Posting The Closer


Powerful and well-crafted original, television dramas are no longer limited to the “big three” networks or HBO. Viewer hits can be found all over the dial. One such success story is TNT’s The Closer, which has clocked in as ad-supported cable’s Number One series of all time. Golden Globe-winner Kyra Sedgwick returns for season three as the offbeat investigator and interrogator, Deputy Police Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson. The Closer comes to TNT from The Shephard/Robin Company in association with Warner Bros. Television. It is executive-produced by Greer Shephard, Michael M. Robin and James Duff. The various partners in this team have helped bring to the small screen such provocative shows as The D.A., nip/tuck, The Agency and NYPD Blue.


The new season is off and running, but the editors are already in the midst of the sixth show in a fifteen-show run. The Closer is one of a handful of high-profile shows cut on Apple’s Final Cut Pro editing software. Instead of renting Avid systems, which is the normal Hollywood business model, Shephard/Robin opted to purchase their own Final Cut editing systems. Six workstations are used by the show’s three editors (Eli Nilsen, Mike Smith and Butch Wertman) and their three assistants. Nilsen typifies today’s modern editor. She graduated from AFI just in time to bypass physical film cutting (other than in school). She’s only ever edited professionally on nonlinear systems. Working up through the ranks as an assistant, she eventually got her break on NYPD Blue, where she was promoted from assistant to editor. Along the way, she earned credits on such diverse productions as Roger Corman’s TV series, The Black Scorpion and South Park – The Movie. She even cut two feature films in her native Norway.


During a break in post, Nilsen was able to discuss her experiences on The Closer. She described the typical post schedule to me, “Each hour-long episode films in about seven or eight days. It’s shot on 35mm – often with two cameras. The show is transferred to HD and the editors receive DVCAM copies of the dailies. My editor’s cut is due about four or five days after production is wrapped. Then I get about the same with the director and another one to two weeks to finish off the producer, studio and network notes. In total, it takes about four weeks to edit The Closer, which is about the same amount of time I had on NYPD Blue.” Unlike other shows, the six NLEs on The Closer are not connected to a shared storage network, such as an Avid Unity system. Eli explained, “Each editor and assistant has their own separate workstation. Since we aren’t really sharing footage between the editors, local storage works just fine. Each editor is working on a different show with unique footage. When the dailies come in, my assistant [Susan Demskey-Horiuchi] captures them to her local drives and then ‘sneakernets’ those to me. Common elements, like music and sound effects cues, are cloned onto a set of duplicate drives for each cutting room.”


Editing Challenges That Make the Show


Like most TV shows, The Closer has its own share of special editing challenges. I asked Eli to elaborate. “Our show uses an ensemble cast, so sometimes there are six or seven actors talking in a scene. There’s overlapping dialogue, so as the editor you have to get the right dynamic between the characters and still be able to get the story across. It’s a sound editing challenge, but you also want to make sure that you maintain the right pace as you go between the different takes and angles. In addition, this is a handheld show, which is often filmed with two cameras. When they shoot coverage on the set or on location, the camera doesn’t hold a static shot of the main character, because of the handheld nature of this show. It would be too boring if the camera stayed locked down on one character. Since the camera is moving, I try to use that to my advantage to keep the editing fluid – using the camera movement to motivate the cut.”


And did this style and amount of coverage add to the workload? “The Closer uses eight or nine different directors throughout the season. They each have their own style, but, of course, try to stay consistent with the look of the show. Like any television series, some directors roll more film than others, so there are days where I’ll have over three hours of dailies. Those are only the transferred circle takes, which amount to about a third to a half of the total negative that’s exposed. So on those days, it obviously takes a lot longer just to review the takes than on days when we only have an hour of dailies. One of the FCP features I put to use for this show is multi-camera editing. I used that in Avid a lot, but I think Apple has even improved it a bit in their implementation.”


