Here at No Film School, we love us some Saturday Night Live, and we've had the privilege of speaking with folks from the film unit who have generously showed us the inner workings of the show, from Academy Award-nominated DP Alex Buono's cinematographic breakdown of the Wes Anderson spoof The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders to the very talented editor Adam Epstein revealing the insane process of editing SNL shorts.

As you might know, Adam is currently touring around the U.S. giving editing seminars that show editors how to go from empty timeline to broadcast-ready, including how to set up a workflow that really works for you, the basics of sound editing, grading, and delivery, and how to do all of this at breakneck speed. We got the chance to attend his Cutting Edge Tour during its stop in San Francisco, where we were able to pick his brain about all sorts of things, like what the SNL workflow looks like, which programs he uses, as well as what editors can do to grow and succeed as an artist.

So, let's jump right into the interview:

NFS: What do you think makes a good editor?

AE: Ideally you get to a point where you’re just seeing stuff in your head -- then it’s just being able to use the tools to get what’s in your head onto the timeline. So, I try to visualize simultaneously as I’m working and try to get a match, but still be able to find those happy accidents. I think it’s a combination of going in with a plan, have stuff in your head and be able to get that out, but being open to finding those little quirks and accidents that present themselves.

From a technical standpoint, though -- understanding rhythm, understanding why something pays off if you build it up a certain way, how to build anticipation and pace. Stuff like that.

NFS: Conversely then, what do you think makes a not-so-good editor?

AE: The main thing I see is people not being as open to trying things as they should be. Oftentimes you’ll hear people say, “Oh, this isn’t going to work.” That’s coming from a combative perspective. Like I said, you can go in with a plan with what you think is going to work, but the more you’re open and willing to experiment, the more you’ll be led to good things you weren’t anticipating. So I’d say: lack of openness and willingness are the main issues.

NFS: So, how much time do you actually spend in the editing process, from cutting to grading to exporting?

AE: I mean, it’s all kind of happening simultaneously just because we have a tight turn around. We’re also dealing with -- and I talk about this on the tour -- is that it’s a great time to be a one man band. All the tools that we have really allow that. But if you really want to get stuff eventually to the highest point possible, you’re going to have to be working with people who are very good at what they do in those specific fields.

To rehearse or to cut, we’re usually going with the color that I’ve been doing, and then for air we’re working with an outside color house. So, it’s also understanding how to deal with multiple houses and the workflow.

From a timeline perspective, I’m usually starting a cut Friday afternoon or early Friday evening, and then that goes up ‘til Saturday morning. Then we come back in the morning and work up until dress, which is at about 8 o’clock. I’m doing simultaneous sound design, cutting, and doing a first color and stereo mix for dress, and while that’s going they’re doing final color at an outside color house and then I get back all of those individual shots and we have to do an overcut for those and address any changes between dress and air. There’s also a final 5.1 mix being done in one of our mix rooms, then they have to sync that to final picture before we deliver, which is at around 11:30 -- so it’s really fast and furious.

You could be the fastest, coolest cutter in the world, but if people don’t like being around you, and you don’t make the vibe in the room good, you will not get work, period.

NFS: What exactly allows you to edit so quickly, especially considering the timeline you’re working with on SNL?

Adam Epstein: It’s a combination of things. I’d say the tools have definitely gotten better and allow us to get more done with the amount of time we have. You look at something we did 4 seasons ago and, while it’s still great -- and some of my favorite pieces are from back then, but just from -- the whole complexity -- you really couldn’t really get as much done, just from a straight filmmaking perspective. But now we can, and that’s just better, faster software where we don’t have to transcode anything.

The main thing I’ll say, though, has less to do with the tools and more to do with the fact that we have a great team. We work together all the time. It’s a pretty ego-free environment, and we all know how to lean on each other and how to work quickly and improv in an efficient way.

One other thing is that sometimes having a tight deadline is actually kind of freeing, because if something works you kind of just go with it, as opposed to if you have unlimited time. It gives you  more time to second-guess yourself. We don’t have that, so we are forced to just power ahead.

NFS: Is there a specific NLE that you swear by, or no?

AE: Use whatever makes you happy -- if it makes sense for your workflow. The last thing we’re going to do in the tour is get into an NLE flame war. At the end of the day, no one will look at what you made and say, “Ooh, that felt like it was cut on Final Cut 10.”

However, what we use, what makes sense for us at the moment, is Premiere and Creative Cloud. The fact that so much stuff is real time now is great. The fact that we’re basically working with native footage no matter what we’re shooting on, because we’re shooting with tons and tons and tons of cameras -- that is what makes the most sense.

You could be the fastest, coolest cutter in the world, but if people don’t like being around you, and you don’t make the vibe in the room good, you will not get work, period.

