It sometimes seems, particularaly to we film students at UCT, that there is little hope out there once we’ve finished with our humble BA degrees. On more than one occasion now I’ve been warned by tutors and lecturers that the path I’ve chosen is not for the feint-hearted. “Stop! Turn back now before it’s too late!” they caution, and my favourite “Are you on crack yet? If not you soon will be.”
So it was incredibly refreshing when, after having had a little twittersation with the Emmy Award-winning editor of ABC’s Modern Family, the amazing lady, Ryan Case, invited me to ask her any questions I had for her about the editing of the show.
This came about because I had been given an assignment in my ‘Introduction to TV Editing’ seminar that required a stylistic analysis, with a focus on editing, on an episode of a TV series. I chose Modern Family as I knew I’d have a lot to say about its interesting mockumentary format. I never in a million years, however, expected to receive the following incredibly detailed personal response from the best possible source on the subject on planet Earth:
R.C.: Hi there! No problem! I’m glad you’re interested enough in what I’m up to to write about it
ME: I’m focusing my assignment on an analysis of the opening scene of the pilot episode, so anything that comes to mind that you can tell me about regarding the edit of that particular opening scene in the Dunphy kitchen would prove most useful. Was it on this scene that you first developed your editing style for the remainder of the show? How did you come up with the style?
R.C.: It’s very interesting that you ask about the first scene of the pilot. As an editor, I always concentrate a great amount on the first scene of any episode, but it’s especially crucial in a pilot. Not only is it a viewer’s very first impression of a show, it’s also extremely useful in the audience testing process which helps a pilot get picked up to series. Pilots are very tricky because it’s the first time viewers are meeting all the characters. You can’t breeze past these introductions or rush anything. You have to simultaneously strive for clarity and a pace that lets these introductions soak in properly, while keeping it light and comedic. If someone is confused right at the start of something, they can’t relax and laugh.
Pilots are very tricky because it’s the first time viewers are meeting all the characters.
The kitchen scene is one of my favorites. It’s a wonderful everyday slice of life that tells you so much so economically about the Dunphy family dynamics. As far as style goes, the director, Jason Winer and I are heavily influenced by Woody Allen comedies such as Husbands and Wives and Albert Brooks films, especially Real Life – that seem to effortlessly utilize the handheld faux documentary style. The wonderful thing about Modern Family’s use of this style is it’s meant to be a style only, not an actual portrayal of a documentary crew’s footage. The style adds a realistic feeling to the show and the interviews are an amazing way to include exposition and extra humor throughout. I strive to cut as little as possible because the handheld style allows the camera to pan around and find the humor while giving the viewer instant geography within a scene. If this were shot in a traditional single camera style, I’d be forced to use a combination of close-ups, mediums, and wides to establish that early on. Here it feels more effortless and organic, which I love.
I strive to cut as little as possible because the handheld style allows the camera to pan around and find the humor
Back to the kitchen scene – if you look at it shot by shot it’s designed to give the viewer all the vital information in as little shots as possible. The first shot is a great long lens close up of a frustrated Claire calling out for her kids, but in the background we can see Phil playing video games on his phone. We added lots of sound effects to make this more noticeable. This motivates Phil in the following wider piece to inadvertently close the fridge door in Claire’s way. Then, in one of my favorite moments, we cut to a close-up of a pissed off Claire that pans to Phil realizing in horror what he’s done. It immediately establishes a dichotomy and funny dynamic between them. Then when Haley enters in her short skirt, we have a great long lens shot stacking Claire and Phil as they quickly demonstrate their opposing parenting styles. Alex is constantly entering and wiping frame throughout the pilot with her clever quips, emphasizing her quick wit and obliviousness to it all.
Then Julie did our first ever camera take of the series after the “baby oil” moment, something that can be hilarious but we seek to limit to a few choice moments per episode. It has to feel warranted. Then the scene has a lovely bookend as the carefree Phil exits the kitchen and Claire is back in that hallway shot, running into the fridge door again.
ME: The mockumentary genre of the show seems to hover between reality TV, with those sit-down interviews, and the family sitcom. Can you elaborate a bit about your role in helping create the documentary feel of the show?
R.C.: This show was a perfect fit for me because I love to cut as little as possible and give scenes a really natural feel. A lot of the signature style elements were discovered in the process of cutting this pilot. Like the car scenes – we had a simple lipstick cam of the car but also had additional angles in case we needed close-ups/to cut time. We found in the process that playing the car scenes in one choice take (and maybe just replacing audio in certain lines for better performances) was key and we continue to strive for that throughout the series. We also found a way to cut invisibly during pans that I still use to this day – because we wanted to use a one shot take of the scene of Cam and Mitch in the nursery scene but a different ending in their foyer. We cut when Cam wiped frame. I’m always figuring out fun ways to utilize the style but the template was set through cutting this pilot.
ME: The absence of a laugh track means that the viewer is freer to find the humour on their own (something I love about the show personally). When I’m watching, I feel like it’s almost as if the cuts themselves are the laugh track, or an omnipresent ‘judge’ of the family’s daily life. Would you agree with my sentiment? Can you provide any insight into how you make editing decisions to maximise the humour of the show?
R.C.: Good question. Laugh tracks to me are insanely distracting. Every viewer latches onto and laughs at something different. My goal is to pace the show in such a way that it allows every joke to land with the viewer, not speed past it. Reaction shots are also very important. With this show especially, it was about getting to really know the characters and their rhythms and embracing that to make a harmonious whole.
The last scene is an entire act and is a great example of what Modern Family writers do best. These big whole family scenes are my favourite to cut. I play them at a pace that is quick and embraces the chaotic nature of it all until the big set piece joke comes along, in this case Cam’s Lion King moment, then I really indulge in the moment I know it was all leading up to. I drew out the Lion King moment by using a couple of great reactions, cutting to a side angle for some extra time, and really trying to get the maximum comedy impact here. Because everything was paced up until here, the moment feels earned. Then, when the whole family goes to greet baby Lily, I made sure to take the time to linger on shots that exhibited Jay feeling isolated from the family, to motivate his emotional turn, while still playing jokes like Phil talking about Lily pronouncing her own name in the foreground. Part of the fun of the show is mixing humor and emotion somewhere in every episode.
My goal is to pace the show in such a way that it allows every joke to land with the viewer, not speed past it.
I find that when I’m editing anything I like to watch what I’m cutting as a whole over and over again – it’s all about rhythm and that has to always be the goal – finding all your favorite shots and performances initially then really tweaking over and over to make it all flow.
Let me know if you have any other questions. Hope this helps! Thanks for giving me an excuse to rewatch the pilot – such a fun trip down memory lane.
And just like that… my assignment was done.