Women Behind Canadian TV: Lisa Grootenboer, c.c.e.

Photo courtesy of Lisa Grootenboer
Photo courtesy of Lisa Grootenboer

There are some things that can’t be taught. Editing may be one of those things, according to Lisa Grootenboer, c.c.e. In addition to working on many feature films, Grootenboer has edited TV series from Mary Kills People and Private Eyes to X Company and Instant Star. Having no formal training in editing herself, Grootenboer has been able to work her way up through the ranks and says that in addition to training, great editors also have a great sense of intuition.

Fresh off of working on Netflix’s upcoming series Tiny Pretty Things, Grootenboer is the first editor to join our Women Behind Canadian TV series. She walked us through everything involved in the editing process and how she works closely with directors and showrunners to achieve their visions, as well as confidently give her opinions. Grootenboer also addresses gender parity at the editing position and gives her advice for those looking to break in at the position.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Can you share with us a little bit about your background and how you got into editing?

Lisa Grootenboer: I actually went to Sheridan College and studied classical animation. I knew when I was taking these courses that I didn’t have the patience to draw 24 frames/second. We were taught all aspects of making an animated film: writing, storyboarding, animating, shooting, and cutting it together. The editing, then on 16 mm film, I found to be a very logical process and came naturally to me. However, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated.

Shortly thereafter, I went to an interview at a commercial special effects house for an animating position. I didn’t get the job, but the art director looked at my reel and said I should become an editor. I gave it some thought, but in the meantime, a friend of mine who worked for this company said they desperately needed someone to fill in at reception for a couple weeks. I wasn’t doing anything else in the business and thought ‘why not?’ They ended up offering me the position on a permanent basis and I didn’t really want to be a receptionist, but ended up taking it on to get my foot in the door and I embraced it. It was an in to the industry, and I volunteered in the art and camera departments at night. Nine months later, their in-house editor left and they offered me the job.

A couple years later, I got an offer at another commercial company to be an assistant to one of the top commercial editors in town. It was an opportunity to really learn the craft, and then I started cutting for a division of this post house a couple years later. I went as far as I could with this commercial industry and decided to put out feelers to everyone in town doing longer form production. I wanted to get into long form editing. My first show was called Wild Side. It was a magazine style show about exotic animals all over the world scored to some fun music tracks. After that, I did a couple of skating and music shows, and my connections started to form.

The next thing I knew, I was called to cut Traders. That was Kari Skogland [director] and I getting our start in dramatic television. It was my first pilot. Things really took off from there, and I’ve never looked back. I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities. I’ve had a very blessed career, and while it’s certainly not over by any means, I feel fortunate that I was able to work my way up. I was never formally trained in editing, but I’ve had a lot of wonderful mentors and help along the way. You learn something new from all the people you work with every day, and I still feel like I have more to learn in this business as it’s forever progressing.

TTVJ: On a typical TV series, what does an editor do? What are your responsibilities?

LG: Days can be very different. They can be calm or absolute madness. Production shoots the material, and the next morning it gets ingested into my system, after the assistant editor logs and organizes the project. I’m provided with continuity notes and then begin cutting scenes according to the script. This is the first pass at crafting performances and working my way through the material. Once shooting is complete, I begin assembling the scenes together sequentially on a timeline. This is the stage where I focus on story aspects. Decisions become clearer when you have all the scenes put together and shaping the piece begins. Once I’m happy with picture, I’ll pass it off to my assistant to start working with sound effects.

I then begin to work with music. When I first started in the business, an editor was only expected to execute picture. However the art form has greatly evolved, and more shows are demanding the full thought process in terms of music and sound design. They want to know the intention and vibe we’re aiming for. It feels like we do the jobs of three people sometimes. After we lock picture, the show goes through another process with the sound team — sound effects editor, dialog editor, foley, composer, music editor and/or music supervisor. There are many people involved in the final process, so what I do doesn’t always make it to the final mix. In many cases it does, but our aim is to provide an intention with a lot of thought and consideration going into this work. 

