Fox’s Empire had a very successful first season, receiving three Emmy nominations, including “Lead Actress in a Drama Series” for Taraji P. Henson’s portrayal of Cookie Lyon. The powerful family drama centers around Lucious Lyon, the head of a music empire (played by Terrence Howard), whose three sons and ex-wife (recently released from prison) all battle for his throne.
“I knew it would be good, but I had no idea that people would respond to it as they did,” says editor Joe Leonard. Leonard, who worked on Glee for four seasons, cut Empire’s pilot, as well as several Season 1 episodes. Here, he reports on the challenges of cutting the show’s dramatic and musical scenes, his Avid workflow, and the plans for Season 2.
You worked on Glee. How did you get involved with Empire?
“I was in the right place at the right time, but I also had been doing post for several years in the indie film world, mostly cutting on Final Cut — a 'million dollar and under' features. I did [Glee] for four seasons. I was an assistant editor on the pilot, but they kicked me up to editor on the first season. I found myself cutting on the third episode of Glee, and I did every third episode.
“I met with Lee Daniels at Imagine, and he and I hit it off from the first meeting. I was a big fan of his work and the script for Empire. I was kind of in love with its potential. I did the pilot with him and it was a terrific experience.”
Both Glee and Empire are very music heavy?
"For Glee, I cut like 100 numbers, and that was a true musical. It was high school and the kids were musical, and you can almost get away with a teenager bursting into song...You can’t do that with Empire, and we don’t. Music is a part of the world that we’re in and the music hopefully comes out organically in the story, but it does hit emotional beats that the scenes don’t hit. There’s something amazing about the power of music to tell an emotional story.”
What is the workflow?
“We are on Avid, and I believe the show is shot on Alexa, but they might be changing that. We have a dailies service called Magno that does transcoding through DNx. I think it’s 124 or 136. We’re on Media Composer (Mac), and the version is V.6.5 right now, although I think we might be on V.7 this season. We have a Unity, and I think we are pushing to get an ISIS. We have central storage and we have three editors and three assistant editors. It’s almost the exact same [as Glee]…The reason that they set it up that way is that at the end of the month, you’ve shot and cut three or four shows. They shoot it too quickly and the show’s too dense for it to be done any other way.”
Where are you working?
“We are working in Beverly Hills. It’s a building owned by Fox. And it’s the same floor as the LA production office for Empire, so the show runners and writers are in the same office as post production, which can be bad because sometimes the music is loud. I must drive them crazy listening to the same thing over and over and over again.”
What is an episode length?
“It’s 43 minutes and 20 seconds.”
Empire is a scripted show, but is there room for creativity?
“The music numbers offer a tremendous amount of range where you can find a way to express creative possibilities. They do shoot with multiple cameras, and we multi-clip everything and group everything so that everything is in sync. You can look at 50 or 60 or 100 options from all the different takes. There is something about music that is inherently not scripted. You have to find a way to, in a song, tell a story. We really don’t think of music numbers as ‘music numbers.’ We think of them as a different way of telling the story.”
Can you point to specific scenes?
“There are two examples from this season that were not scripted moments, but it was something myself and the directors I was working with figured out that we needed to do something extra, and take song and open up a bigger story. The first one is in pilot, in the scene where Jamal is singing ‘Good Enough.’ It flashes back to him, coming down the stairs, dressed in his mom’s clothes, and his dad throws him in the trash can. That was a scene that was teased earlier, at the end of the second act. We established the party and Cookie and Lucious in a flashback, and it played out as a straight scene with no music. But in looking at the scenes for ‘Good Enough,’ and also the scene where Jamal was thrown in the trash can, it seemed like an amazing opportunity to try to put that into the song. In mashing those two things together, the song is working better and the trash can is working better. We figured that out in editorial — Lee Daniels and I in the room talked about it and worked through it. He gave me a night to work on it and then we’d lock it in.”
You mention a second scene?
“There’s another one, in the eighth episode, where Jamal comes out to his dad, and he’s singing a song. He goes into flashback in the middle of a song... We are zooming in to Lucious and his disapproval, and to his brothers and their approval, and to Cookie and her approval. And then we go into a flashback again, with the trash-can moment, which is so central to the whole thing. When we come out of the trash can, he’s come out of the closet and he is free. And that was also created in post. I had to take the stems of the song… and use the percussion stem, and reverb it out, and push it into a more abstract space. I think there’s a lot of creative opportunity as editor in pacing and performance and tone.”
How soon after they shoot are you editing?
“The process is that they shoot for nine or ten days. As they are shooting, I am about a day behind them, because I get the dailies the next day. And I have three days after they wrap to get the editor's cut assembly together. Often it is more of an assembly because you are doing it so quickly. At that point the director comes in for four days. I spend four days with him and after the director’s cut, we share it with the producers and the show runner. And the show runner comes in for a week, and then there’s a about a week of studio notes and network notes.”
What type of feedback are you getting?
“There’s a good amount, but it’s all really interesting. The directors that I got to work with — John Singleton, Mario Van Peebles Danny Strong and Lee Daniels — when you get their notes, it’s really fun and interesting. Inevitably, they are thinking of things in a slightly different and creative way. And the show runner, Ilene Chaiken, is the head writer, so when she comes in, she is looking at it from the mindset of the storylines working or not working. Each thing adds a layer of sophistication that is often there but needs refinement.”
Are you working with finished music?
“The performances that they are singing on-screen are finished when they shoot the scene, but the score is always a bit of a work in progress. We are always temping in scores from previous episodes. A lot of the time I will use a percussion stem from a Timbaland song as the score, and that works really well. When Cookie enters the room, there is a hip-hop beat happening, and that’s a stem. Out of desperation, we found it works really well for Cookie.”
Do you do any of the finishing?
“It’s going to a finishing artist. They do a really good job of coloring the dailies before we even get them — the guys at Magno that do the transcoding of the dailies. They set a LUT in-camera, so we get a pretty good approximation of what the DP liked. The color correction process is really the DP and colorist working together on the first pass, and then the show runner and producer signing off on it.”
How many episodes are there?
"Season 1 only had 12 episodes. It was a mid-season replacement that started in January. Season 2 will have 18 — a front nine and a back nine after Christmas. I will be done next April.”
Is your workflow evolving?
“There are two things that I have changed in the last five years: I set up my Avid at the back of the room and put a couch in front of it. I work behind them with two monitors on either side and I put a big screen at the end of the room, so it’s a like a color suite. I think it’s a more comfortable set up for the directors and the producers. It also gives me a sense of how they are seeing it and they don’t have to look over my shoulder.
“I use a Euphonix Artist (Series) mix board, so I do a lot of live mixing, setting levels and doing mixing in the room. It’s a 5.1 show, but I don’t mix in 5.1. The mixers spread it out.
“I use a standing desk and I have a giant white board where I write up all the scenes and notes. I’d say I am on my feet for 75 percent of the day. It feels healthier. It is not for everyone, but it does feel more active, especially when you are cutting music.”