Post Production

Art of the Cut with Fabienne Bouville, ACE

artofthecutFabienne Bouville,  ACE, will be among a select group of editors featured in Manhattan Edit Workshop’s Sight, Sound and Story event on June 13th featuring the likes of Michael Barenbaum, ACE, William Goldenberg (Oscar Winner), and Sydney Wolinsky, ACE.  Bouville’s been working consistently in scripted TV with stints as an editor on “Nip/Tuck,” “Glee,” “American Horror Story” and “Masters of Sex.”


HULLFISH: I know that although “Glee” is considered a “single camera” show, it was usually shot with multiple cameras. Any differences in editing a show like “Glee” and “American Horror Story?”

FABIENNE BOUVILLE: Calling things multicam and single cam is a bit of a misnomer. Everything I work on is shot with at least two cameras. Typically maybe 60% of what I get is shot on three cameras, maybe 20% is two cameras and 20% is one camera. My assistant groups them. 

I try to keep my assistant as creatively involved as possible.  We gave up ScriptSynching for example, because it takes a lot of time.  I’d rather have them work on the sound design, which on “American Horror Story” is very intensive work.  Also, I like to offer my assistant at least one scene to cut per episode if possible, for their own development.  I prefer to have them do creative work where possible instead of grunt work like ScriptSynching.


This is the full Avid timeline for an episode of American Horror Story from the latest season. Click here to see it in full resolution.


HULLFISH: Talk to me about the deadlines you’re working on in TV.

FABIENNE BOUVILLE:  The schedules in TV are uniformly set-up in a one-size-fits-all scheme, which is frustrating because each project involves a different set of creative challenges, which translates to a very different amount of time required.  In addition to the editing I do during the shooting schedule (usually about 9 days), I get four days to complete the editor’s cut and four days working with the director to complete his or her cut.   After that, the cut goes to the producers and it takes about another week to 10 days before we lock.

In my experience, different shows require a very different amount of work in post. “American Horror Story” is more crafted because of its style; the experience of it is dependent on dynamic and creative editing.  “American Horror Story” is the gold standard for me because of how honed it is and it’s really a feat to get it done on that schedule.  In terms of resources (number of days) it’s the same as other shows but the creative requirements are more intense.


HULLFISH: Talk to me about how “American Horror Story” is creatively different from “Masters of Sex” or “Glee.”

FABIENNE BOUVILLE: Everything about “American Horror Story” is crafted and honed.  Each season is completely different and we are constantly looking for a fresh strategy for everything.  The sound design is key, and I discuss it with my assistant and then turn it over to them.  They will comb through our extensive sound library and distort the individual sound effects in every which way – it’s a real free-for-all – to get the kind of quality we are looking for.  Then I work on music, which is different from the process on other shows, too.  Music plays a much more important part in horror. It’s mixed much hotter than with something like “Masters of Sex.” There’s a big conversation with the composer that starts happening right at the script delivery. I’ll send him (the composer) a rough cut of an act or an initial assembly of scenes as soon as I can and then he sends me ideas and themes with all the stems so that I can also play with them in other ways. It’s a lot of back and forth and a really fun part of the process.  Initial scoring of an episode takes a few days, which is why I need my assistant to handle the sound design.  I only get 4 days for my editors cut and 90% of my time at that stage will be devoted to music. 

On another show – “Masters of Sex” – I don’t talk to the composer hardly at all. He’s used to working with the post producer in the spotting session for all episodes and then the show runner.   I might sit in on the spotting session and have a thought or two, but the process is a lot more streamlined.  I use the cues he’s written for other episodes and other seasons as temp score, which gives him a good indication of what we are ultimately looking for in each cue.  The overall feel of the music is very consistent, which is what the show runner wants.  She does not want to reinvent the wheel with each episode or call attention to the music, which would distract from the story beats.

In TV, generally directors don’t get very involved in the music.  Directors come in and out of TV shows during the season, while the editors are part of the entire run of the season or even the series, so we understand the tone of the show better and we are a lot more clued into the process of acquiring and shaping the music.  In one episode I cut of “American Horror Story” the director didn’t like the music I had cut in, particularly the needle drops, because they sounded too experimental.   It is his prerogative to use music he feels is right for his cut, so I changed it for him to what he liked.  But when the producers saw his cut, they felt, like me, that it didn’t sound right, that it sounded too conventional for our show.  We ended up putting all of the music I had originally picked back in.

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HULLFISH:  You talked about getting stems from the composer.  What are these audio stems? How are they broken out?

FABIENNE BOUVILLE: The stems I’m getting from the composer are typically for each instrument – 3 to 10 instruments. I like separate stems so that I can pick and choose which instruments I want in the mix for a particular scene and change it up for a different scene, according to the feel I am looking for.  It’s a helpful way to work in themes so that I don’t just repeat the same piece of music but modulate it for different scenes.


HULLFISH: Explain how you use stems to modulate the music.

