Melissa Lawson Cheung and Liza Cardinale, ACE were among several editors who worked on the Starz TV series, Outlander.
I’ve interviewed Melissa before on Art of the Cut for the movie Mile 22. She has also edited on the TV series, Mr. Robot and Battlestar Gallactica. She was also an additional editor on Patriots Day among other work. (I’ve done a previous Mr. Robot interview, available here.)
Liza was nominated this year for an ACE Eddie for editing the pilot for the series Dead to Me. Her other work includes the series, Orange is the New Black and Insatiable among many more.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about the workflow. You explained to me earlier that because the show is shot in the UK and edited in LA, you are not really dealing with a typical editing process.
CARDINALE: They shoot, of course, in Scotland — even though now it’s set in America it’s still shooting in Scotland — so they use all local directors and crew.
The UK directors work with a local editor and have that dialogue early on. The production was not going to fly the directors over to Los Angeles to work with us. I think that that was never on the table because they’re not DGA.
In Los Angeles, we were presented with their director’s cut and we would screen that with Ronald D. Moore, the showrunner, and sometimes a couple other producers who were around, and then we would get notes and we would talk about it like “this is our launching pad.” It was almost like a table read.
So Ron was very much of a “rewrite-it-for-the-last-time-in-the-edit-room” kind of showrunner. So sometimes he’d have some pretty elaborate notes that would involve making up a montage that wasn’t there or wasn’t intended to be there. I did that several times — where I would just have to dig around for footage and try to find little moments and then put it together with beautiful sweeping music and sell it through a little voice over. That’s one of the benefits of voiceover: you can change a lot. They were rewriting voiceover all the way up till the finish line.
CHEUNG: He didn’t actually just do it with voice over. In season 1 there was a scene where Randall and Caitriona were sitting at the table — I should say Tobias and Caitriona were sitting at the table — and in the scene, Tobias walked around the entire table and then sat back down and Ron said, “I don’t want him ever to get up,” but he talks the whole time he walked.
It was actually really fun because, at first, we thought, “That is not possible. There’s no way we’re gonna be able to do that.” And then somehow we made it work. And it happened again later with Geillis. He said, I don’t want her to walk to the fireplace. I don’t want her to do all the business she’s doing with her hands, and so we had to somehow keep that dialogue or cut out what dialogue we could but still have it make sense.
Ron’s usually giving notes from the perspective of a writer and I think the reason he didn’t want them walking around had to do with the dialogue he was saying, but also with the fact that it distracted from what they were saying.
He wanted people to just hear what they were saying rather than watching this movement that didn’t really add to the story in any way.
CARDINALE: He’s not someone who’s ever hemmed in by the footage that is in front of us, so we’ve had to pull rabbits out of our hat a lot of times. And it was a great education because it was one of my first editing jobs. So it was a good education for me to see, “Wow! So much is possible in the edit. So much that I would never dream of,” because usually I’m responding to footage and I’m trying to just deliver the director’s vision more than anything else. But you can really bend footage to a new will if you want to.
HULLFISH: How did you respond to some of those requests, because some of them sound kind of crazy — like THAT’s not going to work! That’s a bad idea!
CHEUNG: Ron is such a sweet and charming person that you’re not going to really fight him on anything. So when he asks for those things, we just say, “We’re gonna try to make that work for you.” And then if it doesn’t work somehow we try to explain to him why, but first, you just say “yes” because he’s never coming from a place where he’s ever mad. He’s always in such a positive place.
CARDINALE: He trusts us. If he tells you something outrageous, you would never say, “Oh no that’s not possible.” You will try your best and you will show him what you try. You might think, Oh God! This doesn’t work at all, but he might look at it and say, “OK! Yeah! Great! Fine, you did it!” He’s just not a nit-picker about cuts. He’s more interested in “what’s the general impression of this scene?” That’s what he’s after. So he doesn’t get lost in the details that editors often do.
CHEUNG: Actually in Battlestar, he would do that, too. You had to take really good notes — and more than one person had to take the notes because he’ll give notes on various points of the episode. He’s able to rewrite it in his head and do a brainstorm in his head that I’m not able to even capture the information quick enough as he’s saying it all.
He’ll be thinking of moving scenes around. On Battlestar, they wrote it long on purpose, so that they can move scenes around to make an emotional impact and then maybe make a certain story make a little bit more sense by taking a whole scene out. It’s like a writer’s room in his head.
