30 Editing on the 'Fringe'
New Series Offers More Storytelling Time

by Laura Almo

Editors John Dudkowski, left, Tanya Swerling and Scott Vickrey.
Photo by Gregory Schwartz

Apparently, the truth is still out there. And Fringe, the new one-hour drama from Bad Robot Productions’ J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Alias, Mission Impossible III, Star Trek) that premieres in September, is determined to find it. Or at least to garner good ratings trying.

Described as a cross between The X-Files, Altered States and The Twilight Zone that blurs the line between science fiction and reality, Fringe (as in fringe science) explores scientific theories beyond the realm of the everyday in a compelling, character-driven series with an ensemble cast. Bryan Burk and Jeff Pinkner, along with Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman, serve as executive producers.

Launching with a special two-hour premiere on the Fox network Tuesday, September 9, Fringe will subsequently see its timeslot dedicate a full 50 minutes to the drama––some six to eight minutes longer than the standard length of a one-hour show. Fox has agreed to the experiment of scaling back on the commercials, which will allow the series’ editors more time for storytelling.

Editors Guild Magazine recently sat down with the trio of Fringe editors––Jon Dudkowski, Tanya Swerling and Scott Vickrey, A.C.E.––to discuss their work on the upcoming series.

The cast of Fringe, from left: Lance Reddick, John Noble, Blair Brown, Kirk Acevedo, Anna Torv, Mark Valley, Joshua Jackson and Jasika Nicole.
Photo by Michael Lavine. ©2008 Fox Broadcasting Co.

Editors Guild Magazine: How did you get the job on Fringe?

Scott Vickrey: My friends and longtime editors for J.J. Abrams, Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, knew they were looking for editors for Fringe and asked if I’d be interested, and so I said, “Yes.” This is my first time working with J.J. and Bad Robot.

Jon Dudkowski: I started working with Bad Robot as an assistant editor for Maryann Brandon on the pilot of What About Brian. By going through the pilot season with the Bad Robot guys, I earned some trust. I heard they were looking for a visual effects editor for the Fringe pilot. I have a visual effects background so I came on board and was immediately told that in the world of TV there is no visual effects editor––so I began working as an assistant editor with the responsibility for the visual effects. When the pilot got picked up for series I guess they decided that I was worth keeping on as an editor.

Tanya Swerling: I had edited three episodes of What About Brian and, as I was finishing, I learned of the Six Degrees pilot. My friend Rodrigo Garcia was directing, and he put me up for editor. Since I had worked well with Bryan Burk and Thom Sherman on WAB [also producers on Six Degrees] they confirmed my position. When that pilot went to series, I stayed on as one of the three editors. That is when I had the opportunity to work with J.J. Abrams. When Fringe began staffing, Bryan contacted me regarding my interest and availability. Of course I was interested, but the timing was a little iffy. Luckily it worked out, and here I am!

EGM: What’s the premise of the show?

TS: I always say that it’s about fringe science––scientific theories and the possibilities that these theories have actually been taken further and are in use––and it involves the stretch of your imagination as far as science goes.

JD: There’s a lot of mystery. I don’t want to use the word magic, but there’s a lot that these characters confront that is so outside the normal realm of perception. They’re so out of the world they’d normally expect that they’re almost in a state of shock, constantly struggling to wrap their heads around crazy ideas. Each episode sort of unveils a new shade of reality.

Mark Valley, left, and Anna Torv in a scene from the new series Fringe.
Photo by Michael Lavine. ©2008 Fox Broadcasting Co.

EGM: What is unique about the story, the structure and the editing of Fringe?

SV: I read that J.J. wanted each episode to stand alone. That being said, even if the shows are stand-alone, there are certain things that carry over to another show.

JD: The show walks a very fine line between a real serial drama and an episodic procedural. You could sit down and see an episode and be very entertained and satisfied, but at the same time be compelled to say, “Well, what about that one guy in that scene? There was something going on there and if I tune in next week I’ll find out what’s happening.” If the writers are sweating away, that’s what they’re sweating away on.

EGM: How hands-on is producer J.J. Abrams, being that he is currently working on the Star Trek feature?

SV: He’s pretty involved, especially with what’s working on the show and what’s not. He’s doing a lot of writing on the scripts as well.

John Noble, left, Anna Torv, Jasika Nicole (back) and Josh Jackson in a scene from the new series Fringe.
Photo by Michael Lavine. ©2008 Fox Broadcasting Co.

EGM: How does he have time for all of this?

JD: There’s a lot of teleconferencing and iChat-ting. He’s a technology junkie as far as I can tell, and I think he uses all of the tools that are at his disposal to run all of his different projects. He uses technology more than anyone I’ve ever seen in terms of finding a way to be here even when he’s not really here.

EGM: Jon, you worked on the pilot; what was that like?

JD: As an assistant editor, I got to work with Russ Denove, who edited the pilot. I learned a lot from Russ, especially how to literally put the show together: to assemble it, to put the director’s cut together and then––when the producers come in and say they want to do it differently––not to be overly attached to it. I learned to let go and say that yesterday’s job was to build it into the best thing it could be, and today’s job is to disassemble it…

TS: I think the term is to “blow it up.”

JD: …Yeah, to blow it up and take a new swing at it. We were working until 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 a.m. We had a few 100-hour weeks, but Russ was unflappable. When I see that, it makes me want to say if or when I’m in that position, I want to aim to be that good.

After the pilot, we took a hiatus and Russ went to do something else. The pilot had been picked up and they needed someone to make a few adjustments, so Robert Florio, who was an editor on Lost, came in to get the pilot to time and to make a few tweaks.

EGM: You’ve seen the transition to the new editors. Does it make a difference that after the pilot different editors came on to the series?

