Managing Post for Unscripted Competition TV:
A Membership Outreach Panel Discussion
by Edward Landler
photos by A.J. Catoline
In May, the Guild’s Membership Outreach Committee kicked off a series of gatherings to identify and discuss problematic post-production workplace issues. Designed to encourage greater involvement in the union, these discussions bring together the concerned voices of Local 700 to formulate solutions to these largely non-contractual situations and share them with the membership. The first of these Partnerships in the Editing Room sessions focused on the collaborative effort of managing post-production for TV half-hour situation comedies.
On a Saturday morning in the middle of August, Session Two of Partnerships in the Editing Room came together in the Dede Allen Seminar Room in Los Angeles to focus on the workflow issues of Unscripted Competition TV. A healthy mix of editors, assistant editors and producers came to engage in a stimulating exchange with a panel of their counterparts working as cohesive teams on three different reality competition shows.
Sound editor and Membership Outreach Committee co-chair Stephanie Brown welcomed the audience and introduced picture editor and Guild board member Mary DeChambres as the discussion moderator. A 2009 Editing Emmy winner for Project Runway (2004-present) and currently editor on Project Runway All Stars (2012-present), DeChambres introduced the three sets of panelists with clips from each of their shows.
The first set of featured panelists was from Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen (2005-present), described as “a comedy not a cooking show,” in which Chef Gordon Ramsay pits two teams of aspiring chefs against each other. Representing the show were editor Michael Lynn Deis, lead assistant editor Craig Dabrowski and post producer Rusty Austin.
Fresh from racking up record-breaking ratings this year was the second group of panelists from NBC’s Last Comic Standing (2003-present), with stand-up comedians competing for a network contract. They were editor Angel Gamboa, lead assistant editor Sarah Wall and post producer Alison Flynn.
The third post team was from NBC’s American Ninja Warrior (2009-present), in which a diverse range of competitors “tackle the world’s most difficult obstacle course.” The panelists were editor Jon Provost, assistant editor Matt Cone and post producer Luigi Porco.
Moderator DeChambres asked the producers first about their responsibilities. “Basically, getting the show to the network in time for airing,” said Ninja’s Porco. This included setting up the production office, developing the schedule with the crew for each of the cities the show goes to, and overseeing the transition to online in May. Comic’s Flynn said, “I come in first, hire the assistantss and adjust their workflow to be right for the show.”
Working on Kitchen for six years, Austin said, “As it’s evolved, I’ve been able to work with the same people. I hire a bunch of really smart people as early as possible and earn as much as possible doing as little as possible.”
Describing the tasks of the assistant editor, Kitchen’s Dabrowski said, “As lead assistant, I organize the chaos, managing a team of six, and up to 12 or 15, to implement a fast, efficient, accurate workflow and solve all the technical problems. It’s a less creative position than I’d like it to be.”
With only two assistant editors on Comic, Wall said, “We have to go through all the footage, know where everything is, what’s on it and what’s wrong with it. We’re in charge of all the cuts and publicity to the press, all deliverables. Ninja works with 10 assistants, said Cone, who added, “We’re maxed out managing everything. We label everything so the editors can find everything. We make sure to put strong people in positions where you need them.”
Mary De Chambres, left, Michael Lynn Deis, Craig Dabrowski and Rusty Austin.
Asked if the assistant editors ever work one-on-one with editors, Cone said, “If Jon has issues, we try to sort them out.” Dabrowski noted, “On Kitchen we have 30 offline editors. On a good day, no editor comes to us with system issues. Everything is so well organized that they know where to find it. It just works.”
Addressing the editors’ work situation, Deis said the editors work on two seasons at a time on Kitchen: “Fifteen editors work on one season, 15 editors on the other; one editor is very good doing comedy, another always does ‘Dinner Service.’ Everybody’s a builder and then there’s Jackson Anderer, our finisher.”