CARDINALE: Yeah. I would write notes. An assistant would write notes and usually Alisha Bessette, our producer would take notes, too. And then an assistant would look at all of them — compile them — make sure that nothing was missed — that everybody understood him in the same way because he only says it once and then he moves forward and his time is so limited. He’d say, “OK, I can be here for 50 minutes” and maybe we have to screen something that’s 45 minutes and then there’s not much time for talking.
HULLFISH: Is it normal for you guys to have assistants in the room for that kind of directorial note-taking sessions? Or is it just for him because the download is so intense?
CHEUNG: We wanted to make sure we got the notes done correctly and we wanted to actually pay attention to him while he was talking to us and look him in the eye, so I would only write them when it was necessary, so the assistant would be capturing it. But on other shows, there’s no room for anybody else (laughs)
CARDINALE: That’s what I was gonna say! Usually, there’s not room. There are so many more producers involved, like when I worked with Jenji Kohan they’ll be Jenji, Tara (Herrmann) maybe the writer and maybe some other executive producers, so the couch will be filled. There’s no space for an assistant.
CHEUNG: We had Maril (Davis) in there too. She was one of the producers that would always sit in with us and when she was in town. They were in Scotland a lot. So sometimes it would be like this — over Skype.
HULLFISH: That’s a great education for those assistants to have that opportunity to be in the room. Sounds like you guys didn’t have much of a chance to actually dialogue with him during those whirlwind sessions.
CARDINALE: Not much of a dialogue. We catch it. We make sure we understand. If we’re unclear we could ask in the moment, but it’s more like receiving.
HULLFISH: So you got a director’s cut and you are also getting the dailies or the rushes at the same time? Or the day after? Or was it much later?
CHEUNG: We would have the dailies before they were done with the director’s cut — while they were working on it. So we could watch those dailies if we had time, but we’d usually be working on a different episode while that was happening.
HULLFISH: So when you got a director’s cut you were basically just starting again, basically from scratch?
CHEUNG: I feel like it’s better to just be the editor from the beginning, because then you know your dailies. Usually on other shows, I would try out some things and find different ways to approach something — or make a mistake and be like, “that’s awful” — but get to play with it a little bit. But with this, we were trying to try to play catch-up.
CARDINALE: I think both of us would usually just start cutting from scratch. We wouldn’t really use the director’s cut except as this great point of departure of conversation.
CHEUNG: It’s like a script to let you know what was happening.
HULLFISH: I’ve talked to other editors that will do a very quick cut — not everybody does this — but they’ll say, “I just dive in and I will cut everything with the last take” or something like that. They don’t even watch all of the dailies to assemble a quick scene so they can see the layout of the scene. Then they have context and THEN they watch everything. You kind of had that to start with, in a way.
CHEUNG: Yeah.That makes sense when you’re on set or during shooting and they just want to make sure they have everything they need and you need to very quickly make sure the scene is going to work — or they’re gonna tear down a set. You need to make sure all those scenes are done.
HULLFISH: Did the two of you have your assistants create the bins — organize them the way you wanted to?
CHEUNG: They had to re-organize for us.
CARDINALE: I had them make string outs for me — because I was really into string-outs at that time. Especially getting to know all those dailies at once, I found it was easier to organize myself and having a bin of string-outs for every scene, then I’d make a lot of locators.
CHEUNG: It might have been that they organized it kind of in a way that we all sort of worked anyway, because Mikey, another editor, would start in Scotland usually on the first episode and that kind of set the standard for the organization — which was pretty standard organization for bins, usually in frame mode and with the setups separated and markers on action, then resets have a different marker. So it was all pretty standard for almost every project I’ve worked on. I don’t know if it’s because of me and that’s my standard or…?
HULLFISH: One of the things that you said, Liza, that I thought was really interesting was, “I was really into string-outs back then.” I’m always interested to hear how your process changes. Like, you either work with another editor and you watch how she works and you go, “Oh, that’s kind of cool. I should try that.” Or you’re on a new project and the old method doesn’t work for the new director’s style or whatever it is.
CARDINALE: Well, I found that with Outlander we kind of had as much time as we needed — within reason — but usually we could take our time to really get to know all the footage and recut it how we wanted so it didn’t feel as pressured as a typical show where they’re shooting and you have to meet editors cut deadline that’s looming around the corner of those dailies.
So I found that my string-out method — while very thorough and wonderful when you have ample time — would just back me up too much. I’d get behind. So I’m always looking for a magical way to cut dailies to make it easy and fast. I still have not found that.
CHEUNG: Well, ScriptSync is pretty magical, if there’s time for ScriptSync.
CARDINALE: Oh God! I feel too guilty to have an assistant do ScriptSync for me because I’ve done it! I have done it and I know how horrible it is.
