Editor Stuart Bass Adds ScriptSync to His Bag of Avid Tricks

For the new ABC show Pushing Daisies, veteran editor Stuart Bass, ACE, (an Emmy-winner for his work on Fox's Arrested Development) employed a familiar television workflow: the show is shot in 35mm and transferred to HDCAM SR in post, and Bass works with DVCAM copies of the HD tapes at 14:1 compression on his Avid Media Composer. The new ingredient in his editorial stew this time around is Avid's ScriptSync feature, introduced this spring at NAB, which automatically matches camera takes to lines of dialogue in the show's script. We talked to him about using ScriptSync; maintaining the show's old-school editorial style in the face of pressure to cut, cut, cut; and the expanded role of the editor.
What's the tone of Pushing Daisies, and how does it compare to other programs you’ve worked on recently?
The show is non-conventional. It has a mysterious feel to it, an otherworldy feel, that exhibits itself best in the set design, which doesn’t feel contemporary. The world of Pushing Daisies is not our world. It mixes a 1950s-1940s kind of feel with the contemporary world.

The last show I did was Arrested Development, which was the complete opposite of Daisies editorially. Arrested was all about speed: tightening up speeches, lots of cuts, handheld camera. It had a docu feel. I also worked on the beginning of The Office, where you start doing jump cuts to make you feel like you’re there and catching this as it’s happening. But Daisies is like an old movie. Every shot is really planned out. Barry Sonnenfeld directed, the DP is Michael Weaver, and they stage these beautiful masters. They’re symmetrical – you could take them and fold them in half and they’d be perfect. In Barry’s words, he’s anal about it. Everything’s set. These masters are so gorgeous it felt like a shame to cut into them, so I tended to use coverage sparingly. I focused on transitions, looking for graphic elements and such to give the show a real fluidity. The pace is not like a normal TV show, where everything has to move as fast as possible.

It was a little bit of a fight. Barry is very supportive and he really likes the things I do. But as we go through the process there’s a tendency in the notes he gets from the studio and the network to want to trim things up and go into coverage. It was a little bit of a battle to retain this simplicity of cutting.

Did Barry Sonnenfeld direct only the pilot?
Barry directed the pilot and the first episode, and he’s executive producer so he has a tremendous amount of input into subsequent episodes. The genius behind the show is a guy named Brian Fuller who had a lot of input into Dead Like Me and Miracle Falls – both wonderful, out-there one-hour comedy dramas with kind of a morbid look at death, but very positive, life-affirming themes. He just recently has been on Heroes. For Dead Like Me, there was a story of a guy who can bring people back to life for a minute, but it never got made. So this was, in a way, kind of a spin-off.

You’re using the new Avid ScriptSync feature, with voice-recognition software, which was shown at NAB this year. Does it work as advertised?
It’s completely unreal. To me, in my experience it doesn’t make too much difference. But to the assistants, it makes a big difference. I have been using the scripting software in the Avid for four or five years now. A lot of people don’t even know it exists. As an editor, you don’t really see it – but as an assistant you do. On Arrested Development we used the scripting software. They would do a scene with two cameras doing cross-angles for a page or a page and a half. Very rarely would they go back to catch a master or some little pieces – but you’d get up to 15 or 16 takes of the same scene. And then an assistant editor would come in very early in the morning and put this into the scripting software manually. It could take three or four hours. But the voice recognition [in ScriptSync] has cut down the assistant editor’s time considerably.

The end result for you is you get the footage faster?
Yeah, I get the script stuff earlier in the day. But the producers don’t see the difference. They just enjoy having the scripting feature. Brian is very concerned about really subtle performance changes, so he can come in and ask me about a line and I can go immediately to the script and show him 10 or 12 different readings of that line quickly, without spinning through things. We have directors sometimes who are used to working with HD, where they don’t slate – they just slate once and keep going back and doing the takes over and over again, and then you have four or five takes within one piece of footage. So rather than spinning through those takes and trying to figure out where someone says one line four times, with the ScriptSync software you just click on it and hear the lines right next to each other, fast. So the director doesn’t see the voice recognition part. All he sees is the end result. It’s easy to see subtle performance changes, and you can be very thorough.

