Editing of “American Crime Story: Impeachment” – interview with Chris A. Peterson, ACE

December 7th, 2021

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Chris A. Peterson. In this interview he talks about the transition of the industry from film to digital, the role of an editor in bringing stories to our screens, and what stays with him after productions wrap up. Around these topics and more, Chris dives deep into his work on “American Crime Story: Impeachment”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path to where you are today.

Chris: My dad was a huge movie buff. He was a big Stanley Kubrick fan, so I saw every Kubrick film at least ten times as a kid, including “A Clockwork Orange” where he fast forwarded through the really brutal parts. I gained my love of film through Kubrick and Spielberg.

When I was a senior in high school, I took a film video class as an elective. Every class the teacher would show a movie, and I thought most of them were great, but it wasn’t until we watched “The Graduate” and saw the scale of artistry in that film that I was totally hooked. I said this is what I want to do. At that point I had already applied to colleges, and I changed my major right then to film.

During that same film and video class in high school, we had to put a couple short little films together. We had to shoot in them, act in them, do everything – and I loved the editing process the most. I thought the production part of it felt chaotic but I loved the amount of control that I had in the editing. It’s a quiet room and I felt like I could think more. And later on in college, as we were doing all these different parts – directing, shooting, writing, acting – I always felt like I came back to editing. It was a place I felt comfortable in, a place where my creative strengths were.

Kirill: How different was it back then when you were starting out if you look at the tools at your disposal from then to now?

Chris: I was filming on videotape in high school in the early ’90s, and then editing on videotape as well. Then it started the same in college, and towards the end of undergraduate we got into shooting 16mm film and cutting on flatbeds. My college was not well funded in that department, so we didn’t have any computer editing systems.

It wasn’t until I graduated that I had my first experience working on a computer based non-linear editing system. My first job after graduating college was on a documentary. When the director asked if I ever used a Media 100 (an old non-linear computer editing system) I completely lied [laughs] and said I knew how to use it. So he left me there with the computer and I found the how-to book under the desk.

Kirill: So that was before the age of Youtube?

Chris: That was in the mid-’90s — way before YouTube. Flipping through the book I learned how to edit on a computer in about 30 minutes, mostly because I was scared of losing my job [laughs].

I liked editing tape to tape and cutting on a flatbed but once I got to cut on a computer, it completely changed the world for me.

Kirill: Do you think there’s any advantage for people who did come up during that time of transition from film to digital, or might some be holding on to those memories for more nostalgic notions of how it felt to hold a strip of film in your hands?

Chris: For me, having had worked on a 16mm film flatbed was transformative, and I think it still has an effect on how I edit to this day.

A lot of times, a cut you were doing on a flatbed would take at least 10 minutes, and if you were cutting multiple tracks of audio, it could get much more complicated. So every time you were going to do a cut, you really had to think about what you were doing. Every time you look at a 16mm film strip, you see that every shot up is made up of a bunch of individual frames, and that frames have value.

In non-linear editing these days you can do and undo everything in seconds. You gain speed but one of the issues is sometimes forgetting how important each frame is — two frames this way or two frames that way, what difference does it make? It matters.

If I were taking a film editing class, I would make everyone start out on a flatbed, just to understand the importance of a frame.

Kirill: Some directors and cinematographers insist on shooting on film. Is there such a thing as editors insisting to edit on flatbed?

Chris: I feel like there were some people that stuck with flatbeds for a while, but I haven’t heard of anything in recent years. I loved flatbeds though. It’s much slower, but it really did have its value. You really got to discuss every edit with the director, and really had to work through every single decision.

Kirill: If we jump into 2021, there’s a lot of expectation from the production side and the viewers, especially on episodic and streaming productions. Do you find that there’s way more material that you need to work with, and that you’d be drowning with the old approach?

Chris: Considering the way people shoot now, we would definitely be drowning in footage. Film was so expensive and slower to work with in production and in post. They also planned shots a little bit more and shot less because it was just so costly and time consuming. It was a trade-off.

Now that everything is on little hard drives it has changed how much you would shoot.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as a disc big enough to contain all the footage and all the edits that you need?

Chris: I feel like it’s plateaued a bit over the last few years, but we’re definitely buying bigger drives every year. Things went from SD to HD to 2K to 4K, and now we’re in the 8K realm, and some of these cameras are shooting well over 10K. It will keep growing, and the technology will keep changing quickly. We’re always playing catch up to the technology.

