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September 2014
Issue: August 1, 2012

Cutting Humor

By: Christine Bunish
It may be apocryphal, but the phrase “dying is easy — comedy is hard” has some truth to it. Comedy can be a delicate thing easily lost if given too light or too heavy a hand. It spans a wide range of moods, from the naughty and playful to the dark and wry, so there’s no formula for funny.

That said, how do the editors of Liquid Plumr, DirecTV, Geico mobile, Dos Equis and Carnival Cruise Line spots make cutting comedy look easy? We’ll let them tell you.

LIQUID PLUMR’S DOUBLE IMPACT

When Brian Lagerhausen of Beast San Francisco (www.beast.tv) began to cut Double Impact, a spot introducing Liquid Plumr’s combo snake and gel system, he was faced with an embarrassment of riches. “It was almost a challenge because there was too much good footage,” he recalls. “The actress was wonderful, and the guys were great.”

The character-driven commercial from DDB/SF recounts the hilariously risqué fantasy of a woman shopping in a supermarket for drain cleaner.  She picks up a bottle of Liquid Plumr’s new double-acting system and launches into a fantasy scenario in which the store’s hunky deli guy and handsome produce worker appear at her door to snake her drain and flush her pipe. She utters a little squeal of delight as she closes the door and literally lets down her hair. They tutor her through a product demo then she snaps back to reality in the market where she spies the deli guy manning the cold cuts slicer and the produce worker sniffing a pair of melons and glancing in her direction. She loads her cart with bottles of Liquid Plumr and speeds off.

Lagerhausen gives kudos to Clorox for “looking for something a bit out there” for its Liquid Plumr brand and to the agency for “pushing the envelope as far as they could” to produce a spot that was short-listed at Cannes and the Clios. “Once I got the dailies I thought the spot would never see the light of day, but everyone liked it right away and the approval process just sped along. Agency and client feedback was minimal for a spot as risqué as this one. They not only saw a good spot that cut together well and was funny, but they embraced the risqué nature of it.”

Lagerhausen also credits director Clay Weiner of Biscuit Filmworks/LA with “knowing exactly what he wanted to get” to capture the tightly storyboarded action. “Every take was good, so it came down to the subtleties and nuances.”

And to serendipitous moments like the take Lagerhausen selected of the woman unpinning her hair. She shakes her head to let her hair float free and a big strand gets caught in her mouth resulting in extra lip action to lick it away. “It was unintentional but so ridiculous and funny at the same time — a happy accident,” he reports. “The guy with the melons did all kinds of improvisations — some of them out of control! I had to walk the line between keeping it funny and not getting cheesy. There were often subtler moments that were funnier than over-the-top ones.”

Cutting on an Apple Final Cut Pro system, he says the structure of the spot came together “right away,” including the animated demo segment. Then came the all-important audio enhancements.

“They were trying to get a Barry White music track, but it was too expensive,” Lagerhausen recalls. “Luckily, I found a track with a Barry White feel that worked out really well. And the agency copywriter got a voiceover artist with that deep, Barry White voice.”

Beau Leon did the color correction at New Hat/LA; Beast San Francisco conformed the spot.

Lagerhausen enjoys cutting comedy as his work on Double Impact makes clear. “With other genres, the music or sound effects help determine the pacing, but with comedy it’s about rhythm and reactions — or lack of them. What makes comedy really interesting is that if you linger on a shot too long you can potentially kill the humor, or if you cut too soon you can miss the reaction. But if you find the beats and moments that are special, you can take things to a new level.”

DIRECTV: 'GET RID OF CABLE'

With nine spots airing in less than a year, DirecTV’s “Get Rid of Cable” campaign from Grey/NY tells the stories of disgruntled cable subscribers whose dismay at their cable bill or waiting too long for the cable guy triggers a preposterous series of can-you-top-this events. 
 
In Pizzeria, a subscriber seeks comfort at his parents’ home only to discover them in a communal love nest, which leads the distraught son to crash his car through a pizzeria window. Dinner Party follows a subscriber unleashing his venom through karate lessons, which takes him hurdling over rooftops as the superhero Fist of Goodness, losing his footing and plunging through a skylight to an apartment where a party is underway. Funeral finds a bored subscriber looking out a window to see guys stowing a body in the trunk of a car. Realizing he needs to vanish, he fakes his own death and attends his funeral in disguise.