When we’re in the throes of a first season, a brand-new show, we’ll take music ideas from other movies and series and work with these flavors to find a vibe. In the case of Tiny Pretty Things, we worked with many original songs. It’s one thing when you have a bar scene to throw in a song that’s playing in the background; once you have the chosen song (which takes time to find), that’s fairly simple process to execute. But you can also get into scoring scenes with songs, and that can sometimes take 3-4 hours to execute one piece. The music supervisor will provide a bank of songs, and we go through them and find one that speaks to the scene. We must find songs where the musicality feels right for the scene, and then look to the lyrics to make sure that it supports the mood, characters, and story. I then have to be able to cut music. An editor must have a musical sensibility so they can make the words fit the picture and dialogue to enhance it while maintaining true musical rhythm. You can’t just throw a song onto a scene and expect it to work. Dialogue and lyrics can fight each other, so you have to tailor these sequences very specifically. 

Lisa's AVID editing timeline for Tiny Pretty Things.
Lisa’s AVID editing timeline for Tiny Pretty Things.

TTVJ: So once you’ve cut it and added an intention through the music, what’s the next step?

LG: Once that’s all done — picture, sound effects, music – we then have our cuts in fairly good shape as it’s published for the director. We’ll then go through a notes process first, whether it be over the phone or Sype or in the same room together. I prefer having directors in  my cutting room. Working face-to-face allows for greater collaboration and we seem to create more magic together. More details emerge with face-to-face collaboration.

Somewhere between 2 – 4 days are spent with the Director’s Cut, and we then ship to the showrunner. I work with the showrunner for roughly 5 days. This is the fascinating part, getting inside the showrunner’s head. They share things that aren’t on the page, their deep perception and development of the characters. This process goes beyond subtext. Executing the showrunner’s vision can often make use of multiple takes of an actor’s performance to achieve the desired result. It becomes a ginormous puzzle to piece together at the end of the day and takes the storyline to the next level.

At the point of delivering the producer’s cut (showrunner’s cut but still referred to as a ‘rough cut’) to the network, the show is in amazing shape at that point. The desired vision is executed and networks give us their response. In my experience, when working with a strong showrunner, there are not many notes from the network. We do our best to implement the notes we receive. However, we won’t compromise a performance just to accommodate a network note. We also have to look very closely at these notes. Sometimes a note can be suggested and we need to revise an earlier section to achieve the desired result. It’s not always a literal process. We’ve also had situations where the networks say something and we think, ‘Oh, yeah.. that!’ 

It’s easy to lose sight of tiny, important details in this sea of footage, and these notes and ideas can remind us about even finer details and perspectives. Things can get executed even better than you originally thought possible. These thoughts, and a good night’s sleep, will shift your perspective to constantly refine the details of story and performance. It’s very much a team effort at the end of the day. Once we implement the network’s suggestions, we send it back as a ‘fine cut’ and will then ‘lock picture’ shortly after when everyone is happy with the piece. Once we’re locked, there (usually) are no further picture changes and it goes onto the next stage of sound design.

TTVJ: Since you are working so closely with directors and showrunners, how do you balance what they want versus adding in your own ideas and touches?

LG: It’s a very collaborative process. Directors and showrunners do look to us for our opinions. We know the footage better than anyone on the show. They’ve maybe viewed all the dailies once, and remember what they shot, but we’ve been through it so many times. We know the characters’ performances and footage better than anyone else involved with the production, so our opinions are given weight. I’m confident to give my opinion in the editing room. If I think a director or showrunner is going down the wrong path with an idea, I will speak up, but I also try to do my best to accommodate all of their thoughts and ideas, and at least give it my best shot. If these ideas don’t work, it quickly becomes clear as to why through discussion. It is an amazing process at how many different ways you can execute the cutting of a sequence. Nine times out of ten, suggestions can be accomplished.

There have been cases where others have preferred something that I didn’t, and I will further discuss these points but let it sit with us till at least the next day. If it’s still bugging me the next day, I’ll attempt to discuss once again, but if the showrunner still loves the choice I don’t, I leave it at that. I’m not perfect, and I can be wrong too. Other times I’ll come up with ideas for shots and speak with the showrunner about them. Often they will go back to production and make it happen. We’re relied on for a lot, but it’s their show at the end of the day, so we serve them the very best we can. 

This happens with both new ideas and also with challenging the existing thoughts while working the cut. This works both ways for this team. I welcome them to challenge me with the decisions made. The more you have the time to pick something apart and re-work and re-think, the better it gets. The more distance you can get from a piece, ie: good night’s sleep or even a coffee break with a fellow editor, your objectivity becomes more clear and the work gets better.

