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article imageThe art of TV editing: A conversation with Nancy Forner, A.C.E. Special

By Mindy Peterman     Apr 20, 2013 in Entertainment
An editor does more than make a television show fit neatly into its time slot. There is an art to editing TV, and being successful in that field takes an abundance of talent and expertise. Editor Nancy Forner explains.
Nancy Forner, A.C.E. has worked as an editor on an impressive number of popular television programs: from the children’s show Fudge in 1995 (“I was a teenager when I did that show!”) to Law and Order: SVU to cult hits like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Vampire Diaries.
Recently she finished work on the sexy comedy Mistresses, which premieres June 3rd on ABC at 10 PM, and was consulting editor on the forthcoming documentary Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farm Fields. The topical film grapples with two important issues: wounded war veterans and their struggles to find healing and employment, and the loss of farming on American soil. The film offers a solution for both issues.
She is also an educator, lecturing at many of the local colleges and Universities in the Los Angeles area. She says, “I do it all the time and I love doing it. I love sharing the craft.” If you are interested in the field of television editing and would like to know more, follow Nancy Forner on Twitter (@nfscl) to get the process started. You can even send her your own video and she will critique it.
Forner loves her work, is devoted to her craft and explains during the course of our conversation how editing is a craft and art form and not just ‘cutting out the bad stuff’.
Please describe the job of an editor.
I’m a storyteller first and foremost. [An editor] tells stories using visual images to interpret or express the script. I create my first rough cut, interpreting the script with the footage the director gives me. All along, I try to fulfill what I think the producers, the writers and the director intended originally but bringing to it my own aesthetic and my own interpretation of what the story is.
How many hours of film are you given before you begin your process?
In television, which is the predominant, but not only, form that I work in, they shoot one day and the next day I receive the “dailies” (the footage) they shot the day before. Any TV series can range anywhere from seven to ten days of shooting. Overall, each day I get about three to four hours of shot footage to work with. On an average TV series, I’ll get about thirty-five to forty hours of footage total to craft and create, mold and cut into a finished product. Most TV episodes run about forty-two minutes so the ratio of shot footage to final finished episode cut footage is tremendous.
A lot of people think, “Oh, you cut out the bad stuff”. But that is not what an editor does. An editor creates. We don’t take out. We’re given forty hours of footage where no one has told us what to do with it. There are no directions. We have a script. But nowhere in the script does it say how to edit [it]. And that’s our job; that’s our art form. We take all that footage and create a beautifully, understandable, dynamic series.
That’s every week!
Yes, that’s every week. It’s not one movie that’s two hours long. It’s every week. TV editors have to be very fast and we really have to know what we’re doing out of the gate. We can’t sit and think about it. We don’t have the luxury of many months collaborating with a director like they do on features. We pretty much have to know what to do right away and to do it practically alone.
What is the difference between your cut, the director’s cut and the producer’s cut?
Okay, so this is the process. In television, and it’s not so different in features, the writer writes the script, the director then directs from that script, and the editor gets the dailies that the director has shot. So as I get all the dailies I put it together the way I think it should be. I put in sound effects and music. The pacing, the choice of performances, the cutting patterns, all those choices are based on how I think it should look and how I interpret the script. And that’s called the editor’s cut.
In writing you would say this is the first draft. But it’s very, very polished. It could go on the air the way I deliver my editor’s cut. They used to call it a rough cut, and that’s such a misnomer because there’s nothing rough about an editor’s first cut. If you’re a professional cutting a network or cable series, you’ve got to deliver something that’s purely polished and ready to go on the air.
Then I deliver that to the director. The director looks at it and he or she gives me “notes.” In television it’s usually done over the phone because [the director] is usually on to their next show already. Occasionally, if I’m lucky, the director will actually come into the cutting room and work with me, give me their thoughts in person. I really like it when the directors come in because it’s fun to collaborate with someone. I really enjoy that process, sitting there with the director and discussing the cutting.
What most directors are concerned about is usually to make sure their shots are in the show. To make sure that their high angle crane shot did not get lost and made it into the cut. They want to make sure that their interpretation of the show is what they intended and the performances that they had originally preferred are used. Now remember, they can shoot one line ten times and they print all ten different performances of the same line. So there is a vast variation between Take One and Take Ten. The editor picks the one they think is best and sometimes the director will prefer something else.
A director’s cut takes about two days. Legally, according to the union, they get four days but most directors in television take two days at the most. Sometimes they just call you up and give you a few notes. That’s the directors cut.
Then it goes to the producers. In television the producers are also the writers. After the director is done with his cut, it is now called the Director’s cut and I will send that version to the producers. They will look at it and then give me their notes, and that’s really where the show starts taking the final shape because they’re the writers; they’re the ones with the original vision of what the story should be. They are the ones who know how the characters should be portrayed what the thru lines of the script are, the story arcs, etc.
Very often the shows are too long so we have to take out ten minutes. We have to pick what lines or what scenes to take out. We have to decide how to make things faster or slower. They will also go over music with me. They might like a piece of music or they might want me to try something else. They might want me to put in a song as opposed to a score. The producer’s cut is where the episode gets finely edited, down to its polished ‘on-time’ version. If the show’s supposed to run forty-two minutes, this is the part of the process where we get it to run forty-two minutes.
Then it goes to the network and the studio. They give us small notes about two or three things. Like “there is too much blood in the shot” or “can you find a better piece of music?”. And then it goes on the air!
It’s a process but it is a rewarding one, I’m sure.
It’s a lot of work. But yes, it is very rewarding.
