Post Production

An interview with “This is America” editor Ernie Gilbert

The music video has recently won the Grand Prix prize at Cannes in Entertainment for Music

Recently, the music video for Childish Gambino’s This is America won one of two Grand Prix prizes in the Entertainment for Music category at Cannes. Jury president Paulette Long described the video as a cultural phenomenon, saying that “Every so often a video comes out and it points a finger and makes us admit that we need to do something different. When I first saw it, I was shocked, I was stunned and I thought it was brilliant.”

As the video was done in Premiere, Adobe gave me the opportunity to have a talk with the editor of This is America, Ernie Gilbert, who has also worked with Donald Glover and Director Hiro Mauri on the show Atlanta.

From Ernie’s site, he has edited music videos for the likes of John Legend, Trippie Red, 2 Chainz, ScHoolboy Q, Linkin Park, Portugal the Man, Shawn Mendes, OneRepublic, Death Cab For Cutie and many others. Combined these videos have over 1 Billion views on Youtube.

In television, Ernie has assistant edited on Emmy, Golden Globe and Peabody award-winning shows like Baskets (FX), Atlanta (FX, and Barry (HBO). Recently he’s had the pleasure of cutting the Amazon pilot for the reboot of the BAFTA award-winning show People Just Do Nothing. His edit for the Drew Michael HBO Comedy special was described as “…the Most Polarizing Comedy Special of the Year” by the New York Times. He’s currently editing an unannounced HBO project. 

In commercials, Ernie has worked with some of the largest ad agencies in the world and brands like Jordan, DirectTV, Banana Republic, Reebok, American Eagle, and Fox Sports. His work has premiered during the Daytona 500 and been seen in Times Square.

In 2019, Ernie will be making his narrative directorial debut in the form of two short films titled Nine Minutes (Constance Wu, Reggie Watts) and Easy 8 (Byron Bowers, David Rysdahl).

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KENNY: YOU’RE A PRETTY MULTI-FACETED GUY, AND THESE DAYS YOU KIND OF HAVE TO BE A LITTLE BIT OF EVERYTHING, BUT DO YOU MAINLY SEE YOURSELF AS AN EDITOR OR DIRECTOR?

ERNIE: That’s a really good question. I’ve straddled that line now for like a decade [laughs]. Like, straight out of college I made my money directing and editing music videos being based out of North Carolina where my rent was $300 a month. It was out of necessity, I couldn’t afford an editor on a $5,000 music video if I wanted to be able to live, so I cut everything myself and really grew to appreciate how much happens in the edit and how much is made in the edit, and I think I’ve kind of been straddling that line since. I’ve directed a couple of shorts, I have one coming out early next month that stars Constance Wu from Crazy Rich Asians called Nine Minutes… but I love editing. It’s how I’ve paid most of my bills since moving to LA back in 2012.

It’s probably the least sexy of the two but there’s so many opportunities. The biggest secret to editing is it just takes time: the time to get perspective on a cut, the time to dig through all your options and try things and make mistakes… so what ends up happening is everybody wants to go shoot the latest music video, or everybody wants to direct and be in charge creatively, and that kind of leaves a void in a lot of different circles where if you know how to edit and get on ten people’s list as somebody they like to work with you’re never going to not have work. The fun side effect for me, as somebody who wants to direct and tell my own stories, is that I get to sit in the room with the showrunner, or with the creator, or with the director, and be a part of that conversation and be a part of those creative choices. If I was like, a Camera PA I would work on a show like Atlanta for 40 days, I would never interact with anyone creatively outside of maybe my department head, and then I have to find another job. Whereas being an editor, or an AE, I’m on a show like Atlanta for six months and I’m in all those conversations, I’m watching all the rough cuts and watching all the dailies… I find that to be creatively fulfilling.

SO YOU GOT YOUR START IN NORTH CAROLINA SHOOTING TOUR VIDEOS FOR BANDS, WHAT DID THAT LOOK LIKE?

Yeah I was at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. We had a TV show called Music Seen, and it was just live concerts; bands would come through town and we would shoot four or five MiniDV cameras, edit it together, maybe do an interview with the band, and then air it on our Student TV Station (YouTube wasn’t a thing yet). This is was when I was in college, ‘05 to ‘09, so this was a time where not every band had access to gear. Like, there was no good camera phones (like the iPhone now shoots better quality than what I could have shot back then) but because of that, video was still kind of special, ya know, it wasn’t as accessible. I found very quickly that bands wanted that content, and it was just kind of the next gradual step like “okay we filmed this live band, what else can we do with that?”

