Saturday Night Live alum and Parks and Rec star Amy Poehler unleashed hilarity last TV season in the form of Duncanville, an animated comedy about a teenage boy named Duncan, his vivid imagination, and a host of weird, quirky characters. The show’s fast-paced laughs come together thanks to editor Nina Helene Hirten.
Duncan is a 15-year-old kid who’s excited about closing in on adulthood because he thinks it means freedom. However, Duncan’s reality is anything but a glamorous life as he deals with an over-protective mom, an over-eager dad, and a self-centered sister. Duncan’s not an athlete, a top tier student, or a social butterfly either, to make things a little more unexciting. His only real talent is a wild imagination, which gives rise to one wild show.
PopAxiom spoke with Nina about doing a little bit of everything, animation dreams, and becoming the editor for Duncanville.
Most every job on a movie set originated from the theatre. But the editor is unique. How did Nina decide that putting together cinematic puzzles was her calling? “I fell into it. I initially wanted to be an animator. I was always doing animations.”
However, animation as Nina was growing up evolved. “Animation moved away from 2D into the 3D look. I looked into it, and 3D was much more technical and mathematical.”
“In high school,” Nina says, “I went to a forward-thinking, media-friendly school where a lot of the book reports I did were animations. Some of the assignments included making documentaries. That’s where I started editing.”
For Nina, she “learned a lot about timing and pacing and how to chop up footage to tell a story.”
“I still wanted to be an animator and a director,” Nina recalls, “but when I got to film school, I realized I loved editing. You’re the puzzle master of this giant Tetris board, and it’s really fun. I enjoy finishing things too.”
“When I was younger,” Nina says, 17 editing credits (plus 24 credits in other roles) into her career, “I would rush through things because I think that’s what you do when you’re young. But now, I look back on things and think ‘I wish I’d done …’ but I think that’s part of the creative curse.”
Nina continues, “Artists, musicians, editors, we get to the point where we say ‘Okay, this is done.’ Then we put it out to the world and always think, ‘Oh, man, I could’ve done this or that!'”
“Maybe that’s the perfectionist in me talking,” Nina laughs.
Nina lived in San Francisco, then moved to Toronto to attend Ryerson University’s film school. “I decided to move to Vancouver,” Nina recalls after finishing school, “which is known as ‘Hollywood North.'”
“I was active in the post-production community,” Nina says, “and to make ends meet, I opened up my production studio. I took out a loan, bought a camera, and became a one-woman machine for about five or six years. I mostly did promotional stuff, corporate videos, travel, music videos, that sort of stuff. Lots of music videos.”
Nina looked for work editing for film and television. “I would cut short films and a lot of indie stuff.”
“My focus has always been editing,” Nina says, then shares a tip learned from experience, “but I managed to do a lot of other stuff. I think anyone who wants to work in film should do some level of production.”
Nina landed a job at Bardel Entertainment in their animation department as a coordinator. “I was brought in as a coordinator, but the idea was to move me over to editorial when a position was available.”
“I never did get switched over,” Nina recalls. “But the connections I made there gave me connections in Los Angeles, so I made a similar deal at The Third Floor where I would come on as a coordinator/production manager and moved over to editorial as soon as there was a position open.” This time, the move happened.
How did Nina join the Duncanville team? “I was ramping down on Curious George, and I enjoyed working with that team. It was super-fun. I was looking for hiatus work because I was coming back for the next movie. I looked for something to tie me over for a few months, and I saw a listing for a union editor. I tossed my resume into the mix to see what that was about.”
Talent is great, but “In this industry, it’s all about meeting people and making connections. So, even if the production timing doesn’t work out, or maybe I’m not a good fit for the show, they’ve met me, and they have my resume. And, who knows, there might be something in the future.”
In Duncanville‘s case, Nina’s resume caught the eye of producers who brought her in for an interview. “That’s where I learned the show was from Amy Poehler and The Scully’s, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is major television. I have no TV experience. I’m not getting this.’ So, I chatted everyone up and talked about what I’ve done in the past and what I’m capable of doing. Whatever I did, I got a second interview and got the job!”
Nina’s first TV editing gig came with an unexpected “learning curve.” She says, “I’d never done a sitcom before, and they wanted a specific, fast pace for this. Curious George is aimed at young kids, so it’s very flowy and smooth. Every character finishes their sentences. That franchise is so well-established that they know exactly what they want to see.”
“Coming right off of Curious George to this fast-paced show was an adjustment,” Nina says, “It took me a couple of episodes to find the right rhythm.”
However, with one season complete, she says, “now we’re so much faster to get things done. In season two, I’m working with the same directors for the most part, and they know the drill. It’s a well-oiled machine.”
Amy Poehler’s behind dozens of projects and doesn’t work on Duncanville on a day-to-day basis. “She watches all of our output and gives notes which are usually mixed in with The Scully’s notes and the network’s notes. She has a big creative role in how the show goes and how it’s written.”
“The directors put together a rough version,” Nina says of the production process for Duncanville, “and once they go through a few rounds of notes and approvals, they make a cleaner version, and that’s when it comes to me.”
Nina works her magic from there. “I get it as tight as possible. If a shot’s not working, I’ll fix it. I’ll send notes suggesting a different shot or a change to make something funnier.”
From there, Nina says, “It goes back to the directors and artists who do another pass. Then we screen it for the writers who usually tear it apart. That’s when we do re-writes. It’s a lot of back and forth collaboration.”
Nina’s smile beams through the phone. “It’s a fun show to work on and a fun show to watch. We’re working on season two right now!”
Like any other professional art form, Editing requires the creators to “know your audience first and foremost. You have to know what is going to entice them to keep watching.”
“You have to understand what is the goal of the show,” Nina says. “In the case of Curious George, for example, you have to know this is for young kids, and so you hold on shots longer and make sure they’re clear.”
Nina contrasts that with Duncanville, which is “so fast-paced, you have to find the balance between the clarity of the image and the clarity of the jokes or line-read. Would that character say it that, and is it funny if they say it that way?”
To a certain degree, Nina says, “it’s the audience that’s going to inform the pacing.”
Nina shares some of her processes when landing a new gig. “Some of the first questions I ask on a new project: Who is this going to? What’s the style? And I’ll even ask for references too. If there’s another show, they want to emulate or have a similar feel. If I haven’t seen those things, I’ll do some research.”
“It’s one of my favorite parts of the job,” Nina joyfully proclaims, “because every show is different, it’s never boring. You never know what the next project is going to be or what it’s going to be like.”
Nina spreads the love to fellow editors who hold a special place in her heart. “Paul Hirsch, who did Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Carrie, and Star Wars. He’s a big one for me. Walter Murch is a classic. Thelma Schoonmaker is another. So many great editors out there. There’s something to be learned from every one of them.”
What remake would you love to edit? “I’m going to have to marinate on that one.”
Duncanville season one is available on Hulu, and season two is in the works. So, what else does Nina have rendering for the future? “I’m editing a low-budget live-action feature called The Second Age Of Aquarius. That’s on my weekends. I have a living room full of props for a music video that’s been postponed because of the pandemic. I’ve always got two or three projects happening at once.
Is Duncanville on your watch list?
Thanks to Nina Helene Hirten for making this interview possible.
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