CHEUNG: I have too, but I have to say that when you have a certain kind of showrunner or a certain director, you absolutely need it because they’ll ask, “Was there a take that this happens?” Then I have to check all eight takes that all have restarts that are in different order. How am I gonna check that right now in front of this person? They want it like that. (snaps fingers) They don’t know how long it takes. They just expect to see it.
They want to know how many takes there are and they want to see them right there. So I HAD to use ScriptSync. HAD to. It helps me too, because then when I wonder, “Is there a better take of this line?”
But in the beginning, you still have to watch all the dailies without ScriptSync because there are all these gems in-between the lines. So you have to watch all the dailies, then get the ScriptSync later to help you find maybe better performances or to show the director or showrunner, but it is magic if you have time.
HULLFISH: I can totally see how — especially if a showrunner has worked with another editor that has used ScriptSync — they don’t know how it is that that person jumps to those things as fast as they do, but you just expect the next person to do the same thing for you.
Yeah, that’s tricky. I know a lot of lot of people who feel guilty about ScriptSync because it’s so torturous, right? It’s so torturous to setup.
CHEUNG: Especially depending on how they shot it.
HULLFISH: Both of you have done features and a lot of television as well. If you’ve got a friend that is moving from either the feature world to the TV world or from TV to features, what would you tell them?
CHEUNG: These are the two differences that I took away from going back and forth between features and TV — and they’re big.
One of them is the schedule. It’s hard for a feature editor to go to television — especially a big feature editor who’s done a ton of features for many years — unlike me, like someone who’s been JUST doing big movies — and then they go to television and they’re given a tenth the time to do it all.
They can’t do string outs, They can’t watch all their dailies multiple times. They can’t write down notes and go back and go through them. You don’t have time in most television shows.
People claim you have two to three days after they’re done shooting in TV to have a rough cut done. I worked on a show where they tried to act as I did, but I really had a day and a half because they want me to export it. They want to upload it. They want to drive the DVD to some people.
I actually had a day and a half after they’re done shooting to put this together and in the feature world, you get about a week. So I think it’s kind of a shock for some editors that are from the feature world. And I think it’s a shock too, to know that the director you’re working with is out of the picture at a certain point and then you’re working with the showrunner.
The other thing — going from TV to features — that I didn’t really recognize at first, and then realized, that the editor in features has a bigger role as a storyteller. They have some of the responsibility on their back of making the story work in a bigger way. I know, in television, they do too, but in TV you’re just having to figure it out so quickly that everyone’s already in the room trying to help you figure it out. But in features, I think you’re kind of given that responsibility where you’re a storyteller in a little bit of a bigger fashion.
I don’t want to say anything that’s going to insult anybody.
HULLFISH: Do you think that’s because there are more people in the room in television? There’s more brains?
CHEUNG: I think it’s because they’re in the room so much more quickly and the deadline is coming upon you so much more quickly where you have to turn it into the network and it has to be done by this time or else we’re going to have to pay the sound designers to stay around longer. It’s all based on this budget of getting it to everybody at a certain time or else it costs so much more money in the television world, that there’s no time for the editor to get to be as big a part of that process — which is normally the showrunner anyways.
When I’ve met and talked to editors who have worked for years on these films, the ownership they have of the story — I feel like there’s collaboration that’s on a different level.
CARDINALE: May I ask a follow-up question? Because I would love to do a feature someday and that sounds exciting to have that ownership of that story and to be able to come at it from that angle. Is the writer involved at any point down the post-production process?
CHEUNG: On Mile 22 we did. We had the writer come in. We needed some lines. I’m not a writer when it comes to dialogue. I already know that I’m not talented in that area. So luckily we did have the writer that was available to come in. I think she came in for a day and we expressed our concerns and she then sent us some ideas, because we had cut it down and we had some holes that we needed to fill in so that it still made sense.
HULLFISH: It’s an interesting idea that in television it’s more of a writer’s medium. And then in features — although of course there’s a writer — that writer does usually just go away. It’s just the director.
CHEUNG: The writer is kind of what the director is in television. The director just goes away in television. The writer just kind of goes away in features. I never really thought about that.
CARDINALE: But that’s probably why the editor gets a little more of that storytelling delegated to their position.
CHEUNG: Yeah you’re right. I mean, I guess it’s different if you have a writer/director.
HULLFISH: I love having these kind of conversations. See? We discovered something! That’s great.
