The Handmaid’s Tale

With tons of broadcast, web, and set-top outlets for dramatic television, there’s a greater opportunity than ever for American audiences to be exposed to excellent productions produced outside of Hollywood or New York. Some of the most interesting series come out of Canada from a handful of production vendors. One such company is Take 5 Productions, which has worked on such co-productions as Vikings, American Gothic, Penny Dreadful, and others. One of their newest offerings is The Handmaid’s Tale, currently airing in ten, hourlong episodes on Hulu, as well as being distributed internationally through MGM.

The Handmaid’s Tale is based on a dystopian novel written in 1985 by Margaret Atwood. It’s set in New England during the near future, when an authoritarian theocracy has overthrown the United States government and replaced it with the Republic of Gilead. The population has had declining births due to pollution and disease, so a class of women (the handmaids), who are considered fertile, are kept by the ruling class (the Commanders) as concubines for the purpose of having their children. This disturbing tale and series, with its nods to Nazi Germany and life behind the Iron Curtain, not to mention Orwell and Kubrick, stars Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men, The One I Love, Girl, Interrupted) as Offred, one of the handmaids, as she tries to survive her new reality.

The tone of the style and visuals for The Handmaid’s Tale was set by cinematographer-turned-director, Reed Morano (Frozen River, Meadowland, The Skeleton Twins). She helmed three of the episodes, including the pilot. As with many television series, a couple of editors traded off the cutting duties. For this series, Julian Clarke (Deadpool, Chappie, Elysium) started the pilot, but it was wrapped up by Wendy Hallam Martin (Queer As Folk, The Tudors, The Borgias). Hallam Martin and Christopher Donaldson (Penny Dreadful, Vikings, The Right Kind of Wrong) alternated episodes in the series, with one episode cut by Aaron Marshall (Vikings, Penny Dreadful, Warrior).

Cutting a dystopian future

I recently spoke with Wendy Hallam Martin about this series and working in the Toronto television scene. She says, “As a Canadian editor, I’ve been lucky to work on some of the bigger shows. I’ve done a lot of Showtime projects, but Queer As Folk was really the first big show for me. With the interest of outlets like Netflix and Hulu, budgets have increased and Canadian TV has had a chance to produce better shows, especially the co-productions. I started on The Handmaid’s Tale with the pilot, which was the first episode. Julian [Clarke] started out cutting the pilot, but had to leave due to his schedule, so I took over. After the pilot was shot (with more scenes to come), the crew took a short break. Reed [Morano] was able to start her director’s cut before she shot episodes two and three to set the tone. The pilot didn’t lock until halfway through the season.”

One might think a mini-series that doesn’t run on a broadcast network would have a more relaxed production and post schedule, akin to a feature film. But not so with The Handmaid’s Tale, which was produced and delivered on a schedule much like other television dramatic series. Episodes were shot in blocks of two episodes at a time with eight days allotted per episode. The editor’s assembly was due five days later followed by two weeks working with the director for a director’s cut. Subsequent changes from Hulu and MGM notes result in a locked cut three months after the first day of production for those two episodes. Finally, it’s three days to color grade and about a month for sound edit and mix.

Take 5 has its own in-house visual effects department, which handles simple VFX, like wire removals, changing closed eyes to open, and so on. A few of the more complex VFX shots are sent to outside vendors. The episodes average about 40 VFX shots each, however, the season finale had 70 effects shots in one scene alone.

Tackling the workload

Hallam Martin explained how they dealt with the post schedule. She continues, “We had two editors handling the shows, so there was always some overlap. You might be cutting one show while the next one was being assembled. This season we had a first and second assistant editor. The second would deal with the dailies and the first would be handling visual effects hand-offs, building up sound effects, and so on. For the next season we’ll have two firsts and one second assistant, due to the load. Reed was very hands-on and wanted full, finished tracks of audio. There were always 24 tracks of sound on my timelines. I usually handle my own temp sound design, but because of the schedule, I handed that off to my first assistant. I would finish a scene and then turn it over to her while I moved on to the next scene.”

The Handmaid’s Tale has a very distinctive look for its visual style. Much of the footage carries a strong orange-and-teal grade. The series is shot with an ARRI ALEXA Mini in 4K (UHD). The DIT on set applies a basic look to the dailies, which are then turned into Avid DNxHD36 media files by Deluxe in Toronto to be delivered to the editors at Take 5. Final color correction is handled from the 4K originals by Deluxe under the supervision of the series director of photography, Colin Watkinson (Wonder Woman, Entourage, The Fall). A 4K (UHD) high dynamic range master is delivered to Hulu, although currently only standard dynamic range is streamed through the service. Hallam Martin adds, “Reed had created an extensive ‘look book’ for the show. It nailed what [series creator] Bruce Miller was looking for. That, combined with her interview, is why the executive producers hired her. It set the style for the series.”

Another departure from network television is that episodes do not have a specific duration that they must meet. Hallam Martin explains, “Hulu doesn’t dictate exact lengths like 58:30, but they did want the episodes to be under an hour long. Our episodes range from about 50 to 59 minutes. 98% of the scenes make it into an episode, but sometimes you do have to cut for time. I had one episode that was 72 minutes, which we left that long for the director’s cut. For the final version, the producers told me to ‘go to town’ in order to pace it up and get it under an hour. This show had a lot of traveling, so through the usual trimming, but also a lot of jump cuts for the passage of time, I was able to get it down. Ironically the longest show ended up being the shortest.”

Adam Taylor (Before I Fall, Meadowland, Never a Neverland) was the series composer, but during the pilot edit, Morano and Hallam Martin had to set the style. Hallam Martin says, “For the first three episodes, we pulled a lot of sources from other film scores to set the style. Also a lot of Trent Reznor stuff. This gave Adam an idea of what direction to take. Of course, after he scored the initial episodes, we could use those tracks as temp for the next episodes and as more episode were completed, that increased the available temp library we had to work with.”

Post feelings

Story points in The Handmaid’s Tale are often exposed through flashbacks and Moss’ voice over. Naturally voice over pieces affect the timing of both the acting and the edit. I asked Hallam Martin how this was addressed. She says, “The voice over was recorded after the fact. Lizzie Moss would memorize the VO and act with that in mind. I would have my assistant do a guide track for cutting and when we finally received Lizzie’s, we would just drop it in. These usually took very little adjustment thanks to her preparation while shooting. She’s a total pro.” The story focuses on many ideas that are tough to accept and watch at times. Hallam Martin comments, “Some of the subject matter is hard and some of the scenes stick with you. It can be emotionally hard to watch and cut, because it feels so real!”

Wendy Hallam Martin uses Avid Media Composer for these shows and I asked her about editing style. She comments, “I watch all the dailies from top to bottom, but I don’t use ScriptSync. I will arrange my bins in the frame view with a representative thumbnail for each take. This way I can quickly see what my coverage is. I like to go from the gut, based on my reaction to the take. Usually I’ll cut a scene first and then compare it against the script notes and paperwork to make sure I haven’t overlooked anything that was noted on set.” In wrapping up, we talked about films versus TV projects. Hallam Martin says, “I have done some smaller features and movies-of-the-week, but I like the faster pace of TV shows. Of course, if I were asked to cut a film in LA, I’d definitely consider it, but the lifestyle and work here in Toronto is great.”

The Handmaid’s Tale continues with season one on Hulu and a second season has been announced.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

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