Making The Move To Final Cut Pro


Nilsen was joined in the interview by Sheelin Choksey, the show’s Co-Producer who is primarily responsible for post. I asked Choksey to explain how the decision was made to use Final Cut on The Closer. “The Shephard/Robin Company had used Final Cut Pro with great success on nip/tuck. Michael Robin, one of our three executive producers, is very post-savvy and he’s really responsible for convincing the studio that it was okay. We went through the growing pains with Final Cut on nip/tuck and had a lot of direct contact with Apple. They were very responsive, so we really love FCP. I really feel Final Cut does a better job with designing and cutting sound. As for picture, it is far superior, since we don’t work with low resolution video, which one often does on the Avid.  There, rough cuts generally look and sound very ‘temp’, but with Final Cut Pro, producers and executives often share the opinion that the rough cut is almost good enough to air.”


Nilsen explained in greater detail how she handles audio, “I always build up my cut with a full mix of sound effects and music – even the editor’s cut. Jimmy Levine, our composer, has built up a library of cues from the past two seasons that we can also use to create a temporary score. We communicate with him early, so often I’ll send him a working version of a scene and he’ll start scoring to that. Susan [assistant editor] is often building up sound effects on a show for me, using her workstation, while I continue cutting on mine. The location production mixer usually mixes the overlapping dialogue to one track, but if I need to isolate certain dialogue lines, I can get the split tracks if I need them. I find that Final Cut makes it really easy to dial in the mix. Of course, this mix is just for screening, so when I’m done the sequence is sent to our mixer as an OMF file.” Technicolor Sound Services loads these into Pro Tools and then the sound department edits the final sound effects and rebuilds the dialogue tracks from the original recordings.


A Unique Approach To Post


One unique aspect to the Shephard/Robin approach is that mixing has been brought in-house. Choksey expanded on this, “The mixer works for Technicolor, but he’s assigned to this show and works out of our offices here at Raleigh Studios. We set up a small mixing room using Pro Tools and a Pro Console. The mixer takes about two days to predub the show and then another two days with the producers, for the final mix. We’ll take the final mix on hard drives over to Technicolor for the layback to the master. Instead of mixing in a large, film-style dubbing stage, Michael Robin and Michael Weiss, the show’s Producer, wanted the mix to be a ‘near field experience’. The Closer is a TV show, so it isn’t being seen in a theater, but in living rooms. We want to be able to hear it in an environment similar to that of our viewers.” As an editor, Nilsen really liked this approach, “I love the fact that the mix happens next door. I can sit in on the mix and it gives me a chance to make sure nothing was missed.”


Right now the final, high definition, online editing is done at Encore Hollywood, complete with a daVinci tape-to-tape color grading pass. In fact, the HD-D5 tapes are conformed and mastered in a linear suite using edit decision lists (EDLs) from Final Cut Pro. Keeping an eye on the future, Sheelin let me in on some of their plans. “We are really interested in Apple’s new Final Cut Studio 2 and are considering bringing the finishing and color grading in-house, too. It hasn’t been decided yet, but that might be something we test on the last couple of episodes in this season.”


Nilsen is an editor who’s made the transition from Avid to Final Cut Pro, so I asked her for some personal impressions. “First of all, it’s great because Final Cut is so affordable,” she said. “This gives you a lot of freedom. The Closer has six systems that each only cost about $10,000, which in total, is less than Avid rental would typically cost for a season. More important to me is that I can afford to own a system at home. I’m a young mother, so sometimes I’ll take the drives home and work on an episode there. This gives me a chance to spend more time with my kids and that’s very liberating. In addition, the assistants have greater access to the project and can cut some scenes on their own, giving them a way to hone their own skills.”


The Shephard/Robin Company currently is in development on a new series for Warner Bros. called State of Mind. Like nip/tuck and The Closer, State of Mind will also be edited on Final Cut Pro. Shephard/Robin hopes to follow the same winning formula, by keeping as many of the resources as possible under one roof.


Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)