I’ve got a more artistic question for you which is: How do you pick good performances? Do you think it’s because you’re empathetic? I’ve heard many people say that good editors are just great empaths. Or is it acting ability? What allows you to choose a good performance?
CARDINALE: I would definitely say I call upon my empathy powers a lot and also just my experience as an audience member my whole life. So, when I’m watching dailies the first time, I’m trying to experience them. Sometimes — especially on Dead to Me — something Christina Applegate is doing is making me cry just watching the uncut dailies, so I’m going to make sure that I mark that and I use that later — even if the feeling dissipates as I watch something over and over again — I can’t really access that same thing, but you want your first reaction was to the footage because an audience member is generally just going to watch at once, so that’s what matters.
And then I’ve worked a lot with actors in theater in my olden days and I do think that helps a bit. I’m not an actor at all but I love actors. I love what they bring to the table. I love their energy. I love working with actor/directors and actor/producers also, because I think they have a more heartfelt or emotion-based approach to filmmaking.
I often have my technical hat on a little more. Like, I’m the craft-person. I’m laying the brick and making this work. I’m juggling a lot of information and software and computers and whatever and sometimes I’m not going “feeling-first” when I’m deep into, “Oh my God! I have so much to deal with” and the stress is weighing in, and the deadline’s looming.
So I welcome that person into my room who can still sit there and be in that feeling place of “how is this playing for me?” And I think Ron was really good — even though he’s not an actor. That was something he brought to the table was: How is this scene making me feel? Is this episode of falling flat? Am I falling in love with this character? Am I in love with this relationship? He just always kept that priority.
CHEUNG: And you can see that in Battlestar. I was such a huge fan of Battlestar before I worked on it. It’s such an emotional show. It’d be interesting to watch that during these times. (all laugh)
The emotion he brought to that show was pretty deep. I always told people who weren’t sci-fi fans that they might really like it because not only was it very political, but it was also very emotional. It was so much about people and how we all interact in the world. I was a big fan.
CARDINALE: On Outlander I think he preserved that by never watching the cut more than a couple times.
CHEUNG: That’s true.
CARDINALE: Almost like he never watched it through three times.
CHEUNG: The only way I could sort of break myself away from that is if I would export it as a QuickTime and then watch it as a QuickTime where I couldn’t touch the Avid, and I would see it differently. Or if someone was in the room. It would help me possibly get embarrassed if there was something weird and I wouldn’t notice that otherwise if they weren’t there because I was paying attention to it in a totally different way.
CARDINALE: The empathy kicks in when someone else is in the room. You’re empathizing with their experience.
HULLFISH: It is a big point — your idea of exporting is a QuickTime.
I was talking to Billy Fox about how he would go to a screening room that they had, where he didn’t have control.
CHEUNG: Because you could say I’m not going to touch it, but it still changes it if you’re seeing it where you can’t control it.
I did that for every single cut. I would export as a QuickTime and sit on the couch and give notes just on the QuickTime and I would notice so many things I wanted to fix that way — rather than sitting there and watching it from the Avid.
CARDINALE: One of my mentors is Michael Ruscio. Wonderful editor! He did the True Blood pilot — Catch 22, recently. He’s incredible and I wish I could bottle whatever he does when he cuts his dailies. He is so fast and so good, and he also directs. I think that’s part of it. He’s ascended beyond editing as his main craft.
I called him when I was cutting the Dead to Me pilot. I said, “Michael. This is my first pilot. Do you have any advice for me?” And he said, “Just take it home. You need to watch it at home on your TV, like an audience member would because it does change everything.
I can’t not stop. If I see something I want to change, I cannot control myself in the cutting room if I’m playing it down.
HULLFISH: One of the other things that is a difference between features and TV is having screenings, right? Do you do screenings at all in TV?
CHEUNG: On the last show I was on — Mr. Robot — we would have a screening with the entire crew right before it’s locked, which was pretty stressful. It was like a test screening. You would get all sorts of things mentioned when you thought you were just about to be done. So it was a little stressful, but it was really helpful because these are people that hopefully didn’t read the script. I think some of the crew members purposely didn’t read the script, but that’s not normally done in television. That was squeezed into the schedule.
CARDINALE: So it wasn’t the New York crew. No, no, no. Not the crew on set. I guess I should say all the post-production crew plus Esmail Corp. (director Sam Esmail’s company employees) plus Anonymous Content (the production company). It was his company people. So it’s more of the Los Angeles crew.
HULLFISH: Do you think that in those screenings the more people that are watching, the more you understand about the screening? If it’s one new person — like you’ve got a producer or an assistant editor or something behind you that helps somewhat, right? But when it’s 100 people?