JD: I feel like the producers, Bryan Burk and Jeff Pinkner, are the one constant. Everyone has his or her own aesthetic, and the editors might change, but the rudder is the producing team.

EGM: Scott, how do you find it coming on after the pilot?

SV: We’re all going to find that out because I’m sure we all have slightly different ways of working. But someone like Bryan is the one who makes it all cohesive. He comes in and says, “I like this scene; I like the way you’ve cut it, but you’ve got to pick up the pace a little bit,” because he knows what he’s looking for.

EGM: Tanya, you’ve edited pilots in the past, but you’ve come on board Fringe to edit the series. Are there any concerns about using different editors for the pilot and the series?

TS: The pilot is the template. When I go on to a project, I don’t just bring my flare.

On a pilot, you’re a big part of how the show comes together, and of the style of the show. My goal is to come in and use the pilot as a guide and to follow that as far as pacing goes, as far as look goes. It’s not my goal to change what they’ve already conceived.

EGM: Jon, you say you have a visual effects background, do you do a lot of the visual effects on the show?

JD: We each take responsibility for our own episode. When there are visual effects, we’ll do a rough comp to rough out the timing and send the elements out through the visual effects supervisor. What’s interesting about Bad Robot is that they’ll use a couple of big post houses, but after working on Alias for so many years [which was such an effects-heavy show], Bad Robot has this improvised network of artists around the country to whom they’ll farm out the special effects. For example, if this screen needs to be a DNA sequence as it’s being mutated, they’ll send it to a particular artist who is especially good at compositing work. He’ll send it back to us and we’ll work with it. Bad Robot has a whole workflow for visual effects.

SV: Another interesting thing about this show is that they are all going to be 50 minutes long instead of the usual 42-44 minutes–– so there are six more minutes of storytelling, which is kind of nice.

EGM: That frees you up a bit so you don’t have to cut it down as much?

SV: Yes, but the episode I’m working on now is going to end up being 15 minutes long, which is a lot.

EGM: How will you cut it down?

SV: When something is that long, you definitely have to lose four or five entire scenes; it’s not just tightening things up. Bryan is very good at coming in and saying, “Let’s do this…tighten this up...” I was amazed working with him; how he could just make a beeline for problem areas and cut stuff.
EGM: What is the production/post-production schedule like?

SV: They shoot nine days and have two pick-up days, so they may not complete a whole show in nine days. It’s a two-camera shoot and there’s a lot of A/B camera footage. Some days, we’ll get three-to-four hours and other days, two-to-three hours.

TS: As big a show as this is, we get two days to turn a cut around after the last day of dailies––which is really tight. So, for example, if Jon gets his last day of dailies on Thursday, then his cut would be due on Monday.

EGM: Tanya, since you’ve worked with Bad Robot before, do you think that’s going to help you coming to this show now?

TS: It’s great just knowing how they work and their expectations. These people all have a high level of energy and they all want to make something really good and fun. When they’re sitting there working hard with you through the night, it only inspires you to do the same.

EGM: It sounds like you’re looking forward to working together…

SV: I would just like to say that I don’t often get to work with other editors because I’ve been doing movies of the week. One of the things I’m looking forward to doing on this show is working with other editors in a much closer way––working on the same kind of things and being able to talk about problems we may have with producers or directors, or how we solve editorial problems.

Laura Almo is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker, as well as an editing teacher. She can be reached at

Russ Denove

‘Fringe’ First Responder
Pilot Editor Russ Denove

While production on the Fringe pilot was taking place in Toronto, editor Russ Denove was back at Warner Bros. in Burbank, cutting the dailies. Using the sophisticated and hyper-secure PIX system, the transfer of footage was seamless. Footage was telecined in Toronto, put on the PIX pipeline, and within a day Denove was able to edit as though the production was taking place down the street. He spoke to Editors Guild Magazine briefly and reflected on editing the Fringe pilot.

Editors Guild Magazine: How did you get attached to the Fringe pilot?

Russ Denove: The director, Alex Graves, and I have worked together in the past on TV shows and series. He was chosen to direct and he picked me to edit.

EGM: The production took place in Toronto, you were in Los Angeles; talk about editing long distance.

RD: We set up our workweek to be Monday to Monday. On Mondays I would send everything that was cut up to that point on the PIX. For the next week, I would cut the incoming dailies, and when I had some time, I would go back and work on the modifications. The following Monday, Alex would see everything from the previous Monday reconfigured, along with the new stuff. When it’s on PIX, it’s like e-mail––they can choose when to read or watch it. This really opened the doors to working with the director on a weekly basis without having to turn changes around right away.

EGM: What were some of the storytelling and editing challenges of the pilot?

RD: Trying to keep a certain level of ambiguity going in terms of characters, their motivations and their reasons for doing things.

EGM: How do you cut a scene to make it more ambiguous?

RD: Putting a lot of what you would call direct exposition more into the margin and not having everything be so up front and clear. For example, you’re not using the reaction shot that says, “I get what this guy is talking about, I know who this guy is.” You’re using a shot that says, “I’m not sure what’s going on here.” Using more profile shots that don’t give things away as much as they could.

EGM: Why are you not working on the series?

RD: I had a prior commitment working on an independent film that started up in the next month and which I’m still on now––and they of course had to move on and pick their people for the series.

EGM: What’s the difference between editing a pilot and a series?

RD: The best thing about editing a pilot is that everybody’s focused on the one thing––the pilot. The producers are not in the middle of production on one episode with two or three additional episodes in post-production. For the editor, who just sits and focuses, it’s a blessing when people around you care about the one thing that’s right in front of them.

-Laura Almo

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