The Reality of Editing Unscripted TV: How an Emmy-Winning Editor Crafts 'Life Below Zero'
Navigating the world of unscripted reality television requires creativity, ethics, and sometimes, knowing when to jump ship.
When Matt Mercer hit the streets after college, he was hustling to make his own documentaries. Eventually, with no money and credit cards blowing up, he realized he needed a decent paying gig. A friend offered him a spot as an assistant editor on a reality show.
After working his way up and falling in with what he describes as a "really good group of people at the BBC," Mercer and the other three editors on Life Below Zero won the Emmy for Outstanding Picture Editing for an Unstructured Reality Program in 2017, and have been again nominated for the award this year. “We like to call ourselves unscripted, because reality is kind of a bad word,” said Mercer to No Film School. “There’s the external connotation of Reality, being shows about people like the Kardashians. We like to think of our show as something that’s doc style.”
Mercer sat down with No Film School to talk about story producers and string outs, making yourself uncomfortable, and how to navigate the ethics of portraying reality in unscripted TV.
No Film School: How did you end up as an editor on the BBC-produced and NatGeo broadcast show Life Below Zero?
Matt Mercer: I started on Life Below Zero as an assistant editor back when it was still in its infancy. At a certain point, I needed to leave so that they'd see me as an editor. I got a call from a friend from film school who said that he had sold a show to Hulu (this is back before Hulu was really making any original shows and it was the early days of Netflix shows too). The people at BBC, they kept calling it, "You go make your webisodes or whatever."
So I left and worked on this Hulu show for a couple years. That was a great boot camp experience because they had a very tight budget and had shot this show without knowing the story. I had to find all of this loose footage of following people around, and then create these tiny stories out of them. That was my boot camp for how to edit. I just really wanted to have my own creative influence, because as an assistant editor in Reality is not a very creative job.
"But the great thing about being an assistant editor is just being able to see all this raw footage and seeing how terrible it is as first."
NFS: So what does an assistant editor do in an unscripted environment?
Mercer: In unscripted, it's one assistant editor for maybe five or six editors. You deal with many hours of footage, multi-camera footage, and you've got to sync it all. You never really have a break from the amount of new material coming in that you've got to organize and get to the editors. You don't have a whole lot of bandwidth for cutting a scene or something.
The great thing about being an assistant editor is being able to see all this raw footage and seeing how terrible it is as first. You then start to see what the producers and editors are able to make out of it. I know what we do isn’t high art, but I respect what editors make out of footage that initially seems so dull. I remember the first assistant editing job I had, watching the footage and was thinking, "This show is kind of terrible. This is nothing." And then by the time the editors had put it together, it was funny, it was punchy, the music was right; it was a really good show.
NFS: So as one of the editors who cuts Life Below Zero, what's a typical day of work like?
Mercer: We're making hour-long episodes and we break it down into the four different camps. Each camp gets three to five different scenes and you just start taking little bites off. Our story producers are great, as they will have done these string outs already.
Let's say, for one camp, somebody is going on a bear hunt. They'll have that story broken down as four different scenes. So you just start working off of the string out, you usually do about a scene a day, or a scene every few days. You start looking at the string out, looking for ways to smooth it out. You also look, visually, for where you can add a little excitement or style. You look for dramatic moments to highlight. The story is pretty much there by the time the story producers have the string out. They should really be considered part of the editing team.
You do a path for the story first, edit that as solid as possible, and then just start adding in additional shots, effects, and sound effects. We then edit the music and move on. The nice thing about television is that it never feels perfect; you just have to keep moving. I think that a lot of us are perfectionists, but when there's a deadline, you kind of excuse yourself from being perfect, and you just have to finish it and move on to the next thing.
Our goal is to take that string out and make it as exciting as possible. After our initial cuts, we assemble it together and get it timed. At that point, it's very close. We don't have major crazy notes. Our show is kind of a well-oiled machine, as everybody's already on the same page and everybody already knows what the next step is going to be.
The people I work with the most, if I hadn't said this enough already, are the story producers. I'm collaborating with them throughout the process and they're giving me notes like, "Oh, this moment is not working. Make this a little more clear." And I'm saying, "I need an extra bite to make this clear." Once we finish what we're doing, it's pretty close.
"In this world, the unscripted world, [the story producers] are the engine that makes everything work."
NFS: You mentioned the story producers start with a string out. Is that a written document?
Mercer: On some shows, it's a written document. On some shows, they'll do what's called "paper cut," where they'll look at the scripts and say, "At this time code there's this section or this bite, put this in. And then this happens, go to this bite." But that doesn't happen on our show, and I don't think people do that much anymore. Now, story producers (at least on non-union work) are allowed to watch raw footage and use basic edits, like in, out, this bite, and identify story pieces.
