Fall TV: HBO's <i>Westworld</i>
Issue: October 1, 2016

Fall TV: HBO's Westworld

HBO’s Westworld is that rare thing on 2016 television: a film show. Based on the eponymous 1973 feature film, the sci-fi thriller about a futuristic theme park populated by robots is shot on 3-perf 35mm at Santa Clarita’s Melody Ranch, Paramount Ranch, other locations around southern California and in Utah’s Castle Valley.

Series co-creator Jonathan Nolan (known as Jonah) directed the pilot and “was intent on shooting film,” says Stephen Semel, who edited the pilot and co-produces Westworld with Bruce Dunn. “He wanted a big cinematic look, and the look of western exteriors is different on film than on digital.”  

“The turnaround on film dailies is a little slower than what we’re used to with the digital workflow these days, but it’s only by hours,” notes editor Andrew Seklir, who also cuts the AMC series, Turn. He last worked with film on the pilot for Monk. Semel’s last film show was Lost.

FotoKem Burbank processes the Westworld film and Encore Hollywood scans the dailies and delivers Avid DNx 36 files to editorial in Burbank. Editors cut on Avid Media Composers V.7.04 with Avid ISIS shared storage.

“During the pilot, when we had the luxury of a more relaxed schedule, we made [Apple] ProRes versions of all the dailies and screened them during crew lunch on-location,” Semel recalls. “My assistant and I would drive out to the set and watch them in a trailer with Jonah and DP Paul Cameron, ASC, and the other department heads, just like we used to screen film dailies. It gave me a big jump as the editor — Jonah and I would discuss what he was looking for in performances and putting scenes together, and Paul would explain his ideas for the look of the show.”

Semel’s big challenge on the pilot was trimming his first cut from 111 minutes to 65 minutes running time while “continuing to tell an exciting, coherent story,” he says. “Jonah’s directive to the editors is to show everything that’s in the script: Don’t cut any lines. He wants to see 100 percent of what’s intended in the script.”

J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Lisa Joy and Nolan executive produce Westworld. Semel has worked with Abrams and Nolan before and likes their practice of trying “to house all the key departments in the post production process under the same roof. We have VFX supervisor and designer Jay Worth on the same floor as the editors. Music editor Chris Kaller also lives with us and is involved from the presentation of the editor’s cut to the director. All hands are on deck from the beginning. Everyone thinks comprehensively about what the final show will be, and during the editing process we try to get as close to the final product as we can.”

“Bruce [Dunn] and Steve have established a collaborative and supportive culture,” Seklir says. “We’re a tight-knit group with everyone pulling in the same direction. Not all shows are like that, but I think it’s one of the keys to a successful series.”

This collaborative workplace enables the team to “take a holistic view of the show instead of being focused on just your episode,” says Seklir — an important perspective to have when the 10-episode first season is “more like cutting a 10-hour movie than 10 episodes of TV,” according to Semel.

At several points in Season 1, the editors have been crucial in “shaping the narrative between episodes” and moving scenes between episodes if necessary, says Seklir. Otherwise, Westworld is a rather “classic” HD edit.
Shane Harris at Encore is the show’s color timer; Encore also handles picture finishing. “The look of the show is baked into the film,” says Semel. “Shane helps draw the contrast between the different aspects of the show — the western exteriors and the technological world.”

Atomic Sound performs the audio post, supervised by Tom DeGorter, MPSE. Semel worked with the company on Lost and Person of Interest, and has a “high level of comfort, familiarity and communication” with its staff.

“Working with film again is kind of nostalgic,” says Seklir. “I started in the industry on film, and it’s interesting to see it again. Even with the occasional light leak or scratch, film has a unique look and feel that digital can’t reproduce, so I’m really enjoying it!”