BWW Interview: Editor Aaron Marshall Talks Vikings and The Handmaid's Tale
Aaron Marshall, who edits the History channel's VIKINGS and Hulu's THE HANDMAID'S TALE took the time to speak with us about his career as an editor, his work on the shows, and advice for breaking into the industry.
How did you get into filmmaking, and more specifically editing?
I grew up in a house with a lot of technology in it. As a kid I had a lot of movies and TVs. We were one of the few people who had two VCRs, which in the 80s was a strange thing. And we also had video cameras. So I would make little films, stop-motion animations, and I would use the gear we had to just do really crude edits of this stuff. When I was 10, 11, 12 years old, I really enjoyed that kind of stuff. By the time I was in high school I knew that I wanted to go to film school. I ended up going to a small film school, Queen's University, which is in Ontario-not to far from where I grew up in Toronto. It was a very small film school that was more of a theory and history of film focus than a production focus, but we did a fair amount of filmmaking. Going through all those different phases of the process, I decided I really enjoyed editing the most and that it was the best fit for me. I was lucky enough to come out of school in the late 90s, at a time when things were pretty good in the Toronto industry and there was a lot of service production-American Hollywood films would come shoot here. They'd be shooting on film and bring up their editors-they had pretty big crews. Some of those films had about 10 people in editorial so it was a great place for me to learn and meet people. So right out of school I was lucky enough to get into the industry relatively quickly. I did my time as an assistant for 13 years and managed to come out cutting on the other side.
I know that you've worked on quite a few TV shows, is that you enjoy editing most?
TV is great. I don't know if there is anything that I would enjoy more than something else. It really is more about the quality of the show itself or the movie, and the people involved. In terms of how fun and satisfying it is, it comes down to how great the director, actors, and all the people are. What's amazing about TV in this current era is that it's really become home of series drama, of good drama. Movies have really changed over the time that I've been in the business. The $20 million adult-oriented drama is a very rare thing now. You've got mega blockbusters and tiny indies-not a great deal in between. TV is where the $20 million, Oscar-bait movies, have moved into TV drama. Things like PENNY DREADFUL or THE HANDMAID'S TALE, that's some great drama from the perspective of category or genre. In that sense TV is a great place to be if you're interested in that kind of storytelling.
How did you get involved with the History channel's VIKINGS?
I was finishing a movie called THE COLONY and I had actually never-in my editing career-worked on TV, except for a couple TV movies. I had known some people at a company in Toronto called Take 5 Productions, which is a co-producer of VIKINGS-they handle all the post in Canada for the show. I had a contact at Take 5 and my agent got me an interview before I knew anything about the show. I was able to get in on the very first season and I've been there ever since. Now we're in production for season 6 so it's been quite an incredible and long ride.
What is the editing process like for VIKINGS?
Like a lot of TV shows, they block shoot it, which means they shoot two episodes at a time with the same director. So they'll plan it almost like its own shoot-the director of a given block will do prep for a month and then they'll shoot for four weeks. They'll shoot the two episodes simultaneously and make use of the locations occurring in both episodes.
If it's a block of two, there will be two editors-one for each show in the block. Sometimes there will be blocks of three, so there will be three editors receiving the footage for the three shows they're shooting simultaneously. This means we don't get buried in footage too badly because you're never getting everything they do within those four weeks-one editor isn't getting all the footage. However, it starts to pile up because as soon as they finish Block One, they move immediately into Block Two. So you'll be getting dailies on Block Two while you're cutting with the director on Block One, and so on, as you go through a ten-episode run. By the time you get into Block Three you might have three or four shows going at the same time-one with dailies, one with the director, one at the producer's cut stage, and one that's in the network cut stage. So it can be a lot of balls to juggle. But thankfully we have a great team here. Right now there are three editors and three assistants. It's a well-oiled machine by season 6.
How much creative freedom do you get when cutting the episodes? Is it pretty clearly lined out or do you get to experiment and see what works?
The nice thing is, especially with this show, there are actually quite a lot of opportunities to experiment. We have an amazing writer/showrunner, Michael Hirst, who not only has written every episode, which is unheard of in series television-there isn't a writer's room, he is the only writer-but he is also the showrunner. But he's kind of an unusual showrunner because he's writing all the time. He's a bit more hands-off than some showrunners. He tries to hire really great people and gives them a lot of latitude. The directors get quite a bit of latitude on their end and they'll meet with Michael about the script and make changes. On the first cut for the editors, we're trying to do what we anticipate the director, producers, and network will ultimately want. We keep all of that in mind, but the first cut is the editor's cut. We get to interpret the footage and build the show the way we think it should be built. Then the director comes in and they get four days per episode to do their cut with us. Then the producers get a run and then the network, and it's this whole process of back and forth. By this point, we know the show so well and the editors instinctively know how VIKINGS is supposed to feel, look, and sound. The first season is where you're really trying to figure out how the show is going to look. This far in, there is an aesthetic guidepost that we have, so we know instinctively what to do. Also, they do a great job on the production side with production design, cinematography, and with the actors, of keeping things very consistent within the VIKINGS world.
Do you edit VIKINGS on Avid?
We do. The first season was edited on Final Cut Pro because that's what they had at Take 5, but that was the end of the Final Cut Pro era. Thankfully, for my sake, we switched to Avid for season two, which I was grateful for. I'm an Avid guy.
There are so many battle scenes in VIKINGS, how are those to edit? How do you approach something that massive?