Kirill: Do you think there’s a limit beyond which it just doesn’t matter for the ability of the human eye to perceive the difference?

Chris: It’s science. The human eye can only see so much. What I find for myself is that the amount of pixels is of less importance compared to how that image is captured. There’s something magical about the way film captured images because it was an organic process. It wasn’t as much about how many pixels you could capture, but rather about how that image looked creatively. Sometimes I find that the amount of pixels we have in a shot overshadows the quality of the image creatively.

Kirill: What are your feelings about the tools at your disposal? Do you find yourself sometimes fighting against them?

Chris: I have cut on every non-linear editing system in the last 10 years. I’ve worked on Avid, Final Cut Pro, Premiere, and DaVinci, and for me the tool is just a tool. With all the recent advancements, I do prefer Avid though.

Kirill: If you were the head of the editing department at a university and you had an incoming class of freshmen, what would you tell them to focus on? Would you tell them that the art is more important than the technical side of it, or the technical side is more important, or that it’s a balance of the two?

Chris: I would definitely say the artistic side. If you concentrate on putting stories together, thinking about the rhythm of the editing, the performance and the acting – eventually the technical part just comes along with it.

Kirill: There’s probably multiple ways to tell the same story in this visual medium, and each one will have its own subjective take on it. Do you struggle sometimes when you think that the way you would have told the story might not be the way that you are asked to tell it, be it by the showrunners, the producers or the director?

Chris: As the editor, it’s a little bit less about what I personally think is the right way to approach something. Sometimes it falls directly in line with the way I would have approached it, and sometimes it doesn’t. But my job is to synthesize the vision of the producers, directors, writers into what they’re looking for.

If they have a strong vision, you’re just there to make sure that happens. If they need help in finding that vision then you’re there to help guide them to a version of the project that is the best it can be. I always try to take my ego out of it and just enjoy the collaborative process.

Kirill: Getting closer to the “American Crime Story”, does it help that you have a long ongoing collaboration with the producer Ryan Murphy and his team, where you are perhaps more in tune with artistic sensibilities of each other?

Chris: Having a long-term relationship with a director or a producer is helpful, because you can generally get to the end vision with efficiency. “American Crime Story” is the fourth series I’ve worked on with the Ryan Murphy crew. By the time I got to “American Crime Story”, it was a wonderful, simple process because I already had enough experience with how they like to tell stories and to apply that knowledge to this particular project.

Kirill: How would you compare your work on feature films and episodic productions? Do you have a preference between the two? Do you get more energized, perhaps, to work on a certain type of production?

Chris: At this point in my career, I am lucky enough to get to be picky about what projects I work on. So generally, anything I’m working on is something I’m interested in, and that’s awesome. But no matter what, each production has its own set of complexities. And it’s also the most fun part – learning a new story, a new way to tell stories. I’m a huge fan of the challenge.

Kirill: If you look at your recent productions like “Jessica Jones”, “Legion” or “Pennyworth”, what stays with you after some time passes? Do you remember the chaos, the pressure, the timelines, the camaraderie, the friendships, the challenges? Does it sort of blur together, maybe?

Chris: I always have fun no matter what kind of project it is, because I love the process of editing but it can be a challenge to gain perspective when you are in the middle of it. Only after some time passes, maybe a few months or maybe a few years, and I’m able to go back and watch things I’ve worked on am I able to see it objectively. Sometimes it’s right as I remember it, sometimes it’s better than what I remembered, and sometimes maybe it hasn’t aged as well.

“Pennyworth” is still one of the most proud things I’ve ever worked on. I would put the pilot in my top three. I have great memories of working on that series and the people I worked with. Danny Cannon who directed the pilot is one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with, and I’m still proud of what we accomplished together.

Melissa Rosenberg, the showrunner on “Jessica Jones”, is one of the greatest leaders and all around human I’ve ever worked with. It was a stellar show.

Kirill: Would you say that “Legion” was one of the weirdest, in a good way?

Chris: “Legion” was wild. We were challenged in editorial to tell the story in the most interesting, unusual way — figuring out how to turn almost every scene inside out. It’s still one of the weirder shows I’ve worked on, and I say that in the best possible way.

Kirill: Does it hurt sometimes when a show that you’ve worked on gets cancelled and you don’t have another chance to continue on it?

