I’ve been thinking of an idea for an upcoming blog. After episode 18 (next week) HEROES will be off the air for a few weeks. If anyone has questions about the show, which they would like me to answer, email them in and I will use those off-weeks to answer fan questions.
Craig of HEROSITE.NET and KRYPTONSITE.COM fame will be helping me with this, by gathering your questions. So, if you have any questions about HEROES – (writer/story questions are OK, but production/behind the scenes stuff would be more appropriate) - email me with the subject header “Question for Beeman” in care of Craig at:
Tonight is episode 17. It’s a beautiful and powerful episode. It is unique for us because it has one story and one story only. True, that story is told over 15 years of time – but it is, specifically, the story of the Bennet family. Matt Parkman’s story definitely progresses as well – but it is, fundamentally, about the Bennets.
Allan Arkush directed the episode. He is, of course, the other director/producer on staff. Allan, in my opinion, did a spectacular job with difficult material. Don’t get me wrong, Bryan Fuller’s script was great… evocative, chilling and poignant… But at the end of the day, the purely mechanical directorial challenge is that more than half the script takes place between 6 characters in one three-room set. Think about it -- On a purely mathematical level, having 6 people in a scene adds numerous more shots to every scene than, say, having two people in a scene… But to have six people in EVERY scene – well then… Much of the other parts of the script take place in the past where the characters we know are either recast or have to be made up to look younger. Then, to top it off – we take the set that we shoot day in and day out and burn it down. And not all just in one go – in stages!!! To keep escalating the tension and to make clear the various nuances of performance under those circumstances is quite a challenge.
Typically, but not exclusively, Allan concentrates on post-production issues with the show, and I, typically but not exclusively, concentrate on prepping the episodes and getting incoming directors up to speed. Whenever I direct, I’m unavailable to prep the next director. For that reason, I prefer when Allan directs the episode directly after mine. All of which is a long way around saying that I was not very involved with this episode personally.
For that reason I’ve chosen, this time, to use this blog to interview episode 17’s editor, Donn Aron. Donn is one of three excellent editors we have on HEROES. Each editor rotates through the episodes, working on every third show. Donn cuts his show together from the vast amount of film we shoot. And he toils with the film continuously, making it work through all the stages, working first with the director, then with the producers and Tim Kring, then taking and implementing notes from the studio and network – all the while finessing the material and making it better and better. He also lays down a temporary sound and music pass with the film – which is not the final version, but which serves as an important guide to the music composers and sound designers. Donn’s film cutting is excellent, as is his sound work.
He has worked closely with Allan Arkush a number of times. I experience him as a very innovative guy who has made many contributions to the ever-evolving HEROES look and feel. He has also been on HEROES since the pilot.
DONN ARON - HEROIC EDITOR
ALLAN ARKUSH - HEROIC DIRECTOR
Greg Beeman: OK Donn, tell me about your background. Where did you grow up?
Donn Aron: In L.A.
GB: Were your parents in the film business?
DA: No. My father sold insurance. But I grew up in a neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley where it was very common for people to be in the business. I had a girlfriend whose father was a sound editor. That was one of my first real exposures to it. Also, Army Archerd was a neighbor. So it was part and parcel of the world I lived in.
GB: It didn’t feel out of reach?
DA: No. But I didn’t plan on being in that field at first. I went to art school and got a BA and an MA at Berkley. I was a conceptual artist. Painting and sculpture. I did shoot some performance piece films. I moved to New York as an artist and I showed in galleries, like “Artists Space” and in Amsterdam in an installation called “Apollo.” This was all in the mid to late 70’s. Then, for a while, I went to NYU Film School and took film and writing classes. I began to realize that it would be easier to make a living in the film business. So I moved here.
GB: To back home?
DA: Yes. I left the art world which was impractical, to the film world which would be equally impractical. I had no skills and no background, and I began, literally, pounding the street.
GB: So, how did you get started?
DA: I applied for a job at a commercial house. I became a runner and eventually a production assistant.
GB: We are getting into the 1980’s by now?
DA: Yes. In commercials. I hooked up with a couple of commercial directors. But I knew I didn’t want to edit commercials. A girl I knew had a boyfriend who was an editor and he got me a job as an apprentice on a show called GRINGOS and then another one called THE BEAST WITHIN – just terrible films, but they were my first break.
