Congratulations to Frances Parker who received the Emmy award for "Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing For A Miniseries, Movie Or A Special" at the Creative Arts ceremony held at L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium last month. Ms. Parker edited the second episode of HBO's acclaimed cable miniseries, "Band of Brothers," which garnered a total of six Creative Arts and Prime Time Emmys this year, and her success is even more noteworthy because, as she says, "Before this I actually had no experience cutting action footage at all."
The 10-episode series based on the book by Stephen E. Ambrose depicting the World War II experiences of paratroopers in the 101st Airborne's Easy Company fighting in northern Europe, was executive-produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks and its heritage from their ground-breaking feature film "Saving Private Ryan" is evident throughout. But for Frances Parker, "it was incredibly refreshing and terribly exciting."
Frances tells us her interest in editing did not begin with a childhood love of cinema but rather by being exposed to editing at Manchester Art College in the U.K. back in the mid '70s where she and other students were let loose with cameras and a modest budget and told to experiment with the medium. "When I got to the editing stage I realized this is what I want to do," she recalls. "It's an indefinable thing, but like almost everyone who has been in a cutting room I found it totally thrilling."
At the end of the course, Frances landed a job at the BBC which she recalls as a great training ground. Moving from projectionist to assistant editor at the famed Ealing Film Studios, she earned her first screen credit as assistant editor on the milestone British dramatic serial "Pennies from Heaven." She went on to spend 24 years on that historic production lot, moving from Lightworks to Avid digital edit systems before going free-lance in the late '90s to edit the "Anna Karenina" miniseries that aired stateside last May on PBS's Masterpiece Theater.
When asked by "Band of Brothers" co-producer Tony To whether she would like to tackle one of the episodes, Frances moved up to the Hatfield aerodrome (where much of "Private Ryan" had also been shot) for episode two's six-week production schedule, which expanded into her also cutting segments eight and nine. "I think Tony To was looking for a team player, someone with whom he could get on," she reflects. "If you have enough knowledge and understand the theories involved, an editor can cut practically anything."
There were three other editors on the "Band of Brothers" series: Billy Fox, John Richards and Oral Ottey, helped by a team of shared assistants Dan Gane, Keith Mason and Jo Dale. Having never edited an action-oriented production before, Frances believed she could bring a fresh perspective to the challenge.
Frances tells us that editing episode two, titled "Day of Days," was especially "hairy" because since the first installment dealt with the men's training in England this was the first time the audience (and the men) would be introduced to combat sequences. "Spielberg was quite hands-on at that stage, which made it slightly nerve-wracking," she remembers. "He wanted the style of the story to be more experiential than descriptive so he gave the process his personal scrutiny. Fortunately, he was very complimentary about the editing so I could just relax into it."
In "Day of Days," the transport planes flying the airborne squads of Easy Company across the English Channel on D-Day are ravaged by anti-aircraft fire in a harrowing tumult of death and tragedy. Hitting the ground in Normandy, the surviving troops are scattered and lost but manage to wipe out the first German patrols they encounter. The climactic scene of the episode is their assault on the German artillery at Brecourt Manor, a textbook maneuver conducted so successfully that it is still demonstrated at West Point today.
Frances finished her first cut by the end of the six-week shooting schedule at which point the re-cutting began as the visual special effects were delivered. To begin with, it was decided that the opening sequence in which the transport planes are shot out of the sky needed to be more chaotic and less narrative. "Originally we wanted the audience to be able to follow which plane was being hit, but that quickly proved impractical since everything happens in the dark and all the soldiers wear the same uniforms," she says. "In the final cut it was intentionally as viscerally chaotic as the real experience must have been, which is what producer Tony To specifically had in mind."
Frances also poured her own creativity into the early morning scenes where Easy Company confronts German patrols. "I found it quite difficult to maintain the story line that ran through this sequence. It was not supposed to be just about killing the enemy. Underneath it all was the confrontation between the leader, Lt. Winter (played by Damian Lewis), and his subordinate, Staff Sgt. William 'Wild Bill' Guarnere (Frank John Hughes), who did not wait for his lieutenant's command to fire. It was important not to lose this plot line in the midst of all the quick cutting."
But the most memorable sequence of "Day of Days" was the ultimate assault on the three artillery batteries. After we first see the gun emplacements, the pictures start to take on a staccato, sharply defined, and eerily desaturated quality - a look that anyone who has seen "Saving Private Ryan" will never forget. Although Frances was not involved with constructing this effect while editing on her Avid, I have subsequently learned from Bruce Richmond, vice president of Production for Original Programming at HBO, that it was created when the 35 mm film was scanned into 2K files during post production. Unlike the imagery in the feature film that was accomplished mostly by reducing the angle of the shutter opening in the film camera and then manipulating the color parameters while timing the print, this effect in "Band of Brothers" was created in the digital domain, which gave them unheard of control over the color correction process.
"The impact of these images was also enhanced by the fact we almost always see the muzzle flashes of the guns, whether caught by the camera or laid-in afterwards," Frances describes. "We wanted to enhance the dramatic impact of the violence and the producers knew that audiences who had seen 'Private Ryan' would have a reference point they could relate to. So it was very effective."
LAW UNTO ITSELF
One aspect of the shooting that affected Frances' editing style was that director Richard Loncraine intentionally never shot close-ups of the Germans or anything seen from their POV. "That was absolutely deliberate," she says, "because the American soldiers would have observed the enemy only as shadowy figures in the distance. This had a great influence on my editing style."
Overall, Frances found her first assignment editing this kind of production very satisfying. As she describes it, "I found that I really, really enjoy cutting action since I discovered that all your editing tools come into play. You need to try to draw a narrative line through each sequence and establish a sense of geography to make sure the audience knows what is happening at all times. Steven Spielberg commented that I always cut on action but I felt I had simply tried to adopt a cutting style that was true to the method in which the scenes were shot. But in the end, cutting scenes with this amount of movement and variety becomes a law unto itself."
Frances is about to begin cutting a three-part BBC series called "The Key," ironically back on the rejuvenated Ealing Films Studios lot. This Emmy-winning editor's advice to other editors is, "You only learn to cut by cutting. Every two shots go together in a different way, so every film you approach is for the first time. At that point, the technique is simply intuitive and the trick is to get the confidence to go with your instincts."
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