Editing: Netflix's <I>Stranger Things</I>
Issue: May/June 2020

Editing: Netflix's Stranger Things

Netflix’s Stranger Things premiered in 2016, taking audiences to Indiana in the 1980s, where a young boy disappears amid a string of supernatural events. The show is now in its fourth season and has more than 30 Emmy nominations to its credit. Created by the Duffer Brothers (Matt and Ross), the series stars an ensemble cast that includes Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Sadie Sink and Natalia Dyer, among others.

Editor Dean Zimmerman (pictured) has worked with executive producer/director Shawn Levy on all of his movies for the past two decades and was intrigued with the opportunity to cut the series when it debuted. He edited Season 1, earning an Emmy, and returned for Season 3. Recently, while cutting Season 4, Zimmerman took some time to speak with Post about the evolution of the series and how it all comes together.

Was it your long-term relationship with Shawn Levy that led to you working on this series?

“I’ve been working with Shawn Levy for — I basically cut every single one of his movies for the past 19 years. So that’s how I got involved with Stranger Things. I was actually working on a project that he was not involved with, and he had called me and said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in doing this Netflix series that I’m going to executive produce? And I’m going to direct a couple of episodes.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know if I necessarily want to do TV.’ He was like, ‘Well, why don’t you take a read of the script?’ And I did. We set up a meeting, and I met the two Duffer brothers, and it was a bromance from there.”

You were there from the beginning and even cut the pilot. Did you realize it would still be so popular four years later?

“No, absolutely not. I mean, again, the script really hit me — the pilot. I only read the pilot script and it just was so nostalgic. I literally was reading it going, ‘Oh my God, this is my childhood!’ Obviously, minus the supernatural. It just it really kind of struck a chord…[I said], ‘You know what? I don’t have anything going on right now. I have a little downtime. Why not? It seems like it would be fun.’ And then when we got on it and the footage started coming in, the cuts started coming together. And we all kind of sat back and went, ‘This is really interesting!’

“I actually won an Emmy for the pilot. I was there from Day 1. I did not do Season 2 because I was actually doing another feature overseas, so I couldn’t do Season 2, unfortunately. But I had moved up my assistant (Nat Fuller) from Season 1 to be an editor. And I was kind of ghost mentoring him, if you will. So I wasn’t necessarily involved as far as the day-to-day cutting, but if there were any issues or problems, I would take a peek at it and get some notes. And then [they] called me back for Season 3. I was available and it wasn’t even a question. I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go. When are we going to start?’”

Has the show evolved since that first season?

“It has evolved. We’ve been using the Red cameras for Season 1, 2 and 3. Season 4, we’re switching formats a little bit. We’re moving to the (Arri) Alexa. But as far as workflows, they’ve all stayed the same. The only difference is it’s just exponentially bigger.”

What resolution are you working at, knowing that you’ll be delivering in 4K for Netflix?

“We deliver 4K, but, just because of the amount of storage that we need, we’re still working in the DNx36 world. What we found is DNx115 is a little taxing on the systems, especially when you’re basically carrying nine full features. And that’s how we really look at it. So it does tax the system a bit and [the ability] to move as quickly as we want to. DNx36 has been around forever. It’s tried and true. It’s super stable, super fast, and it’s fine. And if the Duffer Brothers really need to see something, we just jump into our DI suite and look at it there.”

Where are you typically working? 

“Where we’re at a post facility in Hollywood. Of course, we can’t disclose the location, but it’s in Hollywood.”

You hinted that you’re cutting on an Avid?

“We are. I like to think of myself as a little more tech savvy than the average Joe out there. I have been working with Avid for a very long time. I’m actually beta testing. I would normally alpha test, but on a series like Stranger Things, I try not to do that just because there are too many issues that happen. But I love to beta test stuff. For Season 3 I definitely was beta testing the newer version of the Avid…We have a pretty elaborate setup with our NEXIS servers. I think we have 128 terabytes of storage.” 

Who is providing you with dailies?

“Technicolor is our post facility. All the media usually pushes through them and then comes to us, unless it’s a unique situation, where we are on a distant location and they will use a local facility that will push us media, and then Technicolor will get it and vet it. And if there’s any issues or problems, they’ll fix it. But everything’s been fine so far…We get it through Aspera.”

What are the demands for your delivery? Are you delivering one episode at a time to meet an ultimate deadline, or are you delivering them all at the same time? 

