WandaVision

 

Zene Baker, ACE, Nona Khodai, ACE, and Tim Roche joined forces to wield their super editing powers on WandaVision, Marvel’s first series for Disney+. Set three  weeks after the events of Avengers: Endgame, we find MCU characters Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) living an idyllic suburban life in the town of Westview, New Jersey, trying to conceal their true natures. As they begin to enter new decades and encounter television tropes, Vision (and the audience) suspects that things are not as they seem.

The clever concept of the show is to have Wanda construct an alternate reality inside TV Land to shield her from her grief and the violence of the outside world. Specifically, classic sitcoms represent to her an innocent and happy family life. The nine episodes shift up the decades from TV’s 1950s heyday and pay homage to the retro styles of comedy, visual language, wardrobe and color.

Showrunner (and head writer) Jac Schaeffer and director Matt Shakman assembled a crack team of editors each with their own super power, if you will. Baker is a Marvel veteran having cut Thor: Ragnarok as well as Sony’s Men in Black: International. Roche’s experience lies in TV comedy on shows including Curb Your Enthusiasm for which he recently was Eddie nominated. Khodai had previously worked with Shakman and edited on both seasons of Amazon’s satirical superhero series The Boys.

“Matt and Jac wanted the first few episodes to match as much as possible the shows and time frames we were referencing,” says Roche. “We all watched DVDs of shows like Bewitched, The Partridge Family and Malcolm in the Middle and took our cues from there.” It was important to understand the tonal reference of these iconic shows if not to directly mimic their editing styles.

“The Dick Van Dyke Show (a template with I Love Lucy for episodes 1 and 2) was actually very fast in terms of the performances,” says Khodai. “The script and the performances are driving it rather than the cuts so we didn’t have to speed the editing up. On the other hand, our audience would find the tempo a little too slow if we kept to the pace of shows in the ‘70s and ‘80s era.”

Episode 1, titled “Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience,” was in fact filmed before a live audience to enhance the feeling of authenticity. “It was shot and edited in a week,” says Roche who cut this episode. “They shot some pieces as inserts beforehand to play for the live audience so that they would understand the story. That’s how it was traditionally done. Visually, the experience is made to look as close as possible to The Dick Van Dyke Show even down to replicas of chairs and using SFX wire gags.”

Though each editor had their own three-episode block, they shared ideas throughout the shoot. “We read all the episodes not just our own episodes which was pretty valuable,” Baker says. “You had to understand what was in mind for future episodes so you could give direction and inform your own work.”

Character Study
“The relationship between Wanda and Vision is the driving force of the series,” Baker says. “Once you understand that, then anything that detracted from this central story idea was superfluous. These are two characters I had always liked from the films and now we’re getting to spend some time with them. While there’s a lot of comedy, we’re dealing with very emotive and sensitive issues of love and loss.”

Khodai agrees, “A lot of this was in the writing and in the performances but it’s a fine line you have to draw to make sure you don’t go too big or too small on the action or the jokes or the more sinister moments. You have to make sure you bring it back to the performances in places because you don’t want it to go too far over the top. Every episode had that balance.”

“The most interesting aspect of the show to me is its character study,” says Roche. “Wanda is our protagonist whom we care about but there’s also a back and forth because what she is doing is kinda messed up. She is such a nuanced character you are not sure if what she is doing is right although her intentions – her love for Vision – are something that you can connect with. The domestic scenes of the pair of them together are entirely relatable. I mean, they argue a lot!”

The series has more than a couple thousand VFX shots. Naturally, delivery of some of these to editorial buffered up against their own deadlines. “Having the resources of pre- and post-viscerally becomes instrumental to basic storytelling,” says Khodai. “You are constantly questioning how to get an idea across.” That’s tricky when the ideas are increasingly outlandish.

