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Editing Royalty

Written for Aotg.com by Gordon Burkell
Twitter: @digitalgord


Gordon Burkell: How did you get started in editing?

Pia Di Ciaula: I was obsessed with cameras and compositions so I studied photography and motion pictures. I originally wanted to be a fashion photographer but making films was more challenging and interesting. We had an editing exercise; the whole class received the same rushes and we had to edit our own version of the scene. It was creatively rewarding because I used images from before and after the clapper board, played dialogue off-camera, introduced the scene with close-ups and slowly revealed the characters to divulge the narrative. This was a turning point which gave me the confidence and passion to pursue a career in editing.

Gordon Burkell: How did you get involved with The Crown?

Pia Di Ciaula: I edited the first season of the action show Strike Back for Leftbank Productions so the wonderful executive producer Andy Harries recommended me to the three-time Oscar nominated director Stephen Daldry. When I received the first call asking me to edit The Crown, I was booked on three feature films in a row so I wasn't available. Luckily for me, by the time I received the third request, Journeyman (written/directed/starring Paddy Considine) was delayed so I had a little gap in my schedule. I feel so fortunate not only to have edited both seasons of The Crown, but to have worked with the brilliant Stephen Daldry.

Gordon Burkell: How do you get on the same page as the director?

Pia Di Ciaula: That's an interesting question because I don't know how you can just get onto the director's page. I think you need to have the same sensibilities, the ability to respond to the material and have good taste and instincts. It's a gamble for a director to hire an editor because until there's something shot and assembled, they don't know how you will interpret their rushes. Will you choose the best performances? Will you reveal the subtext? Will you vary the pace and edit the right rhythm for every scene? Are you able to restructure the show to reveal the best narrative? Will you elicit the most emotion? After a few days, you learn whether you're in sync with the director; not only about how you interpret the rushes but how to show an original point of view and elevate the material in surprising ways.

Stephen Daldry likes receiving my first cuts on the same day that I get rushes. Needless to say, I'm under extreme pressure because the scenes need to be edited tightly, green screens need comping, with a full sound track, sometimes foley, and temporary music if the scene requires it. Stephen shoots a few hours of rushes per day using two cameras and there is usually a second unit directed by the amazing Justin Martin. There are so many gems in the rushes that I'm always juggling and making decisions about what to feature and where to place the emphasis and emotion. I'm constantly under pressure so I have to work in a disciplined but creative way and with great speed.

Gordon Burkell: What subtleties did you look for in the rushes for The Crown to help bring out elements of the characters and key subtext for a scene?

Pia Di Ciaula: The amazing part about working with Stephen Daldry is that I get surprises every day in the rushes. In the Nazi funeral in episode 209 (Paterfamilias), Stephen injected lots of details like Third Reich flags and banners, aggressive salutes, dogs barking, boys running along Philip in the funeral procession, photographers intrusively flashing their cameras at Philip, and of course the four coffins containing people that he loved. I edited the scene from Philip's point of view who found this funeral, not only heart-breaking but extremely strange and ominous. I often have a visceral reaction to Stephen's material because he's bold with his choices and executes his ideas with confidence so I edited the scene in a state of shock and full of emotion.

Gordon Burkell: How did you work with the footage you received from the set to help enhance the personal feel of taking part in the queen’s life?

Pia Di Ciaula: The Crown is all about brilliant scripts, fantastic directing, wonderful performances, stunning production design and gorgeous costumes. All these elements inform how I edit. There are times when one can be seduced by the beauty of the setting, like the argument in the pink room but it's my job to get the drama and emotion across. We want to empathize with the Queen's pain and want to feel horrified by Philip's bullying. The rhythm of the edits and holding on the Queen's reactions helps to achieve this. Showing the wide shot of the pink room in the middle of the scene shows the distance between the couple and using it again at the end portrays the Queen's isolation and helplessness. She is famous, rich and powerful yet she is prevented from protecting her own son so we see her as a tiny figure dwarfed by the scale of the room. It's a delicate balance because we want to WOW the audience but we don't want to be too self indulgent because that would diminish the narrative and emotional state of the Queen and what she truly experienced. Portraying real people who are still alive is a huge responsibility that we take very seriously so every beat had to feel authentic.

