Tag Archives: Empire

Editing an ‘Empire’ for Fox

Zack Arnold talks about his process on the first two seasons of this hit show.

By Ellen Wixted

Zack Arnold dreamed of being an editor before he even knew the job existed. As a kid, he and his brother shot short films with a VHS camcorder — but it wasn’t until his brother added music that the process captured his imagination. Before long, he was using two VCRs to re-mix existing movies, and loving every minute of the process.

Happily for Arnold, that’s still true today. After studying film at the University of Michigan, Arnold moved to LA, where he quickly landed a job editing trailers. That led to work on indie features, and eventually episodic TV. Editing Burn Notice was a breakthrough moment (one that lasted four seasons), and the experience opened other doors.

Arnold worked with show runner Ilene Chaiken on a medical drama that was cancelled, but the partnership was solid. When Chaiken was named an executive producer on Fox’s Empire, Arnold was brought on board as well. He edited the entire first season and was on through Episode 15 of season two. He’s currently working on a new series for Paramount called Shooter. “I’m an additional editor on the pilot and will be editing three additional episodes, including the season finale. It’s a 10-episode first season.”

I asked Arnold, who cut the show on Avid Media Composer, what makes Empire different from other shows, and his response was lightning-quick: “Empire requires an unusually varied skill set of its editors. Every episode combines elements of performance, comedy and drama. The musical numbers are so high-energy and require a lot of style. To make sure the jokes hit, you need to have great comedic timing. And weaving it all together is a performance-driven character drama, which requires a different approach.”

Arnold’s experience editing across multiple genres gave him a clear advantage here. Most editors tend to work within a single genre, but Arnold’s work editing trailers, combined with his experience editing a range of episodic content, mean he’s able to draw from a wealth of experience.

Musical numbers are central to Empire, and Arnold described the show’s accelerated editing process in some detail: “I’ll end up with eight hours of dailies from one day of shooting. After one of my assistants organizes the footage into multicam groups — there can be 50 to 60 different angles within a group — we’ll break the edit down into story-driven elements and the performance itself. With every music number, you have to tell a specific story, using rhythm to hold the viewer’s attention. Watching Cookie watch the performance may be critical to the story, and I’ve found if you watch everything while keeping the big picture in mind, it’ll wash over you, making it easy to decide what’s essential.”

Which edit is Arnold’s favorite? Episode 109. “The whole first season is about the family dynamic — the relationships between the parents and the children, and the current of homophobia in that community. In one cut, we went from a warm family scene to a terrifying psychotic break.” Arnold edited the club scene first and tackled the bipolar break sequence a few days later. The transition from one to the other didn’t work initially because they were too different emotionally, so a buffer scene with family members was inserted. “The studio didn’t respond well initially, but we fought back because it worked powerfully on an emotional level, and in the end the audience response on Twitter validated our approach.”

More Than Editing
In addition to his work as an editor, Arnold is the developer of Fitness in Post, a podcast that helps newcomers to the industry find creative ways to stay fit and healthy despite long hours sitting in darkened rooms. He also likes to give back to the community, and offers this bit of advice for those just starting out: “Figure out what you’re interested in doing right now, and go after it wholeheartedly. Starting at the bottom of a ladder you don’t want to climb makes it harder to jump off later. And as an editor, you should always be honing your storytelling craft — we are visual writers.”

Five ways to knock your new editing gig out of the park

By Zack Arnold

Congratulations! You’ve been killing yourself to land your next gig — the endless networking, the cold calls, the résumés and all those interviews have finally paid off. A director or producer has decided that you are the best fit to edit their next project. So you’re done, right? Wrong.

Once you have landed your next gig, your job has only just begun — this is where the hard work really begins. When I land a job, my focus is on building a long-standing relationship with my director and producers so they hire me back time and time again. The larger the pool of people that want to work with you, the less you have to look for work in the future. Landing my job editing the TV series Empire didn’t even require an interview; the gig was handed to me by the showrunner, Ilene Chaiken, based on our previous working relationship.

Here are five things I do after landing a job to ensure I knock it out of the park:

1. Method Editing
Method Editing is a phrase I coined that means immersing yourself in the genre of whatever project you are working on and allowing the tone and rhythm to become second nature… before day one of dailies. The first thing I do is try to get into the brain of the director and understand his (or her) intentions by asking what five to 10 films or TV shows inspired their approach to the material.

