By Karen Moltenbrey
Consistency is important when editing series. Initially, the editor may collaborate with the director and DP on the style of the show, and once it is set, the focus is on supporting that direction, reflecting the essence and feel of the show and the performance of the characters.
However, not every series is the same, and editors adapt their editing pattern and pacing based on the project’s genre. For instance, the pacing of a comedy should elevate the punchline, not detract from it, whereas with a drama, choosing the best performance that fits the story is paramount. Additionally, the use of music and sound design can heighten the emotion or tension far more than, say, in a comedy.
Here we look at two very different series — a comedy and a drama — and examine how the editors approached the cut on their respective shows.
Life is complicated, especially for the main characters of HBO’s Insecure, which focuses on two African American women as they navigate modern-day life in Los Angeles. Best friends since college and now in their late 20s, they are trying to find their footing both personally and professionally, with Issa Dee working at a nonprofit school and living with her longtime boyfriend, and Molly Carter finding success as a lawyer but less so in her dating life.
The comedy has been renewed for a fourth season, which will be released sometime in 2019. The series debuted in 2016 and is created by Issa Rae — who plays the main character Issa Dee — and Larry Wilmore. A number of people have directed and served as DP, and there have been four editors, including Nena Erb, ACE, who came aboard during Season 3.
“The series is built around [Issa’s and Molly’s] experiences as they try to find their place in the world. When I approach a scene, I do so from their point of view,” says Erb. “South LA is also portrayed as a character in the series; we do our best to incorporate shots of the various neighborhoods in each episode so viewers get a flavor of the city.”
According to Erb, the composition for the series is cinematic and unconventional from the typical television series. “The editing pattern is also not the typical start with a master, go to medium shots, close-up and so forth,” she says. “Having unique composition and coming up with interesting ways to transition in and out of a scene give this series a distinct visual style that’s unlike other television shows out right now.”
Scenes wherein Issa is the focus are shot mostly handheld. The shots have more movement and convey a sense of uncertainty and flux, which is in keeping with the character, who is trying to find herself when it comes to her career. On the other hand, Molly’s scenes are typically locked-off to convey steadiness, as she is a little more settled in her career as an attorney. For example, in “Fresh-Like” (Season 3 Episode 4), Molly has a difficult time establishing herself after taking a job at a new law firm, and things are not going as smoothly as she had hoped. When she discusses her frustrations with her therapist, the scene was shot with locked-off cameras since it focuses on Molly, but camera moves were then added in the edit to give it a handheld look to convey she was on unsteady ground at that moment.
Erb edits the series on an Avid Media Composer, and temp effects are done in Adobe Photoshop and After Effects.
Erb’s workflow for Insecure is similar to other series she has edited. She reads the script a few times, and before starting dailies, will re-read the scene she is working on that day, paying particular attention to the screen direction. “That is extremely helpful in letting me know the tone of the scene. I like having that fresh in my mind when I watch the dailies,” says Erb. She also reviews all the circle as well as non-circle takes — a step that is time-consuming but ensures she is using all the best performances. “And sometimes there are hidden gems in the non-circle takes that make all the difference, so I feel it’s worth the time to watch them all,” she adds.
While watching the dailies, Erb often jots down notes while cutting it in her head. Then she sits down and starts putting the scene together in the actual edit.
When Erb signed on to do the series, the style and tone were already established, and the crew had been together since the beginning. “It’s never easy to come into a show like that,” she says. “I was the new kid on the block who had to figure out team dynamics in addition to learning the style of the show. My biggest challenge was to make sure my work was in the language of the series, while still maintaining my own sense of style.”
Insofar as social media has become a big part of everyone’s life, it is now turning up in series such as Insecure, where it has become a recurring character — although in the episode titled “Obsessed-Like,” it is much more. As Erb explains, Insecure uses social media graphics as elements that play on the screen next to the person texting or tweeting. But in that episode, the editor wanted the audience alongside Issa as she checks on her new love interest Nathan and used social media graphics in a completely different way than had been done previously on the show.
“I told my assistant editor, Lynarion Hubbard, that I wanted her to create all these graphics in a way that they could be edited as if they were dailies. Doing so enabled me to use them full-screen, and I could animate them so they could crash-zoom into the shot of this woman kissing Nathan and then tilt down to the caption, which is when you realize the woman is his mom, as she delivers the punchline, ‘Oh, it’s your mom. She looks young for 50,’” says Erb.
“I felt the graphics made me more invested and allowed me to experience the emotional roller coaster with Issa as she obsesses over being ghosted. It was a risk to use them that way because it wasn’t in the language of the show. Fortunately for me, the producers loved it, and that episode was nominated for an ACE Eddie Award earlier this year.”
Erb might be new to Insecure, but she feels a personal connection to the series: When she and her family first immigrated to the US, they settled in Ladera Heights, and she attended school in Inglewood. “I remember this awkward girl who didn’t speak a word of English, and yet the neighbors welcomed us with open arms,” she recalls. “That community will always be special to me. The series pokes fun at Ladera Heights, but I think it’s great that they are highlighting a part of South LA that was my first connection in the US.”
Erb predominantly edits television series, but she has also edited feature films and documentaries. “I’d say I am drawn to powerful stories and captivating characters rather than a genre or format. Performance is paramount. Everything is in service of the story and the characters, regardless of whether it’s a series or a film,” she states.
