Rough Cut: Hunter M. Via

Hunter M. Via is a storyteller. As a Hollywood editor with a résumé that includes The Walking Dead, The Shield and L.A. Noir, Via has spent more than a decade finding the story that’s trying to be told and delivering it in the most authentic way possible.

If you’re helplessly addicted to The Walking Dead, Hunter Via is probably to blame. Responsible for slicing out everything but the absolute essentials, Via works with show creators from the first day of shooting through the last day of post-production to figure out the more effective ways to use footage, digital effects, and background music to enhance a show’s story arc.

After graduating from Full Sail University in 2000 with a degree in film, Via was determined to get to the West Coast and pursue his dreams. Armed with a mere $700 in his bank account and a blank internship application for the American Cinema Editors, he went from Orlando to L.A., stopping only for the essentials and to mail the application. By the time he pulled into Hollywood, his application had been accepted and he started a prestigious internship that would eventually lead to an assistant editing position on The Shield less than 24 months after graduation.

Get In Media: For the most part, the term television editor is a job that seems to be misunderstood. Can you explain how your job ties into these two areas?

Hunter Via: I don’t really think my family fully understands what I do. [Laughs] In the simplest terms, the editor is on the project from beginning until end—from the first day of shooting until the last day of the mix, when sound and digital effects are done. Even directors aren’t on the project that long. Even the showrunner and the writers have to step away for a little while, so an editor in TV is the one who shepherds it from beginning to end. But we’re in charge of finding the story, honing in on the narrative, and finding the best way to tell that story.

On a more specific level, I also pride myself on picking music that ends up in the final mix. We also work with the visual effects houses to make sure that they’re delivering what it is that we want. On The Walking Dead for example, we are constantly killing endless zombies and we can’t do it the same way every time so [we have to decide] how to do it in a new and unique way.

We work with color correction to make sure that it looks right when it gets to your television or your movie screen and then we go to the mix and we make sure that all the sound design elements, music, and dialogue are all playing in the right way. It’s more than just live shots and close-ups, which is what one assumes that’s what an editor does.

GIM: Many aspects of your job seem to be things you’ve picked up on or skills you’ve developed from hands-on experience.

HV: My education gave me the technological background [needed] to get onto the machines and know what I was doing and that filled me with the confidence to step in at times. But this business is all about building your toolbox and [using] that toolbox to help tackle the next problem. It’s about taking what you learn at one job, no matter how minor it may seem, and be able to apply that to the next project. That’s definitely a key aspect. 

GIM: It seems with your profession, you can’t do your best work until you have other work to build upon. How have you handled that over the course of the career?  

HV: In my case, I felt like I would get comfortable at a job and something new would get thrown at me. [At times] I thought ‘Oh my gosh, can I just get comfortable for a minute?’ In this business you don’t go get a job and have that be your only job and stay there for ten years. That can happen. I mean, you could get a job on ER and stay there for ten years, but normally you’re working with all new people every six months to a year and the technology is constantly changing, but you’re not even going to the same building. The building is changing and your traffic pattern on your way to work is changing, so that’s fun. But one thing I learned is to always know what your endgame is. I knew that I wanted to be an editor so I found a job near editing. For the first few years I was out here, it was constantly trying to stay next to that and the contact you make at that first job will pay off later in your career. It may not feel like it right away, but it will.

GIM: What’s the largest example of how the technology within your field has drastically changed?

HV: The faster the computers become, the more we [film editors] are able to do and the more we are expected to do in less amount of time. It is both empowering and maddening. I embrace it, I enjoy it, I love it. We do much more than we were ever expected to. When I worked on The Shield, we had one layer of video and that was it. Now, we have ten or twelve layers of picture. And not just picture, we put in sound effects and edit all the music. So you have as many audio tracks as your computer is capable of handling for you. We want our systems to do all of this for us in real time and we want our assistants to be able to handle all of this. And it all has to be done in the same amount of time that we did a [single layered] show in.

GIM: You’ve worked on everything from a crime drama to zombie thrillers. What’s the biggest difference that you encounter working on so many different types of projects?  

HV: I approach them all the same way, whether it’s Arrested Development or the Walking Dead. It always comes down to finding the best way to tell the story. There certainly are differences. When I did The Shield, it was very simple as far as visual effects go. But when I did The Mist, it had a lot of visual effects, which I had never done before. I was scared out of my mind, not knowing how to handle visual effects only to realize that you were still just telling the story. There was just nothing there yet. You had to imagine that there’s something there.

At times, it can be frustrating as an editor in general. But within the industry, I feel that when you work with the right group of people that understand what you do, it is night and day.”

Filmmaking is a very collaborative process and the more you do it, the more you realize that it’s OK to lean on others. In this business, people have very specific jobs and, as an editor, you’re expected to be a jack-of-all-trades. You’re expected to be able to tell the story and fine tune everything. And if there’s an area that you are not strong in, it’s OK to lean on somebody that is specifically good at that job. The more you work in it, the more you realize you really are part of a team. When you’re on the right show, such as The Walking Dead, people respect what you can bring to the table and you respect what they can bring to the table. I think that’s a big reason why the show is such a huge success—we work together as a team and respect what everybody can bring to the table.

GIM: The pilot of The Walking Dead is your most recognized work. In your opinion, what made your work on that episode so special?

HV: What I’m proud of with that episode is that I am a big fan of horror and if you watch [the episode], there are moments of it that are post-apocalyptic, which I love, but there are also moments of it that go back to The Twilight Zone or Stanley Kubrick and the way he would have shot 2001 with the steadicam and the pacing. There’s a very sophisticated look while at the same time being a western. This guy ends up riding a horse wearing a cowboy hat into town until zombies attack him. When putting it together, these are things that I saw. And so that’s how I put it together, as an episode of The Twilight Zone.

As an editor, that montage sequence to me is fantastic storytelling. You actually get some emotion when Rick goes to the women in the park and Morgan is trying to shoot his wife. Those things far exceed what people expect from a zombie show. It was fantastic filmmaking and I am very proud of the work that we did with that.

GIM: You don’t always get recognized publicly for your work. Does it ever bother you that you’re doing all this really hard work and helping to produce this amazing product while not exactly being publicly recognized?  
HV: At times, it can be frustrating as an editor in general. But within the industry, I feel that when you work with the right group of people that understand what you do, it is night and day. There are people that you work with that understand every person on the film crew is important and every person contributes. And if you have a good crew from beginning to end, it shows in the final product. If you appreciate these people and work with them, they are going to give you above and beyond what they normally do. This is something I see in [executive producer, writer, and director of The Walking Dead pilot] Frank Darabont; he appreciates every person in every department and what they can contribute. He also understands if those people are not good, how they can hold you back and when you work with him, you find the work is above and beyond.

 

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