Art of the Cut: “Cobra Kai” and Zack Arnold ACE Were Made for Each Other
If you’re looking for a “typical” editor, Zack Arnold, ACE doesn’t fit the sedentary backroom stereotype. When he’s not cutting the Sony Pictures/Netflix breakout nostalgia-fest Cobra Kai, he’s encouraging deskbound professionals to get up and get motivated with his Optimize Yourself program.
Other editing credits include Burn Notice, Shooter, and Empire, and he’s also fighting fit and part of 2021’s American Ninja Warrior lineup.
In Episode 101 of Art of the Cut, we manage to convince him to stop moving long enough to talk to us about his career, what drives him, and how not reading scripts can be a valuable editing tool.
Check out the Art of the Cut podcast to listen to this interview, and stay up to date on all the latest episodes.
HULLFISH: I think that your podcast is so much needed. Guys like most of us that sit around and do nothing but sit in front of a laptop all day, it is not healthy, and it’s no way to have an extended career. So, we’re all appreciative of the work that you do to get us all motivated to optimize ourselves.
ARNOLD: Thank you. I appreciate that. It certainly takes some effort to do so, but I feel like five, six years ago I was pushing a giant boulder up a mountain and I was just screaming into this giant chasm with editor’s fitness, health, balance… “What is this crazy man talking about?” It feels like there’s a little bit of traction and people are starting to pay attention. So, that’s exciting.
HULLFISH: Yeah, and personally you’ve been doing American Ninja training?
ARNOLD: Yes. So, I’m not officially on the show yet, I can’t call myself a cast member, but I’ve been doing the training and I’m part of the community and have been for about two and a half or three years now. I’ve actually been on the course. I’ve been a tester. I just haven’t been a cast member in front of cameras yet, but that’s a pretty big part of my life now.
HULLFISH: That’s so cool. When you actually get on the show, will you be able to edit yourself?
ARNOLD: No, I wish, but I have multiple friends on the inside that edit the show and they’ve all said, “Oh my God, I want to be the one that edits your story package.” I say, “Good, because I might have notes for you.”
HULLFISH: Everybody’s got notes. Anyhow, what we want to talk about is Cobra Kai, which is a great show. I know it’s been on for a while, but I’ve only recently started watching it. Multiple people that I’ve talked to say, “Steve, you got to check this out.” I say, “I don’t know. I love Karate Kid, but I can’t imagine these guys older,” and now I’m hooked.
ARNOLD: Yeah, I think that a lot of people are in the same circumstance as you. Many people recently have said, “Oh my God, I just found this new show Cobra Kai.” I’m thinking, “New? You realize it’s been around for years.” My favorite thing about the fact that it’s gone from YouTube, where it was one of their experiments with the YouTube Red platform, which then became YouTube Premium which now they’re not even doing scripted, but now that it’s transitioned to Netflix, I don’t have to have the following conversation anymore: “Hey, what are you working on?” “Cobra Kai.” “Cobra Kai, what is that?” “Oh, it’s the Karate Kid thing. It’s on YouTube.” “Oh yeah. YouTube… Yeah. Okay. Sure.”
Now that it’s on Netflix, people pay attention, even though the first two seasons have been around for almost two years now. It changes the conversation. So I’m very excited to have a lot more people find it, whether it’s new to them or otherwise. It’s been a really cool experience.
HULLFISH: Yeah. A lot of my Twitter feed is filled with people discovering Cobra Kai for the first time and saying, “This is really good.”
ARNOLD: It shocks a lot of people, even me. When I first discovered it my response was, “How dare they? Who’s doing this to The Karate Kid? This is gonna suck.” So, that was my first response as well, and clearly my tune has changed some.
HULLFISH: Tell me that story.
ARNOLD: It really started with me not knowing anything about the show in season one. I desperately wish that I had heard of it because I would have pursued it as soon as it was an idea out into the world as a production, but I’d never heard of it. So, I think it was probably just some random YouTube ad in a sidebar or something. It really wasn’t even out in the zeitgeists yet.
I think it had just been released after season one on YouTube, and either somebody had sent me a link saying, “Have you seen this?”, or I saw it on a YouTube ad, I’m not sure, but my reaction was, “What is this? You gotta be kidding me.” But of course the algorithms know what you want, so I said, “Okay, fine. I’ll just watch the trailer.” So, I watched the trailer and at the end of it, I’m thinking, “Huh, this looks pretty good. Oh, but it’s just a trailer so fine, I’ll just watch the first episode.”
“I must edit this show. Whatever it takes, this is my job to find and my job to land because there is no better fit for me as an editor.”
Then of course that leads to five straight hours later binge-watching the first season back to back to back. I probably had four other things on my calendar that day; all of those time blocks were deleted. I finished it and I said, “I must edit this show. Whatever it takes, this is my job to find and my job to land because there is no better fit for me as an editor.” There’s no better fit for all the things that I talk about as far as balance and reaching your potential. This is the perfect blend between everything I talk about as the podcast host or as the person that runs Optimize Yourself, work-life balance, and all the things that I love to edit, which is action and comedy and montages, and who doesn’t want to edit 80 style training montages? That’s my thing.
That was how it all started. I had discovered the show and I realized I want to be a part of this. I started to go down the IMDB Pro rabbit hole thinking, “How many people do I know on this show?” I just started scanning and scanning. I said, “I don’t know who any of these people are. I have no connections whatsoever,” but then I dug even deeper and there was one woman that was in the post-production department on season one. She was listed, I believe, as either co-producer or associate producer, and I had worked with her on a pilot three years prior. We had a good relationship but only worked together for six weeks. I really liked working with her and I had said I’d always love to work with her again, so I just sent her an email.
“I’ve got to share this with all the people that listen to me and follow me. How can they not know about Cobra Kai? I must share it with the world.”
I said, “This show has gotta be the best thing ever made. How exciting must it have been to work on this?” Didn’t ask for a job, wasn’t trying to say, “Hey, here’s me,” I just let her know how much I love the show. She responded, “Hey, great to hear from you again. Yeah, it was really fun. I didn’t work on it that much, but I really enjoyed my time on it.” So, that started the conversation, and then the next thing I did, having the platform that I do, I said, “I’ve got to share this with all the people that listen to me and follow me. How can they not know about Cobra Kai? I must share it with the world.”
So I wrote a 4,000-word article that wasn’t a review, it was, “Here are all the deeper themes that you’re probably missing in the show,” using a quote and breaking it down and showing how it aligned with all of my philosophies with my program. I sent her the link to that article. Clearly, I spent a lot of time on it. I rewatched the whole first season, probably took two full days to do it. She said she absolutely loved the article. She passed it along to the guys that created the show, and the next email at some point was, “Are you available?”