You wrote in your article for Creative Cow that editors can get typecast if they stick with one project for a long time. Does this differ from an actor becoming typecast from playing the same role for many seasons?
It’s no different. An editor can get typecast. If you only do horror or action, a comedy director or producer might think you don’t know how to do comedy. So it’s very dangerous to only do [one type of genre]. Unless you have a twenty year contract with the studio, which no one does. It’s very dangerous to stay on the same type of show for too long because all shows come to an end, usually, and then you’ll be out of work. I always say a good editor is like a studio musician. You want us to play Beethoven, we can play Beethoven. If you want us to play jazz, we can play jazz. We can play any type of music you want and we will play it well. A good editor can cut anything because the bottom line is that we’re just trying to tell a story.
You worked on Law&Order: SVU for many years.
I edited SVU for eight years, talk about being typecast. I had to really work hard to try to vary the style of editing I did on SVU so people did not think I only knew how to do a strictly formal procedural cutting.
The show is filmed in New York. Is that where you were based?
No. All the Law & Orders and everything Dick Wolf does is shot in New York. It is cut here in L.A at Universal Studios. The editors for most shows, even if they’re shot somewhere else, are for the most part in Los Angeles.
Is it difficult for you to watch TV with a less than critical eye?
Yes and no. If I really love the series I just get wrapped up in the story. But I’m always watching the editing to try to learn from it. There are different styles of editing that get popular and then change in television and in movies too. It’s good to keep abreast of what the most current style of cutting is. Even though that’s not necessarily the right thing for [your] story, it is good to know what is new so you have the choice to use it or not.
What are some of your favorite shows?
My favorite shows are Homeland, Mad Men, Girls, The Vampire Diaries , and, of course, my new series Mistresses.
You worked on The Vampire Diaries.
That’s right. I’m still a big fan of it.
If you were to go back in time to the early days of TV and work with those responsible for editing those old shows, what do you think they could teach you?
You mean back in the days of I Love Lucy?
Yes, since they didn’t have the type of technology we do now.
Yes, I think what they could teach editors today is to slow down and really concentrate on the story and not worry so much how flashy to make the show look. In the old days of I Love Lucy you were actually cutting film. So if you made a mistake, you’d have to get a reprint and wait for that for a couple of days. So editors used to make fewer cuts and they really thought about it before they made that cut. Also now with the digital cameras, we’re getting five times the amount of footage than we used to get because on set now they are using two digital cameras for every scene as opposed to one film camera. With film cameras it cost a lot more to print the film. With digital there is no printing of film, so they can let the cameras roll and roll and give the editors tons more footage.
The end result is that because of the ease and speed of the Avid [editing computer] and the less expensive cost of footage, due to the digital camera, which allows more footage to be delivered to the editor, the “style” of the editing has almost gained more importance than the telling of the story. Sometimes things get over cut. Editors can make the show or film look very stylistic: many, many different angles and many, many different cuts in one sentence. In the old days of cutting on film they couldn’t do that as easily or as quickly and so the story was focused on more than how many varied shots can be used in one scene. If anything can be learned it would be that. HOWEVER, there is a great place in film making today for this over-cut style of editing…it just has to be used correctly and has to be used to further the story. I happen to really like to cut stylistically like that but only if it suits the story or the particular series.
You’ve worked on Buffy and Vampire Diaries, two shows with huge cult followings. Does the type of audience you have make a difference in how you edit the show?
Again, my main focus is the story. My first instinct and my first duty as an editor is to make sure whatever the writer/producer wrote gets expressed, through my editing, as beautifully and clearly and interestingly as I can with the footage given to me. But because The Vampire Diaries and Buffy do tend to draw a younger audience, we tend to be more stylistic. We tend to use more music. The editing tends to be more fast paced and the cutting patterns more intense and varied because that generation can tolerate it and is used to it. [The viewers'] energy level is so high to begin with because they’re in their twenties, that they can relate to it and it resonates with them. However, there are moments, even on these cult shows, when you don’t want to cut with that intense pattern, where you do want to be slow, where you do want to be precise and formal. Again, whatever enables the story to work is what works.
What kind of reaction do you get from people when you tell them you’ve worked on those cult shows?
It depends. If they’re over forty, they’ve never heard of them. If they’re under thirty, they think I’m “awesome” only because I worked on the show. [Buffy and Vampire Diaries] have huge cult followings. It’s not because they’re sexy, which they are, or pretty or high intensity. It’s because of the brilliance of the writers: Julie Plec on Vampire Diaries and Josh Whedon on Buffy. They wrote scripts that if you break them apart are quite meaningful and quite deep in terms of what young people go through in life. And [young people] can actually learn a lot from the metaphors about drug abuse, sexuality, family, friendship, what it means to grow up and find yourself. All those angsty issues that young people go through and many adults do too. These shows are not “fluff”. They have a cult following because the themes that they deal with are quite profound. They are not silly and they are not vacuous or shallow at all. They are quite beautiful and sexy and dynamic and in many ways important.
Would you ever consider writing for a TV show?
Yes. On one series I cut I helped rewrite a couple of episodes. And I also do write for the Creative Cow magazine, where I write about editors. When I do get time I interview other editors or directors about editing.
Do you have any specific goals for yourself for the future?
Just to keep working. Nothing specific. I do not want to become a director. Many editors want to direct, but because I’m such a visual person, I love working with the visuals. I would be a painter if I wasn’t an editor. The directors tend to work more in a global sense with the performances, the actors, the lighting, the camera. They’re focused more on the actors. I’m more focused on the visuals and the story.
More about Editing, Television, Buffy the vampire slayer, law and order svu, The Vampire Diaries
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