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Adam Epstein Talks Editing and the Zaniness of SNL Short Film Production

The Saturday Night Live film unit editor discusses crazy production schedules and his multi-city post-production workshop tour.

Saying Adam Epstein works in the post-production fast lane is akin to saying the CERN super hadron collider is built for speed, not endurance. As Saturday Night Live’s Film Unit editor the last five years, Adam has spent week after week helping churn out some of the funniest and most memorable short films, commercial parodies and fake movie trailers being done today. Each viral video gem is produced, amazingly enough, in one week. In fact, most are shot, edited, reviewed, tweaked and finalized for broadcast in less than 36 hours. Usually in just 24. Writing and pre-production are given time to spare – usually 48 hours. Typically, Adam finalizes a film for broadcast just 10 minutes before it’s scheduled to air on live TV. Sometimes, he cuts it even closer.

This summer, rather than catching up on sleep or doing laundry, the Emmy-nominated editor has embarked on a 32 U.S. city post-production workshop tour. Traveling literally from coast to coast with a few Canadian stops along the way, Adam and his Cutting Edge Tour are bringing a full day of editing and other post-production insights, techniques and inspiration to hundreds of filmmaking students and professionals around the country. I recently had a chance to talk to him about the rigors of editing, his high-profile SNL work as well as the genesis of his instructional tour.

Dan Sarto: Tell me about this educational tour. What got you interested in traversing the country doing workshops about editing and post-production? What’s the goal?

Adam Epstein: From a broad perspective, consider what it means to be an editor today. With the available tools and wide range of client expectations, what does someone actually mean when they say, “I’m looking for an editor?”  Often times it means, “I’m looking for an editor who is a sound designer…who is a compositor…who knows motion graphics…who knows how to color correct…who has a good grip on music…and who is an armchair psychiatrist.”  Whether the inquiry is fair is another story.

DS: Fairness is irrelevant [laughs]…

AE: …Is it fair? Maybe not. Is it true? Definitely. One of the things that has allowed me to have success at SNL [Saturday Night Live] with the great people I work with is wearing multiple hats at the same time.

Am I ever going to be as good a sound designer as the person who does nothing but sound design? Of course not. Am I ever going to be as good a colorist as a colorist at a place like Company 3? No.  However, it’s so beneficial now to have an understanding of every aspect of what goes into the post process. Not just how, but why. Knowing how to do something is great. Knowing when and why to use these processes is most important.

On this tour, by using projects I’ve worked on as example, breaking them down and showing many aspects of things editors are expected to do, we can see how an editor needs to make every project better. Whether a personal project, wedding video, corporate video, TV show or film.

DS: Do editors usually just pick these other creative skills up along the way? Is there any main prescribed path of learning or set of skills an editor is expected to acquire or achieve?

AE: There’s really no prescription or specific path. Often, people choose a type of project they want to work on, like documentaries, short form comedy or narrative features, then ask about the steps needed to do that type of work. I wish it was that simple. It’s a combination of working on enough variety of projects as well as working with the right people. You also have to make yourself indispensable when you get the opportunity to work on these projects. As far as acquiring a wide variety of skills, what I’ve always found is, obviously, you need to work a lot. The more you work on something, the more you understand it.

But for me, it’s also extremely important to always make a careful analysis of how you watch things. For example, regarding sound, it’s less, “If you take this workshop, it will show you how to sound design” and more about watching something that you think is sound design and using careful analysis to understand what’s involved and why does it make you feel a certain way.

For example, at SNL, we do a lot of fake movie trailers and commercial parodies. Promo-style pieces. It’s one thing to say we’re going to do a promo. But as far as a promo, you have to understand the aesthetics and the structure. What goes into it.

DS: What are some of the key skills that help you in your work? If you boil it down, is there a list of things you feel an editor should know how to do?

AE: This might not be the concrete answer you’re looking for, but at the show, most of our work is necessitated by the timeline we’re working under. When you’re working on a project over an extended period of time, where you can let something sit, analyze and work with it a bit, you’re able to think much more about your process. On the show, everything is much more instinctive. We are working so fast, our efforts are almost improvisational in a sense.

You’re coming up with ideas on the fly. If they’re working in that moment, and they get laughs, or they hit the way they should, then you move on.

