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Editing in the US: Notes from the Big Country

Blog
20 January 2017

Six years after moving to Los Angeles, British editor Jon Oliver reflects on the differences between British and American post-production

After working as a freelance editor in London for 10 years, I moved to Los Angeles in 2011.  Plugging in to the freelance circuit here has revealed some interesting differences between the British and American post-production scene.

The most instantly noticeable difference is the terminology.  Firstly, you work in an edit ‘bay’ instead of a suite.  The immaculately coiffed face of the show is the host, not the presenter.  Programmes are divided up into ‘Acts’, not parts.  When addressing changes (notes), one does not go ‘back to rushes’ – you go INTO THE RAW (a terrifying place where unblinking eyes stare out at you from the darkness).

Once settled into your edit bay, you will notice a producer-shaped space next to you.  Edit Producers do not exist here.  Instead, there are Story Producers, who have their own desk elsewhere, and are equipped with their own Avid, which they use to make a ‘stringout’ (a rough assemble of pertinent material to be handed over to the editor). I suppose it’s the modern day equivalent of a paper edit (does anyone remember those?), and generally speaking it works – but only if producer and editor are on the same page.  I have, on occasion, donned my safety specs and hard hat, ventured INTO THE RAW and found better footage myself.

A different frame rate requires a subtle, but important change in edit mathematics.  After years of working in multiples of 25, seconds are now divided by 30.   Easier on the brain once you get used to it (and after a few mishaps).   Like learning to drive on the other side of the road, but with less dangerous consequences if you get it wrong.  PPMs in the edit suite are a rarity, and there are more ad breaks to take into consideration (a one hour show comprises 6 acts instead of 4 parts).  Practically, this means less content and more recaps and teases – an irritation for editor and viewer both.

Music licensing costs are responsible for a pretty dramatic shift in how you score your sequences.  In the UK, I have largely been free to use whatever commercial track I like, occasionally dipping a toe into the unknown waters of library music.  In the US however, it’s rare that you get to use commercial music at all, so becoming familiar with billions of hours’ worth of library music is essential.

I used to have a snobbish disdain for library music, but it does have it’s benefits.  In an effort to use something current, or a track with ‘relevant’ lyrics, a lot of commercial music gets horribly overused in the UK (Handsome, young, male contestant?  Let’s use Air’s ‘Sexy Boy’ for his intro VT!  Reality scene with some women on a night out?  Try ‘Here Come The Girls’ by The Sugababes!) 

If you’re forced to trawl the vast oceans of library music instead, you end up using a piece of music that ‘feels’ right.  And some library composers provide you with the individual ‘stems’ (splitting the track into it’s component parts – drums, bass, piano etc), so it’s possible to properly score a scene by bringing different instrumentation in and out to create peaks and lulls where necessary.  This can sometimes give your sequence a more filmic soundtrack. 

It could be argued that British and American television are stylistically merging, as formats cross-pollinate and we become more global in our viewing habits.  But as the lines blur, some subtle differences remain, and I for one enjoy the challenge presented by embracing two televisual styles divided by a common language.

Jon Oliver has worked on shows in the UK including Big Brother, I'm a 
Celebrity..Get Me Out of Here!, X-Factor, Hell's Kitchen and Love 
Island. In the US, he has worked on America's Got Talent, Top Gear, Port 
Protection, Lip Sync Battle and X-Factor.


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