ARNOLD: I thought, “Huh. All right. Then I guess I need to follow up on this.” So, I said, “I will make myself available. Let’s talk.” I got the interview with the three creators of the show, did an immense amount of reconnaissance learning all about them. I did a Hot Tub Time Machine marathon, Harold & Kumar… all the things they had done that made no sense connected to Cobra Kai, but I really wanted to crawl into their brain and understand how they tell stories. Why did they want to tell this story? I went into the interview and essentially got the job in the room.
HULLFISH: I love that story. I watched the trailer for Star Wars and tried to do the same thing and it didn’t work out for me.
ARNOLD: Yeah, well Star Wars, that’s going to be a tough nut to crack. If I tried to do this on Cobra Kai today, it would be very difficult, but remember I did it when it was just a quote-unquote “Little, tiny YouTube season one show.” So, I think I was in the right place at the right time and the right person that could provide the right amount of value to them.
HULLFISH: I do think there’s a lot to be learned from your approach to this though because I love the amount of research that went into it, the thought process, and the fact that you didn’t oversell yourself at the beginning.
ARNOLD: I think that’s a big mistake that a lot of people make is they think, “It’s all about me. I have to prove to them I have all the skills. Look at me, look at my resume, make sure you take a look at my reel, watch this clip…” And it’s never about you, it’s always about them. Whether it’s trying to land a job as an editor, whether it’s me trying to find any opportunity whatsoever, I always go into this situation thinking, “How can I provide value to this person first?” The way for me to provide value is to find out what was it about season one that could have been better? Then asking, “Do I have the skills and the experience and the abilities to make season two even better than it was season one?” So, I had that conversation with the producer, with the woman that I connect with. So I asked myself, “What are things that I can bring to the table that you know about my skills?”
Then also, like I said, I did a lot of research about the guys that created the show, not just what are they looking for in an editor, but what kind of story do they really want to tell? Why did they choose Cobra Kai? One of the key pieces that actually very coincidentally connects to what you said is they had said in multiple interviews over and over as a theme, “For us growing up, The Karate Kid was our Star Wars,” and that’s exactly how I felt. The proverbial first question in all interviews is, “Tell us about yourself.” Instead of me rattling off all the reasons I’m so amazing and all of my credits, I just leaned into the table and I said, “You want to know something about me? The Karate Kid is my Star Wars. I am obsessed with this show. I love what you have done.”
Then, I started to break down all the little nuances that I don’t think most people pick up. One I specifically remember—and I think this was the clincher when they knew that I was the right person—I said, “My guess is nobody’s ever pointed out to you or noticed that there is a shot sequence that you have in the pilot when Johnny gets all drunk and he goes on his driving rampage, you guys pulled that right out of the montage from Rocky IV, and I knew it as soon as I saw the flexing fist.” They said, “Whoa, this guy knows eighties montages and eighties movies.” Those are the kinds of things that you just can’t bring in an editor that knows how to cut a scene and just download that information to their brain. Because I saw the nuance and I knew how important and how influential all the other films were in the eighties, aside from just The Karate Kid, they could tell that I could speak the same language as them from day one.
HULLFISH: Yeah, and that’s really important. One of those things that I think about trying to get a job, even as an assistant trying to get a job for an editor, is you want a connection with that person on a human level. Almost anything else is going to work, but it helps for them to know, “I don’t have to explain things to this guy. When I see the first edit, there might be things wrong with it, but at least he’s got the zeitgeists of it.”
ARNOLD: Agreed, and I think a trap that so many people fall into is making the assumption, “I have the skills and I have the experience.” When you’re just breaking into whatever it might be—so if you’re just breaking in from the bottom of the industry to being a post PA, or just transitioning from post PA to assistant or assistant to editor—there’s going to be concern about whether or not you can actually do the basics of the job. When you’re interviewing for a show like Cobra Kai, they don’t ask you questions like, “Are you familiar with Avid? Do you understand how to put scenes together, and are you familiar with bin organization?” They assume you can already do the job at a very high level, so they’re not asking those kinds of questions. What they want to know is: “Do you understand us and can all of us get into a room and have the same language and the same experiences, and do we all want to tell the same kinds of stories?”
“It’s so much more about relationships and comfort and trust than it is about, ‘I can do the actual job.’”
People just get so lost in thinking, “But I’m really good at the craft.” You also need to be really good at interaction and relationships and know that they’re not going to want to spend four hours explaining the whole canon of the series to you. So, I can cut a really good action scene, but if you’ve never seen any of The Karate Kids and you don’t understand the Miyagi-Do music theme versus the Cobra Kai music theme, then how are you going to be able to tell the story using their language? Those things are really important after you get past entry-level. This business about relationships and comfort and trust than it is about, “I can do the actual job.”
HULLFISH: Yeah, a hundred percent. Let’s talk a little bit about the editing. I think we could start anywhere with the editing, but I think an obvious one would be those sports montages. Talk to me about building one of those sports montages. Are you truly trying to—I don’t wanna use the word mimic, although that’s the only way you can say it—are you trying to mimic that 80’s style sports montage? Or are you trying to say, “Hey, we’re just going to be a fresh take and this is the way you do it”?
ARNOLD: I would say that it’s a mixture of the two. I’m never going to outright mimic something. The only exception would be that there’s a sequence at the opening of episode 208, it’s what we call “the Whitesnake montage,” it’s the one where Johnny has the dream sequence where he’s with Carmen and all of a sudden he’s in a Whitesnake music video. That was outright me stealing every convention from an eighties hair band metal video. That was by design because we want to get into Johnny’s head, and this is his world. In his world, he wants it to look exactly like an eighties metal band music video would. So, in that case, we’re mimicking but for the sake of mimicking.
When it comes to other montages, I want them to be inspired and feel like they would have in the eighties, but I also want it to feel fresh as well. So, yes, do I want it to evoke the feeling that we got watching the Rocky IV training montage or whatever it might’ve been? Of course, but I don’t want to do a cut-for-cut remake and I don’t want to use the same music unless the music is part of being in the joke, so to speak. I want it to feel the same, which is why I think Cobra Kai works so well, is that it feels like the things we remember growing up if we were part of that generation, but it’s a new version of it, so it’s fresh.
That’s really important when approaching it, especially when it comes to music choices. I either want to choose music that sounds similar but it isn’t exactly the same, or I just want it to have a rhythm. I want the picture to have a rhythm, or a cut, a pattern, or sequence that feels like those old montages, but I don’t want it to make people feel, “Oh, well, clearly you just ripped off that thing.” Like Bloodsport, for example, “You just ripped off that montage from Bloodsport.” As opposed to, “Oh, cool. This is just like that thing from Bloodsport, but this is like a newer version of it.” It’s a subtle technique. I want to make sure that it feels fresh but still reminds us with a little bit of a wink, wink, nod, nod, “Oh, I can totally see where he got that from.”
