Supernatural From Script to Screen: Editor James Pickel
"We are all pushing each other and trying to outdo each other. It is all fun and competitiveness, but we are all pushing the envelope and trying to do the best show we can."
– James Pickel, Supernatural Editor
Supernatural From Script to Screen is a series of interviews with the crew of Supernatural by Jules Wilkinson, Supernatural Wiki Administrator.
Editors bring to production of a TV show a unique blend of creative and technical talents in their integral role in the story told by each episode. I recently had the pleasure to talk to one of the Supernatural editors Jimmy Pickel, who has been with the show since Season 7. I spoke to Jimmy the day after the latest post-production "Shaving People: Punting Things" video was released. Titled "Memento" and inspired by the Christopher Nolan movie of the same name which told a story in reverse. The video contained footage from the first few episodes of Season 12.
Shaving People; Punting Things
Jules: Congratulations – fans were really blown away by this! It’s another thing that sets Supernatural apart from other shows - the fact that you guys have this passion project making these videos. It not only gives us a different insight into the show, it makes us feel proud of the show as well.
Jimmy: That is a testament to Phil Sgriccia, because he’s the guy who started all this. Phil’s concept with these "Shaving People Punting Things" promos is that we want you to walk away from it with more questions than answers.
It’s fun; we love doing it. This one was my idea. I had this vision of doing something backwards, and I ended up talking to fellow editor, John Fitzpatrick. We were actually going to our cars in the parking lot one night and I’m like “Hey dude, I think for this promo we should play it all backwards?”
I didn't know if the audience would be into it, if it all played backwards the whole time. Then John suggested that we cut fight scenes in between the backwards stuff. I just quickly roughed something out, because I was in the middle of a cut, I was doing 12.02 and John took it from there and just made it what it was. He’s amazing.
We love doing it for you guys. I mean, we’re constantly thinking of what we can do to up the ante.
Getting into Editing
Jules: How did you get into editing?
Jimmy: I got my Masters in Creative Writing and my Masters in Literature and wanted to teach literature. I applied to every school in the Greater Los Angeles area and got one, “thanks but no thanks”. I very quickly realized that everyone wants to teach in California, and if you want to teach literature or creative writing you better have had work published, and I didn’t have a lot published. So I took a job as a driver on a reality show called The Contender, which was with Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard. I had two Master’s degrees, I’d just graduated from college and now I was driving camera men around. Not to say there’s anything wrong with that, but it's not where I thought I'd be.
And this is the point of the story that’s part of American pop culture of today. I get called in the office one day, the show’s wrapping up and they say, “Hey, do you want to go and do another show”? I go, “Sure”, and they go “This one is in post-production”. I go “Okay, what’s the show”? And they go “It’s called The Apprentice with Donald Trump.” Who would’ve thought that? That was a lot of fun.
So I was a Production Assistant on that show. John Fitzpatrick was a night Assistant Editor on The Apprentice with me, the guy who cut the "Memento" video, and he had to pop tapes into the machine and digitise them into the system. What I saw was these guys editing and telling stories with pictures and I was like, well I have a Masters in Creative Writing; I know how to tell a story. If someone teaches me how to push those buttons, I can do that. And they made more money than professors and they had just as much time off, so I was like that works! I told my boss that I was willing to stay late every night and work with the night assistants and learn how to be an assistant editor.
So stayed late every night and John taught me everything. I did a bunch of seasons on The Apprentice. I did a lot of Mark Burnett shows. I mean, if you name a Mark Burnett show from that time, I worked on almost all of them! In reality TV, you’re way more of a producer because you’re trying to create the story. Someone might tell you what they think the story is, but there’s no way a producer in the field can watch everything (sometimes it’s 20 cameras shooting all at once!). Eventually I got into scripted TV and did three years on Smallville and then moved to Supernatural.
I try to tell my college to get some of the Literature majors to look into television, because they are looking for people who can tell stories. Editing is hard because you have got to be technical and you have got to be creative and it’s a kind of special breed of person that can do that.
