How to edit a TV show watched by 13,780,000 people

Nancy Forner
I met Nancy Forner through Twitter and instantly knew it would be great to learn from her. Nancy has edited TV shows including Law & Order SVU (watched by 13.78 million in 2006), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mistresses and Vampire Diaries.

When she’s not editing she’s an Associate Professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

Be sure to follow Nancy on Twitter and check out her website where you can read more articles and see some of her work.

Video Password: trendy

Video Password: trendy

How did you first become interested in editing?

I never intended to be an editor. I went to school at Penn State University to become a writer and took a film class by mistake. I thought I’d signed up for one of those classes with 1,000 kids in an auditorium, and I’d watch a film, write an essay, and get an A. The computer made a mistake, however, and I was signed up for a hands-on production class that included only five other students. And it was too late to change it. I had to stay in the class. But then I made a movie and it won in a film festival, and I thought, Wow, this is fun. So I moved to LA thinking I would become a film director. My first job was  a Production Assistant (PA) for a place that made commercials. I ended up cutting the commercials and directing them. I found editing the commercials way more fun than directing them and so I pursued more editing jobs.

How did you get to know your creative side to editing?

By editing and the joy it brings when done well. Editing is a lot of fun and creatively rewarding so staying focused is not that difficult.

I taught myself how to edit by watching British TV. I watched the mystery shows on PBS, Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Morse — fabulous, high quality shows. The reason I watched those was because the British have a great ability with dialogue. I watched those shows over and over again, studying how they cut overlapping dialogue, how they handled pacing, who they featured when someone was talking. I taught myself how to cut dialogue that way, because TV, with its 42-minute episodes, is mostly dialogue.

How do you decide what projects to work on?

That is easy……..whoever hires me first. I’ve had to choose between 2 projects and the story is so typical of how Hollywood works. I had just finished a series called Providence. It was canceled and so I was looking for work, which means calling everyone I know and announcing that “I am available” (the nice way of saying I need a job). So for weeks I was doing the looking thing and of course on the same day I get a call for two different shows to come in for an interview. Both were very high profile and very successful series. So I interviewed for both shows and the next day got offers to work on both shows. That is how Hollywood goes….one can spend months looking for work and then suddenly get a bunch of offers all at the same time. Of course I can only do one and it is a hard decision because you have no idea which is the right choice. I took the show that had been on the air longer and was more successful, which was Law and Order:SVU and I stayed there for eight years.

In what ways can you influence a production?

There is a saying in Hollywood….”When making a movie, there are three movies; the one that is written, the one that is shot and the one that is edited.” I can’t really influence the “production” but an editor definitely influences the final product. The average TV show shoots about 40 hours of dailies. All that footage is given to the editor to craft into a 42 minute show. 40 hours into 42 minutes! All the decisions on how to use those 40 hours is up to the editor and no one else. So how the editor interprets the story that was written and how the editor uses the film that was shot definitely has great influence.

What are your weapons (software) of choice these days? Why?

I am strictly and only an AVID user. The few times I tried to use FCP I found it clunky and slow. But to be honest and fair to FCP that is probably because I did not know it well and never had been trained on it. People I know who use FCP like it just fine. Basically I use AVID because I know it. Most series and films are cut on the AVID so I never really was forced to use FCP.

What do you think about Netflix’s model of exclusive series and releasing all at once?

I love what Netflix is doing. Because of my schedule it is hard to always be home for scheduled TV watching. So I found myself buying box sets of TV series that I liked. I loved sitting and watching many episodes at once. It became like reading a book…you could really get into the story and the characters. Now that Netflix is doing essentially the same thing, but on demand….I love it. Great way to watch TV.

What is your edit style that defines you as a unique editor?

I was told once by a producer that I take risks with the footage. It was a compliment from him and he liked that I did that. I never really thought about that until he said it, but I think he is right. My style is usually a little less formal than the average cutting. I like to use extreme angles and do unconventional things. However, whatever I do has to suit the story. I don’t cut stylistically just to cut stylistically, it has to further the story….but I do like to try unusual cutting patterns if I can.

What is your work schedule like?

When I am cutting a TV series I work between 10-12 hours a day and often one or two days of the weekend. Each project is different. When I cut Providence and Law and Order: SVU we had our cutting rooms at Universal Studios. The Vampire Diaries’ editing bays were at a private office building that rented to productions. Mistresses’ cutting rooms were on the Disney lot. Editing rooms are usually at the same location where the writer’s offices are. The writers work closely with the editors so we have to be nearby to them. Because series and film editing is a very collaborative process I never cut at home. The whole crew has to be together.

What would you consider is the biggest editing style change you have made since you began?

When I first started editing I cut in a very traditional way. Start with a wide shot, go to a medium over the shoulder, then move into the close ups. Now I like to throw that formula out and do whatever I feel will tell the story better and be more interesting visually. I love starting on an extreme closeup then popping wide. Stuff like that.

What suggestions do you have for new editors in the industry?

Watch movies and TV shows, read books, listen to music, look at art. Study aesthetics and story telling. Don’t worry about technology as much as really try to understand what makes a good story and how to edit to make the story compelling. If you are an assistant editor, ask the editor if you can help out and cut scenes. The best and only way to learn how to edit is to edit.

Posted in Interview
2 comments on “How to edit a TV show watched by 13,780,000 people
  1. David Block says:

    Thank you for this insightful interview. Excellent questions and answers. Because of it, I rejoined Lynda.com.
    I have been editing for years and it’s always nice to hear insights from others.