What if some of the line readings deviate from the scripted lines? Does that ever create a problem?
The assistant has to go through and mark those, but it’s not that hard to do. It doesn’t come up that much in Daisies. And in Arrested Development, what looked like a lot of improvisation wasn’t. You very rarely have ad libs. On Arrested they might do 10 takes, and if someone came up with a clever ad lib on the 11th take, the assistant marked it with a different color as a variation from the text.

Were you getting more footage on Arrested Development than you are on Pushing Daisies?
Arrested Development had a lot of footage with a lot of dialogue. Daisies has more action – and a lot of footage.

Does the fact that they are different kinds of shows have an impact on the way you work, or how long it takes?
The time element is totally determined by our air dates and shooting schedule. And both shows are nuts. There’s never enough time to do what you want to do. The pilot was like a feature schedule for shooting – it’s like 41 minutes and we shot it in 17 days. But the post schedule was like a television show. We only had five days to lock it. So the scripting software makes a huge difference.

Anything else unusual about this show?
Well, we have a lot of opticals. We had about 80 opticals on the pilot, but in the first episode we had 180 opticals. A lot of it is shot on blue screen, and we have built a 3D model of the city they’re in, and we place the actors in it. That’s added a level of complexity to editorial, because I’m trying my best on the Avid to simulate what the final effect will be and get the timing correct so we can get it to the optical house. A lot of times, we have to lock picture before the show is even finished shooting so opticals can be started on.

You’ve been cutting TV for 30 years, so you lived through the transition to non-linear editing.
My transition to nonlinear was in 1986. I started working on the CBS-Sony system, an experimental system. I’ve been in the nonlinear game a long time.

I don’t know if anything can rival that, but what technology and business trends have put pressure on you more recently, or changed your job fundamentally?
The biggest difference is the producers want to see something that’s more finished. Going into the 1980s, even on the nonlinear systems you only had one or possibly two audio tracks. You had no control over color-correction, you couldn’t do speed changes, you couldn’t do chroma keys. Almost anything you had to do happened in an online bay or in a different house. But now the producers and studios and networks are used to looking at something that’s got most of the sound effects in, and the music’s happening. Maybe I have to correct the color a little bit to fix things, and these composites are somewhat built. It’s a job that now entails wearing a number of hats.

As the capabilities of your Avid expand, so does your job description.
Yeah. There are people out there who are really good at color-correction. It’s all they do. It’s an art unto itself. But now they’re kind of asking picture editors to be really good at color-correction. There are guys who are really good at mixing dialogue, pulling up the right EQ and echo on dialogue, evening it out, and they’re asking editors to get the dialogue correct. And mix the music. And put in layers of sound. That’s the curse of the new equipment. People who are specialized in that, and are so good at it – and my job’s always been story and performance, not these technical aspects.

You’re being asked to be a jack-of-all-trades.
I can have a simple scene and it can take me an hour or an hour and a half to cut – but then I spend three hours doing all the stuff on top of it so it meets expectation. Sound takes longer than picture.

How did that happen?
It happened subtly, as editors realized the best way to sell a cut is to fill it out. If you have a sequence and the rhythm doesn’t seem right, you can usually throw some music underneath it and make it feel cohesive. Editors have brought it on themselves.

But it’s as if they were asking editors to be composers, too. “Can you write some music to go under that?” They would never do that. But they have no problem saying, “Let’s see how this blue screen works,” or “Can you do a morph here?” I think the expectations have become too high.

Is there a chance that will change, or are you stuck in that mode now?
I think we’re stuck in that mode. And on the lower-budget projects, the poor guys doing an industrial film or low-budget movies are expected to really do everything.

The producers really should understand that composers do their job and music supervisors do their job. Sound designers, color-correctors, all these people are very specialized and very good at what they do. You’re not going to get the same job from a guy like me. You get a better product in the end if you leave everybody to their specialization.

Your Web site, filmbutcher.com, indicates that you have an advanced sense of humor when it comes to editing for television.
Thanks. I have to tell you, this morning, I came in – I’m in the Warners lot, in the editorial building – and they were using our building as a prison set. (Laughs) It didn’t take that much to make this building look like a prison set. Where the executives and producers are housed, you could not turn those building into prison sets. But a little bit of barbed wire and some cyclone fencing and this place looks like Alcatraz!

But it's got to be rewarding to watch a program come together.
Oh, yeah. Daisies is great. It's fun. We're all hoping that the public likes it. Feedback so far has been good – but it's very different-looking.