FABINNE BOUVILLE: Typically, each main character or story line will have a theme. Sometimes that theme is dangerous and sometimes it feels really tense, or it can be lyrical.  What I do is that I modulate the music by pulling stems out or altering the stems, or changing the mix… I play with the music – and do a lot of audio mixdowns – making it sparse in one scene and more dramatic in another scene, while using the same theme.  Instead of going to a completely different piece of music you can make the original theme feel different. You can change the tempo of it. You can change the mood by changing the instruments in the mix.  Sometimes, you can even create a whole new theme by mixing stems intended for different cues. 


HULLFISH: Are you a musician? Many editors I know are musicians.

FABIENNE BOUVILLE: When I was growing up I played piano. I don’t consider myself a professional musician by any means, but I do have a musical background.  However, I don’t have much formal music theory training.  I do my music work by ear.  I’ll try something and if it sounds right to me, I’ll use it.  At some point, I’ll send everything that I do back to the composer to make sure I’m not doing anything he would flat out object to.  I don’t want him to feel like his music is being mis-used, that something sounds terrible to him.  Sometimes, he’ll give me notes, which I always try and address.  It’s a collaborative process and it’s really fun.


HULLFISH: Can you give me an example of a scene where you edited the stems to get what you wanted during the edit?

FABIENNE BOUVILLE: It happens all the time.  But I remember there was one story-line last season that involved a crazy ventriloquist. Neil Patrick Harris played this part where he really loses it.  He has a doll he thinks is real and he has long discussions with the doll and he’s having a total breakdown and ends up killing the doll – or so he thinks.  So with the composer we had the idea that his theme should be like a machine that’s breaking down. He sent me a cue in stems and I ran the theme intact during a relatively normal interaction in the scene, but then I broke up the stems and cut them in a fairly random and completely non-musical way so that they sounded like a machine breaking down.  I repeated the process while emphasizing different instruments from the stems for different scenes.  When I was done, I sent the show back to the composer for his impressions and he was completely game for it.

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HULLFISH: What’s your approach to the material when you first see the dailies?

FABIENNE BOUVILLE: I tend to cut the dailies very fast to keep up with production – though I’m inevitably at least one day behind.  For each scene I watch everything and then I’ll come up with a creative strategy for the scene.  Then I assemble it very fast and put it aside to move on to the next set of dailies.  When all is done, I string the cut scenes together and that’s when I reevaluate whether my approach for a scene is working and I’ll finesse the picture cut.


HULLFISH: What edit system are you using?

FABIENNE BOUVILLE:  In my experience the industry standard for television editing is Avid.  On “American Horror Story” we worked on Final Cut 7, but when FCP-X came out the post team freaked out and we switched to Avid, along with the rest of the industry.  Ryan Murphy was also the showrunner for “Glee” which was also FCP, until the switch to Avid.

I still miss Final Cut Pro in some ways.  It felt more streamlined to me, and faster to navigate.  I really miss unlimited soundtracks and how it handled sound.  And I’m very frustrated with the trim tool in Avid.  How you have to go fishing for an edit on every track before you can even begin to trim anything.  I’ll be clicking away on every track and then, the ultimate insult, the whole thing comes undone because I clicked a millimeter off course.  Ugh!


HULLFISH: Most Avid editors would say that trimming is one of Avid’s strengths.

FABIENNE BOUVILLE:  Not in my mind.  To be fair, part of my frustration is that on “American Horror Story” we’re cutting on MC 5.5, which is very old (the current release is version 8).  Keeping sync is fussy and then we also don’t have nearly enough audio tracks. FCP has 99 tracks. In Avid 5.5, there are only 16 voices.  I just find it very frustrating to constantly have to mix down audio in order to fit into those constraints, and then the more tracks I have the more cumbersome it is to use the trim tool, which is my bread and butter.

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HULLFISH: It’s unfortunate that you’re on such an old version of Avid. Give me a little more detail about the production schedules for the shows and how they’re different.

FABIENNE BOUVILLE:  On the shows I’ve done, “Glee” was around nine days of shooting, sometimes ten. “American Horror Story” is usually around twelve days. “Masters of Sex” is about nine days.

Every day I get the dailies from the day before. On “American Horror Story” I get them two days later because it shoots in New Orleans and it takes an extra day for us to get them. Each day I get dailies, I cut all of them.  That’s where I’m editing kind of fast.  Sometimes I don’t even watch what I did because I don’t have the time at this stage and I know I’ll get to finesse it later.  If I’m lucky, the production schedule will involve shooting multiple episodes at the same time, which gives me some down days where I get extra time to assemble what I have and start finessing. 

After shooting, I get four days for my editor’s cut.  That’s when I turn the assembly into something watchable, with sound design and music. I’m working furiously and typically don’t have time to watch the full show until the end of the four days.


HULLFISH: Correct me if I’m wrong, but TV series are alternating editors each episode to be able to keep up with production.

FABIENNE BOUVILLE: Typically on TV dramas there are three editors per series, so we alternate. The same person that cuts episode one is back to edit episode four.


