Interview: Peter Ettinger, Editor of Oscar-Winning Short “If Anything Happens I Love You”
Today we’re joined by film editor Peter Ettinger. Peter edited Netflix’s Oscar winning animated short If Anything Happens I Love You. The tragic short follows two grieving parents as they struggle to confront the death of their daughter, who was killed in a school shooting. Peter received an Annie Award nomination for his editing work on the film. Other past credits of Peter’s include animated features Over the Moon, Smallfoot and Home. This summer, Peter’s latest editing project, The Loud House Movie, will release on Netflix. This has been a huge year for Peter, and I’m excited to share this interview with you!
Tell us a bit about yourself. What was your first job in editing and how did you decide to pursue your craft professionally?
Prior to editing, my first internship in the business was answering phones at a laboratory called Filmservice on Santa Monica and Vine. It had been an old porn lab but by the time I got there they were printing dailies for B-movies and color dupes for the bigger studios. It was filled with a cast of characters. Everyone smoked indoors, there was 70s wood paneling on the walls, my clothes reeked of chemicals and cigarettes, everybody was mad at each other all the time, it was rough. I wondered how working there would ever help my career. But I actually ended up learning a lot.
I was shown how dailies were color timed on a machine called a Hazeltine. Then the colorist had a heart attack and was out for weeks recovering while film cans were piling up in the hallway. They couldn’t find anyone else, so I volunteered to take over. I wound my first roll of film onto the Hazeltine, which is an extremely delicate process because you’re working with original negative and you better not damage it since there is no backup. I was just about to start rolling when the owner of the lab barged in and all he said was, “Don’t break the f***ing negative” and slammed the door. I went from feeling fairly confident to instantly terrified. But I managed to get through it all, even though most of the film was printed a little too blue.
Years later, I was cutting a movie for a producer and Filmservice came up and he goes, “Yeah, I know that place. I had a movie there once and all the dailies came back blue.” I admitted it was me and he said, “I was afraid you were going to say that.” There’s definitely a cyclical nature to this business.
On a happier note, I interviewed for a division of Lucasfilm that did quality control of release prints. I was asked all kinds of questions like what does a negative scratch look like versus a positive scratch? What’s application splash? What’s a splice look like? I was able to answer every question because of my time at Filmservice. I got the job and after doing many overnight shifts QC’ing film prints at big labs like Technicolor and Deluxe, I was eventually flown to Rome and London to supervise the international release of the Star Wars Special Edition Trilogy. It was far, far away from that dingy little film lab, but it will always have a special place in my heart. No matter where you are, you can learn things, so observing and absorbing as much as possible is important because you never know how or when it might come back around and be useful.
My first proper cutting room job was as a post-production runner on a movie called Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight starring William Sadler, Billy Zane and Jada Pinkett (before she was “Smith”). My job was to pick up film from the lab first thing in the morning and deliver it to the cutting room where the assistants would sync the dailies and prep for telecine. Then I would drive the dailies to the telecine house. Then pickup those video tapes to deliver back to the cutting room and to all the producers at their various offices and homes. I spent way too much time in the car but on the upside, I got to know a lot of shortcuts around Los Angeles.
The editor, Steve Lovejoy, would generously let me watch him cut whenever I had a moment of free time. Being new to the process, I asked him how he knew how many frames to trim or add. “Four frames for comedy, seven frames for drama,” he said. This seemingly arbitrary formula is one that I still use today because it works. Don’t ask me how, it just does.
After that, I attended film school at Art Center College of Design. Two of my favorite classes were directing and editing. Then a friend asked me to cut his first feature and I only planned to take a term off from Art Center but one thing led to another and after cutting two independent features, I had enough days to get into the Editors Guild and that started my path as a union assistant editor which grew into a professional editing career.
What scene was the most fun to work on for The Loud House Movie?
I can’t say too much about it yet, but there’s an action scene where all the kids come together to cooperate with a common goal that feels very “Loud House.” One of the best things about working on the movie has been making sure that the elements that audiences love about the show are translated in authentic ways into the feature. Early on I met with Gayle Grech, the supervising picture editor of the series, and she gave me some great suggestions for subtle ways to cut for different characters and their specific personalities. That was invaluable to help retain the continuity between the series and the movie.
