‘Mr. Robot’ Editor on How Actors Can Help the Post-Production Process

Photo Source: Michael Parmelee/USA Network

As an editor on USA’s Emmy-winning “Mr. Robot,” John Petaja knows how to bring psychological thrills to the forefront. Here, he reveals tricks to his trade for actors and editors alike.

Actors should know how to maintain continuity.
“Body continuity issues can make it very hard to cut a scene. If an actor is in completely different places in the room depending on the shot, editing becomes much more like assembling a puzzle rather than building a great performance. I want to choose my cuts based on dramatic reasons, and it’s hard when you are forced to make those choices based on continuity.”

Petaja loves elevating a show.
“A big part of editing is creating a tone that will support the story. Finding just the right takes, finding the right pace of editing, finding music, adding sound design. When you get it just right, the show will suddenly come to life. I think many editors do all of the hard work we do in pursuit of the high you get when a show takes flight. We get to see the moment when all of that work gels.”

READ: How Rami Malek Saved Sam Esmail and ‘Mr. Robot’

Know your stuff.
“If you want to become an editor, you really should know the technology very well. Edit your own projects as well as other people’s. Get to know the editing software. Right now, most TV and film projects are edited using a software called Avid. Read books on editing and then reread them. It usually takes time to break into editing. Young editors don’t know what they don’t know, and think they know everything. When I was first out of film school, I thought I knew everything and deserved a job right out of the gate as an editor, or a lowly assistant if I had to. If you can, swallow that pride and try to find experienced editors to learn from. Once you start cutting, you will be so busy editing that you won’t have time to do any homework or research. The time before your first gig should be spent getting as much knowledge as you can to prepare for that first job. You’ll wish there were more hours in a day when you start your first big job, so try to help your future self out by doing that homework now.”

Even in a high-stakes series like ‘Mr. Robot,’ the goal is to keep things grounded.
“ ‘Mr. Robot’ is a fairly complex show on an editorial level. We are focused on keeping the performances as grounded as we can, while dealing with characters in states of mental, technological, and societal collapse. Additionally, the show has these layers of technology that the characters are immersed in, and as editors, we try to make that technology understandable for the audience. This is hard work when characters use programs and hardware of which most people have no knowledge. Luckily we have brilliant people like writer and tech wizard Kor Adana making sure everything is accurate.”

READ: How to Become Your Film Editor’s Best Friend

One thing took him by surprise as a novice editor.
“The sheer amount of footage, and the time that can go into making an hour of television is pretty incredible. It depends on the show, but there are times when you can get six, eight, or even 12 hours of footage from a single day’s shoot. It can be overwhelming with so many options in the beginning. At some point you realize you have to just dive headlong into the footage and start building the scenes. My personal trick is to always cut the biggest scenes first. If you have a scene with four hours of footage and a scene with 20 minutes, cut the four-hour one. For me, the editing of the show is like a marathon, and I love having a bunch of small scenes that I can quickly cut by the end of the process.”

As an editor, he has to care about the characters he’s working with.
“When I’m watching dailies, I try to connect with the character—looking for the moment when I believe them. So I’m very focused on looking for natural and subtle performances of genuine emotion or thought. Finding the moments when I believe a character cares deeply about what is happening in a real, human way is very satisfying. Those moments are what connect for the audience. And in the early editing stages of any show, that audience is just me. The main question that I ask as an editor not just of actors, but also writers and directors is this: ‘If this character doesn’t care about the situation they are in, why should I?’ When it feels like the actors are not really in the character, but rather playing a caricature, or glib, that is when the illusion starts to crumble.”

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