In my history as an editor, I worked at a number of places where I learned a bunch of things from each position. Starting in on air promotional editorial, people look at the work as less than glamorous. But you’re learning how to take footage that might not be intrinsically exciting and craft something that even if cheesy, has a rhythm and structure and flow to it. You’re learning how to build up quotes to a sound effect, pause in a certain way to let something land, then kick in. How to pace. How to work efficiently under pressure,

I worked in big budget commercial post at a more traditional commercial house. That’s more trial by fire, film school process education. Big workflow. How to be mindful of if what you’re doing is even possible within the budget and timeframe. More importantly, you’re learning how to deal with people and egos. How to “be” in a room. Truthfully, you can get to a point where the technical aspect of the work is something you have down pat. But if you don’t know how to work with people, be empathetic and know how to anticipate, then it’s all for naught. You’ll be the best editor that no one wants to be in a room with.

DS: You’re always working with senior people, from directors to vfx supervisors to studio execs. You’re balancing the inputs from a driven group of people that don’t necessarily see eye to eye. Tell me about the dynamic working in this type of creative environment.

AE: Editors get into trouble when their expectations of how they see themselves and how others see them are at odds with each other. If an editor considers him or herself a creative mastermind there to run roughshod over other people’s work because their vision will impress everyone so much, and if other people look at them as a button pusher there to execute as directed, that’s when a lot of tension happens. Stuff just doesn’t really work well. The knowledge you display is important. That’s the first level. In an ideal situation, everyone is working towards the same goal of making the best product possible. But to that end, you have to anticipate based on the people you’re working with.

At SNL, the director I work with, Rhys Thomas, is one of my best friends. We have no real ego involved when we’re working together. We don’t have to walk on eggshells when talking stuff out. That’s the ideal situation to be in. True collaboration.

DS: Tell me about the work you do on SNL.

AE: This last season was my fifth season on the show. I’m the editor for the SNL Film Unit, which is the team responsible for the commercial parodies, movie trailers and short films.

DS: Do you work on the “Digital Shorts?”

AE: The digital shorts are an island unto themselves. They have their own great production staff, with Akiva [Schaffer] or Yorma [Taccone] directing, with the two of them usually editing with some outside help. They’re pretty much their own crew.

The Film Unit has been around since the show started. For the first 35 years, the director was a really talented legendary guy named Jim Signorelli. He pretty much directed every commercial parody piece you could think of. Little Chocolate Donuts, Super Happy Fun Ball, you name it, that was him. Around four seasons ago, Rhys became director of the Film Unit, as well as the producer.

The entire pre-production and production crew is unbelievably talented. The production quality based on the timeline we work under never fails to amaze or impress.

DS: Can you describe a typical timeline? Are you working roughly on the same number of pieces each season? What’s a typical production schedule?

AE: We pretty much have a piece each week. What a lot of people don’t realize about the show is that at its core, Saturday Night Live is a live show. The reason why the films exist, from a practical standpoint, is to allow a break within the live shooting for set changes, wardrobe switches and make-up changes. The fact the films have a life of their own and get recognition, that’s great. But ultimately they’re for the flow of the show.

For our timeline, we don’t know what we’re shooting until Wednesday of a given week. Tuesday night, the writers stay up all night writing everything. Dozens and dozens of sketches. Wednesday is a read through where the writers, the cast, the producers, whoever the host is and Lorne read all the scripts. That’s where they’re whittled down. From those, there will be a couple that are considered more film pieces. What we’re working on will get picked late Wednesday afternoon. I usually get an email late Wednesday night with the script. Pre-production then begins in earnest Wednesday night and all of Thursday.

I take that time to break down the script, see if there are any ways I can get ahead as far as pulling music or dealing with sound design. I’ll look at references. If it’s an action trailer type of movie, we’ll look at Tony Scott-style stuff or some Michael Bay-type of stuff. We’ll try to figure out beats that will be good from an editorial perspective. We’ll get with the DP to start working out a shot list that really hits the vibe we’re trying to nail.

Everything is shot on Friday. This past season, we had a number of pieces that didn’t start shooting until early Friday evening, bleeding into Saturday morning…

DS: [laughs]…You go live with the film Saturday night and you’re filming still Saturday morning?

AE: Yah. That’s become pretty standard truthfully. Depending upon how many locations or how much production is bouncing around, I’ll either be at 30 Rock [30 Rockefeller Plaza, the SNL studio location] getting footage as the crew breaks camera or I’ll be onset starting to edit as they break camera, just to get ahead of the game. We usually work until 3 or 4 in the morning Saturday morning, trying to get an EDL out to color as far as where we’re at, so they have a base jumping off point. Then we come back in early Saturday morning, working up until dress rehearsal at 8 pm. We pretty much have to have a finished piece by then.

