Style, Emotion & Vamping on The Vampire Diaries
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Nancy Forner, ACE : Style, Emotion & Vamping on The Vampire Diaries
I never intended to be an editor. I went to school at Penn State University to become a writer and took a film class by mistake. I thought I'd signed up for one of those classes with 1,000 kids in an auditorium, and I'd watch a film, write an essay, and get an A. The computer made a mistake, however, and I was signed up for a hands-on production class that included only five other students. And it was too late to change it. I had to stay in the class. But then I made a movie and it won in a film festival, and I thought, Wow, this is fun.
I taught myself how to edit by watching British TV. I watched the mystery shows on PBS, Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Morse -- fabulous, high quality shows. The reason I watched those was because the British have a great ability with dialogue. I watched those shows over and over again, studying how they cut overlapping dialogue, how they handled pacing, who they featured when someone was talking. I taught myself how to cut dialogue that way, because TV, with its 42-minute episodes, is mostly dialogue.The Vampire Diaries has a classic TV set-up of three editors and three assistant editors. I joined the show around Thanksgiving and have done two episodes so far, "Bringing Out the Dead" and "1912." Currently, I am cutting my third episode, "Heart of Darkness."
How I got on the show is a funny, classic "industry" story. I worked eight years on Law & Order: SVU. Neal Baer, who was the Executive Producer and show runner, decided to leave SVU and create his own show and asked if I would go along with him. I said I would. Many people asked why I would leave a hit for a new show, since most new shows do get canceled. The reason I left was because I like Neal Baer very much, and also, if you stay on any show too long, you get typecast. I loved SVU, but eight years is a long time. And creatively, I was ready for a new challenge.
A PARTICULAR STYLE
Every show or movie has its own set of challenges, style, and requires a certain skill set that is particular to that show or movie.
It's incredibly difficult to go from a procedural show like Law & Order and then go to a medical show like A Gifted Man and then to The Vampire Diaries, which is scary drama. Each show requires different types of editing, because they have different types of stories to tell, but a good editor can do anything. It was another reason not to stay in the same job on SVU: I wanted to be able to use other skill sets to prove to myself that I could do it.
But I did have to prepare. For A Gifted Man, I watched old episodes of ER. Because I started TVD mid-season, it was like being dropped on a conveyor belt that was already running incredibly fast. There was no time for a learning curve. I immediately got the two seasons of The Vampire Diaries on DVD and watched every episode. I took notes and tried to study the editing style, music style and so on, the best I could. Also, because TVD is not a stand-alone show but a serial, I had to research all the back stories and the mythology.
What I gleaned from watching the DVDs, among other things, was the style of the music and the cutting patterns, which are incredibly stylistic. Law & Order: SVU, to take an example of a more classic TV show, is cut very straightforward and formal: you start with a wide shot, go to a medium and then over-the-shoulder. Rarely does the editing stand out. SVU is only about the story, not about the visuals.
Although that type of editing sounds simple, the trick in a show like SVU is keeping the drama and story alive, keeping the audience interested and informed, without the use of visual "candy." It's all based on the words. The tension of the trial or the interrogation is based on the dialogue and how the dialogue is paced with the editing.
In contrast, The Vampire Diaries is very high tension and highly stylistic, which means that anything goes. It's a lot of fun to cut because of that. I can start on a close-up, go to a wide shot, then a jump cut. This show is cut in a more modern style than anything else on TV. I'm not saying that because of me, but because of all the editors who came before me who created the style for the show.
The stylistic uniqueness is in part due to the young adult and teen demographic who form the majority of the viewers. MTV was revolutionary for its fast cutting, but this is the post MTV generation, which grew up with music videos and fast editing. These kids watch TV, do homework, talk on the phone and IM at the same time. They can take in a lot more visuals than older people can. They get bored if it's not a tight pace.
I haven't read any studies, but having kids myself, I can tell you that they're used to taking in a lot more information, and they listen to tons of music, so they love that high energy. And we have to match that in The Vampire Diaries. That doesn't mean everything is very fast, however. If we have a beautiful love story or a tearful moment, we will play it long and slow. It's cut to express the story.
In addition to the editing being very fast-paced, we use a lot of different angles in The Vampire Diaries. In a classic TV show, one scene might have three, four or maximum five different angles. In every scene of TVD, there are 10 to 20 different angles in every single scene. Let's say one person is talking. I might go from a side angle to a high angle to an extreme close-up, all within the same sentence, as opposed to just staying on one character, in one angle saying his line for the whole sentence. In one sentence, I can have 3 different cuts and 3 different angles.
If I were cutting a scene with two people talking, I'd never just cut to one person in a chair and then to the other person in a chair. I'd make three or four or five cuts. And that's five times the work.
Also, I have to make it look like there's a reason why I'm cutting there. It has to look legitimate, not arbitrary. The cut has to be motivated. If there is an important line I want to emphasize, I might jump in real tight on that line.
Stylistically, the difference between a more classic TV show and The Vampire Diaries is the difference between a Rembrandt painting which is formal and realistic and a Picasso in his Cubism days where it's all frenetic. That Picasso image looks like a woman but there are so many different angles. It's more fractured, less formal.
40 HOURS DOWN TO 42 MINUTES
The Vampire Diaries is shot with two to three ARRI Alexa cameras, whereas a classic, formally created drama will use one camera. On a show like SVU, we would get 20 hours of dailies to create a 42-minute show. On TVD, we get 40 hours of dailies to create that same 42-minute show -- a lot more footage, meaning a lot more choices. I don't sit and watch the 40 hours before I begin, though.