On Comic, Gamboa said, “Everybody knows their area. I’m the finisher and everything comes back to me.” Similarly, for Ninja, Provost has his editors do what they are best at, though he sometimes needs people to work in other areas. Still, he said, “Nothing goes out on any cut unless I approve. I polish it every time.”
To maintain a consistent tone with a team of editors, Gamboa builds tool kits of what to do “to make sure everything is formatted correctly.” Provost sends out a list of labels and does a style guide but, he said, “It’s always evolving. I send out e-mails for updates.” Editor Deis, who joined Hell’s Kitchen on Season 14, noted, “I might have had a style guide but I never looked at it.”
Building on the idea of consistency, DeChambres asked Comic post producer Flynn how she keeps her team happy. With a very demanding show, Flynn couldn’t be sure if they were all happy but, she said, “We have a great camaraderie. I make sure they get food and breaks. Then overtime is a wonderful thing.” Flynn discusses the demands and expectations up front, so editors and assistants know what they’re getting into.
This drew the panelists’ attention to the more demanding aspects of their work. With four or five editors normally working on a single episode of Comic, Gamboa told of having all 11 editors work on the season premiere. Post producer Austin mentioned fixing a lot in post for Kitchen: “All the branding is done in Adobe After Effects online.” Comic post producer Flynn said, “We’re lucky in terms of visual effects; we don’t have to do a lot.”
Besides having to change every obstacle on the Ninja course during a night’s shoot, Provost said, “The biggest problem we face is reaction shots. Also we cut in bits for a contestant from other places. We’ll find an attempt in a qualifying run and use it for a final if it’s done in the same way. Then a lot of times, the jib gets in the way and we’ll have to paint it out.”
Recounting a disaster from Kitchen, Austin said, “We have seven cameras, 72 robo-cams and 15 streams constantly…12,000 tapes over two seasons. We lost our Avaid ISIS on Season 11 and had to go back and re-digitize everything from scratch. Since we no longer had access to the audio back up drives, we had to reference all the audio from HD Cam tapes. We had to send the editors home for four or five days.”
Post producer Porco said the total footage for one season of Ninja was 4,200 hours: “one hundred hours for Vegas and 250 for each of the hometown packages, with 24 tracks of audio.” Flynn noted 10 cameras online and two cameras backstage for Comic. She said, “Stage is a beautiful way to shoot — with eight shoot days in addition to packages.”
Moderator DeChambres asked the panelists how deadlines were set. Editor Deis said, “For Hell’s Kitchen, the deadlines are incredibly reasonable. Everybody knows how long a pod should take; for the Dinner Service pod, a day to two days. Everything is relaxed — a testament to hiring people who know what they’re doing. No weekends. No graveyards.” Austin added, “We stretch out the schedule and it works out.” We weren’t going to pay overtime, so no one worked it.” Lynn added, “This is how people are meant to be employed, reasonably and for a long time.”
Alison Flynn, left, Sarah Wall, Angel Gamboa, Matt Cone, Jon Provost and Luigi Porco.
“On Comic, it’s the complete opposite,” said Flynn. Editor Gamboa agreed: “Our show runner likes to make an infinite amount of changes. The cut always had to be screened fully cut and polished. We spent four months on the first episodes and four weeks on the last four.”
Editor Provost said, “We’re always up against airdates on Ninja. It’s a never-ending struggle to finish the show. All our episodes are two hours and all our first cuts are about eight minutes over… We constantly make sure that the first cut looks like a final cut with nothing left out.”
Post producer Porco stated the bottom line for the show: “We lock Friday night. The following Friday morning, we’re doing color correction. Then we do uploads for Monday airing. We turn around one episode every three weeks. Once, we had a three week schedule and needed 12 editors to complete the schedule.”