HULLFISH: I don’t think you cut this one, but there was a montage with Macchio’s character where he’s first putting on his gi and practicing karate again for the first time. There were a bunch of dissolves and I thought, “This is probably similar to another montage of the same thing where you’re using dissolves instead of cuts like a lot of other montages.”
ARNOLD: Yeah, exactly. That’s not a montage that I can specifically take credit for because, like I alluded to, I didn’t even come on until the beginning of season two, but having done many of those with the guys at this point, I’m guessing there was a conversation about, “What’s a feeling that we can evoke that comes from the original Karate Kid films and something that’s flowing and dissolve-y and elegant?” It probably wasn’t a cut-for-cut steal from one of the movies, but it felt very much like it was hearkening back to what one of those emotional moments might’ve felt like from the original film. I’m guessing that conversation was definitely had. If I know the guys well, had I been in the room, there was probably at least 12 different versions of it before they landed on that one because they’re very specific and particular, but I can’t speak to that one because I didn’t cut it.
HULLFISH: I was just thinking about the fact that it was dissolves. I’m sure it was very intentional with the thought of referencing a montage that was in the original Karate Kid, for example.
I don’t know how you like to approach regular scenes, but I’m assuming that approaching a montage requires the music upfront? Also, do they have scripted music choices?
ARNOLD: So, my approach is actually quite different than most editors. I cut virtually everything dry and silent before I add anything to it. The reason is I always want to make sure that the story makes sense first. So, the first episode I did was episode 202 which has not one, not two, but three montages in a 30-minute episode. First episode I ever cut I thought, “Oh my God. It’s like dying and going to heaven,” and the montage is set to AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”
HULLFISH: Oh my gosh.
ARNOLD: But I didn’t want the music to drive the cut. I wanted to make sure I was telling the story first. To answer another one of your questions in there, it was scripted. It’s actually the name of the episode; 202 is called “Back in Black.” It’s baked in. Everybody knew from day one we’re going to be shelling out money for ACDC and this is how we’re going to open it. So, I can’t take any credit for the song choice, but when I was putting all the shots together, I eliminated the song from the sequence. I said, “The story is that Johnny’s car is going to be transformed from this regular, everyday orange Dodge Challenger to the Cobra Kai-mobile. How can I make this as cool as possible and harken back to the style of these old eighties action movies.” So, if there was a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, for example, that had a montage like this, I thought, “How can I make it feel similar to that?” but again, that it feels new and not feel like it’s a rip off.
So, I cut all the picture first and only after the picture was cut, then I will lay in the music and then I will shape the picture to make sure it hits the music beats and it has the rhythm. It’s not a matter of just slugging a bunch of shots and then I throw on the music and I’m done. You first have to take the approach with the machete and just cut all the big pieces. Then, you have to go in with the scalpel. I get all the big general pieces in the timeline, video-wise, put the music under, then it’s a matter of shaping with a fine-tooth comb, that little tiny scalpel, every single little edit frame by frame so it matches the beats of the music.
As a trailer editor, that was where I started in my career, music becomes a crutch. I’ve seen this happen a lot where the first thing you do is music goes in the sequence and then that immediately drives your rhythm, but if you turn the music off a lot of times you realize the rhythm of the picture just doesn’t work. I want the rhythm of my picture to stand alone, or if I’m not doing a montage and I’m cutting a scene, I always cut everything dry. I don’t do any scoring until I have an entire act. Once I have a string out of a minimum of 10, 15, 20 minutes, I will score all of it as one large piece, but I will not score scene by scene because I feel that a lot of times you’ll score a scene and think, “Oh, the music works great in here.” Then, all of a sudden, you watch it in the context of five scenes and you realize, “Oh, there’s just way too much music.” Or, “The music should have started here or should have overlapped and gone into the next scene.” So, I don’t like to use music as a crutch. I want to make sure that I’m telling the story visually and the pace works first. Then, I focus on the music.
HULLFISH: Yeah, I love that idea. I cut stuff dry too when I first cut it, but I almost always, on scenes that I feel have to have music, will drop the music in right then and there in scene; but there’s a lot of movies, especially things that I’ve noticed recently where the score goes over two scenes and you just can’t pull that off if you’re doing it one at a time.
ARNOLD: Exactly because the music is telling the audience, either subtly or not subtly depending on the music, “Here’s what you should be feeling right now. You should be feeling tense. You should be feeling sad. You should be feeling happy.” But you don’t know if you should be doing that in the microcosm of one scene or maybe across the sequence of four scenes. It just becomes such a crutch to think “Well, the scene is working okay. Let me throw in some score… The scene’s great. It’s done.” The problem might not have been the lack of music. The problem is there’s still a moment or a look or a pause, who knows what it might be. The scene has to stand by itself and only then can you make it better with music. I just find so many people think the scene is good enough, add music, now it’s great. I feel like it can get even better if you don’t let the music be a crutch.
“I find that especially with younger, less experienced editors that’s always the first step. They throw in the music; this drives all the work.”
HULLFISH: I think most people would say that music cannot be a crutch. A lot of editors would say, “You’ve got to cut the scene dry,” but I do love the idea of waiting until you’ve got an entire sequence, or in TV land an entire act, before you start dropping in music. That’s really great advice.
ARNOLD: I think for the more seasoned editors like ourselves that have been doing this for a long time, I think it’s obvious that we should cut stuff dry, but for the newer people coming up, it’s a very common practice to always lead with music and build things from the music just because media is so much easier to get ahold of, to just drag and drop into a sequence and try this and try that. So, I find that especially with younger, less experienced editors that’s always the first step. They throw in the music; this drives all the work. I was the same way when I cut my first feature. It was just all about the music because I was trained as a trailer editor. Music drives everything, and I realized that it really doesn’t. It’s gotta be the story first.
HULLFISH: Yeah, I cut a bunch of trailers too and cut a lot of short-form before I started cutting features, and one of the things that I found that I did with feature work, or narrative work, is I was just cutting too fast or not letting things breathe enough, because basically letting something breathe in a trailer is like 14 frames. That’s a nice breath.
ARNOLD: I had the exact same learning curve and my learning curve was these two things happening simultaneously. So, the break that I got that transitioned me from doing short-form trailers and advertising to doing long-form features was a project that actually asked me to do both. At the time, it was an independent feature film. They were only halfway through shooting and they ran out of money. What they needed to do was put together a sales trailer and a couple of sample scenes so they could take it to all the studios and all the investors and say, “Help us finish this film and distribute it.” Through a connection of a connection of a connection, somebody knew that I was really good at cutting trailers and had won several awards, but I was also very young, i.e. cheap, so they said, “We would love for you to put together this package where you cut a four-minute sizzle reel of what we have so far, and then just attach these two scenes.”