Gillian Truster, Moira Walley-Beckett and Lisa Grootenboer on Anne with an E
Gillian Truster, Moira Walley-Beckett and Lisa Grootenboer on Anne with an E

TTVJ: With shows like Anne with an E, Mary Kills People, X Company, they have female showrunners. Have you noticed any differences when working on those shows with female showrunners versus other experiences you’ve had?

LG: Based on my experience with the ladies I have worked with, there are always strong independent female lead characters on these shows. The depth of detail in which these characters were developed was so much more than female leads I have cut in the past. Female showrunners also seem to have in-depth sensitivity. They aren’t afraid of letting characters cry and have viewers spend a moment with them doing that. I remember working on a show once with male showrunners that insisted no tears be allowed on the screen at all. They felt it was stronger emotionally to see someone try to not cry, than cry. I’ve experienced the effects of both intentions and it can work beautifully both ways. It’s all very subjective.

On these shows with these strong female leads, I could feel these characters thinking and generally got more inside their heads and hearts. That’s a result of strong writing. This catapults the actors so much more into their work, and all that subtext is very evident in their eyes. These showrunners also embraced landing for quiet moments on the screen with no dialogue to allow us to feel their character’s inner emotions for more character development.

TTVJ: Thankfully, the gender gap at many BTS positions seems to be shrinking. What is it like in editing? Is that a position that’s been hard for women to break into?

LG: It’s hard for anyone to break into but It also depends on the individual. I know quite a few female editors in our community, along with many male editors as well. In the beginning days of film, it was rumored that the men would go out and shoot, and the women would edit and put the film together. The thought was women were good with their hands, thanks to knitting and all that, and so they would be great handling the fussy 16mm film.

Female editors aren’t new to the business, but it really depends on your talent and personality. I don’t think women get excluded on a general basis, at least not that I’ve seen or experienced. There’s a lot of us working, and I’ve never personally felt like I didn’t get an opportunity because I was a woman, that I know of at least. I have felt in recent years that I did get some opportunities because I am a woman. Sometimes the creators feel that a particular story might be best told from a woman’s perspective, and other times best told from a man’s perspective.

Some of the productions I’ve dealt with lately are trying to have more gender equality and more diverse crew. Mary Kills People had very close to an all-female crew (not intended, but the way it worked out), and Anne with an E had an all-female writers’ room. At the end of the day, producers do hire the crew they know and love, and it’s about the relationships they’ve nurtured more than anything. At that point it doesn’t matter if you’re female or male, but rather the trust you’ve built. 

Having said that, I was on a show once with a male showrunner that I did believe was a misogynist. I couldn’t do anything right, we didn’t get along, and it didn’t work out. We parted ways and that really was for the best. What I took away from that experience is if something about a gig is truly not sitting well, move forward and don’t let your self confidence take a hit because you’re trying to keep your reputation in tact or trying to please someone that does not connect with you. The work will suffer and you’ll own that. Not everyone connects with absolutely everyone. Someone else will be better suited for the role. Just move on and find the people you easily connect with and put your energy into those relationships. 

Editing Mary Kills People
Editing Mary Kills People

TTVJ: What about young people looking to get into the business then? Do you have any advice to share with them?

LG: Make as many contacts as you can with editors and assistants. Get your hands on as much material as you can. Cut your own stuff, have fun with it, and experiment. Great editing comes from experimenting and will allow you to get good at what you do.

Nobody can be taught to edit. You can take a course on it and study it, but it’s only an introduction to this art form. It’s very internal and instinctual. You need to rely on your inner strength and judgement. At the end of the day, ‘Does it feel right?’ I like to say to new editors to just persist, cut as much as you can, and get to know your inner voice with this craft. Develop your talents, your judgement. It takes time and experience before any young editor can fully realize what they’re capable of. 

Being a good editor is only a part of it though, as you need to have good personal skills, too. When you’re on a show with several other people, you become a family. You share lots and ideally want to inspire each other. We all have bad days, but If you have someone on your team that is a chronic complainer or in a negative headspace all the time, that doesn’t make your day any better or help the creative process whatsoever. At the end of the day, a big part of it is ‘can I have lunch or a glass of wine with you and enjoy it?’

TTVJ: Editing can be really crucial to how an episode ultimately plays out. It can really change a scene or storyline, or strongly convey a feeling to the audience. Do you have an example of a time your editing made a big difference or something you’re really proud of?