CHEUNG: Normally in a test screening for films that I’ve been a part of, you write down the questions, and it’s anonymous. Not only do they not feel embarrassed for asking the question, but they’re not trying to just get to talk to the showrunner.
HULLFISH: So I want to ask you about subtext. I watched an episode that I’m pretty sure — Melissa — you edited, called The Bakra? Season three? This question is not just about that episode but could be either one of you in general.
There were several scenes where they were talking to the governor and the dialogue was clearly not about what the scene was about. It was about the subtext of this relationship that the two men had. Talk to me about how subtext changes editing?
CHEUNG: I think that’s probably my favorite character. I’m Team Frank too, so I love Frank but also the governor and Jamie’s relationship? I love their relationship. I thought it was such a cool part of the books and the show.
So, in the beginning of the scene — once they’re in his office in the back — they’re first mentioning his son and the governor doesn’t know if his wife knows about the son. So first you have to show him looking worried to her: does she know about the son?
And then there’s the whole playfulness of Jamie and the governor having this relationship. It wasn’t romantic at all, but it was very close. And how it would affect her. So you’re thinking of the fans. Who would they want to see at this moment while this is being said?
When the son is mentioned, you want to see Claire’s reaction and you want to see the governor’s reaction. Traditionally, you’d be showing Jamie, right? Because it’s his son. But first, you actually show the governor because he wants to know if Claire knows about it and you see Claire reacting and then you see Jamie showing, “Oh, she knows.”
But normally, you’re right. We would just be wanting to see Jamie react to: Is his son there? And is he going to get to see his son?
The backstory is that his son was conceived with a woman that technically Jamie had an affair with, but not really because he thought she was dead and it’s such a long story to that.
But the governor’s in love with Jamie. You want to show that Claire’s sort of jealous of this relationship. It was so fun to cut that scene. I don’t know how to articulate exactly how I made those decisions but I feel like I was keeping the fans in my mind as I cut it to think about who would they want to see at each moment.
CARDINALE: Especially on Outlander and maybe on Battlestar too, there’s a lot of time spent on actors looking to each other. Looks. Reaction shots. Lengthy ones that settle. We make room for that and not a lot of shows do that. But I think we did that because it was such a character-heavy, loaded, subtext-full, everyone has secrets. People know things they shouldn’t or they want to know things they don’t.
I think that was part of the formula of that show is that we had the ability to space that stuff out as much as we wanted, especially Ron — he was never, ever telling someone to pace something up. And I don’t think Battlestar ever did either, so when that’s not your driving principle, you can make more time for these subtleties — this nuance.
HULLFISH: How are you deciding that subtext is so important? Is it just your knowledge of the story, or is it outlined in the script?
CHEUNG: I think it’s knowledge of the story.
CARDINALE: Yeah, because usually the point of it is to NOT be in the script, overtly.
CARDINALE: I’m thinking of a scene in Dead to Me Season 2 between Jen and Ben on the beach at night and they’re really connecting. So partly it’s about just the moment of them having this intimate time connecting to each other but there is so much subtext based on Jen’s experience with his brother and — I won’t go into the details — but yes, I had to make sure that I was showing her face a lot so that I could show when she was having guilt or conflicted emotions.
When you have a great actress like Christina Applegate, I don’t have to manufacture that. It’s there. I just have to make space for it.
HULLFISH: When I watch the scene with the governor, it was cut differently than if the dialogue had just been the dialogue.
CHEUNG: I know the story so well because I actually happened to do the episode when they got close — the governor and Jamie. So I felt like I owned that relationship. (the ladies laugh) I feel very close to that relationship. It was already intuitive to me to do that because I was there for all the sections of that story. I was there when they first got close.
I was the one who cut when he did have the affair with that woman to produce that baby and when he had to say goodbye to that baby and ask the governor to raise his son. I happened to cut that scene too.
I wonder if they were giving me these episodes because they knew I loved them so much!? And then I got to do the episode where they were reunited, so I didn’t really have to research anything to know the emotions of these characters because I felt like I owned them.
HULLFISH: With that scene, I don’t know any of the backstory, and I could sense from the editing and from the acting of course, Oh, there is a history here.
CHEUNG: Oh good. So you can tell that the governor was in love with Jamie?
HULLFISH: Oh yeah. And the wife in the meantime going what’s going on here?
How do you build tension with editing? To me it always seems like you just hold on a shot a little longer than it needs to. What are some of the tricks? What can I do as an editor to create that tension?
