Video content on digital platforms differs greatly from episodic programming on traditional, ad-based platforms such as the television, and in other ways it is very similar. We sat down with Ackerman McQueen’s Charlie Ryan to learn more about what he does as a digital episodic video editor and how the medium advises the way he shapes our shows.
AM: How does working on digital video platforms differ from editing for conventional TV series? Do you have more freedom?
CHARLIE: Having less-stringent time constraints on our digital video platforms is a big advantage. In most cases, I believe the story seems to benefit from having less constraints on time. When the edit is required to meet a specific duration, as an editor you’re sometimes left removing or sometimes adding moments and subtle beats that can affect the rhythm of the story and can hinder the project from reaching its full potential. Of course, I think this obviously should be taken within reason. Just because your edit could be 2 hours long doesn’t mean it should. Having less timing boundaries doesn’t give anyone the right to abuse their audience. I don’t think the goal in mind is to have less time constraints so that we can produce longer content. The story, its utility and the audience should have a say on its duration. And that’s one of the many beauties of working on digital video platforms, is forming and sculpting content in a more exact and precise manner that better reaches the targeted audience.
AM: How do you manage the flow of an episode since it's not structured around commercial breaks? Is there a limit for how long a particular shot or sequence should last?
CHARLIE: I think how the flow is discovered is different for every series. Some are scripted out so well that, as an editor, you’re mostly following the map. Due to the nature of some episodic content though, it can sometimes be up to the editor to find that flow. Right now, I’m working on season 5 of Love at First Shot. This season is more of a reality/challenge-styled series. So, going into it we had an idea of how the segments should fit together but we really didn’t know exactly how it would feel until we had the first couple episodes roughed together. Once we establish a good flow for the different segments per episode, we then apply that paradigm to the rest of season giving the series an overall flow and style. I don’t think that not having the commercial breaks makes it more difficult to find the proper order or rhythm of segments. Although they do somewhat supply place holders on where your segments should go. I usually edit one segment at a time, glue them all together in one big timeline and then go through the episode to make sure they all flow and fit together.
AM: Are you usually editing from a script? If so, do you sometimes have to go back and forth with a writer if a particular transition doesn't work the way they envisioned it?
CHARLIE: I do usually edit with a script. And most of the time there is a lot of back and forth with the writer/director. Sometimes the story comes across one way on paper and then a different way on screen. It’s a collaborative experience that can sometimes yield a final edit that works better than the writer or I initially imagined. There are rare times when the script is exactly what comes out in the edit. But usually there’s slight tweaks here and there. Walter Murch (Academy Award editor, Apocalypse Now, Cold Mountain, Tomorrowland) once said that “editing is the final draft of the story.”
AM: Tell us about b-roll. As an editor, how do you think it is best applied?
CHARLIE: I can usually determine how interesting an edit will be by looking at the ratio of b-roll to interviews. I’ve never met an editor who said, “I need less b-roll.” When and how much b-roll is used depends on many different factors. B-roll can sometimes be like glue. It’s the need of the glue that determines when and how much it’s used. But b-roll is so much more powerful than mere glue. Yes, B-roll is good for disguising edits and that happens very often. But b-roll can also establish, explain, reveal, imply, impart, expand, affirm or evoke an emotion or meaning in a scene. B-roll is a very powerful component to crafting a story that works.
AM: Is there a typical length for how much raw footage goes into making a 15- or 30-minute episode?
CHARLIE: This is a fun question. Some projects are so large it can be difficult to estimate how much raw footage goes into making it. Just to get an idea though I brought in most of the raw footage to a Season 5 Love at First Shot episode into a timeline. This particular episode runs around 35-minutes and there’s over 7 hours of raw footage in the timeline. And that’s not including b-roll. I’ve been a part of projects in the past where there were hundreds of hours of estimated raw footage for one episode! Editing is sometimes like climbing a mountain and it’s not for the faint of heart. As you climb the mountain you can discover and see into all of its crevasses and caves. And the cool thing is, when you get to the top, the view of your progress is breathtaking. The moment you’ve topped one mountain, you’re ready for the next. Editing is a rewarding, challenging and creative career that I’m blessed to be a part of here at AM.