Describing non-scripted TV assistant editors as “really the life blood of the show,” DeChambres sought more input from the assistant panelists about the delegation of their tasks. Dabrowski related how burn out was reduced when Hell’s Kitchen went union: “Before we went union, we’d have to do a lot of clean up. Afterwards, we’d have one person time-lining footage and doing nothing else. That timeline is nailed all the time, 100 percent, and it’s handed over to someone checking the sync.”
On Last Comic Standing with only two assistant editors, Wall said, “I do everything and then the night guy takes over. I don’t do a lot of delegating. I just do it.” With more assistants on Ninja, Cone said, “When we get tapes, we all do everything — we all log, we all sync, we all group. We pretty much all do the same stuff.”
Provost observed, “Ninja is one of the hardest shows to group because the cameras are all on/off, on/off, on/off.” Cone added, “Our turnarounds are so quick; it usually takes a day or two.”
Asked about needing a music editor on their shows, Kitchen editor Deis said they didn’t need one: “Our music is kind of standard. Everything is clear where the cues are.” Provost said it was the same on Ninja: “Inside the package, a music supervisor isn’t necessary because it’s so stylized. Every package could be different but the music is the same.”
DeChambres brought up the issue of having to justify overtime costs and all three post producers responded. Flynn said, “Comic’s executive producer understands the situation we’re in, and I never have to justify it.” Porco said it was the same on Ninja. For Kitchen, though, Austin said, “We don’t use overtime; we just have more people.”
Keeping on schedule was the next area of concern. This season Flynn was only given temporary air dates for Comic and later they pushed the air dates to July. She said, “Based on experience, I know how long it’s going to take. I just push the lock dates from week to week and the EP pushes it back; it’s a game, back and forth.” A major change that made her task easier this year and brought down the budget, as well: “Originally we shot in different theaters around town. Now it’s all done at NBC.”
Air dates are fixed on American Ninja Warrior. Porco said, “We always premiere on Memorial Day so the challenge for ‘Ninja’ is being in six cities, and we start shooting in March. Due to weather considerations we cannot shoot before then.” Noting how this affects the daily routine, Provost added, “If I send a cut out at eight o’clock at night, I’ll get notes by eight in the morning.”
Rusty Austin, left, Alison Flynn, Sarah Wall, Angel Gamboa, Matt Cone and Jon Provost.
Some of the panelists offered insight into their show’s hiring practices. Kitchen’s Austin said, “What we look for in resumes is solid experience with primetime network reality shows. Editors mostly need to create a relationship with a producer who’ll bring them on. For assistants, the post supervisor will do the hiring.”
On Comic, Flynn said, “Our EP doesn’t want anything to do with it, so I’ll do it. I’ll ask Angel, ‘Who is your dream team?’ I go through her list for people who can work with high stress and quick turnaround.” Gamboa added, “After a certain point, great editors just aren’t available. We want experience in reality, staged cutting experience and comedy.” For assistants, Flynn said, “I’ll be selective about who Sarah Wall recommends. We don’t offer too much time for learning curves.”
A question came from the audience: “Does being an assistant editor lead to being an editor?” Austin responded, “On Kitchen, it used to — on a lot of shows, it still does. It’s so much about relationships.” This was confirmed by post producer Porco’s view of hiring for Ninja: “For editing, Jon and the show runners will tell me who they want. We have a solid group of seasons-deep editors and assistants. I always hire the lead assistant editor and ask him who he’d recommend.” Assistant Cone agreed: “It’s the team aspect; we work on building a team.”
Provost continued, “I look for assistants that want to edit ,because that was done for me years ago. If you want cut, I’ll give you something to cut. I give them so many rules and then say, ‘All the rules can be broken.’ What matters is passion, commitment.”
Kitchen’s Dabrowski said, “You have to know synching and grouping, but know it’s more than just pushing buttons. Think pro-actively — how do I solve a problem?” As a producer, Austin said, “I’ve found that editors who started out as assistants are easier to work with. If someone is talented but difficult to work with, I’ll hire the person I can work with every time.”