GB: How did you go from apprentice to editor? How long did that take?
DA: Well, eventually I got into the union. I’d already become an assistant by then on non-union shows. But when I got in the union I had to go back to apprentice. At that time you had to spend two years as an apprentice and then three years as an assistant before you could edit. But also at that time there was a lot of work, and if you got on the union availability roster and you make a good network of contacts and were a hard worker and you were on the ball, you could work all the time. Everything was still on film at that. The work for assistants, at that time, especially on big features, with all the syncing and coding and logging of dailies – it was incredibly labor intensive. A movie would need a veritable army of assistants.
GB: So it was good times?
DA: Sure. I was still in my twenties and there was a lot of work. We used to watch in a screening room with a group at that time, and my job was to take notes – the editor would shout out code words - “close up here” “best take for performance” - and things like that and I had to jot it all down and keep track of it. Tom Rolf was one of the first editors I worked with. And then Jackie Cambas– She was cutting a movie called RACING WITH THE MOON and she gave me my first scene to cut – she was very generous in that regard.
GB: Then what?
DA: I worked on AT CLOSE RANGE with (editor) Howard Smith. And then I began working regularly with Freeman Davies who used to cut for Walter Hill. Walter Hill always used three editors, and on a movie called RED HEAT Freeman Davies made me a co-editor and that was my first editing credit.
I totally learned how to edit on Walter Hill pictures. He used to shoot so much film. He would shoot these huge, massive action scenes with dialogue and character beats interspersed in them. He would shoot as much film for a scene as we shoot for a whole episode of TV now - 35,000 to 100,000 feet of film. That is where I really learned how to look at film. You had to sift through this massive amount of material and organize it in a logical way – I mean real mechanically – by action – by angles – by character – by direction. You’d really have to watch the film and think what parts you wanted to get to and when. I would plan for a couple of days before I even began to cut a scene. Of course the post schedule on those movies were very long. You’d be editing for a year.
GB: So you edited regularly for Walter Hill.
DA: I did several. ANOTHER 48 HOURS, JOHNNY HANDSOME, GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEDGEND.
GB: So, when did television come into the picture for you?
DA: I’d never done TV until three or four years ago – I always wanted to. I like the idea of the constant employment and the seasonal employment. In features you can wait a year or more between jobs. I had a family to support and it was a financial decision also.
But of course, just because I’d made that decision, it was still hard to break in. People didn’t want to hire you unless you’d already worked in TV.
GB: But, eventually you got to CROSSING JORDAN
DA: Right. I came to CROSSING JORDAN with Tim Kring, Dennis Hammer and Allan Arkush halfway through season 5…
GB: That’s it?
GB: Wow. I had assumed, from the way you work with them you’d been working together much longer.
DA: No, I did the last half of last season. And then Lori Motyer (the co-producer in charge of post) came and intimated that maybe Tim would want me to work on the pilot.
GB: I had no idea.
DA: Now I was not alone. That is very important to make clear. There were three editors on the project. Myself, Michael Murphy, who is also a very talented editor from CROSSING JORDAN (who now also works on HEROES) and Louise Innes. I started first, because my rotation on JORDAN was finished first. Michael came along later because he finished his last CROSSING JORDAN episode a week or two later.
GB: Three editors. Really?
DA: The pilot was a very big project. A 24 day shoot. The director, David Semel, shot an enormous amount of film and the turnaround was incredibly fast. Semel had only 3 days to do his director’s cut. Tim had, again, only 2 or 3 days to deliver the cut to the studio. Picture was locked maybe 4 days later, and the whole thing was completed to be presented to advertisers in New York, finished, only a week or two later… That’s with finished visual effects. Obviously it was a very big project.
GB: My impression of you, Donn, is that you are very innovative. You think outside of the box as to how the film can be presented and how the story can be told.
DA: I suppose that goes back to art school. There was no clear definition there of what was expected of you. You were to think on your own and create the project as you instinctively felt was right. I guess I’ve always carried that experience over with me.
GB: Well, in my experience, many editors in TV are very mechanical. There’s a feeling of “you always start with the master. You move into coverage progressively. You cut to reaction shots on certain key lines. You always end close, or always end wide,” that sort of thing.
DA: Believe me I’ve been fired for being to stylistically eccentric. On one feature I showed the director something I was just playing around with, just some ideas, and he fired me the next day... in an email. You have to be careful.
