By Karen Moltenbrey
Unlike features or even series, short-form projects such as commercials give the editor the opportunity for a fresh start with each new job. Indeed, some brands have a specific style that they adhere to, but even so, there is a good deal of creative flexibility placed in the hands of the editor.
The challenge here is to condense a story into 30, 60 or 90 seconds. And more and more, there are other deliverables associated with a job aside from the traditional commercial, as editors also may be asked to provide social media spots, cinema spots and more. And as some editors point out, it’s no longer enough to excel at solely working with video; today, it is helpful to have a wider range of skills, such as audio editing and basic animation, to support the workflow.
Here we examine the editing work on a trio of spots and the approach each editor took to deliver a compelling piece.
Nespresso: The Quest
George Clooney has been the brand ambassador for coffee-machine maker Nespresso since 2006, and his commercials have been featured in Europe and around the world. In a recent spot airing in North America, Clooney embarks on a quest for the perfect cup of coffee, and does so with true Hollywood flair.
In The Quest, the actor plays a medieval knight who throws the head of a dragon he has just slain at the feet of his queen. Thankful, she asks what he desires as his reward. He pauses, then steps through a movie screen and enters the modern world, where he wanders the streets in his armor until he finds a coffee shop and his long-sought-after cup of Nespresso coffee. Satisfied, he heads back, walks down the theater aisle, through the movie screen once again and is back in the medieval world. When the queen asks if he has enough coffee for the kingdom, the actor gives a sheepish look, and soon we see the queen and court riding in a double-decker city bus, merrily on their way to get their own cup of Nespresso coffee.
Clooney’s producing partner, Grant Heslov, directed the spot, which was filmed against greenscreen on a backlot in Los Angeles. The background plates were shot in New York City, and compositing was done by VFX supervisor Ryan Sears from Big Sky Edit. The spot was edited by Chris Franklin, who launched New York-based Big Sky Edit in 1992.
“Ryan and I were working as a team on this. As I’m cutting, he’s compositing scenes so we can really get an idea of what everything looks like, and then I properly sound-designed it,” says Franklin. “He dealt with everything in terms of George on the movie screen and popping out of the screen and walking through New York, while I dealt with the sound design and the editing. It helped keep the job efficient, so Grant could come in and see everything pretty much completed.”
Having the various departments under one roof at Big Sky Edit enables Franklin to show work to clients, agencies or directors with effects integrated into the cut, so they do not have to rely on their imaginations to visualize the spot. “They’re judging the story as opposed to the limitations of the footage if effects work isn’t done yet,” he explains.
This is not Franklin’s first Nespresso ad, having worked on the very first one for the US market, and all of them have been directed by Heslov (who also directed Clooney in the Hulu series Catch-22). “He has shorthand with George, so the shoots go beautifully,” Franklin says, noting there is also a feeling of trust with everyone who has a responsibility on the post side.
When asked to describe the editing style he used for The Quest, Franklin was hard-pressed to pinpoint one specifically, saying “sometimes you just go by instinct in terms of what feels right. The fact that this was a movie within a movie, you’re kind of looking at it like an epic. So, you deal with it as a bigger type of thing. And then once [the story] got to New York, we were feeding off the classic man-on-the-street vibe.” So, rather than using a specific editing style on the spot, Franklin says he concentrated on making sure the piece was put together well, had a good storytelling aspect and that everything clicked.
The footage was delivered to Big Sky Edit as transcoded dailies, which were downloaded overnight from LA. Franklin cut the spot on an Avid Media Composer, and the completed spot was delivered in standard HD for 60- and 30-second versions, as well as pullouts and social media material. “There are so many deliverables attached to things now, and a job tends to be longer than it used to be due to all the elements and pieces of content you’re delivering to finish the job,” Franklin says. While time-consuming, these demands also force him to tell the story in different ways for the various deliverables.