CARDINALE: I’d say exactly what you said. You hold things a little too long and maybe you throw in a little more back and forth — just looks. No dialogue. And you throw down some music. You’ve gotta use that music for tension because otherwise, it could be a little boring. Never want to be boring. You want it to be a lean-in moment of engagement.
Bear McCreary is a really good composer and he’s great with tension, so we had a lot of things to choose from — just a little rising string, and then you pop the tension with the music. And by changing the cutting pattern in the moment that you want to break that tension.
So you do have to manipulate the beginning of it, the climax of it, and then when it’s done. So the moment of: “Is someone going to kill somebody? Uh-oh! I don’t know what’s happening here.”
And then usually at least with Outlander — in a scene, that would fall away. We didn’t really end scenes in a tense place. We kind of resolved things. We had really long scenes.
I’d say it’s extending the moment and having good close-ups and hoping your actors brought that furrowed brow or the sweat dripping down.
HULLFISH: I taught at an editing seminar that had a soap opera editor and he said, The key to soap opera editing is at the end of each act, you have to cut to the shot of somebody looking like, “Who farted?”.
CHEUNG: It’s funny because the governor actually was from soap operas and he would do that look. We didn’t use it, but he had that look down.
CARDINALE: Well, that look — according to an old friend of mine who worked on All My Children as a costume designer — she said that that is called twigging and it is written into the scripts.
CHEUNG: Really? It’s written in?
CARDINALE: Yeah. It’d say, “Out on Jamie twigging.” And it would be him having that moment. Maybe a little push in. People do it all the time. It’s still happening. Not just soap operas.
HULLFISH: That’s so funny.
What’s your approach? You walk in in the morning. You’ve got fresh dailies in a bin and a blank timeline. What do you do?
CARDINALE: Okay. The thing I’m experimenting with right now is that I watch the last take of every setup first before I watch every take of everything because then I have an idea of what all the big-picture coverage of the scene is and if it’s clear that I’m going to be in one particular piece of coverage for a moment then I’m not going to obsess over finding a great read of that line on a wider two-shot which clearly I’m not going to be in for that moment.
I do find that that helps speed me up a little bit and organize my thoughts. So, watch the last take of every setup and then go back to the beginning — watch everything.
Usually, I do start plopping things in a timeline right away if I think it’s really good because it might as well be there. So, my first cut of a scene will be missing lines and it’ll just be little moments of things that I found to be good. And then I’ll go back in and patch those holes up with moments that maybe didn’t jump out at me as being amazing but they work with the continuity and the coverage that I’m trying to get to.
So I just protect the great moments. Support them.
CHEUNG: I always watch the last take first because that’s when they figured out the geography and how they’re gonna have people move around. They might change all that. I usually do watch each set-up’s dailies first and do selects, which is sort of what you’re doing, I just call it “selects.”
I make a selects timeline and there might be multiple of the same line that I have to choose from. The reason is because sometimes — when you do realize, “Oh, I have to use this take because her hair changed or the position of her arm changed and I got to stick with this take,” then you have this sequence with most of the best performances.
I would then organize it by line. If I change my mind later and I think, “That other performance is gonna be better” because of something else that happens in a different scene, I can go back and easily find it.
So on a feature, I would be using markers and organizing my selects. But if we have a lot of assistants — we had an assistant that was just doing ScriptSync on Mile 22, so I didn’t have to worry about that too much, once she had time to do that.
In the beginning, I was doing it and then later she started ScriptSyncing everything, so I had my selects and I had to transition to not having to organize them, but having my best takes, so it kind of just depends on how they shot their footage, how big the scene is, with how soon I might start editing it and how far into I go into making selects.
I watch the dailies — always the last take first — because sometimes you watch the last take first and, say, there are six takes and by the time you watch take two, you realize they had changed it so completely that you can’t use one through four.
But you have to watch it anyway because the director might say, Let me see all the performances of this take in ScriptSync and they say, “I like take one the best” and you have to change everything to take one. You have wanted to say you’ve watched it because if something strange happens in it you better know about it. So you have to watch it all just in case.
HULLFISH: So with ScriptSync you’re not using that for an initial cut? You are using it more for notes and revisions later?
CHEUNG: Because there’s no way it would be done in time to use it for a first cut — in our world anyway — it’s more for when the showrunner’s in the room.
On Mr. Robot there was an episode that was all one set. It was on a stage and the actors would do the whole act in one read — 15 to 18 times. Then the next act — about 13 to 15 times all through. So ScriptSync was really helpful.