Another advantage in editing The Crown is the opportunity to add shots or scenes if necessary. In episode 209, Stephen and I felt that we needed to anchor the show in older Philip so we created three pick-ups that became the backbone of the flashbacks. After Philip bullies the Queen and leaves the pink room, we added a moment to see his humanity and remorse. I then restructured the following scenes by inserting Charles staring at young Philip's photo in the trophy cabinet. Juxtaposing these two shots allows us to see the emotional connection between all three characters. This connects Philip to both boys, as a father and traumatized young man and it shows Charles' struggle trying to live up to young Philip. It compares and contrasts the boys and the father/son relationship.

After Cecile boards the plane that ultimately crashes, I suggested that we show Philip having a nightmare. Stephen shot wonderful moments of Philip in bed but awake and paralyzed by his traumatic memories.

The third pick-up was Philip pausing by the side of the road after young Philip gets help and the boys install the gates. I felt that the audience would project their emotion onto Philip without feeling manipulated so I preferred seeing his back instead of his sad face. Sometimes what you don't show is stronger and more emotional but these are instinctive choices that can't be taught.

Gordon Burkell: According to my research, the editing schedules differed because of each editor tackling two episodes with a specific director. How did you work together to ensure that you had a cohesive look, feel, and pacing throughout the series?

Pia Di Ciaula: The editing schedules where different for each block due to the various directors, ambition of each script and shooting locations (England, Scotland, South Africa, Budapest). In season two, only Yan Miles and I edited two episodes each whilst the others edited one show each. I edited 208 (Dear Mrs Kennedy) and 209 (Paterfamilias), both directed by the fabulous Stephen Daldry. I juggled these two shows within the same time frame that single episodes were being edited so I often worked 6 days per week and up to 16 hours per day.

Both of my shows were stand alone episodes but to ensure that the Queen's state of mind didn't clash with the beginning of 208, we watched 207 and everything seemed to flow perfectly. Netflix embraces the differences in directors and editors which keeps the series fresh and interesting. The series feels cohesive because all the actors are consistent, the production design is by Martin Childs, the costumes are by Jane Petrie, the main cinematography is by Adriano Goldman and the score is by Hans Zimmer and Rupert Gregson-Williams. All these departments make the show cohesive so that directors and editors can push the boundaries and deal with the challenges that the scripts bring whether they are dramatic, comedic and/or emotional.

Dear Mrs Kennedy was light and comedic whilst Paterfamilias was dark and emotional so I had to track these different tones, embrace both genres and had great fun implementing both styles of editing. What really struck me was that since there was such humanity in the writing, directing and outstanding performances by Claire Foy and Matt Smith, even the comedic episode creeps up on you and affects you emotionally.

Gordon Burkell: How did you deal with the pressure of presenting real people who, in most cases are loved by so many?

Pia Di Ciaula: We all felt a moral responsibility to represent the Royal family truthfully but our goal was to entertain the audience and to shed a light not only on the big historical events but also on the characters' private and quiet moments. Peter Morgan painted a portrait of the family, found interesting stories and wrote beautiful scripts with poetic dialogue that was invented because no on was privy to private conversations. Stephen Daldry added his own magic and gave the characters depth, pathos and humor. As an editor, I make hundreds of decisions every day, ensuring not only that all departments are well-represented, performances are on point but also that details like Royal etiquette are followed. Although the shows were based on historical events and real people, they were not documentaries. We were exploring the essence of these well-known figures in truthful and respectful dramatizations.

Gordon Burkell:Pia, you mentioned in an interview that each episode was treated like a feature film. How does your editing for this show differ from a feature?

Pia Di Ciaula: Netflix encouraged us to make the best shows possible so we were given the freedom to create the most authentic, dramatic and emotional shows in our ability. Since it takes several months to shoot a season of The Crown, all the departments were working in parallel so we had access to the whole crew, allowing us better collaborations and closer relationships. Since Stephen Daldry is mainly a film and theatre director (unlike most TV directors) he kept me on the show throughout all of post to check visual effects, attend music sessions and the final mix. He appreciates the fact that I know every frame of the shows and wanted to ensure that every detail that we discussed shone through in the final.

Editing The Crown has been a great deal of work, huge responsibility but also a very rewarding experience. I've been searching for this level of perfectionism all my career and I have found it in Stephen Daldry, Peter Morgan, Andy Harries and Suzanne Mackie. They hire the best cast and crew and give us the freedom and support to explore all options and be as creative as possible. It takes a very talented and confident team to allow this level of freedom and collaboration so I'm very grateful to Leftbank and Netflix.

