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					Manipulating Moods on Desperate Housewives
Avid Media Composer

What show delivers laughs like a sitcom, has drama in every
storyline, and still manages to be quirky, sexy, and disturbing
all in a single episode? ABC‟s Desperate Housewives
combines all of these ingredients and adds one more essential
element to each eagerly anticipated program: a masterful
ability to change the mood in a split second. Each show can
veer so quickly from comedy to tragedy (and back) that
viewers may find themselves shocked by a dramatic plot twist
before they have the time to wipe the smiles off their faces. It‟s
disconcerting – in an “I can‟t watch, but I can‟t look away” sort
of way. In short, it‟s damn clever.

Director Marc Cherry‟s mixed-genre show has been an instant
hit since its October 2004 premiere, earning accolades for
everything from acting to directing to creative craft. It‟s one of
the 2004-2005 season‟s top-five rated shows, and viewers still
can‟t decide if it‟s a drama, a comedy, or a soap opera.
According to the show‟s editors, the whole idea of blending
genres is key to its appeal.

“It‟s normal on the show for two, three, or even four story lines
to be going on at the same time,” says editor Troy Takaki
(Hitch, Ally McBeal). “Some are text and some are subtext, and
not all of the characters in a scene know all of the stories. So it
comes down to an editing challenge. What‟s more important in
the scene? It might be the joke or it might be the reaction to
the joke − which may be tragic, depending on the subplot, and
on which character is reacting. That [emotional] „push‟ gets
communicated through a combination of editing and music.”


In addition to balancing mood swings, editor Jonathan Posell
(Judging Amy, JAG) finds that maintaining the right pace on
this unpredictable show presents an interesting challenge.
“The show just thrives on a unique pace. It‟s like a wave. We
have these comedic scenes that build and build to a
crescendo, and then we like to have some quiet time
afterward,” he says. “It‟s a lot different from other shows
where they can get away with just pounding you into the next
storyline and having the images fly by. The jokes can fall right
in the middle of a scene, when a character might be in the
midst of a serious storyline. So we like to hold an extra beat
after the joke. The audience needs some space so they can
have a chance to laugh without missing the rest of the story.”

To guide viewers along this ever-changing path, Posell,
Takaki, fellow editor Andy Doerfer (Threat Matrix, MDs), and
assistant editor Joe Rockem use four Avid Media Composer
systems and an Avid Unity MediaNetwork shared-storage
system supplied by Los Angeles-based New Edit. The three
main editors alternate cutting duties on a rotating basis and
appreciate the ability to share media simultaneously,
especially when deadlines are tight. On the audio side,
supervising sound editor Robb Navrides (Law & Order,
Dragnet) and his team in the Universal sound department
create and integrate voiceover, scene-enhancing sound
effects, and score using the Digidesign Pro Tools system,
among other tools.

Creating Dramedy in the Cutting Room [SUBHEAD]
The show‟s editors carefully create a particular feel for each
episode. For example, Takiki describes a scene that needed
more drama to fit the episode‟s theme: scandal. “We find out
that there‟s been a lice infestation in Lynette‟s kids‟ school,”
he explains. “The first cut of the scene played very matter-offactly.

It didn‟t feel like „scandal‟ at all. They were going to reshoot
the scene, and I asked for a chance to re-edit it first, in a
way that upped the stakes – to make it seem like more of a
problem. I took some of the shots of the women reacting to the
news, and by using the Avid, I was able to build push-ins and
re-score the scene with temp music that was more appropriate.
I also cut out some lines to decrease the amount of space. We
made a whole subtext about how the women were reacting –
creating drama and saving the scene from having to be reshot.”

The Media Composer system‟s toolset is often used to help
emphasize mood shifts and establish the feel of a scene by
employing techniques such as speed ramps for comic
emphasis − a device often used in the sitcom genre. Posell
explains, “A time-warp motion effect worked really well in one
scene where Martha Huber‟s sister learns that Martha has died.
Immediately after she gets the bad news, the scene shifts
instantly to Susan, a neighbor of Martha‟s, who is happily
heading over to [her boyfriend] Mike‟s house. I used the speed
ramp to change moods rapidly and show how quickly life
moves on. It complemented the voiceover of Mary Alice [a
former neighbor who took her own life and now narrates the
show from beyond the grave] really well and added a great
comedic punctuation.”

Posell added that when that particular episode was onlined at
Los Angeles-based Modern VideoFilm, the facility‟s Avid DS
Nitris system was able to conform the motion effect perfectly.
By contrast, a linear online bay was not able to replicate the
effect.

The editors believe that the Avid Unity MediaNetwork sharedstorage
solution is must-have infrastructure for a show such
as Desperate Housewives, enabling them to explore creative
options instantaneously. “Having access to all of the media
from every show frees us to use each others‟ footage
whenever and however we want. It‟s really easy to create a
temp score by just pulling from the final scores of all of the
previous shows,” says Takaki. Posell adds, “With [Avid] Unity
we can work on multiple shows simultaneously, and easily
access shots from other episodes. We have a library of stock
shots ,all the music that has been composed for the show and
hundreds of sound effects all online and instantly accessible,
so that we can just get any piece of media we need at any
time. I don‟t know how a television series today would work
without it.”