I actually did two National Tours, one with a band called Sullivan on tooth & Nail Records, and I ended up making a feature-length documentary about them and in the process of making that they broke up, which made for a good documentary, where we got to see their struggle living on like $5 per diem and sleeping in Walmart parking lots… I got deathly ill that tour with like the flu or something, but it was amazing!

I got to tour with another band called Bay Side, they were on Victory Records at the time, basically running camera during the day while they were doing stuff, filming their concert in the evenings, and then going back to the tour bus loading up a couple of Firewire 800 drives on a little table and trying to cut together content that they could share from the road. Ultimately those things got pressed onto DVDs and special edition CDs back when people are still buying that stuff.

SPINNING DRIVES MUST HAVE SUCKED ON THE ROAD, BUT THAT SOUNDS AWESOME WHAT WAS YOUR WORKFLOW LIKE?

I was with them, shooting and editing, dumping P2 cards as the bus bounced out down the road hoping that my hard drives wouldn’t crash…

YOU WERE THE ONLY ONE?

Yeah it was out of necessity, like, I think for that Bay Side doc I got paid $500, and at the time it was the “most money I’d ever heard of!” but in hindsight they got a really good deal [laughs].

AND YOU WERE ON PREMIERE THEN?

Actually at that point it was still Final Cut 7, which is what I learned in high school. I made the switch to Premiere I think around CS6, back in 2012. I saw the writing on the wall: Final Cut X came out, didn’t have what we wanted, and basically found that with Premiere I could set my keyboard shortcuts to “Final Cut” and I was basically cutting within a day. From there I signed up for Creative Cloud when that came out and I’ve been using that as my main NLE since.

VAGUELY ON TOPIC, WITH YOUTUBE BEING THE MAIN SOURCE OF VIDEO NOWDAYS I SEEM TO NOTICE A TREND WHERE SO-AND-SO DOES SOMETHING FANCY, OR A NEW PRODUCT COMES OUT, AND EVERYONE TAKES THAT AS THE THING TO DO OR BEAT. THERE APPEARS TO BE A LOT OF… I DON’T WANT TO SAY PLAGIARISM BUT JUST A LOT OF THE SAME THING; PEOPLE JUMPING ON TO TRENDS AND THAT’S THE GOAL INSTEAD OF MAKING NEW STUFF. DO YOU HAVE ANY OPINIONS THERE? DO YOU THINK THERE’S A SIGNAL-TO-NOISE RATIO PROBLEM OR IS MORE BETTER?

Personally I’m a big fan of the democratization of filmmaking. I think it’s really cool that like, if you have Creative Cloud you have the same tools that Emmy award-winning TV shows or feature films have, you know? You have that tool set that you can fit in your living room in North Carolina and you can learn those skills. I think that’s really cool that you don’t have to like, buy a $30,000 AVID or whatever they used to cost.

As far as things being duplicated or ripped off I mean I think that’s just kind of the creative struggle amplified, right? We want to be able to reference things, we want to be inspired by things as creators. I know in “music video land” something that’s changed since I started is treatments have gotten very photo-centric. There’s a couple famous Spike Jonze treatments where he just wrote three paragraphs on a typewriter and sent it off to The Pharcyde or whoever, but now a treatment is 14 pages of reference images and all these things… these days people want to be able to know what they’re getting before they get it, but I think that can be kind of restricting because… what if I have an idea for something that hasn’t been made yet and now I have to present reference images of it? That just means I’m presenting reference images to things that have already been made and now all the sudden this thing has shifted into something similar that’s already been made.

I also think too like, culturally and creatively we like seeing something cool and want to do it ourselves and now that the tools are accessible to everybody… I feel like when the DSLR Revolution happened everybody was like “okay I’ve got to shoot everything wide open”, the gimbals came out and everybody’s like “now everything’s steady”, the drones came out and everybody’s got drone shots in everything… we like seeing stuff and then being able to do it ourselves. I think getting all those tools in new hands is really cool for the industry in the long term because it means that you can have a kid winning Sundance at 20 or whatever. You can have new voices that otherwise may not have been able to tell the story they wanted to tell because they don’t have access. I think it just goes to show that you kind of have to up your game a little bit you know? You can’t just coast by on good production value. You’ve got to have something to say, you need to have a perspective or a unique vision. You can’t just go “okay it looks good, now it’s out there”

WE’LL GET TO THIS IS AMERICA IN A SECOND, BUT IN TERMS OF EDITING I SAW YOU ALSO DID JUICE BY LIZZO WHICH INVOLVED A LOT MORE MODERN EFFECTS-TYPE STUFF AND OBVIOUSLY ISN’T DONE IN A COUPLE TAKES. WHAT WAS THAT PROCESS LIKE, WERE YOU DOING ALL OF THAT YOURSELF OR DID YOU PASS IT OFF TO SOMEONE?