Gavin Cutler of New York City’s Mackenzie Cutler (www.mackcut.com) edited the first two rounds of six spots; colleague Erik Laroi cut the third round of Pizzeria, Dinner Party and Funeral. “As the rounds have gone on, you wonder are these [new spots] going to be as good as the first?” says Laroi. “But all three rounds are very solid. The scenarios offer endless possibilities — you always wonder what’s next in these chains of events.”

With each story vignette lasting just three to six seconds “everything has to be tight and planned out,” says Laroi. That’s where director Tom Kuntz of MJZ/LA comes in. “Tom is so cinematic, and everything is framed perfectly: Those creeping dolly moves, those quick transitional elements all add to that foreboding unease you sense as the story unfolds. The agency has had the same creative team since the beginning, so everyone’s on the same page.”

Laroi calls the spots’ comedy “dark, subversive humor. If you play them without the voiceover they feel like surreal, creepy short films.” Although the format for the spots has remained constant throughout the campaign, it still offers a degree of flexibility. “They are prescriptive in structure, but Tom and I did play around a lot,” he explains. “Not every scene needed to start exactly the same way. We also gravitated toward the subtler performances. A small tilt of the head, a slight eye twitch did enough to register the emotion of the character.” Broader gestures would have “overwhelmed or overcrowded the spot,” he notes.

While tightly storyboarded to show the progression of events, the spots are shot with “quite a bit of coverage so I can play around a lot with the best way to get into a scene,” says Laroi. “The drawer being pulled out in Dinner Party or the gavel hit in [the Gavin Cutler-edited spot] House are smart visual cues that help the audience pop into the next scene. It’s fun to edit with such great material.”

The very authoritative voiceover serves as a “sort of disconnect” with the action on screen, he adds. “It’s not overtly broad, goofy or funny. It’s a serious observer who’s saying absurd things. That helps ground the humor.”

Tom Kuntz shot the DirecTV spots on 35mm film, which Laroi admits is “rare these days.” He worked with low-resolution files for his offline on an Avid Media Composer. Co3/NY colorist Tim Masick did the color correction; Mackenzie Cutler conformed the first two rounds of the campaign, but these last three spots were finished at Method, which also did the VFX.

Laroi notes that Mackenzie Cutler is generally known as a comedy shop, although all five staff editors have also done serious work.  “We all enjoy cutting comedy,” he says. “We get to laugh a lot.”

However, cutting comedy can be “a real challenge. Sometimes you have to create the actor’s performance. And comedy is very much a rhythmic thing: it has to be finessed and paced.” He says, “the gut instinct you have when you first screen the dailies is so important. No one else has seen [the material] the way you’re seeing it. Our advantage as editors is coming in totally unbiased and looking at it fresh.”

The editor also knows “when the time is right to bring in other people, to present to the director and agency and start to bounce around ideas,” says Laroi. “Inevitably, there will be ideas you never thought of before. But you have to trust yourself and the people around you to not overwork it. With comedy you have to know when to not over-think it and leave it alone.”

GEICO’S MAXWELL THE PIG

Promoting Geico’s mobile app, Zip Line and Street Luge reprise Maxwell the Pig, seen in an earlier spot crying wee-wee-wee all the way home while holding his trademark spinning pinwheels in the back seat of a car. Max is back in all his porcine adorableness in the pair of clever spots from The Martin Agency/Richmond, which find him pursuing new adventures.

Editor Tom Scherma of NYC’s Cosmo Street (www.cosmostreet.com) is no stranger to working with animals and animation. Maxwell comes in somewhere between the two, being an amazingly detailed and flexible animatronic created by Legacy Effects of San Fernando, CA, directed here by Brian Lee Hughes of Skunk/NY and Hollywood.

The comedy springs from the infectiously charming character of Maxwell and the outrageous situations he gets into: experiencing “pure adrenaline” as he zooms past a man on a parallel zip line and racing to victory as a human street luger crashes into a wall of hay bales.


