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Bel-Air Pilot Editor Jennifer Barbot on Setting the Tone for Will Smith’s Peacock Series


Image via Peacock

We recently spoke to Corey Kaplan, the production designer behind Season 1 of the new Peacock series Bel-Air. This week, we chat with Jennifer Barbot, who edited the Bel-Air pilot and has worked on shows as varied as The Man in the High Castle, Ugly Betty, and Revenge.

Bel-Air stars Jabari Banks as Will Smith, a well-meaning teenager from West Philadelphia who goes to live with upper-class family members in Bel-Air, including his Uncle Phil (Adrian Holmes) and Aunt Viv (Cassandra Freeman), as well as his three cousins, Carlton (Olly Sholotan), Hillary (Coco Jones), and Ashley (Akira Akbar), plus the family’s butler, Geoffrey (Jimmy Akingbola).

The idea for the show grew out of a short film created by Morgan Cooper as a form of fan fiction, who then teamed with Malcolm Spellman, T.J. Brady, and Rasheed Newson to write the script. Will Smith serves as an executive producer on the project, which is obviously inspired by the original Fresh Prince of Bel-Air series created by Susan and Andy Borowitz.

Please enjoy our interview with Barbot below:

Jennifer Barbot
Image via IMDb

Below the Line: How did you get involved with the show?

Jennifer Barbot: I came in through a producer, a friend of mine, Deborah Lobatelli. She introduced me to the team and set up a meeting with Morgan and the executive producers. Morgan and I hit it off right away. I had seen a lot of his short films and interviews, and I had done my research. I came prepared to talk to him about his work but also about what he may want for the show. I was also able to read the script ahead of time and I thought it was really, really strong. I had a lot of thoughts, but mostly I appreciated his commitment and energy. He’s great, [and] he’s open even though he knows what he wants. He’s decisive and smart but always listens to suggestions, so it’s a great combination.

BTL: This isn’t exactly a remake, but it’s clearly based on a show that millions of people are familiar with. Did that affect how you approached putting it all together?

Barbot: I hadn’t seen the original Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for many years. I tried not to think too much about the original. This script is very different, it’s a complete reimagination, and so I really tried to come at it with fresh eyes, so to speak. However, saying that, the lead character, Will Smith, is so iconic that I was wondering, ‘Oh my gosh, who are they going to cast? How are they going to find someone [who] is so charismatic and does everything?’ Fortunately, we were successful.

Image via Peacock

BTL: You just cut the pilot, so what did you want to leave imprinted on that first episode, and how much did you have to work with?

Barbot: Morgan had a lot of coverage, a lot of directions you could go with [each] scene. Some directors have one approach, but he had a lot, [and] it was intentionally super covered. Intentional framing, intentional shots. I had a lot of hours of dailies all the time. He’s very sensitive to framing as a former DP, [and] he’s very sensitive to lighting. I could see all the options but could quickly see where he wanted to take us, more or less, and I could tell he was all over where the camera was going to be.

They started out shooting in Philly. We had night shoots. The street basketball game was there. It was so intense, and there was a lot of stuff going on. It was a lot of action with a lot of locals. I thought the dailies had a lot of energy. Same on the streets in Philly. A lot of good, natural energy. When I talked to Morgan, he wanted to have a rhythm and to use the music in that way.

It took a bit to compress it into the correct run time. And the feeling he wanted to chase was the idea that both Will and the audience were surfing through the streets, surfing through the episode. At least for the first act of the show. It was all about chasing that feeling. Editing is hard to put into words, but it’s about chasing a particular feeling for the audience.

Image via Peacock

BTL: What are the different ways in which you as an editor can influence what a show feels like?

Barbot: Well, you give it cadence. You want it to match the music. You have different cuts to different shots and how this lines up with the storytelling. I’m always asking, ‘Are we in the right place at the right time?’ Not everyone is going to feel it in the same way when they’re cutting dailies if you ask different editors, but the idea is that you’re in the right place at the right time at the end, for the audience. You also want to make sure you have the correct framings, the correct close-ups, or wide shots.

In fact, we did a lot of “micro reframing” at the backend of the process, because we had a lot of extra time at the end due to COVID. We’d do, like, a very tiny, 4 percent blowup of the shot. Just readjust it a little bit so that the headroom was a little bit more visually pleasing to us. It was like a fine-toothed comb at the end. Morgan told us he wanted it to feel like it was carefully handcrafted. And typically in TV, we are under such pressure [time-wise, because] we have subsequent episodes coming up. But this is why I only wanted to do the pilot. I didn’t want my attention pulled in other directions. I wanted the pilot to have my full attention all the time.

BTL: As an editor, you’re making choices and presumably some tough ones. Were there any like that here, such as a scene you had to cut, or something you were close to cutting but ultimately did not?

Barbot: Actually, we got essentially everything we wanted. Obviously, there was a lot of back and forth between the different entities — the producers, the director, the network. Everyone has notes about how they want to shape it. But we worked really hard to preserve the feel, the heart, and the spirit of it while keeping the interesting editing, the good music, and songs. We really worked hard to make that happen. It’s one of the few projects I’ve ever worked on that I can say we kept everything we wanted. It was hard, particularly in Philly, because people wanted us to get to Bel-Air quicker, but we had such great stuff in Philly and it was wonderful that we were able to keep it all. You need it to understand Will and his journey, and why he’s like that.

Image via Peacock

BTL: What would you ascribe that unprecedented level of experience to?

Barbot: Definitely time, that was a big bonus. We worked on it from the beginning of September almost through January. Almost a full four months, longer than most pilots. So I’d say time. And then I have to go back to Morgan. He was committed, and a wonderful collaborator on so many levels. The studio was supportive. The network was supportive. It was a good dynamic. Morgan was really able to bring [his] vision to life.

BTL: What do you think about the rest of the episodes that you didn’t work on?

Barbot: I think Jabari is wonderful, and so is the rest of the cast. They’ve all sort of popped. The stories are very interesting. There’s an important part of Will’s family’s life that is coming up that the audience will really enjoy, I think.

Season 1 of Bel-Air is currently streaming on Peacock.

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