Both. I like to do as much as I can in the offline edit and temp those sort of things out. I find that the best workflow practice for me is “let’s get it as close to final as we can in the offline” because with a music video, your client at the end of the day is the artist and you’re technically working for the label, the management companies going to weigh in with their opinions, but at the end of the day if the artist doesn’t like it, you’re done. So with me, anytime there’s a creative intent from one of my directors that we’re trying to sell through to an artist, I want that as close to what the creative intent is going to be as possible because otherwise you’re fighting battles that you don’t need to be fighting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been working on a video it’s like “that’s not done yet, just tell the artist it’s going to look cooler when it’s done” and you can say that in an email but until it looks cool it doesn’t look cool. There’s been issues with effects-heavy videos that I’ve done where we get notes back like “the energy is not right”. And it’s like, the energy’s not right because you’re looking at an artist on a green screen not the effect that we’re going to apply, so I try to do as much as I can in the offline.

For the Juice video, our director Quinn had a graphic designer friend who was mocking up kind of what the “QVC” logo would be, the late night logos… so I’m dropping those things in and I’m using different plugins and effects to try to add the channel change glitches and the VHS look again just to sell it through as much as we can.

USING, WHAT, PROBABLY THE RED GIANT PLUGINS?

For that one yeah, we used a lot of the Red Giant stuff.


SO GETTING IN TO THE MEAT OF THE MATTER, HOW’D YOU GET LINKED UP WITH HIRO MAURI? WHAT DOES THE ROADMAP TO THIS IS AMERICA LOOK LIKE?

I started working with Hiro back in 2015 when we did the Atlanta pilot. I had just done 40 episodes of Comedy Bang Bang for IFC and Absolutely Productions and the Post Producer, Kaitlin Waldron, had just done Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories at Absolutely… she was talking to an editor of mine that I went to school with named Eric Notarnicola who wrote and edited on Who is America for Sacha Baron Cohen and Nathan for You (he’s an amazing Director/Editor himself) and Kaitlin was just asking for a recommendation for an Assistant Editor position for the pilot so I got the call.

At that point it was 2015, I moved to LA in 2012, I’d been listening to Childish Gambino since kind of that first EP, and I had been following Hiro basically since I moved to LA through his music video work, so when Kaitlin called and was like “Hey we got this pilot it’ll run for six weeks with Hiro Mauri and Donald Glover” I knew I had to do it and left Comedy Bang Bang early. I had a guarantee of probably eight or nine months of work there, so I gave that up and took the six weeks on the Atlanta pilot and that’s when I first met Hiro.

At that point Hiro had done 20-someodd music videos. Everybody from Spoon to Earl Sweatshirt… he introduced me to a lot of his Director buddies. He’s repped at Doomsday Entertainment for music videos, so I worked on a bunch of different music videos with some of his friends. I had already been cutting for other people, but that was kind of a good break and then a year prior to This is America, Hiro had a video for A Tribe Called Quest that he had me cut for him that was all motion control and very effects-heavy.

I don’t claim to be a VFX artist but I know enough to be dangerous, and I know enough about it to pre-visualize how things are going to work. So with that video, because it was all motion control repeating the members of A Tribe Called Quest and different versions of Busta Rhymes interacting with each other, we basically did like the rough cut in Premiere pulling selects and then immediately went into After Effects to make garbage mattes and track mattes, basically trying to sell through to the label and the artist what it was going to look like in the end.

So we were wrapping up Season Two of Atlanta and Hiro came in to the office one day and said “hey you guys wanna hear the new Childish Gambino song?” and of course we all jumped at the opportunity. A couple weeks after that I was working on some stuff for Rae Sremmurd for a director named Mike Piscitelli at Pulse Films, and I hit up Hiro and was like “Hey Hiro, you said you were doing a video for that song you played for us, who’s cutting it?” and he was like “We don’t have anybody yet, do you want to do it?” and I was like “of course!”

