Made in Frame: The Conan O’Brien Show
On January 11, 2018, Donald J. Trump, the sitting POTUS, called the Caribbean nation of Haiti a “s***hole.” The mainstream news outlets did little more than give airtime to the usual talking heads clapping back, while most of the late night talk show hosts capitalized on the ready-made monologue material.
But at a time when a few humorists are doing some of the most important journalistic work on TV (John Oliver and Bassem Youssef come to mind), Conan O’Brien decided, right then and there, to travel to Haiti in order to set the record straight. It wasn’t an unprecedented move—he’d previously done shows from Mexico, Israel, Armenia, and more.
What was different was the time frame.
In this installment of #MadeInFrame, we spoke to Conan’s lead editor, Robert James Ashe, about the extreme challenge of making the Haiti show on a one-week editorial schedule.
“It was Sunday, January 14, when I received the email that Conan had decided to go to Haiti,” Rob recounts. “We didn’t know whether it was going to be just a remote segment or a whole show. But by the next day, we learned it was going to be a full show and that it was set to air on January 27.”
Because our news cycle seems to operate on a turbo-charged schedule nowadays, getting this episode aired while Trump’s comment was fresh in people’s minds was important to Conan.
A few things to help you understand how ambitious an undertaking this would be:
- First, a full-length travel episode (usually 42 minutes) has a typical editorial schedule of somewhere between three weeks and three months.
- Second, the shoot was set for four days in Haiti, meaning that the editorial staff (who work in Los Angeles) wouldn’t even have the first footage in hand until seven days prior to air.
- Third, they usually shoot somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 hours of footage for the travel shows. That’s a 28:1 shooting ratio.
- Fourth, during the week leading up to the special, they were still taping regular nightly shows in addition to editing the travel show—and the three staff editors stay quite busy doing “only” that.
Beyond that, there were promos to be cut, material that had to go to the Team Coco social media outlets, and all the tasks associated with finishing: color correction, graphics and effects, translations, and audio sweetening.
Needless to say, if anything went wrong, a common occurrence on remote shoots in unfamiliar places, there would be little time to recover. The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry, wrote the Scottish poet Robert Burns—and that was almost two hundred years before live television was even invented. He had no idea.
So how did they do it?
It’s almost irrelevant to talk about planning ahead on such a compressed schedule. On the production side, Conan enlisted the help of Anderson Cooper, who’d been to Haiti, and he helped connect Conan and the producers with his contacts.
On the post-production side, we met with the field crew to come up with a solution. “We figured out what kinds of setups, in the past, been especially time-consuming and suggested that they be very concise about what they were shooting to make the editorial process easier. The travel shows are broken down into segments, which means that we could divide up the workload between the three editors and all work somewhat independently.”
They used Sony PDW-F800s going to Odyssey recorders for the A and B cameras, and incorporated additional footage shot with GoPros and iPhones (which were necessary for the sequences that were done in tight quarters).
Rob explained that, usually, the remote episodes are shot at 24p because it gives the footage a more filmic look, even though “Conan” plays for a live audience at 1080i 29.97. In the case of the Haiti show, however, they decided to shoot everything at 29.97 because there was no time in the schedule for frame-rate conversions and the resulting headaches. It’s certainly possible to do a proper frame-rate conversion from 24 to 29.97 without a perceptible loss of quality, but it can be tricky, especially when the production team is mixing several different formats, and it always adds at least a small delay. On this project, every minute counted.
“An old colleague used to say that what we do on a live show is like the ‘speed chess’ of editing. You move as quickly and intelligently as you can under the circumstances you’re given. Things are always in motion; we’re doing the audio mixing, the color correction, the effects, the subtitling. So everything has to be compatible for the end game.”
As usual, the Team Coco crew was there, shooting concurrently, and whatever they grabbed was used, as well. In case you’re not versed in the origin story behind the name “Team Coco,” it’s a name that started during “The Tonight Show” days, when fans took sides in the Jay vs. Conan debate. The new “Conan” show has a huge presence on a number of social media platforms with a large and loyal following.
Beating the clock
Based on what they’d learned from the previous travel shows, Rob was able to make an educated pre-order of stock footage of the various locations they were visiting to use as B-roll. The editorial team also kept in close contact with the field producers and followed the Team Coco social media feeds to get a preview of where they were and what they were shooting so they could start thinking about the segments in advance.
“The other thing that was challenging was that TBS wanted to be able to promote the show as quickly as possible because of the extra-short lead up, so we had to figure out the best workflow. When we did the Israel show, we had a local TV station there that could feed us footage every night, but we didn’t have that luxury with the Haiti show. We tossed around a few ideas, like what if I went to Atlanta and worked at TBS, but it turned out that the best thing was just for the production team to send someone on a flight to LA with the drives.”
Seven Days Until Air
On Friday, the runner who had the footage landed in LA, which meant that the editors had the weekend to make as much progress as they could before the first weekday show taped. Rob manned the Friday night shift to ingest all the material to Premiere Pro, make sure it all synced, and to organize it. He parceled out the segments to the other two editors, who were going to take the day shifts, and transmitted footage to the TBS promotions department in Atlanta so they could cut the promo pieces there.
“It becomes a game of math—how do we take fifteen hours of footage and get it down to 42 minutes? Well, instead of looking at cutting down a huge fifteen-hour piece, we look at it as twelve one-hour pieces. So as I’m going through everything, I look at the different segments to see which ones have the most usable footage. Conan went to a beer factory and that one had ten minutes of really good footage, where the cooking school segment had an hour. You have to use that kind of math to make it more manageable.”
While it is undoubtedly true that the team’s round-the-clock work ethic was key to the show’s delivery, excellent organizational protocol was also a huge factor.