Chris: Not too much. When I’m finished with something, I can put it in my head that it was the best work I could have done for that project. Sometimes they are successful and sometimes they’re not. It doesn’t make me feel any different about how hard I worked on it.

Kirill: How would you describe “Impeachment: American Crime Story”? It’s not a documentary, and yet follows quite faithfully the events that are were very much at the center of the nation’s attention not that long ago. What kind of challenges does such a show present?

Chris: I was old enough to have lived during these events. I’d say that I knew a fair amount about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, but once I read these scripts I realized how little I did know about the inner workings of this piece of history. I started my career in documentary so this is my favorite kind of work to do – getting to meld the documentary world and the scripted world.

Some of the moments I have in the two episodes that I edited of “American Crime Story” are well known events and getting to put a new lens on those moments — to have some empathy for Monica Lewinsky and even Linda Tripp — was exciting.

Kirill: What is your editing process like? You have your cuts, your angles, your color correction, your music and score, and tons of other things to juggle. Do you have a plan on what you focus on first, or is it all coming together at every single moment in the process?

Chris: I’ve changed my process over the years a bit. I prefer to carve the footage out like a marble sculptor might. I like to chip away at the footage slowly. I go through everything and start throwing out the things that I know I don’t like — leaving a timeline of choices and then try and step away. I’ll just let it marinate in my brain for the night and then come back the next day with an inspired plan.

Kirill: In your work on the two episodes in this season, what were you focusing on in terms of, perhaps, pivotal moments in the story? Were there certain scenes where you spend more time than on others?

Chris: Episode 4, called “The Telephone Hour,” had a complicated montage of Linda Tripp secretly recording Monica Lewinsky. It’s a crazy sequence — lots of scenes and lots of cuts. That particular sequence took me probably a week on its own.

They shot the episode over several months, and I was getting bits and pieces of it, weekly. I left all of it until I got all the pieces, and then I spent several days sculpting that. I spent a ton of time on that, but I think it’s one of my most proud montages I’ve ever cut.

Kirill: Something like this where you spend so much time going over the different angles of the same material and you cut them together in different ways, how difficult is it to step away and imagine yourself in my eyes as the viewer that is only going to be watching it probably just once?

Chris: When I watch movies and TV shows, I’m pretty good at just not thinking about the editing, unless it’s something that’s really throwing me out of the story. I feel like I can just experience it for what it is and I try to apply that to my work as well.

Kirill: Let’s say one of your productions is out and you come across a review or maybe a tweet saying this was amazing editing. Would you consider it to be a compliment, or would you see it as a backhanded critique that this person noticed the editing and was not engrossed in the story?

Chris: I feel it a success when people don’t mention the editing, specifically because it means they were just into the story. In the end, for the most part, I want to be invisible in the sense that I don’t want to draw attention to the editing. Maybe if it’s a stylistic sequence, I think it’s okay. That happens every once in a while, just like the montage in the fourth episode of “Impeachment: American Crime Story”. That sequence does draw a little attention to the editing, but it’s there for emotional impact.

Kirill: If you look back at the last 18 months since Covid hit, would you say that maybe the editing department has been the least affected in your industry?

Chris: I speak for myself on this. Generally, most of the hours of a project I’m sitting in a room working by so it hasn’t been terribly different from before Covid came along.

Kirill: Are you happy that movie theaters seem to be coming back to normal?

Chris: I haven’t seen a movie in a movie theater since Covid started. A lot of other people have done so, but I haven’t made that venture back. I really miss it that immersive, group experience. I’m sure I will soon.

Kirill: If you had a time machine and you had one chance to go back to the late ’90s to meet your younger self, and tell your younger self “You’re worrying too much about X, X doesn’t matter”. What would that X be?

Chris: If I could go back in time and tell my younger self something, I would say to trust what you’re doing and that will pay off eventually. I got into editing because I loved it. I didn’t have a sense of whether all my hard work was ever going to lead somewhere. It’s been a good run, and I’m excited to see where it keeps going.

Chris A. Petersen receives his award from actress Sarah Paulson for Best Edited Documentary (Television), “The Assasination of President Kennedy”, at the 64th annual ACE Eddie Awards, which recognizes outstanding editing in ten categories of film, TV and Documentaries on February 7, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images.

And here I’d like to thank Chris A. Peterson for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of editing, and Leni Weisberg for making this interview happen. “American Crime Story: Impeachment” is streaming on FX. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.