Between dress rehearsal and going on air, there are usually some changes. We tweak and remix to get everything finished before they air. Usually our pieces air between 11:30 and 11:50 pm. Ideally we’re delivering about 10 minutes before it airs, though we’ve definitely cut it much closer than that. The final film plays on TV, everyone has a scotch, and then we begin getting ready for the next week’s film.

DS: As you describe this production timeline, it seems there’s no time for any missteps at all. There’s no wiggle room. Besides the obvious issue of schedule, what are the main challenges you face as editing in such a crazy environment?

AE: We’ve done enough of these films and worked together long enough that we have developed a rhythm, even though the pieces vary so much from week to week. The timeline is obviously the biggest challenge. The variety of styles is also very challenging. If you’re working on a TV show, say CSI, taking nothing away from the people who work on CSI, from week to week, you’re not reinventing the wheel from what you worked on previously. You have a style guide and you understand the rhythms of the show.

On SNL, one week, we’re working on a trailer that feels like a show open from the 1970s. One week, you’re working on something that feels like a perfume ad. One week it’s a short film that feels like French new wave. We’re jumping styles, which means we’re jumping cameras, which means we’re jumping workflows. It’s all over the place.

Everyone has faith and confidence in everyone else. It’s fun. It’s a drug in every sense of the word. It’s exciting when you’re doing it. It’s a big rush. You get immediate feedback. But, it’s definitely not healthy and on Sundays, you definitely feel it.

DS: With regards to editing and animation, especially with younger filmmakers, because there is often significant emphasis on mastering technology, films seem to be getting longer and longer. In addition, because usually only the desired work is actually produced, there aren’t large numbers of extra scenes to pick through and edit. It doesn’t seem like animators get enough instruction in editing. How do you teach animators, help them learn to edit, when they may not even think their pieces need any editing?

AE: Seeing that animation is so much more scene specific and intensive, I understand the need for more plotted out storyboarding, animatics and prep as far as what goes into a film. That being said, a lot of times the stuff that ends up being the best, that resonates the most, is the stuff you didn’t plan for initially. It develops organically while you’re working with the piece. Happy accidents.

DS: So what’s the genesis of this editing instruction tour? How did this project come about?

AE: The cinematographer on the show, Alex Buono, is a good friend of mine. He’s an incredibly talented DP. Knowing the technology of filming is great. But Alex also knows how to light stuff. How to establish tone and vibe. Last summer, he did the cinematography version of what I’m doing now. I saw him on the road. One of the things he was telling me was that questions always came up about the post side of things…I can shoot this thing great, so now what?

I thought it would be a natural progression. I was definitely inspired by him and his experience. I also thought it would be fun to tour around the country, have a good time working with people on creative post-production issues.

DS: We look at entertainment today and say, “There are so many great tools, so many avenues for creativity and so much great stuff being created…films, TV, streaming media, the Web...” On the other hand, we know so many people who are either unemployed or under-employed. The business side of entertainment is all over the map. What advice do you give young professionals and students looking for a career in postproduction?

AE: I wish there was a simple answer as far as “This is how you get work.” Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a lot of good luck in my career. People give too much lip service to luck not being a factor. It is. But the thing that’s always been beneficial to me is when I’ve had an opportunity, I’ve made myself indispensable. Have something that is unique to you so that when people are hiring you, it’s not just because you know how to use a specific program or work really fast, though those are important factors. Whether it’s your sense of humor, or the way you approach music, or you’re a genuinely nice person to have working in the room, bring something important to the table that is uniquely you.

I know this sounds like Tony Robbins rah-rah type stuff. But it’s more than having the chops. The more you can figure out what about you people are drawn to, that separates you as an individual, the less trouble you’ll have finding work. And that applies to anything really, not just post-production. Everyone will have the technical base of knowledge. You have to have something else that will make people remember you and want to bring you around again. Your brain and your gut are so much more important than what plugins you’re using, what NLE you’re using and how much RAM you have. That being said, if you don’t have enough RAM, you’ll have problems [laughs].

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You can find out more information about Adam Epstein’s Cutting Edge Tour by visiting the website at http://cuttingedge.mzed.com/

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor in Chief of Animation World Network.

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