Scherma was lucky in having actual performances from Maxwell to work with. “He was pretty special for a puppet: There was a lot of animation in his performances,” he says. “I’ve had a lot worse to deal with from some actors, including non-professionals. With Maxwell I had plenty of material and no shortage of the right looks. Because we were so dependent upon the action, it was just a choreographed dance to get the spots to do what they had to.”

The spots’ concepts and writing were “really well done. The scenarios they put Maxwell in — the absurdity of them — had a smile attached to them. And the animatronics made you see the pig in a human-like way. This was a project that worked before it came into the edit room.”

Scherma cut footage of Maxwell, clean background plates of his environments and audio of the pig’s joyful squeals on his Avid system. Don’t underestimate the importance of Maxwell’s wee-wee-wee soundtrack, expressing his delight in the moment. “It was well choreographed, but there were bits we could play with give more silliness to certain zones,” he says.

DP Paul Cameron used an Arri Alexa camera to shoot the animatronics, capturing a lot of the zip line and street luge action in camera. “I hadn’t cut that kind of footage before,” Scherma notes. “It was fun to see what could be done in camera.”

Co3/NY’s Tim Masick did the color correction for both commercials; Click 3X/NY handled the VFX and conform. 

Scherma’s career has been marked by comedy and dialogue-driven spots, and that experience has fueled the pace at which he cuts humor. But he admits that by the end of the work day, what’s perceived as funny “can get a little blurred.” When that happens, “it’s usually a good thing to stay with your gut” and what made you laugh in the first place, he advises. “As you get into the building of the spot, you almost need to step back, reevaluate what you’re doing and trust your gut.”

But it’s equally important to remain open to ideas from the client and agency. “You’re caught up in the corkscrew process of editing and they’re looking fresh at what you’ve done — something new and funny can jump out at them,” he notes.

Scherma says “the craft of editing is fun in itself,” so cutting comedy is icing on the cake. “Well-written and well-shot scripts never get boring. They’re always a fun process. When you’re presented with so many possibilities it elevates your game.”

DOS EQUIS’ 'MOST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD'

Jeff Ferruzzo of NYC’s Outside Edit + Design (www.outsideedit.com) remembers when he saw the makings of the first “Most Interesting Man in the World” spot for Dos Equis beer half-a-dozen years ago. “It was a small regional campaign that took off — the campaign was so well received after that first spot; they just loved it.”

Since then, Euro RSCG Worldwide/NY has created one memorable — and highly quotable — commercial after another, all featuring the so-called Most Interesting Man in the World, who is shown doing preposterous things as a young man and as the mature man he is today. He doesn’t always drink beer, but when he does, he prefers Dos Equis.

In the recent Sea Plane spot his “small talk” during a Cold War chess match “altered foreign policy,” he runs toward the bulls in Pamplona and it’s said, “Sasquatch has taken a photo of him.” In Sword Fight, he engages in dinner party sword play while clad in a kilt, is awarded first and second place on the medals podium at a sporting event and sets up his painting easel in the African veldt within spitting distant of a posing rhino.

The humor comes because these tongue-in-cheek spots “are not played for laughs,” Ferruzzo says. “They’re as serious as we can make them; I look for the most real moments, the authenticity in things. I give a lot of credit to director Steve Miller (of Radical Media), who gives me 25 to 30 minutes of amazing footage to pick six shots from.”

 Miller and Ferruzzo have been constants on the campaign since the beginning. “It keeps getting better because everyone respects it,” says Ferruzzo. “They don’t put their own stamp on it, they don’t try to mess with it.”

Striving to make the absurd scenarios real keep the spots funny. “If you start to play for the silliness, you wouldn’t believe them anymore and they’d fall apart,” he explains. Montage cutting and storytelling are key, just as they are in straightforward narratives. “Whether something is comedy or drama, I treat it the same: Does it feel real to me? Do I believe it?”

Comedy does “need to play for the beats a bit more,” he admits, and it’s the time between the edits where the comedy can shine through.