Franklin describes his general workflow as fairly straightforward. He will string the entire shoot together – “literally every piece of film that was exposed” — and go through the material, then whittle that down and review it a second time. After that, he starts breaking it down in terms of sequences for all the pieces he needs, and then he starts building the edit. Without question, this process takes a substantial amount of time on the front end, as it takes an editor roughly four hours to go through one hour of footage in order to screen it properly, learn it, understand the pieces in it, break it apart, label it and prepare it — all before any assembly can be done. “It’s not unusual to have 10 or 12 hours of footage, so it’s going to take 40 hours to go through that material and break it down before I can start assembling,” he says.
As Franklin points out, he does his own sound design — his favorite part of the process — while editing. In fact, he started out as an audio engineer years ago, and doing both the audio and editing simultaneously “helps me see the story,” he says. “If I wasn’t doing sound design while I am working, I would get totally lost.” (Tom Jucarone at Sound Lounge mixed The Quest.)
Franklin has edited features, documentaries and even short films, and his workflow remains fairly constant across the genres. “It’s just longer sometimes. You have to learn the footage, so you’ve got to watch everything. It’s a lot of watching and thinking,” he notes. “Deadlines give you an end that you have to shoot for, but you can’t rush things. It takes time to do the work properly.”
Despite his experience with other genres, commercials have been Franklin’s bread and butter for the past 30 years. He says he likes the challenge of whittling down 10 hours of footage into 30 or 60 seconds of storytelling.
M&M’s ‘Hazelnut Spread’ Campaign
Over the years, audiences have been treated to commercial spots featuring the various spokescandies for Mars Incorporated’s M&M’s, from the round-bodied regular flavored character to the egg-shaped yellow peanut character. And, there have been other new flavor characters, too. Most recently, the company introduced its latest addition: hazelnut spread M&M’s. And helping to launch the product is PS260 owner/editor Maury Loeb and assistant editor Sara Sachs, who “divided and conquered” on the campaign, which features three spots to promote the new flavor and the ever-popular M&M’s chocolate bar, which came out in 2018.
The first spot, New Spokescandy, is currently airing. The two other spots, which will be launching next year, are called Injury Attorney and Psychiatrist. Sachs focused on the latter, a comical session between a therapist and the yellow M&M, who is “feeling stuck.” The therapist points out that it’s because he is stuck in a chocolate bar. “We played around a lot with the humor of that moment. It was scripted with three progressively wider shots to ultimately reveal the candy bar, but in the edit, we decided the humor was more impactful if it was just one single reveal at the end,” says Sachs.
Helping to unite the three spots, aside from the brand’s humor and characters, is a consistent editing style. “The pacing is consistent. M&M’s as a whole doesn’t really do very music-heavy spots; they are more real-world in nature,” Sachs notes.
At PS260, the editors often collaborate on client campaigns, so as ideas are being worked out and implemented in one suite, revisions are made in another, allowing the clients to move from space to space to view the work progression.
To edit the spot, Sachs worked primarily in Adobe Premiere, using After Effects and Photoshop for some of the quick graphics, as PS260’s graphics department did the heavy lifting for the bigger moving elements, such as the M&M’s characters. The biggest challenge came from getting the tonality of the actor just right. “When a person is talking on camera to an empty couch or stage, you really have to think about both sides of the emotion,” she explains. “VO talent comes in after you have a cut in place, so even though these things are recorded a month apart, it still needs to feel like the characters are talking to each other and come across emotionally true.”
Having to do some minor graphics work is not so unusual these days; Sachs points out that editors today are becoming multitalented and handling other aspects of a project aside from cutting. “It’s not enough to just know the edit side; you also need a base in graphics, audio fine-tuning and color correction. More and more we try to get the rough cut closer to what the final picture will actually look like,” she says. “In this campaign, they even took a lot of the graphics that we applied in the rough and used them directly for air.”
