Aspects of Editing – Reality Check

February 13, 2021

Unscripted television has existed as a genre for nearly as long as the medium itself. It began with Allen Funt’s hidden camera show Candid Camera in 1948, which paved the way for seminal documentaries like Seven Up! and An American Family. But in the 1990s and 2000s, the genre broke wide open with the success of The Real World, Survivor and American Idol.

Nowadays, unscripted television covers all types of shows far and wide. It shows us the triumph of the human condition and what people will do for the sake of money and 15 minutes of fame. But within the genre exist many different types of unscripted television, with varying styles of storytelling therein. And for every show out there, it’s up to its talented team of editors to take that raw footage of reality and package it into a narrative for audiences to enjoy. CinemaEditor talked with several editors from different types of unscripted shows about what makes their series unique, the editing process and their takeaways from their respective storytelling styles.

 

 

How would you define your classification of unscripted show? Structured competition shows follow the journey of a group of people going after a prize at the end of the series (or episode in some cases). While there is vérité in each episode,  it is placed into a structured framework. Unlike other forms of unscripted shows, we have to keep the stakes of the competition in focus, as it is a motivation for a lot of decisions and emotions of the cast.

How many editors typically work on a single episode?  On our show, we have a total of three to five editors on for the season. This is much less than most structured competition shows, which can have closer to 10 to 15. It takes seven to eight months to edit the season. What is the biggest obstacle in editing this type of show? Keeping storylines present and relevant throughout the season. You never want to reveal too much of what’s to come, but everything needs to make sense after it all plays out. It is challenging to juggle that many storylines across a whole season.

What is the biggest obstacle in editing this type of show? Keeping storylines present and relevant throughout the season. You never want to reveal too much of what’s to come, but everything needs to make sense after it all plays out. It is challenging to juggle that many storylines across a whole season.

What do you like most about cutting this type of unscripted show? I feel that there is a lot of freedom in the editor’s creativity when cutting unscripted shows. One of our show’s biggest differences to other competition reality shows is our challenge format changes every week. It isn’t strictly a design or performance competition. The type of challenge motivates each episode’s edit choices and music, and therefore each episode feels like a fresh challenge for the editors and the contestants.


How would you define your classification of unscripted show? One of the biggest differences is the amount of footage. Stage competition shows are limited to the confines of the location and usually have a ticking clock. Whereas the Race has no real time limit, and the cameras follow the contestants wherever they go. The international nature of the production takes it to another level. The scale of it is just massive.

How many editors typically work on a single episode? The number of editors on a given season varies depending on how fast we need to get it to air. But most of the time, each episode starts with three editors. Each episode is given 12 edit weeks. I’ll usually start with two editors for three weeks to assemble the first pass. They’ll each take one of the challenges, while I’ll take the show’s open and the main challenge, and then the whole show gets passed to me. I’ll then have three weeks to refine it, address notes and lock it.

How does the editing team work together as a whole? When we start the edit, we gather the editors, the episode producer and the story assistant together in a bay to discuss the entire episode and troubleshoot any issues that came up in production. From that point on, the editors will check in with each other to track a storyline through the episode, but the producer is the main go-between. When the show is assembled and ready for its first rough cut screening, that’s when the executive producers get involved. The assistant editors are invaluable. They mostly work on media management and the show’s technical workings, importing and exporting all footage, resources and cuts. The finishing editors also work closely with them as the shows get closer to locking.

When you are editing, what do you look out for in particular when combing through footage? Moments that pop and tell the story most interestingly. The Amazing Race moves incredibly fast, and we cut back and forth between teams at different stages in the same activities, so we need clear and concise moments to keep the storytelling clean. What I learn time and time again is how very little you need to tell a story fully.


How would you define your classification of unscripted show? We create the stage for the competition to take place, and all of the action takes place at that one location. We also add background packages to help tell the story and get our audiences more invested in the action.

How many editors typically work on a single episode? This type of show can have anywhere from 10 to 25 editors all working on one episode at a time. We usually divide up the show by individual elements, and then one editor stitches the acts together, with the supervising editor giving it the final polish. We typically have one week to edit a single two-hour episode of American Ninja Warrior.

How much are you responsible for the story structure of the show? By the time we are in post, our executive producers have predetermined the story. So our goal is to make the story come to life with our editing. That includes sourcing extra materials from both producers and contestants.

How does the editing team work together as a whole? We operate knowing that every part of the team is crucial. It feels like you’re on a team sport; every player has a part to play to get the ball to the finish line. I work with everyone, including our rights and clearance team, to get approved materials, our assistant editing team, our producers, and all of the other editors.


How would you define your classification of unscripted show? Frontline is a public-affairs documentary series. It’s a different kind of documentary than they would find in something like Tiger King. It’s still a character-driven narrative, but with a public-affairs lens. We’re out there trying to get both sides of the story in a way that is honest about the events that are going on. It’s a cross between a 60 Minutes interview style and a longform documentary vérité.

How many editors typically work on a single episode? Depending on how complicated the story is or how hard it is to get access to that product, each film can take six months to a year to develop, shoot, write, edit, produce and put on the air. The team I work with does three one-hour films a year. Usually, about half the time is spent researching, developing, interviewing and story development. The assistant editors then organize all the interviews and prepare it for the first cut, which takes about six or seven weeks before showing it to the executives and PBS for notes.

When you are editing, what do you look out for in particular when combing through footage? My job is maximizing drama and engagement. I have to find the raw footage that has the maximum dramatic impact to tell the story. A lot of that involves making the interviews sound as clear and intelligent as possible.