“I had to step back and be much more conscious and develop much more objectivity, knowing that this has to be slower and it has to play like a scene.”
I cut together the promo; they loved it. Then, I cut together the two scenes and they also loved them, but they said, “We gotta be honest. You gotta slow down. We can tell that your scenes are cut by a trailer editor. They don’t feel like scenes. They almost feel like a promo. So, we love your approach, but it has to be different than the trailer.” That was my first aha moment of, “Wow. I didn’t realize it consciously, but the speed and pace and the rhythm that are just burned into my brain, it’s not just something I could translate over.” I had to step back and be much more conscious and develop much more objectivity, knowing that this has to be slower and it has to play like a scene, even though for 60 hours a week for three years straight, it had been all fast cuts and action and drama. That was a really big wake-up call and learning experience for me that I now still think about to this day when I go between mediums.
HULLFISH: You definitely have to divorce yourself. I haven’t gone back to cutting a trailer since I have been doing narrative, but I would have to go, “Okay, gotta pick things up a little bit here.” You’d have to reset your brain.
ARNOLD: Yep. It goes the opposite way as well. I went back and forth between long-form and short-form for years, and you just have to reset the switch. So, I would start putting together a trailer and I’m thinking, “Oh crap, this is slow. I’m letting it breathe too much.” That’s because I’ve been cutting scenes for two years. It’s just one of those things where over time you learn how to flip that switch on and off, and it’s basically like learning how to speak multiple languages at a time. At first, if you’re going from English to Spanish or English to French or Mandarin Chinese or whatever it is, it all starts to mix together until you get fluent at both individually. I feel like cutting short-form versus long-form, anybody can do both, but they are different enough that they are different skill sets.
I don’t want to go too deep down the rabbit hole of, “An editor can only do this thing,” versus, “An editor can tell anything, it’s all storytelling.” I feel like there’s a middle ground. So, just because you do short-form, yes, you’re an editor and you’re a storyteller, but there are different skills that you have to learn. It’s a different language if you want to go from short-form to long-form or vice-versa.
HULLFISH: One of the other things that I think that you need to learn if you’re coming to narrative from anything else is also that longer idea of the entire story and that story arc that a lot of shorter pieces have minimally. Or, if you’ve cut a three-minute piece, sure, it’s got a story arc to it, but it’s one you can wrap your head around. Then, when you get to the point where you’re cutting a two hour film, that story arc is much harder to wrap your head around the hills and valleys of it and twists and turns. Can you speak a little bit to Cobra Kai and that longer-form vision of where the story has to go and where it’s coming from?
ARNOLD: Sure. I think that this applies to TV, it applies to features, anything where like you said if you’re working on a three-minute piece, you can see the beginning and the end in the same three minutes. So, you have the broad overview and you know the beginning, the middle, and the end, but when you’re actually in production, you don’t have that kind of objectivity. You can’t stand outside of it and say, “How does this scene fit into the larger whole?” There is no larger whole because it doesn’t really exist yet.
HULLFISH: People would say that you’ve read the script, but that is just not it.
ARNOLD: Yeah, the film that you write is very different than the film that you shoot is very different than the film that you edit and release. Three completely different projects. To stick with this idea of, “How do I maintain some sense of seeing the whole picture?” I don’t because it doesn’t exist. So, the way that I look at it is that when I’m cutting a scene, the scene is the movie. All scenes have a beginning, a middle, and an end, so I want to make sure that I’m starting at the micro-est of micro as possible. What’s the first shot of the scene? Great. So what’s the absolute last frame of this first shot before I feel that I need to go to the second one and the third one? So on and so forth.
Now I’ve put together a scene. Is this the best version of this individual scene possible? I don’t even care what happens before it. I don’t care what happens after it. Right now, all that exists in my world is this one scene. Do I feel confident this is the best version of the individual scene? Great. Mark it, put it in a bin, it’s going to sit there and it’s going to gather cobwebs for a day, for a week, for six months; I don’t care. I’m going to do the same thing for the next scene. It’s an assembly line. One individual movie after another, making sure beginning, middle, and end all work and the scene makes sense. Then, the process starts all over again because you have to slam together all of your individual scenes. Then, you watch it all together and you think, “This is a hot mess.” All these scenes, all these individual little movies, that I thought held together, some of them do but some of them don’t work at all once they’re against other scenes. I was sure this was going to be the first shot of the scene. Absolutely confident, but looking at where I’m coming from with the last shot of the previous scene, it doesn’t work anymore.
“I have had scenes that I’ve cut them thinking, ‘This is one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever cut. I love this.’Then, I watch the show and I think, ‘It’s totally useless.’
So, now I’m working at a larger level, which is no longer about the individual scene. How do multiple scenes come together? How do I make sure they transition smoothly? So, I only focus on that part of the process. Then I will watch the entire episode and for the first time, I say, “Oh, Wow. I thought this scene totally made sense, but it doesn’t make sense coming after this one because that character said that one thing, but they said the same… Oh, we’ve got a writing problem. We might need to swap these scenes. We might even need to shoot another scene or, frankly, we can lose the scene altogether.”
I have had scenes that I’ve cut them thinking, “This is one of my favorite scenes I’ve ever cut. I love this.” Then, I watch the show and I think, “It’s totally useless. Never going to use the scene. We don’t need it at all.” I’ve had multiple scenes on the show where I’ve emailed the guys and I’ve said, “Listen, I know you guys love this scene. I love it too. It doesn’t belong.” They say, “Cut it. Leave it. Put it at the end of the sequence. We don’t even need to watch it in the show. We trust you.” But I’m so confident when I’m cutting it that it’s a great scene, but then when I see it in context, it isn’t. If you get wrapped up in, “Does the scene fit into the larger whole, and have I picked the first shot that’s going to help me get out of the previous scene?” you’re just going to get bogged down in questions that you don’t have answers to yet. So, I just look at it in micro, one scene at a time, then one sequence at a time, then I look at the whole and I answer those questions.
HULLFISH: When I interviewed Lee Smith, he said that a lot of times when he gives an assistant editor a scene to cut they get frozen on what the first shot should be. He says, “Don’t worry about the first shot. That’s probably going to change anyway. Just get the scene cut. Pick a shot…”
ARNOLD: Yep make sure the scene tells the story that it needs to good enough, then refine it once you see it as a smaller part of a larger whole.
HULLFISH: Yeah, absolutely. I would love to hear the process that you were talking about of reading the script. What’s the process that you go through?
ARNOLD: Yeah, here’s the funny thing: my process with reading the script is that I don’t read the script.
HULLFISH: That’s very daring.