Most of Sachs’ experience has come from commercials, but she has also done shorts, features, documentaries, music videos, promotional and internal videos, pitch and instructional videos, web series and so on. Of those, she prefers short-form projects because they afford her the opportunity to painstakingly watch every frame of a video “900 times and put some love into every 24th of a second,” she adds.
That level of focus is usually not practical or applicable on longer-form projects, which often require scene-to-scene organization with 15- and 30-second spots. “Shorter content maintains the same basic project structure but tends to get more attention on the little things like line-by-line sequences, which are every time a character says something in any situation,” she explains.
Nike Choose Phenomenal
Charlie Harvey recently finished a unique spot for Nike Korea for the South Korean market titled Choose Phenomenal, an empowering ad for women created by Wieden + Kennedy Tokyo that has over 10 million views on YouTube. The spot opens on a young girl dressed in traditional Korean clothing before evolving into a fast-paced, split-screen succession of images — video, animation, graphic elements, pictures and more, mainly of women in action — set to an inspiring narration.
“The agency always wanted it to be split-screen,” says Harvey of Whitehouse Post, who edited the spot. The DP shot the majority of the “moments” in a few different ways and from different angles, giving her the ability to find the elements that complemented each other from a split-screen standpoint. Yet it was up to Harvey to sort through the plethora of clips and images and select the most appropriate ones.
“There’s a Post-it note moment in there, too. That’s a big thing in South Korea, where people write messages on Post-its and stick them on a wall, so it’s culturally significant,” Harvey explains. Foremost in her mind while editing the spot was that it was culturally significant and inspiring to young women, resulting in her delving deep into that country’s traditions to find elements that would resonate best with the intended audience.
Harvey initially began cutting the spot in Los Angeles but then traveled to Tokyo to do the majority of the edit.
In fact, when Harvey began the project, she didn’t have an opportunity to work one-on-one with the director – something that would always be her preference. “I always want to create what the director has envisioned. I always like to make that [vision] come to life while adding my own point of view, too,” she says.
Working with split screens or multiple screens is always trickier because you need to work with multiple layers while maintaining the rhythm of the film, Harvey says. “Making what seems like a small change in one shot will affect not only the shot that comes before and after it, but also the shots next to those. It’s more a puzzle you are solving,” she adds.
The visual element, however, was just one aspect of the project; here, like on many other projects, finding the right music accompaniment is not easy. “You end up going around and around trying to find exactly what you are looking for, and music is always a challenge. If you find the right track, it makes all the difference. It elevates a spot, or impacts it negatively,” Harvey points out. “Music is so important.”
In addition, the split-screen concept forced Harvey to concentrate on both sides of the screen – akin to concentrating on two shorts playing at the same time. “You have to make sure they work together and they link to the next page, where you have another two shorts,” she explains. “You need that harmonious relationship, and there needs to be a rhythm. Otherwise, it could get choppy, and then you are looking at one side or the other, not both together in unison.”
Indeed, dealing with the multiple split-screen images was difficult, but perhaps even more daunting was ensuring that the spot respected the culture of the young women to whom it was directed. To this end, Harvey incorporated as much reference as she could that would resonate with the audience, as opposed to using more generic references geared for audiences outside of that country. “I’m sure it meant a lot to these girls,” she says of the inspirational spot and the effort put into it.
Harvey performed the edit on an Avid system, preferring the simplistic interface to other systems. “It has everything for what I want to do,” she says. “There are no extra tabs here and there. It’s just really easy to use, and it’s very stable and steady.”
For the most part, Harvey sticks with shorter-form projects like commercials, though she has experience with longer formats. “I think you get into a routine with commercials, so you know you have a certain number of days to do what you need to do. I know where I need to be at certain points, and where I need to get to by the time I see the director or the agency,” she explains. “I have a very specific routine. I have a way that I work, and I am comfortable with it. It works for me.”
Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran writer/editor covering VFX and post production.