TV’S CINEMATIC REVOLUTION AT SIGHT, SOUND & STORY SUMMIT
story and photos by Dan Ochiva
The Manhattan Edit Workshop (MEW) continues to grow its reputation as the top spot on the East Coast to learn the editor's craft. So it’s perhaps not unusual that it offers a great service pulling together panels of top-notch working editors who provide insight into how they pull off the latest reality TV show, miniseries or feature. This year’s “Sight, Sound & Story” one-day summit of post-production panels was held earlier this summer at the NYIT Auditorium on Broadway.
In the last installment of this coverage, we look at the panel entitled TV is the New Black: Television's Cinematic Revolution, in which editors spoke of new opportunities. Once, feature film-level work was something an enterprising editor needed to head to LA to do. Now, younger editors could hope to build their careers in New York, as cable networks and new players like Netflix opened shop.
Michael Berenbaum, ACE (The Americans, Sex and the City), a regular at Manhattan Edit’s events, served as moderator. Joining him on stage were Fabienne Bouville, ACE (American Horror Story, Masters of Sex), Sidney Wolinsky, ACE (Ray Donovan, The Sopranos), and Jesse Averna (Sesame Street, Monica’s Mixing Bowl).
Berenbaum wondered what was luring viewers to TV these days. “The quality of shows has gotten a lot better,” said Bouville. “There’s this pressure on films to want to please everybody, so TV, in contrast, allows you can find a niche more easily. The format of TV is more conducive to really digging into characters, so that’s super appealing.”
The Sopranos received kudos for setting the mold for challenging, innovative writing. The series nature of television also allows an ebb and flow that features — with so much money riding on the success of each one — simply can’t. The change in subject matter offered is another factor that’s allowed television to flower. “People’s tastes have changed, the tolerance for obscenity or sex has changed over the years,” said Sidney Wolinsky, who cut over 32 episodes of the series.
“Movies have gotten, in general, less interesting,” he continued. “It feels like there are fewer movies about people and more about superheroes. There aren’t movies like Kramer vs. Kramer or Coming Home, films about people. Television — cable, the Internet — is doing things with that subject matter where you can really relate to it.”
Wolinsky pointed out how quickly things were changing via the interest generated by Netflix and now Amazon releasing a whole season at once. “The networks are now following,” he said. “NBC has a show called Aquarius, where they released all 12 episodes at the same time on demand. I thought that was amazing.”
Speaking as a viewer, Averna said, “I was happy that House of Cards was released all at once. Some of the storylines and character names became confusing [if you weren’t binge-watching]. It was hard to get back into it. I feel like I already was binge watching with shows like Star Trek: Next Generation. I think the networks caught up to us.”
Workflow for editors has changed with the new network strategies. “If they’re putting all 10 or 12 episodes up at once, it means you’re not working against air dates,” said Wolinsky. With standard network series that might shoot in July, air in September, and run 22 shows, Averna explained, “You’re constantly just trying to make the air dates.”
“With something like a Netflix show, you might start in July and all the episodes have to be up by February,” said Wolinsky. “It gives you a lot more time in the cutting room, often with the director. They often give you longer to put your cut together before you show it to the director. The producer will also typically take longer to work on the show too, and that ultimately makes a better product.
“Years ago,” he continued, “I heard an editor say, ‘The idea you get on Day 16 you just can’t get on Day 2.’ Your ideas evolve as you’re working on a show, and if you have enough time you can get those ideas. But if you don’t, you just have to work with the ideas you get in that short period of time.”
Averna, editor on Sesame Street since 2011, sometimes works more like an old-style broadcast editor as he handles the beloved children’s ensemble drama. His situation is unique compared to how the other editors on the panel work, so he went into a little detail.
“The shows shot on the Sesame Street set use three- to four-camera multi-cam, in a kind of sitcom style,” said Averna. “Those shoot live. I’ll get the dailies and cut them back at Sesame Workshop. But more and more, as pieces are intended to be a certain length or as they’re getting more complicated in shooting, they’re bringing me into the control room to cut live to discover issues, to see if things are working, but also to make sure they’re coming in to the time they were trying to achieve.”
Those live cuts in the control room are the first pass at an edit, Averna noted. The time code on the cut matches back to HDCAM tapes, which he also gets after each show. The director takes a look at his live cut and can do some massaging of the timing, but without being able to change the angles of the shots.
Averna also noted how complex each Muppet character was under that colorful exterior. Each Muppet has a lead puppeteer who also voices his or her character. Lip flaps — where a character’s puppet’s lips become out-of-sync with dialogue — do happen. But those are rare, according to Averna, who credits the performer’s perfectionist approach.
Below the shot is a “huge choreography. Simple things that we’d take for granted — like drinking a glass of water or playing catch — are incredibly complicated,” he explained, noting that multiple performers sometimes work with one Muppet.
“I spend a good third of my year in After Effects,” Averna also revealed. Characters are often isolated against backgrounds so that their performance can be perfected without worrying about another character in the same shot. With skin or fur that can be blue or green, the characters are shot before opposite-color background screens. Averna then composites the characters into scenes with the other characters.
Bouville edits on two cable series, Masters of Sex and American Horror Story, and finds them very different experience.
“On Masters of Sex, there are full-on notes with conference calls,” she said. “The producers haggle over the notes, then we present again for more notes. It’s hard to get notes by committee, with each person spelling out their obessions.”
On American Horror Story, Bouville said, “We hardly get notes. I think it’s interesting how the approaches are so different on the two shows. One of them is more controlled, the other is just to put everything in there, to just go for it.”
She also notes how music use also differs between the shows. On Masters of Sex, “The producers don’t like too much sound,” said Bouville. “It’s all about the words and the acting. It’s really in the subtleties. The writing really drives the show. The editing is meant to be seamless, and that’s really where my work is.”
On American Horror Story, crafting the suspense is key to the show’s success. “It’s about how it’s shot, how it sounds, and how it’s cut,” said Bouville. “It’s all over the map in terms of editing, and each season is very different from the next. The only thing that’s consistent in that show is that it’s no-holds-barred, and you always have to do things differently.”
The audience would be bored if the scares were delivered the same way, time after time. “There is a palette of tricks per season,” said Bouville. “But each season has to be different. For the first few episodes we’re trying to figure that out, especially the sound.”
You might say that scares were on tap for Wolinsky, editor on the pilot for Carnival Row, a series set to debut on Amazon. And not just because the show’s a gothic-style horror series. Wolinsky heard that the pilot’s director, Guillermo del Toro, “liked to look at cut footage every day.”
“That kind of freaked me out,” he said. “At first, I was concerned to get the footage as soon as possible before he came in. But after a couple of days, I realized there was just no way I could really show him something that looked really good, because you work on scenes that evolve before you show anybody.”
So even though he had partially cut scenes, or sequences without any of the reaction shots, Wolinsky said that he soon became comfortable as del Toro is a director who didn’t get upset like some he has worked with in the past, who might immediately ask, “What’s wrong?”
“Guillermo might say occasionally say ‘I did this shot because of such and such reason’ if a sequence wasn’t finished,” said Wolinsky. “I’d say to him, ‘Guillermo, I’ll be finished with this sequence tomorrow.’ He would come in then, have a quick look and say, ‘Fine.’ He really knows how to look at a rough cut. I found him to be very easy to work with. He really has a vision of what he wants, and when you’re working with someone like that, it’s fun.”