One of the great things about shooting in Ireland is they'll have enormous resources that would just be too expensive elsewhere. They're lucky enough to get a huge number of extras, horses, and these great locations. Depending on the battle, we might have four or five days dedicated to shooting it. It's all shot with multiple cameras, drones, helicopters, and second units, so we get a huge amount of material. The second unit would shoot more stunts, specific pieces of action, and more dangerous things involving fire or water. So we end up with a great hunk of stuff. In editorial, I've always approached it by combing through it all and making selects. I'll watch every single shot and start picking pieces of action that look great and tell the story and I'll put them all in a timeline. Not only does that help me make sure I've used every great bit of film that they've done, but by watching it all carefully I learn what the choreography of the battle is supposed to be and exactly what's supposed to happen. Then I can start building it based on those little pieces of selects. So I end up with these huge timelines, maybe an hour long, just of little select pieces. I take those and start trying to put them in order. Usually I'm doing all of that without sound. It's not until I have a pretty good working assembly of the whole thing in which the geography and flow makes sense and I can understand how the battle is progressing that I start putting sound in. We have very strong assistant editors here who will cut some sound effects because the sound component of those big battles is enormous. Then we start putting music on it and we've got an assembly. Inevitably, those assemblies shrink when we're working with the director and producers. Sometimes we're taking chunks out for clarity in the battle.
You've also got to take the visual effects component into consideration. There might be an army of 3,000 people-well we only have so many extras so they will have to paint more people in. So you've got to use your wide shots carefully and know when you're building the battle that there will be more people in the frame or catapults launching, etc. So much of that stuff is invented entirely digitally. We have a great visual effects company called Mr. X that does all the high level effects on the show. But sometimes the visual effects shots in those big battles, like in season 5 episode 10 (Moments of Vision), take six months to create. They take a huge amount of time. So you're working with temps as you go, and in the early days, pretty much empty frames. You have to use your imagination to figure out the timing. We get battles on a scale that not many TV shows have and it's a really rare treat for an editor to get to deal with action sequences that big.
Can you talk about your approach to the season 5 finale (Moments of Vision)? With the flashbacks and visions cut into the battle, what was it like to edit in comparison to the other battles?
That one was great. It's funny because it seems like such a battle episode but if you compare it to some of our other episodes, there's not actually that much fighting. It's so much more personable. You're getting into the characters' heads in a very intimate way. It wasn't actually as time-consuming as some previous battle-centric episodes. It was a great experience because both the director and Michael Hirst really embraced the nonlinear narrative element with all the flashbacks. There are all of these subjective moments in the characters' heads while they're in the battle. As an editor, it's a lot of fun because you get to play around with time and space and you get to do all these subjective things. We've done so many linear, traditional battles, that it was really nice to get to do something like that. It wasn't actually hugely time-consuming to edit, it was really fun.
You also edit some episodes of Hulu's THE HANDMAID'S TALE, which involves a lot of subtext and slower pacing to sculpt the silence, what's it like editing that show?
It's a totally different animal, which is one of the reasons I love being able to work on it and VIKINGS at the same time. Especially last season I was working on VIKINGS and THE HANDMAID'S TALE literally at the same time. With Handmaid's you're trading much more in reactions, silences, the pauses between words, and letting performances play out organically. It's a treat for me. When you have actors of that caliber and writing of that caliber, and every other department at the top of their game, it's such a treat for an editor. You're never in triage mode. You're never trying to save anything; it's already so good. You're just trying to get every ounce of drama, pain, and emotion out of it.
Is there something that comes to mind out of the work you've done that stands out as your favorite?
The second episode of THE HANDMAID'S TALE I did, season 2 episode 11 (Holly) really stands out because I just think it was so beautifully written and acted. It's THE ONE where she has the baby in the lake house. That was a really great experience in terms of being so happy with how that show turned out and it's always fun to have a bottle episode like that where there's seldom dialogue and you're trading so much just on reactions. That was really fun, definitely a high point in terms of the stuff I've worked on.
Do you have any advise for editors trying to break into the industry and find work?
One of the tricky things about this industry is that there isn't one simple, single way to do it. I took the approach of working as an assistant. Try to get yourself in the cutting room as a P.A. or a Post P.A., etc. and depending on where you are sometimes the union guilds will have apprenticeship programs. You want to get your foot in the door of the cutting room and talk to as many assistants and editors as you can. Work really hard. I followed that path and worked 13 years as an assistant. I ended up becoming the 1stassistant to a really great, successful editor who was doing a lot of big studio movies. I worked with him for about seven years and the more I worked with him, the more sound work I did, the more visual effects work I did, like temping, and eventually I was creating assemblies, culminating with me co-editing a movie with him. So that credit was hugely helpful to me and allowed me to start working on my own as an editor.
The name of the game is convincing someone to hire you to cut their movie or TV show. Some people manage to start cutting without ever being an assistant and that's based on the relationships with people you went to film school with and on networking-like if you cut a short for an up-and-coming director who then manages to land a feature. I know a number of editors who spent very little time being assistants and jumped right into cutting but that's just all about finding someone who will TRUST you with their movie.
Do you have any upcoming projects you could tell us about?
We're still cranking away on VIKINGS season six. I know they just announced that the second half of season five is airing in November. I think in October I'll be back on THE HANDMAID'S TALE so hopefully I'll be juggling those two at the same time again.
Clip from VIKINGS season 5 finale, Moments of Vision: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-M9w1rHKWZM
Clip from THE HANDMAID'S TALE season 2 episode 11, Holly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhyNym8NlGI
IMAGE Courtesy of the History channel/Jonathan Hession