HULLFISH: Let’s discuss the way that editing these different genres – comedy, horror and straight drama – are different.

FABIENNE BOUVILLE: It is very different to edit those three genres. With all of them you want the number one objective to be conveying the emotional state of your characters and also to be able to follow the plot, which is the backbone of the story. That’s the same for all genres, but the objective of the story is different.  With horror, it’s all about building tension, in every scene you’re building tension until it explodes.  In comedy, you’re looking for the funny.   You still need to be grounded in the emotional experience of the characters and make sure each step of the plot is clear, but your approach is ultimately all in service to the funny.  In drama, there isn’t that extra layer of manipulation.  Beyond the plot being clear, conveying the emotional state of the characters is really all that matters. 

So in the cutting room, the conversations are very different.  In horror you want to always keep your approach fresh, you always have to be inventing a new way so that you can surprise an audience.  If you are approaching the material the same way twice, you will never be able to keep anyone on the edge of their seat, unsettled.  They will know what’s coming and there will be no tension. Creatively it’s very demanding because you always have to be inventing a new approach. 

In drama, all of the craft is in service to the emotional state of the characters and the editing is fully in support of the writing and the performance.  It does not call attention to itself because that would distract from the emotional experience of the character, whereas with horror you are willfully shaping the edit so that it doesn’t feel right. Of course, there is crossover and you might end up using a lot of the same techniques, but the approach on the material is definitely different.  With comedy, the use of atypical editing techniques like jump cuts or very loud music or jumping the line, for example, falls somewhere in between. With “Glee” I got to use some of these techniques because sometimes the audience needs to be caught off guard for comic effect.

The musical numbers on “Glee” are cut like a music video. You have the music track and all of your different tracks that are sunk to it and you cut it with a visual sensibility.

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HULLFISH: How do you think your editing would change on a feature film schedule. On the feature I just cut, we had two editors and an assistant working for almost half a year.

FABIENNE BOUVILLE: If I had more time, well, for sure life would be more pleasant! The quality of what we’re doing is very high, but if we had more time, it would be a different experience. We’d be more relaxed. What would probably happen is that more people would have time to get more deeply involved in the edit – I’m thinking of the director and the producers.  With the fast TV schedule, I’m left alone a lot of the time so that I can get it done!

I just worked on a pilot and although we were on the same schedule as a typical episode, the work with the director and the producers was a lot more intense.  The stakes are very high on a pilot and so they wanted to go over every single cut, tweaking the number of frames for each one.  I thought this is probably what it’s like on a feature schedule.  Everyone involved wants to flesh out all of their ideas to the fullest extent, so you go over each cut again and again and make compromises with everyone.  I didn’t feel as creatively key to the process.  I laid the groundwork but then everything was so examined that at some point it felt like the process slipped away from me a bit. 


HULLFISH: Do you ever get into a scene and realize that the coverage or the performance isn’t there? What do you do? What can you do?

FABIENNE BOUVILLE:  During the shoot, I’m in touch with the director.  Sometimes he or she will ask me whether in a specific scene I have enough because they felt they couldn’t get everything they wanted, maybe because they didn’t have enough time.  Generally, I always have an eye out for things that might be missing.  Performance is not typically an issue because on a TV show the actors really know their characters and they know what to do.  

But sometimes it happens that I don’t have sufficient coverage to match the style of the show.  On “Masters” this came up once and so I walked over to the Sony lot and said to the director that I felt like there wasn’t enough coverage for a specific portion of a scene. He asked to see a cut so I showed what I had to him and he decided to pick up the scene for the extra coverage.

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HULLFISH: You talked about the fact that “American Horror Story” is very experimental. Can you give me an example of that experimentalism in the edit suite?

FABIENNE BOUVILLE: There was a technique that we used in season 1 of “American Horror Story” when Vivienne has a mental breakdown. She’s being drugged in the scene and the director said, “What if we played the take and then used a different take of the same setup over it, but with a delay?” She was in bed and she was drugged, so you’d see her ask “Who are you?” and then we’d use the video and audio from a different take and ghost it visually and aurally.  It was very effective and became a bit of a theme for that episode. I used it a couple more times subsequently during that season.


If you’re in the NYC area and you’d like to meet Fabienne and the other esteemed editors that will be part of the panels and instruction, Manhattan Edit Workshop has provided a special promo code to sign up.

You can check out the event at this link, Sight, Sound & Story. And you can register here and enter promo code “hullfish” for 20% off the ticket price. (The promo code name was not my idea.)

FCC Disclaimer: I earn no money or receive any compensation for mentioning the Sight, Sound and Story event or promo code. For anyone reading this from the FCC, please pay close attention to the local news stations and their selling of their airtime during what is supposed to be news for product promotion and stories placed and funded by interested parties and PR companies. The typical TV news audience is WAY stupider and less aware than the intelligent people who are readers of stories here on provideocoalition.

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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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