The first episode of Season 4 was the product of a relationship 20 years in the making.
If you're not already watching, Netflix’s Black Mirror is a show you should be watching. It’s from UK creator Charlie Brooker and delivers a mix of sci-fi dystopian fiction saturated in dark and satirical standalone storylines that depict our near future in an eerily familiar way.
Now in its fourth season, the streaming service's hit has generated dozens of episodes that are deserving of conversation: Fifteen Million Merits (S1E2), Be Right Back (S2E1), Nosedive (S3E1) and San Junipero (S3E4) are to name but a few. Its latest holy-fucking-shit-episode is USS Callister (S4E1) from director Toby Haynes (Dr. Who, Sherlock).
The narrative follows genius coder Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), the co-founder and chief technical officer at Callister Inc., a company that's created a Ready Player One-styled simulation game. In this case, instead of choosing an avatar, you play yourself. Despite the outpouring of love, he’s a social outcast and back home he escapes to a world he’s crafted after his favorite TV show, Space Fleet. It’s Star Trek-esque and his coworkers have all been turned into his crew against their will. It isn’t until new hire Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) arrives that things begin to change.
Piecing together the visual puzzle in the cutting room was editor Selina MacArthur, nominated for an Emmy for this particular episode. For 20+ years, the England native has worked on a slew of different episodic series, including Flowers, Dr. Who, and Humans. In an interview with No Film School, MacArthur shared her experiences and offered up advice for up-and-coming editors.
1. Build and maintain relationships
"My relationship with Toby [Haynes] goes back ten years,” says MacArthur, "as we met when we first started out in the business but, for whatever reason, we hadn’t worked together for years. Then he mentioned he was doing an episode of Black Mirror and I told him how much I loved the show. Through that conversation, he wanted me to cut the episode. It was all by chance that things aligned and it felt perfect.”
MacArthur is right. You’re next job is most likely going to come from someone you already know. Besides nepotism, relationships are key to breaking into the industry or catching a “break.” Like Haynes and MacArthur, collaborators may know each other for decades. Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski are a perfect example, as they go back 25+ years.
And if you don’t already know, “Hollywood” is small. You never want to burn a bridge or spurn a collaborator simply because you never know if you’ll be working with that person in the future (or if they could recommend you for another project). No matter your path, keep in mind that if you’re trying to break in the industry for the money, you’re doing it for the wrong reason.
2. Don’t overthink a good script
MacArthur received the USS Callister script early on and mentions it was in “good order from that start,” which is “quite rare.” She notes that in England “scripts are often quite late and tend to go through several revisions before production starts.” As part of her process, she avoids reading early drafts and sticks to shooting drafts. “I often find it distracting if I know about early script changes," MacArthur admitted, "but once I get the shooting script in my hands, I’ll read it a few times, and this one, in particular, was incredible. You could tell how perfectly paced it was.”
As an editor, you’ll have to make a lot of decisions while material keeps coming in, including decisions on VFX, sound, music, addressing producer notes, director notes, studio notes, network notes, script changes, and more. It’s a lot to juggle. Hiring good assistant editors can not only help with workflow, manage footage and data, but can be a source of feedback and collaboration. Use the script as the backbone of the edit. It’s there for a reason. If you try to map out an alternative story, the entire production worked towards creating it may come back to haunt you.
3. Tell the story first
As an editor, you may have to kill some darlings that stemmed from production, i.e. that perfectly symmetrical establishing shot, a glowing sunset, or an overhead of a spiral staircase. Working in episodics, you only have so much time to tell the story. For MacArthur, the story started when Nanette Cole (Cristin Milioti) finds herself on the USS Callister which happens at the 19-minute mark of the 75-minute episode. “We wanted to get Nanette on the ship as soon as possible without being too paced in previous scenes," MacArthur revealed, "so as soon as we got her on the bridge, we were able to step away from the setup of the story and start diving in.”
It’s not just visuals and exposition you have to consider; sound is equally important when cutting episodic. For many character-based dramas and comedies, you might not have to worry too much about sound, but for something in the sci-fi genre, balancing effects and music in a way that doesn’t distract is key. “Sound should be part of the show’s character but you have to let the story breathe a little,” says MacArthur, "Toby knows the genres and understands not to throw too much at it. What makes this episode so great is that it’s a nice mixture of action, comedy, and tension, so we were able to play with the score and effects in different ways.”
4. Manage your time
“We only had 10 weeks to assemble the cut and Toby shot a lot of footage because it needed it, but with that, comes a lot of editing,” explains MacArthur. “If we had a bit more time it would have been nice, but we worked at a faster pace. Thankfully the script and performances were incredible. If we did come across story or performance problems, it would have been more difficult time to do something that big in that time frame.”
Overall, MacArthur suggests enjoying the work you do. "This was a very fun edit. To go to a place and have a great time is an incredible experience. I loved the show and love how the cut came together. If you do something you are proud of, it becomes a pleasurable experience."