EDIT THIS!: CHRIS NELSON ON CUTTING 'LOST' & 'MAD MEN'
BURBANK — Christopher Nelson, ACE, has what many would consider a dream job. During the summer he's editing AMC's Emmy Award-winning Mad Men, and in the winter he turns his attention to the phenomenon known at ABC's Lost — he is currently cutting the last season of the show.
In January, the multiple Emmy-nominated-Nelson is taking some time off to keynote Future Media Concepts' Fourth Annual Editors Retreat in Miami Beach. This four-day event features sessions and networking opportunities for top-level editors working in TV, video and film. (For more info on the event, visit: www.editorsretreat.com).
Below, Nelson answers questions about the editing process on two hit shows that he considers polar opposites.
POST: In terms of mind set, how do you go about editing each show when they are so different?
NELSON: “It's funny, when I come off a season of Lost and go back to Mad Men, or Mad Men back to Lost — it takes me a little while to recalibrate my needle, to re-adjust myself to the different feeling and pace of the show I'm returning to. People that don't follow Lost think it's this super-action/fantasy, but the entire show, in spite of the action, is driven by human emotion. Mad Men has the same human component; they are just executed in a different way.”
POST: With Lost, the audience is always looking for hidden meaning in everything. Does that affect they way you edit?
NELSON: “Yes, that's one of the things that makes Lost fun. The way we construct the show is to enhance mystery, not necessarily to clarify things. You reveal as little as possible for as long as possible, so you don't even know where you are in a room or why you are there or who is there, then you drop back a little and see a little more. So you are sort of feeding the audience pieces of information during the whole construct of the scene… a silent look from one character to another placed at the right time could provided mystery that may or may not go anywhere.”
POST: Do you know much of the story in advance?
NELSON: “They really don't enlighten us to what's down the road. They will obliquely answer questions as we are starting to sniff out the story, but they don't tell us a lot. So if I am able to make this connection between people and I really like how it feels, I ask, 'Is this for real or is it a red herring, or do you want it at all?' And they'll tell me. Usually red herrings are not frowned on at all. Generally speaking, trying to keep the mystery going is full of possibilities for the audience.”
POST: Maybe it’s best that they keep you in the dark, so you don’t subliminally give anything away.
NELSON: “If I know the full arc of a character it might shade the way I approach that character a little differently upfront instead of at face value. They want the audience to take everything at whatever face value we present. Some things will lead us to something. Some will be misleading. Some will only be the first crumb of information that will slowly come out later. And that aspect is really fun.”
POST: What are some other differences between the two shows from your perspective?
NELSON: “The pace on Lost is faster than Mad Men, but we certainly take our time with human moments too and really milk them for all they are worth. The show is handheld a lot, so it's less steady than Mad Men. Mad Men is more stationary, so the camera doesn't move a lot — it's about the composition of the static frame a little more than the composition of how everything is moving, so it has a whole different fit and feel to it.
“On Mad Men, we have found that if Don [Draper, the main character] is in an emotional state, sometimes his pace might be a little off what you want it to be. Normally, you would cut to somebody else and come back to pull that air out. We do jump cuts on their faces and there is a tool called Fluid Morph in Avid that can track the arc of that movement through eight or 10 frames. And it's amazing how many times it's completely invisible. It allows me to takes out a second, or two, and maintain his performance without the having to cut away.
“In the last show that I did this past season, which was when Betty confronts Don with the box about his past at the kitchen table, I used several jump cut, Fluid Morphs and split screens to maintain the simple integrity of the scene without having to cut too much.”
POST: What about your use of split screens?
NELSON: “We started doing a lot those. If Don is sitting on the left side of the frame and if I can find jumps on him that will work and slightly increase the pace, but they won't necessarily work on Betty's side if she's moving. So, with this scene in the kitchen, I split the screen and ran her continuous on one side and then on Don's side I was able to pull those pauses out so he has a little better flow and we could stay there longer without feeling like we wanted to cut.
“In almost every episode of Mad Men I do, there are probably 30 to 40 split screens. And it started with the simple thing that Matt [show creator Matthew Wiener] likes, which is to see people finish talking. Normally in film, you see the back of the other person's head start to move as they begin to react before they speak. So you have two choices: cut around to the other person and get rid of the movement on the outgoing side or to pre-lap that part and come in and then cut to the on-camera performance later. Because Matt likes to see them finish talking, it started almost out of the desperation of, 'Wait a second, what if I just put a split screen in there and keep the guy's head steady?' It doesn't always work perfectly, but sometimes it's invisible and it's easy to line up.”
POST: What show is more challenging to work on?
NELSON: “They both have their own individual challenges, but I think in many ways I find Mad Men more challenging. Because of its nature it feels more fragile. There is less, generally speaking, of an intense situation. The rhythms are more fragile. We go back through the shows trying to find the perfect rhythm that works… a little bit slower, a little bit faster, but not too fast. It's not as easy to find as in other shows. Plus you are trying to present it in a rather elegant, not too cutty kind of format, yet you are pretty much saddled with all the kinds of problems you would encounter in any other show. So it provides different kinds of challenges.”
POST: What is your biggest challenge on Lost?
NELSON: “The show is so varied. With Mad Men you have the same people in similar kinds of character dynamics in mostly the same locations. But with Lost, because of the flashbacks, some of the episodes are like doing a one-off TV movie or feature. They are unlike anything that's gone before. You have car chases, fist fights, mythical stuff, smoke monsters. From episode to episode you can see all these other kinds of things, which keeps it interesting.
“The challenges are that there is often something new. I'll give you an example: I have been doing this a long time and I started on the show in the third season. My first show had 15 pages written in Korean. There are arguments and they overlap each other. I think it's pretty bold of the show that they are willing to take these characters and let them talk in whatever their native language is and subtitle them. It actually seems to enhance the shows rather than being a detriment.”