Designing Conan
CreativeCOW presents Designing Conan -- Adobe After Effects Feature

In March of 2010, it was announced that Conan O'Brien would be embarking on a three month national stand-up comedy tour. I was lucky enough to be assigned Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog's segment. I worked on the pieces at home, communicating with Robert Smigel (the man behind Triumph), and head writer Mike Sweeney through email. The experience was the first time I can remember editing for anyone without ever really talking to them. It was also the only time I was able to hear the live reactions of six thousand people to something I edited.

One of the advantages of working with these guys from the tour was talking directly with them about the news that TBS would be picking up Conan's new show. I've always wanted to be able to contribute more, and with this new show, I saw an opportunity. My father taught me a long time ago to carve out your own niche on a new job. I came up with a plan.


A frame from one of the opening sequences for "Conan." Moo, baby!
A frame from one of the opening sequences for "Conan." Moo, baby!


Eric McGilloway in Post
Eric McGilloway in Post.


"OPENING" A DOOR (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?)

I always loved the opening titles and the artwork to Conan's television programs. I recruited "The Tonight Show" lead editor Dan Dome and "Tonight Show" motion graphics expert Eric McGilloway, and we each came up with a few ideas about how to design the open of the new TBS show "CONAN." My wife was extremely supportive of this idea, as it kept me busy. I was a pain to be around at the time because I had been working at home, and she was leaving for work every day while six months pregnant.

After working for a few months, Dan, Eric, and I asked for a pitch meeting. For many nights, we rehearsed our pitch, we made notes, we practiced standing in front of each other, and we talked about how to "psychologically" handle the room. We were beyond ready. We walked into that pitch meeting, though, and completely sucked.

We were so nervous we could barely get our words out. Our saving grace was that there was one pitch that Conan really liked-- an idea that I came up with that paid tribute to the style of Saul Bass. Conan was all for us contributing, and we spent the next few weeks fleshing out the open. The idea was to take organic-looking textures made of construction paper, soak them in soda, and light them in Photoshop. We would use them as colorful elements in back of the title, and a black icon which describes the guest.


We also designed the show's logo. It completely evolved from the logo of the tour and was redrawn to match the "wooden" look of the rest of the symbols in the open. I also redesigned the logo for Conan's production company, "Conaco," to bring it in line with the rest of the branding. Eric McGilloway did the animation for it.


Conan Logo


Conan O'Brien came back to TV on TBS on November 8, 2010, and it felt like we never left.


YES, HE SAID "DUTIES"

I firmly believe that you have to be a special breed of editor to work on a show like this. In order to help writers execute their pieces, you have to understand just about every cutting style imaginable.

The daily schedule for the show is also not for the weak of heart. It varies greatly from day to day, because there can be as few as three, or as many as twelve videotaped pieces with varied lengths and complexities.

My personal goals for each morning are to construct the show's opening sequence according to that night's guests and their particular occupations. I also create bumpers -- the sequences that bring us back from commercial -- for that evening's show using continuous shot photos taken by our talented show photographer Meghan Sinclair.

If there is a remote piece I need to work on for that day, I may come in as early as 8 AM to get a good start on it. Remotes are the pre-taped pieces where Conan will go on location to interview people. These usually take the most time to complete, as they take a fair amount of care and thought to execute to their highest potential.

Otherwise, I begin work on my assigned pieces by 11 AM. All of the day's tape pieces are due by 1 PM, which is the start of rehearsal, so I really have to be on the ball in order to bring all my assigned projects to completion on time.


MEET YOUR EDITORS

There are three editors on the show and we each bring something unique to the table.

Dan Dome, our lead editor, heads a team of two other editors, an assistant editor, an engineer, a clip research department, and the graphics department through their workflows and interfacing interactions on the SAN throughout the day. Dan and consulting engineer Dave Crivelli designed our workflow, SAN, and edit rooms.

Dave Grecu has outstanding audio editing and database expertise. He is extremely well-suited for the pieces that need a lot of time to flesh out because he's great at story composition. He has an outstanding temperament, and I would be scared to death at playing poker with him, because my daughter's nonexistent college account would be ripped to shreds.

That leaves me. I pride myself in speed, editing and design, always wanting to leave the writers happy, and an extreme obsession with perfection, which is what you need to succeed in a daily television show. I also have an awesome beard.




Another frame from the show's opening sequence. Just as with each night's guests, announcer/sidekick Andy Richter's title card includes a descriptive black icon.
Another frame from the show's opening sequence. Just as with each night's guests, announcer/sidekick Andy Richter's title card includes a descriptive black icon.


THE REHEARSAL

Starting at 1PM, the show begins its rehearsal. I am able to view this in my edit room through the router. If the projects I am working on that day are taking a while to complete, I may end up having to multitask by editing while listening to what Conan and the show's producers have to say about what is currently being shown. I try to take these notes in, as incorporating them while I work can help save time for delivery by the end of the day.

Rehearsal usually ends at 3PM. At this point, the writers return with notes they have gotten from the show's producers, Conan, or head writer Mike Sweeney. We have about a hour to get the notes done, color correct, audio mix, quality control, and send the QuickTime files to the Grass Valley K2 server for playout. There actually have been times that I will be finishing a piece as the show begins its taping, but we generally try to be finished by 4PM.


THE SHOW

At this point in the day, I get my system restarted and ready for the show. I clean up any media that will not be needed for the show that night. This is also the point in the day where I imagine myself in a hot tub drinking a beer. It's hard in here for an editor.

The show begins filming at 4:30 PM. As the show begins taping, Dave and I locally record the line cut through our Kona 3 cards. This protective measure is so that, in case something bad should happen to our SAN, we would at least have something to air.

We watch the show being filmed and try to keep our heads up about any immediate problems that may arise, such as a curse word that should need bleeping. Once Act One is done filming, Dan goes to work. [Ed. note: see Dan Dome's editor's perspective.]


BACK ON TRACK

After the show is delivered, we start work on the next day's materials if they are available. Mostly, we just try to mentally recover from the thrashing of anxiety that we just experienced.

And by recover, of course I mean I am rolled up in a ball in the corner and someone has to tell me I'm a special big guy.

I got to end 2010 how I began it: being a really lucky guy who is just happy that he gets paid to make really fun stuff with ridiculously talented people. I am proud of the work that we have done so far, and very proud of the way I have been able to take on more responsibility. I am thankful that we get to have fun on television again. I drive my wife a lot less crazy.


 


 

Rob Ashe, Creative COW Magazine

Rob Ashe
Los Angeles, California USA


When Rob isn't spending his time riding limos and doing press junkets as the world's 46th most famous editor (right behind the editor who cut those Crazy Eddie commercials), he likes to write essays on the post production industry, most recently at blogs.creativecow.net. He thinks that titles are prettier than skies, and really loves long and multi-colored timelines. He thinks his daughter is way cuter than yours.