Gordon Burkell:How did you approach working with the VFX team to make sure the pacing and flow of the effects work with the pacing you set out in your cutting?

Pia Di Ciaula: One Of Us, Ben Turner and Standish Millannas supervised our visual effects and they were very collaborative and wonderful to work with. Since I have to send Stephen my assemblies on the same day that I receive rushes, I also have to deal with any green screens quickly. I cut and paste many elements which can sometimes take up to twelve video tracks, select backgrounds, plates, sizes, action and durations. I then hand them over to the assistant editor, Charlotte Bradley, who composites, finesses and renders them to make them look decent. Some elements might only be temporary until the actual plates are shot but these VFX need to feel organic in my very first assembly. I like turning over VFX during the fine cut stage so that I get early works in progress in order to check every element before we lock the picture. Ben and Standish drop by my cutting room or we check the VFX in their cinema but it's a very personable, detailed and collaborative process.

After I read the script for episode 208 (Dear Mrs Kennedy), I watched hours of archive footage. Jackie with JFK's coffin was meant to be shot in black and white and inserted into the Queen's TV but when I saw the original footage, I was blown away because it was shot in color so not only did I see Jackie's iconic pink Channel suit with red blood stains but the plane was blue and the hydraulic lift lowering the coffin was a bright yellow so the colors and compositions struck me. I asked Stephen Daldry if we could shoot the scene in color and he agreed. This enabled me to establish the scene in color and full frame for maximum impact before inserting it into the monitor in black and white. For me, it wasn't just an original and fresh way to experience the material; it was about making a bigger and more emotional connection to Jackie.

But this decision had bigger ramifications, it affected costumes, sets and VFX. The costume department had already made Jackie's outfit in yellow because it would show the blood stains well in black and white so they had to source the pink material and sew the Channel suit. The art department had to paint the hydraulic lift a bright yellow color and VFX had considerable more work creating the full frame shots and added more elements and detail in color. This is a perfect example illustrating how every department rallied together and collaborated for the sake of the show.

Gordon Burkell: Editors can be pigeonholed into TV, Features, documentary, etc. How do you approach looking for work to ensure you don’t get locked into one type of editing?

Pia Di Ciaula: Many editors get pigeonholed and even though I've edited TV and feature films, if I haven't cut a feature for a couple of years, people feel that you are no longer capable. It's bazaar because if you're a talented editor, you should be trusted to cut whatever resonates and appeals to you. I usually look for a great script, interesting director and talented cast. I recently edited the mini-series A Very English Scandal, written by Russell T Davies, directed by Stephen Frears, starring Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw. With this calibre of talent, it didn't matter what the format was.

Over the past few years, I have been in a groove of editing The Crown and one feature film per year. This is perfect because on The Crown, I'm part of a huge team of great friends. The show is available all over the world to 125 million viewers. It's an ideal show to work on because the scale and ambition is parallel to none; the long format allows the ability to delve deeper into the characters and follow them on a much longer journey; we shoot pick-ups and additional scenes so the that narrative is served with epic grandeur and great scale but we still pay attention to tiny details.

On the other hand, when I edit feature films, I can create something new and original like Tyrannosaur (written and directed by Paddy Considine) which had a small budget but won 40 awards world-wide. On films, I usually have additional tasks of creating credit sequences by choosing the right fonts and placements and finding the tone of music using sound tracks from other films. Since you only have around 100 minutes for the audience to connect with the characters, you have to work harder to achieve a short hand by showing more subtext, use the right structure and rhythm to make the film interesting, and find the unique editing style that suits the film.

I could live in a cinema because I love the scale of a large screen but Netflix has changed how we consume entertainment and on The Crown, we have the luxury of premiering our shows in the Odeon Cinema in London's Leicester Square so it doesn't get much bigger or better than that!

Gordon Burkell: (Last fun question) What’s your favorite guilty pleasure film?

Pia Di Ciaula: My favorite guilty pleasure is any film starring Hugh Grant! I recently worked with Hugh on A Very English Scandal (Amazon Prime/BBC) and his performance was mind-blowingly brilliant! Hugh plays Jeremy Thorpe, a gay politician in the 60's with brown eyes and a comb-over! Hugh Grant is outstanding!!!

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