What is the biggest obstacle in editing this type of show? “Fake news.” Fake news has created the illusion that editing is somehow toxic to a narrative. But editing is about distilling down the truth from the multitude of media that is there. It’s not about changing the story, but helping to put their hands underneath the story and lifting it to the audience, so it’s easy to digest and understand. It’s definitely impacted my ability to maximize drama.


How would you define your classification of unscripted show? This series is essentially a four-hour film, told in four parts. Each episode in the series is a part of the larger story, not a stand-alone. There’s a beginning, middle and end.

How many editors typically work on a single episode? Our show’s original plan was to have one editor per episode, working for 15 weeks. In reality, our story was evolving as we were investigating and filming, and the main focus of our series changed after we had already started editing. The pandemic hit as we approached the final cut, which required another big restructure of the plan. Everyone had to be a good team player, be flexible, and understand the whole story arc, not just their section of the story. Ultimately, we edited the series for nearly a year.

How much are you responsible for the story structure of the show? I developed the show with my producing partner, Cecilia Peck, who is also the series’ director. Our team of story producers and editors crafted the episodes based on an outline, but the actual story beats and scenes in each episode changed a lot during the editing process. It was a rather  complex puzzle to put together.

When you are editing, what do you look out for in particular when combing through footage? Typically, there are not enough hours in the day for me to ever screen all the footage. I rely heavily on loggers and APs to be my eyes and ears, and I make sure they know that they are the most important people on the team. When I watch footage or selects, I try to be in tune with my body and notate when a certain moment makes me feel something the first time I view it. Even if I don’t react the same way after a hundred times of watching it, I have a note of that first reaction, and I can recall and reconnect to that emotion.

What is the biggest obstacle in editing this type of show? One of the biggest obstacles in editing projects like this one is that you fall in love with your characters and the unusual world they are in. It’s often very difficult to cut out scenes you like and keep the show lean and concise within the network’s timing guidelines.


How would you define your classification of unscripted show? Docusoaps as a whole are a documentary form of storytelling where the cast members are filmed as they live their lives over a period of time.

How many editors typically work on a single episode? The number of editors depends on the way the post schedule is developed. Jersey Shore uses a team of four or five editors for the rough cut pass. Then it’s taken over by a lead editor while the other editors move on. That ranges anywhere from six to eight weeks. Married to Medicine has one editor on each episode. That editor gets three or four weeks for a rough cut pass, then an additional four weeks or so for notes.

How much are you responsible for the story structure of the show? The story structure pretty much has already been created by the time it gets to me having gone through the story team. When warranted, I’ll make adjustments but, ultimately, it’s a collaboration. When I receive it, the frame, the foundation, it’s all there. As I edit, if it makes sense to move things around, add or cut, I’ll do so. If it alters the story in any way, I’ll converse with the story producer, and together we agree on a direction because they have a clearer handle on how the story for the series develops.

How does the editing team work together as a whole? Editors interact with producers often. We never interact with the directors. To be honest, I’m not even sure we have directors. We have field producers, and it’s rare we interact with them. As for assistants, editors probably interact with them daily. They’re always funneling information to us. Whenever we have questions related to footage, elements such as graphics, music, sound effects or technical issues, the assistant is who we turn to. They are invaluable.


How would you define your classification of unscripted show? Docufollows differ from other docusoap or competition reality formats in that they often involve scripted components or significant pre-production planning to produce particular storylines or reactions from the cast.

How much are you responsible for the story structure of the show? As an editor, I always have significant flexibility and agency to change the structure, meaning or tone of the scenes within an episode once I have an opportunity to watch all of the raw footage. My job is to figure out how to best tell the story in a way that both emotionally engages the audience and allows them to empathize with the cast.

How does the editing team work together as a whole? It’s a very collaborative process. The show’s success depends on everyone working together, sharing ideas, and figuring out how to solve problems best collectively. While assistant editors in unscripted TV are often defined as more technical roles, there are significant creative interactions between editors and producers. After an initial editor’s cut, the notes process begins what often becomes an exercise in balancing the creative visions from multiple producers, which can be challenging.

What is the biggest obstacle in editing this type of show? The biggest challenge on Born This Way involved issues of representation. I was always concerned that I was not accurately portraying the cast’s true feelings and perspectives through scene work or correctly representing the concerns of those in the Down Syndrome community. Luckily, the show worked with disability advocacy organizations that provided notes on cuts to ensure that sensitivity issues were properly addressed.


How does what you work on differ from other types of edited segments? A supertease is a more glorified version of a tease – a preview of what’s to come – that encompasses more episodes and storylines than one episode. The goal is to preview the next several episodes to the entire season. They employ a style of editing like movie trailers or TV promos: quick editing, actionheavy, big, emotional best-of-the-best moments, high drama, misdirects, amped-up music and transitions that pop.

How many editors typically work on a single episode? Usually, there’s one editor in charge of a supertease, with a producer or two to help out with story and maybe a graphic artist to animate some elements. Length of edit time depends on delivery deadlines like anything else, but a typical amount of time is a week to cut a one-minute-long supertease and two weeks to cut a big ‘this season on’ supertease.

When you are editing, what do you look out for in particular when combing through footage? I like to watch the episode, or episodes, at least once without pulling anything to let it soak in. Anything that I’m still thinking about as impactful or memorable, I pull right away, and from there, I build a sequence with sectioned-out moments of the show. When I do my initial build of the supertease, I’m usually more concerned with creating a truly engaging radio cut than perfecting the piece’s visuals. I want to be able to listen to it with my eyes closed and get into it. Once that feels good, it’s way easier to scrub through an episode with the computer on mute looking for visuals than having a beautiful-looking cut with no audio substance.

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