NFS: When you first started out, what are some things that surprised you about being an editor?

AE: I wouldn’t say that there was anything incredibly surprising, because it’s been kind of a growing process where when you’re doing one thing at the moment it kind of makes sense. One thing that I kind of enjoy about it, and I think a lot of people forget, especially when they’re just starting out and they’re going online saying, “I need to get the right software! I need to watch this tutorial, and learn this technique,”  -- all of that is great and all of that is necessary, obviously, but I think one of the things people don’t think about as much, which is actually, truthfully, more important than all the technical aspects, is that at some point you’re going to be dealing with real people in a room.

How you stay calm when things get crazy or manic, how you’re able to deal with personalities in stressful situations -- that’s what will make people bring you back. You could be the fastest, coolest cutter in the world, but if people don’t like being around you, and you don’t make the vibe in the room good, you will not get work, period.

Before you can get your own style you have to understand what goes into people’s stuff. Like when someone starts playing guitar, for example, they start by playing covers.

NFS: I think that’s the mature way to look at it. People can get hung up on, like you said, tutorials, plugins, all the gear and technical stuff, but they forget that it’s good to be, you know, an all-around good person to other people.

AE: One of the things we talk about on the tour -- the “how to do stuff” is very important -- obviously you have to know how to do stuff, but the “why are you doing it” is often more important.

NFS: Editing is an art form, so how would you advise a brand new editor, or one that’s stuggling, on how to find their voice or their own signature style?

AE: You know, I don’t know if there’s a direct way. I think the main thing with that is time and making lots and lots of different stuff. In the workshop I talk about this -- before you can get your own style you have to understand what goes into people’s stuff. Like when someone starts playing guitar, for example, they start by playing covers. Then you start finding out how you would do things, you know, figuring out what you like, what makes that good, and what goes into that.

But, I wouldn’t say that there’s a “Here’s the thing you do to get your own style!” I’m still figuring it out myself.

NFS: Could you name, like right now, 5 films, or shows, or commercials that if an editor were to watch them would just learn everything there is to know about editing -- hyperbole aside?

AE: I really, really love Edgar Wright and Chris Dickens. They’re a great example of how you can use framed close ups, make something that’s kind of mundane feel bigger than what it is. It’s a great way to take what mind not big a great budget and really make it feel like it is. I like how they did that. I’m a huge fan of David Soderbergh, who cuts pretty much all of his own stuff. I like how he can play with time and different pacing. So, he can do really traditional style editorial, but then be jumping time, but in a smooth way that makes sense in the story. Then you have classic stuff -- Hitchcock movies, Kubrick movies.

NFS: Do you have any advice for new editors?

AE: Work on as much stuff as you possibly can. Don’t be too precious about this job or that job, especially when you’re starting. The more you do, the more you’ll learn. The more people you work with, the more opportunities you’ll have. But, don’t be too precious right off the bat.

NFS: That’s so strange that you say that, because a handful of people I’ve interviewed, filmmakers I’ve talked to, say, “Don’t be too precious.” It’s probably the #1 rule in filmmaking.

AE: It’s true! Your first thing is going to suck -- just -- period. And that’s not, like, a knock. In the same way people look back on anything they did 5 or 10 years ago and they go, “Ewwww,” you know -- even if it’s good, because you grow and you get better. When you’re starting out, just get that first thing done, and then move on to the next thing, and then do the next thing. The more you do, the more you learn -- the better you get, the faster you’ll get, the better you’ll be working with people.

NFS: Your workshop is tomorrow, and I’m very excited to go, but why do you think it’s worth check out?

AE: It’s a fun day. Editorial isn’t the most innately dynamic thing, like sitting around with cameras and lights and stuff. At the end of the day it is a dude or a lady sitting at a desk working on stuff. But I try to make the day fun, have some laughs.

It’s also a good way to show people what it means to be an editor -- it encompasses so many things, from graphics to sound to color -- to everything really. I try to show that within the context of SNL and what we do and what I have to do. It’s a good day where we see lots of stuff, and if you’re a pro, hopefully you’ll learn some new tricks, and if you’re just starting out, hopefully you’ll be inspired to really dig deep into the things that stuck out to you.


A big thanks to Adam for taking the time to chat with us!

If you're interested in attending the Cutting Edge Tour (the sound editing portion alone is worth it), you can check the tour dates here. The workshop is broken up into daytime and evening seminars, which cost $219 and $79 respectively, or you can register for the whole shebang for $295. If you want the education, but can't attend the workshop, you can buy an HD download as well for $349. (You can also bundle with Alex Buono's Visual Storytelling and Vincent LaForet's Directing Motion workshops for $449 and $499.)

Source: The Cutting Edge Tour