Storytelling through editing
Jules: So when you first get a script, where do you start?
Jimmy: When I get the script I try to read it at least twice. In a perfect world, I am going to the tone meeting, which is a meeting that takes place between producers, the writer and the director of the episode and a lot of people from the crew in Vancouver (DPs, VFX department, etc.). The tone meeting is exactly what it sounds like -- how we are shooting the show? It gives me an idea of what the director is going to do. It’s a great meeting to go to, but sometimes we just don’t have time to attend.
Before I get footage, the process is very loose. I’m just reading the script and trying to understand it. At this point, there’s not a lot of in-depth thought because you never know what the director’s going to give you. It’s more like if the script maybe mentions a particular object, I might think, oh I hope the director gets a close up of that because I’ll start in tight and move my way back out. I’m just thinking about little things like that. I might make a note about whether we need dialogue because nine times out of ten you’re going to be over time. So you might start looking for little things you won’t need, or big things you’ll really want to focus on. I’m asking myself, is this going to be necessary? What does this script really mean? What does this script boil down to?
After that they start shooting the episode, everything that is shot gets put on a drive. That drive goes to Technicolor up in Vancouver where they process it to combine the video and audio, and then the dailies get sent down to us. We get it by the next day and our assistant editors, who are amazing and are really the unsung heroes of post-production, put all of it into our system. Our storage system is actually called an ISIS, but we’re changing the name to Freedom Storage. (laughs)
My assistant will break it up by scenes and put those scenes in an “uncut” bin, and I will grab scenes and just start cutting them. It’s totally out of order. It’s however the director shoots, which depends on the locations that are available and what actors are available, and a whole list of other factors. No-one ever shoots from scene one to scene 40ish. So we’re cutting all over the place.
As I cut scenes, I'm building these stories within stories. You do the best job you can on that little pod and you make this little pod over there, and then all of a sudden you’ve got enough pods to make an act and we’re putting all that together. And now I’ve got to stop looking at this as little pods and start looking at it as a whole act. Is this act correct? Are we inside too much? Do we need a stock shot here? Does the audience know where we are? Should I do something fun and pre-lap the dialogue here? Just little things to enhance the show.
From there I put the whole show together. There are many stages that you are going through as an editor where you are focused on the minutiae and then it’s the micro to the macro, smaller to bigger to bigger and bigger. By the end, I’ve probably seen a show 30 times at least. I can recite the whole thing.
Jules: So how do you get that perspective on the show, when you’re so immersed in it?
Jimmy: It takes someone else coming in the room so that I can step out of that editor zone. When the director or the producer comes in, then I'm watching it as a director seeing it or as a producer seeing it. I start to go through all the phases that they are going through. What do they want out of this? What can I do to make this more their vision? And then when the producer comes in, it’s more like, what is the vision this episode is about. What are we trying to do in this show? And then it gets down to things like are we to time? Will this pass Standards and Practices?
Jules: So is the director who comes in first?
Jimmy: Yes. The DGA requires that directors have four days. Some directors take those four days. Some don’t. They might have other shows that they have to go do, so they are emailing you. Each show is different. Each Director works in different ways. However, I think the best experiences are when the Director is in the bay with me. When they come in that bay, they have shown their soft underbelly. They have put themselves out there and now they’re hoping that you put it together the way they imagined it and that it works and that it looks good. Sometimes you’re like a therapist when they first come in there. You get intimate with the directors and you get to know them and you get to see their process and hear what they were thinking about, what they wanted. You get to put on a lot of hats when you’re editing.
Jules: On Supernatural there is a core roster of directors, so you must get to work with the same director multiple times?
Jimmy: Yes, I love that. I’ve probably worked with Tom Wright the most. His stories are classic - he was Alfred Hitchcock’s storyboard artist. We could do a whole interview on what Tom Wright has accomplished. Tom has “been there and done that” and I love working with him because he just gets it. He’s willing to try anything and his shows just always turn out amazing.