One of the reasons I so enjoy working with Tim and Dennis and Allan, on CROSSING JORDAN and on HEROES, is that they are very open. They aren’t tied to a traditional approach. They want a clearly told story. But they encourage you to improvise in how that story is told. They want clear, interesting, in some ways inspirational storytelling. As long as you are servicing ideas that help tell the story they don’t squash your impulses.
GB: Some of the innovations you did first are starting to become part of the everyday visual language of the show. I’m talking about things like the jump cuts between a character during continuous dialogue during intense parts of the show, the little mini-speed-ups and blur cuts, and what we call the “ka-chunk a chunk” cut ins that sometimes end scenes. There are these and other innovations that are specifically and exclusively post production effects.
DA: Well, it’s an evolving process. And I don’t want to take credit for all of those things. Especially on the pilot with the three editors, ideas get hashed over and hashed over by one or the other, until all the ideas blend together. But things like jump-cutting, motion effects, rapid blur cuts, I’ve been doing some of those things for a long time. I did work in documentaries for a while. In that medium, sometimes you literally have no angle changes, and yet you have to make cuts in dialogue to create a fluid idea. I became comfortable cutting where I wanted to, or where I felt the material was telling me to, without worrying about traditions of coverage. You can create the idea on camera without letting the coverage dictate to you where you have to go. You want to get to this moment in that take and you can just do it.
Also, it’s about finding the moments when it’s appropriate to do that kind of thing. Not to hide from it, but to just do it, because there’s a sense within the story that it’s appropriate to be thrust from one place to another without being taken there gently.
Always they key is to service the writing.
GB: I can think of one example of this on HEROES that we worked on together. In episode 8, there is a scene where Matt and Audrey are interrogating Ted, and Ted gets frustrated and the water starts to boil, which freaks Matt and Audrey out. The director had done a nice thing to keep the action moving – he was dollying back and forth on every piece of coverage… It was good, there was motion left-right/right-left on every cut - but still, when it was all cut together it was still too, kind of, lyrical... not edgy enough. We discussed a bolder approach and you started adding a lot of subtle video zoom in and zoom outs to the coverage and weird little speed ups in Ted’s shots and it added an immense amount of energy and tension to the scene.
DA: That scene was all about the hands. Ted’s hands. It was building to a moment of shock and fear when they realized they could all die. I looked for movement in Ted’s shots. Sometimes just 8 or 10 frames where he made a distinct body gesture. I would exaggerate it by speeding up the film. Less than a second of speed up. It makes the person look like they’re having a spasm. Or I’d stay in the same angle during this spasm. Or jump cut to another angle and repeat the body movement. You just have to find these little jewels and gems and start sketching them together like a sketchbook. I was trying, there, to sketch a moment of everyone in shock as Ted loses his temper and they all realize they could die.
GB: So, let’s talk about Allan Arkush and episode 17 “Company Man.” I’d always assumed, by the way you two work together so closely, that you’d worked with him a lot. But now I realize you’ve only done a few CROSSING JORDAN episodes.
DA: I think, before HEROES I’d done one, or maybe two of Allan’s episodes. But he’s always in the cutting room. He’s the producer who always supervises post, so I feel like I’ve worked with him a lot.
GB: Tell me about your relationship with him.
DA: Allan, as a filmmaker, has a strong point of view. It’s funny, when you first edit film for a director, it’s like going on a date. A blind date. And with Allan it’s a very good date. When I see his footage I have an immediate understanding of it. Sometimes with a director I don’t get it and you tear your hair out. But with Allan, I really get him and his film.
He always has very prepared beginnings and endings to his scenes. He is very prepared. I always enjoy the scenes he directs. They’re always a lot of fun. There’s always someplace to go with the film – a lot of places. He shoots a lot of film and gives you a lot of choices. Now, there are a lot of directors who shoot a lot of film with a, sort of, shotgun approach. A lot of takes and angles, but none with any point of view. How many angles do you really need? They shoot tons of film but they have no idea where they want to go with it. There’s no one thing that’s more important than anything else.
Allan shoots a lot of film, but it all has a plan. In going over the film you discover lots of currents that can take you in lots of different directions, but they all can take you to shore in a very satisfying way.
The danger, when you have so many good choices is to not over-edit. To stick with the choice that’s working even when you know there is another good choice out there.
