Netflix (like some cable networks), we didn’t have to hit a specific runtime per episode, so we never had to lose a joke or a story point “for time.”

Kabir Akhtar and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend star Rachel Bloom the day after she won her Golden Globe.

How much footage do you have for one episode?
For each one-hour episode, we shoot seven days. That includes two or three musical numbers, which are essentially music videos. Like all scripted shows, we have one day of editing for every day of footage that comes in, plus another two or three days to get a first cut together (but with us it’s typically been two).

Because we’re a one-hour show, the directors come in after my first cut, and they get four days. We work with our producers, and then we go to the studio, then to the network, then we lock the show.

What about cutting the musical numbers?
I switched to a standing desk a few years ago, and that makes it a lot easier to cut music, because I will inevitably end up dancing along as I’m cutting. I’m convinced that it helps. I started my career cutting so much music, so I’ve always loved doing it. To have the opportunity to be cutting musical numbers, comedy scenes and some dramatic scenes for one show is so much fun.

Would you like to share your philosophy of editing?
Attitude-wise, it’s about protecting the show, I really believe that’s job one.

What about technically?
I have a workflow that I believe is different than most editors. I think many editors do a first cut of each scene as it comes in. Then, at the end of dailies, they glue the show together. I am not good at that at all.

What’s your process?
When I get a scene, my assistant editor Kyla Plewes and I will work with the Script Windows in Avid Media Composer — it allows you to very quickly pick through takes and performances, and it’s opened up the amount of options you have in the limited time that you have. I’ll go through a scene left to right and start to frame it out to get it shaped right. As I’m going through, I feel like I’m too close to it. My eyes are right up against every detail in the frame, like continuity issues and the smallest nuances of performance.

I’ll start with a clean take for line one and then have a different take for the second line, and then I’ll realize it didn’t work so I’ll try that first take again and try another take for that second line — I’m intentionally making mistakes over and over to stay open to finding something great by riffing, and I just keep making copies in a sequence. I don’t delete any of the stuff I’m doing, I keep making a giant mess, like putting all the Legos together, except I have a copy of each Lego. Eventually, I find pieces that click together a way that feels right and work my way across the whole scene that way.

When I get to the end, I’ve figured out the connective tissue and I have many copies of all of the individual pieces, but I’ve no idea how they go together. I have piles of connected Legos, alt versions of selected takes, but not a finished sequence. Again, because I feel I’m too close to it, having just done it, I put it away and start the next scene. Then I come back to it at the end of dailies, about a week later, and it all makes perfect sense… the pieces that want to be in the show flow and stand out immediately. By then I’ve seen all the footage for the whole show and I can gauge accurately how best to tell the story we’re trying to tell.

Can you talk about assistant editors and how they fit into the mix?
When you have a good AE, it’s really important to give them opportunities to get better at cutting or at working with people. I don’t know how you’re going to learn otherwise. I think everyone is looking for someone above us to give us an opportunity. I can’t tell you how much easier it makes working on a show when you’ve got a great assistant. I think I had years of working on shows with no AEs at all.

Our lead assistant editor on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Kyla, works on the side editing online content, which I think is the way to go these days in terms of growing your editing skills.

If you want to keep learning your craft you have to find things to edit, right?
Yeah, I went the path of editing, editing, editing, editing. The only two jobs I’ve ever had are editing and directing. Going the AE route, you might get an episode to edit on a show that you’ve been working on. But that can also be tough, because the people you’re working for still see you as an assistant editor. It can be difficult to change people’s perceptions of you if you’re staying at one job for a long time. Also, if that’s your first editing credit, it can be a lot of pressure and there’s not a lot of room to fail without consequences.

I feel pretty fortunate that my first jobs were lower profile projects. I certainly made large mistakes, like delivering a show out of phase once. But I was working for such a small company, luckily I didn’t get fired.

You have to make mistakes to learn as you go, I imagine?
You work your way up to these bigger things. It’s bad to deliver a show out of phase, but it’s way worse to do that if your first one of those is on a big multi-million-dollar episode. Everybody fails; you have to fail to grow. I’m still doing both — but hopefully more growing than failing.

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Main Image: Kabir Akhtar and Rachel Bloom after hearing about her Golden Globe nomination for her performance on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.