John Badham is an amazing director. I got my master’s at Chapman and John Badham teaches at Chapman University. So, he had me come speak with his students and it was a lot of fun. By the time I went to Chapman to speak at his class, he had probably finished his episode, the one that I cut, two or three months before. So we go to dinner and we’re sitting there eating and he’s telling me shots that he wished he would’ve gotten for that show. That’s how much passion John Badham has. This is a guy who’s directed Short Circuit, Saturday Night Fever, War Games, major blockbuster films, and done all kinds of television shows. He has an incredible career and yet he’s talking to me about what shots he missed and what shots he thought he should’ve got and that he was upset that he didn’t get. I mean, that’s a director. They are constant perfectionists. And that’s John. It made me respect him a lot.
Another director, Nina Lopez-Corrado, the episode I cut for her this year (episode 12.05 The One You've Been Waiting For) was probably one of my favourite episodes I’ve ever cut. She’s amazing. I think she’ll be a feature film director. It’s only a matter of time, she’s that good.
Jules: So what are the things that impress you when a director you haven’t worked with before comes in?
Jimmy: Well, I’m impressed before they get there. You know a good director when the show cuts itself. When Nina gave me footage, I knew exactly what her master was. I knew exactly what she wanted to cut to after the master was done. She had every angle I needed in case she missed something in the master shot or in subsequent shots. When she didn’t have something, I knew she’d run out of time.
Jules: It’s quite really an incredible relationship then between the director and editor, you are chipping away the last pieces of marble on the sculpture. I mean you’re revealing their vision. Obviously there’s then times when you’re enhancing what they’ve done, things that they wouldn’t have thought of because they are under that time pressure or they just didn’t think of it. So you’re both building on each other’s vision of that final story.
Jimmy: That gets back to my earlier point about -- not necessarily wanting to know what the director wants. If the director tells you exactly what they wanted, then you’re going to be cutting what the director wants and you’re not going to be using your own creativity. There’ve been plenty of times where I’ve been sitting with a director and they’ve been like "You know what, that’s not the way I envisioned it, but I really like what you did there." In today’s non-linear editing world, I can always give them what they want if they don't like what I've done. It’s very easy. I mean, we can make a million cuts and never destroy the footage. So, yeah, it’s incredible doing this all. It’s so much fun.
Jules: So who comes in after the director?
Jimmy: Phil Sgriccia is the one who comes in and takes the first pass. Phil was an editor and he has such great knowledge of the show, so it’s great having him in the room. Phil and I sound like a bickering husband and wife when we’re in the bay. We are yelling and we are fighting over everything! It’s all in good fun, but whenever I get a new assistant, the look on their face after they see the first time with Phil is amazing.
Then Bob Singer will come in and do his pass. I swear Bob and Phil share a brain, because it’s very rare that we change more then a few things after Phil messes with it. The thing I love about Bob is his experience. All of us could be thinking and pondering and stressing over how to make a cut work and Bob will look at it once and have the simplest, cleanest solution. He’s just that good and nothing rattles him. Phil and Bob’s notes are from the aspect of a producer; so a lot of that might be cutting lines, cutting dialogue to make time, etc. When Andrew Dabb comes in, his notes are going to be a combination of the writers of that episode and his own notes.
Finally Bob and Andrew come back into the room and then we argue about everyone’s notes and then we make the show. It’s good. It gives you a little bit of taste of everybody, you know. You get the writer’s ideas on things. You get the producer’s side of it.
We’re all allowed to talk during the whole process and that's why I think people love working on the show. It keeps you fresh. You get to come into work and try things. I’m never afraid to try anything. I never feel like Phil, Bob or Andrew are going to get mad at me for trying something that’s way outside the box.
One of the times I went completely just off the script and just went nuts was when Sam cures himself with the Holy Oil. (Editor's note: 11.02 Form and Void)
When I cut that I was like okay, I want to have Sam saying things but we don’t even see him say it. He’s not talking. I messed with all the sound and started messing with all the picture and I went crazy. Phil, who was the director of that show (and one of our best directors I might add), saw it and he’s like, “Love it.” We ended up cutting it down because it was too long but Phil never said, “Dude. What did you do with this? This wasn’t like I envisioned.” He just went with it and said, “Yeah, let’s go with it.” So that’s amazing when you have that.