“I am a big fan of the Finder being able to mirror a bin structure in a project. We were constantly getting new media—sound effects, graphics, stock footage—and when you’re in the thick of it, your media is getting stacked up. You might get sound effects twenty different times, and it’s tough to constantly add them to the same folder in your Finder and then have to drag them into Premiere and have to keep track of which are the new ones and which were already there.”
So, for example, the sound effects master folder would be numbered 400. Subfolders within that would be numbered according to the sequence (401 for cooking school; 402 for factory, etc.). This strategy of keeping the file structure a mirror of the bin structure allowed the team to simplify one element of a very crazy process.
“It’s easy to just drag things in from a folder level to eliminate confusion about what’s new or what it’s used for. The subfolders became a sort of transport system to keep things tidy.”
They also have a number of coordinators on the show who communicate back and forth between the editors, writers, producers, and the graphics department so that the editors can stay focused. “They’re amazing. And they like to keep us in our chairs,” Rob says.
In terms of sharing cuts with the writers and producers, Frame.io is an integral part of the process. “We start by creating a massive project in Frame.io that’s similar to our Premiere bin structure. We give the designation ‘version zero’ to the A-side string outs, and then each subsequent version gets uploaded as we go. That way, if we need to go back to something that’s been cut out, it’s easy to go back to version zero for it.”
The travel shows also require a fair bit of translation, and Frame.io was utilized to exchange footage with the translators for quick turnaround. “It was the most indispensable thing we use it for. We could upload with burn-in timecode for source footage just so it would never get lost in an edit. That way the translator could just get right there and write it in.”
The Countdown’s On
By the end of that first weekend (three night shifts of Rob’s time plus two-day shifts each for the other two editors), the fifteen hours of footage had been trimmed down to a more manageable eleven hours. But that’s also when the regular nightly shows kicked back into production. While one editor dealt with the talk shows, the other two focused on the travel show. That means that one person was responsible for taking on the work of three people for that week.
“In terms of our ‘normal’ schedule, we get in around 10am and spend the next hour going over the events of the day with our post coordinator and associate director. From 11am to 1pm, we edit any videotape segments or remotes for that night’s show. Rehearsals for the show run for the next two hours and from 3pm to 4:30 we finalize any notes from rehearsal. The show is taped from 4:30 to 5:30 pm, and editing for the first two acts begin in one room immediately after Conan completes the monologue. The second editor takes the next two acts, and the third editor takes the final two segments. We start a live baseband feed to Atlanta, usually by 6pm and, on a good night, we’ll have finished feeding the show by 7pm. The show airs at 8pm Pacific time.”
It’s not what you’d call a luxurious schedule even with three editors. But editors who do broadcast work know all about tight deadlines.
As the days ticked by, the show was whittled down: from eleven hours to six, to four hours—with four days until air. Jimmy Vivino, the bandleader, was working on the music, and the opening “History of Haiti” piece, a text-intensive and animation-intensive behemoth, designed by the graphics “geniuses” (as Rob refers to them) and brought to life by Chris Heller.
By the time of the first scheduled screening, set for Thursday, they had all but the sixth act completed. That screening gave them a little wiggle room to see how certain jokes landed and to try out a couple of different options. Because, as anyone who’s ever worked on unscripted comedy knows…
Comedy is hard
Sure, they had a crazy schedule. And absolutely, there were logistical challenges.
But that’s all on top of the inherent challenges of cutting comedy—especially when you’re dealing with language barriers and unpredictable situations.
Noting that the editorial process on the show is a completely collaborative effort, Rob defers to his colleagues, Matt Shaw and Chris Heller, to explain how they approach the task creatively.
“With Conan’s travel shows, nothing is set up or rehearsed,” Chris says. “It’s all about finding moments where Conan really connects with people.” It’s also another reason why going through all the footage is especially important.
For example, on the first day of shooting, Conan finds himself in a crowd of people who are wary of his presence because they think that Americans only come to Haiti to show their country in a bad light. In his signature self-deprecating style, Conan not only manages to convince the crowd that he’s there to show them in their best light, he ends up getting laughs and hugs. What’s maybe the funniest part about that segment, however, is that the editor spotted a misunderstanding between Conan and his translator and ran with it. Watching the two men talking past each other and freezing on the baffled translator’s face is comedy gold.
“When I watch dailies,” Matt says, “I trust my first impressions and try not to think about what I know is going to happen. If I notice something significant, I’ll roughly shape it into a self-contained beat, and from there I can work out the overall structure and figure out how one remote piece will pair or contrast with another.”
Ultimately, though, the mission is to get laughs, and all three editors agree that “it’s about finding the joke in any situation.”
And then making sure it lands.
“You always have to worry about understandability first,” Rob explains. “Because we’re playing it back to a live audience, you need to sort of feel out where the joke is and make sure that you leave a little room for them to laugh before you go into the next bit, otherwise they won’t be able to hear it.”
That sounds straightforward enough, but compounded with the back and forth translation, background noise, and sound effects, you realize how much effort goes into making unscripted moments coalesce into an enjoyable comedy experience for both the live and TV audience.
The End Result
Under such extraordinary conditions, it’s a testament to the incredible teamwork of the “Conan” crew that the final show is illuminating, hilarious, and uplifting. From suspicious crowds to delighted school children who can’t get enough of Conan’s clowning, it’s a 42-minute distillation of the four days he spent in Haiti that brings a far more nuanced and balanced vision of the island nation to America than we get from watching the news.
After all, nothing brings people together better than a shared laugh. Because one man’s s***hole may be another’s beloved home.
You can watch the full segment, plus some Q&A and additional Haiti trip videos at http://teamcoco.com/haiti/.
Photography by Irina Logra.