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Postapocalyptic Post

Editing and Finishing AMC's 'Fear the Walking Dead' 8/31/2015 3:15 PM Eastern
Kim Dickens as Madison Clark, a high school
guidance counselor
Photo by Justin Lubin/AMC

In 2010, cable network AMC amped up the zombie genre with The Walking Dead, an enormously successful postapocalyptic television series based on the series of comic books of the same name by Robert Kirkman. Building on that success, AMC and the show's producers are launching a new series that can be viewed as a companion story to The Walking Dead, albeit without any overlapping characters. The six episodes of Fear the Walking Dead's first season debut on AMC on August 23. (AMC has already committed to a second season of Fear the Walking Dead, which will air in 2016 and will have 15 episodes.)

Fear the Walking Dead takes place in Los Angeles, across the country from the first show's Southern locale. In another contrast, while The Walking Dead went from zero to apocalypse within the pilot's first few minutes, Fear the Walking Dead takes its time unraveling civilization, showing us how the zombie apocalypse began and revealing the disintegration of society through the disintegration of the two families at the heart of its story.

Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) finds love with Travis Manawa
(Cliff Curtis), the high school English teacher, before the
world ends.
Photo by Justin Lubin/AMC

Unlike The Walking Dead, which is shot on 16mm film, Fear the Walking Dead is being shot digitally with ARRI Alexa cameras and anamorphic lenses. That's in an effort to separate the two visual styles while maintaining cinematic quality. I recently spoke with Tad Dennis, editor of two of the first season's six episodes, about the production.

Tad Dennis began his career as an assistant editor on several reality TV shows. He says, "I started in reality TV and then got the bump-up to full-time editing [Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, America's Next Top Model, The Voice]. However, I realized my passion was elsewhere and made the shift to scripted television. I started there again as an assistant and then was bumped back up to editing [Fairly Legal, Manhattan, Parenthood]. Both types of shows really do have different workflows, so when I shifted to scripted TV, it was good to start back as an assistant. That let me be very grounded in the process."

Daniel Salazar (played by Ruben Blades) and his wife, Griselda
Salazar (Patricia Reyes Spíndola)
Photo by Justina Mintz/AMC

Creating a New Show with a Shared Concept
Dennis says of Fear the Walking Dead, "We think of this series as more of a companion show to the other and not necessarily a spin-off or prequel. The producers went with different cameras and lenses for a singular visual aesthetic, which affects the style. In trying to make it more 'cinematic,' I tend to linger on wider shots and make more selective use of tight facial close-ups. However, the material really has to dictate the cut."

Three editors (Victor DuBois, Chris McCaleb and Tad Dennis) and three assistant editors work on the Fear the Walking Dead series, with each editor/assistant team cutting two of the six shows of season one. They are all working on Avid Media Composer systems connected to an Avid ISIS shared storage solution. Scenes were shot in both Vancouver and Los Angeles, but the editing teams were based in Los Angeles. Alexa camera media was sent to Encore Vancouver and Encore Hollywood, depending on the shooting location. Encore staff synced sound and provided the editors with Avid DNxHD editorial media. The final color correction, conform and finishing were handled at Encore Hollywood.

Frank Dillane as Nick Clark, a teenager facing an addiction
and the undead
Photo by Justin Lubin/AMC

Dennis describes how post on this show differs from other network shows he's worked on, saying, "With this series, everything was shot and locked for the whole season by the first airdate. On other series, the first few shows will be locked, but then for the rest of the season it's a regular schedule of locking a new show each week until the end of the season. This first season was shot in two chunks for all six episodes—the Vancouver settings first and then the Los Angeles scenes. We posted everything for the Vancouver scenes and left holes for the L.A. parts. The shows went all the way through director cuts, producer cuts and network notes with these missing sections. Then when the L.A. portions came in, those scenes were edited and incorporated. This process was driven by the schedule. Although we didn't have the pressure of a weekly airdate, the schedule was definitely tight." Each of the editors had three to four days to complete his cut of an episode after receiving the last footage. Then the directors got another four days for their cut.

Often films and television shows go through adjustments as they move from script to production to the final edit. Dennis feels this is more true of the first few shows in a new series than with an established series. He explains, "With a new series, you are still trying to establish the style. Often you'll rethink things in the edit. As I went through the scenes, performances that were coming across as too 'light' had to be given more weight. In our story, the world is falling apart, and we wanted every character to feel that all the way through the show. If a performance didn't convey a sense of that, then I'd make changes in the takes used or mix takes, where picture might be better on one and audio better on the other."

Taking place in the same universe as The Walking Dead,
Fear the Walking Dead explores the onset of the undead
apocalypse through the lens of a fractured family.
Photo by Justin Lubin/AMC

Structure and Polish in Post
Despite the tight schedule, the editors still had to deal with a wealth of footage. Typical of most hour-long dramas, Fear the Walking Dead is shot with two or three cameras. For specific moments, the director may elect to have some of the footage shot at 48 fps. In the cases where cameras ran at different speeds, Dennis would treat them as separate clips. When cameras ran at the same speed (for example, at 24 fps for sync sound), such as in dialogue scenes, Susan Vinci (assistant editor) would group the clips as multicam clips.

Dennis explains, "The director really determines the quality of the coverage. I'd often get really necessary options on both cameras that weren't duplicated otherwise. So for these shows, it helped. Typically this meant three to four hours of raw footage each day. My routine is to first review the multicam clips in a split view. This gives me a sense of the coverage I have for the scene. Then I'll go back and review each take separately to judge performance."

Lorenzo James Henrie as rebellious teenager Chris Manawa
Photo by Justina Mintz/AMC

Dennis continues, "Sound is very important to the world of Fear the Walking Dead. Certain characters have a soundscape that's always associated with them, and these decisions are all driven by editorial. The producers want to hear a rough cut that's as close to airable as possible, so I spend a lot of time with sound design. Given the tight schedule on this show, I would hand off a lot of this to my long-time assistant, Susan. The sound design that we do in the edit becomes a template for our sound designer. He takes that, plus our spotting notes, and replaces, improves and enhances the work we've done. The show's music composer supplied us with a temp library of music he'd composed for other productions. We were able to use these as part of our template. Of course, he would provide the final score customized to the episode. This score would be based on our template, the feelings of the director, and of course the composer's own input for what best suited each show."

Alycia Debnam Carey as Alicia Clark
Photo by Justin Lubin/AMC

Dennis is an unabashed Avid Media Composer proponent. He says, "Over the past few years, the manufacturers have pushed to consolidate many tools from different applications. Avid has added a number of Pro Tools features into Media Composer and that's been really good for editors. There are many tools I rely on, such as those audio tools. I use the Audiosuite and RTAS filters in all of my editing. I like dialogue to sound as it would in a live environment, so I'll use the reverb filters. In some cases I'll pitch-shift audio a bit lower. Other tools I'll use include speed-ramping and invisible split-screens, but the the trim tool is what defines the system for me. When I'm refining a cut, the trim tool is like playing a precise instrument, not just using a piece of software."

Dennis offers this suggestion for young editors starting out: "If you want to work in film and television editing, learn Media Composer inside and out. The dominant tool might be [Apple] Final Cut or [Adobe] Premiere Pro in some markets, but here in Hollywood, it's largely Avid. Spend as much time as possible learning the system because it's the most in-demand tool for our craft."

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