Post Production

ART OF THE CUT with “Black Mirror” editor Selina MacArthur

The USS Callister episode of the popular anthology series from Netflix

Selina MacArthur has been cutting comedy, drama and action in the UK for the last decade, including episodes of the iconic TV series, Dr. Who; and Humans;  and the UK’s version of the American police drama, Law & Order: UK. (cue the sound effect). Her latest project is a collaboration with director Toby Haynes on the USS CALLISTER episode of Netflix’s bingeable anthology Black Mirror

Hullfish: The opening scene from the USS Callister episode of Black Mirror was done in 4:3. The second scene from the Callister, back in the game, was 16:9. Why? Was there any discussion about that?

MacArthur: This was a decision made before the edit process. Toby wanted to faithfully recreate the style of a 60s episode of Star Trek so aspect ration was a big discussion. We then seamlessly transitioned from 4:3 to widescreen using the lift doors to widen out the aspect ratio.

Hullfish: Any comments about the scene above?

MacArthur: This was one of my favourite scenes in the script and it didn’t disappoint. It really shows the scale of the world and the ludicracy of Daly’s vision. We played quite a bit with Valdak’s reveal. The crash zoom is a classic Sat Trek shot and we worked very hard to keep hold of that. Then the extreme wide is both dramatic and funny. This is a very complicated scene with it’s mixture of POVs, styles and VFX but was a lot of fun.

Hullfish:  Was there a conscious editorial style shift between the regular Black Mirror present day office scenes in the episode and the “Callister” scenes? What were some of the editorial style things you did to make it feel like 60s TV?

MacArthur: The office is much more like a documentary shoot – handheld camera giving it a ‘grabbed action’ feel – so we used jump cuts and overlapping dialogue – whereas the ‘in-game’ stuff is more cinematic – steadicam, and dolly shots – different score style and sound effects.

Hullfish: When you were cutting the present day office scenes, were you trying to stay in the POV of Daly?

MacArthur: Absolutely – his view from his goldfish bowl office – the man trapped in his own insular life. It’s very much told through Daly’s POV.

Hullfish: I loved the super-fast time jumps in the sequence where Daly is pulling the DNA sample from the coffee cup. Was that necessary to tighten the episode or get it to time, or scripted like that or just to move the story along as propulsively and efficiently as possible?

MacArthur: It was a style choice. Toby and I felt very strongly that this would be the moment where we shifted in tempo. We described this sequence as our ‘Bourne’ sequence – not least because Jessie looks his most Matt Damon-y through these shots. Again another moment where temporary and final score, came very much into play. 

Hullfish: Comments on the scene above?

CLIP 2 Trap Daly: The thing about this scene is that we needed to get the tension just right at the same time as holding onto the comedy element. The round robin cuts to the team build the tension and the comedy is in the performance and score. Although a very simple scene there is a lot riding on this as it’s the start of their mission. It’s also the first time we see Nanette playing along so it’s cut in the game style but with the drama of the teams POV.

Hullfish: Talk about the cuts in the sequence as the assimilation is progressing to 100% and the cuts back and forth and then the cut to the Callister simulation.

MacArthur: This is a massive turning point in the show – it’s also the switch from one point of view, Daly’s, to another: Nanette’s. We wanted this frenetic build of pressure then we kept adding more and more black screen between the two, three whole beats of black leaving the audience facing their own black mirrors for as long as they can bare it. Then we cut into that bold eye shot on Kristin. And the drifty camerawork of those early ‘in-game’ scenes.

Hullfish: What did you try to do editorially to show the new girl’s disorientation on the Callister? Your music choice helped.

MacArthur: When Nanette first arrives on USS Callister the movement of the camera is what really shows her disorientation and the editing followed suit. The pacing of this was very important as I wanted the audience to feel with Nanette. The first scene where she meets everyone and learns her fate is probably one of my favourite scenes. We are essentially meeting five new characters with her – people she already knows. I cut this to Johann Johannsson’s Arrival which was perfect temporary score for feeling like you’re falling and disorientated. When I cut this scene I wanted it to feel like one continuous movement – I hope it feels like each shot falls into the other. 

Hullfish: Making the jump between several wildly different tones: the humorous, the rage, the real world, the game as lived when Daly is in charge.. Is there a key to jumping between them editorially? Did those tonal shifts happen pretty much as scripted, or did they need to be managed?

MacArthur: They do happen as scripted but we obviously had to show that shift in the edit as well. Jesse’s performance was flawless so he nailed each side of Daly’s character. For me, the best stories are when you have drama, comedy and action together. There is something about the way they rub up against each other that gives them greater impact when all told together. Black Mirror is perfect for this and in particular, USS Callister. 

Hullfish: Was it a conscious decision to bracket tense, faster-paced sequences with longer-held shots? That happens a few times in the episode.