Phil's passion is through the roof. He is always looking to do something, like the ‘Shaving People, Punting Things’ videos. I’ve never seen somebody that’s done something as long as he has, with as much passion as he has. He’s been doing this show for almost 12 years and he’s still just as passionate as the day I met him.
We are all pushing each other and trying to outdo each other. It is all fun and competitiveness, but we are all pushing the envelope and trying to do the best show we can.
Jules: So what comes next?
Jimmy: After the producers, then it goes to the studio and network. We get their notes and after we get them done we lock the show
Next we do a ‘spotting session’ and that’s with everyone - Phil, Bob, Andrew, post production producers and coordinators. The music composer (either Jay Gruska or Christopher Lennertz, both are amazing), Michael Lawshe and his sound team, Dino Moriana (our music editor), and sometimes the writer(s). Honestly, there are a lot of people in the room. I use film score from Warner Bros catalogue and a basic sound library that gives them a map for designing everything.
With sound, we have 12 seasons of effects that we can take from old shows and put them back in there. Obviously, with things like demon eyes, that sound effect is not going to change, it’s what it is and we use the original sound effect that Michael Lawshe and his team came up with. A lot of that sound design stays what it is, but anything new, I mean, Michael Lawshe and his team always hit it out of the park. Our Music Composers are the best and Dino does an amazing job with any music editing. It’s such a team effort. I can’t even begin to explain just how many people contribute to make our show what it is.
Visual effects are a little different then sound and music because we’re getting visual effects right after the director’s cut. We do a visual effects spot, where Mark Meloche and his team go over every visual effect. Our visual effects department are working on shots with every cut that we put out. If anything has changed, they re-work it, and they’re amazing. It’s so hard to put to word just how fast they turn things around and how professional it looks. I mean, what Mark Meloche and his team does with the time they have to do it is nothing short of a miracle. It looks like a movie.
I’ve never heard Mark Meloche say, “I don’t think we can do that”. Whatever you give that guy and his team, they will figure out a way to do it. They knock it out of the park every time. It’s unbelievable. Some of the visual effects in episode two (editor: Lucifer's acid-burned face in Mamma Mia) are unbelievable. It’s some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen. I’m not grossed out by anything and I was grossed out by it. Get ready for gore!
The end point would be once we lock it. It’s more my assistant editor at that point. I’m looking at the visual effects, but they are cutting it in and it’s mostly just updating everyone. Like when we get a new visual effect does it change the sound at all? Does it need to change the music? Most of the time that’s not the case, but it does change picture, so it needs to go for colour correction.
At playback we do our final notes - that’s everyone’s last chance. It’s mostly just little sound tweaks that we are trying, very rarely do you open up picture, and then that’s it.
As an example - we’re doing playback for episode two on Monday and I’m editing episode eight. So that’s how far away I am from the episode.
Gag reels and Fandom
Jules: As fans we get to see a little of what you have to cut in making an episode, from the gag reel and deleted scenes that are included on the DVD. You must also have a lot of material for the gag reel?
Jimmy: Oh, with the boys, are you kidding me? Those guys are constantly making each other laugh. Some of it is actually labelled gag by the director! But nine times out of 10 we find it at the end of a scene or in the middle of a scene. One of the things we’re doing on "Shaving People, Punting Things" is a gag that happened in the middle of a scene and we kind of re-cut it and did some things to it.
Jared and Jensen are constantly trying to get each other to break. Jensen is hard to be broken; that guy can just put his face on and just go. It’s very rare that I see Jared break Jensen, although it does happen. Jared throws everything at him including the kitchen sink. He did a whole scene where he was saying all his lines in Spanish, and Jensen just kept going, just kept acting. It was amazing.