ARNOLD: People think I’m crazy for sharing this publicly, and I don’t recommend this to anybody that doesn’t have extensive experience, but I’m going to tell you why I don’t read the script until I’ve watched the dailies. That’s my trick. I selfishly am a fan of Cobra. Kai. I want to experience a scene the closest to being an audience member, and knowing what’s coming on paper ruins that for me. If I can when I’m watching an individual scene, again, thinking about the micro versus the macro, I want to be able to watch the individual scene fresh. Of course it’s going to be an hour-long scene that’s four takes of a master and close-ups and mediums. I’m never going to be able to experience it the way that any other audience member would.
HULLFISH: An hour of dailies, not an hour-long scene, right?
ARNOLD: Yeah, if I’m going to do a two-minute scene, it’s probably going to be an hour of footage minimal. Sometimes, it’ll be a lot more than that, but it’s a nice even round number. I’m going to experience this as I would an audience member. What that means is number one, selfishly I get to think, “Oh my God. I can’t believe he said that.” It’s just to me enjoying it without having read it and knowing what’s coming. Number two, what I found is really important to the storytelling process, is if I watch the dailies and I don’t understand the scene, that means the audience probably isn’t going to understand it either. Had I read the script beforehand, I’m filling knowledge gaps maybe with information that was in a slug line, maybe with a piece of information that I read about in the next scene. So, in a way, I feel like reading the script is doing the story a disservice because if I don’t get something when I watched the dailies, the audience doesn’t get it either.
What I will do then, after I watched the scene, I will only then read the scene. “Oh, now I see why this line of dialogue didn’t make sense.” If I’d read the script, I’d get it, but the audience doesn’t get handed a script while they’re watching the show. So, how can I fix this issue, knowing what the intention was on the page? It’s like a way of cheating almost and lending some objectivity, but it’s not something I recommend if you haven’t cut a bunch of TV and a bunch of films because you don’t really know what is the intention of the scene if you haven’t read it yet. Once you’ve done multiple seasons of a TV show, you get a sense of the rhythm, what the directors want, what the producers want. In general, that’s my process. So yes, of course, I read the script. I just don’t read it until I’ve watched a scene.
“I would never just start cutting stuff, asking, “Who are these characters? What is this film about?” That doesn’t make any sense.”
HULLFISH: I’ve seen multiple times in film scripts that the stuff that’s in the description will screw you up because it gives you information that, as you said, the audience is never going to have. It’s daring not to read the script at all. I love that idea. I’m not disapproving of your methodology, but it’s a little bit of a high wire act I think to do that. I’ve definitely gotten information where the script will say: “Zack looks at Steve as if he wants to kill him with an ax in the back room.” You’re thinking, “Oh, that’s really specific information. How are his eyes going to describe that exact information to me?” It’s something that you know that you can’t show on the screen. So, now that’s in your head and it’s problematic because now you have information that the audience does not have.
ARNOLD: Agreed, and that’s always what I’m trying to avoid. I think one caveat that maybe I hadn’t shared that I think is really important to share about this methodology: I would never do it on a feature film, and I would never do it on a pilot because I’m creating a world from scratch and there’s no way for me to understand how the whole story tracks as a whole if I haven’t read it. This works really well on a multi-season TV series that you’ve worked on before. If you’re a feature editor, this would be insane. I would never just start cutting stuff, asking, “Who are these characters? What is this film about?” That doesn’t make any sense.
HULLFISH: Right. You wouldn’t know the relationships.
ARNOLD: Yeah. If I’m cutting my 10th episode of Cobra Kai or my 30th episode of Burn Notice, I don’t need a script to know who’s the main character and what’s the objective of the show and what’s the formula. This only works if you’re working on something that you’re comfortable with that is episodic.
HULLFISH: Sure. If you see a reaction shot in a scene and you know the two characters you’re thinking, “That’s the reaction this guy shouldn’t have to this other guy because of this relationship that they have,” but then if you don’t know the relationship, you’re thinking, “That’s a strange reaction,” because you don’t know.
HULLFISH: The other thing with being a feature film editor or a pilot editor and not seeing the script is that it would be very odd because normally that’s the way you get the gig is they send you the script, you have some kind of conversation about, “Oh, I love the script. Got some questions.”
ARNOLD: Exactly. That would be another caveat is anybody that’s interviewing for a job, do not go into the interview and say, “Yeah, I don’t read scripts. I don’t read them until after I watch your dailies.” I do not advise that as a job strategy. So, lots of caveats.
It’s my process as being an episodic TV editor and it works really well for me, but yes, of course, it’s not going to work if you’re going onto a brand new show. I do the exact polar opposite if I’m going onto a feature or a pilot. I come in there having broken down the script deeper than the writer has broken it down. I’ve done entire whiteboards in index cards, color-coded, breaking down the entire film and the structure so I can talk to them about how I interpreted it. I will spend hours and hours going to that level of detail, but again, if it’s for something that’s brand new as opposed to episodic.
HULLFISH: Yeah, I love that idea. Anything else that you want to talk about with process?
ARNOLD: There isn’t anything else that I want to bring up specifically about the creative process as far as scripts or how I approach a scene, but I think another part, as long I have the shameless opening here, is not working at it without taking breaks and walking away. People think that if you’re going to be an amazing editor or assistant or director, whatever the craft might be, you just power through, nose to the grindstone, whatever it takes. “I’m going to wear my sleep deprivation badge of honor, proudly,” but does that make you better at what you do? Does that make you a crisper thinker?
HULLFISH: This message brought to you by Optimize Yourself.
ARNOLD: Yes. This message sponsored by Optimize Yourself, but it’s really not about the program, it’s about having the mindset that if I want to do the best creative work possible you can’t do it staring at a screen for 14 hours a day. So, one of the most important parts of my process is I segment my day with tons of breaks. If you just had a camera and you were observing me, you’d be thinking, “Does he ever work? When does he get any work done? He’s taking his lunch outside for an hour. He takes a half-hour break in the afternoon. When does he actually cut?” The reason I’m able to do all this work is because I take the breaks and I give myself room to think. I think that we assume that problem solving is always going to happen in the timeline, and the vast majority of me doing creative problem solving happens when I’m not at my office.
One of my tricks, one part of my process, is I will watch the dailies and then I will leave the room. Or what I will do is I will watch the dailies, open the timeline for that new scene, I will cut together the first two shots, then I will leave the room, and I’ll cut the scene in my head for half an hour walking outside. Then, I see the whole scene, I walk back in, cut, done; but it’s because I visualized it and I thought about it almost the way that a film editor would. I think with non-linear nowadays, it’s so easy to just try everything and throw it into the timeline, but I think more like a film editor thinking, “How can I do this in the least amount of moves possible to get to the end game?” because I don’t have time to play around with the scene all day long. I’ve got 40 hours of dailies sitting here that needs to get cut yesterday, so I want to be as effective with my time as possible.
HULLFISH: And two hours of breaks to take.