One example, is the opening to Episode 8 where the script read  something like “Agatha absorbs power.” “I didn’t know if it was going to turn out well,” relates Khodai, who handled this episode. “Since it was so tonally different from the rest of the series, I wasn’t sure how to approach the edit at first. It was also raining when they shot the scene, there was a choreography element and VFX-wise it was a challenge.

It was hard to show that Agatha was absorbing the power – hard to make sure you could see what was happening. We worked it and worked it and we got there. Now I’m super happy with it. ”That “Previously On” episode was also tonally different to the rest of the series given that it jolts with an initial flashback to Salem in 1693, brings Agatha to the fore and takes us on a flashback through Wanda’s journey.

“It’s also a shift from comedy to something way more dramatic,” says Khodai, who is especially proud of a tender bedroom scene in the episode between Vision and Wanda. “This wasn’t one of those that I had to re-edit a bunch of times. I did it once and showed it to Matt and it stayed that way the whole time.

People are quoting it now on internet memes which is really cool.” Things got more challenging the more the story moved into the MCU world. “The problem you are trying to solve each time is translating a seemingly simple line on a page into something visual that tells the story,” says Baker. “You need to get the story from script to screen clearly, economically without creating any air.”

Playing with The Hex
Solving how to represent the forcefield ‘Hex’ which separates WandaVision from the MCU was another headscratcher. “At the beginning of the process there was a big concern about whether the audience was going to follow between those two worlds,” says Baker. “There was much discussion about what device was needed each time we go in and out of the Hex.”

Roches adds, “The show’s first transition to weirdness is the dinner scene with Wanda, Vision and Mr. and Mrs. Hart in episode 1. My first pass was close but then we had to decide when to switch from MCU lighting back to sitcom mode. The first 75 percent of that scene was working but there was this question about when it makes sense to take the audience back to sitcom world. When does the laugh track start?

We didn’t have music in until the last week. I’d been using a Bernard Herrmann track for temp and that track just always worked no matter which way we played it so [composer Chris Beck] used that as his inspiration. It’s one of those scenes that you rework and rework and when you shift the audience perspective you nail it.”

Another solution for the demarcation between worlds was to change aspect ratio. The series begins framed in old school 4:3 and dramatically expands to widescreen when the S.W.O.R.D agent Monica is ejected through the Hex.

“In episode 7, when Vision wakes up and his eyes open, the aspect ratio widens,” says Roche. “Things like that we felt we could get away with. Generally, we didn’t want to overuse it because it risks becoming gimmicky.” As the episodes progress, static sounds and musical cues are increasingly used to help transition the story rather than a visual.

“At a certain point, once you’ve established the language in support of the story, the audience is doing the work for you so  you don’t have to show it,” says Baker.

Remote Working and Easter Eggs
The pandemic forced everyone to work from home for the entirety of editorial. They used Sohonet’s Clearview Flex to review VFX, Evercast for director/edit sessions and Zoom for general meetings. Dailies were held on Avid Nexis on the studio lot to which the editors dialed in with KVM tool Amulet and virtual desktop infrastructure (“Like logging into a virtual Avid,” says Baker) but work experience depending on internet bandwidth.

“We could only all be as good as the internet was,” says Khodai. “Sometimes I went on the lot for color and final mix, which I got to hear on a stage, but a lot of the time we had to rely on headphones. I’d also try to listen to playbacks on my TV as much as possible since that was going to be the final translation. The saddest part was that we weren’t able to be together during that period.”

The show’s popularity is at least in part down to the ability for audiences who are not super familiar with the Marvel Universe to enjoy it just as much as diehard fans for whom there are copious easter eggs to discover. “You definitely had to know your history,” says Baker of incorporating elements into the show from previous parts of the MCU. “It may be for streaming but we essentially treated it like a big movie.”

Khodai adds, “We had every Marvel movie available for reference and a specific pool of clips featuring Wanda and Vision. I relied on that a lot in the flashback episode for tonal reference and just to be accurate.”

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