Jared and Jensen are so good at what they do, it’s not even funny. I mean, they are Sam and Dean. I would love for you guys to see footage of them busting each other up to the point where they can’t even talk and the director goes, “Okay, settle and action”, and they snap right back into character. Even when they mess around, they will come back and give you exactly what you need. They’re just incredible at it. They’re so good.
I think the true brilliance of Jared and Jensen is that you can see how much they appreciate that this is a once in a lifetime thing. You never hear them complain; they are always giving it their all. It’s great to see actors who appreciate that because it’s so rare that you get this. This is gold, it is lightning striking … and usually, it doesn’t strike twice.
Jules: It must often feel like you are there on set with them, even though you are based in LA?
Jimmy: You want to know the weirdest thing about editing? It’s seeing one of the actors -- Misha or Mark or Jared or Jensen --when they come to Warner Bros. That’s the weirdest thing on earth because I’ve sat in a dark room with them for hours upon hours upon hours, laughing at things they do, engaging with them in a way. So when I run into them in the hall, I’ve got a relationship with them that they don’t know about!
Jules: It’s very parallel to a fan’s relationship. We feel that we know them because we watch the show all the time and we watch footage from conventions and, then you walk up to them and meet them at a convention, and you’re just one of thousands and thousands and thousands of people they meet. We have strange one-way relationship.
Jimmy: Yes! When they walk in I’m like, “Oh hey!”, and then “Oh wait, I’m Jimmy, I know you, but you don’t know me.” It’s the weirdest thing on earth, because you expect them to know you but they don’t.
Jules: Now being online, on Twitter, we do get to have some exchange with those of you that work on the show. And you get an unfiltered glimpse at how your work is consumed and received.
Jimmy: I love reading it. Good or bad. I love reading it. Usually when it’s bad, it’s not that far off the mark, to be honest. It’s not that far off being things that we were possibly saying in that bay at the time, you know. Things that we just missed or didn’t happen or it wasn’t translated right from the script to the camera, or just, whatever it was, you know. The bad is just as good as the good. But a lot of times it’s stuff that we already know. That’s the hard part. Because, we’re like … we knew that … but we can only do so much.
Jules: Now one thing you have experienced online is fans' reactions when they find out that a scene may have been cut, I’m thinking of a particular instance after 10.09 The Things We Left Behind, when you were caught up in the middle of what became known as “grilled cheese-gate”, that revolved around fans' feeling you had edited out a vital piece of Sam's character development?
Jimmy: Yeah, it was incredible. Robbie Thompson made a funny comment about “cutting your darlings” while he was live-tweeting the show. The scene was just Sam making a grilled cheese sandwich and he could hear The Three Stooges playing on Dean’s computer and he just stopped making the grilled cheese and walked out. The camera was on the grilled cheese, it panned up to Sam, Sam was like “huh”, looks over his shoulder, like what do I hear, and then walks out of the room. It was just like a few seconds, we needed time, and we cut it. The point of the scene is that Sam comes out with a grilled cheese and is giving his brother a grilled cheese while his brother watches The Three Stooges.
It was a complete eye opener as to the passion fans have. I already knew they had passion, but I thought everyone would just be "oh a grilled cheese, who cares?" But no, they exploded and I was like, wow, that is powerful. I mean, that says a lot, and I appreciate it. That’s passion.
Interview by Jules Wilkinson, Supernatural Wiki Admin
Many thanks to Jimmy Pickel for his generosity in doing this interview. If you enjoyed this interview, you can tweet Jimmy at @JamesRPickel See also:
- Supernatural From Script to Screen: VFX Supervisor Mark Meloche
- Supernatural From Script to Screen: First Assistant Director Kevin Parks
- Supernatural From Script to Screen: Director's Commentary on "Trial and Error" with Kevin Parks
- Supernatural From Script to Screen: Producer Todd Aronauer
- Supernatural From Script to Screen: Season 10 with Todd Aronauer
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Please link back to this article if quoting from it.
For inquiries about the Supernatural Wiki, you can contact Jules at email@example.com
Interview conducted 6th October 2016; Posted 12 December 2016