ARNOLD: Yeah, right, all the two-hour breaks. I’ve had more than one evil eye like, “Why does he always get to go outside and eat lunch?” As long as I get my work done and it’s at a high quality, it’s on time, nobody cares how I do it. That’s how I do it. I take a lot of breaks and I give my brain room to breathe.
HULLFISH: I just talked to somebody that said, “I’ll watch the dailies and if I realize that I don’t know what I’m doing, I just go home.” Obviously not at 10 o’clock in the morning, but you say, “I’m going to do better if I just sleep on this,” and, sure enough, the answer will come to you in bed, in the shower, on the drive back to work.
“Sometimes I’ll make it a point when I’m commuting to not have a podcast, not listen to the music, not listen to the radio, and not be on the phone.”
ARNOLD: I’ve had so many ideas either in the shower, driving and commuting, or doing dishes than any other place because I can’t do anything else. When you’re in the shower, you can’t be on your phone, you can’t be checking the Twitter feeds, you can’t be getting all your notifications; you really have no choice. If you have a waterproof phone so you can use it in the shower (stop doing that) but if you’re doing the dishes, same thing, it’s harder to be distracted.
Sometimes I’ll make it a point when I’m commuting to not have a podcast, not listen to the music, not listen to the radio, and not be on the phone. It forces me to think and I’ll think, “Oh, what’s that one shot? I can’t crack this one montage… Aha! I know the shot.” I run into my edit bay to fix it because I’ve solved it in my brain. That saves time, and it also saves energy because you’re just not stuck sitting in front of your computer forever. Nobody solves a problem staring at a computer, beating themselves up.
HULLFISH: Yep. Absolutely. I just want to let everybody know that Zack is standing during this interview.
ARNOLD: And it’s my third interview today after doing a two-hour coaching call, so I think I’ve been standing in this position pretty much for the most part since 8:00 AM this morning. It’s been about seven hours straight in one exact position.
HULLFISH: That’s good. Are you on a Topo Mat? What’s down there?
ARNOLD: Topo Mat. I live on this. There is no surface that I live on more in my entire life than a Topo Mat. So, yes, I am definitely standing on my Topo Mat right now as we speak. I’m so glad you brought that up. Thank you.
HULLFISH: I bring my dog to work, Stella, and I brought her bed with me to work and she sleeps on the Topo Mat.
ARNOLD: That’s my cat’s favorite place. Every morning I come in, she’s sitting there sleeping right on the Topo Mat. So, yes, it doubles as an animal bed. It’s great.
HULLFISH: Makes foot placement tricky.
ARNOLD: Yeah, a lot of times I’m saying, “Okay, are you going to move? Come on. I’ve got to work now. Thank you.”
HULLFISH: “I want to step on the little ball thing in the middle, Stella. You’re sleeping on it.”
HULLFISH: I love it. So, we talked a little bit about structure. Tell me about the process that happens once you get your assembly done. What happens from there to getting a delivered show? What kind of collaboration happens? What kind of realizations do you come to watching things in context and getting yourself to a final cut?
ARNOLD: Sure. One thing that I’ll clarify right off the bat is that I don’t deliver an assembly. I know that this can be a little bit of a contentious term and everybody has their own processes. I deliver what would be a broadcast quality first cut. It doesn’t have final visual effects in it because obviously, that’s not worth my time to be doing those, but otherwise, as far as the quality of the edits—the level of tightness, the music edits, the sound effects design—if I were to show this to any audience member, they’d say, “Oh Yeah. This is the finished version, right?” I don’t believe in assemblies anymore because we don’t have the time the way that we did 10, 20 years ago to really dig into all the footage and find the nuance and say, “All right, so we have this blank canvas, we started with this assembly, now let’s shape it.” Ain’t nobody got time for that anymore. So what I want to do is say, “Here’s what I believe is the best version of your show. Now it’s your turn to rip it to shreds and make it better.” That’s exactly the process on Cobra Kai.
I’ve never been on a show where I get noted more than this one, but I’ve also never been on a show where I agree with the notes more. So, you’ll get pages and pages, and I’ve seen multiple new editors that have come on the show since me and I’m just waiting for them to hand in their first editor’s cut because they have no idea what’s coming. You just see this look on their face like, “I heard back from them. It’s so many notes.” “Yep. Welcome to Cobra Kai.”
HULLFISH: But if you agree with them and they’re great notes… I think young editors probably hear you say that and they think, “That sucks that you would have that many notes.” Not necessarily that it’s your fault, but they think, “Those stupid network executives.” Obviously, it’s not network execs at that point.
ARNOLD: Well, that’s a different process. We’ll talk about those notes, but as far as the internal notes…
HULLFISH: Right. The internal notes, that’s still the same thing. For you to love those notes is great. One, that the producers and writers are so eloquent and in tune with their own product, but also to be able to set your ego aside and say, “These are great notes. Yeah. I’m happy to make these changes.”
ARNOLD: It takes years of experience to get to that point because I also was the young editor that would get the notes and my immediate response was, “You don’t know this material as well as I do. This is the best version of the scene, you just don’t know it yet.” So, I was very close-minded for a while and had a lot of that ego, but I learned over and over that as people chipped away at that, they kept proving me wrong. “Oh, I thought that was such a dumb idea, but the scenes better now,” and I almost didn’t let that happen. So, now I will embrace any idea that comes along and it’s not to say that I love every single note on Cobra Kai. There are certainly some head-scratchers and I think, “Really? Okay, fine. I’ll show you what it looks like,” but what I love about the notes on this show specifically is they know exactly what they want. They know their show and they’re going to do whatever it takes to get there.
I’ve been on other shows where they note for the sake of noting, or they note for the sake of trying to fix something that really can’t be fixed saying, “This is what we were supposed to shoot.” “That’s great. That’s not actually what you shot.” “But that’s what it’s supposed to be.” I say, “Let’s embrace what we have and make this the best version.” These guys get that. They’ll just come in and say, “Listen, I know that you had this big, giant sequence that was in the script, but because of X, Y, and Z reason, I got you like a third of what you need, but I love what you did with it. Now, is there a way that we can get it a little bit closer to the original intention knowing that this is what we have?” They’re never going to force you to jump through hoops just for the sake of jumping through hoops.
I love working with people where I know that the vast majority of the notes are ending up making it better as opposed to just busywork. That’s where I get really frustrated when it seems like the notes are just either at best a lateral move or more likely moving backward. I don’t want to waste time doing that when I can make it better, but I’ll just read the seven pages of notes and think, “Damn, they’re right about all this. Alright, time to get to work.” So, to me, I love that part of the collaborative process.
HULLFISH: The thing is though, even if you didn’t love the notes or you don’t love some of them, you still have to show them, and it’s a way for them to also say, “Oh, I envisioned my note working, but yeah, Zack’s note is better.” You still have to do it. You can’t just convince them otherwise, you’ve got to show them otherwise.