I just jump in, but by the time I cut a scene, I've pretty much watched everything.
The way I've set up my Avid Media Composer 5.5, I can watch two cameras at the same time. I've trained myself to be able to take in all that information at once and know what's going on in each take. But cutting a 42-minute episode from 40 hours is a lot of work. We work long hours and a lot of weekends.
Because the subject matter is dark and it's about vampires, a lot of the footage is visually dark. I had the same thing on Buffy, and scrutinizing all that dark footage does get tiring to the eyes.
But it's exciting too; I get all those hours staring at Paul Wesley, who plays Stefan, and Ian Somerhalder, who plays his brother Damon. They're more than eye candy; they're adorable, and good actors. They're very fun to watch.
I've worked with big actors with big names where they didn't give you the material you needed, but these guys always do. They're very dedicated and serious and give us the performances we need and the choices we need. Of course, the women in the show are also great; I just especially like looking at the guys.
The Vampire Diaries episodes also have an unusual structure, with six acts, whereas most traditional TV shows are on a tease then four-act structure. In TVD, the emotional crux of each episode comes in the 4th act. The 5th act is the resolution and the 6th, which is the shortest, sets up the story for next week.
Another thing that makes this show unusual is that most TV shows are standalones, not serial. Almost any other TV show can be shown in any order; it's not a progressive story. The Vampire Diaries is based on a set of books written by L.J. Smith, and each episode is a progressive chapter in that book. This is similar to the old time television shows or, more recently, premium cable shows like Boardwalk Empire.
As editor of an episode of The Vampire Diaries, I also do some of the visual effects. One effect I do in the Avid is "vamping," which is what we call it when the vampires move at a very fast speed. On the set, they film the actor walking. I put a high-speed effect on it and then a blur effect on top of that. The fangs are prosthetics, by the way. But all the other effects, such as when the vampire's eyes get veins in them and go red, it done by Entity FX, a visual effects house.
Stefan Salvatore in Vampire Diaries undergoing a change created by Entity FX. Photo courtesy Entity FX.
Probably my biggest job outside of cutting is picking the music. The music and the audio in general are very important on The Vampire Diaries. Each episode is 90% wall-to-wall music, which is a huge job to score.
This is how it works. A pop song that a group sings is called a "needle drop," from the old days of vinyl records where they would play music by dropping the needle on the record. We have two to three needle drops per episode. I don't have the time to go find the music on my own, but we have a wonderful music supervisor, Chris Mollere. He knows music and is versed in the legalities of the music industry. I'll call him up and email him a Quicktime of the scene and ask him to send me music choices. He sends me 20 different songs. I'll pick one and then I have to cut the song to fit the scene and the scene to fit the song.
How I do that is that I look at all the footage, pick the pieces I think I want, in the right order and with the right tempo in my head. I cut it dry, with no music. I'm just cutting picture and sound. Then I find a great piece of music and lay it in to the scene, and the song then gives me more inspiration for better timing and emotion; I cut the picture tighter or looser then to fit the music. So it's a process.
Aside from the needle drops, for the rest of the episode, we have the back score for two-and-a-half seasons. We go through those, find what we think is best to the scene and use that to temp track the scenes. I look for music that will fit that specific tone, mood and pace for each scene. After I temp track it, which includes the drumbeats, all the sound effects, all the magical things that my assistant Peter and I have added, we send it to the producer.
After the producer approves it, the sound effects editor and the composer Michael Subhy listen to it and then Michael will compose something entirely new that fits each scene but has the same tone and emotion of the piece that I had picked. He takes his time to hit musically every little moment. It's a big, big job and he's very good at it. I love his closures at the end of every act as the act goes to black. And all his music is quite dramatic and unique.
SOMETHING EPIC GOING ON
Probably the most challenging aspect of the show for me is that every single scene is highly tense or dramatic. There are no walk-and-talks, when people are doing 'shoe leather' or exposition. Every scene has something epic going on, which can vary from a very slow and emotional love scene or two people fighting and killing each other, to an argument or witches casting a spell. You know...vampires, werewolves and witches with teenage angst...something intense is always going on, and all of that intensity takes a lot of work to edit and get it right.
The most satisfying aspect of editing The Vampire Diaries is that I love cutting stylistically like this. It's very creative. I'm never bored, and the producers love it when we push the envelope, they love it when we try new things. They want us to be creative and not do what we did last time. They want something new, something beautiful. Something that is awesome. The photography on TVD is also incredible. I can't believe how visually gorgeous this show is. The episode "1912" has the look of a movie. Because of the nature of the story in "1912," I had the opportunity to do some really cool and unusual sound design for some of the flashbacks.
Each of the three editors on the show brings their own style. However there is definitely a certain parameter that we work in, which is to make it epic, awesome edgy and beautiful. That's an interesting combo. Within the desolation of these stories, there is beauty. Editing is my art form. Each episode I do is a piece of art. The editor is one of the top creative elements on the show.
In essence, the editor is the third interpretation of the script. The writer writes it, the director shoots it and we have to interpret it. To be an editor, you have to understand story intellectually.
As it turns out, when I jumped from a writing major to a film major, it wasn't that much of a stretch. I often give guest lectures in colleges and what I tell the students is to read, study art, listen to music, watch movies and TV -- but most of all, understand story, because when it boils down to the essence, we are mere storytellers.
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