Tag Archives: Television Series

Editing for Episodics

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.

Insecure
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.”

Nena Erb

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.”

Ozark
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.

Cindy Mollo

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.

Heather Goodwin Floyd

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.

Alkemy X: A VFX guide to pilot season

Pilot season is an important time for visual effects companies that work in television. Pilots offer an opportunity to establish the look of key aspects of a show and, if the show gets picked up, present the potential of a long-term gig. But pilots also offer unique challenges.

Time is always short and budgetary resources are often in even shorter supply, yet expectations may be sky high. Alkemy X, which operates visual effects studios in New York and Los Angeles, has experienced the trials as well as enjoyed the fruits of pilot season, delivering effects for shows that have gone onto successful runs, including Frequency, Time After Time, Do No Harm, The Leftovers, Flesh and Bone, Outcast, Mr. Robot, Deception and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Mark Miller

We recently reached out to Mark Miller, executive producer/business development, at Alkemy X to find out how his company overcomes the obstacles of time and budget to produce great effects for hopeful, new shows.

How does visual effects production for pilots differ from a regular series?
The biggest difference between a series and a pilot is that with a pilot you are establishing the look of the show. You work in concert with the director to implement his or her vision and offer ideas on how to get there.

Typically, we work on pilots with serious needs for VFX to drive the stories. We are not often told how to get there but simply listen to the producters, interpret their vision and do our best to give it to them on screen. The quality of the visuals we create is often the difference between a pick-up and a pass.

In the case of one show I was involved with, the time and budget available made it impossible to complete all the required visual effects. As a result, the VFX supervisor decided to put the time and money they had into the most important plot points in the script and use simple tests as placeholders for less important VFX. That sold the studio and the show went to series.

Had we attempted to complete the show in its entirety, it may not have seemed as viable by the studio. Again, that was a collaborative decision made by the director, studio, VFX supervisor and VFX company.

Mr. Robot

What should studios consider in selecting a visual effects provider for a pilot?
Often the deciding factors in choosing a VFX vendor are its cost and location within an incentivized region. Usually the final arbitrator is the VFX supervisor, occasionally with restrictions as to which company he or she may use. I find that good-quality VFX companies, shops with strong creative vision and the ability to deliver the shots with little pain, are unable to meet a production’s budgets, even if they are in a favorable region. That drives productions to smaller shops and results in less-polished shows.

Shots may not be delivered on time or may not have the desired creative impact. We are all aware that, even if a pilot you work on goes to series, there is no guarantee you will get the work. These days, many pilots employ feature directors and their crew. So, when one is picked up, it usually has a whole new crew.

The other issue with pilots is time. When the shoot runs longer than anticipated, it delays the director’s cut and VFX work can’t begin until that is done. Even a one-day delay in turnover can impact the quality of the visual effects. And it’s not a matter of throwing more artists at a shot. Many shots are not shareable among multiple artists so adding more artists won’t shorten the time to completion. Visual effects are like fine-art painting; one artist can’t create the sky while another works on the background. Under the best circumstances, it is hard to deliver polished work for pilots and such delays add to the problem. With pilots, our biggest enemy is time.

The Leftovers

How do you handle staffing and workflow issues in managing short-term projects like pilots?
You need to be very smart and nimble. A big issue for New York-based studios is infrastructure. Many buildings lack enough electricity to accommodate high power demands, high-speed connectivity and even the physical space required by visual effects studios.

New York studios therefore have to be as efficient as possible with streamlined pipelines built to push work through. We are addressing this issue by increasingly relying on cloud solutions for software and infrastructure. It helps us maximize flexibility.

Staffing is also an ongoing issue. Qualified artists are in short supply. More and more, we look to schools, designed by VFX supervisors, artists and producers, for junior artists with the skills to hit the ground running.

Behind the Title: DigitalFilm Tree colorist Dan Judy

This color vet finds inspiration for his work in everyday sights, such as sunsets, views of the city and even music.

NAME: Colorist Dan Judy

COMPANY: DigitalFilm Tree (DFT)

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
DFT provides cloud post services and software that evolve file-based workflows, simplify the creative process, and dramatically reduce production cost.

AS A COLORIST, WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
How creative the process is — it’s an amazing collaborative effort between the production team and color. Our attention to detail, both broad and minute, are almost surgical. It’s micro and macro. Oh, and having the right snacks available are absolutely critical!

Dan Judy

WHAT SYSTEM DO YOU WORK ON?
Blackmagic’s Resolve.

ARE YOU SOMETIMES ASKED TO DO MORE THAN JUST COLOR ON PROJECTS?
Nearly every project will have requests that are specific and non-color related. I was once asked to dry off an actress who was perspiring too much. At that time I didn’t have the towel function on my color corrector.