ARNOLD: You have to show them otherwise, and I think a big mistake that a lot of editors make, both inexperienced and experienced editors will make, is they’ll say, “This is a dumb note so I’m just going to do the dumb note and just assume you’re going to also see that it’s a dumb note.” Then, the response is either, “Hey, this works great,” and you’re thinking, “Really? Oh shit.” Or the other response is, “Why did you do this? This doesn’t work.” “Well, that’s what you told me to do in your note.” That doesn’t work either. So, my process is I will go through all the notes and all the ones that make sense, I just execute them. No words necessary. “Here’s your note works great. Moving on.”
Then there’s a laundry list of notes where they’re asking for something that can’t really be done. So instead of me either saying, “Nope, can’t do your note,” or, “We want you to do this,”—” Well, that’s stupid. So let me just show you it’s stupid,” I’ll say, “I know that you wanted to do this. Here’s the challenge for why it’s hard for me to do this. Look at this instead.” They’ll see that I took the effort to not just discount their notes. I’d say, “This is really going to be hard to execute, but I think this might be an alternative that works better.” That is what builds relationships with collaborators, directors, producers, showrunners is when they know they can trust you to not only execute their notes but oftentimes execute a better version of the note than they thought they could get, but also solve problems without being the one that just complains about, “Well you told me to do the stupid note so here’s your stupid note. See, told you it didn’t work.” Nobody wants to work with anybody like that.
HULLFISH: Exactly right. It shows that the work of an editor is done so much outside of the timeline, outside of the keyboard.
ARNOLD: Yeah, knowing Avid is a very small percentage of being a successful editor if you want it to be a career. It’s so much more about relationship building and understanding the collaborative process, being able to run a room, the soft skills of managing notes, managing timelines, not timelines in the NLE, I’m talking about timelines and delivery schedules, calendars. So, if you think it’s just about, “I cut great scenes and I can just edit an amazing montage,” that’s 5% of being good at your job. All the other pieces are the skills that most people don’t focus on, but those are the ones that get you rehired.
HULLFISH: Yeah, a hundred percent. The reason why I said “assembly” earlier is because I just did an interview earlier today and I called it an editor’s cut with him and he said, “I hate the word ‘editor’s cut.’ It’s not the editors cut.” He’s right because, as most editors would say, I edit exactly like the script tells me to do. If I think the line needs to be cut, I can’t do it at that point. So, the assembly is not the editor’s cut because those aren’t the choices you would maybe make; you’re just executing your best version of the script. So, what should we call it? You can’t call it “Zack’s fine cut.” There’s no word for it.
ARNOLD: This is going to vary based on the people that you work with and the level of trust that they have in you, but my response to that would be that I actually do go in and cut lines and restructure scenes. So, in a way, it is my cut, and I will always have the alternate version. If I’m so confident in something that I believe this works, that’s what goes in my editor’s cut, and then at the end of the sequence, here’s the scripted version if you want to see how it originally worked on paper. For the most part, what you see is what’s going to be on the page if I believe that it works. If it’s just so painfully obvious that this montage isn’t working or half of the scene is totally unnecessary or doesn’t make sense or, like I mentioned, this entire scene is completely useless in the story, I’ll send it without any of it because I want their first impression to be as close to the audience’s impression as possible.
What I found is that often leads to a lot less notes because rather than giving them something rough and saying, “Here’s everything, let’s shape it together,” they’ve already experienced it as an audience would. Now they can start to make determinations, and oftentimes they’ll say, “Wait, there was a scene there? Why did we have a scene there? Oh, never mind.” But if you’d shown it to them with the bad scene, their first impression doesn’t include the better version where it doesn’t exist. So, I want to give them the experience that the audience would. I guess the simplest version of this would be that I’m a much bigger believer in asking for forgiveness than permission, and that takes a little bit of confidence.
Again, I probably wouldn’t do it with somebody that I hadn’t worked with before, but it’s always a conversation that we’ll have with new collaborators: “What is your expectation of this first cut?” I had it with the guys on Cobra Kai. I’ll say, “Do you want me to just give you exactly the script that you wrote? Do you want me to not cut anything? No restructuring? Or do you want me to give you what I think is the best version?” Depending on who I work with, I get different answers. Some people say, “Just give me what I shot and what I wrote and we’ll figure it out later.” Great. Happy to do that. But with Cobra Kai, they said, “You show us what you think the best version of this episode is, and we’re going to find it together later.” As a collaborator and a creative, that to me puts me in a position to succeed rather than feeling like I’m just giving them what they want but I never get my cut.
HULLFISH: Yeah. I think you revealed the greater truth which is that you had a conversation about it first. This is the reason why I do these interviews, and I love speaking to so many different editors; a lot of editors would say, “Do not mess with the script because the director is expecting a certain thing when they see their first cut and if you don’t, and this has happened to me, they’re angry or they’re thrown out, or it takes them out of the scene that you dropped three lines from the beginning of the scene.” You might think, “Yeah, because it’s better that way.” Doesn’t matter. But if you do have that permission, if you have talked to them and they’ve said, “Yeah, we’re totally open to that. You show us what you think is best,” that’s a whole different story.
ARNOLD: Yeah. I’ll have that conversation with every single visiting director on the show. TV is a little bit different than features where in a feature you’re working with the director and the director is where the buck stops. Maybe politically it ultimately ends at the studio executive or whatnot, but really, as far as the creative process, you’re going to be beholden to what the director wants, and TV doesn’t necessarily work that way, at least a visiting director if they’re just there for two or three weeks. They get their episode and, in a way, they almost feel beholden to the editor, but I will still ask them, “What is the way that you prefer me to deliver the director’s cut? Do you want what I believe is the best episode because I’ve worked on it for two years and I have a good sense of what the showrunners want, or do you want your director’s cut just exactly the way that it is and we’ll figure it out?” Usually, they will always defer to the person that’s worked on the show multiple times because they want to look good. They want to blend in so they get hired back on the next episode, but every once in a while I’ve worked with directors, not on Cobra Kai but on past shows, where they’re pretty confident they can direct a better version of the show than has been done the previous five or six seasons, and they want to show them: “This is really what your show needs to be. I want you to cut it this way.” “Okay. No problem.”
I had one episode that I delivered, I won’t name the show, but I almost got fired because of the director’s cut. They came in and they said, “What is this? This is a trainwreck. This is a disaster.” I said, “Do me a favor, everybody calm down. Please go watch my editor’s cut.” They came back the same afternoon and said, “Please delete the director’s cut, go back to the editor’s cut, do these notes, and we’ll send it to the studio.” They loved it, but the director’s cut was so far away from what their show was that there was just this anger about, “How dare you do this to our show?” That all came from the director believing that they could change the show and teach them: “This is really what your show needs to be,” but because the cut came from me, they assumed that it was just a bad edit. I’ve had that experience more than once. I’m always going to defer to what the director wants, but I’m going to make sure that I have my version ready to go as well.
