'Modern Family' Editing Earns Emmy

When asked about her creative contribution as editor to the success of ABC's sitcom "Modern Family," Ryan Case, the winner of this year's Emmy for "Outstanding Picture Editing For A Comedy Series," mused, "I'd have to say the number one reason is my sense of humor. That's the main asset a comedy editor should have and luckily mine is in tune with my bosses."

Of course, when Case was awarded her statuette during the Aug. 21, 2010 Creative Arts Emmy Awards at Los Angeles's Nokia Theater, she could not know that "Modern Family" would also win for "Outstanding Comedy Series" during the 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards just a week later, breaking the three-year winning streak of NBC's "30 Rock." That brought the show's 2010 Emmy total to six, including Outstanding Writing, Supporting Actor, Sound Mixing, and Casting.


Winning this Emmy was a dream come true for Case since she's been in love with editing ever since she put together home movie projects as a kid.

Emerging from NYU Film School in 2001 she made it to Los Angeles by 2003 where she got a gig logging tapes for the "Real World" reality show so she could be in a post-production environment.

Several jobs later she had earned her Editors Guild union card and attained the editor's chair on ABC's "Carpoolers." That's where Case met the person she refers to as "my director," Jason Winer, which lead her to cutting the pilot of "Modern Family."

Case has cut every other episode of "Modern Family" in its two-season run, trading off with editor Jonathan Schwartz, while commanding an Avid Nitris DS v5.5 system with the help of assistant editor Ken Woodburn.

The show is shot single-camera style in 1080i HD, primarily using a Sony F35 CineAlta digital cinematography camera, although a second HD camera is often used for extra coverage.

ABC’s “Modern Family” stars Eric Stonestreet as Cameron; Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Mitchell; Sofía Vergara as Gloria; Nolan Gould as Luke; Ty Burrell as Phil; Ariel Winter as Alex; Ed O’Neill as Jay; Julie Bowen as Claire; Rico Rodriguez as Manny and Sarah Hyland as Haley. Photo: ABC/Bob D’Amico
"They shoot a five-day week starting on Monday," she said, "so I start cutting on Tuesday and usually have my first cut by the Monday of the following week for review by the director—whichever of the executive producers/creators, Steven Levitan or Christopher Lloyd, is on set for that episode."

Actually, Case often sends a DVD to the writer who penned that episode, too, to get his/her input. She then ingests their notes and makes any needed adjustments to her cut. But on the pilot, for which she won the Emmy, there weren't many changes needed because, as she put it, "The writing is just that good."

From an editor's eye, it is very apparent that the power of editing's structure is a key element to the very concept of "Modern Family." Just as the aesthetic of editing takes disparate elements and by juxtaposing them creates a new, unique concept, the plot construction of "Modern Family" trusts its viewers to accept the fact that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


In the pilot episode, directed by Jason Winer, produced by Jeff Morton and written by the series' executive producers, we are first introduced to the Dunphy family headed by Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell) and wife Claire (Julie Bowen) and their three kids in what seems a typical middle-class kitchen setting.

Next, straight cut to the Pritchett family where elderly white father, Jay Pritchett (Ed O'Neill) and his fiery Columbian wife Gloria (Sofía Vergara) are cheering on their son's soccer game.

Then straight cut to an airliner's interior where two gay men, Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) are transporting their newly adopted Vietnamese baby back home. Pretty familiar sitcom stuff, right?

Each vignette includes interplay between the main characters and their everyday lives, and is bookended by what appears to be an on-camera interview where the couples in question explain intimacies of their relationship while the length of their marriage is revealed either by their own declarations or lower-third graphics. The opening ends with snap pullbacks from each group's family portrait to show the whole cast in a group ensemble shot.

The plot advances with updates from each family group's individual story lines as they work out the bumps in their lives, interspersed by more on-camera interview snippets.

Ryan Case This format challenges the audience to accept the multilevel narrative driven by the editing, which is propelled through both the writing and the post-production cutting.

It becomes increasingly apparent that the concept of "Modern Family" is intended to include the viewing audience as the glue of its story thread since the actors repeatedly break character to look directly at the camera even during their scripted personal interactions.

Later, when Cameron announces to Mitchell that he has invited "the family" over for dinner to introduce their new baby, we get the first hint that something multigenerational is going to be involved. But it is only in the third act, when the family arrives at Cameron and Mitchell's door, that we learn that all these folks are either the offspring of Jay Pritchett or married to one of his progeny. Bingo! The whole of "Modern Family" has become greater than the sum of its parts.

"We call it 'documentary style,' but the audience is not supposed to imagine actual filmmakers in the house," Case said. "It's just a way of letting the viewers participate in the various families of the show."

Wanting to make it clear that all of the video editing in a show like "Modern Family" is a collaborative effort, Case does take some personal pride in the little father/son escapade that caps the pilot where Ty Burrell is teaching his son Luke (Nolan Gould) the pitfalls of trying to best Dad at basketball.

"Jason shot this scene unscripted and on the fly, so I had a lot of leeway in cutting it together," she said. "I've always liked improv, and when I pieced this scene together he immediately said this should be the episode's tag. That's what I would call 'pure editing.'"

Jay Ankeney is a freelance editor and post-production consultant based in Los Angeles. Write him at 220 39th St. (upper), Manhattan Beach, Calif. 90266 or atJayAnkeney@mac.com.

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