With its large ensemble cast and multiple storylines, editing an episode of “Modern Family” can prove a challenge. Yet Tony Orcena, who has cut over thirty episodes since joining the series in its fourth season, credits creators Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan and their team of writers with making his job easier. “They do such an amazing job of tying all of these characters together and using all of these characters effectively in such a short period,” he says in our exclusive audio interview, “that by the time it gets to me…a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done because our writers and Steve and Chris are so particular about what they want.”
Of course, there’s still a ton of work to be done on his end. “When you have a scene with a lot of the characters, it’s usually just keeping them there visually, making sure that we’re checking in with them, even if they’re not particularly active in that moment in the scene.” He further elaborates, “a lot of times, when we do scenes with the whole family, you want to find effective times to check in with everybody, but…you don’t want to check in with somebody just for the sake of checking in; if you cut to a character, there has to be a reason you cut them. That’s always the big thing: you add more cuts if you need them, but you don’t ever do it just for the sake of speeding up a scene, or maybe making two pieces of dialogue work together. We try not to lean on that crutch any more than we absolutely have to.”
One of the episodes that required a great deal of attention was the season five finale, a two-parter in which Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) finally tie the knot despite several near-disasters. Orcena worked on part one, explaining, “that was one that we had to take really special care on because we were working with over ten characters on that episode, and we were setting up what would happen in the second (part). So for me, a lot of the work was finding ways to slow things down without physically slowing them down because there was just so much happening, you needed to be able to process all of this.
“What I found in that particular episode was the exact opposite of what you would think would work,” he explains, “which was to take cuts out, find ways to stay with people longer so that we’re slowing the moment down just enough so that the scene is landing, and it’s registering: you knew what it could do emotionally and effectively. So that’s one that comes to mind because there’s just so many people to keep track of, that the first instinct is to check in with everybody constantly, but then what happens is there’s just so much happening, and it’s all moving so fast, that you have trouble registering anything. So that was one where less was more.”
Part of the challenge also stems from the hand-held, documentary style employed by the series. “You really have to earn your laughs,” Orcena explains. “With a multi-camera, more traditional sitcom, you’ve got a laugh track telling you, ‘OK, laugh now,’ and keeping things moving. And so for us, we have to set a pace, and we have to keep that pace, and you need a lot of laughs and you need to keep them coming because if you don’t, it gets quiet real fast. So I think that’s the big thing: the pace that we use allows us to tell a lot of story really effectively, but it’s also a necessity of the way that we’re doing this show. You really have to keep it moving.”
Orcena is hoping for his first Emmy nomination. Check out our full interview to learn more about his creative process.