Heralded as one of the most iconic television series of all time, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad kept audiences on the edge of their seats for five-straight seasons and challenged them to embrace characters that staggered back and forth over the line between hero and anti-hero. Kelley Dixon ACE, Skip MacDonald ACE, Chris McCaleb, and Sharidan Williams-Sotelo worked together to bring the epic series to life. They recently sat down with Matt Feury to discuss what it was like to edit a project that made television history. You can watch the full interview in our Looking Back at Breaking Bad presentation. Below are excepts from the interview.
“It’s not just the show. It’s the people.”
The bond between the Breaking Bad editing team is undeniable. The level of trust between editors and their assistants enabled the team to create episode after episode of gripping content for the wildly popular series.
“It’s not just the show. It’s the people,” Sharidan says. Writer and producer Vince Gilligan set the tone for collaboration in the editing room. He was approachable, and gave his team an unprecedented level of creative freedom. Under his direction, editors and assistants had the opportunity to prove themselves.
“He might not use your ideas, but he appreciates that you have them. In other spaces, they say they want you to be creative, but they really don’t,” Kelley says. “There are so many people who got to do things they never would have been able to do, or they got to move into other areas of production or post-pro that they wouldn’t have.”
“You don’t get it if you don’t do a great job. But he gives you the opportunity to show what you got at the highest level and with the highest level of material,” Chris says.
Each episode of Breaking Bad packs 47 minutes of footage. To create those epic 47 minutes, the team boiled down hours and hours of film. “At one point I had 56 hours of film [to work through],” Kelley says. The assistant editors played a fundamental role in managing the overwhelming load of footage and balancing the daily workload. The team had four Avid systems that they rotated for every episode. Assistant editors Sharidan and Chris prepped the dailies for editing, and cut scenes when they had time between their other assistant duties. Lead editors Kelley and Skip were responsible for the final cut.
“Finding good assistants is getting harder because so many people don’t understand the workflow of a professional cutting room.”
“The workload is a lot more for the assistants in the digital age,” Skip says. “There are so many more dailies now. Editing TV makes the process of editing feature films look like a luxury. In TV there’s really no time. You have to look through hours of dailies and get it all cut in the next day or two.”
Having a great assistant editor on an editing team is more important than ever for creating thrilling TV. But “finding good assistants is getting harder because so many people don’t understand the workflow of a professional cutting room,” Sharidan says. “Now that anyone can get the editing tools in the app store, people think that just having the tools makes them a professional. But just because you have a camera, you’re not Ansel Adams. Just because you play trumpet, you’re not Miles Davis,” Shari says. Kelley agrees, “You can take classes and learn how the specifics work, but you’re never going to learn until you’re in the cutting room and you’re thrown loops.”
“We all started as assistants,” she says. “You have to build up your stamina. You have to build up how you’re going to work on [scenes], and juggle your assistant duties as well.”
Nowadays, when work is sent out to the different post-production departments, all the pieces have different specs. So, the assistants doing this job “need to have a lot of technical experience,” Skip says. “They have to be able to keep the Avids going. They have to know all the specs for all the different digital formats and departments.”
“No matter what, you always have to have someone who can look at the system and know where things are,” Sharidan says. “Avid is really functional” for easy organization of content. “It’s essential, because you can just go right into a project, and if you’ve organized it correctly, anyone could just drop right in, and continue cutting the project,” Chris says.
“My advice to assistants is to do everything in a rhythm,” Sharidan says. “If you do things in the same workflow, in the same rhythm, you can tell when something’s off. If you’re doing something differently each time, you’ll never know if there’s a mistake.” A great assistant is someone “who can organize, but who also has the drive to cut stuff,” she says. Editing and working as an assistant are two different modes. There’s the “decision-making, performance-making mode of editing, and then there’s the technical, input-output mode of assisting.”
“It’s about building relationships with the people you’re working with.”
A major challenge for assistant editors is that they don’t get enough time to spend with the producers, because they’re spending so much time doing other work. “In the few hours they have on the clock, they don’t have a chance to just be there while you’re cutting,” Kelley says. “I try to make a point of having Chris come in when the director is there…[because] no one is going to see these guys as anything else than an assistant if they don’t get to know the people in the room. It’s about building relationships with the people you’re working with, so the assistant is top of mind when there’s something that needs to be done.”
“Moving up is such a crap-shoot,” Sharidan says. “Some people can just jump into the double-dutch rope of editing, and other people are going to get hit in the face with it a lot. You never know if your pilot is going to get picked up. You just have to be really good at your job, and you have to be ready. You do your 10,000 hours of work.”
It’s about showing up early and often and doing the work. To move up in the editing world, the special sauce is a combination of the training in a professional environment, a willingness to learn, and a willingness to work hard.
As an assistant transitioning into a lead editing role, you have to “go out and find ‘you,’ and it’s really hard!” says Kelley. Mentorships and training programs are so important in the industry to provide quality-learning opportunities for aspiring editors, while providing support for the editors themselves.
The timeline for the show wasn’t as complicated as most other shows out there. “One thing different about editing Breaking Bad is that we didn’t ever use temporary composer tracks,” Sharidan says. “We sent it to the studio with sound effects only, so the post-production team didn’t have preconceived notions from another show to cloud their perception of what the music would be.”
“Vince was trained on the X-Files,” Kelley says. “They didn’t do temp music there, and that’s how he wanted to run his editorial as well. He doesn’t want to be distracted.” He didn’t want it to take away from the story itself.
“I don’t think we were ever over 8 or maybe 10 audio tracks,” Sharidan says. “It never got too complicated, except for a few scenes with shoot-outs when there were multiple guns ricocheting!”
“Generally there weren’t all that many video channels either, because we didn’t do many visual effects,” Skip says. Mostly the teams used Avid trim tools to finesse the edit.
“He was despicable, but that’s the drama of it!”
Just like the audience, the editors never knew what was coming next during the process of editing Breaking Bad. In later years of working on the series they began to get outlines of what would happen next, but never very far in advance. As the story arcs shifted from one extreme to the other and well-loved heroes shifted to despicable anti-heroes, the editors couldn’t let their sympathies affect how they cut the show.
“I was just going with what the footage was telling us,” Skip says. “I didn’t let how dark he got affect my attitude toward it.”
Kelley “was always on ‘team Walt.’ But I don’t think it affected how I cut the show,” she says. “It wasn’t like I was leaning toward doing things so he would look good. I was just hoping he would get what he wanted. He was despicable, but that’s the drama of it!”
“You don’t really think about that stuff while you’re in it,” Sharidan says. “You’re just looking at the dailies.” But at lunch, the team often sat together to speculate about what would happen next, “just like the audience,” Kelley says.
The “amazing” talent in the Breaking Bad editing room, combined with a culture of creative collaboration, forged a groundbreaking epic.
“Breaking Bad is the place where dreams come true,” Kelley says. Skip agrees. “I couldn’t say enough about [working on the Breaking Bad set]. There’s nothing else quite like it.”