I gave stars next to the ones that had the best performances within them. For the first act take 18 and 15 and I think 17 to me were the best, and so I starred those so that I knew that if I was having an issue, I’d go back to those first to check for performances, but ScriptSync was a lifesaver because I was able to go back to each of those lines because there’s no way to mark it.
There are other ways but they would be way more time-consuming than ScriptSync even was for the assistant at that point. Also because it was so “to script” the ScriptSync worked. There were no restarts that messed it up, so it actually just transcribed it correctly for the most part.
So I was able to lean on that a lot for that particular episode. But people don’t usually shoot on one set with the actors saying all their lines in one full take.
HULLFISH: When — in the process — do you start building sequences of scenes? Putting scene one to scene two? And then what happens when you get to that point?
CARDINALE: Lately I’ve been letting my assistant string things together. I would hand her every scene as I finished it to do sound work on it. This was Hannah, who worked with me on a show called Teenage Bounty Hunters — coming out soon — and then she would hand it back to me in longer stretches and it would have some sound design to it, so what I do at that point is I check my transitions. Usually, you don’t want to be wide shot to wide shot or close up to close up. I want some delineation between scenes.
That’s also when I add music. I don’t want to add music when things are broken into scenes. I want it to be a longer stretch that I’m dealing with, so I don’t overburden people’s ears with too much music in the stretch.
And with Outlander, it was really fun to do transitions, because Ron was a little particular about that. He loved starting scenes with a pretty solid orientation in place. Imagine an outdoor market scene. We’d always start with some b-roll that we’d track down of somebody selling some rabbits or somebody picking an apple.
We would always ease into a scene and let an audience know where they were in a neutral way. I felt like Ron really enjoyed when we could set the scene before the dialogue started. Especially if it was a big area, like a banquet or if there was a lot going on. He really liked to be oriented.
CHEUNG: The set design and the costume design were so extraordinary on this show that a lot of times I felt we were popping out to a wide or medium more often to showcase a beautiful dress. Because not only is it so much time they spent on it but the fans want to see it — the fans of the books especially — because her outfits are described so much in the books.
There’s a red dress that was really important that was in one of my episodes and it was really important to draw out the whole thing about the dress and that would happen in many of the scenes where we’d be showcasing the world and making sure we’re editing to showcase that.
CARDINALE: That’s part of the fantasy draw — why people want to go on this ride. They want to feel like they’re in another time and place that they can’t access, but in a gritty, real way.
HULLFISH: Did both of you read the books before you became editors on the series?
CHEUNG: I listened to the audio books on the way to work. I live near LAX and I would drive to Pasadena, so I bought the audiobooks and listened to them.
CARDINALE: I got swept up into the books and then I didn’t have to figure out what the fan perspective was, I could BE the book fan as I was editing. I would know that something was a huge deal because there’s a whole chapter. It was just described very vividly. It was a very exciting moment of the book.
Like, Melissa was talking about the red dress. I would already know what those moments were from reading the book. And that was really helpful.
HULLFISH: Does that kind of thing help you in an interview to get a job? To be able to say that you understand the book? Or was that not the case for either one of you?
CHEUNG: We already were associated with producer Michael O’Halloran and he brought us onto that project. So we probably didn’t need to interview the way that we would normally interview.
CARDINALE: Well, I actually did. I had to interview with Maril and I had to read the entire book before I spoke with her.
LAWSON-CHEUNG: Oh well never mind!
CARDINALE: So I really took it in. I took on that assignment. I read it and I listened to it and I read it and I listened. I’d go back and forth with the audiobook and the real book and I didn’t have a child yet so I had time to read.
CHEUNG: I had just had a child.
CARDINALE: So yeah, you needed it to be in the car. Maril’s a big fan of the books She and Ron’s wife, Terry, are the reasons Ron did that show. They were huge fans of the book and they both came to him because Maril’s really close with Ron. She worked with him since Battlestar and of course he’s close with his wife. So they both came to him and said that they felt that would be a great next project and there you go.
HULLFISH: Is there any danger to have read the book?
CARDINALE: I feel like, in this case, the book just adds to the experience because it’s not such a plot-heavy, spoiler kind of drive.
It’s not like Game of Thrones. I felt like reading Game of Thrones actually did hurt my experience of the show, so I stopped reading it because I wanted to enjoy the show. Maybe I’ll go back and read it now but I didn’t like being in the position of: “Wait! That’s not what happened! Oh! They’ve changed that!”
It just took me out of the experience. The show is very faithful to especially the major events that happen in the book. So it’s more like you’re seeing things come to life that you’ve imagined. At least I like that process. I definitely like reading first, so I can have my own internal imaginary experience with it. And then the show can just build on top of that.