LG: I’m really proud of pretty much everything I do because I’m obsessive compulsive. However, there’s one project that was just absolutely insane. It was Iron Maiden: Flight 666. It was a documentary about the band’s career and the crew followed the band on a 25-city tour. They shot the 2.5 hour concert every single night with 3-5 cameras. There were six members in the band and they’d cover each member every night. They’d also pick one hero song from every country and shoot all the wide shots and crowds for that particular song. Kevin Shirley [music producer] took this song, mixed the live performance of it, and sent that back to me. So I’d start with a hero song and take footage from 25 other cities and incorporate it into one song. 

I don’t play guitar, but I’d listen very carefully to what I was hearing in dailies, and watch the footage very carefully. I’d then match it over top of the other performances. You can break that down into about 125 different camera angles with 310 hours of footage to choose from. I got really lucky though because the guys wore the same thing every night, and the drummer was also very consistent with his rhythm. How they played was fairly consistent and it came off looking like a 40 camera shoot. It was an unbelievable undertaking and took me 6 months to get that cut together. It ate up about a year of my life with subsequent tweaks and details. But the project was astounding in the end. Kevin took my finished cuts of the songs and remixed the tracks to sweeten the visual. So he’d boost the guitar, or drums, or bass and crowd to enhance the particular visual. This part made the live concert feeling, really come alive.

My only real problem with that entire experience was that Bruce Dickinson [lead singer] decided in Monterey, Mexico, to wear a sombrero for the hero song that night. He never had a sombrero in any of the other footage and that caused me a lot of grief. It was problematic to cut, and it came off fine at the end of the day, but it was difficult. That was one of the more unusual experiences I’ve had in my career, and I always like to talk about it because it was crazy. It came off looking quite impressive though. In a perfect world you’d take a concert like that and shoot one performance with 9-16 cameras, so this was pretty unconventional. I’m really proud of it.

TTVJ: When you’re working on a TV series, what are your favorite types of scenes to edit?

LG: I have fun with a lot of stuff. I love emotion and heavy scenes where it means a lot. I love cutting dance sequences, sex scenes, musical montages and action scenes, all of it. It’s hard to think about my favorite. Where I find I really focus is on the heavy dramatic stuff or when two characters are really having a moment. 

In Mary Kills People the kill scenes could get really emotional. I’ll never forget cutting the scene where Karen Robinson’s Betty was with her husband Victor in his final moments, already dying of cancer. Mary (Caroline Dhavernas) and Des (Richard Short) were on a rooftop preparing the champagne and pentobarbital cocktail, and Betty and Victor were having their last dance together, saying goodbye. Karen was crying in the scene and I found myself crying in the cutting room. I think this is the only time I’ve ever witnessed an actor with a quivering eyebrow. Her work was so impressive. She gave one heavy performance and I dove right into that. I love that heavy emotional stuff because it means so much and I can immerse my entire soul into it. Even during my initial assembly, I could feel that this scene would really resonate with the viewer.

TTVJ: Is there anything else you wanted to add?

LG: As much hard work as we put into editing the picture, the sound editing is really 50% of the process. After it leaves us, the dialogue gets cleaned up, more effects are implemented, they compose music, and they find the final flavor of the show. That’s probably one of the most rewarding parts of this process, to walk into a mix with everything complete. It’s the icing on the cake. We often can have problematic dialogue shot on location with noise in the background. The dialogue editors then apply their tools putting this dialogue through filters and using isotopes and plug-ins and clean it up beautifully removing that noisy background. Now we can clearly hear everything being said. As much work as I do, the average person wouldn’t appreciate watching my rough cut the way they appreciate watching the final mixed show on air.  My hat’s off to all the sound people because they are a huge part of this process. 

TTVJ: What projects do you have coming up this year?

LG: I just finished two episodes of Tiny Pretty Things for Netflix. I’m about to begin a new project, a feature film called Thirteen Minutes. It’s Lindsay Gossling’s directorial debut. The script follows the lives of four Midwest American families that  get caught up in their daily lives. They’ve become immune to tornado warnings because they get weather warnings just about everyday. The film turns into them having 13 minutes to find cover from the ultimate disaster. It has been shot, my assistant has put together the rough scenes, and now I can’t wait to start working on it with Lindsay. The script is excellent, and I think this one is really going to resonate.

 

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Tiny Pretty Things will premiere in 2020 on Netflix.

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