He sent over the treatment and as soon as I read the treatment I knew it was going to be amazing. From there it was off to the races. They did a day of rehearsal where they shot on Alexa, just as a safety, and then they shot the main day on 35mm (it was like Monday or something), we got the scans back basically on Wednesday, I had a cut together on Thursday, Hiro sat with me on Friday, and we sent to Donald over the weekend. Donald wanted to see half of one take switched, so we did that, picture locked that Monday, sent it off to VFX, the VFX came back in on Thursday, and then it was literally down to the wire with delivering where I had to run the drive to the color house MPC down in Culver City myself, wait for color to be finalized, and then upload it from there so that we could hit the Saturday release deadline.
NO KIDDING? SO IT WAS BASICALLY LIKE AN EXPENSIVE INDIE SHOOT! [laughs]

Aaahhhhhhhh I mean, Hiro talks about how (and this is him relaying this information to me so, take it with a grain of salt) they had like two AD’s on that shoot, like only two. I was just like “how did you… like, there’s a guy doing a 13-foot fall in the background! How do two AD’s pull off all of that!?” and he was like “we made it work!” [laughs]

SO HOW DO YOU EVEN APPROACH EDITING SOMETHING THAT IS ONLY A FEW CUTS, AND PROBABLY ONLY HAD A FEW TAKES OF DUE TO SHOOTING FILM? JUICE HAS A LOT OF ‘EDITING’ BUT THIS IS ALMOST ASSEMBLY, NO?

I have dumb analogies for everything here’s my dumb analogy for editing.

The director and the writer are like the chef, you know? They came up with the recipe, they went shopping for the premium ingredients, they brought that back into the kitchen, they’ve thrown it in the pan, they’ve baked it in the oven, they’ve assembled all those pieces.

As the editor I’m like the sous-chef. Maybe I made a little sauce on the side, but then it’s my job to plate the meal and gave it to the waiter to carry out to the table, so in the case of This is America, I was given 5 Michelin Star ingredients from a 5 Michelin Star chef and it was basically my job to put it on the plate, make sure it looked okay.

GREAT WORK-TO-RETURN RATIO ON THAT ONE THEN HUH? [laughs]

I’ve cut dozens of music videos at this point, and it is funny to me that This is America is the one that everybody loves, not because it’s not an amazing video because it is, but from an edit standpoint I just had to put in the most amazing food on a plate, you know what I mean? They did such a good job.

What I love about Hiro and Donald and working with them is that they are intentional. They don’t want to find it out in the edit. I’ve worked with directors that shoot everything at 60 frames a second so that at any moment they can go to slow motion; Hiro and Donald would never do that.  They shoot with a purpose with intentions and I think it shows.


IT MUST HAVE FELT GRATIFYING TO WIN THE GRAND PRIX AT CANNES, DID YOU JUST GET A PHONE CALL LIKE “HEY WE WON THIS?”? 

Basically.

I MEAN CONSIDERING THAT THE VIDEO WAS SO WELL RECEIVED AND MADE SUCH AN IMPACT, DOES IT JUST FEEL LIKE ‘ICING ON TOP OF SUGAR’?

I mean, I think it’s the coolest video ever and so of course I wanted to win all the awards, but I really hate talking about myself, or bragging about myself, so I’m like [rushed] “yeah, It won, cool!” ya know? It’s not an ungratefulness, I’m very grateful that I got to be involved, it is just like you said “icing on top of sugar”, you know?

What it boils down to for me is, I’m just I’m glad that the video resonated with people and made an impact. To me it shows that like, music videos can still be relevant in an age where often times the most popular ones are just a… recreation of a TV show or a movie from the 90s or something, you know? The fact that a video can have a message, can elevate a song… I mean, when that video came out my mom called me that day like “hey Ernie, that music video you said you were working on was in my Google News Alert.” and that just doesn’t happen with music videos.

I think what the Cannes win means for me is that, in our culture which is so quick to move on to the next thing 23 hours later, the fact that This is America is still resonating with people a year and a half after it came out is really cool.


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Kenny McMillan is the founder and director of OWL BOT Digital Cinema located in West LA. His work spans the Internet from Vimeo to YouTube netting dozens of views. He previously worked as an events…

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