HULLFISH: What are you doing to mentor your assistants or what do you think can help bring along an assistant?
CHEUNG: I think it can depend on the project and how much time there is.
So on Mile 22, with my assistant, Brad Stencil, he would edit for both me and the other editor Colby. I worked with Colby for many years — and many years ago. I was his assistant.
That’s how he would work. He’d give me a scene and it would be my scene and I would get directors notes or his notes and it would stay mine as long as possible and possibly till the very end which it did. And we were trying to do that for Brad as well.
In that world, sometimes more editors are hired and you don’t get to have that choice of having the assistant keep it till the end, but that’s part of the learning process for an assistant: getting to go through those note passes, because otherwise if you just edited it for the editor and then they take it and they change it, the assistant hasn’t learned how to polish it.
On Mr. Robot, there’s so much sound design — as if it was being aired. You’re doing sound effects where it goes left to right as they walk past the room. It’s really detailed temp sound effects. The assistant doesn’t really have time to edit unless they’re wanting to do it on their own time which I totally understand why somebody wouldn’t want to do that. So I think it just depends on the workload of the assistant.
I think in the bigger-budget feature-world there can be more time. You’re getting so many dailies so maybe on a certain day you’re asking the assistant, Please help me with this scene while I work on this other scene. That could happen in television too, but for me — in television — it’s such a fast pace that I need them to be doing sound effects on a scene that I’ve already put together while I work on the next scene so that when I get that scene back from them I can polish it more with sound effects and put music to it, so it’s like an assembly line in television, so unfortunately they don’t get as much time unless you add time.
CARDINALE: Yeah I feel like that’s something that I need to do better and I need to make more of an effort with. I’m doing things like this interview — talking to you. And I did another podcast where I feel like it’s a way that I could mentor and share some knowledge and there usually isn’t time to talk about anything when you’re on the job. There’s just not enough time in the day. I don’t want to be there 15 hours. I want to be there 10 hours and that’s already cutting it pretty close.
CHEUNG: They want to get that opportunity during their shift but there’s so much asked of them during their shift. There’s no extra time to learn that part of the craft, except by cutting the recap, which is asked of them quite often.
And actually, with my assistant on Mr. Robot, he was able to edit some deleted scenes to get some experience really with the showrunner because I had a baby — second baby — so I wasn’t there and the other editor had moved on to another show.
We’re not sticking around just for deleted scenes to be cut but the assistants are, to wrap the show. So he was able to get some experience from that, but I think it would be more fair if there was some time. Because how are they ever going to move up? And how would anybody know how talented they are if they’re not ever given a chance?
HULLFISH: I did not know that cutting the show recaps was a typical assistant editor assignment?
CARDINALE: Yep. That’s how most of us started cutting and that’s also where most of us made a showrunner aware of our editing ability because that’s pretty much the only thing — at least to me, as an assistant — I would have solid ownership of. And editor pretty much never grabs a recap and tweaks it. I think on Outlander I did a couple times.
CHEUNG: I did on Outlander.
CARDINALE: Especially as we got further down the years, there’s just so much backstory and we know everything about the plots and relationships.
I did find that cutting recaps was a nice way to get noticed and that’s the only way an assistant gets promoted, is if a showrunner notices them. An editor can’t really promote them, usually.
HULLFISH: That process of addressing notes is one of the most important parts. Just cutting the scene together is okay but it’s really the PROCESS that’s more important probably.
CARDINALE: Yeah. Taking it all the way to the finish line. Some editors are great at that like with Mike Ruscio, almost every assistant who works for him gets promoted. He’s really good at fostering that and making sure that they own a scene and that a director knows. Skip MacDonald, too.
I haven’t worked with him but friends of mine have — like on Breaking Bad. That’s why their assistants are always promoted, because Skip or Kelley Dixon would give assistants ownership of scenes and then say, “Director. Go over there. Work with my assistant. They cut your scene.”
CHEUNG: Michael O’Halloran did that for me. He did that for me back on Battlestar. I was editing quite a bit on Battlestar. Ron’s directing debut was one of our episodes — 404 of Battlestar. Mikey would have me edit and he would have me sit in the editing chair and he’d sit back where I was sitting and tell Ron, “She did the scene. She should do the notes” — which was really a cool experience, especially with Ron. I really appreciated that.
HULLFISH: Ladies, thank you so much for your time and valuable insight.
CHEUNG: You’re welcome, Steve. Good talking with you again.
CARDINALE: Thanks for having us on.
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.