Who are some of your favorite long term collaborators?
As an assistant, I was fortunate to work with the same editors on multiple shows: Maysie Hoy, David Moritz, Nick Fletcher and Edie Ichioka. I got to observe their style and sensibilities on a day-to-day basis. That led me to identify my own sensibilities and how I approach a scene and from there, derive my own style and how that can best serve the material as it evolves over the course of editing an entire film.
I have worked with Dave Needham twice now, first when he was head of story on Smallfoot and recently on The Loud House Movie, which he directed. We have similar humor and story sense, so the collaborations have been very successful. I get what he’s going for and he trusts me to execute it. Then we get together to fine tune. He’s a joy to work with and incredibly talented.
What gear / software do you tend to use, especially in the production of If Anything Happens I Love You?
I normally cut on Avid but for If Anything, I taught myself Adobe Premiere on a 15” MacBook Pro. The portability was very useful when getting together with the directors to show cuts, back when we could gather pre-Covid. A million years ago, the first feature I cut was on D/Vision. Then I cut a couple of shorts on Final Cut Pro. So Premiere was a natural evolution of those early programs. They differ from Avid in that there’s more flexibility on the timeline to drag things around. I still need to streamline my process with Premiere but once I got the basics of what buttons to push, the creative took over and nothing held me back.
Who are some of your influences?
I assisted Tom Rolf on The Horse Whisperer and he certainly has had a big impact on my career. One time he asked me to watch a scene to see if I noticed anything. I had already seen the dailies, so I was familiar with the footage of a straightforward dialog scene. But what unfolded on his screen was the compelling, tension-filled emotional struggle of a married couple in turmoil. When the scene ended, Tom hit stop and swiveled around in his chair. I said, “It’s great.” Obviously not the answer he was looking for. To break the awkward silence I asked, “Was that a slightly different camera angle on the second cutback to her?” Tom tilted his head back then turned his chair away from me and muttered, “Dammit.” I tried to backtrack, but Tom was already at work. “Thank you, that’s all.” I was mortified. Several weeks and a re-cut later, he let me off the hook and explained his thought process. The shot I pointed out was the actress’s best take and normally Tom chose performance over continuity but in this case for whatever reason, he was worried that any anomaly would undermine her performance. So, he recut the scene to protect the performance while maintaining the visual integrity of the scene which can be a tricky balance.
Another influence is Nick Fletcher. After assisting him for several years, I was given the opportunity to do some cutting on the animated feature, HOME. There was previz shot of a spaceship flying through a hole in a building with the camera following it all the way through that I thought looked so cool. But when Nick cut away prior to the camera entering the hollow space, I asked him why. “Because. This is a movie not an amusement park ride.” It was a cryptic answer, but I figured out what he meant. In this case, using that entire shot would have been the biggest moment of the chase but it happened only halfway through the scene with nothing to build to from there. It was a good lesson on when to give the audience the thrill and when to hold back.
I’m also a big fan of Jennifer Lame and her collaborations with Noah Baumbach and Kenneth Lonergan. And of course, there’s Tenet. But I love how she approaches character and their idiosyncrasies with dialog and physical performance. And how she helps ground the audience within the scenes not only emotionally but also where the characters are in the room at any given point, so an audience doesn’t feel confused, which allows the emotion to play even stronger.
What is your dream project? Dream collaborators?
Soon I’ll be working with Victor Maldonado and Alfredo Torres, which I’m very much looking forward to. They directed three shorts for Love, Death and Robots (Three Robots, Alternate Histories and When the Yogurt Took Over) and are now directing a feature that’s a big epic fantasy but very much grounded in character and emotion. I also have a couple of live action feature scripts I’d like to direct. Danny Worsnop, the lead singer of the band, Asking Alexandria and I have a movie that we are putting together which will be a fun collaboration.
Where can we find you on social media?
You can find me on LinkedIn or just text me.
You can learn more about Peter via IMDb. Thank you for reading!