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Editors as Writers

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As any starving writer will
tell you, reality shows don’t have
a script. “They hand you something
called a script, but in reality
it’s just a shot list,” says Ken
Bornstein, a reality-show editor
with an episodic and feature-film
background who has worked on
Bachelorette, Are You Hot?, Spy
TV, Jamie Kennedy Experiment,
Classmates and Faking the Video.
When it comes down to it, it’s
the footage that dictates what the
show is going to be. And it’s the
construction of the edit that dictates
the final story.
“Certain shows shoot like
crazy,” says documentary and
reality-TV editor Katherine
Bransten, who is currently cutting
The Swan. (She has also worked
on Survivor, Eco-Challenge and
The Restaurant.) For an hourlong
show, there may be as many
as 200 hours of dailies. Loggers
go through all the footage, listing
the “B-roll”—shots that can help
tell the story—and transcribe
the dialog. From the logbooks,
segment producers then develop
the script by selecting the parts
to use in the episode, including
“bites”—short segments of catchy
dialog. A good segment producer
will look at the tapes to see if the
log accurately reflects what was
shot, and if the footage actually
works; if the footage isn’t looked
at, important moments can be
missed.
Reality shows typically have
around 10 editors on staff, and a
show will be completed over the
course of 8–12 weeks. At most
of these shows, at the beginning
of the week each editor gets 30
pages of script. From that footage
numerous stories can be told.
The segment editors must choose
the moments, cutting down the
material into a five-minute segment.
They look for moments
that will highlight a character
and create a story around and
between characters, as well as
advance the show’s overall storyline.
Some characters demand
more screen time—they may be
more interesting to watch or create
drama for the show.
On the larger shows the productions
value are high, but
much of reality TV runs on very
tight budgets, which translates
to less-than-ideal camera crews.
A production assistant may be
the one shooting a second camera
using DV. So when the editor
gets footage from one camera
and has to create a scene with
two people, it can be almost
impossible to cut. The editor
has to invent tricks like stealing
reactions from previous scenes
to make the edit work.
“When you feel that you’re
lacking something, you’ve got
to go hunting,” says Bornstein.
“You have to go through the logs
to find something that may fit,
or may help a transition or help
build a moment. It’s like panning
for gold.”
Reality shows are driven almost
entirely by dialog and sound. An
episode ought to make sense
even if you listen to it without
images. But sometimes a character
needs to say something that
was never said. In those instances,
editors piece together a so-called
“Franken-bite”—a new line constructed
from parts of different
lines. Not as easy as it sounds,
since voice tone will most likely be
different on the different parts.
Sometimes the editor has to
cover bad footage with effects
such as split screens, quad screens
and sped-up footage. “You can
do a whole host of things to
dress up truly awful footage,”
says Bornstein. “Which is why,
when you look at a lot of reality
shows, they’re so tricked up.” He
describes reality as “the fast food
of television.”
Reality editors build a “stringout”—
an assembly of clips that
the segment producer has selected
that usually runs long, says
Bornstein. “If they want a sixminute
piece, I bring it down
to about eight or nine minutes.
Then I start cutting from first
frame.”
Editors rarely cut an entire
episode, instead focusing on twoto
three-minute segments, called
“pods.” These are then assembled
by one or more finishing editors,
who construct the edit making
sure there is a strong story arc.
Sometimes, these finishing editors
are also producers. Three to
four hours of story can be cut for
a 40-minute show. It’s not easy
to predict how an episode will
turn out, according to Bransten.
“Sometimes you have great expectations
and it just doesn’t work,”
she says.
She further observes that the
editors are often the ones who
make the show. “On some shows
the producers have a strong role,
but over the last few years I have
experienced exactly the opposite,”
says Bransten. “The editor is the
one who tells the story.”
Bornstein agrees. “Often pro-ducers have only a vague notion
of what they want, and then leave
you alone to stir the creative juices.
They don’t have an idea until
you put it together and they watch
it,” he says.
On Survivor, however, the producer
watches all of the footage,
writes the story and acts as finishing
editor. The best producers
usually have an editing background.
This type of collaboration
is helpful to the segment editors.
Bachelorette has a definite
format, but they give the editor a
lot of freedom to deviate from the
script. Generally there is no formula.
Some may be constructed
in four acts, others have six.
All shows have one thing in
common, says Bransten: they’re a
lot of work. “If you’re lazy, forget
it. You’ll never get a good cut. You
need to watch everything, even
if it is excruciatingly boring. You
have to be alert to what’s going on
and to anything that will help the
story. That’s where the editor has
a very significant role to play.”

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