We are asked to help out with beauty fixes, add lens flares, light matches, remove footprints in sand . . . you get the idea.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
It is the satisfaction of the finished project, knowing that I got to contribute to the end result. It’s the confidence at the end of that process and putting the piece out there for people to enjoy.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
My first love was athletics, especially football. Would I have been a player? I had my shot and, well, I’m here. I’m sure my path would have continued in that direction.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS PROFESSION?
I had no clue this position was even a thing. I got an internship at a post facility through my masters program in Florida. They offered me a position at the end of the internship and my career began. A lot of bumps and bruises later and, well, I feel blessed to be where this path has led me.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
The 100, Last Man on Earth, the Roseanne relaunch, Falling Skies and a few years ago, The Walking Dead.

The 100

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
I would say with a wink, the next one. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s like saying which of your children do you like better? I have been extraordinarily lucky that all my shows have given me a great deal of freedom to be really creative.

WHERE DO YOU FIND INSPIRATION?
Honestly, from life. Watching amazing sunsets, experiencing great expanses of nature. I also like having uplifting music on while I work.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
I would say electricity is a big one, big smile here. Professionally? A bitchin’ hero monitor, a great calibrated scope and Resolve.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
Hanging with my family! They ground me every day and keep me honest. Their love is what keeps me wanting tomorrow to happen.

FX’s Fargo features sounds as distinctive as its characters

By Jennifer Walden

In Fargo, North Dakota, in the dead of winter, there’s been a murder. You might think you’ve heard this story before, but Noah Hawley keeps coming up with a fresh, new version of it for each season of his Fargo series on FX. Sure, his inspiration was the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning Fargo film, but with Season 3 now underway it’s obvious that Hawley’s series isn’t simply a spin-off.

Martin Lee and Kirk Lynds.

Every season of the Emmy-winning Fargo series follows a different story, with its own distinct cast of characters, set in its own specified point in time. Even the location isn’t always the same — Season 3 takes place in Minnesota. What does link the seasons together is Hawley’s distinct black humor, which oozes from these disparate small-town homicides. He’s a writer and director on the series, in addition to being the showrunner and an executive producer. “Noah is very hands-on,” confirms re-recording mixer Martin Lee at Tattersall Sound & Picture in Toronto, part of the SIM Group family of companies, who has been mixing the show with re-recording mixer Kirk Lynds since Season 2.

Fargo has a very distinct look, feel and sound that you have to maintain,” explains Lee. “The editors, producers and Noah put a lot of work into the sound design and sound ideas while they are cutting the picture. The music is very heavily worked while they are editing the show. By the time the soundtrack gets to us there is a pretty clear path as to what they are looking for. It’s up to us to take that and flesh it out, to make it fill the 5.1 environment. That’s one of the most unique parts of the process for us.”

Season 3 follows rival brothers, Emmit and Ray Stussy (both played by Ewan McGregor). Their feud over a rare postage stamp leads to a botched robbery attempt that ultimately ends in murder (don’t worry, neither Ewan character meets his demise…yet??).

One of the most challenging episodes to mix this season, so far, was Episode 3, “The Law of Non-Contradiction.” The story plays out across four different settings, each with unique soundscapes: Minnesota, Los Angeles in 2010, Los Angeles in 1975 and an animated sci-fi realm. As police officer Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) unravels the homicide in Eden Valley, Minnesota, her journey leads her to Los Angeles. There the story dives into the past, to 1975, to reveal the life story of science fiction writer Thaddeus Mobley (Thomas Mann). The episode side-trips into animation land when Gloria reads Mobley’s book titled The Planet Wyh.

One sonic distinction between Los Angeles in 2010 and Los Angeles of 1975 was the density of traffic. Lee, who mixed the dialogue and music, says, “All of the scenes that were taking place in 2010 were very thick with traffic and cars. That was a technical challenge, because the recordings were very heavy with traffic.”

Another distinction is the pervasiveness of technology in social situations, like the bar scene where Gloria meets up with a local Los Angeles cop to talk about her stolen luggage. The patrons are all glued to their cell phones. As the camera pans down the bar, you hear different sounds of texting playing over a contemporary, techno dance track. “They wanted to have those sounds playing, but not become intrusive. They wanted to establish with sound that people are always tapping away on their phones. It was important to get those sounds to play through subtly,” explains Lynds.

In the animated sequences, Gloria’s voice narrates the story of a small android named MNSKY whose spaceman companion dies just before they reach Earth. The robot carries on the mission and records an eon’s worth of data on Earth. The robot is eventually reunited with members of The Federation of United Planets, who cull the android’s data and then order it to shut down. “Because it was this animated sci-fi story, we wanted to really fill the room with the environment much more so than we can when we are dealing with production sound,” says Lee. “As this little robotic character is moving through time on Earth, you see something like the history of man. There’s voiceover, sound effects and music through all of it. It required a lot of finesse to maintain all of those elements with the right kind of energy.”