On a series, “it’s a sprint to the finish, especially if it’s a series that has started airing while you’re still shooting and editing the later episodes. You’ll have anywhere from one to three days after the last day of dailies to do your editor’s cut, and then it’s off to the director, producers, the studio and so forth,” Erb explains. Conversely, with the features she has done, the schedule has offered more wiggle room – more time to do the editor’s cut and more time for the directors’ involvement. “And you have the luxury to experiment and sit with the cut to make sure it is working.”
In addition to Insecure, Erb has worked on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Being Mary Jane and Project Greenlight, to name a few. And each has its own recipe. For instance, Crazy Ex has music videos in each episode that run the gamut from the ’50s to present day, from a Fosse-inspired number to ’80s rock, ’90s hip-hop and three decades of the Beach Boys. “In an industry where it is easy to get pigeonholed, being able to work on a show that allows you to challenge yourself with different genres is rare, and I loved the experience.”
At first glance, the Ozarks seem to be a tranquil place, a wholesome, idyllic location to raise a family. But, looks can be deceiving, especially when it comes to the Netflix family crime drama Ozark, which will be starting its third season sometime this year.
The series follows financial planner Marty Byrde, who relocates with his family from Chicago to the summer resort area of Osage Beach, Missouri, in the Ozark Mountains. The move is not voluntary. To make amends for a scheme that went awry, he must launder millions of dollars belonging to a Mexican drug cartel through the Ozarks. Soon he becomes entangled with local criminals.
Jason Bateman, who plays Marty, directed some of the episodes in Season 1 and 2, with other directors filling that role as well. Editing the series since it began is Cindy Mollo, ACE, and Heather Goodwin Floyd, who have a longtime working relationship. Goodwin Floyd, who was Mollo’s assistant editor for many years, started on both seasons of Ozark in the assistant role but also edited and co-edited episodes in each season.
When Mollo first met with Bateman to talk about the project, they discussed the series as being akin to a 10-hour feature. “He wanted to spend time in moments, giving time to the performances, and not be too ‘cutty’ or too manipulative,” she says. “There’s a tendency with someone like Bateman to always be looking for the comedy and to cut for comedy, but ours is a dramatic show where sometimes things just happen to be funny; we don’t cut for that.”
The show has a naturalistic feel, and many scenes are shot outdoors, but there is always a lingering sense of threat, played up with heavy shadows. The look, as the humor, is dark, in a figurative and literal way. And the editors play into the suspense. “By letting moments play out, it helps put you in the head of the character, figuring things out as you go along. So, you’re not ever letting the audience get ahead of the character by showing them something that the character doesn’t see,” explains Mollo. “There’s a little bit of a remoteness in that, so you’re not really spoon-feeding the audience.”
On Ozark, the editors make sure they do not get in the way of the material. The writing is so solid, says Mollo, and the performances are so good, “the challenge is to resist the temptation to impose too much on the material and to just achieve the goals of the scene. Doing things simply and elegantly, that is how I approach this series.”
Goodwin Floyd agrees. “We support the material and let it speak for itself, and tell the story in the most authentic way possible,” she adds.
The series is set in the Ozarks but is filmed outside Atlanta, where the dailies are processed before they are sent to editorial. Assistants pull all the media into a Media Composer, where the cut is done.
According to Mollo, she and Goodwin Floyd have four days to work on their cut. Then the directors have four days per episode to work with them. “We’re cross-boarded, so that ends up being eight days with the director for two episodes, for the most part,” she says. After that, the producers are brought in, and as Mollo points out, Bateman is very involved in the edit. Once the producers sign off, the final cut is sent to producer Media Rights Capital (MRC) and Netflix.
The first two seasons of Ozark were shot at 4K; this season, it is shot at nearly 6K, though delivery to Netflix is still at 4K.
Both editors have a range of experience in terms of genres. Goodwin Floyd started out in features and now primarily edits TV dramas. Mollo got her start in commercials and then migrated to dramatic series, with some TV movies and features, as well. “I love the mix. Honestly, I love doing both [series and films]. I have fun when I’m on a series, and then it seems like every two years or so I get to do a feature. With everyone editing digitally, the feature process has become very similar to the television process,” she says. “It’s just a little more director-focused rather than producer/writer-focused.”
For Goodwin Floyd, she’s drawn more to the content as opposed to the format. “I started in features and at the time thought I wanted to stay in features, but the quality of series on television has evolved and gotten so great that I love working in TV as much as in features,” she says.
With the rise of cable, then premium movie channels and now streaming services, Mollo says there is a feeling that the material can be trusted more, that there is no longer the need to feel like you have to be cutting every couple of seconds to keep the audience excited and engaged. For instance, when she worked on House of Cards, the MRC and Netflix executives were very hands-off — they wanted to have a fantastic opening episode every season and a really compelling cliffhanger, and for everything in between, they trusted the filmmakers to take care of it.
“I really gravitated toward that trend of trusting the filmmakers, and it is resulting in some really great television,” says Mollo.
In as much as we are in a golden age of television, Mollo also believes we are in a golden age of editing, where people understand more of what an editor does and appreciates the results more. Editing is basically a final rewrite of the script, she says. “You’re the last line of defense; sometimes you need to guide the story back to its original direction [if it veers off course].”
Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran writer/editor covering VFX and post production.