Keep in mind, this isn’t just about editing, it’s about the approach to cinematography, performances, music choices, preferred type of score and, most importantly, tone and pacing.

When I land a job on an existing TV show, I devour every previous episode. For example, I watched three straight seasons of Burn Notice — twice — before I even had my interview. Needless to say I landed the job and ended up editing the final four seasons.

This process may take you some time, but the quality of your first cut will be leaps and bounds above other editors your director has worked with in the past, and this will instantly move you to the top of their list.

An example of the Trello structure map for an old episode of Empire.

2. Analyze And Break Down The Script
If the job I’m working on is a narrative project, the next step is breaking down the script. I learned much of my process from Walter Murch, and have since updated the workflow with modern technology. What I used to do is have my assistant print out large index cards of every scene (color coded by story arc) with key scene descriptions and the characters involved. Then I would build a giant wall of those cards so I could visualize the structure of the entire film (and often destroy it by the end of the editor’s cut). Now I use a tool called Trello and build a digital structure map that essentially serves the same purpose.

When you start to hit a point of fatigue and you are cross-eyed trying to figure out where your story is and isn’t working, having this tool is invaluable. If you really want to impress your director or producer, share your digital structure map with them and watch their eyes bulge in amazement.

3. Prepare Your Media and Project Workflows
Once I understand the creative approach to the material and have broken down the script, I will work with my assistant to build our media and project workflows. In Episode 54 of the Fitness In Post podcast, my assistant and I go into every nitty-gritty detail about our workflow at Empire, but the basic gist is that you need a clear organizational system for your media partitions — how you organize raw media and how you organize bins and media files within your project. You also need to come up with a project management system to make sure all tasks and stages of the process can be tracked down to every minute detail. Again, we do all of this in Trello.

The key to getting repeat jobs in this business is being fast, and the easiest way to become a faster editor is to become an organized editor.

4. Establish Clear Communication Guidelines
While I’ll admit this step isn’t as sexy as coming up with cool ways to organize your media or building your digital structure map, I’ll argue that communication guidelines are equally important. You need to establish how (and when) you are going to communicate with your team, because when the bullets start flying, poor communication can lead to errors, missed deadlines and mistakes that cost real money.

I avoid email like the plague, so I clarify with my assistant that any task-related communication will be done via our project management system in Trello. Any simple requests or chit chat can happen via Gchat. I also establish guidelines about when it’s okay (or not okay) to knock on the door. I use the Pomodoro Technique to manage my time, meaning I edit in focused blocks of 50 minutes at once. So I’ve made it known that if my door is closed, unless there is a pressing matter, I would like to receive any correspondence via chat or Trello.

Clear communication guidelines allow you to meet your deadlines quicker with no mistakes along the way, and there’s nothing directors and producers love more than reliability.

5. Prepare Your Mind And Body
This is by far the most important step. Even if you know your director inside and out, you’ve broken down the script to a “t,” your workflow is bulletproof and your communication is flawless, none of that matters if you have no energy and are burned out. I treat any new gig like an athletic event.

Every successful athlete on the planet trains for hours, weeks or months before a game or event, and editing is no different. You may spend weeks or months working long, arduous days in a dark room, but if you want to focus on demand and have the energy to sit with a director or producer for 10 to 14 hours per day, you better have built the routines in advance to take care of yourself.

Here are some routines and habits to develop to ensure you have the stamina to survive:
•    Park as far away from the entrance as possible. Take the stairs and not the elevator. You’re not going move a ton during the day, so get activity in while you can. If you struggle to stay active and you’re tired of sitting all day, here are 10 ways you can stay active all day at work without needing to find additional time to exercise.
•    Establish morning and evening routines to ensure you get proper sleep every night.
•    Create personal guidelines for how you are going to manage your diet. If your office provides lunch and/or dinner, I suggest planning your own meals most of the time so you’re not stuck eating Chinese take-out four nights a week. Nothing will derail your focus and creativity more than crappy food.

Editing is a marathon, not a sprint. You are the most valuable tool in your arsenal, and you need to begin treating yourself as such. There is nothing that will make directors and producers want to hire you again more than always showing up with plenty of energy and having the ability to focus on demand.

If you institute these five steps before starting your next gig, I guarantee you’ll be more prepared than 99 percent of the editors you are competing with for the next job. And if your director and producer love working with you and want to hire you again, you’ll no longer have to compete.

Zack Arnold is a veteran editor currently cutting Fox’s Empire. He also runs the Website Fitness in Post.