MacArthur: In the script, the story has natural pacing but of course we spent time in the edit making sure we built to certain moments and then allowed the audience to stop and take it in. This also created the tension we needed, Daly’s oppressive behaviour and the teams determination to get free from him. I do feel like the pacing in USS Callister is key. It’s an epic tale and in order to take in that amount of story, pacing has to be perfect.

Hullfish: Since this is an anthology show, no two episodes are the same storyline or cast. Is there a style that the producers want to keep “on show?” Or is every episode truly unique?

MacArthur: I feel like every episode is unique. The voice of Charlie Brooker comes through on all episodes but in terms of the edit I felt it was a standalone film and that I was to treat it true to itself.

Hullfish: On some TV, the editor is often the steward of the show’s “brand” when working with the directors, who come and go, but on this you and the director were both new to the series. Does the show have the typical few days with the director, then on to more days with the showrunners/producers? How did the hand-off go between the director and producers?

MacArthur: No, the fine cut was mostly Toby and me working together with the producers coming into the edit towards the end. There wasn’t a hand-off between director and producer. All notes from producers and Netflix were done by me and Toby and then signed off by the producers. 

Hullfish: You’ve cut a lot of television, including Dr. Who. How did your work on this series differ from your work on other TV shows?

MacArthur: There’s the obvious, such as budget. It was great working to no specific episode duration constraint. I felt we had a lot of creative freedom to be as ambitious as we liked and that’s not always the case with TV, especially if you are working on a block in a series or have to fit into a channel’s vision.

Hullfish: Is it harder or easier to come on to a show where the characters have no backstory or mythology or character arc that has been built up over previous episodes?

MacArthur: I think maybe easier as you get to focus on the now – pushing forward with their story from where you meet them. And the only relevant past is told to you through the character. 

Hullfish: Did the director bring you on to the show? Had you worked with him before? Or did the showrunners pair you up with him?

MacArthur: I have known Toby for about 10 years. We first worked together on a kids drama called M.I. High but, I hadn’t cut for him before. When he asked me to cut USS Calilster he said it was the perfect job for us to collaborate on and he couldn’t have been more right.

Hullfish: What was the schedule like?

MacArthur: All in, the shoot and fine cut was 10 weeks. I’m still not sure how we pulled it off. I think having worked on things like Dr Who, Toby and I were both used to quite tight schedules. 

Hullfish: What kind of communication did you have with the director prior to starting to get dailies?

MacArthur: Not much. Toby wanted me to come at it with fresh eyes. I think the main note was – keep it moving. 

Hullfish: How do you approach a blank timeline on a new scene? What’s your process?

MacArthur: Firstly I procrastinate, like most editors. But then I settle down and start building. I’ll get a feel for the scene and what is needed from it. Whose scene is it? Depending on the scene, I may build it all around one performance to start and then it’s just a case of trusting my initial instincts and being confident. Some of the sequences in Black Mirror had the potential to be quite overwhelming and I was getting lots of rushes so I just stayed calm and had fun. For me the assembly is about getting to know characters and going on a journey with them. 

Hullfish: Were there any specific technical challenges with this episode?

MacArthur: Not really in the edit, no. Unless working with a very large timeline counts? 

Hullfish: What were you cutting on? Avid? Have you worked with other NLEs cutting episodic TV?

MacArthur: I only ever cut on Avid because it’s great.

Hullfish: Anything else you’d like to say about the craft of working on this episode or the choices you made?

MacArthur: Cutting comedy, drama and action with amazing characters played by the best actors is the dream and I had all of these things on USS Callister. 

Hullfish: Was the structure of the final episode identical to the shooting script? Or were there structural and story choices made? And why?

MacArthur: It changed a bit, but I can’t remember specifically what we moved around. A few scenes were cut, but it was a particularly good script so it didn’t need as many structural changes as some do.

Hullfish: Any final comments on this scene?

MacArthur:  The opening scene of the show we recreated the style of a 60s episode of Star Trek, this was further enhanced in post with the grade and film effect. In terms of the edit, I feel like we approached it how you would a current show but that mixed with the blocking, framing and camera ‘fall and shake effect’ that made it feel true to original Star Trek. Some of the shots we held onto for a slightly uncomfortable amount of time to help with the ‘hammy’ editing language of the old Star Trek. Like the moment when Walton walked over to Daly and say’s “Captain, please”. We also cut it to various different tracks from the 60s Star Trek, giving it a different pace to the rest of the episode and deliberately used over the top SFX.

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.

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Steve Hullfish has been producing and editing award-winning television since the mid-1980s. He has written six books, and edited four theatrical feature films (including two Number One New Movies in the US). He has lectured…

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Joel Barthel

I always like hearing that other editors procrastinate too, even on such a tight deadline.