“The way we set it up — and this was really kind of in the inception period of Netflix’s post workflow — Kevin Ross, who was the other editor of Season 1 and Season 2 as well — Kevin, has been doing TV for a very long time, where as I’ve done features for a very long time. Basically, what we’ve done is we’ve taken both workflows from TV and features, and combined them. So we basically cut all of the episodes and get them done, and get visual effects started as soon as possible. And we do all our finishing work at the end, so all of the mixing, all the color correction, and all the scoring, all the music — all that happens at the end. It allows us the most time to have the creative freedom to go in and tweak the episodes to make them as good as possible. And that’s now become the paradigm and model that Netflix uses on all their shows.” 

How many episodes are in the pipeline at one time?

“They block shoot, so they shoot two episodes at a time. So we’ll get (Episodes) 1 and 2, 3 and 4, 5 and 6, 7 and 8. And then if there’s a ninth, like there is in Season 4, we will just tack that on to the end. Usually we split dailies. Nat Fuller is the other editor of Season 4. So we will split dailies and we’ll keep working. But as it gets deeper and as they start shooting more and more episodes, you’re not just working on one episode, you’re working on all of them. Usually [there are] other directors shooting. Shawn Levy shoots Episodes 3 and 4. And now we have a new director on 5 and 6. And then the Duffers will do 1 and 2, and then 7 through 9. So while those other directors are shooting, we’re still cutting, but also working with the Duffers, who will be in and be doing their showrunner cuts on the prior episodes.”

When do the visual effects come in?  

“Well, especially now, [as] we’re getting deeper into the season, the visual effects are so massive. Every episode is almost like a feature when it comes to visual effects. And so to ramp up visual effects in that kind of capacity, you can’t do it too early because then the cost is just insane. So we turn over key shots for research & development. They start to get certain looks and create the different monsters…For Season 3 we turned over the Russian sequence right when the boys got back from shooting. That was Episode 1. To develop the laser and what that does to the wall…that all happens so early in the process. So in an answer to your question, it all gets delivered at the end, but it kind of, depending on when you turn the sequence over, it comes in drips and drabs. And [there are] many different vendors on the show for all the different things. I don’t think one house could handle the amount of visual effects they have, seeing as every season we are always tripling the visual effects count.”

Once the final edit is done, does it go to another facility for an online assembly? 

“Exactly! That’s what happens. We submit an EDL that Technicolor will put together, and then our colorist will start his grading process. The assembly process is actually pretty easy now. Technicolor has their process, where it almost auto conforms. And then we get an offline QuickTime of that conform and double check it with our cut. It’s a pretty seamless and very painless process.”

Being a script-based show, is there room for you to have creative input from an editorial standpoint? 

“There is. Some of the actors will kind riff here and there, but it’s pretty dead on. I mean, the Duffers write such tight and really focused scripts that there’s not too much variance. But I will say the performances are what the Duffers allow Matt and I one-hundred percent creative freedom to try anything we want. And that really yields such an amazing work environment.

“I brought so much comedy to Season 1 for scenes that were written as very dramatic scenes, and they kind of played it different. I always talk about this one dinner-table scene at the Wheelers’. They’re all sitting around the dinner table. They’re having this very intense discussion: Hopper just laid down a curfew, and they want to go out and find their friends. And Nancy wants to go see Steve Harrington, as it becomes obvious there’s a love interest in Season 1. And I played it all through the eyes of their little baby sister, who’s sitting in a chair, eating pancakes. I basically played the entire scene through her eyes, and it made for a comedy…instead of this very kind of dramatic-written scene. And when they showed the Duffers, that cut has not changed a frame from when I showed it to them to when it aired. And they have really started to write more comedy into their scripts, which is so wonderful. And that was just a part of me exploring and trying a new perspective on something.”

How tough are the deadlines and delivering eight or nine episodes?

“Rand Geiger, who’s the producer of the series, has scheduled it down to absolute perfection, where we don’t feel that kind of pressure. There may be a little pressure on mixing here and there, and maybe a little pressure on the music guy. It’s such a well-oiled machine that everyone knows where we’re going to have our shortcomings. Then we account for that. It’s not stressful…And everyone is very respectful of the process. It’s why [I] came back to TV — because this experience has become such a joy and pleasure to work on. It makes you want to go to work every single day, and not sit in quarantine, like we are now.”