For the campaign, DP Eric Schmidt shoots 35mm for the contemporary footage and turns to a hand-cranked Bolex sometimes to capture the vintage-style footage that depicts the Most Interesting Man in his younger years. “Eric studies the period [represented] and shoots it,” says Ferruzzo. “I try to do the least possible in post because Eric makes it look as authentic as he can when shoots it.”

Co3 colorist Tom Poole “emulates negative to give the footage the look of a feature,” he adds. “These spots have a totally different look from other commercials.”

Ferruzzo cuts on an Apple Final Cut Pro system. The most recent spots feature VFX by Flame artist Johnny Starace, who works in Outside Edit + Design’s studio. “They shot two bulls on set for the running of the bulls segment but wanted more in frame so Johnny roto’d out stock footage of bulls and comped them into an 8mm camera shot — it was impressive!” 

The spot’s music track is its signature. “We spent a month looking for music for the first campaign and ended up with a track our sound engineer Bret Fuchs wrote,” Ferruzzo reports. “It was perfect.”

Ferruzzo cuts a lot of comedy spots and follows the mantra of “trust your instincts” to keep his clients laughing. “Usually, your first instinct is right. But you also have to be open to collaboration.”

CARNIVAL’S 'LAND VS. SEA'

Carnival Cruise Lines’ “Land vs. Sea” campaign from Arnold Worldwide/Boston contrasts a couple’s camping vacation — and its ensuing disasters — with the relaxed, luxurious ocean voyage they’re enjoying this year. 

Its humor comes in the juxtaposition of the very different scenarios. Three spots illustrate the couple’s attempt to cook over a campfire, pitch their tent and fend off a hungry bear and mountain lion that are mauling their car.


“I love the juxtaposition via flashbacks of their memories,” says editor Merritt Duff of Cutting Room (www.cuttingroom.tv). “This was the brilliance of the agency’s concept. By the time we get back to the present, when they’re enjoying themselves on the cruise, the resonance of those memories is that much more palpable.”

Bear offers the greatest contrast in the trio. “We go from the tranquility of chocolate-dipped strawberries and gazing at the sea outside the couple’s stateroom to the heart of absolute chaos in the car with the bear and mountain lion outside,” says Duff.  

Harold Einstein of Station Film/NY and LA directed the spots, lensing a real bear and a real mountain lion separately mauling the empty car. Then, plates were shot of the panicked couple in the car, the husband frantically screaming, “Throw the food out the window!” — twice — as the wife shrieks and stamps her feet.

“The animals were phenomenal,” notes Duff. “There was a lot in the well to go to, especially for the bear. It could do different actions and hold various positions and open its mouth and show its teeth as if it were roaring. Everything I would have wished for it to do, Harold had captured in the film.”

Duff also had a wide range of performances from the human actors — “all pretty desperate,” he laughs. “When the husband is yelling to throw the food outside he grabs the car seat for dear life. That always makes me laugh. And the wife’s screams were pretty outrageous. When I was looking through the dailies, co-workers kept peering in my Avid suite to see what I was working on.”

Duff spent a lot of time working with Einstein and the agency creatives “to find the right balance of sound design” for Bear. “We needed to balance the animal roars and the people screaming, the sounds inside the car, outside the car, close to the car, far away — wherever the sound aided the comedy the best. For me, as an editor, sound design is huge. Sound design can bring a cut to life, and a well-placed sound effect can make a funny moment even funnier.”

Co3/NY’s Tim Masick did the color correction for Bear; the spot was finished at Brickyard VFX/Boston.

Comedy is definitely something of a niche for Duff who, before he became an editor, was a film associate producer with Saturday Night Live. “I was in the film unit at SNL, working on all the commercial parodies,” he explains. “Coming up in that world, I gained a lot of sensibilities, honed my instincts and developed a sense of timing” that have informed spot cutting.

His favorite part of comedy editing is “the joy that comes with opening a new set of dailies and laughing out loud watching them down. Then, starting to put the spot together and finding a place for those moments to live. Comedy is so subjective. Five different people can have five different ideas of what’s funny. The goal is to have everyone laughing by the end of the process.”

Duff thinks editing comedy definitely comes with its own set of challenges, but he approaches each genre of editing the same way — “looking for performances that make me say, ‘I believe it.’”