HULLFISH: That’s the tricky thing with TV compared to features is that you’ve got this director that you have to deliver a director’s cut and they don’t know the show as well as you do. If I ever directed TV, I would tell the editor, “Yeah, let’s go with your version instead of my version because that gives you more time.” Those guys only have what, four days?
“When I have the directors that come in that really want to prove their stuff, I’ll do my cut first, I’ll leave it in a bin.”
ARNOLD: Yeah, they’ve got four days tops. On a show like ours, we give them four days; technically, it’s only two because in some absurd world on paper Cobra Kai is a half-hour comedy. So, they only get two instead of four days, but, in general, they’ll usually get more than those two days if they need them. What I will do if I know that I have a director that knows that they don’t know and they want to defer to me because they want to deliver the best version of the show, then I only have the one cut. But when I have the directors that come in that really want to prove their stuff, I’ll do my cut first, I’ll leave it in a bin, and then all the things they’ve asked for I will make sure I find or prioritize extra time to give that to them, knowing that I always have the backup.
If I’m cutting a montage and they say, “I want you to use Whitney Houston,” I say, ”Okay, sure. Happy to show you the montage,” but I know what’s going to happen. It’s going to go to the producers and they’re going to say, “What in the world is Whitney Houston doing in this montage?” “Just give me a second. Let me show you my version.” “Oh, all right. We’re good.”
ARNOLD: Yeah, exactly. I make sure that if the case arises where I know I’m doing something they’re absolutely going to hate, I always have a backup.
HULLFISH: Yeah, that’s very smart thinking. I am interested in this idea of how shows evolved from we’ll just call it the “Zack cut” to the end studio cut. What goes on, especially if you can give an example of what are some things that change? What are some notes that are given? What’s that evolution like?
ARNOLD: I think that it’s really hard to go into the nuance of it too much without talking about a very specific moment here or there, but it’s going to be a smattering of anything from, “Don’t like this one performance of this one line,” to, “This whole scene is slow,” to, “Different piece of music here.” If we’re going to look at the macro again as it applies to this process, I’m here to shepherd the vision that somebody else had. It’s not: “Here’s my version of Cobra Kai.” It’s: “I’m here to help you realize your vision of Cobra Kai,” but at the same time, there’s a lot of cooks and a lot of kitchens, and I am the filter through which all of those notes come. So what happens a lot—and this happens a lot on Cobra Kai because we have not one but three showrunners and creators—you get a lot of competing notes. You’ll have one of them that will say, “I really think that this scene needs to be slower.” Then, another one says, “Oh my God, the scene needs to be so much faster.” So, I can’t make both of you happy.
“We’re also mediators and we’re also therapists, especially when you’re dealing with these competing notes in this competing process. You have to be able to manage those personalities.”
I see ultimately my job is to realize their vision, but also kind of help them all compromise without them needing to go at it. Every once in a while you just sit at your computer and you just let them go at it for 10 minutes. “Well, it needs to be this. Why should we do this? Why should we do that?” Then ultimately, the heads just turn to me and say, “What should we do, Zack? What do you think?” “Well, I think based on what you said maybe we try this, but based on what you said over there maybe we try this,” and they say, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” A thing that’s often said about editors is not only is it about the editing and the storytelling, we’re also mediators and we’re also therapists, especially when you’re dealing with these competing notes in this competing process. You have to be able to manage those personalities.
Luckily, on Cobra Kai they all get along really well and everybody believes that the best idea wins. I’ve also been on shows where they believe that their idea wins no matter how bad it is. Then, you really have to start managing personalities where you have a producer come in and say, “Oh, that’s dumb. I want you to change it and put this in.” Two minutes later, the other producer comes in and says, “Why was that changed? You need to fix that and put it back,” and you get stuck in the middle of it. So, you have to very much navigate the process, knowing that ultimately my job is to protect the story. I’m not always going to be able to do that because every once in a while somebody is going to just get their fingers in there and they’re going to do what they need to do and I can’t protect every little bit of it; but as a whole, if I can protect the essence of the story, even if it’s from the person who’s created the story, my job is to shepherd it to the end and make sure that it stays as cohesive as possible.
“I’m not delivering my version of the show, I’m delivering what I believe is the best version of your show.”
HULLFISH: You mentioned the “Zack cut,” or what you think is best for this episode, but I’m sure that you would agree that the “Zack cut” is not what you think as Zack, it’s what you think is best for the story as a creative on the show. So, if you can convey how intimately interested you are or how passionate you are about delivering the best Cobra Kai episode, your personal opinion holds a lot more weight because they don’t feel like this is you trying to insert yourself. It’s you trying to allow the show to come through.
ARNOLD: Exactly. The most succinct way that I can explain this is I’m not delivering my version of the show, I’m delivering what I believe is the best version of your show. Big distinction between the two. A lot of editors want to deliver their version of the show. You don’t want to do that, but I believe in my heart of hearts, this is the best version of your show. So, it’s no different than a visiting director wanting to change the way that it’s all done in TV. Unless you’re working on a pilot, there’s already a format, there’s already a formula. “This is what I think is my best version of your show,” is very different from, “Oh, this is definitely my show, and this is what I think we should do.” That’s just gonna create a world of pain throughout the entire notes process.
HULLFISH: Yeah. I’ve talked to other editors that have talked on episodics that have said, “A new director comes in and they’ll say, ‘Oh, let’s do this great crane shot.'” The editor will say, “We never used crane shots,” or whatever it is. There’s a way that the show should be delivered, and even though you think you’re a great director and you can deliver this awesome four-minute opening oner, that’s not the way the show works.
ARNOLD: Yeah. It would be like coming into Cobra Kai as a director and saying, “We’re going to do all of it handheld freestyle.” No. We’ve shot three seasons where everything’s on sticks and it’s all locked off. That’s not our style unless it serves the story. There are certain moments where people have done locked-off handhelds, all kinds of crazy stuff, and it serves the emotion of the story at that moment, as opposed to, “I think this is what Cobra Kai needs to be instead.” That’s also a trap that I think editors fall into stylistically is, “What if I use these plugins instead?” Or, “What if I did the transitions like this,” or, “What if I used nineties music instead of eighties music?” Just see what that looks like if you try. You just want to see if you can bring your own feel and your own opinions, but still speaking in the same language.
HULLFISH: Amen. Zack, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation, and I hope lots of people find Cobra Kai because it’s a great show. Thanks for working on it and thanks for being with me.
ARNOLD: You bet. I’m excited to be here and I’m very excited to maybe have a follow-up conversation about season four because I think it is going to blow up. I think people are gonna really enjoy it.