Let's say for a five-minute scene, there might be a six-minute string out, which is basically just a pre-edit. Here's the part where Chip gets out of the house that day and says, "I'm going to go hunt for a bear." We cut to this interview where he's saying, “Bear are in season and we need the meat and fur,” and all that stuff. Our show has a very subsistence lifestyle, everything's got to be for a reason, here's a part where he wakes up in the morning, etc. Here's the interview byte where he explains why it's necessary. Here's the part where he goes out there and sees the bear and shoots and misses. Here's the interview byte where he explains what just happened. It involves all of that stuff, and the story editors already piece it together from the maybe six days of shooting or whatever, for a story.
Honestly, I think that's the most fun part and also the hardest part. What we do is a lot easier, which is, "Oh, you've done all the work to watch these countless hours of footage, given us the story, now we just get to look good by making it come to life.” Essentially, the scriptwriting process happens with them. In this world, the unscripted world, they are the engine that makes everything work. I have tremendous respect for what they do.
NFS: Because this is unscripted, the cinematographers are capturing the story as it unfolds. But you can’t get a shot of, say, a guy shooting at a bear from right in front of gun. You mentioned that your guidelines are very strict for a reality show. What parameters do you use to know when that line crosses in the edit to being too artificial?
Mercer: That's a really good question because, as you know, we learned this in film school: as soon as you turn the camera on, you're already lying. You’re not telling the entire truth, you're just telling one piece of reality...and certainly when you get to editing, you go further down that road.
It’s always tempting to make things more exciting. You kind of have to, because if you just watch the raw footage, it's the most boring thing in the world. These things take tremendous amounts of time. It takes maybe a week to do a hunt and we've got to tell it in minutes, so just that compression in time is automatically more exciting, Because things will happen spontaneously, the crew will have to recreate certain moments. I worked on a scene where a bear was charging one of our characters, and the camera guy captured the bear running at him. We have the character in the frame being charged at. We didn't have a shot from the other side, so they might have to pick up a shot.
We might get the close up of him raising his gun. You could tell just by watching the show that anybody who knows cameras is going to see that sometimes we've got a GoPro strapped to the barrel of the gun looking back at our character. What you see in the other shot, there's no GoPro. But it has to be true to what happened. There's a certain journalistic side. We couldn't make up something that didn’t happen.
I’m just trying to tell the story, and we're never fictionalizing an account or fictionalizing what these characters did. I've worked on other shows where the producers specifically say, "Make it seem like this happened." That was the exact opposite of what really happened. Fortunately, that's something we're not allowed to do on our show. We're never exploiting people, just using them to tell whatever story we want.
"It was technically a lie, but it was true of his emotion....Sometimes you have to technically lie to tell the emotional truth of something."
NFS: And to be true to their story, you can’t just give people the straight feed of one camera's raw footage.
Mercer: I found something interesting working on the Hulu show Behind The Mask. We did a scene where one of the characters went up to a cheerleader and asked her to prom in the middle of a high school football game. We got it all on camera, but we had no build up to it. So as the editor, I had to sort of put together a bunch of other pieces, of him pacing, and build up to this event because it caught us by surprise.
It was technically a lie, but it was true of his emotion. When I asked him about it later, I asked, "Did you notice anything about that scene? Was it how you remembered?" He said, "It was exactly as I remembered." Sometimes you have to technically lie to tell the emotional truth of something. Because to the character, it's an exciting emotional experience when a bear's charging, but just watching that one camera angle in wide won’t convey give that emotion. It's constantly something we're wrestling with, as you're always tempted to make it more exciting; the audience wants you to.
The audience doesn't want you to lie, but when they see the final product, they want to be excited about it, right? It's a very tempting thing, so it's something that story producers and the editors are constantly talking about like, "We could do this. Well, yeah, but that's not what happened." Navigating that is a focus of our attention a lot.
NFS: Do you watch the episodes when they air or are you like, "Noooo, I've seen this a few too many times!"
Mercer: No, I don't like watching them. We cut it in standard definition because there is way too much footage to have us all be working in high def stuff. It is nice to see it color corrected and sound mixed, as those guys do a great job. It’s gratifying to see it that way. But to me, I just notice things like, "Oh, why did I make that choice?" I just get upset with myself, so I don't like to watch it.
"Maybe jump ship if you don't get a good vibe from them, because then suddenly three years go by and you're miserable."
NFS: What's your advice for filmmakers who would be interested in becoming editors but aren't sure where to start?
Mercer: I've been thinking about that a lot lately, because I think I got lucky via the group of people that I fell into, so I don't know how much my experience is replicated throughout the industry. I know there are some companies who are really good, but others will work you to the bone and feel like you're working on soul-sucking work.
I guess my advice would be for one, if you want to get into unscripted stuff, as an editor, you have a lot of creative say. Just be careful with the groups you get involved with. Maybe jump ship if you don't get a good vibe from them, because then suddenly three years go by and you're miserable.
I think sometimes, if you're an assistant, whatever it is, assistant producer or assistant editor or assistant camera, when you master that job, no one really wants to move you up because you're good at it and they rely on you. You're in this tricky position. You don't want to get too stuck in being the best assistant editor or being the best camera controller or whatever the case is. You don't want to leave a comfortable position, but you want to do more. Sometimes you have to make yourself uncomfortable to move up.