The animation begins with a spaceship crashing into the moon. MNSKY wakes and approaches the injured spaceman who tells the android he’s going to die. Lee needed to create a vocal process for the spaceman, to make it sound as though his voice is coming through his helmet. With Audio Ease’s Altiverb, Lee tweaked the settings on a “long plastic tube” convolution reverb. Then he layered that processed vocal with the clean vocal. “It was just enough to create that sense of a helmet,” he says.

At the end, when MNSKY rejoins the members of the Federation on their spaceship it’s a very different environment from Earth. The large, ethereal space is awash in long, warm reverbs which Lynds applied using plug-ins like PhoenixVerb 5.1 and Altiverb. Lee also applied a long reverb treatment to the dialogue. “The reverbs have quite a significant pre-delay, so you almost have that sense of a repeat of the voice afterwards. This gives it a very distinctive, environmental feel.”

Lynds and Lee spend two days premixing their material on separate dub stages. For the premix, Lynds typically has all the necessary tracks from supervising sound editor Nick Forshager while Lee’s dialogue and music tracks come in more piecemeal. “I get about half the production dialogue on day one and then I get the other half on day two,” says Lee. “ADR dribbles in the whole time, including well into the mixing process. ADR comes in even after we have had several playbacks already.”

Fortunately, the show doesn’t rely heavily on ADR. Lee notes that they put a lot of effort into preserving the production. “We use a combination of techniques. The editors find the cleanest lines and takes (while still keeping the performance), then I spent a lot of time cleaning that up,” he says.

This season Lee relies more on Cedar’s DNS One plug-in for noise reduction and less on the iZotope RX5 (Connect version). “I’m finding with Fargo that the showrunners are uniquely sensitive to the effects of the iZotope processing. This year it took more work to find the right sound. It ends up being a combination of both the Cedar and the RX5,” reports Lee.

After premixing, Lee and Lynds bring their tracks together on Tattersall’s Stage 1. They have three days for the 5.1 final mix. They spend one (very) long day building the episode in 5.1 and then send their mix to Los Angeles for Forshager and co-producer Gregg Tilson to review. Then Lee and Lynds address the first round of notes the next morning and send the mix back to Los Angeles for another playback. Each consecutive playback is played for more people. The last playback is for Hawley on the third day.

“One of the big challenges with the workflow is mixing an episode in one day. It’s a long mix day. At least the different time zones help. We send them a mix to listen to typically around 6-7pm PST, so it’s not super late for them. We start at 8am EST the next morning, which is three hours ahead of their time. By the time they’re in the studio and ready to listen, it is 10am their time and we’ve already spent three or four hours handling the revisions. That really works to our advantage,” says Lee.

Sound in the Fargo series is not an afterthought. It’s used to build tension, like a desk bell that rings for an uncomfortably long time, or to set the mood of a space, like an overly noisy fish tank in a cheap apartment. By the time the tracks have made it to the mixers, there’s been “a lot of time and effort spent thinking about what the show was going to sound like,” says Lynds. “From that sense, the entire mix for us is a creative opportunity. It’s our chance to re-create that in a 5.1 environment, and to make that bigger and better.”

You can catch new episodes of Fargo on FX Networks, Wednesdays at 10pm EST.


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.

EP Blythe Klippsten returns to Zoic for series work

Blythe Klippsten has joined Culver City visual effects house Zoic as executive producer, working on television series. This almost-15-year VFX vet has worked with other busy LA studios in the past, including Psyop, MassMarket, Stardust Studios and Ntropic.

Actually Klippsten isn’t new to Zoic, having worked there near the start of her career — she was a VFX producer from 2006 to 2008. Klippsten, who is now working with EP Gina Fiore to continue building Zoic’s list of television clients, has an extensive background in both commercial and television visual effects.

Prior to joining Zoic in 2006, she coordinated VFX for CSI: Miami and CSI: New York. She gained experience working on a number of TV series, including HBO’s True Blood, and CBS and Jericho, for which she was nominated for an Emmy.

Klippsten spent the next eight years leading teams at a variety of VFX shops, overseeing the production on major campaigns for Pepsi, BMW, EA, Nintendo, Sony, Sprint, Starbucks and Honda, as well as a Super Bowl spot for Cars.com.

“Television has always been a first love of mine and I’m excited to return to Zoic where I really got my start in visual effects,” says Klippsten. “It’s a dynamic time in television, with a much wider distribution landscape and a more diverse range of creative content.”