The Ins and Outs of Voiceover
For everyone involved in the show‟s postproduction, weaving
each episode around the voiceover of narrating character Mary
Alice is an ever-present consideration that affects editorial
choices in both picture and sound. “While we do use VO
[voiceover] to inform the audience, we don't just hand it to
them. Marc Cherry infuses the VO with a sense of irony and
humor. It's an added a layer of interest.” says Posell.

Written by Cherry and his staff, the voiceover is read by
actress Brenda Strong [playing the Mary Alice character] and
used as a temp track by editors to cut picture. Posell explains,
“Usually, the director will shoot a scene with the VO in mind.
But sometimes we need to create a space for it in editing. In
the course of editing an episode I will cut down the VO or use
the Audio Suite Pro Tools plug ins in the Avid to time-expand
or time - compress the VO to better fit the scene."
Strong then watches the editor‟s cut, rehearses her
performance, and records the final voiceover on Universal‟s
ADR stage. The sound team sends it back to picture editing for
final placement. Navrides notes, “During the final mix the rerecording
mixers carefully combine the VO into the body of the
show. They dip the audio elements and place the VO on top.
It‟s often a tricky process as the VO is created with specific
pauses for the audio to poke through, to punctuate the jokes.”
Pulling it All Together on the Sound Stage
The music and sound cues that flesh out the show‟s main
street, Wisteria Lane, are paramount − while not always
immediately obvious. Says Navrides, “They have to support
the dialogue and punctuate jokes without getting in the way of
the story.” Each house on Wisteria Lane also has a signature
sound. “We use wind chimes for the Solis‟s, a buzzing
washing machine or running dishwasher at Lynette‟s, and a
ticking clock for Bree. The sounds of Susan‟s house are about
the exterior – bikes and cars going by. We created a palette of
sound for each place that we use on every show.”
Navrides also has a Pro Tools database on a FireWire drive
that has all of the characters‟ sound clips on it – like Susan‟s
giggle. “I pulled from that [drive] to spice up the scenes where
Susan discovers Andrew in the pool, and the one where she
ends up naked in the bushes. I had her record a bunch of her
„squeaks‟ for me so I can use that to enhance her scenes
later,” he explains.

The show‟s overall musical direction is established by Danny
Elfman (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Spider-Man 3), who
created the main title music; Steve Jablonsky (Pirates of the
Caribbean, The Island), the show‟s composer; and Shie Rozow
(Hustle & Flow, Feast), the music editor.
The sound team is responsible for weaving together all of the
music elements with sound effects, voiceover, and dialogue.
“It‟s like making a cake,” explains Navrides. “All of the
ingredients are there, but until they‟re mixed and baked, it‟s
not a cake. Putting them all together is where the art is.”
All of the sound elements reside on Pro Tools systems,
enabling a data-centric workflow that allows for maximum
creative flexibility. “If a producer wants to change a music cue,
the editor can feed it into the mix and change it on the fly,”
says Navrides. “Any output can be routed into the console. We
can play it, feed it, and manipulate it. In the old days when you
had film elements you couldn‟t do that. Now if you want a
sound to go slower, you can just push a button in Pro Tools. If
you hear a smacking sound in the VO, you can blow up the
waveform and just edit out the ticks and pops. It‟s really
convenient.”

If Navrides‟ team is making the “dessert,” the show itself is a
full-course meal, combining drama, comedy, and all kinds of
subtle cues, devices, and storytelling elements. Posell
believes that this combination of elements sets the show
apart. He explains, “You end up with a really interesting show
when you take a drama and infuse it with sitcom. You get
multiple story lines, dramatic scenes, and comedic scenes that
butt up against each other seamlessly. Look at all of the
characters – they are all guilty of something, and we still love
them all. We love the fact that they can be evil and still get
themselves into silly situations. When you have characters
that people enjoy watching and feel empathy toward, you can
get away with a lot … you can get away with murder.”

1) “Using the Avid I was able to build push-ins and re-score
the scene with temp music ...We made a whole subtext –
creating drama and saving the scene from having to be reshot.”
− Troy Takaki, Editor, Desperate Housewives
2) “With Avid Unity we can work on multiple shows
simultaneously, help each other cut a scene when schedules
get tight, and just get any piece of media we need. I don‟t
know how a television series today would work without it.”
− Jonathan Posell, Editor, Desperate Housewives
3) “If you want a audio to be slower, you can just push a
button in Pro Tools. If you hear a smacking sound in the
[voiceover], you can blow up the waveform and just edit out
the ticks and pops. It‟s really convenient.”
− Robb Navrides, Supervising Sound Editor, Desperate
Housewives

				
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