<I>Insecure</I>: Nena Erb reflects on editing choices
Issue: May/June 2022

Insecure: Nena Erb reflects on editing choices

Asian American film and television editor Nena Erb, ACE, has worked on productions for HBO, Universal, CBS and Apple, to name a few. She earned her first Emmy in 2016 for her contributions to HBO’s documentary series Project Greenlight, and in 2020 was honored again — this time for cutting the HBO comedy-drama series Insecure

Erb (pictured) has received three ACE Eddie nominations, two for Insecure, and the other for the CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.  She is currently editing Downtown Owl for Sony, and an upcoming comedy feature from director Adele Lim. Here, she looks back at her work on Insecure and her approach to its final season.

By Nena Erb

How many choices do we make in a day? Some sources claim we make around 35,000 a day. Initially, that seemed like a high number to me, but I guess the decision making starts the minute we wake up, so it’s probably not far off. How many times should I hit the snooze button today? What should I order for lunch? If you’re a freelance editor, you know how agonizing it is to choose between projects. Which one should you choose? What if you pick the wrong one? This is why the episode ‘Choices, Okay’ in the final season of Insecure, resonated so deeply with me. 

In this episode, Issa is at a crossroads in her personal life and her professional life. There are two fantasy sequences in this episode where we see the outcome of Issa’s decision. While we’re used to seeing shorter fantasies that are comedic throughout the entire series, these are different because these fantasies are longer. They’re there to show the future and are not there purely for comedic effect. It was important to embrace the stylistic difference and still have it look and feel like it’s an episode of Insecure. 

We had toyed with making the fantasies black & white, which would’ve been a different twist since decisions are never just black or white — at least for me anyway. Ultimately, we went with the color version of the fantasy sequences because the wardrobe, chosen by costume designer, Shiona Turini, looked incredible and it had a much richer feel in color. Editorially, it was the right decision because our audience has been waiting for Issa to make a decision for five seasons. It was important to make it shine as much as possible. 

It was important for these fantasies to move from one glimpse of the future into the next without it turning into a montage of quick cuts. In the first fantasy, I used a combination of verbal cues, camera movements and Issa crossing in and out of frame to help us flow from one vignette to the next. The second fantasy was more about using match cuts, like cutting from the Inglewood insignia on a street sign to the Inglewood insignia on the podium at city hall. Going from Issa holding the key to the city to the same key mounted on Issa’s wall. I also composited a shot of the airplane flying overhead into the background of the empty storefront so we can use the visual of the airplane, as well as a sound of it flying overhead, to connect the transition from an empty store front to Crenshawn’s new location. These were all deliberate choices so all the pieces of the fantasy would feel connected and allow the viewer to go along for the ride with Issa.

One of my favorite things are the transitions in this episode. I love showing different shots of South LA, whether it’s flying over the oil fields of Inglewood, driving shots to Issa’s apartment or showing all the incredible paintings and photography at the Art Walk that Issa planned. But the most memorable scene in this episode was the final ‘Mirror Issa’ scene. 

Mirror Issa scenes are usually shot in a way that allows us to composite Mirror Issa into the mirror, and combining Real Issa and Mirror Issa into the same shot with a split screen. Normally, you can cut to a single of Real Issa or a single of Mirror Issa, change performances and have complete control of the pacing of the scene. This is important so we can create the comedic or dramatic moments. 

Kevin Bray directed this episode and his concept was to shoot this last Mirror Issa scene so it’s a oner of both Mirror Issa and Real Issa without ever cutting away to coverage. The challenge is, Issa is playing two different characters. Each character is shot by themselves so you can’t really play back a take of Mirror Issa for Real Issa to perform to or vice versa. Because of that, it’s humanly impossible for the timing of both Issas’ performances to line up perfectly, or at all. If you just line up the different takes, the two Issas would be either talking at the same time or not responding to what the other was saying, or responding too soon. Wrong pacing can kill a scene.

To make this scene work, I had to manipulate the different takes and figure out when to cut so the edits are invisible. I needed to find the pauses that can be slowed down and also identify spots that could be sped up so it looked like there were two of them having a conversation in realtime in the same space when they’re not at all. These speed changes also need to be imperceptible to the human eye or it wouldn’t work. Using the Time Warp FX, and Ani-mattes, I was able to make this happen. This was achieved in Avid Media Composer 2018. Both the Time Warp FX and an Ani-Matte are standard with the software. 

Eyeline and depth of field were also important. I relied on VFX to reposition eyelines and different levels of blurs to create depth of field. Mirror Issa and Real Issa dailies had everything in focus. It’s perfect that they shot it that way because that allowed me to determine the depth of field in post. For me, it made sense to have Real Issa, who was pacing in the foreground, be slightly out of focus so we’d achieve that by making her a little blurry. Mirror Issa is in the background so (she) needed to stay in focus. It’s also so you can follow her eyes as she tracks her counterpart. Real Issa doesn’t get in focus until she’s sitting right next to Mirror Issa because they’re now on the same plane. Just to give it a little more depth, we blurred the shower behind Mirror Issa ever so slightly to give her space some dimension. 

If you understand how Time Warp FX works, you know the smallest adjustment would throw this entire thing off, and I was bracing myself for notes. Fortunately, no notes were ever given for that scene. After picture was locked, it was turned over to our VFX vendor. Our VFX supervisor, Eddie Williams, and the team at Crafty Apes did a phenomenal job recreating this challenging shot. They even adjusted the eyeline of Mirror Issa so it looks like she’s watching Real Issa pace back and forth. The end result looks like a seamless conversation between two Issas. Looking at that scene, you’d never know the work that went into it. I don’t know how many decisions went into creating this scene or this episode, but I can honestly say, I don’t regret a single decision.