by Gregory Gontz
When I passed the mark of 100 episodes edited on a single, one-hour show, NCIS, last September, my curiosity got the best of me. I wondered how many others had crossed this mark as well, so I had to do some digging.
I didn’t reach episode 100 on NCIS until my 13th year on the show (starting with the second episode in 2003), so I knew the duration of a series had to be substantially long to reach the mark. But as I searched the archives of IMDb and Wikipedia, I was surprised to find it’s actually a fairly rare occurrence. For one thing, few shows ran long enough to allow the opportunity. And for another, a lot can change over the span of 13-plus years that might determine how long an editor stays on a show.
Scanning through the database of television shows over the past 50 years put me into a reflective mindset. What would it have been like to edit episodes of say, Gunsmoke (one of the shows that had two 100-plus editors)? I flashed back to the time when shows were actually edited with film on a Moviola — no temp music, no fully dressed audio presentation with the editor’s first cut — a time when edits were made with splicers and tape instead of a mouse and keyboard, and dailies were actually screened with the producers in a projector-based screening room.
I was fortunate enough to catch the tail end of this era, and I clearly remember a very visceral connection to the filmmaking process; it was ever-present by the unmistakable smell of film sitting on racks and hanging on trim bins in the editing room.
I had actually edited a scene from Gunsmoke in film school (Los Angeles City College). It was one of my very first editing experiences, filled with all the confusion and excitement of seemingly endless possibilities: What shot to choose? Where to make the cut? And now, over 30 years later, it’s ironic that with all the technological change sweeping through the industry, nothing has really changed in the task of studying a director’s coverage and making editorial choices to tell a story!
We can execute an idea more quickly, have the freedom to try multiple versions of a scene, and certainly can (and are expected to) apply more window dressing to a finished cut. But in the end, it’s still a story on a screen, shaped by choices made through the process of editing.
But things are rapidly changing in the television industry, and editing 100 episodes on a single series may be a distinction that will soon become obsolete if not unattainable. This was achieved through the long-running model in which a show produced 22-24 episodes per season in a commercially supported primetime network outlet. Under this model, a show could stay on the air more than 10 seasons if it proved to be a “numbers success.” Now, the market for and production of the one-hour drama (as well as other formats) is being upended; witness streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, to name a few. These services provide original shows that average 13 episodes per season with a simultaneous release of all episodes. And many, like Breaking Bad, were never designed or intended to have an indefinite end run based on ratings or revenue.
Our business is forever changing. Points of reference shift and morph, tools and methods come and go, but through it all, some things remain impervious to change. No matter whether a show was edited on a Moviola or an Avid, whether it was part of a continuously changing model for release and consumption, the one common thread through it all is the need to effectively tell stories by the editing of images and sound.
This will never change. While I’m proud of editing over 100 episodes on NCIS, I’m more proud to feel a connection with every editor, past and present, who shares the same passion for enhancing and presenting a story through the infinite variation and possibility of the edited images.
Time will no doubt bring continuous change to our craft and, with it, new milestones toward which editors will strive. What will be the relative “100 mark” for the next generation of editors? It should be fascinating to discover as we watch our industry grow and evolve in the coming years.