Flynn offered another example of an assistant moving up to editor: “This season we had a digital editor and we wanted an AE willing to make the jump to that position. Sarah didn’t want to, so we got someone recommended by Jon.”
Asked what the job of a digital editor was, Flynn said that they were responsible for online video, “creating wire videos and Facebook videos.” Austin added, “On Hell’s Kitchen, there’s so much video we don’t use but it’s great for Fox.com.”
With so much video being shot for unscripted shows, Austin pointed out the vital importance of organization: “For a scripted show, they write and then shoot; on reality shows, you shoot and then the editors and the producers become the writers, making the script up as they go along. You have to know where everything is.”
Provost agreed, “Organization is everything. On Ninja, every competitor has to have their own bin, every group is broken down to their own city.” Cone continued, “Somebody on Season 4 is not on Season 5 and back on Season 6, so we have to keep track of everything over seasons. We have 86 terabytes of material now.”
Cone also noted, “If you want to be an assistant editor, you can be an assistant without wanting to be an editor because it’s its own art.”
Mary De Chambres, left, Michael Lynn Deis, Craig Dabrowski, Rusty Austin, Alison Flynn, Sarah Wall, Angel Gamboa, Matt Cone, Jon Provost and Luigi Porco.
Addressing the issue of disseminating notes, editor Provost said he was in charge of that, choosing who gets what: “I have builders and I have guys to take it to the next level; I need people to stay in that frame of mind all day and not change gears. I have five guys to take rough cut notes and, at the next level one or two, and finally it’s just me.”
Similarly, Comic editor Gamboa said, “I divvy it up because I know people’s skills and it filters back to me.” For Deis on Kitchen, it is much the same “with all hands on deck when needed.” Austin explained, “We don’t really have a lead editor. The executive producer does that work. We literally work on all 16 shows at the same time.”
Outreach Committee co-chair Brown asked the panelists about how they deal with networks who weren’t willing to adjust budgets and/or schedules. Austin said, “I’ll take the heat in seven months in order to avoid it now.” Flynn stressed that time is usually the issue and said, “We have money, we can throw people on it.” For Porco it is a matter of being aware of what you can do given any course of action: “The majority of shows I’ve done that have gone over budget did so because they were under-budgeted to begin with and I knew it from the beginning. At the end of the day, I try to ‘tell it l
ike it is,’ as graciously as I can. You have to have plan B and plan C, when they don't heed your warnings. All you can do is speak up.”
With the session over, most of the audience stayed, mingled and shared their thoughts on the discussion. Patrick Gallagher, an editor on World Poker Tour (2003-present), said he got the most from the personal stories: “The genre is the same but the experiences are unique. It’s good to hear about the different battles everyone has to fight. For me, it’s rates and schedules.”
Amelia Allwarden, an assistant editor in scripted TV, said, “I want to learn as much as I can about relations between editors and assistants, especially about editors wanting to help the assistant who wants to edit.”
Post producer Austin also talked about the differences in Hell’s Kitchen since going union in Season 11: “We used to have a lot of turnovers in assistants. Since we went union, I’ve never had an issue with assistant editors; it’s like night and day.” Added assistant Dabrowski, “This is the best group of assistant editors I have worked with.”
Editor and board member A.J. Catoline said, “I hope we got the message across that a show going union is a positive thing; the schedule stretches out and the union assistant editor gets a huge raise. But it’s more than just a day rate, it’s health benefits and more.”
For moderator DeChambres, the discussion rightly focused on the relationships developed and maintained in the post process itself: “In terms of workflow, the post producers are empowering the lead editor and the lead assistant editor to make decisions in the hiring process. Because of that, they are able to handle the huge workloads by approaching it as a team.”
Edward Landler is a filmmaker, media educator and film historian. He made I Build the Tower, the definitive feature documentary on the Watts Towers, and is currently writing a cultural history of film. He can be reached at email@example.com.