GB: And how do you learn that discipline?
DA: Because you’ve watched dailies carefully.
GB: The Walter Hill experience again.
DA: Watching dailies. Noting moments. Noting what really matters. Watching dailies is 50% of it. I remember, and I take lots of notes. Nowadays watching dailies is a very private experience. As I said before it used to always be in a screening room with many people. I make notes. Then I gather my notes and then I go back to the original script. I read. What was the writer originally intending? Is there a clue in the scene description? Working this way I weave my notes, which are my memory of the dailies, and the script together - and I start to form my plan of how I’ll cut the scene. The key moments of the script and the key moments of my notes tell me what are the moments from the dailies I want to make sure are in the show.
I go first to the key moments I’ve found, and they become the pillars of the scene I want to build.
GB: I think most other editors work much more linearly.
DA: Now, after 20 years I have many ways I work without really thinking about it any more. But this is the general process. The key essence of it is finding the most important moments of the film that’s been shot.
GB: Episode 17 is a very powerful episode. We just screened it for the crew and they were blown away. By the way, I’ve never had an experience like the one on this show. Frequently on a TV show, the producers will screen the finished product to the crew at lunch. By this point in the season, usually, there’s been a significant drop off in attendance. But on HEROES, the room is packed. Every member of the crew comes to the screenings. It’s amazing!
DA: It’s terrific. I visited the set quite a bit. And seeing the actors, seeing Allan, everyone was so focused. You could tell by the mood on set and by how Allan was directing – how intense it all was – that it was going to be a great one.
GB: Can you elaborate on that?
DA: The actors were so familiar with the dimensions of the story and the dimensions of the scene. Allan has it all in his head, and he works so fast, he’s thinking so far ahead – the pace in TV is fast anyway, but on this one, on set, it felt particularly fast. It’s hard to imagine that everyone can keep up.
GB: It’s a unique episode, because it’s so claustrophobic in nature.
DA: And the writing is so good. To keep that kind of tension up and to have it build. The writing (by Bryan Fuller) and the direction are so good. The writer was so confident in Allan’s work. You could tell on set. The writer was on set the whole time. These scenes, trust me, could have fallen very flat. The key is the moments and the angles. All of them are so well chosen and planned by Allan. And how he staged them. There is a subtext to his angles, why he’s there for emotional reasons, what it means to see the character from that angle in that moment. This is a film language, spoken in a visual emotional manner. It’s in the editing room you really discover how the right moments have been selected for the right angle.
In many of the scenes there are 6 people gathered in what must be an 8 foot by 12 foot room – and technically, the eye lines are always right. Also, Allan always covers every shot from the top of the scene – so all the performances are there in every shot, all the actors are always in the right moments. People can say, why is he shooting so much film? Why? But in the editing room you know why. The fundamental key to Allan’s scenes is that you can build a story with this kind of intensity because you have all the right pieces to do so. As an editor I’m just trying to get to the good parts.
GB: Any specific examples?
DA: I’d like to talk about one scene Allan did a terrific job with. Two scenes actually, that parallel each other. The one, in black and white, where Claire’s father is going to kill Claude. And the same scene repeats itself, shot-for-shot in the end, when Claire’s father drives Claire to the same bridge where he shot Claude so many years ago. Because the shots are the same, it breaks your heart. Because the shots are all the same, you know what’s going to happen. And in both scenes there is this big sweeping crane shot as the car arrives on the bridge. Allan told me his plan before he shot it, but I know he shot all those shots on different days, and that there were weather issues so he had to go back. And some actors weren’t available. So it was all shot piecemeal, but it goes together perfectly.
One moment I especially like is when Claire’s father shoots Claude. He has this surprised look on his face, like he can’t believe what just happened. He pulled the trigger, but still he can’t believe it. And then he shoots him again. It’s a wonderful moment.
That’s why I really respect what a director does. All that planning, and holding it all together in your head no matter what the conditions it takes to get it. It’s amazing how Allan knows what angles he wants. He reads a two dimensional script. Words on paper. And he can visualize how all of it will look, and all of the performances, and how it will be cut together, all from just the words. And, it seems to me, that would be even harder on a TV schedule like we have.
GB: Thank you, Donn. I’ll leave now and let you get back to work. (currently Donn is editing episode 20)
DA: Thank you.
More next week…
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