We had the privilege of catching up recently with Adam Epstein, who has been a key member of the Saturday Night Live editorial team since 2009. He agreed to share his tips and secrets about delivering great stories in a high pressure environment.
Adam describes himself as “an editor who’s been working professionally on promos, commercials, TV and film for longer than is healthy for my lower back, and for the past five seasons I’ve been editing for the Saturday Night Live Film Unit. At SNL, the pieces we take on always come with an intense timeline: pre-produce everything Thursday, shoot everything on Friday, and have it cut and ready for air on Saturday. And while the schedule is rushed, the quality of the final piece never looks that way.
Reel: When did you start throwing celluloid on the cutting room floor and why?
Adam: Man, you make it sound such a more exciting process than it actually feels at the time. I got interested in ‘story telling’ at high school. With some friends in the pre-digital days we’d work with VHS to VHS – for fun basically and I decided that the possibilities are endless.
Then at UCLA I started a comedy show at the TV station there and eventually it took up more of my time than my scholastic pursuits. There I learned some basic lessons that put me in great stead: how to work people; how to work under deadlines and the importance of learning as many aspects of the production process as possible. It’s also where I saw the real power of editorial and how you can shape stuff after the fact and continuously find new ideas to ‘plus’ whatever it is you’re working on.
That led to ‘On-Air’ promotions where I learned how to take potentially uninspiring material and make it engaging – using rhythm and pacing, sound and graphics to build up the moment. Then onto big budget commercial posts which is much more traditional ‘film school trial by fire’ education. This was just before the digital transition so we were shooting on 35mm and it quickly became a real lesson in workflow and process, and how to be very organized and buttoned up. It was $1000 an hour in the color suite – so if you missed a piece of film on your negative pull list you were in trouble.
Reel: So what’s it like working at SNL?
Adam: Everything I did prior prepared me for my work here. Our time-lines are so fast and we’re working on a wide variety across the board. Our pieces are never the same style or vibe or technique from week to week. It’s different cameras with different tones, so being able to jump back and forth between a lot of stuff – working with a great team has been part of my success in working here.
I’ve just finished my fifth season on the show – and I must stress that the team I work with here genuinely works to together and watches each others backs, while being very supportive and trusting. Rhys Thomas – the director of the show – and I are very like-minded. The Unit Producer Justus Mclarty and Director of Photography Alex Buono are incredible and have pulled together a team that is constantly upping each other’s game.
Reel: You’re currently in the middle of a workshop tour and helping budding editors improve their game – what advice are you passing on?
Adam: Get organized! You have to come up with a way to work in a structural construct that allows you be more artistic and to focus more fully on the creative aspect of what you’re doing. Get a solid base of process so you’re not having to think about what you’re doing, so when things get intense you must be confident in your infrastructure and then able to respond to the demands of the rest of the team. Paradoxically this will let you be more free in the way you’re creatively thinking about stuff.
Reel: Who has the final say of a cut?
Adam: Ideally its a progression through a career path to a fully collaborative process. Does this happen in reality? – of course not. For me, where I’m working now, the final say is coming down to the director, writers and producers – I’m always bringing whatever I can to the work, but in the end of the day it’s going to be the Director’s name on the credits.
In other situations this can be a problem when people come into a project with opposing ideas about where they stand. So be realistic and try and discover where everyone stands with each other. You might think you’re going to be the creative genius on the project and the director sees you in purely a technical role. So get that sorted from the out-set and dissipate that issue.
Reel: Who Are Your Top 3 key influencers?
Adam: The ones I want to mention are people I’ve actually worked with and seen first hand how they operate:
Rob Watzke – an incredible commercial editor of the late ’80s, who cut all the great Nike Ads – Michael Jordan, Mars Blackmon, Spike Lee and Charles Barkley. He just really had a sense of what works and how to present what you’re doing in a way that people will have confidence in your work.
And outside of editorial – the way my Dad deals with people and pressure – a great role model. Try to be the one that keeps things moving when it gets intense.
I’m a big fan of Steven Soderbergh. The way he cuts film – the balance of traditional and experimental style and his ability to create the emotional vibe. To show how you’re in the characters head. And his stuff is just great fun.
To catch up with Adam Epstein’s CUTTING EDGE workshop tour go here for more information. It runs until September 23rd 2014 and is coming to a city near you!